Science, Religion and the "Ethic of Investigation"

By Adam Frank | April 2, 2008 2:23 pm

Adam FrankIn 1991, two British astronomers, Andrew Lyne and Matthew Bailes, created an uproar when they announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR1829-10, a dead cinder of a once massive sun. The result thrilled and shocked the astronomical community. For two-and-a-half thousand years, philosophers and astronomers had asked if planets existed outside our solar system. Giordano Bruno’s execution formed one part of this long story. For all those years, the question remained steadfastly unanswerable. Lyne’s and Bailes’s discovery seemed to provide an answer. It was big news.

Unfortunately, a year later, at an astronomical meeting designed to present new results, Lyne stood before a large audience and announced that he and Bailes had gotten it wrong. With news cameras rolling, Lyne detailed how their analysis of the data had been in error. They were withdrawing their claim of discovery. There was a long pause, and then the audience came to its feet in a standing ovation.

Some argue that science is amoral, and that no inherent ethical conclusions can be drawn from scientific findings. There is, however, one precept that we scientists all take as holy from the time we begin as graduate students: “Tell the truth.” There is no greater sin in science than falsifying data or conclusions. Scientists are asked to let the world speak for itself, to observe without bias or preconceived ideas. In the ideal, scientists are asked to witness the world in its own great pathways of beauty, without the filter of prior desires or demands.

Brutal honesty about the character of the conclusions drawn in the investigations is a hallmark of sincere scientific practice. The scientist has to be honest with herself about the integrity of the result, and the possibility of error. That is why the audience saw Lyne and Bailes as heroes to be honored, not as failures to be shunned. Their narrative becomes part of the mythos of science, by calling its practitioners to a set a core of values that includes absolute honesty.

This “ethic of investigation,” as I call it, is, I believe, another living parallel between scientific practice and authentic human spiritual endeavor. Such a parallel can only be seen, however, when the emphasis in the comparison shifts. I have argued many times that when religions attempt to force science to fit their belief systems, they invariably lose. Much of the history of the science and religion debate for the last 400 years has consisted of some religion trying to figure out how to deal with the scientific truths being laid at its doorstep.

There are more than enough examples of religions attempting strange (and sometime dangerous) mental gymnastics to hold both views at once. The creationists are one example, and the Pope’s incredible opinions on condoms and HIV/AIDS is another. But, as I and many others have argued, people feel themselves to be religious for many reasons. To ignore the imperatives in religious experience that push some people towards a greater, more compassionate, more open view of the world because of others’ prejudices seems like wearing blinders. That is the reason to invoke the ethic of investigation.

In the aspiration to know the world (including one’s interior response to it ), we have to adhere to the ways it presents itself to us. Any understanding of the world’s truth, or the meaning of our response to it, must be approached with great effort and the willingness to accept what the investigation demands.

Scientific investigation is hard work and demands honesty and a willingness to shy away from easy answers. Is there a flip side in the domain of spiritual endeavor? From what I have seen and think, at its best, the answer is yes. When experiences, and the aspirations which flow from them, force individuals to re-examine their own biases and take actions that are anything but comfortable, you can find that same ethic. Gandhi and Martin Luther King are famous examples, but there are many others.

The religious scholar Huston Smith claims one can evaluate the depth of a person’s attainment in any religious practice by the change it brings in their behavior, meaning the way they live their lives. An enlarged circle of compassion is a hallmark of such change. Of course, you don’t have to be engaged in some form of spiritual pursuit to have this happen—humanist perspectives will do fine. But it seems silly to brush away how often aspiration, based on encounters with a personally-experienced sense of sacred, leads to a “strenuous life” of commitment and compassion.

This is an important point because recognizing these kinds of parallels might bring us to a communal application such as an “ethic of investigation.” As we face the vast and challenging truth of issues like climate change, a truth revealed through scientific practice, we will need to be determined in our willingness to let the world speak for itself. Once those truths are acknowledged, we then have choices in our response. Marshaling the compassionate, determined action that flows from different forms of spiritual practice—practice embodied by Gandhi, King and countless others—is one possible response.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Comments (22)

  1. Carl Sagan said it best:

    In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

  2. I am not so interested in what institutions do as what happens to individuals. That is because institutions tend to be about power and politics. Its is however worth noting that the Dali Lama recently was asked what would happen if science discovered something that was at odds with Buddhist believe and he replied “We would change our beliefs”.

  3. Charles Schmidt

    Most of those in the different scientific fields are truthful with there results but there will no doubt always be those like the cold fusion that did not work or those that are less than honest about drug that they are testing. On the religions sides are those that will condemn finding that are presented by science because their belief system will not let them consider that everything is not of divine origin and can not be explained by man and that forces them to be less than honest like the pope and condoms.

    That Texas has went to the trouble to muzzle science education to put religion in schools is at best sad and at worst criminal in that the youth will find going after education past high school much harder. It would be wonderful if the two sides could agree to disagree on some points without taking away the knowledge that is needed in life or the condemnation of belief by some about religion. Both can be had by most people but we let those that are a minority determine what the majority should do or accept as true.

  4. Thomas Kuhn has a rather different view of how all this plays out in science, as you probably already know.

    I appreciate your acknowledging that Christians, too, (at their best) have an ethic of following the truth wherever it leads, and testing our beliefs. Here is an example from my own experience. Neither scientists nor Christians, taken collectively, get this perfect, but to say (as some do) that religious followers do not test our views is quite a distortion of intellectual reality. It’s a common distortion–so common that some people easily mistake it for reality–but a distortion nonetheless. As I said, I appreciate your recognizing that.

    For readers who are skeptical of what I have said, I suggest you follow this very ethic and test your own understanding of reality. One way would be to go to one of the better theological seminaries, sit in the library, and spend a few hours reading some of the disputes there. You’ll see how views are tested, how evidence is adduced, and so on. Another good way would be by reading or listening to some debates between Christians and atheists (try William Lane Craig’s or Dinesh D’Souza’s debates with various atheists here). That’s a form of truth-testing that Christians have frequently, willingly, subjected themselves to.

  5. True. I think Carl (if I may call him that!) was speaking to broad generalizations. I just couldn’t resist it because it brings together the openness of science with the inherent difficulty of change. I have quoted the Dalai Lama on that on many occasions! That’s why Buddhism is often considered the black sheep of the religious community I guess. Where does it fit?

    And individuals are also subject to power struggles and politics though admittedly not as much as instituions.

  6. @Jeremy. But wouldn’t that be true in science as well. Integrity is always a matter of individual action.

    Got to love the Dali Lama. Buddhism can offer a model of balance I think.

    @Charles. I agree about the vocal minority. In general we give over the terms of the debate to the more extreme voices. Thoughtful moderation can be a difficult stance to defend.

  7. dmduncan

    And exactly what are the “scientific truths” regarding which the Pope’s “incredible opinions on condoms” are an example of “religions attempting strange (and sometime dangerous) mental gymnastics to hold both views at once.”?

    Is this blog entry on ethics a scientific matter at all? When was the last time someone studied the effects of X ray exposure on a moral principle?

  8. Its not the ethics of scientific results that are at issue, its how we deploy science in a world saturated with both its fruits and poisons.

  9. I greatly appreciate your focus on individual experience here. Those who are independently investigating religious experience and making changes in themselves are often marginalized by the institutions, especially if they don’t identify with them. The institutions are run by the opportunists and supported by the pragmatists. Thus there are many moving in that direction, that is what the hippy is about. Some keep after it, some don’t. The Texas effort you are concerned about is doomed to failure even if they manage to implement their plan. It will backfire because what it is really about is community control of education, that is why they are getting support. Yes there is ignorance about science, and religion. Youth will rebel rather than swallow the lie, not all, but education may turn out better than it is now. The state’s agenda is set by corporations, this includes education, and many feel it mangles their kid’s minds as badly as religion does and according to honored educator John Taylor Gatto it most certainly does. Many people know this but how do they change it? Any port in a storm, as they say sometimes.

  10. I think the individual effort is the place to focus on if we are talking about Science and Religion in partiuclar. If the question is how do these two forms of human endeavor relate to each other then I think the focus on the individual becomes very useful. There is much that can be unpacked in this domain. In a broader context people may choose to seek out traditions to provide community and support etc. That is can be useful thing to the extent those traditions do not narrow the view but broaden it. As you say the institutional part of religion is often the place where the trouble starts.

  11. I was invited to a Quaker meeting to give a presentation to their group after their service last week. They are different than most “religions” as they say they follow truth which they say from their experience may change from time to time. I thought that fit well with science as practiced by ethical people. I know science is in a constant flux on some questions but one central to my interests is this from evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris. She says, “Official science does not recognize purpose in nature. It does view nature as mechanical, and mechanisms are, by definition, the purposeful inventions of their inventors. But historically, science threw God-the-inventor-of-nature out, we recall, while retaining the idea of nature as mechanism. Scientists thus argue a logical contradiction: that nature is mechanical but has no creator and no purpose. Its machines are taken to have assembled themselves by accident. If this worldview seems hard to accept rest assured it is changing. When we see living entities as self-ruled autopoietic systems evolving without an external creator God, we see that they simply evolve wherever they are not prevented from so doing, wherever their energetic development is mutually consistent with whatever else is going on around them. This scientific view is perfectly consistent with seeing nature as conscious and intelligent, in fact, suggests that strongly. Alternatively, we can choose to identify all of self-creating nature with the concept of Creator/God, thus ending the split between science and religion.”

    I’m sorry I haven’t read your book but wondered what you thought of this?

  12. It sounds similar to what Stuart Kaufmann has been arguing for. I like his perspective quite a bit because it retains the emphasis on the intelligibility of nature while acknowledging its essential creative aspect. New things can happen. This he calls reinveinting the sacred.

    I certainly believe that the standard reductionist view of nature is likely to have run its course and that other perspectives such as emergence are consistent with the practice of science.

  13. PeterS

    Tom, thanks for bringing a touch of reality into the debate. There is a huge tradition of thoughtful scholarship and debate in the Christian community. And the search for truth is an integral part of that scholarship and debate. Unsurprisingly, large parts of that community happily identify with the insights provided by science.

    Adam you first say
    Marshaling the compassionate, determined action that flows from different forms of spiritual practice…is one possible response
    to which I strongly agree.
    And then you say
    I am not so interested in what institutions do as what happens to individuals. That is because institutions tend to be about power and politics

    Now in the light of your first statement that creates a problem. Any purposeful human activity requires organisation and for there to be useful outcomes it must be persistent. Persistent organisation is nothing more than the institutions you despise. Like it or not, we have to deal with the fact that fallible people infiltrate institutions with their own agendas.

  14. I understand your point and it is well taken when we think about marshalling a response to something like global warming. When it comes to individual’s experience and response they take as “sacred” then I think it is important to make the distinction. I argue that this “ethic of investigation” can be part of individual’s responce to the world in the context of religion or spirituality. What I mean by this is people are willing to follow the consequences of the response – perhaps to dedicate themselves to end poverty or to live more simply but it seems pretty rare to get big religious institutions to follow the same pattern. They are very very slow to react and sometimes do not react at all. This why I distinguish, for the science and religion debate, the difference between institutions and individuals. Of course many will people will choose to find their paths through this within specific traditions perhaps fighting hard to engender change.

    Because science is founded on this ethic its easier to get its instiutions respond. There is politics going on for sure but the willingness to let the world speak for itself is built into the entire system.

  15. PeterS

    Adam I agree with you completely about the difficulty of religious institutions to move from a dogmatic outlook to one of an open ended search for truth that characterises science. And so religious institutions will always be somewhat out of step with the times. But I must be careful here; of course religious institutions search for truth. It is just that they do it within a framework of dogma and ‘revealed truth’, which greatly inhibits the search.

    We must also remember why the science model is so effective. The institution of publication and peer review is an extraordinarily powerful discipline for filtering out the truth. For the scientist reputation is all so he must publish and face the scrutiny of peer review. The fear of adverse peer review is more powerful than the fear of punishment in the afterlife, (because the punishment attends this life 🙂 which makes him very careful indeed about what he publishes.
    So the idealised ‘ethic of investigation’ is institutionalised as a mechanism for building and maintaining reputation. And we all know of the consequent abuses.

    But still, I grant you your point, it works very well. And I accept your larger point, that the ethic of investigation which infuses the work of science, should also infuse our search for meaning. As a pragmatist I am struggling with how this can be institutionalised in the lives of people outside academia.

  16. Pragmatism rocks. Americans are lucky to count William James among our ranks.

    People respond based on their culture and experience and he marketplace of ideas. Part of the goal in all of this is developing a language that embraces balance and shuns the easy extremes.

  17. jayne

    William James rocks! ; ) I’ve had an “intellectual crush” on him since my undergrad days – and my admiration for him has only increased over the years of study in my field (psychology).

    I have deep respect for the scientific method, the peer review process, and all of the scholarly practices regarding the integrity of investigation. However, the statement you made, Peter, that “the fear of adverse peer review is more powerful than the fear of punishment in the afterlife” (as much as it made me smile) can also be seen as an important and powerful limitation with regard to bridging the divide between “scientific” and “religious” perspectives. There are some who consider themselves to be such “pure scientists” (aka the Snarky), that they bristle at the slightest mention of anything remotely “spiritual” or even existential(!) and many open-minded scientists cringe at the thought of incurring their wrath. Snarkdom is a powerful voice of “authority” in the intellectual/scientific community – and it plays its own role in the polarization that has so often permeated this topic of science and religion.

    One of my faviourite Einstein quotes is: “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth”. This notion is equally important to keep in mind for all of us – whether we are scientists, non-scientists, religious or atheistic. Every individual has his or her own version of “authority”, and it behooves us all to undertake a healthy questioning of the nature of that authority at regular intervals.

    Your balanced and insightful writings here are encouraging all of us to do just that, Adam, and I want to express my appreciation to you for this kind of open dialog!

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