Science in Christian Perspective
Is Scientific Research Value-Free?
ROBERT E. VANDERVENNEN
Institute for Christian Studies
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
From: JASA 27 (September 1975): 107-111.
Is scientific work truly objective and religiously neutral? Does a person's own presuppositions about reality, his own world-view, have anything to do with his scientific investigation? Does a Christian researcher leave his faith at the laboratory door?
In the 20th century the overwhelming response to these questions has been that true science by its nature is secular, objective, value-free, without presuppositions. But increasingly there are heard objections to this by Christians and non-Christians alike. The question was a major issue at the 1972 annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation.
The question is of key importance to researchers and teachers who are Christians. If it is true that all science is religiously conditioned, then the challenges before us are so great that the priorities of the Christian scientific community ought to be redirected. If science is secular, religiously neutral, then Christians who are claiming otherwise should quit their disturbance and direct their energies constructively.
In this paper I will specifically mean by "science" the natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, and related fields. Yet the arguments I will use would seem to apply with even greater force to the social and behavioral sciences.
It should be made clear that in speaking of Christian values in science I'm not now talking about Christians in their personal relations with other scientists, not about the need for integrity in science, not Christian motivation for scientific work, not moral issues in the application of theoretical science to practical situations I'm talking about values in the very inner structure of science itself, what science is, and the ways the scientist must inevitably go about his work of discovery.
By values I mean whatever a person cherishes as giving fullest meaning, purpose and coherence to his life and direction for the most meaningful decisions of life. Values, then, are not religiously neutral since they deal with the deepest issues in life, with what a person gives his life to. Values are not logically derivable from scientific work, nor can values be proven by logical or scientific means. Values are extra-scientific, pre-scientific.
The Common View of Science
The commonly held view of scientific research is that the great advances of science in modern times have come under the positivistic ideal of science, in contrast to the metaphysical clouding of science in previous centuries. Science has been freed from philosophic and religious preconceptions that make true science impossible. Further, science is free from the biases of the personal observer: the test of valid work is that experiments and observations can be duplicated by any other person using the same methods at any other time and place. The scientific enterprise starts with a clean page on which are written only the facts that are utterly clear before our eyes. Added to those facts are only those evident patterns the facts show, and minimal conceptual inferences formulated into laws and theories. Only with rigorous use of this scientific methodology can we be sure to have true and universally valid knowledege, not merely the quicksand of personal opinions.
This understanding of scientific work is very powerful and appealing. How can anything be said against it?
Objections to this View
There are, however, some things to be said against this scientific approach to knowledge, some things that strike at the very heart of the matter, at the very taproot of this kind of tree of knowledge. The biblical revelation is basically counter to this picture of science. In the Bible God reveals to us that all of reality is in the hand of God, and that nothing we see can be understood apart from Christ, in whom all things consist and in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:16, 17). This means that scientific knowledge is not only incomplete without faith in Christ, but is also distorted, not only in its applications but especially in its inner meaning.
Scientific work is inescapably underlaid with a religious viewpoint of some kind or other. By a religious viewpoint I mean a view of science that implicitly or overtly deals with such fundamental issues, among others, as the meaning of physical reality, the nature of man and his purpose on earth, the place of science in human life, and the limits of scientific knowledge. These issues are handled by scientists in a way that gives place and honor to Christ, or in a way that denies him. In all his work man will either praise Christ or give his honor to an idol substituted in place of Christ. That fundamental religious antithesis is inescapable also in science. There is no neutral ground.
Is it true that modern man who does not bow before Christ worships an idol in his scientific work? Indeed it is, and in fact there are two easily identified idols. One is science itself. As the physicist Richard Schlegel says in his book, Completeness in Science, "Indeed, in an effective way, science is for many the religion of our age."1 (Emphasis his) Scientific knowledge is considered the only true knowledge, knowledge of what the universe really is, distinguished from pseudo-knowledge built on superstitions, myths and competing religious claims. An appeal to science is an appeal to ultimate authority.
But there is another idol, too, closely related but often competing with the idol of science. That is the worship of the scientist and mankind generally. This is the central thrust of the religion of humanism. Man is praised and glorified for his brilliant scientific achievements, whether in molecular biology, or the physics of elementary particles, or the fantastic achievements of travel to the moon. Eulogies to the greatness of man are in the headlines whenever there is a major breakthrough in science or technology.
It is not surprising that the major conflict of our age is the conflict between these two idols which have displaced Cod in science. The humanist struggle to free man from the straightjacket of scientism is in direct conflict with the scientific ideal of conforming all 0f life to scientific analysis and scientific conclusions. The twin idols of the autonomy of man and the autonomy of science can only result in total combat between man and his "frankenstein."
The fact that scientific research cannot he truly objective and value-free is being increasingly recognized by non-Christian scientists. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues that scientists can do their work only from the viewpoint of one or another "paradigm", a pee-theoretical framework without which even scientific observation becomes impossible2. Holders of different paradigms can scarcely communicate with each other, because paradigms are incommensurable. This is a subjectivistic view, and has been received better by practicing scientists than by philosophers of science. Yet in his analysis Kuhn has correctly seen the intertwinement of the scientist as a person with his scientific work.
Kuhn and others follow the tradition of Herbert Butterfield, especially of his classic work, The Origins of Modern Science. Butterfield argues that the observations or evidence do not themselves thrust upon the scientist conceptual patterns of interpretation that are univocal and necessary. Instead the scientist needs to choose deliberately which alternative conceptual framework to use for his interpretation. He says that one could not ". . . escape from the Aristotelian doctrine merely by observing things more closely . . . (but) it required a different kind of thinking-cap, a transposition in the mind of the scientist himself."3 This is a choice the scientist makes that is not dictated by the observations and experiments. We can't even say that after we have the data at hand we can choose our conceptual framework. As Kuhn documents, even the data themselves can significantly depend on our conceptual framework, not only which experiments we choose to perform and which research we consider meaningful, but even the numbers we obtain from an experiment.4
Is it true that modern man who does not bow before Christ worships an idol in his scientific work?
Further evidence for the fact that science is not purely objective is
relation between data and scientific conclusions. Conclusions enter the search
for data through the vehicle of hypotheses which are tentative or
Hypotheses determine which experiments are to be undertaken, and how they will
be undertaken. When data support a hypothesis, the place of the hypothesis as
a firm scientific conclusion is strengthened.
A field that has already been widely researched abounds in hypotheses which shape further research. A new field of enquiry has few hypotheses, yet even here there is need for some criteria by which to identify results that appear anomalous or uninterpretable. Butterfield points out that the competing astronomies around 1600 so disoriented people that the idea was put forward ". . . that one should drop all hypotheses and set out simply to assemble a collection of more accurate observations. Tycho Brahe replied to this that it was impossible to sit down just to observe without the guidance of any hypothesis at all.5 This is especially significant coming from Brahe, who came closer than perhaps any other scientist to being a pure observer of phenomena.
R. N. Hanson follows Wittgenstein as he writes in his 1969 book, Patterns of Discovery that seeing and observation are "theory-laden" undertakings.6 He writes to show that causal relations are also theory-laden.7 Hanson's work is valuable in pointing out the error of the objectivity school of thought in science, though he himself falls into the Charybdis of subjectivism.
In the social sciences, too, there is recognition that pre-scientific assumptions are a necessity for scientific work. Social scientist Clyde Kluckhohn has written in 1966 a journal article entitled, "The Scientific Study of Values and Contemporary Civilizations," in which he says, "All discourse proceeds from premises and is limited by those premises. This is equally true of physical and biological science. The important thing in all cases is that the independent critic should be able to scrutinize the premises as well as the data."8
I have shown that a number of prominent modern writers take the position that scientific work necessarily includes hypotheses or conceptual systems or paradigms that give coherence to scientific thought and provide a meaning-framework for data. Choice between these alternative conceptual systems cannot be made on the basis of data only, though their articulation may be shaped by data. We conclude, then, that these scientific conceptual systems contain input which cannot be arrived at by scientific methods. In short, the scientist brings to his research preconceptions about the nature of reality that he cannot avoid using in his scientific work. He may not be consciously aware of this fact, nor be able to articulate what his preconceptions are because they may be the common working assumptions of other scientists in his field. Yet, on the basis of this reasoning the dogma of scientific neutrality and objectivity is reduced to a myth.
If there is any doubt that such extra-scientific preconceptions are a vital part of our science, history will show us that it is so. We can recognize this as true by thinking back to the scientists of a hundred years ago, who were no less scientific than we. Yet their scientific work was deeply embedded in conceptions such as ether theories, vitalism, and the whole Newtonian conception of mechanics. Scientists do not accept these and other views today, not because they have been disproved by the data of crucial experiments, but rather because they have been replaced by different commonly-held extra-scientific views. In this connection it is well to recall that Copernicus' picture of the solar system did not fit the data better than that of Ptolemy, and was not accepted on the basis of the data.
It is of historic importance to note that Einstein did not accept quantum mechanics and the picture of the world it presented. He rejected it because he preferred to see the world in a more objective way, with sharp demarcation between the scientist and the materials he investigated. Also Einstein preferred to work for a rationalistic understanding of physical phenomena in the tradition of earlier physics.9
Einstein is not alone, of course, in holding the postulated hope that knowledge of the universe may be in principle completely rational. Many want a solid rationalistic base to our knowledge, a place to stand that can be proved beyond any doubt, that is not dependent on personal human wisdom, or its lack. In short, many want to know truth about the world and ourselves without needing faith, especially without religious faith.
The dogma of scientific neutrality and objectivity is reduced to a myth.
At this time in human history a person may believe that knowledge of the world
is bound up in a rationally closed system, or he may believe that it is not so
bound. Philosophers are still not able to assure us that it is, though they are
trying very hard to do so with their analysis of logic and their work
language. But four hundred years after Descartes, the clean logically-rigorous
base even for mathematics is nowhere to be found. It has been washed
away by the
brilliant 20th century mathematicians, even as they were trying to
prove its truth.
Noteworthy is the Incompleteness Theorem formulated by the mathematician Goedel
in 1931. This theorem shows that in any logical system of sufficient complexity
which is internally consistent, one may always describe propositions which cannot be proven
or disproven within the system. 10,11
Facts Not Value-Free
It is common today to hold that empirical facts are the same for all people, and then each person can add to the facts his own personal values. For example, this is the foundation stone on which our public schools attempt to serve families of widely divergent religious beliefs. I have taken the position, in contrast to this, that facts are not neutral, value-free. What really is a fact? It is not simply that something exists "out there" clearly for all to see. Instead, for something to be a fact means that persons agree to accept it as valid. It is the general personal acceptance that makes a fact a fact, not that a thing exists clearly by itself apart from human response to it. Thus personal judgment is the key to making a fact a fact. Sets of values do not exist outside of sets of facts, enabling one to make a personal decision as to which values he chooses to attach to certain facts. The world is simply not structured in that kind of way, even though in their unbelief men want to try to separate God from his world as far as possible, which is basically what fact-value separation tries to do.
People who have tried to define fact and values in such a way as to make them separable would apply the same procedure to scientific data and conclusions. But the problematics is set up wrongly. The operations of scientific research do not correspond to the notion of value-free data. Instead hypothesis, world-view, theory all shape the approach to research problems, the data that one considers meaningful, and the way data are interpreted and used. I cannot offer air-tight proof that religious belief enters willy-nilly into every step of scientific work. In fact, to do so would negate my very position that the world is not rationalistic in that way. Yet there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence from analysis of what science really is and how people go about it. There is the testimony of many practicing scientists and philosophers of science. There is confirming information from a historical look at science, since we can see ourselves and our science more clearly in comparison with the work of others done in a different era. Yet in the end, like so many things, there is an aspect of faith involved in the question of which of the two views of science we accept.
Non-Christians in Science
If God's revelation gives values which are the only true and correct input that enable only the Christian to have the correct pre-scientific input to science, then do unbelievers merely waste their time doing research? No, that does not follow. Jesus said that even the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8). This must be understood, though, in connection with Paul's saying that the wrath of God is upon ungodly men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Unbelievers do not accept the moral law as from God, yet they must obey it or suffer the consequences. In the same way, God's laws for physical things are real and sure. Unbelievers are able to discover God's laws in part-often more brilliantly than Christians-because God has put
How can be we faithful to God as believing scientists? That is the question.
laws like his footprints in the world. An archaeologist can discover the footprints of an extinct creature and make some correct deductions about the creature and his habits. So the unbelieving scientist discovers much that is true. But his understanding will always be partiallike the archaeologist's-and distorted. It is distorted because a person cannot live and work without worshipping, and if he does not worship the God of heaven he will worship science or man or some other idol. For that reason the results of unbelieiving science cannot be accepted uncritically without radical reinterpretation. For example, we can benefit from Freud's brilliant discoveries, but we need to re-interpret them, to transform them (Roman 12:2), if we are to understand them with the mind of Christ, who alone is Truth.
This Christian view of science sees that all men view science inevitably with one kind of bias or another. All have a religiously grounded belief about what is fundamental in reality. Everyone wears colored glasses through which he perceives the world. It is not that there is a neutral noncolor through which the right-minded pure scientist sees things, while others distort their vision by the coloration of their biases.
If the scientific enterprise is not to be understood as being religiously neutral, objective and value-free, then how are we to understand it? The Bible itself gives us some key insights that we can get no other way. Listen:
Praise the Lord, 0 Jerusalem Praise your God, 0 Zion
He sends forth his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
He casts forth his ice like morsels; who can stand before his cold?
He sends forth his wind blow, and the waters flow. (Psalm 147:15-18)
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. (Romans 11:36)
...your Father who is in heaven . . . makes his sun to
rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:45)
The scientific enterprise deals with all the multivarious ways Cod upholds the world. The aim of science is to get the best understanding we can of how God upholds the world, of the upholding process itself. The laws of science are God's laws, and we are running away from the truth if we think of them as the laws of nature. There is a world of difference between those two conceptions. They are not laws that man invents, but rather laws that he discovers more or less aptly, as God discloses his laws to the scientist. God's laws for physical things-which we term scientific laws-are understandable to us because God has made us in his image. Yet they are not rationalistic in the sense that in principle we can comprehensively understand them, because God's ways are also above our ways (Romans 11:33-36; Job 38-41).
The area of scientific investigation is not the rule of impersonal laws of nature, but rather the rule of a personal God, as R. Hooykaas has put it.12 There is regularity and constancy in the physical world because God is constantly faithful (Malachi 3:6; Jer. 5:24). The moving force of the world is not chance, nor fate, nor evil spirits, but the living personal powerful God who reveals himself to us as Heavenly Father.
How are we Christians, then, to think of our scientific work? Not by accepting the world-view of secularized science, which arrives at religious neutrality and scientific objectivity by denying the scriptural God of science and then later trying to add God to the scene again. God's world is a unity, not a patched-up duality. If God is not the beginning of learning (Prov. 1:7), he cannot be brought in at the end to patch up the system. If we will accept our scientific work as not being secular but as our witnessing-service to our God who is all and in all, then we have our work cut out for us. If this means pursuing some new directions in our Christian scientific work, then let us do it together, communally strengthening each other, and in love correcting each other.
Implications for the Christian
What are some of the implications and constructive consequences of this thesis about our Christian work in science? It will help Christians avoid some of the errors and dead-ends that are problems in unbelieving science, such as:
It sees as futile the search for a rationalistic base for science and all human knowledge. Knowledge is not a logically closed system.
It sees positivism as inherently false and the attempts to patch it up as futile. It also rejects subjectivism, which Kuhn and others embrace after seeing positivism as untenable.
It avoids the reductionism of one kind or another which is inevitable when Christ is displaced as the central meaning of all things by one or another aspect of knowledge, such as mathematics.
It sees that at the most fundamental and theoretical levels divergent interpretations of science are inevitable, arising as they do not only from errors but especially from deeply-held beliefs that themselves are not subject to rational proof.
It sees scientific determinism at all levels to be untenable, as inconsistent with what God has revealed to us about His ways.
It sees the crisis of our age in its fundamentally religions nature as the turning from Christ as the center and source of all knowledge to secularized science, in which one or another created aspect of reality is the foundation of learning.
What is the constructive practical result of this viewpoint? For one thing, though the Christian scientist will use largely the same scientific terminology as unbelievers, he will often use terms with a conscious transformation of meaning. "Scientific law" will mean the scientific attempt to formulate the regularities in God's rule of the world, rather than the evidence of a machine-like self-contained world functioning by an inner necessity. The term "nature" will not be used in reference to a world "out there" run by self-contained inexorable forces, nor the pantheism of a "Mother Nature." "Causality" has a different coloration to it, as does "rationality," "substance," "evolution," and many other terms.
In general the Christian who recognizes the terminology of science to be value-laden will want to study the various schools of philosophic thought that have contributed value input to our scientific language. He will need to see this in the light of the historical development of science and the personal convictions of the giants of science who profoundly shape the thought patterns of science. Such insights should also occupy a significant place in the teaching of science by Christians, especially in Christian schools.
Developing a "Christian Mind"
What is the practical difference whether Christians have a radical Christian approach to science or not? Will this result in Christian Biology, or Christian Psychology, or perhaps Christian Physics? The plain fact is that we do not know what will happen because we've never tried it in a sustained way. We need to develop what Harry Blamires calls a "Christian mind," that is, a shared Christian viewpoint. No person can transform a science by himself. Each of us is trained not to look at basic issues in our field. Each of us is a specialist in some field or other, and thoroughgoing Christian work in science calls for input from various disciplines, genuinely interdisciplinary work. We do not know what a decade of sustained communal work can bring. It will not likely bring in a Christian chemistry. But perhaps there should he some kind of Christian Psychology, as a Christianly based alternative to psychology that is behavioristic, or Freudian, or existentialistic or what have you.
Yet the real question is not whether the difficult deliberate work of understanding and doing science Christianly is likely to be worth it in terms of practical results. The real question is what God calls us to do, how he wants us to serve him and witness to him also within the structures of scientific work itself. How can we he faithful to God as believing scientists? That is the question.
I have sketched two interpretive views of the scientific enterprise. One considers science to be value-free. The other purports to be a distinctive Christian view that says science is not valuefree. I think it vital that as a Christian community we face this question head-on, and come to communal consensus. The issue eclipses other issues with which ASA may deal, lying as it does at the heart of Christian work and witness in science. A communal consensus does not bind anyone's conscience but it provides direction and impetus for further work. Let us be about it together.
1R. Schegel, Completeness in Science, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1967, page 254.
2T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.
3H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, The Free Press, New York, 1965, pages 16, 17.
4Reference (2), page 134.
5Reference (3), page 73.
6R. N. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969, page 19.
7Reference (6), page 2.
8C. Klockhohn, Zygon, 1, 236, 237 (1966)
9Referenee (1), page 249.
10Referenee (1), page 61.
11E. Nagel and J. B. Newman, Goedel's Proof, in J. R. Newman (Ed.) The World of Mathematics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1956, Volume III, pages 1668-1695.
12R. Hooykaas, Natural Law and Divine Miracle: The Principle of Uniformity, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1963, page 204.