Francis Collins: A ‘second form’ of knowledge?

In 1914, 53 percent of a random sample of U.S. scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of a god, a figure that rose to 67 percent by 1934. According to a July 1998 study in Nature, only seven percent of scientists in the National Academy of Sciences believed in a higher power. These statistics were brought up in a Michael Gersonop-ed in The Washington Post.

Gerson wants to know if and why it should matter that Francis Collins — President Obama’s pick for director of the NIH — is an evangelical Christian. Collins has said that in addition to knowledge gathered by the scientific method, there is a second form of knowledge. As Gerson writes:

“Collins argues that there is a second way of knowing — a realm of morality and metaphysics that involves not physical proof but probability based on evidence. Some scientists assert that anything beyond the possibility of touching and testing is equally mythological — from unicorns to God to morality to hope to meaning to love. Collins calls this kind of reductionism a “logical fallacy.” By definition, science yields information about only the physical world, which does nothing to prove that the physical world is all there is. As human beings, we still seek to know why things exist and how we should live. Science is silent on these matters; we need not be. Collins contends that the moral law within us, and the fine-tuning of physical constants in the universe, provides “signposts” (not proofs) that lead toward God.”

Gerson refers to Collins’ book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, for his full explanation of this concept.

Leaving the debate about stem cell research and abortion rights aside, should scientists worry about the sustained scientific integrity of the nation’s largest science funding agency under Collins’ watch?

Read more opinions at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Slate and many others.

Author: Christine Buckley

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5 Comments

  1. The belief in God and funding science programs and research in the U.S. have nothing to do with each other. Collins has what it takes to go after the various scientific problems that are causing problems in the U.S. I can only see his beliefs getting in the way for minute scientific issues that will not affect most of our lives.

  2. As a scientist in the limelight, it’s probably assumed that Collins’ will be thoroughly transparent. But as a public official, he has plenty of power to do as he pleases. I don’t know much about his professional reputation, so I’m not trying to prejudge, just making an observation.
    It’s true that his belief in God shouldn’t affect funding. However I think of a situation that is somewhat related. There is a law that protects medical practictioners from performing procedures or operations that they oppose on moral grounds. What if Collins ends up deciding on support for research that he thinks is morally opposable? Can he be expected to side with advancing science just because he’s a scientist? It’s possible his conscience might catch up with him.

  3. Collins has proven his scientific credentials already. Why should we doubt that he will not uphold scientific integrity? Such integrity has much more to fear from political pressure, as the EPA found out during the Bush years. Instead, we should be excited that a pro-evolution evangelical is granted such a powerful position.
    As Collins has repeatedly pointed out, faith and science are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps he can use his new position to explain that viewpoint to more conservative evangelicals.

  4. Faith and science may not be mutually exclusive practices within the same person. Faith and science, as methods for understanding the world, are. Faith and assumption based upon high probability are two entirely different things. Any scientist who claims that they never depend on probability to guide their work is deluded, but simply believing in things gives zero probability that they exist.
    Usage of the scientific method to justify your faith is acceptable, but using your faith to justify your scientific conclusions is not. I haven’t heard any evidence that the latter applies Francis Collins’ science, however, I do contend, or at least hope to more specifically delimit, the idea that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. I hope that Dr. Collins will be able to remain dispassionate about his faith when it comes to decisions he will make in this position of power.

  5. There are definitely a lot of particulars like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to carry up. I provide the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you deliver up where an important factor will likely be working in sincere good faith. I don?t know if greatest practices have emerged round issues like that, but I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls really feel the impact of just a second’s pleasure, for the remainder of their lives.

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