Tuesday 12 July 2011

Science, truth and revelation


Published in an edited version as Scientists need to rediscover Truth - in the Church Times Issue 7631 - 19 June, 2009
Bruce G Charlton


This was the first article written after I began attending church, and reflecting on the process that led to my conversion. It is NOT an up to date view of my current beliefs - but it may have 'historical' interest for readers.


I was an atheist from the age of six and a scientist by deepest conviction from a few years afterwards. However, science has recently led me to belief in God. This step was a logical necessity, based on a long-standing belief in the reality of truth and the requirement for a scientist to be devoted primarily to the pursuit of truth. I become convinced that, while science and religion are often in conflict over specific truths; at the deepest level of analysis science depends on revelation for its foundational value of truth as true.

I also made a further and more specific step from a belief in divine revelation to become specifically a Christian. This specific step has historical, sociological and personal arguments to support it; however it was not as rationally-compelled as the necessity to believe in revelation.

There are some bitter and sustained controversies between science and religion, and none more bitter and sustained than in my own academic speciality of the evolution of human psychology. Such conflicts lead to the common narrative that modern science and religion are engaged in a fundamental and centuries-long contest over the authority to control objective knowledge. This view sees science as gradually liberating itself from religious influences and growing in strength as a consequence. The story fits the usual pattern in Western societies of the concurrent expansion of science along with increase in secularism.

Yet this narrative is flawed in two major respects. The first is that by far the greatest world scientific nation is also the most religious of modernizing societies: namely the United States. This implies that there cannot be a fundamental social conflict between science and religion. The second flaw is that as European societies have indeed become more secular their science has declined in quality. Admittedly, European science has expanded vastly in terms of volume (funding, manpower and published output) – yet at the highest level of quality such as may attract Nobel Prizes or a similar honour, European science has fallen further and further behind American science both in relative and absolute terms.

But the problem of modern science is even worse than this would suggest, because the very fabric of world scientific communication is rotten with dishonesty. Science is now almost wholly detached from religion and this was supposed to liberate science from oppression. Yet the resulting science is neither independent nor devoted to truth-seeking. Instead modern science has been thoroughly infiltrated by politics and corrupted by careerism.

A scientific career now depends on raising large amounts of grant income. Consequently, scientists no longer seek funds for the research they want to do, instead scientists do whatever research gets the most funding. And to get research grants it is normal to exaggerate, select and distort right up to the limit of plausibility and just short of outright fabrication. And in the UK, the government’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has for more than two decades promoted fashion above significance, and institutionalized and enforced self-promotion and hype. In such an environment, scientists who are scrupulously honest and who pursue important but risky goals are merely regarded as selfish.

What has gone wrong? The root of the problem is, I believe, that modern scientists have progressively abandoned their belief in the reality of truth and the conviction that the life of a scientist must be characterized by truthfulness in all things great and small. Nowadays, scientists are embarrassed to talk or write about truth: indeed modern scientists regard ‘truth talk’ as naïve, amateurish, hypocritical and probably manipulative.

Yet until about fifty years ago, scientists were raised and lived in a culture so permeated with religious understandings and transcendental values that direct personal derivation from Church teachings was hardly necessary. Even when they became atheists, scientists remained religious about truth. However, the combination of atheism with belief in the reality and importance of truth seems to have been unstable and unsustainable and is now rare.

And the great scientists talked and wrote about the truth pretty much all the time – Einstein fully recognized the profoundly serious implications of the kind of routine, day-to-day petty dishonesties which characterize modern professional science when he said that ‘anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.’ Jacob Bronowski insisted that science entails the ‘habit of truth’ because scientific work is ‘of a piece, in the large and in detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together.’

The growth of corruption and dishonesty strongly suggests that modern science cannot do without the concept of transcendental truth. Yet the reality of truth was not something science discovered as an observation or a fact; truth was not waiting to be found under a microscope. Rather, the existence and importance of truth came prior to the emergence of science, revealed to humans of the past - to great theologians, philosophers and scientists. We moderns are recipients of their revelations, transmitted to us across the centuries.

Revelation implies a supernatural God, purposefully communicating with humankind. This leads to the need for a belief in revelation, but logic doesn’t stop there. If revelations are to be distinguishable from subjective delusion or deception; then revealed knowledge must be gathered, analyzed, harmonized, preserved and passed-on, and this necessity implies the further need for a Church. A Church is also needed to support and sustain scientists (and everyone else) in their basic ethic of truthfulness in the face of many relentless temptations and pressures towards the easy path of expedient dishonesty.

It seems that belief in the reality of truth plus the rigorous application of logic leads inexorably to the need for scientists to embrace a Church based upon revelation. The job of science should be to understand specific truths, and religion should not be concerned with such specifics. But revelation is necessary to anchor and frame science because it is revelation that underpins the vital institutional belief in the reality of truth, and supports the conviction that scientists must seek truth and tell the truth.

The accumulating evidence of the past decades suggests that science works better when it is underpinned by a transcendental belief in the reality and importance of truth; indeed when this belief is lost, science soon stops being science. Once this is accepted there are two possible inferences: either that the belief in truth is a convenient delusion that, by chance or luck, happens to work better than the reality; or else that truth really is true, in which case we need to accept revelation as the basis for this knowledge.

I know from personal experience any implication of the reality of truth being a supernatural revelation is exceedingly hard to swallow for many scientists, who much prefer the idea of truth as a useful delusion. However, to do its work in science and in the lives of scientists, the concept of truth cannot merely be an insipid and vague conjecture based on a pragmatic lie. Instead truth must be a fundamental belief to be lived-by, a conviction for which it is worth paying costs and making sacrifices, as with scientists of the past such as the Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov who died in prison for criticising the absurd theories of Trofim Lysenko at a time when belief in ‘Lysenkoism’ was enforced by the Stalinist regime.

So, uncomfortable or not, I think that real scientists who feel compelled to speak the truth and seek the truth will increasingly find themselves also compelled to accept the reality of divine revelation.



The Crow said...

Truth is the necessary ingredient for mental health and wellbeing. Without it, there is distortion and delusion.
Honesty is not optional.

Brett Stevens said...

Well stated, bgc. This joins the echelon of favorite posts of yours that I keep in the back of my head.

It seems to me that one has the option to believe that life and the cosmos are participants in an order. Like all patterns, it is not tangible, and so the proles hate it because to them it's trickery and witchcraft. But clearly there is some form of order.

This leads in turn to the fundamental question Plato asked: what is the origin of this order? At this point we are talking about a new kind of science: one of comparing patterns and deriving answers from the degree of compatibility between them.

This allows us to see (as Plato did) how the supernatural is not far removed from nature, but instead an underlying principle as logical as gravity.

From here, it is entirely rational to accept a larger order than the material, and to posit that we can -- in bits and pieces -- understand it through careful study.

Wm Jas said...

You say that we must believe that truth is actually true, not merely useful -- but you justify that not with a philosophical argument that truth actually is transcendental, but with the pragmatic argument that such a belief (true or not) has a useful effect on the behavior of scientists.

At least at the time you wrote this, it seems that your embrace of religious/transcendental beliefs was still pragmatic at its core.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I think it was more that Science claimed to be pragmatic, but turned out to be indifferent to outcomes.

It turned out that science was more concerned to reject transcendental values than to do good science.

It was more a sociology of science kind of argument.

Also this was an approximate record of a path to conversion - logical or not. Nobody is converted by an argument, especially not a single argument.

(There is infinite scope for prevaricating and quibbling - it is enjoyable - and many people get stuck there and stop seeking. In particular, people want matters to be deep and dark when the answers are easy and obvious)

S. Thompson said...

'day-to-day petty dishonesties which characterize modern professional science'


Can you please give examples of the above?

Bruce Charlton said...

Start here: http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2009/10/truthfulness-in-science-should-be-iron.html