Is Science a Totally Objective, Neutral Kind of Knowledge?

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Scientific and Religious Forms of Knowledge

Subjectivity behind Objectivity

While I was giving a lecture in a religious studies course, one of my students politely objected to religion as a form of knowledge about the world. She said, in effect, that religious knowledge, such as faith in a Supreme Being or God, is subjective and, therefore, unreliable. For her, “enlightened,” rational human beings must move away from religious knowledge to scientific knowledge, which is objective and testable and, therefore, yields a more certain knowledge of reality.

Is she right? Is scientific knowledge, which is based on observation and experimentation, totally objective? Is the scientist absolutely detached and dispassionate about what he or she knows? Is science a neutral form of knowledge and, thus, not influenced by the scientist himself or herself? Absolutely Not!

Who does scientific research? A scientist. Who is a scientist? A human being. A scientist, then, cannot extricate himself or herself from his or her research and presume a stance of total objectivity. In others words, a scientist cannot stand outside himself or herself, as it were, and be absolutely objective. Behind the pursuit of objectivity is subjectivity, that is, a person who is a feeling, believing and valuing being.

To state my point in the first person singular: I cannot get away from my “I” and become a totally detached, dispassionate observer. I remain a subject, despite my pursuit of objective knowledge. As philosopher C. Stephen Evans says, “The notion that science is a value-free, presuppositionless endeavor carried out by detached observers is a myth.”1

The Faith of a Scientist

Of course, a religious person — such as a Jew, Muslim or Christian — has faith in God. But does a scientist have faith, albeit not a religious kind of faith? Yes! In fact, the scientific method, which uses one or more of the five senses, is based on faith. In other words, to perform an experiment or test a theory in a laboratory, a scientist must believe in the basic reliability of his or her senses. A scientist functions on the faith-premise that what he or she sees and touches is really there. For example, Charles Hummel, addressing the proper relationship between science and faith, writes,

“A scientist’s faith structure is operative at every stage of research. No one can do science without believing that the scientific method and its presuppositions are fundamentally valid and can be unquestioningly accepted.”2

Thus, the pursuit of scientific knowledge is, in the words of the chemist- philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976), “the process described epigrammatically by the Church Fathers in the words: fides quaerens intellectum, faith in search of understanding.”3

The Nicene Creed begins, “I believe in one God.” That statement is not anti-scientific. Rather, it is non-scientific. The reason is that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, because belief in God is outside the scope of scientific knowledge. Of course, believing something does not make it so; nor does denying something necessarily mean that it does not exist. It belongs to other areas of knowledge, such as philosophy and religion, to give evidence for or against the existence of God.

Endnotes

  1. C. Stephen Evans, Preserving the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1977, reprinted 1982), p. 132.
  2. Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 254-255.
  3. Michael Polanyi, quoted in ibid., p. 255.

 

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