Is belief in God a disqualification for heading the NIH?

Sam Harris has an op-ed in today's New York Times arguing against the appointment of Francis Collins as the new head of the NIH. While I agree with some of Harris's beefs with some of Dr. Collins's statements, I don't see how they should prevent his appointment.

Many things Collins have said, cited in the op-ed, vary from inconsistent to arguable to seriously mistaken. His statements on free will are at best unsupported. I don't think Collins is correct (and most scientists and philosophers are with me on this) that the weight of scientific evidence more plausibly points to the existence of God -- although, as I've said, I believe that belief in God may yet be perfectly rational.

Another of Collins's statements is a particular bugaboo of mine. In a PowerPoint presentation, he claimed:
If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?
I don't have the space or time to explain exactly why this claim, so common among believers, is so wrong-headed. Just a few points. 1) It's actually been noted for thousands of years that saying moral law is what it is because God says so is extremely problematic. 2) Most philosophers (including me!) believe there is such a thing as right and wrong, and yet don't believe in God. And yes, we have really thought about this stuff. And we do really live our lives with that worldview (happily, in my case). 3) There are other options for saying what constitutes right and wrong other than God or evolution. 4) I believe my love for my husband and son spring from evolutionary urges to mate and reproduce and ensure the success of my genetic material. Yet my love for them is the deepest, most profound thing I've known, and I'd be hard-pressed to say I'm "hoodwinked" and my love for them is illusory. It's actually quite real.

But anyway, Harris concludes that his beliefs render him unfit to head NIH:
Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

I think Collins is quite mistaken in some of his philosophical claims. But it doesn't seem as if anyone has a beef with any of his scientific claims. Indeed, he seems extremely well-respected and willing to take scientific data on face value. His beliefs about God have not seemed to hinder his ability to do science and trust science. The belief that evolution must be an entirely natural process and the belief that evolution might be sparked by a supernatural process will not necessarily lead to different funding decisions for medical studies.

If it turns out that Collins denies funding to some group studying, say, how brain lesions affect moral reasoning, as Harris seems to worry he will, then maybe his removal would be warranted. But just because he believes in God, and also has some mistaken (and very common) philosophical beliefs, does not warrant denying him the post to begin with.


  1. Elizabeth, I'd be quite interested in a post or three from you on the topic of right and wrong and how they came to be. Bonus points if you address how the various formulations of what is right and wrong can be objectively ranked.

    As you observe, the atheist falls into an easy reductionism as well as the devout. It is hard to find the road between irrational wistful thinking and a dismissive appeal to Nothing-Buttery argument (love is nothing but neurochemical reactions shaped solely by our evolutionary history, and so forth).

    In particular, while your love may be quite real and powerful to you, what do you say to someone who observes that you really are just a sophisticated variant of a robin setting on an egg while feeling the egg is just the most wonderful thing in the world?

  2. I'll be happy to post more on morality (specifically, as you seem to request, metaethics) in the future!

    In response to your last question, I would agree with someone who said that I am just a sophisticated variant of that robin! (And sometimes not all that much more sophisticated). I just disagree that that means my love isn't real, or that I am hoodwinked.

  3. I too agree that I am a sophisticated robin. But I run into definition problems when I start talking about emotions and reality. Sure, my brainstates are physically real, and we're on firm ground asserting that certain brainstates correspond to, for example, pleasurable goals that have been hardwired into our brains by evolutionary pressures. OK, so far, so good (and quite reductionist). How do I make the leap from "my brain is engineered to exhibit compassion for genetically close children" to "I love my child" without reducing love to mean Nothing But "activation of a set of brainstates?" It isn't clear to me that I just mean brainstates when I talk about Love, or Beauty, or Truth, or truth, or Right and Wrong.

  4. Dr. Collins should feel right at home with another sincere man, Congressman John Shimkus (R) IL. As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee listening to testimony in April concerning global warming, whipped out the bible and quoted from Genesis, "Never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done," read Shimkus. "I believe that's the infallible word of God and that's the way it's going to be for his creation... The earth will end only when God declares its time is over." Well then, the science is settled. How in the Hell do I sleep at night?


  5. Jim, if one "religious" Congressman shows ignorance of Biblical hermeneutics (or more likely panders for votes), it doesn't mean all believers must hold the same view. But you knew that, right?

    As for AGW (plain old GW being pretty well established), never fear. We are, today, about 5% of highest CO2 levels in earth's history, and life obviously survived -- in fact thrived -- those levels. Also, we have no observational evidence that CO2 is the driver of the current warming, but rather the claims of sophisticated models which are not yet sophisticated enough to predict important effects such as global cloud cover. We have observational evidence that the current models predict effects which are absent. In short, IMVHO, while the modelling is interesting, it falls far short of confirming doom. Sleep well at night.

  6. John,

    What! Falls far short? You are kidding right?


  7. No, I'm not kidding. To be taken seriously (by me, at any rate) a model has to predict behaviors that occur and not predict behaviors that do not occur. A weaker requirement is that a model be able to retrodict behavior. To date, GCMs are, to the best of my knowledge, unable to retrodict climate behavior for more than a couple of decades, and are unable to predict climate behaviors. For example, none of the climate models predicted the current pause in warming, and as far as I am aware, no GCM manages to redtodict the rapid warming of the early 20th century. Until the models start predicting, accurately, observed temps, they can't be taken as confirming doom.

    And, please note that model verification is an entirely separate question from establishing a causal relationship from CO2 level to global temp (which is assumed in the models). The two are clearly correlated, but historical data shows that CO2 buildup lags global temp increases by anywhere from decades to hundreds of years. I'd need a convincing aargument as to why CO2 lags temps in the past, but the relationship in the modern atmosphere is reversed before I'll put a lot of trust in the GCM results (absent a couple of decades of statistically significant predictions from the GCMs).