“Top scientist gets top job” does not sound like a recipe for controversy. After all, Collins is brilliantly qualified for a role that combines management and science in equal measure. But some people are actually very upset about the appointment.
Could it be that Republican politicians are angry that President Obama has inserted a liberal into such a sensitive position? No. Republicans are perfectly happy with the nomination despite Collins’s support for stem-cell research. He is expected to sail through the Senate hearings confirming his appointment. Rather, the nay-sayers are that small but vocal clique of new atheists. Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne admits he is “a bit worried”. Harvard linguist Steven Pinker has “serious misgivings.” Sam Harris has written of his concerns in the New York Times. And Richard Dawkins believes that Collins is “disqualified” from heading the NIH. Why? It’s because Francis Collins is an unashamed, out-of-the-closet evangelical Christian. As usual, Dawkins does not mince his words:
Can somebody who holds such anti-scientific and downright silly beliefs really be qualified to run the NIH? Isn’t he disqualified, not by whether or not he leaves his beliefs outside the laboratory and the committee room, but by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all?
New atheists claim that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible and cannot be accommodated. They admit that, in practice, religious scientists seem to do their jobs just fine. History shows us that many of science’s greatest figures – for example Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday – were unusually devout even by the standards of their own time. But a scientist who believes in an active God is intellectually compromised, according to the new atheists. In the words of P.Z. Myer, they lack “integrity”. As such, it seems, they can’t really be trusted with important jobs.
Luckily, Boyle, Newton and rest decided that there was no contradiction between their faith and their investigation of the laws of nature. Most of the difficult issues that Christians had to tackle before they could practice science had been dealt with during the Middle Ages. So by the time Newton came long, it was clearly understood that there was no need for a conflict between religious faith and natural science.
That said, certain issues did need to be addressed. The first question that medieval scholars had to answer was what is the status of the Bible as a source of scientific knowledge? Writing in the twelfth century, the theologian William of Conches explained:
The authors of Truth are silent on matters of natural philosophy, not because these matters are against the faith, but because they have little to do with the upholding of such faith, which is what those authors were concerned with.
In other words, don’t expect to find much science in the Bible. And, as William also noted, you don’t have to take the scriptures completely literally either. For instance, the Bible does imply that the earth is flat but no educated person in the Middle Ages actually believed that. They just assumed the Bible was being figurative on this point. As Galileo put it four hundred years later, “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Still, why do science in the first place? Another theologian of the twelfth century, Thierry of Chartres, realised that it was because nature is God’s creation:
Because the things in the world are mutable and corruptible, it is necessary that they should have an author. Because they are arranged in a rational way and in a very beautiful order, it is necessary that they should have been created in accordance with wisdom.
The rationality and order of nature was thought to be proof that the Deity existed. This made studying physical laws another way to know the thoughts of God. Nature was one book written by the creator, just as the Bible was another.
Finally, new atheists claim that the very fact that Christians admit the possibility of miracles means that they cannot do science. After all, how is the believer supposed to tell when the cause of an event is natural and when it is supernatural?
The question of how a scientist should treat the possibility of miracles had also been dealt with by Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages. Writing in fourteenth-century Paris, John Buridan explained that the job of physics was to explain things based on how they normally appeared, ‘assuming the ordinary course of nature’. It did not matter to him that God, by his absolute power, might invoke the occasional miracle. As Buridan explained, ‘it is evident to us that every fire is hot, even though the contrary is possible by God’s power. And it is evidence of this sort that suffices for the principles and conclusions of science.’
In other words, religious scientists can always assume that nature is following her ordinary course. They can’t completely rule out miracles, but they can safely discount them for the purposes of their research. Today, we call this philosophy “methodological naturalism.” It is fine for scientists to be inspired by their faith, or to use it to provide a justification for their work. It is not even a problem if they see God’s hand in the formation of the natural laws that they are studying. What they must not do, however, is look for direct evidence of the supernatural in the laboratory. That is why Intelligent Design is not really science. It is predicated on the miraculous rather than assuming its absence.
Francis Collins has no problem reconciling his religious beliefs with his scientific work. His very success is a standing indictment of those who claim that science and religion must always be in conflict. But he has the philosophers of the Middle Ages to thank for clearing the ground and making science safe for Christians.
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