Sunday, January 24, 2010

Francis Collins and Medieval Science

Francis Collins is one of the most celebrated scientists in America. His stellar career was capped by steering the Human Genome Project to a successful conclusion. In the process, he proved he was a first class administrator as well as researcher. A committed Democrat, he campaigned for Barack Obama and the President rewarded him with a prestigious position as the head of the National Institutes of Health (the NIH). Collins worked there for many years, so he knows the ropes and his appointment was widely welcomed.

“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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


The Perplexed Seeker said...

Wait a second... what? Wasn't D. claiming he had nothing to do with the hit squad gunning for Collins, and now he's joined in? Flip-flop much? I guess he was afraid of being upstaged.

It's hilarious that the Republicans are now in a position to turn the tables on the very same people who accused them of politicizing science for all those years.

Nice post, by the way. Sums it all up very well.

Noons said...

I think the Dawkins quote might be a combination of two quotes. When he made the remark about "holding such beliefs at all" I think he was referring to a hypothetical situation involving a hypothetical young-earth creationist.

The Perplexed Seeker said...

Ah. That would make sense. He's usually not that inconsistent.

James said...

The Dawkins quote is in comment number 8 on his own website here:

I've just googled it and it was not widely reported. If he later said something else, I'd be interested to see it.

TJW said...

What is striking is the viciousness with which Collins was criticized. Almost like the way bullies behave in school.

Unknown said...


It is exactly like the way bullies behave in school.

Kendalf said...

Was there something in my comment yesterday that resulted in the comment not appearing? I did include a link to a PDF file; perhaps that led to the comment being blocked?

Humphrey said...

The free thinkers should be glad that they have Francis Collins in charge and not Francis Bacon, who dabbled extensively in biblical exegesis, believed that the scientific method would redeem the effects of original sin and thought that England had an apocalyptic destiny as the New Jerusalem.

Noons said...

Just a question, I'm pretty sure that Francis Collins was confirmed back in August. So why was this brought up just now? Or was it more of a segway into a post about medieval science?

Kendalf said...

Thank you James for always providing great historical context for these current conflicts and controversies. Your site has been an excellent reference for me!

However, I do have a bit of concern about a minor point that you made. You stated,
"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."

While this is what opponents of Intelligent Design would have people believe, it seems to me that a more neutral observer (if there is one in the case of ID) would disagree that ID is about looking for evidence of the supernatural in the lab.

Philosopher of science Bradley Monton is about as neutral an observer as you can find on this matter, and I think he makes some valid points against the typical arguments raised for why ID is not science in his paper, "Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision" (available from PhilSci at

In section 3, he argues that ID is not inherently supernatural, even though the majority of its proponents may be theists. The intelligent cause that ID posits can be supernatural, but it is also possible that the cause is natural. He writes, "Just because most proponents of ID* endorse one of the possibilities, it in no way follows that the theory itself could not be made true via the other possibility." The search in the lab for signs of intelligence is not the same as a search for the supernatural.

But even granting that ID postulates supernatural causation, in section 2.3, Monton argues that "it is possible to get scientific evidence for the existence of God." He offers an imaginative scenario to demonstrate that in principle it would be possible for scientists to test for supernatural causation. He also quotes from philosopher Niall Shanks,

"The methodological naturalist will not simply rule hypotheses about supernatural causes out of court … But the methodological naturalist will insist on examining the evidence presented to support the existence of supernatural causes carefully …. methodological naturalists do not rule out the supernatural absolutely. They have critical minds, not closed minds."

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Monton's paper.

James said...

On why this seems so late, it was adapted from an article I need for the Guardian not used at the time.

Kendalf, thanks for your thoughts and for posting again.

I agree that ID doesn't have to be looking for the supernatural but I can't see how in practice it can fail to be. Let's assume Bob is looking for evidence of intelligent design in living organisms. He might claim this design was the result of genetic tinkering by an ancient race of aliens, or he might claim that it was God. He might also claim to be an agnostic on the question.

If it's the later I wouldn't believe him. ID is not doing well in its search for evidence and I can't see a reason for pinning your flag to the cause unless you do have an ideological motivation. If it's aliens, I think that just pushes design further back because you are looking to prove neo-Darwinism can't do what it is supposed to and we don't really have a naturalistic alternative.

Or its God in which case you are looking for the supernatural in a very direct way.

Note that because the search is for intelligent design, the ID researcher can't claim he is uncovering complexity, chaotic organisation or hidden quantum gravity laws etc (insert buzzword here).

I agree that looking for 'design' in the broadest sense can be science but looking for intelligent design can't be, I fear.

Drastic Plastic said...

Ah, the old persecutors trick: ban the Christians from education and then claim that Christians are uneducated. Julian the Apostate tried that. So did the old Soviet Union.

Here we have the same idea; ban the Christians who are scientists from holding science posts and then sneer that no senior scientist is a Christian.

I supppose that when they can't find any arguments for their religion of convenience, they have to fall back on silencing those they hate.