Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sam Harris: appointment to head NIH too religious

Science Is in the Details
Published: July 26, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. It would seem a brilliant choice. Dr. Collins’s credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” in which he claimed to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity...

But as director of the institutes, Dr. Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important that we understand Dr. Collins and his faith as they relate to scientific inquiry...

There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion...

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?

NY Times Op-Ed Page

I can see where Harris would be concerned given what he has made public about his views on religion. I don't see that he makes a solid case for worrying about Collins at NIH, though.

He implies that Collins' believes in a form of intelligent design in his characterization of Collins' take on theistic evolution. His primary example is that Collins suggested that God gifted morality, free will, and immortal soul after evolution provided a sufficiently advanced "house" in the form of a human brain, and that morality as a byproduct of evolution only makes good and evil meaningless. 

On the surface, I disagree. But then, I never took the time to talk to Francis Collins for clarification. Did Harris? I will concede that Harris may have additional information at his disposal.

Based on the information given in the op-ed, I would disagree with the phrasing that God "gifted" humanity with free will and morality. I have a complicated relationship with the term God and how it is conceived. My spiritual sensibilities are informed by Christianity, atheism, Buddhism, and panentheism. A conservative evangelical or fundamentalist of any stripe I am not. 

There are those who see God reflected in the unfolding of the natural world not as a tinkerer or overseer but as the heart of basic properties of existence, in which case the "gifted" phrasing can be understood as saying that evolution itself is a manifestation of God. Is that what Collins means or does he mean God literally instilled these things with zap of the Almighty Finger? Kapow!

The op-ed implies something closer to the latter, and the language Collins employed can be used to support that assumption. If that is so, I would agree with Harris in finding this way of viewing the process of evolution unlikely and unappealing, and I would object vociferously if (note the preposition) Collins used this belief to discourage, underfund or reject scientific studies of the evolution of the mind. But what evidence do we have he would behave this way anywhere in his professional track record?

More importantly, if Collins is not implying some kind of tinkering by a deity, then the process by which these "gifts" emerged can be studied just like any other feature in the biological realm. The question of whether the most fundamental aspects of the qualities of existence should include a discussion of God would be a completely separate issue.  

The belief that the full substance and nature of something is limited to what science can demonstrate is not a scientific fact, it is a metaphysical belief. I didn't see any evidence that Collins would be ready to abuse his authority to keep fellow scientists from studying free will (or agency as it is redefined in the social sciences) and morality from a scientific perspective. 

What I do see is that he is stating his own metaphysical belief that such studies will always be incomplete and that it would be a mistake to take the outcome of such methodological naturalism and assume it is all there is (referring to "materialistic atheism"), that is, embracing ontological naturalism. Why should Collins' distaste for strong atheism be any more of a concern about his objectivity than Harris' similar distaste for religion?

Is there anything at all to Collins' concern that if morality was shaped by evolution that good and evil are illusions? Well, more on what I think evolution means for morality in a moment. But first, let me say that if Collins feels that his views on morality are endangered by studying this phenomenon from an evolutionary point of view and this leads him to cut funding for such research, again, I will be out there protesting.

When it comes to morality, there is a problem with making it solely an evolutionary byproduct without reference to some greater context, whatever that might be (it doesn't have to be some classical view of "God"), given the metaphysical assumptions that come part and parcel with some forms of Darwinism. That is, that everything must somehow enhance inclusive fitness or it would be filtered out by selection. In a nutshell, within such a high pressure selective regime emphasizing trait-as-adaption a capacity and drive to engage in moral behavior is only useful if it pays off in a cost-benefit analysis.

The benefits to morality might include increased trust and less stress worrying over being caught and punished for offensive behavior. On a larger group level, morality can facilitate more complex social interactions among intelligent animals by reducing aggression and competition. Examples of potential costs include giving up individual opportunities for gain in the short term in hopes for returns on moral behavior in a group level in the long term. 

Yet in the most hardcore of Darwinian regimes, if you take a calculated risk that you won't face reprisals for your immoral behavior, then being as selfish as possible is the greater evolutionary advantage. In such a regime where we might assume that each trait is shaped independently to maximize fitness, the components permitting and compelling morality would best serve their host by finding the optimal balance between being good and being bad.

Nor is this supposition, as the furor over an article suggesting that many men would rape women if they thought they could get away it reveals. The uproar included the question of whether something like rape, or any behavioral feature, can be assumed to be adaptive. Many rapes occur in contexts where impregnation would be unlikely or impossible, suggesting that rape is more likely to be explained as a pathological aspect of behavior rather than an adaptive one.

At a deeper level, adaptive scenarios for morality based solely on selection pressure can readily suggest that such behavior subverts agency, or the ability to choose despite our biology or conditioning. If we have sufficient agency to override our moral impulses, then morality as a biological adaptation is undermined.

What if we take a biocultural approach, in which our capacity and impulse for morality is shaped and strengthened by our culture? A cynic could complain that morality then is just a trick of the mind, from your biological and cultural heritage, that may or may not be an evolutionary advantage in a given context.

OK, well, let's go with that. Morality as a biocultural adaptation. Following that logic, as social animals let us assume that our propensity for and benefit from moral behavior outweighs that of our immoral behavior more often than not. Sounds like a good adaptation, yes? 

From an atheistic perspective, conveniently all of the thousands of years of cultural customs, social norms and the like concerning morality and ethics, those based on belief in a greater meaning and purpose to existence and/or a higher power, can be explained in a Darwinian scenario. Hence these basic ethical systems and principles can be "borrowed" or "adopted" without any thought to the actual history or cultural context from which they are taken, or without even asking why one might be historically or culturally predisposed to prefer that particular system of ethics.

Yet as any good evolutionary biologist worth their salt can tell you, if circumstances change, so does what is best for inclusive fitness. For example, some scholars working in evolutionary psychology claim our behavioral capacities and tendencies are lagging behind and are still stuck in the stone age. Could that be true of our biological propensity for morality as well? Is it lagging behind, still stuck in a world where we lived with 40 to 100 people in an egalitarian group where economic and ethical reciprocity was essential for survival?

What would such outdated morality mean in our current corporate civilizations? I mean, as the context changes, so too does the relative value of any trait in this kind of system. Maybe morality as we have it is outmoded and we don't even know it? Perhaps the ideal behavioral instincts for maximizing fitness in the modern age would include things that would go against our present "sensibilities"? (For the record, I tend to think in broader terms of our capacity to respond mentally to challenges via several interacting types of problem-solving capacities, but let us follow a form of the argument where that is irrelevant and treat morality as a single trait-complex.)

If morality is tied to selection and selection is tied to environmental context, then doesn't that mean that morality is ultimately a fluid thing? Isn't it possible that there are many different possible constructions of such a biocultural adaptation, the suitability of each determined by the prevailing adaptive landscape? Does that not imply that our sense and practice of morality could be as malleable as any other biological trait in the face of mutations or any other cultural construction in the face of innovation? 

I am not saying this isn't true, or that if we don't like it that this disfavor would make it less true. But it does at least give some insight into why Collins' might have expressed such dismay over explaining morality strictly in terms of evolution. I am not sure who wouldn't be at least a little off-put by the idea that our moral capacity and preferences could be so ephemeral.

And what of the metaphysical foundations which some may wish to ignore even as they "borrow" conventional morality? Even a proudly atheist friend of mine used to chide me about this back when I thought astrophysics and evolutionary biology could explain everything, pointing out that even folks like Aristotle realized there must be something deeper in the universe that is resonating with the human mind in perceiving and pondering questions of morality or in having a capacity to choose. Was he right? I still don't claim to know.

This friend actually held to a view in which there were "higher powers", but they were not super-beings or sentient beings as we would classify such, they were the primary fundamental forces which formed and held together reality, forces which are reflected in our qualia like "personal" and "aware" on one level but which were more directly the substance/essence of "love" and "freedom". Hence, in a universe without the stereotypical "Big Guy in the Sky" watching and directing everything, this atheist believed in a world founded on a principle expressed in the duality of love and freedom and in which life, including sentient life, was not a fluke but the outcome of the nature of reality. This has been echoed on some level by academics such as Stuart Kauffman. 

Might morality be such an embedded or implicit aspect our biology?

If my memory is correct at some point Harris professed an interest in the mystical nature of Eastern religions and their take on forms of awareness and consciousness, yet even these systems share metaphysical platforms for universal meaning and connectedness that are comparable to the ancient Greeks and my atheist friend. And, might I say, with various strands of western theology, such as pantheistic and especially panentheistic perspectives. Yes, terms like Tao and shunyata and Dharmakaya are also steeped in these kinds of metaphysical assumptions and considerations.

Of course, as the picture of our world continues to change, for example, as the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena is increasingly demonstrated, as the nature of this interdependence continues to conjure terms like (a fundamental form of bare) "awareness", and as cooperation and community are increasingly recognized as being undervalued aspects of evolutionary biology, the question of what it means to use an evolutionary window or lens to study morality is itself going to change. (I say "window" or "lens" because it is less presumptuous than "basis for" and doesn't automatically assume the correctness or incorrectness of such a form of reductionism.) Topics like suffering are similarly complex. And just as important.

If Collins allows his personal belief to hamper such progress, I will be out there calling for his immediate removal. But I don't think his expressed religious beliefs or concerns over atheism make him unfit to be a Washington bureaucrat, and assuming I had any say in the matter, I wouldn't oppose his appointment because of those views.

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