Are Scientists Biased by Their Worldviews?

on April 2, 2013

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).

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.

The Haarsmas delve deeper into the intersection between science and worldviews throughout Chapter 2 of Origins. Next week, we’ll look at an excerpt that compares different Christian interpretations of Genesis 1.


Notes & References


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About the Authors

  • Deborah Haarsma

    Deborah Haarsma

    Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is a frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College.  She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • Loren Haarsma

    Loren Haarsma

    Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.