Sam Harris ‘troubled’ by God-fearing fellow scientist

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).

Harris writes:

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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?

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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.

Tomorrow: adolescent catechesis workshop; lecture on Darwin and Christian belief

Here are two events you might want to know about taking place tomorrow (Friday, May 29):

First off, the catechetical office of the Archdiocese of New York will offer an all-day adolescent catechesis workshop at the Riverview in Hastings-on-Hudson.

The program is called “Knowing Jesus, Growing as Disciples,” and is aimed at all Catholic educators who deal with adolescents.

It’s from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The price is $40 per person, including lunch. The Riverview is at 1 Warburton Ave.

For information or registration, contact Kathleen Alonzo at 212-371-1011, ex. 2864 or Kathleen.Alonzo@archny.org.

Second, the writer George Sim Johnston will speak at 7 p.m. at the Montfort Academy in Katonah about Christian views on the theory of evolution.

His lecture is called: “Did Darwin Get It Right? Christian Belief and the Theory of Evolution.”

He wrote a book with the same title in 1998. If you want a preview of what Johnston might say, I found an abridged version of a lecture he gave on the subject in 1999.

At the time, Johnston had great problems with classic Darwin:

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There are other serious problems with classical Darwinian theory. Among them are the fact that scientists see very little “struggle for survival” in nature (many species tend to cooperate and occupy ecological niches which do not compete); the fact that all the major body plans we see today in animals and insects appeared at once in the Cambrian era, a fact which does not fit Darwin’s model; and that many species like the lungfish have not changed at all in over 300 million years despite important shifts in their environment, which flatly contradicts the constant fine-tuning Darwin attributed to natural selection.

Darwin himself was increasingly plagued by doubts after the first edition of the Origin. In subsequent editions, he kept backing off from natural selection as the explanation of all natural phenomena. Darwin’s unproven theory nonetheless became dogma in the public mind.

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The Vatican hosted a major conference on evolution this year. And Pope Benedict XVI himself has talked about seeing no conflict between faith and the “much scientific proof in favor of evolution.”

In his 1999 talk, Johnston said this:

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The Catholic Church has never had a problem with “evolution” (as opposed to philosophical Darwinism, which sees man solely as the product of materialist forces). The Church has never taught that the first chapter of Genesis is meant to teach science.

Pius XII correctly pointed out in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) that the theory of evolution had not been completely proved, but he did not forbid that the theory of evolution concerning the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for Catholic faith obliges us to hold that human souls are immediately created by God – be investigated and discussed by experts as far as the present state of human science and sacred theology allows.

In his catechesis on creation given during a series of general audiences in 1986, John Paul II stated that “the theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis.” He hastened to add that “this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty.”

The Church’s quarrel with many scientists who call themselves evolutionists is not about evolution itself, which may or may not have occurred in a non-Darwinian, teleological manner, but rather about the philosophical materialism that is at the root of so much evolutionary thinking. The Church insists that man is not an accident; that no matter how He went about creating homo sapiens, God from all eternity intended that man and all creation exist in their present form.