The Evangelical Christian geneticist, Francis Collins, has been taking some rather harsh rhetorical hits lately from atheist biologist and blogger, Jerry Coyne (of the University of Chicago). Collins recently started a foundation (The BioLogos Foundation) that explores intersections between science and religion, and he had an article on the foundation’s website that included some reflections on what quantum physics might imply for the Christian doctrine of immanence. Coyne, for Collins’s eccentric Christian speculation, labelled the effort shameful.
My question is: When a scientist leaves the boundaries of empiricism, should the non-empirical language that he (or she) uses be subject to ridicule? What, in other words, is a reasonable non-empirical language that is not “shameful”? Or are all non-empirical languages, ultimately, “shameful” and, because not evidence based, irrational?
Coyne clearly believes that the Orthodox Christian language of Collins is ridiculous to speak in public, especially when blended with science. But if Collins was an obsessive existentialist, and wrote on a blog that quantum indeterminism seems (to him) to accord with Sartre’s doctrine of human freedom, and that there is room for freedom to exist because the quantum world is not strictly deterministic, but somehow open, would Coyne be screwed up at the connection, and be taking Collins to task about his irrationality (even though he would be an atheist)? Can an existentialist atheist be a good scientist, or does adding existentialism to one’s atheism make one, at bottom, an irrationalist, or someone to be called out for irrationalism?
Likewise, if Collins was an unreconstructed Marxist, obsessively reading Karl Marx’s works in his spare time, and in an interview was asked about the direction of history, and Collins said he believed that Marx had uncovered the secret of its direction in dialectical materialism, should he be ashamed to have expressed such an opinion as a public scientist? Is it wrong for him to have non-empirical beliefs, and should he be called on it for expressing them publicly?
Another example: If Collins was a Heidegger enthusiast, absorbing Heidegger’s works and language in his leisure time, and in an interview Collins declared that his reflections on Heidegger’s concept of “Dasein” (Being) had brought him to experiment with meditation and vegetarianism, and gave him a deeply ecological view of the world, with a suspicion of human technology, would we feel that an otherwise good scientist had flipped his wig? What if he punctuated his conversational speech with Heideggerian coinages like “bestand,” “gestell,” and “dwelling”? Is it tolerable for a scientist, outside the lab or science journal, to adopt ways of being in the world and languages that are, well, quirky and non-evidential based, or not?
What if, for instance, Collins flatly declared in public:
“I oppose zoos because by caging animals we lose contact with our relationship to Dasein—the Ground of Being. I agree with Heidegger that ‘mystery pervades the whole of man’s Dasein.’”
Is this kind of “reasoning”—from a non-empirically derived concept to an opposition to caging animals—an outrageous abuse of reasoning by a scientist who ought to be committed to empiricism alone? Would Collins be a man guilty of believing and acting on something absent evidence—and therefore someone worthy to be made fun of by atheists?
How, in other words, does one read off one’s values and beliefs from empiricism alone? What if the Christian Collins said: “I think it’s okay to cage animals because God gave man dominion over the animal kingdom.” Which Collins—the Heidegger one or the Christian one—gets the most derision for his position on zoos, and his rationale for his position?
What, in short, is the empiricist “right answer” about caging animals? And if there isn’t one, and we have to go beyond empiricism to reason about it, then what’s the problem with expressions of non-empirically based beliefs by scientists? Don’t humans need non-empirical languages to frame their world, reason about it, and make choices within it? Who gets to make these languages, and who gets to say which non-empirical language is better than another?