Making Science Into a Religion, and the Nomination of Francis Collins to the NIH

This had to happen sooner or later, and it did in Sam Harris’ op-ed piece for the New York Times:

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

Ever since my slow-motion intellectual boxing match with Citadel astrophysicist Saul Adelman, it’s always bothered me that the end game of secularists in the pure and applied sciences is to make practical atheism a “litmus test” for practitioners of the scientific/engineering craft (to steal a term from Masonry and Wicca.)  Sam Harris can’t quite bring himself to throw the traditional secularist fit over Collins’ nomination, in part because he knows Collins’ achievements as a scientist would make that look rather stupid.  So he shadow boxes around the issue, even in an outlet as agressively secular as the New York Times.

I can’t resist answering his question, “Why do we suffer?”  From a purely materialistic standpoint, the simple answer is “why does it matter?”  But if he wants to delve into this further, he might start by looking in the mirror.  With his pig-headed dogmatism, many of the rest of us are sure to suffer if he succeeds in shoving his idea down everyone else’s throat.  Just listening to these people induces pain.

But, as my differential equations/complex analysis professor in graduate school used to say, onward…

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