Essay: How Our Formation Frames Science
How Our Formation Frames Science
When I was in high school I dreamed of being a scientist. I loved biology and physics because they taught me to take another look at the world that, upon closer examination, is simply incredible. In my farm-kid world I regularly encountered mysteries like plant germination and growth, the birth of cattle and pigs, and the disease and death of all kinds of creatures. There was so much to take in and admire and so much to be puzzled about.
Science classes, however, helped me to appreciate that there is a major difference between looking and seeing or between perceiving something and understanding what it means. Weather happens, but what does it mean? Plants and animals get sick, but why should I care? How as people can we make sense of catastrophes or illness? How should we respond to the “miracle” (if that is what it is) that there is anything at all?
I was taught to think that scientists simply observe the world and that they try to be as objective in their observations as possible. It took time for me to learn that complete objectivity is an impossible dream. Why? Because the moment we try to understand—and not simply look at—anything, we are at the same time developing conceptual theories to make sense of it, and that predisposes us to handle the object of our scrutiny in particular ways. To understand something assumes that I know what it “is,” what it means, and what I can or should do with it. Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science, believed that knowledge was a form of power. He, with other scientists such as René Descartes, the father of modern western philosophy, wanted to develop methods and tools that would enable people to take control of the world. Rather than a practice of complete objectivity, science is a way of knowing that prepares us to move through life and through this world with particular and personal aims in mind.
But these aims of living in the world should not be decided by science or reduced to having power over the world. These are philosophical and religious matters that must be decided together as people who wonder and discuss what life is about and what the ultimate purposes of our efforts are. Because communities differ, the goals of scientific work will vary dramatically and range among desires to classify, control, manipulate, profit, heal, or celebrate, just to name a few. Whose power or financial interests are being served by the scientific work being performed?
Whether we are scientists or not, each of us lives within various communities that form our views about the significance of certain methods of thinking and acting, the value of certain objectives as opposed to others, and the priority of certain tasks among many options. Communities of formation, ranging from schools and professional guilds to government agencies and funding foundations, help us understand what our intellectual work is for and why it matters. The church is another such community—a place where we are formed and where we gain a sense of the purpose of life.
Does the church as a place of formation make any difference for scientific research? I think it does because as Christians are called to live in this world in ways that witness to God’s presence among us. Churches are places that form us to care for the material world and the lives of each other, and in so doing, bring honor and glory to God. Science plays a vital and valuable role in helping these foundational, philosophical, and religious goals come to fruition.