How Does My Faith Affect My Scientific Work?

Richard H. Bube*

Emeritus Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-2205

A healthy human being is a whole person with inputs from a variety of the disciplines and insights of life. First of all, therefore, it is important to note that an interaction between my Christian faith and my scientific work is inevitable, if I make a consistent effort to live life as a whole integrated person.

How does my faith affect my scientific work? There are several ways that I will describe a little further along, but first it is necessary to make the negative of this statement clear: how doesn't my faith affect my scientific work? The answer can be given simply: my faith does not affect my scientific work by giving me knowledge of mechanisms, interactions in the physical world, or insights into proper and improper scientific theories. The reason for this is again simple. My faith is that God has created and sustains the universe, and my scientific task is to try to describe in the scientific categories available to me how it is that God does this. If I attempt to decide first what God could do because of my concept of who God is, then to decide that God must have done what he could do, and then to use this conclusion as a guiding principle in doing my scientific investigation, I make a critical mistake and fall victim to pseudoscience. The proper approach to finding out what God has done is to look at what God has done and is doing, and to draw relevant descriptions of his work from that.

The positive ways in which my faith affects my scientific work can be summarized under five headings.

1. My faith provides strong motivation for doing scientific research. With the conviction that there is indeed a reality that can be addressed by scientific research, I can enter into the joy of "thinking God's thoughts after him," and helping to unravel the complex structure of the world.

Example. A recent Ph.D. student of mine put together 300 pieces of data on the dark conductivity, the defect density, and the temperature in a sample of undoped hydrogenated amorphous silicon. It was an exciting realization that these data showed that there was an intricate relationship between these three variables so that if any two were specified, the third was known with striking accuracy, regardless of the past history of the material.

2. My faith provides a worldview and an ethical sensitivity that allow me to decide which areas of scientific work are the most appropriate in terms of knowledge gained and human conditions helped.

Example. I eagerly seized the opportunity to put my experience and knowledge of photoelectronic properties of semiconductors to work in the development and research of materials suitable for photovoltaic solar energy conversion. Although no aspect of scientific research is free of the possibility of human misuse, still this was an area where the opportunities for providing benefit to human beings all over the world seemed to be very high, where the benefit to the poor and suffering of the world could greatly outweigh any other effects.

3. My faith provides a framework of values within which it is possible to evaluate a particular career choice or involvement in scientific work. I deliberately chose a definition of excellence (or success) as referring to a life lived after Christian standards, rather than a definition as calling for a life that is better than any one else's in scientific career development and position.

Example. I consciously chose to accept or refuse opportunities for career development depending on whether they were consistent with a life lived with personal relationships with family, friends, church, and community, or whether they would make such a set of relationships difficult or even impossible. I did not always seek to be No. 1 regardless of the effect it might have on my relationships, and in fact at various times I did not even consider some possible career options because of this.

4. My faith enabled me to be open to the apparent descriptions of modern science, no matter how difficult or unexpected they might be, while at the same time protecting me from falling into non-Christian extrapolations or generalizations of these results beyond the range of authentic science.

Example. For many people the challenge of resolving the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and relativity, or of determinism vs. chance, or of God's omnipotence and a creation that obeys physical laws, has proved to be a threat to their faith or leads them into mystical or new-Age-like worldviews that are incompatible with Christian faith. My faith has helped me to be open-minded about the resolution of current problems in metaphysical philosophy, while holding to the basic truth that God is the Author of it all.

5. My faith has reminded me of the importance of personal relationships in daily life with the people with whom I work and relate - colleagues, students, and staff. My work also is expressed by my life in the office and lab, and this is guided by my faith.

Example. Once a group of visiting dignitaries from China came to visit my Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford during the time that I was Chairman (1975-1986). After some discussion, they asked me, "At Stanford what is the role of a Department Chairman?" I replied, "As for myself, the role of the chairman is to serve those in the department." They were a little taken aback.

The importance of my faith in my scientific work, and my scientific work in my faith led me in recent years to write two books: Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and Christian Faith, and some personal memoirs, One Whole Life. They are the best that I can do to answer the question that heads this discussion.

* ASA Fellow

From PSCF 48 no. 3 (1996): 186-7.