Francis Collins: I Have Not Seen Evidence for Medical Miracles September 27, 2010

Francis Collins: I Have Not Seen Evidence for Medical Miracles

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins recently shared some words about his cancer-stricken friend Christopher Hitchens:

Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention — as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 — “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.

In other words, God’s not going to intervene if you ask him for any favors. So just bother him with vague requests for things like “wisdom,” which can’t really be quantified or proven.

And he’s the poster boy for evangelical Christians mixing faith with science?

Give him some credit, though: At least he’s honest about there being no evidence (that he’s seen) of God working medical miracles.

Collins actually spoke with Big Think a couple weeks ago and answered the question, “Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher power?” His response was published today:

Part of the problem is, I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective does not get as much attention, nobody’s as interested in harmony as they are in conflict, I’m afraid.

My study of genetics certainly tells me, incontrovertibly that Darwin was right about the nature of how living things have arrived on the scene, by descent from a common ancestor under the influence of natural selection over very long periods of time. Darwin was amazingly insightful given how limited the molecular information he had was; essentially it didn’t exist. And now with the digital code of the DNA, we have the best possible proof of Darwin’s theory that he could have imagined.

So that certainly tells me something about the nature of living things. But it actually adds to my sense that this is an answer to a “how?” question and it leaves the “why?” question still hanging in the air…

In essence, he’s clearly a man of science… in the lab. But when science can’t answer a question, he thinks there are other legitimate ways of getting to the truth. Even though those “legitimate ways” have no basis in proof and are basically made up.

I don’t think you need to resort to that.

It’s not always satisfying, but it’s far more honest, to simply say, “We don’t know why we’re here” or “We don’t know why we have consciousness” or “We don’t know,” period. Maybe some of those topics will have answers in the future. If they do, the answers will come from rigorous testing and an avalanche of evidence, not from your local church.

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  • Brice Gilbert

    It’s not only dishonest to defer to God for things we don’t yet know, but it’s not very accurate or useful. Just look back in history to see all the times we’ve done that and had to change our minds.

  • Roxane

    I’ve never met anyone worth knowing who felt that they had enough wisdom. The fact that somebody like Collins, who is regarded as an eminent scientist, feels the need to pray for wisdom means that he’s human. But prayer doesn’t help. In the end, just saying “I don’t know” is more honest, and more likely to lead to further thought and growth than one is likely to get through prayer.

    But if he must pray, I’m glad he’s doing it in acknowledgment of Hitch.

  • cat

    “for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy” Philosophy does not belong in this group. Philosophy is a system of trying to find things out via logical argumentation, it isn’t just making shit up. Ugh, this is a pet peeve. Shoot, at least get to the threshold of wikipedia level information “It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.” Formal logic is a branch of philosophy. Faith and philosophy are opposites, because philosophy is all about stable, logical arguments that hold up under questioning.

    “Even though those “legitimate ways” have no basis in proof and are basically made up” I hope you are only talking about the theism part here, because actual philosophy is all about proof. Logic, consistency, covering all cases, evidence (including empircal evidence, you should really see a group of philosophers argue about MRI data). The issue is that science is an empirical system, and it can’t prove the basic math and formal logic it is built on, so it must assume those at the very least. Yes, science is limited by its nature, but randomly making shit up like theists do is not better (it is, in fact, far worse).

  • JoshBA

    I am a materialist—I don’t believe in anything “outside” of nature, reality, etc.—and, coming from that position, the question of “why?” is particularly inane and redundant when talking about science. Inane because most people asking the question are looking for a supernatural answer; and redundant because in a world without the supernatural, it’s really, at it’s most basic, the same question as “how?” but with bogus, fluffy, extra-material connotations slapped on top of it. In the non-mystical sense, “why?” is just asking for the less fine-grained, less verbose version of “how?” and is thus a rather odd thing to want science to provide. An encyclopedia, shallow studies into a topic, or just quick uncomplicated “good enough” answers maybe, but not science.

    So to anyone who says that science doesn’t answer the “why?”s, I say good. It’s dumb question anyway.

  • Mr Z

    It bothers me no end when people presume that there MUST be a reason, that it’s not possible that all this happened for no particular reason and with no purpose in mind. You ask them why there are so many puppies and kittens born and they have no reason accepting that ‘stuff’ happens, but they themselves are part of some purpose driven meaning to existence and not just another accident of nature. They twist everything the see and experience in life to fit their warped sense of purpose and refuse to see the simple truth… we don’t know, and as such there is NO answer, no purpose, nor any meaningful design to it all… and THAT is just how it is. Makes you wonder how anyone thinks they get smarter as they get older. Seems many of them have the same intellect they graduated 3rd grade with when they die.

    You can’t even get them to question why they believe such things, what evidence spurred them to believe in ghosts and such. They just do and the think everyone should… it’s disgusting and willful ignorance. They’ll happily tell you that people who believe differently are wrong, but cannot even begin to understand that they themselves may be wrong in all the same ways.

    It’s as bad as any substance addiction. These people are sick in the way that addicts are sick. Religion Anonymous anyone? Oh wait, they want you to believe in a higher power… gaahhhh

  • “How?” and “Why?” are very different questions. The former acknowledges a reality and asks about the mechanisms of its coming to be. The latter acknowledges a reality and then seeks to identify the plan that has been put into place, inherently assuming one _must_ exist.

  • JoshBA

    I think you misunderstand why I see them as the same. I agree with your definitions but given my lack of belief in the supernatural all plans originate somewhere natural and thus the cause of the creation of those plans must also be natural and thus explicable. “Why” then just becomes “how” without the bit explaining the origination of a plan.

    And if there is no plan—say for the question “why does the universe exist”—then “why” becomes a complete non-sequitur and thus deserving of an answer no more than “what is the square root of pizza?” is.

  • DShell

    I understand that people want answers to the tough questions. I’m just annoyed with the God of the gaps regression. If you’re asked a question in academia and you don’t know an answer you can’t just make up some bullshit.

  • Collins basically gives the Deist perspective (assuming there must be a creator and a reason for it all)…

    But of course there is a HUGE difference between a Deist position and a Theist position with all the accouterments of personal Gods, Heaven and Hell, and accompanying human judgmental behavior.

    When you get down to it, religion is just a poetic way of saying “I don’t know” that people have figured out a way to derive power and money from.

    With religion you ALWAYS argue backwards from a hypothesis to the world around you… There is no mechanism to question the primary hypothesis within a particular religion. This is the reason man-kind has so many different religions with all sorts of claims. They mainly compete by which group of believers can breed faster.

  • @josh BA I agree completely. When you say “`why’ becomes a complete non-sequitur and thus deserving of an answer no more than `what is the square root of pizza?’ is,” we are 100% on the same page. My apologies if I seemed to be in opposition.


  • JoshBA

    No apologies necessary. I operate under the assumption that if I am misunderstood I haven’t properly articulated my thoughts and need to try harder. That or I am wrong and any thoughts stemming from that wouldn’t make sense anyway 🙂

  • MichaelD

    How convenient that he just prays for wisdom. He already knows the exercise is futile or he would ask for a full fledged recovery. He knows that’s not going to happen so water down the expectations. We’re here because conditions exists for us to be here. Conditions don’t exists in any other places that we know of so therefore no other life has been found. It’s only our stupid egos that make us think we are so intelligent and superior that cause us to ask the questions “why”. Why doesn’t really matter. It will never be answered by theists. I already know why. Because it is!

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

    For theists: why is there a god rather than no god?

    Why can’t science answer the question “Is there a god?” The scientific method still applies. God is the hypothesis. Gather the evidence…Oh, there isn’t any. Reject hypothesis. Question answered. Well done science.

    Isn’t the whole point of science to help us to understand the real world? If theists are happy to consign their deities to the realm of the unreal, the imaginary, the mythical then fine, let them. They can no longer make pronouncements about how their god operates in the real world. After all if God (for instance) operates in the real world then science can explore that. Theists really can’t eat their cake and have it.

  • gawd that annoys me. i am an “extremist” and i admit that, but it’s certainly not the case that people like me share equal time on the world stage with the overwhelming number of religious extremists who dominate public discourse about religion. meh, they’re always saying crap like that, these mewling moderate types. but atheists are not fairly or widely represented in matters where the public and religion intersect. and none of us are saying there’s “no” place for faith-based silliness. if you people want to have your fantasies i don’t care, just don’t force them on me. it’s like believers are incapable of hearing that from us.

  • i am so stealing “square root of pizza.” fabulous!

  • “It’s not always satisfying, but it’s far more honest, to simply say, “We don’t know why we’re here” or “We don’t know why we have consciousness” or “We don’t know,” period.”

    Nah, sounds too agnostic. And nobody wants that.

  • muggle

    I agreed with him that extremists make scientists wary of religion but I don’t agree with him that it shouldn’t or that religion answers why any better than science. No, religion just makes shit up because not knowing freaks them out. And the more science indeed answers these same questions (although since actual thought and method are applied, it takes science longer), the more it disproves religion.

    I’d also agree that how and why wind up being the same thing. Basically when you ask why and actually seek an answer instead of either making up something yourself or buying into something someone else made up, you wind up looking into how the occurence of why happened?

    Newton got hit on the head with an apple sitting under a tree and asked why but why turns into how and pretty soon he was observing that when shit is dropped it invariably fell to the earth and came up the theory of gravity. How is the why in the end. Why does do I risk the apple falling on my head when I sit under an apple tree? Because of gravity, fool.

    There’s no mega ultimate why that makes it all happen. It just is.

    (And forgive my simple scientific analogy, please, and be patient with the scientific illerate. I hope I made my point anyway.)

  • Grimalkin

    What is with this “why” question? Why does there have to be a “why”?

    The universe doesn’t have a “why.” A humans can have a “why,” so do many animals. But an inanimate object is quite content simply being an “is.”

  • bigjohn756

    Excellent article, Hemant! Well reasoned, flowing prose, all of which I agree with.

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