Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ideology and Science

The notion that not only facts but also personal and communal beliefs contribute to scientific knowledge has become commonplace. Christians such as Dr. Cornelis Van Dam have welcomed this notion, not because they want to acknowledge the social dimension of knowledge acquisition, but because it allows them arbitrarily to deny the truth of those parts of science that they believe are threatening to them and their community of faith (see his editorials in Clarion of January 29 and February 12, 2010). If the content of scientific theories is influenced by background beliefs, they argue, then this levels the playing field between, say, naturalism and theism. They do not realize that this move is very costly from a Christian perspective. For one, truth about nature is made to depend completely on the beliefs of the community with the most power. For another, truth no longer depends on what exists objectively as created by God. This raises important questions. How can people with different belief systems work together in science? Can scientific knowledge be trusted if it is shaped and sometimes distorted by beliefs operating in the background of science (background beliefs)? Is it possible to acknowledge the role of background beliefs in science (subjectivity) and avoid turning background beliefs into the sole source of knowledge of nature (subjectivism)?

In this essay I explain why background beliefs are required for the construction of theories in science. I argue that background beliefs do not normally distort scientific knowledge because God created an objectively existing reality that resists distortion. Therefore, the background beliefs of scientists do not dictate the content of scientific knowledge. The conclusion is that people with different belief systems, including Christians, can work together in scientific research.

This essay also aims at clarifying how to discern between truth and falsehood in science. The first thing to understand is that everyone — and that includes those with a lot of education — is a lay person in all domains of knowledge except one’s own specialty. This means that everyone’s knowledge is affected by what is available in the knowledge market. Thus everyone has to learn discernment. But especially Christians have to learn to separate the chaff from the wheat. Failure to do so results in an inability to give an account of one’s faith, or worse, it results in creating confusion.

The essay can be found in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here. We welcome your responses.

Note added 22 May 2013: A revised version was invited and is now published as Jitse van der Meer, “Background Beliefs, Ideology, and Science”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith v. 65, n. 2 (June 2013), pp. 87-103.

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