Religious faith and interest in basic science

Some clarity.

I apologize for the misunderstanding. I was wrong. Joshua is obviously deeply invested in basic questions in science relevant to evolution in the areas of basic natural history, paleontology, systematics, biological diversity, speciation, natural selection, and biogeography entirely independent of any practical application or ideological agenda. He is simply interested in these sorts of questions on their intrinsic merits devoid of any ends either practical, philosophical, or theological. Better?

However, in my experience I have not seen that level of interest in basic science in these areas for creationists like Nathaniel Jeanson. They seem to me incapable of mustering any interest for the aspects of the natural world that are the subjects of evolutionary biology beyond employing those facets of nature to serve a religious narrative.

I think they value science primarily in a utilitarian sense and that spills over in how they mesh science with religion. I think utility as the primary goal of science is in fact a common perception of science that I think that permeates even some scientists outside of the creationist sphere, and many university administrators eager for biomedical and engineering funding.

Let’s just say I have yet to have any conversations about the distribution of island passerines in East Asia or the distribution of birds across Wallace’s line with creationists where it wasn’t discussed in reference to some Bible beliefs (I’ll narrow my criticism to YECs and other creationists who do not believe in evolution if that helps add clarity).

That is my experience. If there are creationists (see above caveats as to what that means) with deep abiding interests in natural history without any consideration of the Bible I would love to meet them.

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The discussion about @swamidass was, in my view, an unfortunate distraction, and not @Herman_Mays’ main point. I think it is an interesting discussion for Christians in science to think about the way they interact with science as a pursuit or vocation.

I teach science at a Christian university and so I have an opportunity to talk with students occasionally about why they are studying science, etc. I will say that I did meet one student who flat out said that they were studying science to prove God and the Bible right. This is the sort of person I think @Herman_Mays is talking about. However, that was one out of dozens that I’ve spoken to specifically about their motivation.

There does seem to be a “thing” that sometimes happens in YEC communities where young people are encouraged to go off to a top-tier school and get a PhD in science in order to gain authority as they push YEC. I can see where scientists like @Herman_Mays would be quite upset by that. However, I think for the vast majority of Christian young people who pursue science, that is not what’s going on. I think if your main interaction with overtly Christian scientists is in apologetics and origins debates, you are interacting with the exception, not the rule, in my opinion.

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So here’s an example of how this utilitarian approach to science permeates things.

I recall my son in grade school doing a school science project. At the time I was working as a museum curator and he wanted to do something that involved the collection so we came up with this project where he would measure vole skulls to see how their body size varies with latitude. A classic pattern that people look for in biogeography.

Well the judge at the fair wanted to know from him “what good is this to anyone”. The shortsightedness of that attitude shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Basic research in science is not about practical ends but I think it’s easy for the general public and even many people in the applied sciences to always want to see a purpose for science beyond just understanding nature and creationists have a ready build purpose waiting for every scientific question, an affirmation of their religious beliefs.

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I would like to know the numbers but there are certainly a lot of creationists with science backgrounds who come from medicine, industry and engineering. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Let me offer an alternative viewpoint, one in which theistic belief can bolster motivations for doing pure basic research.

I’m a physicist who works on precision measurements of fundamental constants in order to shed light on the most basic puzzles of cosmology and particle physics. This is basic experimental science with no practical application. It is also unclear what application it would have in the hot topic of recent theological debates, as I don’t think even a YEC would have a problem with the electron electric dipole moment being non-zero. (Similarly, the questions my experiment are asking have almost nothing to do with the Fine Tuning Argument or any other theological argument I can think of.)

That being said, as a Christian, I feel I have a extra personal motivation when I’m doing research in this sub-field, even though it doesn’t “help people” like cancer or drug research. The reason is because I feel that measuring a fundamental constant to great precision is a reverent response to God’s decision to create the universe and set the constant at that value. I am inspired by what my doctoral advisor once said, “God decides, we measure.”

Because of this theological background belief, I think that the very act of measuring something to great precision is something beautiful, useful, important to do, even if it has no other commercial or medical applications. In fact I think it’s a form of worship. It is trying to discover Truth aside from any possible utility for man-made purposes - a pure celebration of our God-given ability to measure things and of the wonder and complexity of creation. It is responding to a puzzle, a challenge, that God has implanted in the very design of creation and one that he asks us to solve.

Would it be wrong or problematic for me to have this personal motivation that makes me interested in this sub-field?

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Yes. I get that. I think it is very difficult for a theist doing any research into the workings of nature to have a view divorced from some umbrella of theological meaning.

For me however my curiosity is simply borne out of nature itself. I don’t derive any spiritual meaning from basic research.

Let me ask you a question Daniel.

Would the same basic questions you are asking now as a physicist be equally interesting to you if you were an atheist or agnostic.

I hear you! I got so tired of trying to explain what the “point” of my grad research was to people. “Because it’s amazing to understand how the world works and nobody has ever done this before!” was somehow so much less interesting to people than “We can cure cancer!” or “We can patent it and make millions!” would have been. It can be very discouraging.

I suppose that’s probably true for many, but to be fair, that also seems like a pretty human thing to do. People generally use science as a tool to bolster their beliefs, whether that be in a 6,000 year old universe or things like COVID cures, diets, vaccines, or climate change. I think the vast majority of folks go through life mostly assuming what’s true, very few can play the skeptic consistently. I think scientists are trained, for the most part, to try to avoid this behavior, but even then history isn’t always so kind (for instance Linus Pauling and Vitamin C).

I have noticed this as well and have often wondered why this is exactly. I usually chalk it up to a less nuanced view of the way science works and less familiarity of how much isn’t known out there. Maybe your suggestion of basic vs applied plays into it as well. That seems plausible at least.

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Exactly! I think this is a very basic misunderstanding of science.

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I agree. I however would argue we’ve got to find away to get away from that if we have any hope at all of combating things like science denial.

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Maybe? I know of only a handful of exceptions to this. I think there is a broad inclination towards purpose in general that may drive both creationists (sensu stricto) and just many theists in science in general towards end-based approaches to science.

Generally speaking, I think this might be true, though there certainly are exceptions.

As one in the medical sciences, I see somewhat of a paradox here. I choose scientific projects because I think they are helpful, but I also find these projects (and others) intrinsically interesting. I see increasing our knowledge of the natural world as an end in itself, even if it does not help society, but I also see value in using science to help society.

So I do science for the sake of science, and that would be enough, but also for what science can do, because science can do quite a lot.

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OK, so for me as a Christian in science and a science educator, this is good common ground (not to overuse that phrase around here). I think a lack of science literacy affects a lot of issues, one of them being the way that people view the role and purpose of science and its relationship to other disciplines.

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do with my students (as a basic science kind of guy), is to acknowledge their focus on the applied (80+% are engineering or pre-health) but try to broaden their vision a little to see how science is beautiful and worthy in itself. Sometimes I do that by pausing at something that is meaningful to me (an equation or graph maybe) and explaining to my students why it’s meaningful to me.

What are some suggestions that you have for helping students see this value in science itself?

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The science you do is in the realm of drug discovery, cancer biology and other biomedical informatics is it not Josh?

What research would you do if you started all over again and this time in a career in basic research only? Why?

I do translational scientific work that spans between basic science and practical science. If I had to do it all over again? I’d probably do this again. The translation between disparate ways of thinking is intrinsically interesting to me. It is always fresh and new, and I’m good at this type of science. It also fits my motivations:

I should also add that I have published purely basic science papers (and basic science is often how I make my contribution in collaborations) and I’ve done so in several fields. So the fact that I do translational work does not reflect an aversion to basic science, but a proclivity towards it.

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I don’t pretend to have any great answers for this but my students are also predominantly biomedical and view science as a means to practical ends. I teach genetics and one thing I’m adamant about is that it’s not human genetics class. I tell them this might be there last chance to gain some broader understanding of the world and to learn about haplodiploidy in Hymenoptera or that female birds not males are the heterogametic sex. I think it’s easy for students in very biomedical centered programs to come out thinking the biological world is humans and their parasites and white lab mice.

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I would say Josh that much of what I’m talking about is not just basic science with a cell and molecular bend but natural history. One criticism I’ve leveled at creationists (not you but other creationists sensu stricto) is that every organism on earth seems to them to be in a zoo or a barnyard. They seem to me to have little interest in basic natural history in general.

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I suppose I have not published much peer-reviewed literature on natural history per se, but I am very interested in it. That intrinsic interest is what pulled the thread that unravelled my YEC creationism. Though, once again, I agree with you about many other creationists. The reason is obvious, to me at least. They don’t want it all to unravel.

Those sorts of questions have very deep relevance to evolution and with very few exceptions I don’t see creationists (again not you) interested in them at all other than how it serves their religious agenda.

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One trend that has really been playing out over the past forty years in universities is a move away from organismal courses and collections and this has greatly contributed to this ever growing utilitarian and biomedical attitude towards the life sciences in particular. We are lucky here at Marshall that we still have a collection and organismal courses in botany, mammalogy, herpetology and ornithology. It’s a dying thing in higher education

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