Francis Collins Interviewed in National Geographic, Social Media Reacts | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Francis Collins, BioLogos founder and current director of the National Institutes of Health, was profiled in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine. The profile, titled “Man of Science—and Faith”, included a short interview with Collins about how his faith impacts his scientific work, and his belief in the harmony between science and Christian faith. Here’s my favorite paragraph:

NatGeo: You’ve said that a blooming flower is not a miracle since we know how that happens. As a geneticist, you’ve studied human life at a fundamental level. Is there a miracle woven in there somewhere?

Collins: Oh, yes. At the most fundamental level, it’s a miracle that there’s a universe at all. It’s a miracle that it has order, fine-tuning that allows the possibility of complexity, and laws that follow precise mathematical formulas. Contemplating this, an open-minded observer is almost forced to conclude that there must be a “mind” behind all this. To me, that qualifies as a miracle, a profound truth that lies outside of scientific explanation.

On Saturday, I posted the link to this interview on Facebook. Since then, the post has shattered all of our social media records, being shared more than 600 times (as of the writing of this blog). The influence of Collins is clearly still growing, and we couldn’t be happier about it—after all, we owe our existence as an organization to his vision.

The Facebook post also engendered a large number of comments, from a mix of Christian and skeptical voices. Here’s my favorite exchange:

D. B.: Actually, wouldn't being an "open-minded observer" mean not jumping to conclusions? The physical parameters of the universe constitute one such area in which our questions exceed our answers. We cannot conclude our universe was configured for "complexity" unless we know the aggregate conditions under which complexity could have arisen. Faced with a limited understanding, we should not be too quick in reaching for the easy or intuitive conclusion, esp. when the history of science shows us how often this has led us into error. The idea is to withhold judgment until justifying reasons are found.

N. G.: If thinking something through rationally, deeply and with a deeply scientific mindset, like many other scientists have, is "jumping to conclusions" then yes, Francis is guilty. If there are rational grounds for jumping to a conclusion then why not jump?

D. B.: That's just it. Science doesn't tell us the universe is "fine-tuned" for anything. That's an interpretive gloss squeezed into a gap in our understanding. It is not scientific to jump to conclusions, something, again, the history of science shows very clearly.

J. G.: But science can certainly tell us that with only minuscule alterations in the constants and laws that define our universe, life within it would be impossible. The question then arises, 'why is our universe configured this way and not in some other way?' But this is a metaphysical question; whichever answer is postulated, be it theism or some sort of multiverse ontology, it cannot be subjected to test and observation in the same manner that science can evaluate the natural world. Whether you're a theist or a naturalist, your worldview contains some metaphysical assumptions which aren't determined by the scientific method.

There’s no doubt that many top scientists, like Collins, have concluded that the universe was designed by a creator. But I think the challenge from D.B. is a good one: On what grounds can a person make that sort of conclusion? And isn’t it naïve to claim that the universe is designed, if we are limited in our ability to understand the nature of the universe (or predict the progress of science in the future)? Perhaps the boundary line of science and metaphysics will eventually shift (as it has in the past). If so, is there any defense of God’s existence and power that isn’t some version of a God-of-the-gaps argument? Leave a reply below and let’s talk about it.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/francis-collins-interviewed-in-national-geographic-social-media-reacts

(Brad Kramer) #2

There’s no doubt that many top scientists, like Collins, have concluded that the universe was designed by a creator. But I think the challenge from “D.B.” is thought-provoking: On what grounds can a person make that sort of conclusion? And isn’t it naïve to claim that the universe is designed, if we are limited in our ability to understand the nature of the universe (or predict the progress of science in the future)? Perhaps the boundary line of science and metaphysics will eventually shift (as it has in the past). If so, is there any defense of God’s existence and power that isn’t some version of a God-of-the-gaps argument? Leave a reply below and let’s talk about it.


(GJDS) #3

@BradKramer

The intelligibility of the universe, the constants, “fine tuning”, immense statistical estimates against life coming into being as a result of chance and happenstance, and similar statements, show that scientists are ‘forced’ by science to ask the ultimate question, “Why is it like this?” This is a reasonable position for scientists, but science cannot take us beyond this.

When a theist then concludes that these matters prove something about God, he may be mistaken – science cannot arrive at such a conclusion. A theist must provide other grounds for statements regarding a deity; Christians believe that God has revealed Himself and given us His Word, which is Christ. We would conclude from this, that our Faith provides an answer that consistent with the ultimate question(s) posed by science.

My view is that we can provide a reasonable response to the ultimate question from science, but this is derived from our theology.

It is also reasonable for a non-theist, who cannot go beyond the ultimate question(s) science asks, to either say, he may not know why the universe is the way it is, or to speculate on possible answers derived from a scientific perspective. This is because he has negated any possibility of a deity, or God, in his thinking.

The point that is contentious is for a scientist to take his faith based outlook and then claim science has provided proof. The statement, “many top scientists, like Collins, have concluded that the universe was designed by a creator” is poorly phrased. It should be more along the lines, “many scientist have concluded that their Christian outlook, which teaches that God is the Creator of heaven and earth, is consistent with the scientific outlook summarised by the term, fine tuning of the universal constants of science”


(Carl Wagner) #5

@GJDS, this is about circumstantial evidence. In a court case, the jury can conclude that such-and-such happened, even without a video of it happening. But if the scientific facts do not convince, one can also try looking into one’s own life for miracles. For many people (including me), there are so many miracles that one must conclude that an intelligence created and is present in the universe at a deep level, beyond our primitive senses but not beyond our ability to draw conclusions.


(Brad Kramer) #6

@GJDS I think this is an excellent point, and I concede the poor phrasing. I’ve noticed that the atheist feedback on Facebook has largely been a re-statement of the same objection: On what basis can Collins, as a scientist, say that a) the universe is a miracle and b) “open-minded” people should realize this. As you yourself point out, this is a misunderstanding of what Collins and other Christians are actually saying when they make such a statement. Unfortunately a lot of the rhetoric out there by Christians seems more aimed at beating atheists over the head with the obvious silliness of their position, and some of the commenters seemed to identify Collins in this camp. This is unfair to Collins, but of course I have the luxury of having read almost everything Collins has ever written, and most people have not. I think Collins would fully agree that the “miraculous” nature of the universe is not an empirical or scientific conclusion. But he would also want to say that all humans share a necessary need to understand the meaning of the universe (even if any/all answers are non-scientific and faith-based), so it’s legitimate to say that the nature of our universe points towards its miraculous nature, even if that “pointing” is not subject to proof.

The trick here is to talk about design/purpose without falling into the dual traps of confirmation bias/irrationalism or hyper-empiricism, and Collins threads the needle better than many, even if his comments in NatGeo aren’t fully fleshed out.

Any extra thoughts, @jstump?


(Brad Kramer) #7

@Carl_Wagner, I agree with you, but I think we often get in trouble by using the words “evidence” and “conclude” in these cases. To “conclude” that the universe is a miracle, as Collins said, is not based on “evidence”, in any normal scientific usage of that word. This is the objection of atheists, who say that it’s ridiculous to argue that x evidence plus y evidence leads logically to a transcendent creator God and a purposeful, “miraculous” creation. That’s not the way science works—and I think Christians should freely concede this point.

But that doesn’t mean that “evidence” has to be used that way. For instance, a person who receives an engagement proposal must evaluate, based on evidence from experience and reason, whether their significant other is a good mate for marriage. Of course this is hardly a scientific affair, but it is evidence-based no less. I think this applies to faith as less. For instance, C.S. Lewis became a Christian because he felt a longing inside of him that no early thing could satisfy, coupled with a strong sense of being called by Christ, coupled with the realization that Christianity “explained” the world more clearly than atheism. Evidence-based? Yes. Scientific? No.


(GJDS) #8

@Carl_Wagner

While I would agree with your overall point, I think it is important to distinguish between a scientist’s personal convictions and what they are based on, and the scientific thinking that is required to conclude something is scientifically proven. Our basis is scripture (the heavens declare the glory of God, and so on). We can also argue the scientific insights are so in line with our belief that God has created all, that we would be surprised to hear others deny this. But words such as the creation points to its creator, avoid the obvious objections of atheists, in that we have proven God - in fact we cannot prove God scientifically, nor should we as this is faith based.


#9

…concluded that the universe was designed by a creator. … On what grounds can a person make that sort of conclusion? And isn’t it naïve to claim that the universe is designed, if we are limited in our ability to understand the nature of the universe (or predict the progress of science in the future)?

We have two questions going on: one is about miracles. The other is about design. Brad’s question was not about miracles, I think, but about design. Can we see design in the universe, regardless of what we think the process was. Design implies intelligence, so intelligent design is a bit of a redundancy. What is the criteria for design… merely that it works? Does our criteria for design depend on our apriori assumptions? If it looks like it is designed, then it must have been designed. VS. Just because it looks like it was designed, doesn’t mean that it was. We tend to think that complicated things that work are designed, while uncomplicated things that do not work are not designed. A shovel full of gravel tossed in a pile, or a gravel deposit on a creek bank does not appear to be particularly designed. But the microbes within that pile appear to be designed based on their complexity and their ability to perform certain repeatable functions. We are more uncertain about the design of a particular snow storm, and more likely to think that a solar system and an orchid is designed. “Design” is not predicated on the basis of whether we understand it or not, but rather on the basis of the beauty, function and purpose(and perhaps complexity) of the object.

As for miracles, let me postulate this: Miracles cannot be legitimately invoked on the basis of lack of evidence or knowledge, but rather on the basis of contradicting the evidence. ie: “The evidence said he has terminal cancer; now he has none.” “He was blind; now he sees.” “He was dead; now he lives.” “The world was a mixed up mess of dead material; now it is a thriving beautiful world of more life than we can count.”


(Jim Lock) #10

@johnZ I need to run and work a track meet. But I wanted to quickly jump in and say that I really liked your last bit about defining miracles. It is a subtle shift in viewpoint, from ‘proving the miracle’ to ‘contradicting the evidence,’ but important.


#11

Jim, I find it amusing sometimes, that when supposing that evolution could work, the odds are so great against it, especially against formation of original life and the undirected random process, working only thru mutations and natural selection (adaptation), that if evolution was true, it would be a miracle. It would take a miracle to make it happen. So even for evolutionists, if they are honest, they would have to acknowledge the miraculous power of God to make it work.


(Brad Kramer) #12

That’s precisely what BioLogos believes.


#13

I’m glad you acknowledge that. How does that work out in practical terms for biologos? Does that only apply to abiogenesis and the big bang, or does it also apply to other practical problems for evolution for which scientific principles indicate evolution is either not possible, or probable, or evidence indicates it did not happen?


(James Stump) #14

@BradKramer @GJDS Interesting discussion. I’m not sure, though, that I’d concede the poor phrasing of “Collins concluded that the universe was designed by a creator.” That is exactly what Collins did. It doesn’t say that he thinks the evidence proves to satisfaction of everyone. But he himself did in fact conclude that. He believes it. Having said that, I’m completely on board with your (GJDS) statement about their Christian outlook being consistent with observed data. I think “theology of creation” is a better way to go than “natural theology”, when the latter is understood as some kind of deductive procedure of proving theological claims.


(GJDS) #15

@jstump

I agree that Dr Collins may have concluded, (or expressed his conviction) the universe was created and thus designed by God - after all he would express his belief, just as any of us would. The distinction that I am making, and comes through in these discussions is between (a) science, as expressed by a scientist (eg Collins) has provided scientific proof that God designed the Universe (and with that the details must follow on how and what science tells us about God), or (b) from our understanding of God as creator, one would conclude that the scientific data we have is consistent with our belief (or we would obviously conclude) that God has created and designed, added purpose (and further detail may be added) re the universe.


(Don Huebner) #16

The teleological argument is much stronger than implied by much of the discussion here. It is not just that the fundamental constants are just right for life to exist, but the very fact that they are so sensitive to small changes which would preclude life. Nothing I have ever read predicted such sensitivity before hand. And, as Denton showed over a decade ago, why are the chemical element properties just right for supporting life? Furthermore, as Reasons to Believe has shown, there are in the neighborhood of a hundred factors regarding the earth, solar system, galaxy, etc. that must be correct for life (and especially intelligent life) to exist (an example being the presence of plate tectonics). Finally, the whole idea from complexity theory of operating right at the edge of order and chaos indicates a sensitivity which must be explained for the multitude of physical and biological levels which have emerged. Why does the universe at all levels just happen to have the right mixture of order and chaos? The sum total of all such arguments seems to work against a simple God-of-the-gaps explanation and at least provide strong circumstantial evidence in support of a designer.


(Lou Jost) #17

Don (and Dr Collins), I don’t think this is true. First, at the lowest level, we must recognize that the vast majority of the universe (even the vast majority of space on earth) is instantly fatal to intelligent life. I’ll never forget the misleading way Robin Collins promoted the fine-tuning argument: What if you found yourself on Mars, and there you found a giant tent with just the right oxygen levels for you, just the right pressure, etc? Wouldn’t it be logical to conclude somebody had designed this for you? He neglected to note that in the real universe, if that tent were the size of all the world’s oceans,it would contain only one single cubic centimeter where the visitor could breath–anywhere else and he or she would die an instant and painful death. Would finding such a tent indicate that the tent had been made for the visitor? That’s even without considering that the visitor, if given several billion years, could evolve to take advantage of quite a wide range of conditions.

Nevertheless I grant that the laws and constants of physics do seem fine-tuned for the existence of life, and I have often argued on atheist websites that this issue should be taken seriously rather than dismissed. The best answer we have is that there must have been many universes, most of them completely hostile to intelligent life. Some tiny fraction of them would be able to support life. But obviously since we exist, we have to be on one of those universes.

Theists usually say there is no evidence for multiverses and no way to confirm such a statement. Some even say that the only reason scientists have invented multiverses is to maintain naturalism in the face of fine-tuning. I think neither of those views is right. The multiverse hypothesis does make a testable, confirmed prediction. If the hypothesis were true, then our universe would have been randomly drawn from the set of all universes capable of producing intelligent life. Since we all agree that this requires very special conditions, the universes that support intelligent life will mostly be ones that JUST BARELY support it. These will vastly outnumber universes that are uniformly supportive of life. A universe randomly drawn from the set of life-supporting universes is therefore very likely to be one of the universes that is only marginally suitable for life. So a prediction from this theory is that our universe should just barely support intelligent life. It should not be optimized for it. And that is what we see-- the space suitable for life is about the size of a drop of water in the ocean.

The theistic explanation, on the other hand, makes no clear predictions; it is a vacuous statement whose main purpose is to preserve belief in a god.


(Lou Jost) #18

JohnZ, I certainly don’t see this, and I am a bit surprised that Brad says BioLogos agrees. Maybe you both are simply referring to the fact that we have not yet explained the origin of life (in which case you are making the “God of the gaps” fallacy, as Brad noted above) or making a statement about the “miracle” that the laws of physics permit evolution. Evolution itself is no miracle; it is a logical consequence of reproduction with heritable variation.


#19

Evolution may be logical in theory, but that alone does not mean it happened within the confines of the theory and within the time alloted. In theory, if I want to travel to New York, I could take a car, fill it with gas, drive and get there. If you see me in New York, that doesn’t mean I drove a car. It doesn’t mean I drove a car all the way, or part way, or didn’t fly partway, or take a bus partway. The reality is that statistically, under the parameters of the theory, evolution from mud to man is so highly improbable that it would be regarded as scientifically impossible. It would become an unscientific conclusion, when compared to any type of empirical research. This is for normal biogenic evolution. For abiogenisis, there is no applicable statistics at all, since there is no known logical mechanism. Nor can a logical mechanism be devised that would not depend on sheer blind faith. It would be like the possibility that a gravity reversal would remove you from the earth. God could do that of course, but that is exactly what we would call a miracle, when something contradicts the laws of science and nature.


(Brad Kramer) #20

@johnZ @loujost It’s worth clarifying what I meant. If you define “miracle” as that which requires a supernatural subversion of natural mechanisms, then no, evolution is not a miracle. I was using the word in a larger sense, to denote that the whole creation is “miraculous” in the sense that it flows from God’s power and wisdom. I think it’s crucially important to keep that in mind. Evolution challenges us to think of God’s creative power in different (and, I think, grander and more mysterious) ways.


(Lou Jost) #21

Agree in part. Just because it might have happened by evolution doesn’t mean it DID happen that way. But since we don’t see miracles (violations of physical laws) happening around us today, it will take some positive evidence to back up the claim that naturalistic evolution is insufficient. In fact, there are many lines of evidence that naturalistic evolution was responsible for the observable diversity of life, full of messiness and imperfections and the marks and constraints of its own history.

If you think evolution can’t do something, the onus is on you to show us. The ID people have been trying to do this for decades without success. Look at their journal, Bio-complexity. It is mostly empty. Look at any real scientific journal in biology and you’ll see the evolutionary perspective generating mountains of new, confirmable insights into reality.