The Autonomous Veneer of Scientific Innovation

Since its inception, the human race has been perpetually driven by the desire for knowledge and understanding, constantly looking to push the bounds of what is created, known, and explored. The hard sciences, especially those related to the field of medicine, notably exemplify this progressive nature. Our century has experienced an explosive expansion of understanding the human body and its pathologies, along with significant development of novel treatments and diagnostics. Despite – and perhaps because of – these successes, scientific advancement has seen the cataclysmic and violent amputation of personal faith from the scientific arena. The implications of such a notion are exceedingly worrisome, surfacing in both overt and subtle ways. The now self-perpetuating academic giant is devoid of faith, damaging both society as a whole and the entire field of scientific discovery, for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Prior to the Enlightenment, scientific research was grounded in the mindset of worshiping God through exploring and understanding his creation. Rodney Stark writes, “The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was a natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exists because it was created by God. To love and honor God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork” [1]. Charles Darwin’s own On the Origin of Species reflected upon such a notion in its opening pages, stating, “Let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the Book of God’s Word or in the Book of God’s Works” [2]. As we see in the case of numerous philosophers, scientists, and engineers, a majority of foundational scientific principles blossomed from Christian thinkers. Isaac Newton (calculus), Johannes Kepler (celestial mechanics), Michael Faraday (electromagnetics), George Stokes (fluid mechanics), Gregor Mendel (genetics), and Blaise Pascal (hydrostatics) are just a handful of many devout Christian believers who fostered significant growth in many scientific disciplines [3]. The motivation for such development was conceived in a mindset that Kepler best summarizes in his work The Secret of the Universe where he states,

Here we are concerned with the book of nature, so greatly celebrated in sacred writings. It is in this that Paul proposes to the Gentiles that they should contemplate God like the Sun in water or in a mirror. Why then as Christians should we take any less delight in its contemplation, since it is for us with true worship to honor God, to venerate him, to wonder at him? The more rightly we understand the nature and scope of what our God has founded, the more devoted the spirit in which that is done. [4]

The pursuit of research and knowledge is then, as Kepler states, two-fold; it finds its purpose in glorifying God and increasing faithful devotion.

The birth of the Enlightenment, however, was followed by the subsequent divorce of faith from science. Enlightenment thinking encouraged skepticism, eventually leading to the growth of subjectivity, personal freedom, and pluralistic thought. As Richard Jewell says,

In philosophy and theology, part of the Enlightenment was to reject the idea that religion–and belief in God–were a priori starting points for developing a belief system…These a priori beliefs did not need proving. They were self-evident or evident through faith. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment, complete acceptance of a priori religious truths began to fail. [5]

The precepts of religion and faith that were once broadly accepted were now being challenged. The Enlightenment then gave way to modernism and postmodernism, further perpetuating the notion of uncertainty regarding objective truths. Such thinking affected all areas of life, especially the scientific realm. Consequently, modern day science now rests on an interesting crux of flourishing, innovative thought and pluralistic ideals. Research has pushed the bounds of knowledge and understanding to great lengths, addressing some of the most complex issues in physics, engineering, and medicine, but for what purpose? What is the end goal in the pursuit of scientific research?

Modern scientists must wrestle with such a question. To disregard it is to simply ignore the fact that the implication and meaning of their work hang in the balance. The scientist may resort to altruistic motives for research, ultimately centered on the greater good. An answer involving the motivation to benefit the human condition, however, necessitates an objective standard on which to gauge human action. Enlightenment thinking has left us with a “greater good” that is subjectively defined, resulting in misguided precepts regarding human flourishing. Questions of morality then rest on the individual, causing standards for prosperity to be easily malleable and manipulated. True societal benefit cannot be sought if it is not first properly clarified. The notion of moral absolutes, however, is often overlooked, and standards are implicitly conceded to be innately known to man. Some modern scholars have tackled the issue of objective morality in a genuine fashion, but the majority of the academic superstructure has avoided the topic entirely, either intentionally or unintentionally. Consequently, scientists who disregard questions of morality and external motivations for research, such as societal flourishing, often turn inward for incentive. As a result, the intersection of pluralistic postmodern thinking and high level academic research has left us with brilliant scholars who have made themselves both the means and the end in the pursuit of scientific innovation. The ultimate goal of research has become the researcher, for whom results are measured in self-promotion, praise, and recognition. By incorrectly attributing this status to themselves, scientists give the erroneous impression that they are self-governed, self-sustained, and in complete control. Practices and the implications of research are defined by personal standards and scientific innovation is thus seen as the result of personal greatness. This autonomous facade perpetuates itself in a cyclical downturn of egocentrism, elevating the scientist to the level of godhood.

The implications of this realization are immense for both the individual researcher and society as a whole. And while these effects are visibly evident, a discussion of such a topic requires reflection on common grace and its implications. It must be recognized that a self-driven motivation does not negate the results of the researcher. Though possibly motivated by ill-intent, the work produced is still essential in the growth, restoration, and development of the human race. As Timothy Keller puts it, “Every advancement in learning, every work of art, every innovation in healthcare or technology or management or governance, is simply God ‘opening his book of creation and revealing his truth’ to us” [6]. It is not the work of the non-Christian , nor the non-Christians themselves that are the antagonist, Keller continues, but rather sin, which has corrupted all of mankind and tainted the pursuit of true goodness. John Calvin states, “In man’s perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam, [the light is nonetheless] choked with dense ignorance, so that it cannot come forth effectively. [His] mind, because of its dullness… betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth” [7]. So while the work of those motivated by self may still positively impact individuals in an honorable way, it is ultimately restrained and hindered by sin.

While common grace provides a space in which the work of the contemporary researcher is truly meaningful, it is vital to examine the harmful effects brought about by the motivation of self.  It is truly astonishing how staggering an impact this motivation has made in the scientific realm, particularly the medical field. On a societal scale, large industrial medical device and pharmaceutical companies now funnel new instruments and products into quickly reproducible merchandise that is sold at a premium for the ensuing personal profit [8]. The true impact on the patient is hardly the main focus of production, and any sense of virtue is removed from the decision-making process, having significant effects on all aspects of the medical field. When these companies develop products with only profit in mind, safety and actual patient application are neglected. Hospitals have also felt the effect, as surveys have shown “75% of product decisions are made on the basis of vendor claims and less than one-third of decisions reflect a review of safety metrics or clinical evidence” [9]. So, not only are companies in production mainly for profit, but hospitals are as well, and their decisions are based on vendor claims, which were motivated by profit to begin with. This cycle is ultimately detrimental to the patient in a variety of obvious ways.

Any external motivation for societal benefit has also been divorced from research itself in higher academics. The field of research is now plagued by an epidemic of “parachute researchers” who are described as,

Scientists from wealthy nations who swoop in when a puzzling disease breaks out in a developing country. They collect specimens, then head straight back home to analyze them. They don’t coordinate with people fighting the epidemic on the ground–don’t even share their discoveries for months, if ever. Sometimes it’s because they want to publish their results–and medical journals prefer exclusives. And sometimes it’s because they can make a lot of money by coming up with copyrighted treatments for the disease. [10]

Delusions of grandeur and self-elevation have become a staple in the pursuit of research and have left those in need without the aid they desperately need. This troubling logic exemplifies the tainted motivations rampant in our current scientific era. Our elite thinkers and researchers are entirely devoid of direction. Keller sums it up well:

In postmodern society no one is sure or can agree about “ends” or goals for the human race, we now have only “means” or techniques. Since there is no longer any dominant vision of healthy human life or good human society, we are left with nothing but individual competition for personal success and power. [6]

The unguided pursuit of higher learning only continues to propagate, with future directions that are terrifying to ponder. In their lack of direction, scientists have idolized themselves. The once virtuous pursuit of human flourishing in research has now been abdicated in favor of conceited recognition and praise. Society as a whole is widely affected, and this is epitomized by parachute research and in numerous other ways, which cause human benefit to be neglected and corrupted by the desire for individual advancement.

Along with society, the individual researcher is also significantly affected. When self-centered research takes place, an autonomous veneer reigns in all of work. The outward merits of science–grants, publications, awards, and so on–can become ends in themselves, while the true purposes of science–to discover the order of God’s creation and serve our fellow man–are forgotten. Since the scientist has now removed God, the objective moral standard, from the motivation of research, the individual assumes a new pseudo-godhood. Progress and innovation become the result of personal talents and abilities, and praise is attributed to the individual on the merit of discovery. This not only incorrectly attributes success, but it also fosters an ill-informed identity in personhood and work. When identity is found in work, not only are successes attributed to the individual, but failures are as well. Consequently, we are left with an unstable attitude toward work, built upon false precepts of achievement and failure.

The return of modern research and work to a set of godly motivations and values, if there ever is one, will be a gradual and painful process. The pluralistic mindset upheld by subjectivity and relativism has now become deeply rooted in the academic realm. Such an effort requires a reconciliation of perspective between both the individual’s personhood and work and their relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The separation of faith from science has also disappointingly echoed through the halls of churches and cathedrals of late, making the role of both secular and religious influences in the correction of scientific research essential. The medical field must see a return to godly virtues and precepts in the pursuit, ultimately, for human flourishing once again. The patient must become the main focus for medical companies, scientific research, and healthcare professionals.

For the believing scientist and researcher, the correction necessitates an active participation, what James Hunter would call a continual “faithful presence,” in all high-level fields [11]. With a motivation for work that stems from the Gospel, researchers have an opportunity to pursue the good of human flourishing and restoration in their work and to impact those in their immediate reach through their interactions, perspective, and conversations. Their work can then become focused on both the production of good work and the progress of human restoration. The researcher must first understand, however, that their work lends itself to the pursuit of God in the purpose of learning more about him and his creation. If God is the sovereign Creator, physically breathing space and time into existence (Gen. 1:3), what better way to glorify him than to study his work? Do we not see his encompassing essence integrated into every fiber of existence? Can we not develop a further understanding of him by experiencing all of his presence in creation, in which all things hold together (Col. 1:17)? When the goal of the believing researcher becomes God himself, all progress contributes to the veneration and worship of our Creator, as work was ultimately created to be. The implications for the believing medical researcher produce yet another stirring thought: mankind is the gem of God’s creation. We are made in his image and he has given the breath of life into the beings that we are today (Gen 1:27). In medical research, then, through studying the body and its workings, there resides an opportunity for us to study the image of God and learn more about Him through it. When the focus of work is reshaped, research no longer grows out of self-promotion or mere curiosity, but rather out of devotion to learning more about God and his beautiful creation.

In the medically based vocations, a godly mindset has further implications for the believer, one of which is in the service of restoring and healing individuals. Seeing as followers of Christ are called to a constant posture of loving God and loving others (Matt. 22:37-39), our work, and the focus of that work, should reflect this mindset. Ultimately, the patient rests at the focus of all the work and research the medical field produces. If benefitting the patient is no longer the final goal, then the essential purpose of the field is subverted and all its work becomes meaningless or self-seeking. Just as knowledge and understanding are futile without proper application, so is research in the medical field. With a proper framework centered on the patient, the medical vocation provides a means to serve those around us by studying and curing the pathologies, injuries, and complications in the human body. The drive must remain fixed on restoring the body. Though we are not to be overly concerned or worried about the final state of our bodies, as Christ is ultimately in control and sovereign over us, it would be foolish and dishonoring to not treat and study conditions to improve and maintain our lives. As Timothy Keller says,

God created and will resurrect our bodies – and so they are important! If God himself is to redeem our bodies (Romans 8:23) then he is the Great Physician, and the medical vocation could not be loftier. But God does not care only about bodies; he created and redeems our souls as well. So Christian physicians will always bear the totality of the human person in mind. Their faith gives them the resources to muster the humility and the ingenuity necessary to see patients as more than just bodies. [6]

The purpose for this work, then, is the flourishing of the human physical condition, in which we can use the vessels given to us as instruments for serving God and others. It is the outflow of loving service to our neighbors through the use of medical aid.

The role, then, of devout Christian followers in science and research, particularly the medical field, is essential for reconstructing the lost motivations and values seen in our current era. When the end goal of researchers becomes themselves, both society as a whole and the individual researcher are hindered, restrained, and damaged. These reasons only further supplement the true calling that we all have to faithful work in the scientific field as beings made in God’s image. We are invited into the role as co-creators with him, and He commands us to work diligently in the vocations given to us. The flourishing in our work, then, reflects the framework in which we view God and our relation to Him. With a proper understanding that we are called to work, we can make work a form of worship that can impact those around us and bring us closer to God, particularly in a scientific field where these values and motivations have been lost.

 

References

[1] Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

[2] Darwin, Charles, and David Quammen. On the Origin of Species. New York: Sterling, 2008. Print.

[3] Tripp, Dick. “Beginnings of Modern Science.” Exploring Christianity – Science. Web.

[4] Kepler, Johannes, and E. J. Aiton. The Secret of the Universe = Mysterium Cosmographicum. New York: Abaris, 1981. Print.

[5] Jewell, Richard. “Experiencing the Humanities.” College Humanities. Web.

[6] Keller, Timothy, and Katherine Alsdorf. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. New York: Dutton, 2012. Print.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Philadelphia: Westminister Press. 1960. Print.

[8] Mahar, Maggie. “Who Is Making the Biggest Profits From U.S. Healthcare? You Might Be Surprised . . .” Health Beat. Web.

[9] Elias, Hani. “What Medical Device Companies Don’t Want You to Know – and How to Take Action.” Becker’s Hospital Review. Web.

[10] Aizenman, Nurith. “Scientists Say It’s Time To End ‘Parachute Research’”NPR. NPR. Web.

[11] Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

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