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Sam Harris' Narrow View of Science is Wrong

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In today's New York Times, Sam Harris writes that he would have the president withdraw the nomination of Francis Collins as director of the National Institute of Health because Collins' does not accept the "scientific understanding of human nature."

I could write this column about the hubris of asserting that the former Director of the Human Genome project does not have a scientific understanding of human nature. But why attack hubris when one can highlight simple errors?

Apparently, Harris himself does not accept a scientific view. He would appropriate the term for his secular world view, but it does not belong there. Read carefully, now:

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the product of brains, and brains are the product 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.

There are two flaws in the reasoning: The first is to make what "most scientists" believe equivalent to "a scientific understanding." Science is not a democracy. The scientific understanding is a Platonic ideal, not the vote of most scientists. What most baseball players believe is a good swing is not "baseballs' understanding." By definition discovery upends the consensus, and to say that Dr. Collins' differs with most scientists might be correct, but to say that a man who headed the human genome project does not have a scientific understanding is not.

But more serious is that the two statements, that of the scientists and that of Dr. Collins, need not contradict each other. Dr. Collins believes, as millions of the educated faithful do, in evolution -- but in evolution as God's mechanism for creating human beings. That does not violate any scientific understanding. It contradicts some of Mr. Harris' philosophical principles, about which I shed no tears. His principles are dogmatic and his enunciation of them unnecessarily belligerent. His ruling out supernaturalism is, well, unscientific, to say the least. A scientific understanding of human nature is precisely one that does not eliminate the possibility of realms outside of science. Science is powerful but not omniscient; after all, it is the discovery of the human mind, which is itself limited. To rule out of court an understanding greater than the human mind is not scientific, just narrow.

All of this is important, but takes a back seat to the central problem with Harris' diagnosis: if we follow his prescription, it will eliminate those of faith from the life of advancing science. Do we really wish to blacklist Dr. Collins because he attends church? Should he be shunted aside because he sees in the world not the random collocation of ancient accidents, but the majesty of intended beauty? It is not reason, but the rankest prejudice, to assume a world- renowned scientist finds a scientific understanding "impossible" while Harris holds aloft the banner of human inquiry. It is just not so. Investigating and understanding God's world is a sacred task; Dr. Collins has shown himself extraordinarily gifted in executing that task. We should be glad and grateful to have the president appoint him as Director of the National institute of Health. I intend to say a prayer for his success. I invite Mr. Harris to join me.