Science in Christian Perspective



Objectivity in Christian Perspective
Donald M. MacKay
Department of Communication and Neuroscience,
University of Keele
Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, England

From: JASA 36 (December 1984): 235-237.

Objectivity-a Christian Ideal

The Christian case for objectivity as an ideal in science is (and always has been) so obvious as hardly to need stating. If God is the Author of the Book of Nature, our obligation is to read it and to do justice to it as He has in fact written it, whether we like it or not. If we publish results of our investigations we must strive to 'tell it like it is,' knowing that the Author is at our elbow, a silent judge of the accuracy with which we claim to describe the world He has created. In this sense our goal is objective, value-free knowledge. If our limitations, both intellectual and moral, predictably limit our achievement of this ideal, this is something not to be gloried in but to be acknowledged in a spirit of repentance. Any idea that it could justify a dismissal of the ideal of value-free knowledge as a "myth" would be as irrational-and as irreligious-as to dismiss the ideal of righteousness as a ,'myth" on the grounds that we can never perfectly attain that. This is why I have elsewhere1 described the currently fashionable dismissal of objectivity (as distinct from recognition of its limits) as symptomatic of "practical atheism." Christians who give way to the fashion are, I suggest, radically inconsistent. They forget that, whatever their difficulties in gaining objective knowledge, they are supposed to be in the loving service of the One to whom Truth is sacred, and carelessness or deliberate bias in stating it is an affront.

A Special Case

Thus far I have been speaking of science as traditionally understood-the enterprise of mapping God's world as it is, whether we like it or not. For this purpose, as quantum physics illustrates in a particularly dramatic way, we must do our best to minimize the extent to which our exploratory activity 'reacts back' on the territory we are exploring. Without such methodological detachment our maps are at best rendered fuzzy and uncertain; and at worst we are in danger of 'cooking' our results, determining their form by our own actions, and perhaps according to our own desires. Psychologists in particular have difficulty in preventing their experimental procedures from acting as 'beds of Procrustes'

There is one area of investigation, however, in which complete detachment is not merely difficult but impossible in principle. This is the area of the investigator's own cognitive processes, and other processes causally dependent on them. Learning about cognitive processes is itself a cognitive process. It is not hard to see that learning about ones own current cognitive processes, whether as an individual or a society, is bound in the end to be a circular or "reflexive" business, in which the correctness or otherwise of a detailed description must depend in part on whether or not you know or believe it, and how you value it.

The consequences of this special feature of human investigation, for which the latest buzz-word is "reflexivity," are far-reaching. As I put it in a paper written some 30 years ago entitled "Man as Observer-Predictor" 2: "The trouble with man as a scientific subject is that he is himself, of course, an observer: that the system being observed is itself an observer. The scientist studying man, then, is dealing with a sensitive system, in the sense of a system which amplifies the effects of his observations. However little you disturb a man by observing him, if the man knows that he is being observed this may have a large-scale effect, so that the man magnifies the effect of your disturbance on him. In engineering jargon, there is 'feedback' in the situation.... [Hence any predictions that you would like to make as a scientist are likely to be invalidated as a result of this interaction.

"There is a second difficulty in achieving withdrawal-the scientific prerequisite for prediction-in the study of human systems, namely that if your prediction becomes known it can invalidate itself.... It may [even) be that the more accurate your prediction, the more devastating will be its effect on the basis of prediction if you allow it to affect the system. So in such situations, if your aim in making a prediction is to act upon the system on the basis of the prediction, there is a very severe limit on the reliability of your action." More explicitly (from a paper3 written 20 years ago): "Any complete description of a cognitive information-system must include, or depend on, the information possessed by the units of the system. Any change in the information possessed by a unit must, in general, require a change in the complete description. It follows that in general, no complete description exists which would be equally valid whether or not the units were informed of it. In other words, no complete machine-model (nor any other complete predictive model) of a society is possible, which would be equally valid before and after any member of that society learned of it. In this area, then, there is a fundamental incompatibility between two of the normal aims of science-to observe facts, and to spread knowledge of those facts as widely as possible."

Information or Manipulation?

As a recent article4 by Mary Stewart van Leeuwen shows, the peculiar consequences of this reflexivity are now becoming more widely recognized in the human sciences. Such a recognition means, among other things, that much of what passes as scientific 'investigation' of human social situations does not and cannot yield even approximately objective knowledge, in the sense of 'take-it-or-leave-it' specifications which are logically independent of our value-judgments on them. In particular, as Popper 5 points out in The Poverty of Historicism, this exposes the fallacy in the idea that human history is inevitably predictable by extrapolation from its past, so that all a wise man need do is to discern its direction and mount the appropriate band wagon. No matter how scientific the basis of an alleged prediction of the course of history, it will still be possible for an individual or society confronted with it to make nonsense of it, by taking the opposite attitude to the one assumed when the calculation was made.

In extreme cases what such an 'investigation' does is not to inform but to manipulate the individual or the society upon which the investigator operates. In the paper cited above 3, 1 considered the possibility that with a sufficiently complex predictive model, a prediction (say of an election result) could be trimmed in such a way that when published it ensured its own fulfillment. In that case "nobody who believed it feels himself to have been deceived. But suppose it had not been published? Then (ex hypothesi) the result would have been different-perhaps even reversed. Thus publication here was not primarily informative, but manipulative. And although a large computer may not always be essential to this end, the more powerful the predictive apparatus used, the more subtle and wide-ranging will be the manipulation of social attitude possible under the guise of scientific prediction.... [Olur society's insatiable thirst for information about itself and its future has now laid it wide open to the most subtle bondage of all, in which major decisions can in principle be taken for it (wittingly or otherwise) by those whom it asks to predict them; and in an age that takes verification as its chief criterion of truth the manipulators could have the strongest possible defence: 'We were right, weren't we'? "6.

The inference I drew was that "On many questions of social attitude now open to scieitific study, it is fallacious to suppose that there must exist neutral scientific knowledge to be publicly acquired. The declared aim of science is to propound conclusions which are true regardless of the attitude people take to them. It is now abundantly clear that many questions being asked of applied social science even today have no such answers. To recognise the ineradicably instrumental character of public scientific enquiry here is to lay emphasis on a new dimension of the responsibility of the scientist, at present barely acknowledged. It is not simply that we are able to alter people's opinions predictably, which all propagandists can [do]. What seems objectionable is our unrecognised and unavoidable power to do so when we are asked (and believed) to supply only "objective" information." (6).

Two Responses to Reflexivity

To this widely recognized dilemma we can react in various ways. One, which strikes me as the obviously honest way, is explicitly to disclaim for the pronouncements of investigators in human reflexive situations the 'take-it-or-leave it' status of ,scientific' descriptions. This does not mean (as Dr. van
Leeuwen mistakenly implies) denying the name of 'science' to all investigations of social and human affairs-far from it. But it does mean having the humility and honesty to renounce the kudos attached to the label 'scientific' when promulgating 'findings' in situations that deprive these 'findings' of objectivity.

An alternative course, which seems to appeal to some practitioners, is to insist on retaining the label 'scientific' in reflexive situations without any qualifications, and to blur vital distinctions by talking as if all science suffered from the same kind of difficulties in attaining objectivity. The results of such confusion are lamentably illustrated towards the end of Dr. van Leeuwen's article4. She begins well by outlining clearly the damage done to the image of man by Watson's materialist behaviourism, and provides a useful sketch of the diverse ways in which social scientists are trying to break away from that (particularly inept) straitjacket. When she turns to the views of some fellow-Christians, however, Dr. van Leeuwen lays scholarly care aside, presenting an account (unsupported by any direct quotations) that does serious injustice to both the content and the spirit of their arguments. To date, she says, it is relatively rare for Christians to resolve what she terms the 'mechanistic/ personalistic dilemma' "other than through a species of 'perspectivalism' . . . according to which the social sciences, including psychology, are left to regard and study human activity only in its determined, mechanistic aspects, while the pursuit of reflexivity-conditioned human activity, while admitted to be important, is relegated to the humanities. This position ... seems to be based on the conclusion that if one has to choose between a model of persons as unscripturally passive and one which sees them as unscripturally autonomous, it is safer to choose the former. In Dooyeweerd's language, such thinkers seem to prefer the risk of flirting with the 'science ideal' (the notion that the whole universe is impersonal and mechanistic) than with the 'freedom ideal' (the notion that at least some people can transcend their own determinism and 'play God').... In point of fact, what we must all strive for is a unified (not compartmentalised or 'perspectivalised') view of persons which does equal justice to both their creaturely and their creative aspects, and to both their Imago Dei and their fallenness."

Dr. van Leeuwen represents the present writer, among others, as seeing symptoms of practical atheism in "any [sic] questioning of the ideal of objective value-free knowledge," and she then defends such questioning without qualification as "the inevitable result of a recovered respect for human reflexivity." "[W]hen well-trained, much-respected scientists begin ... to show a greater humility and historical relativity concerning their own efforts and a greater respect for the demonstrated reflexivity, autonomy and rights of their human subjects," she goes on, "we are being not more, but less objective when we ignore their conclusions in pursuit of an inflated but outdated view of the purity of scientists and the passivity of the human beings they study."

A Realistic Balance

The reader may judge, in the light of the extracts above 2, 3, 6, how accurate is the impression so rhetorically
created. It would be hard to guess that even the very article (1) attacked by Dr. van Leeuwen contained an explicit discussion of reflexivity and the limits it sets to objectivity. A quotation from another old paper 7, entitled "Scientific beliefs about oneself," may serve to sum up my true position: "Does this [logical relativity, one of the consequences of reflexivity] mean, then, that true objectivity is unattainable in a complete science of man? Not at all. It means only that if we want to be objective we must amplify our descriptions by saying who would be correct to believe the statements concerned. The correctness of what people believe about themselves and others could in principle be objectively established, at least in retrospect. All we must abandon is the presupposition, which admittedly goes deep into our thinking, that if one individual is correct to believe that X will happen at time 1, all others would be correct to believe the same, and incorrect not to.

"We could, of course, take this point in another way. The goal of objective science is to establish facts which if true for one are true for all. Relativity theory has taught us that where facts are about relations (with observers) rather than objects, we cannot expect all observers' descriptions to agree, though we may hope to find some more fundamental representation from which individually correct beliefs about relations can be derived. Viewed in this light, we can take what I have been saying as a proof that in an important sense people cannot be objects of scientific scrutiny. An object in this sense is something of which there is one and only one objective specification that could logically claim the assent of all. By contrast, what we have seen is that the concept of a person is fundamentally relational; there is no single complete and objective specification of any one person that could claim the unconditional assent of all persons, including that person himself."

No, the branding of Christian objectivists such as the present writer as "lacking respect for the reflexivity, autonomy and rights of their human subjects," and as "holding an inflated but outdated view of the purity of scientists and the passivity of the human beings they study" (4) simply does not square with the facts. The mechanistic reductionism that undervalues human freedom is something I have spent a lifetime contending against 2, 3, 6-8, and it gains no support whatever from the objectivity for which I am also arguing. Only a sad confusion of issues can excuse the innuendo that they go together. As indicated above, a proper "respect for reflexivity" has consequences that some antiobjectivists may find unpalatable; but it affords no honest refuge from the Christian's plain duty to respect and strive for objectivity, wherever possible, as a God-given ideal.


1MacKay, D.M. 1980, Value-free knowledge: Myth or norm? Faith and Thought, 107,202-209.

2-- 1955, Man as Observer-Predictor, in: Man and his Relationships (H . Westmann, ed.) Routledge, London. pp. 15-28, esp. 20-21.

3--- 1963, Machines and Societies, in: Man and his Future (G. Wolstenholme, ed.), Churchill, pp. 153-167, esp. 165.

4van Leeuwen, M.S. 1983, Reflexivity in North American Psychology: Historical reflections on one aspect of a changing paradigm, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35 no. 3 pp. 162-167, esp. 166.

5Popper, K.R. 1957, The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge, London. 

6MacKay, D.M. 1963 op. oft. pp. 164-6.

7___1971, Scientific Beliefs about Oneself, in: The Proper Study (G.N.A. Vesey, ed.), Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, Vol. 4, Macmillan, London, pp. 48-63, esp. 54-55.

8____ 1954, On comparing the Brain with Machines, The American Scientist, 42, 261-268; 1957, Brain and Will, The Listener (BBC), May 9th and 16th. Reprinted in: Body and Mind (G.N.A. Vesey, ed.) Allen and Unwin (1964), pp. 392-402; 1957, Information Theory and Human Information Systems, Impact of Science on Society, 8, 86-101; 1960, On the Logical Indeterminacy of a Free Choice, Mind, 69, 31-40; 1960, Man as a Mechanism, Faith and Thought, 91, 145-157; also in Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, I .N.F. (1965); 1965, Information and Prediction in Human Sciences, in: Information and Prediction in Science (S. DoCkx and P. Bernays, eds.) Academic Press, NY, pp. 255-269; 1965, A Mind's Eye View of the Brain, in: Cybernetics of the Nervous System (Norbert Wiener and J.P. Schade, eds.), Progress in Brain Research, 17, Elsevier, pp. 321-332; 1969, Information, Mechanism and Meaning, M.I.T. Press, Boston; 1974, The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science, Inter-Varsity Press; 1979, Human Science and Human Dignity, Hodder and Stoughton, London, and Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, 111. 1980, Brains, Machines and Persons, Collins, London, and Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.