Why do different scientists interpret reality differently?
The existence of God and whether He created the universe and life are, by definition, questions beyond the scope and the capability of naturalistic science. The answers to such questions rely on worldview assumptions, which are based on evidence that may or may not be satisfactory to equally competent scientists.
“Science does not lead to certainty. Its conclusions are always incomplete, tentative and subject to revision.” —Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science
It is generally assumed that well-educated people who dedicate their professional lives to the scientific study of nature are able to approach their subjects with a dispassionate attitude. Using sophisticated equipment, they make careful observations, conduct experiments, develop hypotheses, propose theories, and arrive at objective conclusions in their respective areas of expertise.
Nevertheless, scientists applying the scientific method while using similar equipment to study the same aspect of nature can and do arrive at different conclusions. Why does this occur? The answer to this question can be found at three levels.
Differences in interpretation
Some of the common reasons as to why scientists reach different conclusions in their research include factors such as the size and reliability of the sample data gathered, the adequacy of design in the experiments conducted, the precision of the equipment used, or simply human error. These factors can usually be remedied as other scientists learn of the results; review the procedures, data, and findings; then attempt to replicate the observations or experiments; and finally determine which of the conclusions or discoveries is favored by the weight of the evidence. This process is what makes science one of the most exciting human activities.
In March, 1989, two established electrochemists – Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons – announced they had produced nuclear fusion at room temperature, using heavy water and a palladium electrode. The reaction of the international scientific community was immediate, because the financial implications of producing energy at a very low cost are enormous. During the following years, similar experiments were conducted in many countries, conferences on the topic were convened, and well-funded research centers were established. However, most scientists have been unable to reproduce the original results and, as a result, have reached the conclusion that the evidence does not support the original claim.1
A deeper reason for disagreement among scientists on a particular issue may be differing scientific paradigms, a concept proposed by Thomas S. Kuhn.2 In his view, science is not an empirically-autonomous and objective endeavor, but a collective activity influenced by social and historical factors. During periods of “normal science,” he argued, the scientific community operates on a generally-accepted model or paradigm. However, results that don’t fit within those understandings gradually build up, until a “paradigm shift” occurs. At that point, a new consensus and paradigm provide a new set of assumptions that serve as the basis for doing science. Kuhn provides the example of the paradigm shift that occurred when the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the universe was replaced by Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system.
Another significant paradigm shift occurred in the earth sciences in the 1960s, when the weight of evidence confirmed ideas that Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) had advanced regarding the movement of the continents. Up to his time, it was thought that the various continents were immovable and had been connected by land bridges that had later submerged. But during a conference in 1912, Wegener proposed that the continents had first been part of a supercontinent (which he named Pangaea) and that later they drifted apart. In 1915, he published this theory in a book on the origin of continents and oceans. For a few decades, his proposed theory of continental drift was rejected by the preeminent geologists, due in part to intellectual inertia and, more importantly, to the lack of concrete evidence and an explanatory mechanism. But after substantial new data accumulated, Wegener’s idea that the continents have moved was accepted as valid and is now the working paradigm in geology, geophysics, oceanography, and paleontology.
The current debate surrounding climate change provides a prime example of a paradigm-based disagreement. For a number of years, a group of scientists have been analyzing data that suggest a recent steady increase in our planet’s temperatures. Computer model projections indicate that if global warming continues at the current rate, humanity will face a series of irreversible catastrophes. However, scientists disagree over the cause; hence the two contrasting paradigms at play. One group believes that the recent rise in temperatures is caused by natural climate cycles, which occur independently of human activity. Scientists using this paradigm emphasize the correlation between solar cycles and global temperatures. The other group believes that human activity is responsible for the increase in global temperatures. Scientists using this paradigm look for correlations between carbon and other emissions and indices of climate change. Of course, the ethical, economic, and political implications of this debate and its outcome complicate the issue. However, once this controversy is settled, a paradigm shift may have occurred, followed by more government policies or international mandates regarding effluents and pollution.3
At a more profound level, however, disagreements among scientists in several fields may be based on what rules should be applied in interpreting the origin of the natural world and its operating laws. Is there or is there not a Supreme Being who designed, created, and sustains the universe and its creatures?4 This debate has been growing in intensity since the 1800s, particularly after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. Why do honest scientists disagree on this fundamental question? And, more importantly, is this an issue that can be settled by applying the scientific method? These questions lead us to consider the concept of worldviews.5
Worldviews and their implications
All humans, including scientists, develop a worldview through which they understand, interpret, and explain reality at its most fundamental level. Since we all wish to make sense of our experiences, our personal worldview serves as a mental map that orients us in our decisions and actions.6 No philosophy degree is needed to possess a worldview. Even scientists are unable to approach the study of a particular object, organism, or phenomenon with a completely objective attitude, all bring to their investigation a particular set of understandings and assumptions regarding the universe and life, a worldview.7
Our individual worldview begins to take shape during adolescence and matures in young adulthood. It is initially the result of various influences – family, studies, media, and the surrounding culture. We continue to adjust its contours throughout our life, due to new information and experiences.
In its most basic form, a worldview answers four questions:8
Who am I? – The origin, nature, and purpose of human beings.
Where am I? – The nature and extent of reality.
What is wrong? – The cause of injustice, suffering, evil, and death.
What is the solution? – Ways of overcoming these obstacles to human fulfillment.
Of course, this set of basic questions could easily be expanded.9 Ultimately, our worldview provides the foundation for our values and is reflected in our decisions and behavior. It influences, for example, our choice of vocation or profession, our relationship with other humans, the way we spend our financial resources, our use of technology, our attitude toward the environment, and even our socio-political decisions regarding issues of justice and peace.
The answers we give to the questions listed above can be linked by an overarching story (a meta-narrative) that integrates concepts of origin, purpose, meaning, and destiny. Imagine, for example, how two well-trained scientists with different worldviews — for example, a Bible-believing Christian and a neo-Darwinian evolutionist — would structure and articulate their overarching narrative from their individual perspectives.
It is worthwhile to note that the impact of the scientist’s worldview on research questions, methods, and results has been much more significant in the historical and cosmic sciences than in the experimental and mathematical sciences.
Through recorded history, humans have adopted three major worldviews, which can be summarized as follows:
Theism posits the existence of a personal God who is Creator and Sovereign of the universe. This Supreme Being is separate from His creation but acts in its operation.
Pantheism identifies an impersonal deity with the forces and workings of nature. Reality consists of the universe plus god. They are mutually interpenetrating and interacting.
Naturalism assumes that reality consists of the material universe operating according to natural laws, plus nothing else.
Although there are varieties and subsets of the three major worldviews, these can be outlined in the following manner:
It is well-known that modern science emerged during the 1500s and 1600s within the context of a theistic culture that was predominantly Christian. Pioneer thinkers and scientists in various disciplines – such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Halley, and others – believed in a Creator God who had established operating laws in the universe and nature that could be discovered and applied for the benefit of humanity. In contrast, cultures in which pantheism predominated did not offer a favorable milieu for scientific endeavors because nature was seen as divine and therefore sacred.10
Some more-recent approaches seek to establish connections among these basic worldviews. Theistic evolution, for example, attempts to bridge Christianity and naturalism, proposing that God operates in the world through the process of evolution. Neo-pantheism, for its part, suggests close links between scientific materialism and religious mysticism.11
During the last 150 years, the scientific community has gradually moved away from its Christian roots and assumed a naturalistic worldview that discounts any supernatural intervention or transcendent meaning. It is within this worldview that the sciences are generally taught, research is conducted, and articles are rejected or accepted for publication. The most popular current expression of this worldview is secular humanism.12 The contrast between the basic tenets of biblical Christianity and secular humanism – as representatives of theism and naturalism – can be summarized in a diagram.
The biblical worldview narrative
The existence of God and whether He created the universe and life are, by definition, questions beyond the scope and the capability of naturalistic science. The answers to such questions rely on worldview assumptions, which are based on evidence that may or may not be satisfactory to equally competent scientists. Yet, these answers influence the development of hypotheses and theses, and the interpretation of data in many scientific endeavors.
From the beginning of modern science, Christian scientists have worked based on the premise that the Creator of the universe and life is the same God that communicated with humans through the Scriptures. Christians who anchor their convictions in the Bible develop a worldview and narrative that, as interpreted by Seventh-day Adventists, include seven key moments in cosmic history.
Creation in heaven. At some time in the remote past, God creates a perfect universe and populates it with intelligent and free creatures.
Rebellion in heaven. An exalted creature rebels against God’s principles and, after a struggle, is banished to earth with his followers.
Creation on earth. During six days in the recent past, God makes this planet inhabitable and creates plant and animal life, including the first pair of humans, who are endowed with free will.
Fall on earth. Tempted by the rebel creature, the first couple disobeys God and the entire web of life on this planet suffers the consequences, including a devastating global flood.
Redemption. Jesus Christ, the Creator Himself, comes to earth to rescue fallen humans, offering them free salvation and power to live a transformed life.
Second coming. At the end of time, Christ returns in glory as promised, and grants immortality to those who have accepted His offer of forgiveness and salvation.
Consummation. After a millennium passes, Christ returns to execute final judgment, eliminates evil, and restores the entire creation to its original perfection, which will last forever.
The biblical worldview and its overarching narrative are attractive because they provide an internally-coherent answer to key worldview questions. This worldview offers a satisfactory explanation for what we learn, discover, or experience in real life, and gives meaning and transcendent hope to human’s deepest desires. At the same time, our Christian worldview is always in development, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because our understanding of God’s revelation is limited and progressive.13
As we have seen, equally-capable scientists arrive at different conclusions due to methodological factors, to working within different paradigms, or to the contrasting worldviews they have embraced. Nevertheless, Christian scientists who conduct research from the biblical worldview perspective can comfortably work alongside other scientists who may not share their assumptions and yet jointly achieve meaningful findings and respectable conclusions. Those who accept the biblical narrative as true and reliable enjoy the advantage of having at their disposal additional options and insights provided by the Creator in the Scriptures, which can generate research questions that may lead to fruitful hypotheses, explanations, and discoveries.14
Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is a former director of the department of education, at the Seventh-day Adventist Church and founder of Dialogue. Now he is retired. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is published here with slight modifications from the book Understanding Creation. Answers to Questions on Faith and Science, edited by L. James Gibson and Humberto M. Rasi (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2011). Used by permission.
- See, for example, Fred Nadis, Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002), or Hideo Kozima, The Science of the Cold Fusion Phenomenon (Oxford: Elsevier Ltd., 2006).
- See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, 1970, 1996).
- Clusters of scientific fields tend to operate within a shared paradigm, which Thomas Kuhn called a “disciplinary matrix” in the postscript to the 1970 edition of his book. Consider the assumptions, methods, and preferred research questions that are common, for example, to the historical sciences (archaeology, geology, paleontology), or to the cosmic sciences (astronomy, astrophysics, space science), or to the experimental sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), or the behavioral sciences (psychology, psychiatry, sociology).
- See Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories, rev. ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).
- See David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 2002).
- See Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004).
- Michael Polanyi elaborated these concepts in his books Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1962) and The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966).
- See Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984).
- In The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), James W. Sire suggests seven worldview questions: What is prime reality — the really real? What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? What is a human being? What happens to a person at death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what is right and wrong? What is the meaning of human history?
- In addition, the unpredictable gods of pagan cultures could not provide the cause-and-effect relationship essential for science. See Ariel A. Roth, Science Finds God (Hagerstown, Maryland: Autumn House, 2008).
- In The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975), Fritjof Capra asserts that physics and metaphysics are interconnected.
- Paul Kurtz (b. 1925) has been a preeminent spokesman of this worldview perspective through his many books, including A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) and In Defense of Secular Humanism (1983), and as editor of Humanist Manifestos I and II (1984).
- See Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009).
- See Leonard Brand Faith, Reason, and Earth History: A apradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2009)