From the Archives: Are Scientists Biased by Their Worldviews? | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Just what is a worldview? A worldview, or world-and-life view, is often defined as a belief system that a person uses to answer the big questions of life. These questions include the origin of the universe and of humanity, the purpose of human existence, the existence of God, and how one should relate to God. In this context, atheism is not the absence of religion. Rather it is a belief system that answers these questions differently than a God-centered belief system.

We’ve seen repeatedly that scientists with very different worldviews can work together comfortably on a professional level. They collaborate on experiments, share theories, listen to each other, and reach agreement on scientific results. How can scientists who have such fundamentally different worldviews so often come to the same scientific conclusion?

Some people have suggested that science, by its very nature, is independent of worldview. Good scientists, they say, are simply objective; when they enter the lab, they set aside all prejudice and beliefs. But the history of science shows that worldview beliefs frequently do influence scientific choices. Besides, the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth is, in itself, a worldview belief.

Worldview Beliefs Necessary for Science

All scientists, regardless of their particular worldview, hold certain philosophical beliefs foundational for doing science. Some of these are listed in the left-hand column on the chart below. These fundamental beliefs cannot be proved from science itself. The fact that science actually works lends support to these beliefs, but the beliefs themselves come from outside of science, perhaps from culture, or religion, or simply the scientist’s personal choice. Today these beliefs may seem obvious, but for most of human history, people did not hold to all of them. Animists, who believe that gods inhabit many aspects of the physical world, would have very different views of cause and effect and the regularity of nature. Plato and Aristotle developed logical and beautiful theories about the workings of the natural world, but they got some answers very wrong because they did not place enough priority on doing experimental tests. Even today, people who follow astrology or new age beliefs would disagree with some of the beliefs listed in the left-hand column.

Consider some Christian theological beliefs that come from biblical teachings about God and the world. We’ve listed several in the right-hand column on the chart. Notice how each Christian belief on the right naturally gives rise to the worldview belief on the left. For a Christian, biblical teachings about God and the natural world provide ample support and motivation for doing science and a basis for understanding why science is so successful. Christians doing science are not acting as if God doesn’t exist. Rather, they are acting on their belief that there is a God—not a capricious God, but the God of the Bible who made an orderly world and who still governs it in an orderly fashion.

This also helps us understand why Christians who are professional scientists usually come to the same scientific conclusions as scientists with other worldviews. Although scientists with other worldviews do not share with Christians the beliefs about God and the meaning of human life listed in the right-hand column of the chart, they do share the beliefs in the left-hand column. Sharing that common subset of beliefs with Christians means they can work together as professional scientists and reach consensus. This would not have surprised John Calvin, a theologian and church reformer from the 1500's, who wrote, “All truth is from God, and consequently if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it, for it has come from God” (Calvin’s Commentaries on Titus 1:12).

Worldview Beliefs Needed for Science Christian Beliefs Humans have the ability to study nature and to understand, at least in part, how it functions. Humans are God’s imagebearers in this world (Gen. 1:27). Thanks to the abilities that God has given us, we can understand, at least in part, how the world works. Events in the natural world work by natural cause and effect. For example, a tree falls because the wind exerts a force on it, not because it wanted to fall, nor because a forest god made it fall, nor because it simply was fated to fall. There are no nature spirits, no capricious gods, no fate. There is only one God (Deut. 6:4) who created and rules the world (Gen.1) in a faithful, consistent manner (Ps. 119:89-90). Natural phenomena are repeatable; they are regular across space and time. Scientists will find the same experimental result in laboratories all over the earth, and will find the same result today as they found last week. This consistency allows the phenomena to be studied using logic and mathematics. God has established natural laws (Jer. 33:19-26) and faithful covenants (Gen. 8:22) with the physical universe. So we are not surprised to discover that nature typically operates with regular, repeatable, universal patterns. Observations and experiments are necessary to build and test scientific models that correctly describe natural phenomena. Logic and deduction alone are not sufficient to build an accurate understanding of the natural world. God was free to create the world in many ways. Humans are limited and sinful. We are unable to understand God’s ways completely (Job 38). So our scientific models based on logic and deduction must also be tested by careful experimentation and observation, comparing them to what God has actually made. Science is a worthwhile use of human time and resources. Studying nature is worth doing because we are studying the very handiwork of God (Ps. 19:1). God has called us to study his creation (Gen. 2:19-20; Prov. 25:2) and to be stewards of it (Gen. 1:28-29; Ps. 8:5-8).

Worldviews and Science Influence Each Other

Worldviews and science can also interact in less healthy ways. One unhealthy interaction happens when someone rejects a scientific conclusion without examining the data carefully because that conclusion seems to conflict with his or her worldview. Alternately, someone might believe a model not because scientific data actually support it but because it matches his or her worldview beliefs. For instance, some practitioners passionately believe that certain kinds of alternative medicine therapies are effective in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary. They want the therapies to work because of their worldview beliefs, in some cases even claiming that their therapies are scientific when the scientific data are against them.

This is where the self-correcting features of the scientific process can help: scientists of differing worldviews challenge each other, forcing each side to make a stronger scientific case for its models and inspiring each other toward creative thinking. They invent new technologies and new experiments to support or disprove competing models until they reach a new consensus. The competing models and original arguments may have begun, at least in part, because of worldview beliefs, but eventually the experiments and observations push the scientific community toward a consensus shared by scientists of many different worldviews.

A number of Christians today accuse the scientific community of having an atheistic bias on issues of origins without first carefully examining the evidence that has led the scientific community to its conclusion. This is an invalid accusation for several reasons:

  • First, many scientists are not atheists. When the scientific community really does have a consensus, it represents the professional judgment of people with many different religious views, including many Christians.
  • Second, recall the idea that all truth is God’s truth. Regardless of the worldview beliefs of the person who discovered the scientific truth, if it is true that knowledge is a gift from God.
  • Third, we should not be quick to deny a scientific result simply because it disagrees with what we already believe. An apparent conflict should certainly prompt us to demand a solid explanation of the scientific evidence. But a quick rejection does not give sufficient respect to God’s revelation in nature since it denies that new truths may be learned from it.

Another unhealthy interaction occurs when science is misused to argue for a particular worldview. For example, atheists—both scientists and nonscientists—have a long history of loudly claiming that the results of science prove that atheism is true. When atheists make such claims in their writing and speaking, they are seldom careful to differentiate where the science ends and their worldview claims begin. They tend to thoroughly mix scientific results with their worldview claims so that it is difficult for a non-scientist to tell the difference. This type of writing and speaking has caused the entire scientific community to acquire an atheistic reputation, even though only a few scientists mix atheism with science in this way.

Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources), 2011. Reprinted with permission. To order a copy of this resource please call1-800-333-8300 or visit our website www.faithaliveresources.org.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/from-the-archives-are-scientists-biased-by-their-worldviews

(Dr. Deborah Haarsma) #3

@LorenHaarsma and I are available to respond to comments and questions about this post.


(Lou Jost) #5

As a scientist and former Christian, now atheist, I strongly disagree with your framing of these opposing worldviews and with your claim that the items on the left of your chart are assumptions needed in order to do science. Most of the items on the right side of your chart are not freely chosen beliegs or presuppositions needed in order to do science, but rather empirical conclusions which have been developed from observation of the world. That is why some of them have changed since the time of Aristotle. Even the idea that there is an objective world and other minds is a reasonable deduction from our observation, though I agree that we cannot prove them.

And while Christians often do science very well, I have yet to see a Christian apply the skepticism inherent in good science to his or her own beliefs about Christianity. Rather, it seems to me that scientists who are Christian close off their religious beliefs to the scrutiny that they would ordinarily give to non-religious claims, or to claims from other religions. We have seen many examples of this in BioLogos columns and comments.

Finally many of the items on the left in your chart are not biblical and are in fact empirical conclusions borrowed from science, overriding the primitive Old Testament animistic, capricious worldview of the Bible. In the Bible, the world IS capricious and teleological. Miracles happen, prayer is answered, complex events are pre-ordained, the world is full of signs and portents. Most Christians still believe some of this, as shown by their responses here and elsewhere on the internet.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #6

Deb and Loren wrote:

Third, we should not be quick to deny a scientific result simply because it disagrees with what we already believe. An apparent conflict should certainly prompt us to demand a solid explanation of the scientific evidence. But a quick rejection does not give sufficient respect to God’s revelation in nature since it denies that new truths may be learned from it.

I quite agree with this statement. The problem is this. I along with many others have pointed out the fact that the conflict based view of natural selection put forward by Charles Darwin and accepted in theory by scientists since conflicts with 1) the basic scientific view that the universe is a cosmos, or system acting in harmony, and 2) the basic theological view that the universe was created through the Logos Who is Truth and Love. So the question is, Which is correct?

I went science and found the following: Darwin’s views were based on the population theories of Malthus which have been generally discredited. There is NO experimental data or field studies to indicate that natural selection is conflict based. Dawkins statements in this area deal with conflict between predator and prey, while natural selection deals with conflict between alleles within the same species for dominance. There is NO scientific basis for saying that natural selection is based on conflict., based on all the resources that I could find and evidence provided by others.

On the other hand ecology clearly demonstrates how different alleles can develop into a new species through creative adaption to new niches. It also indicates how natural selection by extinction takes place not through conflict, but through the loss of habitat. All this and more are detailed in my book, Darwin’s Myth.

The question is, If I have done my home work and researched this problem, why doesn’t BioLogos follow what it preaches and give my views a fair hearing? I can understand why Darwinists do not, because as much as we want to idealize them, scientists are human. They do not like to admit their mistakes and say that Creationists may be right in some way. Lynn Margulis was soundly denounced for making such a statement.

I hope that you and BioLogos will not reject my view out of hand, but consider all the evidence before making a thoughtful statement. Please practice what you preach.


Roger's views on Darwinism and natural selection
(Brad Kramer) #7

I don’t want to speak for the Haarsmas here, but I would caution that we do take developments in evolutionary theory seriously, and we are not deaf to your voluminous pleas otherwise (and you are not the only one suggesting these ideas). After reading tomorrow’s post, I suspect your opinion of us might be different. Stay tuned.


(Dr. Loren Haarsma) #8

@loujost

You are correct that the worldview beliefs at the foundation of science are not “freely chosen beliefs or presuppositions.” As you say, they were arrived at by a long, historical process of studying and reflecting on the natural world. But that historical process of study and reflection, itself, happened within a context of other beliefs. It is conceivable that modern science could have arising in an atheistic culture, or in a Buddhist culture, but historically it did not. As numerous historians of science (both Christian and non-Christian) have pointed out, many of the earliest practitioners of modern science justified their scientific approach to studying the natural world from their Christian theological beliefs. The most famous work of scholarship on this topic is probably Reijer Hooykaas’ “Religion and the Rise of Modern Science.”

As you point out, there are versions of Christianity which at odds with scientific ways of looking at the world. Likewise, there are versions of atheism and versions of Buddhism (just to name two) which are at odds with science. But there are versions of Christianity, and versions of atheism, and versions of Buddhism which are not at odds with science. Also as you say, some Christians do not “apply the skepticism inherent in good science” to their religious beliefs. But I’ve also met more than few atheists who are subject to the same criticism.

In science, we often encounter situations where multiple theories explain all available data. We might each have one particular theory which we suspect is true. But we are trained to be cautious about what claims we make on the basis of the data. A scientist who claims that the data proves one particular scientific theory, when several competing theories also fit the data, would be harshly criticized in peer review. I try to take this same approach to meta-scientific philosophical questions. I’m happy to admit that what science has so far revealed about the natural world is compatible with some versions of Christianity, and some versions of atheism, and some versions of Buddhism. I believe that Christianity in particular is true for reasons which go beyond science.


(Lou Jost) #9

Thanks for replying, Dr Haarsma. I disagree with you that some forms of Christianity are compatible with what we know about science: the Resurrection and the Ascension are incompatible with what we know about reality. Granted, this doesn’t prove they didn’t happen; we don’t know everything! But as you said, “In science, we often encounter situations where multiple theories explain all available data…we are trained to be cautious about what claims we make on the basis of the data.” This attitude, which you wisely recommend, obviously should be applied not only to meta-scientific questions but to the empirical truth-claims of your religion. The data, in this case, is a set of rather ambiguous, contradictory anonymous second- or third-hand accounts supporting the resurrection, not even as strong as the signed non-anonymous testimonies about Joseph Smith’s golden tablets. The scientific attitude would be to admit that the truth of these accounts is very very unlikely, given what we know today. Yet I rarely see Christians treating their belief as a tentative hypothesis, and even rarer is the Christian who actively tries to disprove his beliefs, like any good scientist would do with his pet theories.


(system) #11

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