Collins and the Mind

Sam Harris, author of the excellent The End of Faith, has an op-ed in the New York Times about Obama’s selection of Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health.

Collins is famous for his work leading the Human Genome project as well as his stance that there exists “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between science and Christianity. While he is not a proponent of Intelligent Design, Dr. Collins believes both Genesis and Darwin. Harris explained it thus:

What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “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.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?” (Source)

Harris is concerned about this blending of religion and science. He writes that when Collins is

challenged with alternative accounts of these phenomena — or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent or, indeed, absent — Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.

Similarly, Dr. Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr. Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

In short, Harris is worried about the fact that, when it comes to the moral dimension of the universe, Collins ceases being a scientist and becomes a theologian. Certainly the statement “God’s will is a mystery” is not something that can be tested scientifically, Harris rightly points out.

But Harris is up to more, though. He rightly points out that this view of creation — evolution to one point, divine spark-of-morality injection at another — recreates an age-old problem: the mind-body problem.

1-phineas-gage-skullJust how is the mind/soul connected to the body? Where does one end and the other begin? Things we’ve traditionally thought of as part of the mind/soul (such as personality) are oddly susceptible to influence through physical media. The most famous example is Phineas Gage, a railway who, through a series of unfortunate events, had a railroad stake placed in his skull. He survived, but was never the same. He changed. Instead of the kind, fun-loving Gage, he became a foul-mouthed, short-tempered jerk. His personality changed through violent manipulation of his brain. It kind of indicates that personality is not an aspect of the soul.

Contemporary examples abound. As a teacher, I see it every day: Ritalin. Over-medicate a child on Ritalin and you’ll get a somber, introverted, sleepy individual; get it just right, and you’ll get a “normal” person; under-medicate and you’ll get someone almost bouncing off the walls. When I was in school, this would have all been chalked up to “personality.”

This is exactly what Harris has in mind when he writes,

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?

Dr. Collins sees morality as an element of the soul; Harris points out that this is untestable and amounts to a re-introduction of the mind/body problem into contemporary science. It’s an insightful point, and Harris builds to this point very effectively.

It’s a tricky issue. Religious beliefs are often bedrock beliefs: they inform and shape other beliefs. Would we want a Christian Scientist in the role, someone who believes that all ailments are spiritual, figments of an unenlightened imagination?

But will Collins’ religious beliefs affect his scientific reasoning? I’m not convinced, like Harris, that it will. It didn’t when he was director of the Human Genome Project. Then again, Sam Harris is a long-tailed atheist in a Christian rocking chair country: he’s more than a little skittish, and often justifiably so.

Source: Gary Stern, at Blogging Religiously.

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