For quite a long time I have tended to avoid directly addressing current politics. It is not that I’m uninterested in politics per se; it’s that I think think that so much of the debates that go on here in the U.S. about politics tend toward disagreements that amount to almost nothing. I just do not see much difference between the two big parties, and when I watch or listen to the pundits the rhetoric is almost exclusively “X is evil because s/he belongs to party Y.” I find that pretty dull and uninteresting. However, it has been pointed out to me that much of my writing lately has gotten very close to being political. I suppose that is true, though it has nothing to do with party lines or anything so lame. I suppose I’m interested in “bigger” issues. Those bigger issues are about what I was thinking when Liza first sent me the New York Times piece written by Sam Harris, “Science Is in the Details,” an article the deals with Francis Collins being nominated to head up the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In the past couple of days since I read it, several people have responded to this article or to the nomination of Collins in general, so it is unlikely that anything I’m saying here is novel, but I guess I feel compelled to chime in regardless. For anyone who does not already know, Francis Collins is a top-notch geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project. As a scientist, much of his work deserves high praise. Also, his leadership of the HGP showed his skill as leader of a large organization whose goals were important, whose work was difficult, and whose budget was immense. Those qualifications would make him a natural choice for heading up the NIH.
Collins is also an evangelical Christian. This position has led him to write a book entitled The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It is Collins’ evangelical leanings that have many people uncomfortable with his heading up the NIH, and, looking at his exact position in detail, it is not difficult to see why.
(For anyone here thinking that Collins is a standard Creationist or even a proponent of Intelligent Design, I should point out that this is not the case. He fervently asserts that we are evolved creatures, and that the standard positions in I.D. of irreducible complexity and specified complexity are false, though he does find the notion of a fine-tuned universe persuasive).
The fact that Collins is a Christian, even an evangelical Christian, is not a problem to me. However, it is disconcerting to me that the director of the NIH would hold some of the explicit beliefs that Collins does. In the linked article by Harris the content of five PowerPoint slides is presented (the entirety of the lecture in question can be seen here). The third slide reads: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” As a philosopher of mind and a proponent of science in general, I find such an assertion terribly troubling. There is nothing in the dominant theories of mind that would support this, and there certainly is nothing in the sciences, especially neuroscience, that would support any such thing. This seems to be a ridiculously twisted version of substance dualism, but not one with which I am readily familiar. As such, I am baffled as to how anyone would justify such a position beyond mere blind faith. And this is something the possible head of the NIH is espousing. That should set off alarm bells for everyone.
So, what is really the problem here? Well, besides the fact that it is a wildly unscientific proposal, something that should be troubling in itself coming from the possible director of one of country’s dominant scientific organizations, such a belief would seem to be in conflict with the genuine science that is going on in terms of the mind/brain. How might the director of the National Institutes of Health decide to handle new research that deals with the actual work coming out of the neurosciences, especially in terms of mental illnesses, if that person believes that the mind is something other than the brain? Surely it would be bizarre to suggest that altering brain chemistry would alter the soul, or that one’s knowledge of good and evil is somehow affected by brain structure, if those things are the result of some divine and non-physical “spark” placed there by God. So, what would a person in such a position do with the research programs that explicitly state otherwise by attempting to treat such issues by dealing with the physical structures of the brain and the brain’s chemistry?
One possibility is that such a person might ignore their religious beliefs and proceed on the actual science and evidence pertaining to the issues in question. But the problem is that there is no guarantee that this person would do any such thing. In fact, if one takes these beliefs seriously, and Collins, as an avid apologist and Christian author, certainly seems to take this seriously, then such projects as those suggested would be a waste of time and money. Further, there are possible avenues of benefit to those areas that would appear to be available to such a person, namely prayer and meditation on God’s Word and Laws. If it is true that, as Collins asserts, the human brain is merely a “house” for the mind and not the mind itself, then doing anything other than trusting in and praying to God would be foolish, or worse, a failure of faith in God. This means that for those of us who take neuroscience and science-based psychology to be the best means available for dealing with issues of the mind the best we can hope is that Collins fails to live up to his duty to God and puts his faith aside. This seems to be a dim hope. Certainly, this might be what happens, in fact probably will be what happens, but it seems to be a strange thing indeed to hope that a person fails to do what he believes is right. Rather, it seems as though it would be best to have someone in place would would be doing the right thing by using the best means available to deal with the problem.
Because of the above, I cannot help but be troubled by the potential appointment of Collins, or anyone like him, to the directorship of the NIH. I find it strange that there are those out there who would ever want such a person in such a position at all.