Does NIH Head Francis Collins Believe in Intelligent Design?


According to psychologist Paul Bloom, Francis Collins, the current head of the NIH, is a kind of covert Intelligent Design Theorist. Why? Because, as he characterizes it in a recent piece for the New Republic, Collins believes that since evolutionary theory cannot explain human moral dispositions, we need God. Bloom then proceeds to debunk what he takes to be Collins’ argument.

The implications of Bloom’s essay go beyond critiquing a specific argument for God. Collins—a devout evangelical Christian and a prominent geneticist who headed up the human genome project—is viewed by many as a kind of poster child for the thesis that you really can be a top-notch scientist and a person of faith. Collins has done more than just about anyone to bring the case for accepting evolutionary theory to a skeptical evangelical community and has argued rigorously for the compatibility of science and faith.

In addition to that he’s been a strong critic of Intelligent Design, consistently urging his evangelical brothers and sisters not to hitch their faith to the fortunes of an approach that rests the credibility of theism on the supposed inadequacies of reputable science.

In Bloom’s essay, however, Collins comes off looking not so different from the ID theorists he critiques. While Collins attacks traditional ID theorists for basing their case on explanatory gaps in science that aren’t really gaps at all, Bloom maintains that Collins is doing the very same thing—only he’s chosen a different explanatory gap: morality.

And this gap, Bloom argues, is closing fast. The impression is of a situation in which science really is the enemy of religion: Theists are in a kind of perpetual retreat as science continues to fill gaps that theists have insisted could only be filled by God. The difference between Collins and other ID theorists is just that he’s retreated one step further. If Collins is the most promising poster child for the compatibility of faith and science then perhaps it’s time to take the posters down.

But is this picture correct? Not really.

There’s no question that Collins offers reasons for believing in God, and that morality features prominently in his case. In public lectures, Collins routinely invokes C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, elaborating on it in terms of examples of moral heroism. He mentions the difficulty of accounting for such heroism as just an expression of our “selfish genes” and then suggests it might rather be seen as the divine making itself felt in the world.

Bloom treats this line of thought as little more than a variation on the intelligent design argument. Briefly, he attributes to Collins the view that there is an innate and universal moral sense which urges us to perform acts of radical self-sacrifice even towards strangers despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to promote the reproductive fitness of those who do it. While evolutionary theory can readily explain how organisms could at times display biologically maladaptive behavior, it’s much harder to account for a universally innate biological propensity towards it.

This, Bloom thinks, is where Collins feels the need to resort to theism: in the face of a universal altruistic propensity that’s hard to account for as the product of evolution. Bloom argues, however, that his own research into the moral sense of young children shows that in fact no such universal propensity exists. What’s innate to us is more in keeping with what we’d expect to emerge as a result of Darwinian evolution. The propensity for more, Bloom opines, has more to do with culture than biology.

Bloom’s case is interesting and compelling indeed. But as a case against Collins, it only works if he gets Collins right—which, in fact, I don’t believe he does. And as a broader case for the view that scientific advances are a perpetual threat to theistic beliefs—that they are, as we speak, eroding the ground on which those who base their theism on morality stand—Bloom’s argument has little value.

Bloom falls prey to some of the same confusion that’s rather pervasive among non-theistic scientists today: a tendency to treat all arguments for God’s existence as design arguments, and to interpret all design arguments according to the model offered by ID theory. This confusion is understandable. Given how routinely scientists find themselves clashing with ID theorists, it only makes sense that ID theory would become the template through which they understand arguments for God.

Is Aversion to Slavery Just Cultural?

Let’s consider this confusion a bit more carefully. The heart of ID theory is that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is fundamentally inadequate to account for the development of life, because it can not be used to explain at least some features of living organisms; to account for them, we need an intelligent designer. This particular design argument is premised on the failure of evolutionary theory.

Not every design argument is premised on such a failure. It’s possible, for example, to see evolutionary theory as a successful scientific account of the development of complex living systems, but then to hold that there are advantages to seeing the whole natural world as the product of intelligent design—advantages that have nothing to do with the purported inadequacies of purely scientific theories.

If so, we have a design argument that does not depend on scientific theories falling short. An advocate of such a design argument would not be an ID theorist in the strictest sense.

More importantly, not every argument for God’s existence is a design argument. Philosophers of religion typically distinguish design arguments from cosmological, ontological, and moral arguments (yes, moral arguments for God are generally treated as a separate category). The hallmark of a design argument is that it points to features of the natural world which, by virtue of the fortuitous way in which the elements fit together, lend themselves to being viewed as products of intelligent design. In a nutshell, a design argument has the following form: “Hey, this feature of the natural world looks like something that was put together for a purpose by someone smart enough to figure out how to fit pieces together to achieve a goal. And if it looks that way, there’s reason to think it is that way.”

But not all arguments for God’s existence are like this. Leibniz’s argument for God—which rests on trying to account for the fact that there’s something rather than nothing, is clearly not like this.

More to the point, suppose you make the case that there seem to be objective moral truths—moral claims whose truth does not depend on anyone’s endorsement, but on some objective standard independent of what any individual or culture happens to approve. In other words, you make the case that some moral claims seem to be true in something like the way that empirical facts are true: We discover that systematically enslaving some classes of people is wrong, and societies which have practiced this for generations have been in error—just as we discovered that the earth is spherical, and societies that attributed to it another shape had been mistaken.

And suppose you then argue that if there are such objective moral truths, they aren’t truths about culture, since many cultures have denied them; and they aren’t truths about universally innate human dispositions, since some of these truths are not reflected in any such dispositions. That it’s wrong to enslave others isn’t a fact about culture (when we call it wrong we aren’t merely saying that cultures happen to prohibit it, but rather that cultures which fail to prohibit it have made a serious error). Nor is it a fact about innate human psychology (when we call it wrong we don’t mean that there’s a universal human aversion to slavery, but rather that the historical failure to universally display this aversion demonstrates an historic moral deficiency). What, then, makes it true that we ought not to enslave others?

Some, such as C.S Lewis, have argued that theism offers the most promising path to making sense of the existence of such truths. While Lewis’s case is popular because of its accessibility, it’s hardly the best version of this kind of argument. Robert Adams’ Finite and Infinite Goods is far more powerful. But given Lewis’s accessible approach, it makes sense that Collins would be both familiar with it and prone to invoke it in popular lectures.

This line of argument is, obviously, controversial. It relies on the premise that there are standards of moral truth that hold regardless of what human beings collectively or individually happen to prefer. Many deny this, although I doubt that Paul Bloom could coherently do so. After all, he makes comments about “the tragic limitations” of our innate moral sense and the “cultural accomplishment” of training people to embrace a richer morality. It’s hard to know what such things even mean if there’s no independent standard, distinct from innate psychology and culture, by which our innate moral sense can be judged tragic and our cultural elaborations of it can be praised as accomplishments.

Of course, Bloom might challenge the idea that theism offers the best way to account for such a standard. Maybe it can be grounded in the practical demands of reason, as Kant argued. But whatever one thinks of the merits of the argument, two things are clear. First, it’s not a design argument. Second, it’s hard to see how scientific findings about our innate moral dispositions have any bearing on it. In fact, scientific evidence that our innate moral sense falls “tragically” short—evidence Bloom finds in his study of infant psychology—would speak in support of the need to look elsewhere for the standard by which moral truth is measured. And if cultural elaborations of our innate morality can be more or less praiseworthy, then we need to look to something other than culture, too.

In short, Bloom’s case targets a “moral” argument for God’s existence that is, seemingly, tailor-made to be readily undermined by his research. But most moral arguments for God don’t look like this. The kind of moral argument sketched out above is one of two particularly important kinds of moral arguments for God. The other was developed by Kant.

A full explanation of Kant’s argument is beyond the scope of this essay, but here’s an oversimplified gloss: For Kant, reason determines what is moral, and reason also tells us two other things, first, that being moral is the condition for our worthiness to be happy; and second, that the highest good is found when those who are worthy of happiness achieve it. But there’s a tension in the natural order of things between what promotes happiness and what morality demands. Hence, unless there is a supernatural order of things bringing happiness to the morally good, the highest good is little more than a pipe dream. But reason demands that it be more than a pipe dream. And so reason demands that we posit a supernatural power.

Put simply, we have to suppose that moral heroes who risk their lives for others don’t live in a world where doing so is a bad bet in terms of their welfare. But to make it anything but a bad bet, we need God.

Now you might think this argument and the variations offered since Kant’s time are failures. Many do. But if they fail, it has nothing to do with advances in science. And if they succeed, it isn’t because science has fallen short.

In short, moral arguments for God’s existence typically aren’t design arguments, and their success or failure typically has little or nothing to do with science. If Collins is offering an argument for God along the lines of the one proposed by C.S. Lewis, then Bloom has radically missed the point of what Collins is doing. And given that Collins explicitly invokes Lewis and summarizes Lewis’s argument just about every time he claims that morality offers a reason to believe in God, there is good reason to suppose that Collins intends to offer an argument along those lines, as opposed to the moral design argument that Bloom attributes to him.

Theism Allows Us to See What Welsey Did in a Different Way

But maybe Collins gets Lewis wrong and offers a moral design argument after all. If so, then Collins should not be viewed as respresentative of those who argue for God’s existence by appeal to morality. And Bloom’s criticism should be seen as attacking an argument that’s rather new on the scene, and whose failure has little bearing on the debates about theism.

There are things Collins says which lend themselves to reading him the way Bloom does. In the course of discussing Lewis’s moral argument for God, Collins has often invoked the case of Wesley Autrey, who risked his life to save a stranger from being run over by a subway train. In discussing this case at a 2009 Veritas Forum lecture at Caltech, Collins has this to say:

Now evolution would say, Wesley, what were you thinking? Talk about ruining your reproductive fitness opportunities…So think about that, again, I am not offering you a proof. But I do think when people try to argue that morality can be fully explained on evolutionary grounds, that’s a little bit too easy. That is a little bit too much of a just-so story.

It certainly sounds here as if Collins is questioning the ability of evolutionary theory to adequately make sense of morality.

But it is important to keep in mind several points. First, Collins consistently stresses—as he does again in the above passage, that he is not offering proofs. He does not intend to say that evolutionary theory just can’t account for Autrey’s actions, thus demanding God.

Second, Collins embeds these remarks in the context of defending what might be called the “compatibility thesis”—that is, the view that belief in God is compatible with accepting the theory of evolution. His aim is not to prove the existence of God, but to prove that evolutionary theory leaves room for God. Although we can tell a just-so story of how evolution could lead to Wesley Autrey’s heroism, there is room here for a deeper explanation that makes Autrey’s actions not merely a surprising anomaly but a rare manifestation of some deeper truth.

Third, and most importantly, there is a big difference between insisting, on the one hand, that our design structure can’t be explained in evolutionary terms and so demands a God, and suggesting, on the other hand, that a specific behavior is so unexpected given our design structure that it gestures towards sources of motivation that transcend what’s built into our design. This, ultimately, seems to be where Collins is going: Theism allows us to see what Welsey did in a different way—as the divine breaking into the world.

In short, Collins consistently rejects the idea that there is a proof for God’s existence, offering instead reasons for belief of a more modest sort. He thinks there are features of our experience that lend themselves to a theistic way of seeing the whole, and that morality is one of those features. In effect, Collins’ argument can be summarized in the following terms:

“If you look at this world, the world which science describes so well and which operates in the way that Darwin’s theory implies, you can see it as the whole story—as all that there is. But you can also see this whole as a manifestation of something more: a creative good that transcends the world of ordinary experience in something like the way that, in a virtual reality simulation, the computer transcends the virtual environment it creates. And if you do choose to see the whole in this way, through this kind of interpretive lens, there’s a way in which the pieces fit together, a coherence and significance they acquire, which isn’t similarly found when you see the whole in purely naturalistic terms. And that gives us a reason to adopt this theistic way of seeing the whole, one that doesn’t rise to the level of a proof and isn’t demanded by any purported or actual failures of science.”

You might challenge such an argument. You might deny that the theistic way of seeing the world—the world that science describes—has any of the advantages over naturalistic worldviews. But it’s a mistake to treat it as an argument in the same mode as those offered by ID theorists, as an argument that pits theistic belief against the advance of science. Theists are simply far more varied than that.'

Eric Reitan, an award-winning scholar and writer, teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University. His most recent book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009.

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