Francis Collins, Jerry Coyne, and “Shameful” Non-Empirical Languages

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Francis Collins, Jerry Coyne, and “Shameful” Non-Empirical Languages

  1. Pyotr Izutsu says:

    Not to sound nitpicky, but I think “quantitative language” might be a better word choice here than “empirical”, given than empiricism can also refer to a philosophical position.

    Whether they are willing to admit it or not, most scientists do indeed adopt philosophical worldviews outside the lab. What I find problematic is that some scientists consider their personal worldview to be the only one compatible with what goes on inside the lab.

    But there are really any number of worldviews that are compatible with science. As you point out, science doesn’t really have much to say when it comes to questions of ethics, ontology, etc. Scientific knowledge can help frame these questions, but by no means can it decide them.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Good point. I admit that “non-empirical language” is not terribly precise. I was having some back and forth with a professional philosopher who used the phrase so I thought it kind of gave me permission to use it.

    I recognize that empiricism makes philosophical assumptions, but I think it’s fair to say that most of us accept the conclusions of empiricism—but get tangled up on non-empirical languages.

    I was hoping to avoid an entire collapse into postmodern relativity and skepticism. I accept empirical conclusions as true, but then ask what (if anything else) can be spoken of as true.


  3. Pyotr Izutsu says:

    I actually don’t consider myself a relativist; I acknowledge that different worldviews (non-empirical discourse) are compatible with modern science (empirical discourse) but that doesn’t mean I consider all such worldviews equally acceptable or valid. I can respect the holders of those worldviews as being rational, however, with reverting to calling them or their opinions “shameful”. I disagree with some people, but my disagreements are generally polite.

    I think that’s what I was trying to articulate earlier: we can disagree with Collins (and in fact I do), but we can’t argue his views are irrational.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Fair enough, but I think Daniel Dennett makes a point that is difficult for me to refute: that too much epistemic tolerance is bad for society. For example, Dennett thinks it is the responsibility of rationalists to sass back at those who say that Obama is the anti-Christ (Dennett seems to think that such a meme, presumably, puts Obama’s life in danger—as if it weren’t obviously already). Also, he asks, rhetorically, whether it makes sense to not sass beliefs in astrology or a particularly pernicious belief like Holocaust denial.

    Just because people can, ala a smart theologian like Plantinga, make any belief logically possible, I wonder how one distinguishes between epistemic claims once they’ve drifted past the empirical.

    You use, for example, the words “acceptable” and “valid.” But what criteria do you have for putting a limit to claims that drift from the empirical?


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  6. Just Me says:

    As far as discusing truth in a way that goes beyond the strictly empirical – without collapsing into post-modern relativism and all that, (A very worthy goal!) – I have found Karl Popper enormously useful.

    The Empiricists before him generally considered any questions – other than those strictly empirical in nature – to be meaningless. Popper saw this as a flaw because many non-empirical questions need to be answered for science to progress – for example, questions of method in scientific practice. -And, of course mathematics.

    I can’t give a good summary of Popper, but he best way to deal with the questions in this article that I have found.

    For santitafarella: Along the same lines as your question to Pyotr about the terms “acceptable” and “valid” (the word “valid” always gives me a post-modern cringe..), what do you mean by “true” when you ask what things are true aside from empirical statements.

    I can offer a simple, begining answer to the question about Collins’s statement about zoos and “Dasein”. I would dismiss his argument unless he defines “Dasein” naturalistically. If I said that I opposed zoos because they are cruel to animals, this is naturalistic (because I can define cruelty naturalistically). If I was then asked why being cruelty merited my opposition, I would say that that was a primary moral stance – which would then lead to a non-empirical discussion about morals. The problem I have with Collins’s arguement is that it seems to use a non naturalistic concept in a naturalistic sense.

    I suppose Collins could say that he considers being “cut off from Dasein” a primary moral belief, but I think that concept is way too vague to be useful.

    That being said, I do think that scientists should take part on debates of a political or moral nature, (as long as there is a clear distinction between these and the strictly scientific work they do).

    I hope this helps the discussion somewhat, and I apologise for knowing very little about the concept of “Dasein”.


  7. Pingback: What Might I Substitute for Empiricism in Getting at the Truth of Ultimate Questions? « Prometheus Unbound

  8. santitafarella says:

    Just Me:

    Thanks for bringing up Popper. He needs to be in this discussion.

    You said: “If I said that I opposed zoos because they are cruel to animals, this is naturalistic (because I can define cruelty naturalistically). If I was then asked why cruelty merited my opposition, I would say that that was a primary moral stance – which would then lead to a non-empirical discussion about morals.”

    I think you’ve demonstrated that you’re stuck. “Primary moral stance” is a polite way of saying “I’m pointing to the moon—I can’t explain or justify myself here—so I’m simply gesturing.” It’s akin to a smile among friends, or a nod at the Wailing Wall, or a wink, or a waving of the hands.

    From the top down (treating, say, “Dassein” or “God” as primary or basic) or going from the bottom up (treating, say, cruelty as primary or basic) is just another way of saying “I have no foundation for what I’m saying. I’m a liberal and hate cruelty and speak the language of liberalism, or I’m a Heideggarian and speak the language of Heideggarianism.”

    You also said: “I suppose Collins could say that he considers being ‘cut off from Dasein’ a primary moral belief, but I think that concept is way too vague to be useful.” Cruelty is vague too if you are outside the community of liberals who accepts cruelty as a justification for why we don’t do evil things to one another. Obviously, as we recently witnessed in the torture debate, conservatives don’t regard cruelty as a primary or basic belief that needs no justification. Liberals do.

    If you were a Marxist you could say to a gathering of Marxists, “Marxism is moral because we are fighting human alienation.” If you are not a Marxist, alienation might need for you some justification as a concept, and you can’t provide it outside of the Marxian/left framework. It’s a term embedded in the language that you are trying to justify. If you can’t “go” with Marxism sympathetically, it is unlikely that you will be able to accept “alienation” as a primary concept outside of a Marxian/left framework. Think, for example, of Glenn Beck’s response to Marxist “alienation” or liberal “cruelty” or Heideggarian “Dassien.” Like atheists encountering theological words, these are terms that would illicit eye-rolling.


  9. Just Me says:

    Ok, ok, I realize that phrases like “primary moral stance” are vague, I was only trying to use a term that was less vague than Collins. I realize that I was making a jump in into a framework (liberalism or something), but one doesn’t have to be a liberal to be able to discuss whether a particular policy is cruel, because it is a naturalistic concept (at least as far as suffering can be measured) I imagine Rumsfeld would accept that Abu Ghraib was cruel, he just wanted to have a torture prison nonetheless.

    I don’t see how one could go from a empirical discussion to a moral one without making a similar sort of jump. I thought that moral discussions required being in a room full of people that accept a common moral framework and use a common language. Of course it would look like hand-waving, and would be without foundation – to someone who didn’t use the same language and accept the same moral framework.

    I mean, the same goes for Empiricism its self. Ever tried to have a scientific discussion with someone that doesn’t accept basic tenets of science? If you don’t have a common framework all you can do is wave your hands.

    How do you discuss morality without being “stuck” like I was?

    And, as I asked before, what do you mean by “true” when you ask what things are true aside from empirical statements?

    And, how do you have any discussion without having a framework of commonly agreed assumptions within which to have it?


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