Science in Christian Perspective



Pitfalls for a Scientist's Motivation:
The Poison and the Antidote


Department of Physics
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506

From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 27-31.

The relevance of Christianity to the research scientist's basic motivations as well as his research ethics is examined. We first consider several commonly held aspects of a scientist's motivation and several possible motivational pitfalls. It is then stressed that an over-emphasis upon scientific freedom, with the consequent loss of scientific responsibility, may easily result in an imbalance between freedom and responsibility. Such an imbalance may occur if and when self-honor and self-glory become the dominant aspects of a scientist's or the scientific community's motivation. The tense historical setting of the development of nuclear physics just prior to the war is used to illustrate the possible distortions of ones motivation. Finally we consider how the historic Christian faith can help in evaluating motivational questions, and can aid the scientific community in maintaining a proper balance between scientific freedom and scientific responsibility.

One of the great responsibilities facing the Christian is the realization of a biblical perspective and its application to the endeavors of life. Scientists who are Christians must continuously wrestle with many questions. What difference does the historic Christian faith make in our lifework? How should Christianity affect our motivation and ethics in scientific activity? Can our faith aid us in resolving the dilemma between a scientific freedom which permits us to pursue knowledge without constraint and a scientific responsibility which may impose constraints upon the pursuit of knowledge?

In this paper we focus upon one possible pitfall which may distort a scientist's motivation to the extent that scientific responsibility is threatened. We then ask how a biblical perspective might well save us from the pitfall.
Much of the scientific community today realizes that science is not ethically neutral, nor is it an impersonal data-collecting affair. Both Christian and non-Christian scientists realize that a research ethics must be accepted by the scientific community as a whole in order for science to work at all. There is disagreement as to the basis for the needed ethics.

A humanistic worldview insists upon a different source for ethics than does a Christian worldview. Yet despite a recognition for the need of ethics, very little time is spent during a scientist's training in examining the relevant ethical considerations, such as goals and an individual's motivation. This lack of reflection may unfortunately propagate erroneous standards adopted while a scientist was a student.

Some Particular Motivations

The motivation of a scientist is indeed complex and very much individualistic. Here we consider several possibilities for the source of motivation. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study. A recent report entitled Scientific Freedom and Responsibility published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) states that scientists are driven by a desire to know, a passion for knowledge.

The central value for the most creative scientists is a passionate dedication to the advancement of knowledge, and to the solution of the baffling puzzles with which nature confronts us. The desire, for instance, to discover the principles underlying quantum phenomena at the atomic and subatomic level . . . has preoccupied some of the greatest scientific minds of this century. Such workers often live with their problems, day and night, for months or even years on end; the desire to solve a particular baffling problem may keep them preoccupied, to an extent that most other people can scarcely conceive. A deep sense of the beauty of science, and its aesthetic appeal, commonly accompanies this urge to solve difficult and fundamental problems1

I believe that there is truth in this analysis. Yet we wish to focus upon other desires.

In order to remain in the scientific community a researcher must establish himself as competent. Support in his field of research depends on this. Consequently there is a need for one to be tested and proved, and it follows that the successful researcher will be respected and honored. Such an evaluation will certainly have some influence upon the scientist's motivation and goals. Unfortunately in today's economic climate this real need is all too frequently worked out in the prescription "publish or perish". This need for proving oneself in the proper sense can rapidly be transformed into a desire for self-honor and glory.

The AAAS report does recognize difficulties in scientists' motivations which affect their research ethics. The report states,

Many fields of research today are feverishly competitive, and some brilliant scientists are ruthlessly determined to get ahead of their competitors, sometimes by unscrupulous techniques.2


Scientists frequently exchange ideas and discuss with their colleagues the problems of theft current work. Yet they have a strong sense of personal property in their original ideas and discoveries, which form the basis for their positions and prestige in the scientific world. Inevitably there are opportunities for conscious or unconscious theft of ideas; this can of course, give rise to intensely bitter feelings.3

An additional aspect of the present system of testing, proving, and honoring is a reward principle based upon priority of discovery, i.e., you must be the first to discover if you are to prove your worth. R. K. Merton has emphasized the importance of this reward principle:

...the institution of science has developed an elaborate system for advocating rewards to those who variously live up to its norms. Of course this was not always so.
Frances Bacon could explain and complain all in one by saying that 'it is enough to check the growth of science that efforts and labours in this field go unrewarded . . .4

Merton has also noted the extensive use of such honorific devices as eponymy, the practice of affixing the name of the scientist to his discovery. This practice is in part a recognition that the idea is the scientist's personal property. The AAAS study stated that,

Recognition for original contribution is the chief reward and honor for the scientist in basic research; hence there are often passionate feelings about priority, which concern many of the greatest scientists as well as minor contributors.5

The report further suggested that such a reward is necessary in order to maintain the continuity of the scientific enterprise. But clearly there are many instances in which recognition is no small concern. And there are many cases in which a scientist lost the opportunity for significant recognition merely because his paper was a day or a week late at the desk of the publisher.

Bronowski's and Porter's Views

A different emphasis from that of the AAAS report can be illustrated by the thinking of J. Bronowski. Bronowski is certainly not one who minimizes the importance of knowledge. But in the final analysis he acknowledges that

Science at last respects the scientist more than his theories; for by its nature it must prize the search above the discovery, and the thinking (and with it the thinker) above the thought. In the society of scientists each man, by the process of exploring for the truth, has earned a dignity more profound than his doctrine.6

Such a perspective has moved far from picturing science as a passionate dedication to the advancement of knowledge. Instead, the important goal is not for knowledge, but for the realization of the potential of man and honor for the individual. The driving element of the endeavor becomes a search for human dignity rather than for knowledge. We do not want to imply that man is to be minimized at the cost of knowledge. Clearly man, made in the image of God, is far more precious than mere fact. However we wish to point out that the central focus of Bronowski's concept of science is one which exalts man, and such a view in its extreme will surely influence the basic motivation behind the endeavor.

A somewhat similar motivational aspect attempting to justify science is that of George Porter. Porter wishes to discover man's purpose through scientific study, and if only science can find this purpose, one has a driving motivation for engaging in scientific research.7 Science becomes the medium, not to realize our humanness as in Bronowski's view, but to find it.

Perversion of Motivations

If the endeavor of science is either to pursue knowledge or to better man's lot, or even to behold the aesthetic beauty of nature, what constructive role is played by such attitudes as fierce competition, the consideration of ideas as personal property, passionate feelings about priority, and a desire to earn dignity? Are these elements at all consistent with what we claim science to be, or with what it should be? Again we recognize that a scientist's work must be evaluated, and therefore recognized; honor and prestige must naturally follow. But is there not a qualitative distinction between a proper honor and recognition given as a reward, and that which is searched after out of a selfish motivation, i.e., out of self-interest? My concern is that the pressures within the scientific community, within the ways in which we teach and the manner in which we evaluate, may lead one to a search for selfish self-glory and self-praise. The scientist becomes engaged in proving that he is smarter and more capable than anyone else! Or science becomes a tool by which the individual seeks to find his dignity or worth. The more pure and idealistic goals of science are replaced by a desire to glorify both self and the entire community of which we are a part.

Because of the sinful nature of mankind, we must recognize that it is indeed difficult to maintain the needed evaluation, recognition, honor, and reward, without simultaneously inciting a selfish drive in both the individual and the scientific community as well. This pitfall is a natural one and a very serious one. We are not saying that all of science presently suffers from such an evil. We merely warn of it and consider the possible consequences. Later we consider the antidote.

The impact of this motivational deviation may have very serious consequences. We have already seen that attitudes within the community can affect its focus, its direction, and its ethics. Today and in the foreseeable future we are continually facing situations in which we must choose between freedom to pursue research and the imposition of constraints designed to assure responsibility. This is sort of a freedom/responsibility dilemma. Our thesis is that if selfhonor and self-glory become dominant in our motivation, the result will be an over-emphasis upon scientific freedom with a consequent loss in scientific responsibility. The dilemma is polarized from a balance which promotes good science to a freedom that is destructive because it is self-centered.

Nuclear Physics As An Example

The development of nuclear physics in the shadow of World War II illustrates the difficulty of determining and maintaining an appropriate balance in a freedom/responsibility dilemma. It also well illustrates the influence that recognition, prestige, and honor can have upon the community in affecting its judgment of this balance, as well as the frustrating tendency for such to end in self-glorification. To understand the situation, let me briefly summarize the events. Extensive use has been made of S. H. Weart's analysis in "Scientists with a Secret"S and that of W. Heisenberg.9

In the mid to late thirties the rapid growth of nuclear physics gave rise to the hope of transforming our technology, but also hinted of the threat of an enormous new source of energy useful in weapons. In Weart's words:

What are physicists to do if they make a discovery that promises to transform industry but also threatens to revolutionize warfare? Should they investigate the phenomenon within their traditions of free and open inquiry or keep the deadly secret to themselves? This was the dilemma that was faced by several groups of physicists who studied uranium fission in 1939 and 1940.10

With the imminence of war, the ethical dilemma to be faced could well be characterized as a choice between freedom and responsibility. And many of the physicists active in nuclear research had themselves already witnessed first hand the Fascist threat.

Joliot and Curie in France, and Fermi in Italy had carefully studied natural radioactivity since 1934. But even as late as 1938 it was not yet known whether or not a nuclear chain reaction was in principle possible. Unknown were several crucial questions. Were neutrons emitted during uranium fission, and if so, how many? What was the cross section for neutrons on carbon? Would carbon make a good moderator?

The suggestion to limit freedom of publication was

The rapid consequence of selfish motivations will surely be a loss of scientific responsibility. We can be sure that these choices between freedom and responsibility lie at our door.

evidently made first by Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who had escaped the early Nazi persecution of Jews. After realizing the implications of his work, he evidently first tried to patent his ideas to control their use. He then started a major effort to awaken the scientific community involved in nuclear research to the importance of secrecy. In response to Szilard's efforts, the British scientists felt that such a step was not warranted:

Even those scientists who felt most keenly the responsibility of scientists for the consequences of their
discoveries traditionally felt that secrecy is abhorrent and that interference with the normal process of open criticism would not only impede scientific progress but pervert it.11

One can understand their criticism. After being rebuffed by the British, Szilard tried to persuade Enrico Fermi, then at Columbia University, of the dangers. But Fermi decided that fission was quite unlikely. His response to Szilard's concern was "Nuts!", a reply somewhat anticipated by Szilard, who had earlier said, "Unfortunately it will appear to many people premature to take some action until it will be too late to take any action."12

Experiments were then conducted to determine whether or not neutrons were indeed liberated when uranium nuclei fission. It turns out that only two groups were working on this problem, one American and one French. Neither group wanted to withhold publication because they thought other groups would beat them to it. With the discovery of a positive result, that about two neutrons were indeed liberated making fission possible, the implications were obvious. Yet Weart notes, "Despite their concern over this, [that world war was inevitable] the physicists sent their papers to the Physical Review the next day."13 But Szilard soon appealed to Fermi to delay publication. However "Fermi was repelled by this idea, holding that publication was basic to scientific morality." Finally, only after the majority of his group agreed with Szilard, Fermi withheld publication. The argument raged on within Columbia, and the attitude of many, as reported by Weart was that "an attempt to restrict publication was both futile and an undesirable breach of scientific custom."14

A tentative agreement specifically designed to certify priority was reached: articles would be submitted to the Physical Review for dating, but withheld from publication. They would be circulated privately. It is interesting that E. P. Wigner noted the asymmetry created by having only American scientists withhold publication and not also European scientists. He evidently saw this as an unwarranted prejudice in favor of the American scientists!15 And it should be noted that Niels Bohr still very much doubted that "fission could be used to cause a devastating explosion."

Although the restriction of circulation of research in the West was well begun, the French were to make this attempt fail. Joliot, believing in "the international fellowship of scientists," felt that they had little sympathy with secrecy, and if "his colleagues failed to publish, they would be eclipsed by those who did."16 So Joliot cabled Columbia that they were publishing; the Columbia group then also published.

By this time the Briggs committee had been formed, with Albert Einstein as one of its members. Szilard tried to work with this committee. Recognizing the attitude of the Columbia group, Szilard tried to propose some compensation, financial or otherwise, for the younger physicist who was not to be permitted to publish. He stated
For a physicist, who has not yet made a name for himself, refraining from publication means a sacrifice which he should not be asked to make without being offered some compensation.17

Meanwhile Anderson and Fermi had measured the cross section for neutrons on carbon, and found that it would make a good moderator. Again Szilard approached Fermi to withhold publication. "Fermi really lost his temper; he really thought that this was absurd," said Szilard18 But in fact the publication was withheld, and Weart evaluates the seriousness of this choice as follows:

If the value for the carbon cross section had been published, the course of World War II might concievably have been changed. For German scientists wrongly concluded that carbon had a substantial neutron absorption cross section. From that point on they abandoned carbon as moderator . . . Anderson and Fermi's work could have put all these groups on a different track.19

Heiscnberg has acknowledged that this was indeed the case. He states,

Previously, i.e., toward the end of 1939, I had suspected, for theoretical reasons, that carbon could be used as the moderator in the place of heavy water. However, a measurement of the absorptive power of carbon had erroneously led to too high a value. Since this measurement had been made in another well-known institute, we bad not bothered to repeat it and so had abandoned the whole idea prematurely.20

Anderson's and Fermi's measurement would have surely put the Germans back on the right track.

An elaborate self-censorship was finally to be set up. The substantial shift in attitude can be illustrated by that of Lawrence: "As recently as six months ago. I should have been opposed to any such procedure [of restriction], but I feel now that we are in many respects essentially on a war basis."21 The scientific community did finally modify its operating principle.

Not a Simple Issue

From this drama what can be learned about the motivational concerns which we have raised? By no means can we conclude that the question of imposition of restrictions on publication was, or ever will be a simple issue. There were certainly compelling arguments against restrictions. However throughout the events which we have outlined there appears to have been an adamant rejection of restrictions. This adamancy was based in part upon an insistence on the need to establish priority of discovery as well as the desire to have one's work recognized. In many, but not all cases, even well-known scientists refused to have their work eclipsed by others. Even the initial prescription to establish priority was not acceptable. As we have earlier stated, recognition, prestige, and honor are to be expected and are appropriate. However in light of the seriousness of the situation, a seriousness which was indeed acknowledged by the scientific community, one must ask whether or not personal self-establishment and glory were too strongly emphasized.

Secondly we note that the attitude of a few physicists who insisted on the freedom to publish clearly pressured others into abandoning restraints. This pressure was not necessarily done consciously, but was nevertheless effective. One can see how the attitude of a few researchers can well affect the stand taken by the entire community.

Thirdly it is clear that many physicists opposed restraints because they incorrectly evaluated the possibility for realization of the chain reaction, e.g. Niels Bohr. The error in judgment was certainly an honest mistake, but it resulted in underestimating the very nature of the threat and caused an over emphasis upon scientific freedom. The freedom they wished may well have been warranted in light of the outcome they expected, but it was not warranted by what actually transpired. This is a clear warning that any freedom/ responsibility balance based upon our present understanding may well prove to be lopsided due to the blindness of our perspective.

A further difficulty illustrated by this drama might be noted. It is the great resistance met when attempts are made to arrest the direction and progress of successful research. In Henry Stob's words,

One feature of science . . is its apparent inability to arrest its own momentum and to stop short of putting into practice the knowledge and skills it has acquired. This is another way of saying, I suppose, that knowledge, for most members of the scientific community, is never merely for contemplation but also for utility.22

It is easy to see how such a momentum may well be enhanced when desires of self-glory are dominant.

Christian Guidelines

How can the historic Christian faith help us evaluate motivational questions and resolve freedom/responsibility dilemmas? Firstly I do not see how a motivational drive focused upon self-establishment and self-glory can be made consistent with a Christian worldview. For does the latter not directly oppose the search for magnifying self? We must recognize the needs for recognition, prestige, and honor in the scientific community, for they are the outcome of needed testing and proving. But these necessary rewards when adamantly sought by the individual, or when adopted as the end purpose of scientific activity can lead only to the pitfalls and corruptions that we have outlined. Not only is the individual frustrated, but the responsibility of the scientific community can be undermined, perhaps even forgotten. In the end, one can see a realization of C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength with all the blindness and self-rationalizations of its individuals. Christianity rejects an exclusive emphasis upon self.

Secondly a Christian perspective not only rejects such a defective motivation, it also provides a positive one in its place. A balanced biblical outlook will turn our efforts from seeking selfglory to seeking the glory of God. We must seek to glorify our Lord, a part of which will engage us in serving Him, His creatures, and subduing His creation. This does not mean that we find our meaning in nature. Our great task is to understand in what manner we can glorify God in all that we do. Part of this task is to keep our motivation pure. (Colossians 3:23)

Such a biblical perspective is not new to science. For instance B. K. Merton has recognized a positive motivational influence in the Puritan scientists. In them Christianity produced a disinterested zeal in the pursuit of knowledge. Let me quote Merton.

What we call the Protestant ethic was at once a direct expression of dominant values and an independent source of new motivation. It not only led men into particular paths of activity, it exerted a constant pressure for unswerving devotion to this activity. Its ascetic imperatives established a broad base for scientific inquiry, dignifying, exalting, consecrating such inquiry. If the scientist had hitherto found the search for truth its own reward, he now had further grounds for disinterested zeal in this pursuit.23

We also have examples of scientists who have opposed the glorifying of mankind, and who sought to glorify God. For instance Boyle pleaded with the Royal Society in his last will and testament as follows:

Wishing them also a happy success in their laudable Attempts, to discover the true Nature of the Works of God; and praying that they and all other Searchers into Physical Truths, may Cordially refer their Attainments to the Glory and the Great Author of Nature, and to the Comfort of Mankind.24

Similarly B. Hooykaas has noted the impact of Christianity upon the early Protestant scientists. He states,

The central theme of Reformed theology was 'the glory of God.' Kepler wrote in 1598 that the astronomers, as priests of God to the book of nature, ought to keep in their minds not the glory of their own intellect, but the glory of God above everything else. The Netherlands' Confession emphasized that nature is 'before our eyes as a beautiful book, in which all created things, large or small, are as letters showing the invisible things of God.'25

Such an attitude can both properly motivate us in pursuing scientific studies and guard us from pitfalls of self-deception or self-pride.25


It is not my intention to draw an overly critical and pessimistic picture either of science in general, or of
the drama that we have considered. We can indeed be thankful that God, because of his general grace upon mankind, has allowed the unbeliever as well as the believing scientist to frequently escape these pitfalls at least in part. But we must caution against assuming that the scientific community is guaranteed such an ability to escape this pitfall. Furthermore, a rapid consequence of selfish motivations will surely be a loss of scientific responsibility. We can be sure that these choices [between freedom and responsibility] lie at our door. And unfortunately the consequences of an error may well be neither desirable nor reversible. Luckily, or more accurately providentially, the needed restrictions were made in time in 1940.


1Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, A Report of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, prep. by J. T. Edsall, (AAAS: Washington; 1975), pp. 6-7.
2lbid., p. 7.
3Ibid., p. 9.
4R K. Merton, The Sociology of Science, Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. (Univ. of Chicago Press: Chicago; 1973), p. 228.
5Scientfic Freedom, op. cit., p. 10.
6J. Bronowski, Science and Human Values, rev. ed. (Harper Torchbooks: New York; 1965), p. 64.
7George Porter, "Relevance of Science", Journal Amer. Sci. Affil., March 1976, p. 3. This issue also contains an analysis of Porter's perspective. In this paper we cannot analyze this perspective except to note that it forces the motivations to concentrate upon self.
8S. R. Weart, "Scientists with a Secret", Physics Today, Vol. 29, No. 2, (Feb. 1976), pp. 23-30. If not expressly indicated, all quotations are from this article.
9W. Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond. We shall refer particularly to Chapt. 14, "Individual Behavior in the Face of Political Disaster (1937-1941).
10S. R. Weart, op. cit., p. 23.
12Idem., from Szilard papers, La Jolla, Calif.
13Ibid., p. 25.
14bid., p. 26.
15Idem. Clearly such a concern is in opposition to any selfcenteredness,. even a national self-centeredness.
16Ibid., p. 28.
17Idem., p. 29.
20W. Heisenberg, op. cit., p. 180.
21S. R. Weart, op. cit., p. 30.
22Henry Stob, "Christian Ethics and Scientific Control", The Scientist and Ethical Decision, C. Hatfield, ed., (Inter Varsity Press: Downers Grove; 1973), p. 18.
23R. K. Merton, op. cit., p. 228.
24Ibid., pp. 234-235, as quoted from Boyle's last will and testament.
25R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids; 1972), p. 105.
261t is interesting to note that the early Protestant scientists were not free from motivational concerns or pitfalls, as is evidenced by both Boyle's statement and the concern far Kepler. We also note that their understanding of what science should be is remarkably similar to the positive elements of the AAAS statement (See the quotation of Note 1).