Religious faith and interest in basic science

Man, this and your question to @swamidass (the research do-over) are very thought-provoking for me today. Thanks for that!

I am sort of doing it the other way around a little bit. My interest has always been in basic science but in the last couple years I have been thinking more about “science in service to the world”. In other words, what if I could both do something because it was beautiful and interesting in it’s own right, but also impactful outside of my own interests? I believe that service part comes from my faith, and wanting to better the world. It doesn’t change how I do science, but I guess it does change the questions and purpose behind it a bit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for me.

I’ve been primarily a teaching professor for the last 8 years at a liberal arts college and likely won’t do significant levels of research in my career, but I still try to do a bit here and there. Peaceful Science has been a big part of my “do-over” and I’ve been studying a lot more about population genetics, genetics in general, and human origins. @swamidass really challenged me to consider the question “what does it mean to be human?” I’m also much more into biophysics than I used to be, I think as a blend of my interests (chemistry, physics, genetics, data science) rather than picking focusing on just one.


I view basic science as much of a service to the world as applied biomedical science and engineering and for that matter art and literature. I think we’ve been on this track for so long that even working scientists have bought into this idea of applied science as the science that helps the world.

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This is definitely true at my school. It’s sad, but we haven’t been able to sustain much interest past pre-health science and biomedical research.

My undergraduate degree happens to be in Environmental Science and so my exposure to biology was more on the organismal side, limited as it was. So I came out knowing less about molecular genetics than bird extinction and habitat (had to do a major paper/presentation project on passenger pigeons for my Conservation Bio class and tracked Northern Goshawks for a semester for my senior capstone).


Yeah, this is a big problem. I was lucky to take some amazing organismal courses during my undergrad degree at San Diego State - Terrestrial Arthropods taught by Marshal Hedin (who would later go on to be my M.S. advisor) was probably the best class I’ve ever taken, and Ornithology with Kevin Burns was another major highlight.

Those were life-changing courses that covered an enormous breadth of topics and required immense amounts of subject knowledge, work, and enthusiasm from the instructors.

By the time I left SDSU, I heard lots of rumors to the effect that the university was trying to cut these types of courses because they could only be taught to a relatively small number of students at a time. Losing organismal courses would be tragic.


When I was the zoology curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History I cared for an incredible collection dating back nearly 150 years and much of it was literally tossed out the windows of the university of Cincinnati to make room for more profitable biomedical research space. It was only saved by a donor and local artist who rescued the collection and had it moved to the museum.

It think we need to get beyond both practical utilitarian approaches in science (not that they aren’t important but they shouldn’t crowd out everything else) and I think (and maybe this will be unpopular but I will try and be as tactful as possible) valuing science as a worshipful experience in gods creation. Lot’s of different sorts of people do science and the value of science I think needs to be articulated independent of utility (while acknowledging utility as a component) and independent of anyone’s beliefs (it’s fine if science as worship is your personal view but it has value beyond both utility and any one group’s beliefs).

I think in most places they have already been lost forever. I think I’m among some of the last generation to have as an undergraduate seen these courses as a normal part of the curriculum.

It’s infuriating.

I think it is just a logical outcome of decades of devaluing basic research relative to utilitarian, goal orientated, practical, applied research by administrators, politicians, funding agencies, industry and even many scientists, physicians and engineers themselves. I see it as a form of anti-intellectualism that’s been brewing at least here in the US for a very long time. We have got to do a better job in articulating the value of science in ways that are independent of utility and, at risk of being misunderstood (please don’t shoot me), ideology or theology, but I’m afraid this is almost an insurmountable task.

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It is also related to changing modes of research. Scientific work looking at natural history has changed dramatically over recent decades. Not all the attrition here is an anti-basic science shift. Twenty years ago, professors were bemoaning the same thing after they were stuck teaching a bunch of pre-meds. So I wonder if part of this is just the natural creaks and groans of biologists being forced to teach pre-meds.

I don’t think so. People have been going to college to become doctors for a long time and they’ve been taking these classes. It’s in large part for universities about money. A space devoted to a natural history collection doesn’t bring in as much money as the same space devoted to someone with an NIH grant. There has to be a balance and right now there isn’t a good balance between applied and basic research in the US.


And yes, it can be beyond infuriating.


I’m not sure, because it’s hard not imagining myself as a theist of some sort. From a very young age I’ve always had this vague, Platonic notion of consilience, that all approaches to knowledge have to “converge” in some way towards some fundamental rational order, and that this “unity of knowledge” is the fundamental reason why we should try to seek knowledge at all. Thus, all sorts of knowledge (not just utilitarian ones) are equally important to approach this “unity of knowledge”. It is possible for some non-theistic scientists to have a similar idea (e.g. E.O. Wilson, who wrote a book on this), but I don’t know if I would believe in it as strongly. I would actually guess that this deep-seated belief in consilience is one of the primary reasons for why I’m religious.

I would guess that if I were an atheist or agnostic, I would attempt to derive value from serving and uplifting fellow humanity, not an abstract, lofty goal like getting to the basic consilience of knowledge. If there is no God watching then fellow humans are the closest alternative. I don’t know if this necessarily leads to a complete utility-approach to science. But I think I would be interested in some sort of ethical transhumanism.

What’s wrong with having a diversity of motivations for basic science. I don’t understand this drive for uniformity. Some Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scientists do it for religious reasons, some atheist scientists do it for pure curiosity, some others do it for other reasons.

While a certain form of religion (such as American fundamentalism, which arose in the early 20th century) drives anti-intellectualism, I would argue that another kind of religion tends to drive the impetus for basic research. In fact, the prioritization of utility over basic truth in modern technological and scientific culture is one that theists on this board have complained about before. As @Eddie said:


Well, again as I’ve said many many times I have no quarrels at all with anyone’s religious beliefs so long as they aren’t hurting themselves or others, forcing their beliefs on others, or misrepresenting their religious beliefs for something they are not. None of which I see you doing Daniel.

And yes I agree diversity of views in science is a good thing and because of that I think we need to articulate the value of science in ways that is divorced from any one set of theological views. That said I have no problem with your personal motivation only with taking that personal and very theological motivation as a more general argument for the value of basic research and science in general. Again not that you are doing that.


Well yes, I don’t think my personal motivations would make much sense to an atheist student trying to decide between basic science or medical school. But I would hope that it can motivate more Christians to go into basic science. So, if you’re in charge of public science education, one solution would be for you to send me to talk to Christian students to motivate them to go into basic science, while sending a Muslim scientist to do the same thing to Muslim students, and sending a secular scientist to speak to non-religious students. You see how this can become win-win?

My point is that while there are some basic disagreements between religious and non-religious people, I think it’s possible in this case to work together for a common goal that we agree is good, namely increasing more interest in basic science. There’s no need to criticize everyone who integrates their practice of science as part of their religious faith, who doesn’t hold to a strict NOMA. Of course there are some forms of religion that are antithetical to the practice of science. But not all are like that.

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I’m not criticizing you for those theological motives for science. I’m just pointing out they are personal and can be very idiosyncratic.

I get your appeal for everyone to have their own forums friendly to their beliefs to guide them on motivation. I understand why that may be attractive.

The bigger challenge however is articulating the value of science in a very broad way that is applicable to everyone regardless of your religious beliefs.

My approach would favor the latter.

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Curiosity is not idiosyncratic. It is one of the most fundamental motivations of scientists of many sorts. Curiosity expresses a realization, even a faith, that there is a good reality to be discovered, one we do not yet see.

Neither is awe and wonder idiosyncratic, but these also are fundamental motivations of many sorts too. We wonder about mysteries and stand in awe of beauties and all these things are intrinsic goods, not merely instrumental. They are part of the good life, some of the best of what it means to be good.

Here is the thing though, curiosity, awe and wonder are often understood as a type of “worship” by Christians.

So I’d say that @dga471’s motivations in science are not idiosyncratic at all, but an expression of mere science. If he were the same person, but not a Christian, I suppose he just wouldn’t call it worship, and he would not direct it towards anything in particular.

But talking about curiosity, awe and wonder as the humanist motivations as science, connected to the religious conception of worship, is closely aligned with the grand story of science for all of us, religious or not.

Which is why the connection to religion is important, rather than the exclusion of it.

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No it is not. I’m saying people’s particular religious reasons for why they do science may be idiosyncratic.

I’m saying that the reasons are not idiosyncratic, but perhaps the language we use to describe it is. But @dga471 language is in fact closely aligned with early scientists, so he is actually speaking from the deeper traditions of science. I don’t think it is helpful to alienate our language so thoroughly from our history and roots.

It’s not important for people who don’t have a religion. It’s certainly not important for me. General appeals to curiosity and wonder are perfectly appropriate. Not everyone however needs the religious aspect of it that you and Daniel do however.

It is only unimportant if you care nothing of the origin of science, and that seems profoundly incurious to me. But that’s just me. :slight_smile: