An Acceptable Possibility, An Interview with Francis S. Collins

Francis S. Collins

“God vs. Science” declared the cover of Time magazine on November 13th, 2006. The headline trumpeted a debate that Time had arranged between participants in a war that has raged for centuries, at least since the Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633, and that has more recently focused on the correctness of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. To represent science, Time selected British ethologist Richard Dawkins, creator of the selfish-gene theory, which posits that evolution (and much human behavior) acts through the differential survival of competing genes, and a vocal atheist whose recent bestseller The God Delusion cast religion and faith as plagues upon humanity. To represent God, the magazine chose American geneticist Francis S. Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, currently director of the National Human Genome Rearch Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and author of a rival bestseller, The Language of God.

There was an irony in Time’s choice of Collins, who, much influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis, converted from atheism to theism, and then to Christianity, in his mid-20s. For unlike most combatants in the war, who either see science and faith at loggerheads, or who see them as occupying “non-overlapping magesteria,” as popular biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, Collins envisions science and faith as harmonious and complementary paths toward Truth. To find out more about Dr. Collins’s understanding of the relationship between science and faith, Parabola met with him at a Manhattan restaurant, during a rare off-hour from his busy schedule.

—Jeff Zaleski

Parabola: In your book you cite a poll that found that about 40% of scientists are believers—which means that 60% are not. Other polls indicate that about 90% of Americans believe in God. Why the gap between scientists and other citizens?
Francis S. Collins: Scientists by their very profession are engaged in trying to figure out how things work. They are therefore disinclined to be mystics; they’re disinclined to accept miraculous explanations for events unless all other possible explanations have been excluded, which is an extremely difficult standard.

P: Is it that they’re looking for evidence?
FSC: Scientists are taught that you don’t accept a conclusion without evidence. That was one of the reasons I was an atheist for the first part of my life: It didn’t seem to me that there was ever going to be any evidence, and I assumed there was no logical argument behind the idea of faith. I think that many scientists are in that same position. It’s not that that they’ve considered the evidence for faith and have rejected it; it’s that they haven’t considered it, perhaps because they assume there is none to be found. In addition, there is a cultural aspect. As a working scientist, you are discouraged from talking about spiritual matters in a public way with your colleagues. It’s considered, especially in modern times, a kind of intellectual softness.

P: Yet in your book you do present some evidence for the existence of God. If there is some sort of evidence, then why don’t scientists apply the scientific method to the question of the existence of God?
FSC: There are rational arguments and scientific observations that point you more to the existence of God than to the non-existence of God. But they fall short of a deductive proof, and in my view they always will. So you’re in this uneasy middle ground for a scientist–to say, “Well, there is some evidence.” Also, to apply the scientific method to this question would imply that God can be enclosed within the scientific method. Then you’ve reduced God from supernatural to natural, from something immeasureable to something measureable, and that is going to lead you into a downward spiral as far of any sense of the numinous, the mystical, the supernatural, because those are not scientifically approachable.

P: For many believers, a belief in God was at first a glimmer, a hope, a feeling, or perhaps an intimation—and then came what is called “the leap of faith.” In that leap of faith, you leave behind the evidence you mention, and you leap. You yourself made such a leap—but how can someone who’s been trained in science do that?
FSC: Great question. Scientists are deprived of the opportunity for a purely mystical, revelatory pathway toward appreciation of the divine, because by our very nature, some of it innate, some of it trained, we are prone to ask questions, to be skeptical. So a mystical or revelatory experience alone would not, I think, carry the day for most scientists.

The beautiful thing about pathways to faith is that they don’t all have to be the same. And the amazing revelation to me as a 27 year old was that there is an intellectually satisfying pathway—that faith need not be a solely emotional or mystical experience. In the book I try to outline that path, including the evidence of the very existence of the universe; of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; of the Big Bang, screaming out for some Creator to have started the whole thing; of the Moral Law. These took me from a position of disinterest, or really disdain, to a realization of the plausibility of faith. That still fell short of the kind of objective, theorem-proving demonstration of absolute truth that a scientist might demand. But it was a revelation to realize that you could get that close on the basis of intellectual argument, and that there was no risk of sacrificing your hard-won intellectual principles to come to a realization that faith was an acceptable possibility.

Now is that a realization of the mystical and its value? You bet it is. Is it a realization that no matter how much science describes the temporal sequence of sound waves in a Bach concerto or the Mass in D Minor, that there is something more there that lifts the spirit? You bet it is. It’s a realization that these kinds of spiritual experiences can’t be dismissed, as John Polkinghorne writes very colorfully, as “epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a cold, hard universe.” And, for me, it was also a realization that you could step out of the dimensionality limits that science insists upon, and that there are other ways of knowing the truth.

P: In your book you reveal some of your personal beliefs. You describe the moment in which you “surrendered to Jesus Christ”—an event precipitated by your coming across a towering frozen waterfall while hiking in the Cascade Mountains. It’s as if a new way of knowledge, with a strong emotional component, was activated in you at that moment.
That was at the end of a year-long pathway from atheism to plausibility of God to acceptance of the idea of a personal God but not being quite clear which one, to surveying all of, or at least most of, the possible models, and then becoming much taken with the person of Jesus Christ as quite unique in the world religions, as a person who in many ways was solving for me a major problem that I saw in becoming a believer, which was access to God, in the face of my own limitations and what I perceived as God’s perfection. But I was still resisting. So what happened on that day really was as a falling-away of my last vestiges of resistance, much of it grounded upon a fear of what lay beyond the leap.

P: That reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity, a fate he fought all the way.
FSC: Right, Lewis talks about his own conversion to theism, as his being the most dejected convert in all of England; and of his conversion to Christianity having happened without really knowing how or why, on a trip on his motorbike to the zoo.

P: A motobike trip into the ineffable.
It would almost seem contradictory to the mystical nature of that leap to try to say, “All right, it happened in this microsecond because of that thought, and that neurotransmitter got released and hit just the right neuron, and I’m a believer.”

P: You write in the book, “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation….I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” I would wager that there are many scientists who disagree with that.
And I’ve heard from a few of them. [Laughs]

P: But to cry out for a divine explanation seems a giving up on science—what Dawkins called in the Time debate “the mother and father of all cop-outs.” Is it?
Fair question. Because in other places in the book I make the strong case that believers should not rest upon gaps in current knowledge in order to say, “That must be where God is.” So is what came before the Big Bang one of those gaps in current knowledge that will ultimately be filled? With great difficulty.

P: What instruments can do that?
Right. It is not clear to me that in the course of human history, ever, we will have the ability to reverse the arrow of time and know what came before. I will grant you that this is not a place for a believer to rest their faith in a rock-bottom way. But I will submit that it is a major, major problem for atheist scientists to hold their ground on. Even if you postulate that there are multitudes of universes with different beginnings and endings, and even if they have different constants to explain how we are lucky enough to live in one where it all works, you still have to answer the question: Why is there something instead of nothing?

P: The ultimate scientific question: Why does anything exist?

P: It took a lot of courage to do what you’ve done—you’ve drawn considerable heat, from scientists and from some of the press.
I couldn’t have done it when I was younger. I wouldn’t have been confident enough to take the risk.

I was inspired to write this book particularly by talking to young people at Harvard two years ago. That was when it became increasingly clear to me that there was a crying need for some kind of synthesis of science and faith, when so many young people were perceiving that as impossible, and were feeling that they were required to make a terrible choice. During those three nights at Harvard, with hundreds and hundreds of undergraduates turning out to listen to a presentation on this topic and then hanging out, some of them for 45 minutes to an hour afterward, to ask their individual questions, I saw a hunger among these young people.

And isn’t that the part of our society that we should be most concerned about? Many older folk have already decided what their worldview is. It’s the young people who are earnestly seeking the truth that I became deeply concerned about, because they clearly did not perceive that there was much of a resource out there to provide arguments that you can in fact be both intellectually rigorous and spiritually fulfilled, that you can embrace both of these time-honored, beautiful, powerful ways of gaining knowledge: science and faith. ♦

From Parabola Volume 31, No. 3 “Faith,” Spring 2007. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing