More on Francis Collins’ Nomination to the NIH

Since my initial post on Francis Collins’ nomination for director of the National Institutes of Health, even more people have responded in some way, including Michael Shermer over at Skepticblog.  In the comments to these posts there seem to be repeated criticisms by people who are troubled by the concern over Collins’ possible appointment.  I myself have responded several times to comments on Shermer’s post, though it seems as though few people actually bother to read the responses as they keep asking the same questions over and over.  Being a teacher, I am well aware that if that many people are all asking the same question, then a considerable number more are thinking the same thing.  So I’m going to attempt to answer what appear to be the most common issues raised.

I’m going paraphrase the issues I am going to address, but, if you look at the comments in the threads, I think you’ll agree that there is nothing unfair in my characterization of the questions, and my representation of the concerns of those who disagree with the attitude of the blog posts in question is sound and appropriate. 

Why are you upset over Collins’ nomination?  Aren’t you really just trying to institute some sort of “religion test”?

So far, I have not read anyone suggest that Collins should not be director of the NIH merely because he is a Christian.  On the contrary, specific concerns have been raised.  As such, it is not the case that Collins’ Christianity is the reason for concern per se.  Because of this, the answer is a straightforward “no.”  However, it seems relevant to point out that such a “test” is, without question, already in place.  That is, Collins is not merely an evangelical Christian; he is an evangelist.  Collins has a book that promotes Christianity, he lectures on Christianity, and he has established a foundation whose sole purpose is to legitimize Christianity as compatible with science.  It would be unthinkable that he would have received this nomination had he been engaged in similar endeavors to promote atheism, or even any religion other than Christianity.  If Collins were going from campus to campus and collecting funds to support an outreach program whose sole purpose was to convince others to be atheists, or even Muslims, Hindus, etc, there is no chance he would have received this nomination.  It is perfectly fine to evangelize for Christ, but if you are of another religion, it had better be kept to yourself, and if you are an atheist, you had better lie about your beliefs. 

In fact, those who have expressed some distress over Collins’ nomination have been explicit about their concerns.  My primary concern can be summarized as follows:  Collins has explicitly said that the human mind is the soul, that such is of divine origin, and that because of this it is necessarily beyond the scope of science and human understanding. As the mind and mental health are definitely within the scope of the NIH, his position that the mind is beyond our understanding is something that absolutely should cause concern.

What evidence do you have that Collins would fail at being director of the NIH because of his religion?

Often in support of this someone will ask for specifics as to where Collins made improper decisions as head of the NHGRI resulting from his religious beliefs.  This seems to miss the point, though.  As director of the NHGRI, it is unclear exactly what he could have done that was an improper imposition of his faith that would not have prevented him from doing the job entirely.  That is, if he took some sort of position that we were “playing god” by coding the human genome, or that genetics was the work of the devil, or anything like that, it is unclear just how the job of coding the human genome could have been accomplished.  Put simply, there just does not seem to have been much in the way of room for his faith to be a problem.

The situation with Collins as director of the NIH is entirely different.  Going back to my concern that he is explicit in his assertion that the human mind is divine and beyond the scope of science, and taking into consideration that the NIH is the primary source of medical research funding in the US government, there is plenty of room for Collins to allow his scientifically unpopular position of the mind to influence the allotment of the scarce resources doled out by the NIH.  While there is no direct evidence in the past of Collins’ religion getting in the way of his science, this is arguable irrelevant as the positions he had before simply did not afford him the opportunity to impose his strange view of the nature of the human mind as would would be available to him as director of the National Institutes of Health.

Related to this is the concern that Collins has altered his behavior over the past few years such that his faith is now a more central component in his day-to-day decisions.  It was not until 2006 that Collins’ The Language of God was published.  It was not until after that that he had the opportunity to lecture and speak publically in support of the book, which he began the following year.  And it was not until this very year, 2009, that Collins founded The BioLogos Foundation, his evangelical ministry.  All these things taken together suggest a different kind of commitment to his faith, one that is more central to his life.  As such, it seems entirely reasonable to be concerned that, even if there was no indication of impropriety concerning his decisions before, it may well be the case that there will be now.  His behavior has changed.  There is nothing irrational about wondering if other aspects of his behavior concerning his faith have changed as well.

“Why don’t you just give him the benefit of the doubt?

Here I want to make a point I brought up at the end of my last post, but which seems to be misunderstood or missed entirely when brought up to other commenters of these posts.  I am not comfortable with the level of cynicism required to hope that a person acts against his conscience.  What I mean is that Collins might well be willing to put aside his beliefs when it comes to decision-making as director of the NIH.  It might be that he chooses not to act upon his explicitly stated, deeply held religious belief that the mind is divine and beyond the scope of science.  He might be willing to put that aside and fund research programs that he feels are necessarily wastes of time as they contradict what he believes is a revealed Truth.  But I do not want to have a person in that position.  As I have said repeatedly, I would rather have someone in that position who acts because of his beliefs, not in spite of them.  And this is for at least two important reasons.  First, I do not want to sit around having to worry about whether or not the decision someone made was for the right reasons.  I do not want to spend my time looking over someone’s shoulder waiting for them to do the wrong thing.  But more than that, I do not want someone in that position thinking they are doing the wrong thing.  And the issue here is that I do not see how Collins could do anything but think he is doing the wrong thing by funding research that only makes sense if the mind is the brain, if mental illness is due to physical problems, if his explicitly stated article of faith about the nature of the human soul is wrong.  I’m just not that kind of asshole.  Moreover, I do know if anyone should trust that Collins would even do such a thing.  As such, just sitting around waiting for a completely foreseeable problem to arise just seems stupid.

These seem to be the main issues I’ve seen, and those are the basic responses I have.  I would be happy to address any other concerns about my position on this in the comments.

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6 Responses to “More on Francis Collins’ Nomination to the NIH”

  1. James Gray Says:

    Collins: Science answers questions about “how”; faith answers questions about “why.”

    Sounds like he doesn’t think religion is metaphysical. Not sure how he can get away with saying this when he thinks God created the universe. (I guess he admits that religion doesn’t know what that really means?)

    • Liza Says:

      What do you mean when you say “religion is metaphysical,” James?

      • James Gray Says:

        Metaphysical meaning tells us something substantial about reality as opposed to practical or pragmatic. His dualism states that the mind and brain are two different substances. Most people take science to be metaphysical (tells us something about the physical part of the universe.)

        A pragmatic approach to science could be purely instrumental. Science doesn’t tell us the specifics about reality itself. We don’t need to hypothesize that there is a physical realm at all. Instead, we just want to know about probability and prediction to help us live better lives.

    • Jim Says:

      I’m sure that Collins would be ok with the suggestion that his religion answers “what” questions as well as “why” questions, so, in that sense, his religion would address metaphysical issues. But I don’t think that Collins has a very sophisticated theology. I suspect that that Collins, like so many others involved in pop apologetics, thinks, for some reason I can’t fathom, that their primary field of specialty (here genetics) is incredibly complex and requires a great deal of specialized training, while the philosophical and theological issues they take on in their spare time can be understood by reading a couple of books and a high iq. The result is position that reeks of a general philosophical naivety and just bad theology.

      • James Gray Says:

        Good point, but how good is “good theology?” Would that require a physical basis to supposedly supernatural entities?

        Most people are able to identify fallacies and poor thinking within their discipline, but it is philosophy that attempts to generalize fallacies and poor thinking in order to identify them in every discipline possible. So, it makes sense that specialists often fail to identify poor thinking when outside of their discipline.

        • Jim Says:

          By “good theology” I don’t mean theology with which I agree. I mean theology that is at least internally coherent and deals with issues in a deep way. Listening to him talk and looking at his BioLogos website I don’t see how he could even have that.

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