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Brilliant Stupidity

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The title of this blog entry, “brilliant stupidity” sounds like an oxymoron. How can someone be both brilliant and stupid at the same time? Well they can’t really but they can switch from one mode of thought to another and demonstrate brilliance in one area and stupidity in another. Generally the stupidity results from an acceptance of a particular view and ignoring evidence against that view, even though the same person would never use such faulty logic in other aspects of their life.

I’m sure by now you realise that this is leading to a specific example of this phenomenon. In this case it is Francis Collins, a brilliant physician and geneticist who has recently been appointed as director of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in the US.

Collins is most well known for his landmark discoveries in the genetics of disease and his leadership of the Human Genome Project and has been called “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Sounds really impressive, doesn’t it? So when we hear this person is also an evangelical Christian that should be taken seriously, you would think.

Well I did take it seriously but, as always happens in these situations, I was very disappointed. In fact, I have heard the religious views of many other good scientists and am always disappointed. In every case the skill and intelligence they exhibit in their scientific work is entirely abandoned and they revert back to the same old tired arguments which have been thrown out many years ago.

Why do these people embrace science and accept that the scientific process is the best way to establish the truth in that context yet revert back to obviously flawed arguments less skilled people also use when religion is the subject? Well its simple really: you can’t make a logical argument to support religion so, if you decide you want to be religious, that only leaves weak, illogical arguments.

If these religious scientists are so convinced that a god’s existence is supported by what they see in the scientific findings and are also convinced that science is an excellent way of establishing facts then why don’t they take the logical step and use the scientific process, including publishing in peer reviewed journals, to demonstrate god’s existence? They don’t do this because they know they can’t, and they can’t because god obviously doesn’t actually exist.

When Collins was interviewed recently he was asked a difficult question by someone who called the program. The question was something like this: “how can you have a scientific approach to finding diseases and still reconcile that with the idea that god created those diseases?” Note that the following quotes are my interpretation of what Collins said. I think they are accurate but not exact.

His first comment was that “it is difficult to answer a question like that with a sound bite”. Well that’s partly true but also a bit of a cop out because even the most complex ideas can be summarised in a few minutes without that explanation becoming a meaningless sound bite. But that aside he continued with these doubtful conclusions…

First he claimed “Both believers and non-believers have struggled with that question: what is the cause of evil and human suffering.” Oh really? If you believe in a good god then you really should be struggling with that question but if you believe in either an uncaring god or no god at all then it really isn’t a problem. Disease is the natural consequence of natural evolution but its a lot harder to explain as the result of a loving god (which most Christians believe in).

So that wasn’t very convincing but he went on: “One argument put forward is the way in which earth came into being and the way humans came into being creates the possibility
of things going wrong. If we want life we need life change and a lot of that change will be negative”. This is so full of holes that it sounds more like the clumsy argument an ignorant fundy would espouse rather than that of a brilliant scientist. Again, if a good god existed surely the change would be oriented towards good but because change happens both ways natural processes are a far better explanation.

Maybe realising that his arguments sounded pretty weak he embarked on this: “a lot of illness is caused by things people do to themself”. Well sure, people could do more to look after themselves but many diseases happen to people who do make a real effort to stay healthy or to young children who haven’t had the chance to make a decision, so how does that fit in with the Christian God? The answer is it doesn’t, of course.

Again, perhaps realising that what he said didn’t make sense, he made the observation that “when you see a child with cancer you have to wonder”. You certainly do, but apparently he doesn’t wonder too much because that’s about as far as his explanation (or lack of explanation) of the disturbing phenomenon of child cancer goes.

So just to complete the commentary with the ultimate inanity he said: “I think there are answers, but they aren’t easy answers. No one should feel complacent about the answer they have. I you explore scientific discoveries from a spiritual perspective that increases the possibility of god.” Well if you explore anything from a spiritual perspective you are starting with the idea that a spiritual world exists so you are really engaging in a bit of circular logic there.

In case I’m accused of only criticising his ideas based on a single question in an interview, here’s the reasoning he uses in his book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” which I believe is equally invalid (perhaps even more so)…

1. The universe was created by God, approximately 14 billion years ago. [Fair enough, he accepts the age of the universe but puts a god into the equation for reasons which he mentions later.]

2. The properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life. [Or life has been precisely tuned to fit in with this universe (by evolution). Also, if the universe is precisely tuned why have so many species been eliminated through natural events like asteroid collisions? And why is there not life everywhere? I do concede that this is an interesting question, however.]

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on Earth remains unknown, it is possible that the development of living organisms was part of God’s original creation plan. [Yes, and its possible life arose from many other mechanisms too. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously.]

4. Once life began, no special further interventions by God were required. [Well that’s very convenient – a little bit too convenient really. What’s God doing now then? Just sitting around watching?]

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes. [At least he’s sensible enough to admit that humans are fundamentally no different from other animals and are the product of evolution.]

6. Humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanations and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the knowledge of right and wrong and the search for God. [Maybe if he was a behavioural psychologist, zoologist, or evolutionist he would know that this isn’t true. There is no reason I know of to suspect humans are really different from other animals. Maybe he thinks if he just keeps saying these things it will make them true]

He has also stated that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain, such as the values of the physical constants favouring life, and that God does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. I’m sure Collins has heard of special pleading before, and the argument from ignorance. These are such blatant examples of faulty logic that he should be ashamed.

So yes, he is undeniably brilliant, but when it comes to religion also undeniably stupid!

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