First draft for: An essay question for Intro to Philosophy

The answers to the below question might well reveal it was a mistake to ask it.  Still, it would be fun.  OK, fun for a philosophy professor at least.

This is your final essay question.  Your answer must be at least 2000 words.  Remember to use spell check and word count.  All outside sources MUST acknowledged.

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.  [As a very religious man who has written about belief in the Christian faith] he is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. 

But most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.  Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

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?

How would you decide the question asked at the end?  Discuss the issues with reference  to the course readings, particularly Descartes, Hume and Kant.  Remember that since this is a philosophy course, your answers are NOT to be justified with reference to the Bible or other religious texts.

Hint:   Consider whether the philosophers think we have immortal souls, free will, genuine altruism and so on.

And who said philosophy is not revelant?  The thing is, one  might be just a bit uncomfortable with their relevance to the choice of the NIH Director.  I mean, we’ve already had Bush’s ethical council that debated stem cell research and other bio-ethical questions.  Do we really want to continue the confusion that the separation of church and state could avoid?

Now, having read way too much about Sotomayor’s comment about a wise Latina woman, we might feel that Collins should not be stuck with the odd comment or two.  However, he has reiterated on a number of occasions his belief that science in effect leaves explanatory gaps for religion to fill, if I’ve  got him right. 

I’m indebted to an Intro class that wanted to look at scientific alternative to Gazzaniga’s  The Ethical Brain for the internet searches that led us to Collins and his arguments.   I’m not sure the issues are clear cut.  PLEASE wade in!


Just about all the text of the question comes from the NY Times.  Not the bits about word count or Descartes, Hume, and Kant, of course.



10 thoughts on “First draft for: An essay question for Intro to Philosophy

  1. Thanks for calling attention to this. I think it’s quite disturbing. On the other hand, it would be very valuable to have someone who enthusiastically reconciles faith and science in such a prominent position— could make a difference to some of the horrendous anti-scientific attitudes in the US. So I do feel a bit torn.

  2. Well, given that all three of Descartes, Hume, and Kant believe in “free will” (with different meanings to the word), that Descartes and Kant believe in souls, and that the existence true altruism is an assumption of Kant’s ethical system, I don’t think that Dr. Collins is such an outlier or a weirdo as to imperil our system.

    In fact, to the contrary I find it quite disturbing that a man of such milquetoast faith could be considered to be dangerous to America’s scientific future (and remember, faith in scientific progress is not an optional matter subject to toleration; rather, it is an unforgivable heresy!). If Collins is beyond the pale, then there isn’t any hope for maintaining the semblance of a unified culture. Christians have their truth; scientists have their truth; never the twain, etc.

    If there’s any message I’ve taken away from feminist epistemology, it’s the importance of cultivating rational trust between societal groups. Doing so important both as a means of bolstering the justice of society and as a means of bolstering our epistemic resources. Attacking Collins because he belongs to the wrong group narrows our ability to understand one another and undermines the project of creating “strong objectivity.”

    That said, there are limits beyond which conversation is impossible, such as Young Earth creationism, Global Warming denialism, etc. Such persons fail to meet Helen Longino’s requirement of “uptake” between critics and the scientific community. Collins, however, seems to fall well short of such intransigence. His critics seem wholly focused on his identity, rather than his specific policies, claims, or even research goals (while Collins doesn’t believe that scientists will make much progress on explaining human nature, he seems to be willing to give them a go if they want to pursue it).

  3. One final comment:

    “Remember that since this is a philosophy course, your answers are NOT to be justified with reference to the Bible or other religious texts.”

    While I think that’s a reasonable instruction to give to an undergraduate course since certain students believe themselves to already have the answers in advance of the questions (yet typically know very little about the origin or content of the Bible), nevertheless, I feel that philosophy hampers itself unnecessarily when it takes too seriously the medieval distinction between “natural philosophy” and “revealed theology.”

    In particular, I find it baffling that only very rarely do philosophers invoke the particular content of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. when arguing about theodicy. Surely if there were an incarnation, or a chosen people, or a book containing the eternal words of God, this would be somewhat important toward explaining how it is possible for both a loving, omnipotent God and evil to exist? For example, perhaps that God tried to mitigate evil by sending the Koran, or blessing a particular people, or entering into the creation?

    Marilyn McCord Adams is a happy exception to this trend.

  4. Jender, I think you are right. Collins might have a very interesting impact on various splits in this country. And having reminded myself there’s no reason to think he’s a dogmatist (as far as I know), one might think the risk is worth it. Though I’m not sure about that.

    Carl, interesting claims. With all due respect, however, if you were answering such a question for a course, I’d have to point out that you didn’t pay enough attention to the question. It wasn’t whether the man is worth respect. He is and he does get it. And I did track down his work for my students and we discussed it with genuine seriousness. The question is about running the NIH. There are hugely important questions about how the human mind works – and too often fails to work – that NIH has been funding. So it is worth asking whether someone who believes much in these topics cannot be answered by science should be running the agency.

    In fact, in fairness to Dr. Collins, one thing the philosophers make us aware of is the difference between (a) being a simple dogmatist about, e.g., God’s causation and (b) holding instead that there are now unspecifiable limits to empirical enquiry. And what I know about his work suggests he is much more on the (b) side.

    There are serious reasons for discouraging students from appealing to answers that come from their community’s churches. Still, I think your general view about not ignoring religious texts really sounds worth thinking about, and I will. But I’m worried that it doesn’t work out when one is asking specific questions. Perhaps, as you suggest, the Bible tells us that God has mitigated evil and so it could have been much, much worse. That does not seem to me to address what has concerned many people with the problem of evil. I’m tempted to start on a list of theological questions where the Bible does not seem to me to be helpful, but I expect the origins of the universe and such are going to be distractions.

  5. I find Carl’s comments very interesting. My main goal in my intro to philospohy class is to show students the perils of dogmatism. One thing that I find interesting in many academic circles is that religious dogmatism is bad, but scientific dogmatism is not. The influence of religious on US science policy has been horrendous. But, as a feminist, a philosopher of science and a citizen, I am just as concerned about rampant scientism. I don’t care whether or not Collins believes in an immortal soul. If he were to posit scientific evidence of the existence or lack thereof of a soul, then I would take issue, because this is an issue to which science cannot speak, one way or the other.

    The important thing about a person in Collins’ position is not his particular scientific or religious views, but whether or not he limits the decisions based on those views to their appropriate domain. The practical upshot of this is that, as citizens, we need to do what we should be doing anyway and that is paying attention to the decisions that our leaders actually make.

  6. AF, I completely agree with you on the last paragraph. The implication that we need to be better watchdogs could not be more important.

    I’m a bit less sure than you that science cannot speak to the issue of the existenceof a soul, though much may depend on what one means by “soul,” though the areas relevant today are really clusters of disciplines.

    For example, at least a central line of thought for the existence of an immortal soul is that it would be immaterial and so not subject to material disintegration. And, it was argued, we must have these immaterial parts, because we can do things that matter alone cannot do; for example, abstract thought. But recent science has an enormous amount to say on the topic of whether or not matter made up of neurons can do what we do.

    Another part of the conception of the soul went along with the idea that we are the conscious initiators of our actions. It looks in fact now though that a lot of actions are initiated in the brain before we are conscious of them. (When I first heard about this work, I thought it was a clear instance of the a prior false, but actually it now makes sense to me. Much in human life is outside of consciousness and we would have great difficulty in coping if it weren’t. In addition, our efficiency in moving through our environments depends on rapid calculations and changes in course that we pretty much can’t do consciously quickly enough.)

  7. “There are serious reasons for discouraging students from appealing to answers that come from their community’s churches. Still, I think your general view about not ignoring religious texts really sounds worth thinking about, and I will. But I’m worried that it doesn’t work out when one is asking specific questions. Perhaps, as you suggest, the Bible tells us that God has mitigated evil and so it could have been much, much worse. That does not seem to me to address what has concerned many people with the problem of evil. I’m tempted to start on a list of theological questions where the Bible does not seem to me to be helpful, but I expect the origins of the universe and such are going to be distractions.”

    That’s a fair point, and I don’t mean to suggest that the Bible directly addresses many of the philosophical topics we’re interested in head on. The people who wrote the Bible had their own life philosophies, and every once in a while they wax philosophical, but very little that’s in the Bible could be considered philosophical. (For example, Paul seems to have been unaware that he casually invoked the Liar paradox at one point. Or may be he was aware and it was a rare moment of humor?)

    Rather, I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t banish the Bible as grist for the philosophical mill as was done in the past out of fear of bringing down a heresy trial.

    I do a lot of comparative work with Buddhism and other Asian traditions, and on that side of the fence, it’s not strange to say, “Madhyamika Buddhist believe X about causation. Can we defend this philosophically? For example, does this fit in with their belief about karmic merits, etc.? But isn’t the distinct thing about the Madhyamika branch versus the Yogacara branch that they believe in Y, Z?… etc.”

    But judging from the literature, the only philosophically interesting elements of Christianity are a) they believe in a God and b) sometimes they believe things with seemingly too little warrant and this is called “faith.” On point A, the notion of the Trinity is almost never brought up in a philosophy class, but seems like it must have some impact on the kinds of proofs of God that would or wouldn’t work. If, for example, we prove that God must be One in a certain strict enough sense, that might count as a proof of Allah and a disproof of the Christian God (as Islamic scholars have long argued), etc. On point B, it might be worth doing more analysis of what kinds of things different Christian sects consider to be things taken on faith and which are not. Is the physical world being taken on faith or just “spiritual” matters? What counts as spiritual, etc.?

    Of course, there will always be some differences between the kind of Buddhist philosophy I’m used to and the kind of Christian philosophy I’m proposing because, as Whitehead said, Buddhism is a metaphysics in search of a religion and Christianity is a religion in search of a metaphysics. Again, the Bible is never more than enigmatically philosophical. But, still I think there’s more that could be done to it if we would get rid of our fear of the religion department.

  8. jj,

    I agree that it would be a bad thing if Dr. Collins were to use his religious views to justify limiting funding to areas of neuroscience and psychology investigating conscious and the mechanisms of the human mind.

    As for the reality of the soul being justified because it can do things that matter cannot do, I find those arguments troubling, in a similar way that I find inference to the best explanation troubling –Van Fraassen’s criticisms hold in both cases.

    It does come down to how one defines the soul and then just as importantly how one justifies its existence and reasons about its consequences. Justifying the existence of something immaterial by saying that it is the only way we can explain X is a bad argument because it is dependent on how what we know about X right now.

    But, I am unwilling, on the basis of scientific reasoning to foreclose the possibility of the existence of an immaterial soul. Although I think that we can use science to address past arguments based on observable phenomena, that is where its authority stops. I don’t think it is troubling in an epistemic, ethical or political sense to be open to, or choose to have faith in, something ineffable that brings meaning to one’s life. And I don’t think that calls to keep church and state separate should be taken to mean that someone of faith ought to be precluded from being a scientist or a public official or even director of the NIH.

  9. AF, I’m not really not sure what to say about the belief in an ineffable something that brings meaning to one’s life. This is an almost daily struggle for me, since I’m talking a lot with a close relative whose wife recently died very suddenly. He’s a Roman Catholic and now struggling with how much of his faith he actually believes in strongly enough to apply now. Is she in Heaven and even capable of guiding his life? He knows I don’t share any of those beliefs, but the very last thing I want to do is to challenge his beliefs. Ditto actually goes for the central tenants of my religious students’ views. I do think, though, it is very possible to see one’s life as meaningful without the ineffable.

    And the arguments I mentioned were huge factors in supporting the belief in the soul in a lot of medieval philosophy, in Descartes and probably also into the twentieth century. The soul has now, though, dropped out of almost all of philosophy of mind and that is to a large extent because there doesn’t seem anything left for it to do. We’re seeing how the brain-plus-environment can account for so much.

    My own view is that the sort of explanations we are now getting serve some important political tasks. One is that they are showing how very difficult it is to occupy another person’s perspective. That’s an insight that could have served people well in a lot of the cases we discuss, like the Gates case.

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