One can be a Rigorous Scientist and a Believer in God – Dr. Francis Collins

Last updated on 15th Nov. 2012

Anti-religion scientists like Richard Dawkins are being given a lot of prominence in the media. Some of these persons have got so carried away with the phenomenal achievements of science and their own intellectual brilliance that they believe and argue that science disproves God. And that God is a Delusion! Further they sometimes question the scientific credibility of any scientist who believes in God!

Such a fanatical atmosphere can scare whatever spiritual leanings young scientists have. Senior scientists and academics have significant amount of influence on the careers of young scientists & academics. If being a believer in God marks one as a not-so-credible scientist to senior scientists then many young scientists will give up their religion or spirituality.

Dr. Francis Collins is among a few leading scientists who are taking on the anti-religion scientists like Dawkins and giving young scientists the courage to be religious as well as be a rigorous scientist. While Dr. Collins is an evangelical Christian I feel many of his views will be extremely helpful for young and old scientists of other religions and sects as well.

Dr. Francis Collins has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale University in 1974, and is also a physician earning his M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977. He followed these degrees with a distinguished research career in genetics. His Wikipedia page states, “Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP).” He is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA, which “is the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world“. This Scitable, Nature Education page gives another interesting view of his research contributions.

He has received many honors including the US National Medal of Science in 2008 and US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. His contributions have also been recognized by the Catholic church. His wiki states, “In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences“.

The post, “Francis Collins – The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief – Transcript“, provides the text of a brilliant lecture of Dr. Collins, titled, “Francis Collins – The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief” given at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), USA in 2009. The youtube video link of the lecture is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGu_VtbpWhE. I have given below a condensed version of the talk focusing on the spiritual/religious angle with a few comments of mine prefixed with iami1. Perhaps some persons may find this condensed version more suitable to read than the whole transcript.

The Veritas Forum, www.veritas.org, has the copyright for the above mentioned lecture of Dr. Collins. They have kindly, over email, provided me permission to transcribe the lecture and use the transcription, including posting it on my blog, provided I don’t charge for it or mass-produce it.

In the beginning, Collins gives a quick introduction to the main theme of his talk. “We are here to talk about big questions. Maybe the biggest question of all – does God exist? I won’t give you a proof tonight but I hope I will give you some things to think about – things that have led me from being an atheist to becoming a believer and a follower of Jesus. And I will try to explain to you that pathway in a fairly abbreviated form and also explain to you how I see no conflict between that perspective and that of a scientist who is rigorous in his views of data and won’t allow you to put one over on me when it comes to views of nature. But who also sees that the study of nature is not all there is.”

He then describes his study of DNA, Darwinian evolution, the fantastic Human Genome Project that he led/managed and the benefits that medicine may see from the results of the Genome project.

Then he moves to the vital point of the lecture. “And the question that many people pose, which I pose to you tonight, is – okay, those are two world views, the scientific and the spiritual. Do you have to choose? Do you have to basically throw in your lot with one or the other and neglect the other one or is there a possibility here of being someone who could merge these two, not necessarily building a firewall between them, but actually having both of those perspectives within your own experience. I think many people today are arguing that these worldviews are at war and that there is no way to reconcile them. That has not been my experience. And that’s what I particularly would like to share this evening and then I hopefully will have some time for questions from those of you who would like to pursue that in one way or another.”

Collins then describes his childhood when he was not really into faith. He moves to college later. “And so when I got to college I had those conversations that one has – even though I might have had some spiritual glimmers along the way, they quickly disappeared in those dormitory conversations where there is always an atheist who is determined to put forward that argument about why your faith is actually flawed and mine wasn’t even there at all. So it was pretty easy for the resident atheist to dismiss my leanings of any sort.”

Collins moves to graduate school and studies physical chemistry. “Just the same, I became increasingly of a reductionist mode and materialist mode and I had even less tolerance then for hearing information of a spiritual sort and considered that to be irrelevant. Some cast … appropriately should be cast-off information left over from an earlier time.”

Collins later gets interested in Biology and DNA and moves from Chemistry to medical school. He arrives in medical school as an atheist. But as he starts taking care of patients and sees how patients see the approach of death with peace due to their faith, he is puzzled. He says that he felt he would be terrified if he was in their position.

One afternoon, “a wonderful elderly woman who was my patient who had very advanced heart disease, that we had run out of options for, and who knew her life was coming to a close, told me in a very simple, sincere way about her faith and how that gave her courage and hope and peace about what was coming. And as she finished that description she looks at me, sort of quizzically, as I sat there silently feeling a little embarrassed and she said, Doctor, I have told you about my faith and we have talked about my family and I thought maybe you might say something.

And then she asks me the most simple question, Doctor, what do you believe? Nobody had ever asked me that question before, not like that, not in such a simple, sincere way. And I realized I didn’t know the answer.”

Collins is shaken by that simple, sincere question. “Everything was all of a sudden, a muddle, by this simple question, Doctor, what do you believe? So that troubled me and I thought about it a little bit and realized what the problem was. I was a scientist or at least I thought I was and scientists are supposed to make decisions after they look at the data, after they look at the evidence. I had made a decision that there was no God and I had never really thought about looking at the evidence. That didn’t seem like a good thing. It was the decision that I wanted the answer to be but I had to admit that I didn’t really know whether I had chosen the answer on the basis of reason or whether because it was a convenient form of, perhaps, willful blindness to the evidence. I wasn’t sure there was any evidence but I figured I better go find out because I didn’t want to be in that spot again.”

So Collins tries to read up on world religions and ends up getting “confused and frustrated”. He then goes to a minister who gives him the book, “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis, who was a distinguished Oxford scholar who tried to figure out “what’s true”.

Collins starts reading the book. “And in the first two or three pages I realized that my arguments against faith were really those of a schoolboy. They had no real substance and the thoughtful reflections of this Oxford scholar whose name, of course, is C.S. Lewis, made me realize there was a great depth of thinking and reason that could be applied to the question of God. And that was a surprise. I had imagined faith and reason were at opposite poles. And here was this deep intellectual who is convincing me quickly, page by page, that actually reason and faith go hand in hand – though faith has the added component of revelation.”

“Over the course of the next year, kicking and screaming most of the way, because I did not want this to turn out the way that it seemed to be turning out, I began to realize that the evidence for the existence of God, while not proof, was actually pretty interesting. And it certainly made me realize that atheism would no longer be for me an acceptable choice. That it was the least rational of the options.”

Collins puts down, what in his view is, some of the evidence for the existence of God:

* There is something instead of nothing.

* The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. (in describing nature)

* The Big Bang. … “So the only plausible, it seemed to me, explanation is that there must be some supernatural force that did the creating and, of course, that force would not need to be limited by space or even by time.”

* The precise tuning of physical constants in the universe. … “That these constants have the value they do because that creator, God, who is a good mathematician, also knew that there was an important set of dials to set here, if this universe that was coming into being was going to be interesting.”

* The moral Law. … “The argument is that we humans are unique in the animal kingdom by apparently having a law that we are under although we seem free to break it because that happens every day. And the law is that there is something called right and there is something called wrong. And we are supposed to do the right thing and not the wrong thing. Again, we break that law, when we do, what do we do, we make an excuse. Which only means we believe the law must be true and we are trying to be let off the hook.”….”If you were looking not just for evidence of a God who was a mathematician and a physicist but a God who cared about human beings and who stood for what was good and holy and wanted his people to also be interested in what is good and holy, wouldn’t it be interesting to find written in your own heart this moral law which doesn’t otherwise make sense and which is calling you to do just that? That made a lot of sense to me.”

On the moral law Collins quotes “this phrase from Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, ‘Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.’ My goodness, that’s just where I was.”

With the above evidence of the existence of God, Collins “had to figure out then, okay if there is the possibility of this kind of God and a God who cares about humans, what is that God really like?”. Then he goes back to the study of the world’s religions, sees that “there were great similarities between the great monotheistic religions and they actually resonated quite well with each other about many of the principles.”

Collins says very frankly, “Now about this time, I had also arrived at a point that was actually not comforting, which was the realization that if the moral law was a pointer to God and if God was good and holy, I was not. And as much as I tried to forgive myself for actions that were not consistent with that moral law they kept popping up. And therefore, just as I was beginning to perceive the person of God, in this sort of blurry way, that image was receding because of my own failures.” [Iami1: What an honest man Collins comes across as!]

Collins continues in this vein which eventually leads him to opening his heart to Jesus Christ! “And I began to despair of whether this would ever be a relationship that I could claim or hope to have because of my own shortcomings. And into that area of increasing anxiety came the realization that there is a person in one of these faiths who has the solution to that. And that’s the person of Jesus Christ. Who not only claimed to know God but to be God and who in this amazing and incomprehensible at first but ultimately incredibly sensible, uplifting sacrificial act, died on the cross and then rose from the dead to provide this bridge between my imperfections and God’s holiness in a way that made more sense than I ever dreamed it could. I had heard those phrases about Christ died for your sins and I thought that was so much gibberish and suddenly, it wasn’t gibberish at all. And so, two years after I began this journey, on a hiking trip in the Cascade mountains up in Oregon with my mind cleared of those distractions that so often get in the way of realizing what is really true and important, I felt I had reached the point where I no longer had reasons to resist and I didn’t want to resist. I had a hunger to give in to this. And so that day, I became a Christian. That was thirty one years ago.”

[iami1: Wow! That’s a tremendously moving description, to me at least, of how Collins takes that final plunge and becomes a Christian (a believer in God).]

Collins then “discovered this great sense of peace and a joyfulness about having finally crossed that bridge and also to have done so in a fashion that seemed to live up to my hopes that faith would not be something you had to plunge into blindly but something where there was in fact, reason behind the decision. And I guess I should have known it because as I began to learn a bit more about the Bible, I encountered this verse in Matthew, where Jesus is being questioned about which is the greatest commandment in the law. The Pharisees here trying to trap Jesus into saying something they can point out as being inconsistent with the Old Testament. And Jesus replies Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Wow! There it was, all your mind. We are supposed to use our minds when it comes to faith.”

Now Collins starts to share his faith with his “people”. “But I was already a scientist and I was already interested in genetics. So as I began to tell all these people that I knew of this good news. They said, doesn’t your head explode? (Laughter). You are in trouble boy, you are headed for a collision. These world views are not going to get along. And especially, isn’t evolution incompatible with faith? What are you going to do about that?”

Collins has many conversations on evolution and faith.

He supports evolution saying, “And, in fact, the bottom line is that DNA tells us that Darwin’s theory was fundamentally right on target. We have not worked out some of the mathematical details of some of this. But I think it is fair to say that here in 2009, serious biologists almost universally see evolution as so fundamental that you can’t really think about life sciences without it at the core.”

He gives details of DNA evidence for evolution and then concludes, “But when you look at the details it seems inescapable that evolution is correct and that we humans are part of that.”

Collins then looks at the argument of some people, “If evolution is true, does that leave any room for God?”. He says, “There are certainly those who are using evolution as a club over the head of believers, Richard Dawkins perhaps being the most visible. This book (‘The God Delusion’) has sold millions of copies. One of those rare books that does not need a subtitle to tell you what it’s about. And Dawkins who is an incredibly gifted writer and articulator of evolutionary theory for the general public has shifted by the publication of this book into a very different space where he has become, really in a very antagonistic way, a critic of religion, not only claiming that it is unnecessary and ill-informed, but that it is evil. And religion is basically responsible for most of the bad things in the world. Dawkins uses science as a core of his argument. Trying to demonstrate that in the absence of scientific proof of God’s existence the default answer should be that there is no God.”

Collins states that one problem with such an argument is that it is the assertion of a universal negative. [iami1: I didn’t understand that initially. According to my understanding of the explanation here, http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/atheism.htm, assertion of a universal negative requires one to be all-knowing. In other words, one can assert that there is no God only if one is all-knowing (omniscient), which Dawkins does not claim to be, as far as I know.]

Collins then says that another problem with the argument is that it is a category error. “If God has any significance in most religions, God has to be, at least in part, outside of nature, not bound by nature. Pantheists might be an exception but most other religions would certainly agree that God is not limited therefore by nature itself. Science is. Science really is only legitimately able to comment on things that are part of nature and science is really good at that. But if you are going to try to take the tools of science and disprove God, you are in the wrong territory. Science has to remain silent on the question of anything that falls outside of the natural world.” [iami1: As simple as that. So claims that science has disproved or will disprove God are delusions.]

Collins then talks about a debate with Dawkins, “And if you read the interview, at the end, he (Dawkins) does say, well, he couldn’t on a purely rational basis exclude the possibility of a supernatural being. But it would be so much grander and more complicated and awesome than anything humans could contemplate that it surely must not be the God we were all talking about.”

He continues, “But it does reveal something that I think is important to notice and that is that oftentimes when people are trying to disprove or to throw stones at belief, they caricature belief in a way that makes it very narrow and small minded and the sort of thing that a mature believer wouldn’t recognize is the thing that is being torn apart. And of course, that’s the old trick of the debater, you mischaracterize your opponent’s position and then you dismantle it, and your opponent is left wondering, wait a minute, what happened there. I think that has very much been the case with the books by Hitchens and Harris and Dennet and by Dawkins himself, the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse.

So, again, I would submit that if you want to be an atheist you cannot claim that reason completely supports your position. Because if the reason you were basing this upon is of science, it will fall short of being able to comment about God’s existence.”

Then Collins moves on to the question, “How can evolution and faith be reconciled?” He says many scientists believe that:

* “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.”

* “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.”

* “After evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a sufficiently advanced neurological ‘house’ (the brain), God gifted humanity with free will and with a soul. Thus humans received a special status, ‘made in God’s image’.”

* “We humans used our free will to disobey God, leading to our realization of being in violation of the Moral Law. Thus we were estranged from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

[iami1: Hindu Advaita Vedanta, IMHO, is not in conflict with Big Bang and Darwinian evolution. However Hindu beliefs have a different view on only humans having a soul, and a different take on the “estrangement from God”. Two big differences between traditional Christian and Hindu beliefs, IMHO, are Karma and reincarnation.]

Collins states that this theory/belief is often called “Theistic Evolution”. He proposes a new term, “BioLogos”. He also gets into some intricacies of this theory. He moves on to discuss Intelligent Design and concludes, “So, I.D. turns out to be, and I am sorry to say this for those who have found this a very appealing perspective, but I think it is the truth that I.D. turns out to be putting God into a gap in scientific knowledge which is now getting rapidly filled. And that God of the gaps approach has not served faith well in the past and I don’t think it serves it well in this instance either. And unfortunately the church has in many ways attached themselves to I.D. theory as a way of resisting what was apparently a materialistic and atheistic assault coming from the evolutionists. But attaching yourself to an alternative theory which itself turns out to be flawed is not going to be a successful strategy and I think it is an unnecessary strategy.”

Collins then advises against literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. He quotes Saint Augustine, “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. Saint Augustine, 400 AD, The Literal Meaning of Genesis.”

Collins says, “I am troubled by the fact that the stage often seems to be occupied by those at the extremes of the spectrum. On the one hand, atheists who are arguing that science disproves God, on the other hand, fundamentalists who say that science can’t be trusted because it disagrees with their interpretation of particular scripture verses. But I think there is hope here for having this conversation go somewhere.”

He summarizes, “This is the most important question that we started with. Is there a God? My answer to that is yes. I can’t prove it. But I think the evidence is fairly compelling. If this is a question that interests you and you haven’t necessarily spent a lot of time on it, I would encourage you to. It’s probably not one of those you want to put off to the last minute.”

Collins thanks the organizers and the audience, “But I am delighted that the Veritas forum provides this kind of opportunity for discussion and that Caltech has welcomed this kind of conversation to happen here tonight. And I thank all of you for your kind attention.”

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One thought on “One can be a Rigorous Scientist and a Believer in God – Dr. Francis Collins

  1. A friend wrote over email:
    Thanks Ravi for your blog.

    It was a good read. While science looks at external nature, spirituality looks at internal nature. So when a scientist explores internal nature he is bound to discover God.

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