I happened to write Saturday’s FaithBeat column about Dr. Francis Collins, President Obama’s nominee to become head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is quite outspoken about his belief in God, particularly how his knowledge of science informs such belief.
I mentioned that Collins had a debate a few years back with Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who thinks that belief in the God of the Bible is nutty — and contradicts all that we know from science.
Today, Sam Harris, another fervent atheist, has an Op-Ed in the NYTimes, in which he questions Obama’s choice of Collins. (NOTE: I originally said it was Dawkins who wrote the piece. My mistake. I mixed up my high-profile atheists).
Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.
As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?
In sum: Harris seems to feel that Collins’ crazy beliefs in supernatural powers must limit his ability to see the world in scientific terms and will affect his judgment as a scientist.