God, truth, and truthfulness in science

by
01 July 2009

(CREDIT: iStock)

(CREDIT: iStock)

From the Revd Dr Mark Harris

Sir, — I was saddened to read Professor Bruce Charlton’s article, “Scientists need to rediscover truth” (Comment, 19 June). He paints a sorry picture of the once-great scientific enterprise as losing its way because politics and careerism have displaced religion at its ideological heart. As a result, he claims, science is rife with corruption, self-promotion, and hype. As he puts it: “the very fabric of world scientific communica­­tion is rotten with dishonesty.”

I cannot agree with this asses­sment. Admittedly, I work in a dif­ferent scientific discipline from Professor Charlton’s (he is in medicine, while I am in physics), but, in my 20 years as a scientist, I have never encountered anything remotely as cynical and crooked as the regime that he portrays. It is a tough lifestyle to stay at the forefront of one’s research field in an ever-proliferating scientific world, and one simply couldn’t work at this level without a passionate commitment to the search for honesty and integrity.

The point of Professor Charlton’s argument is that science has got into the woeful state he identifies because scientists no longer believe in the reality of “truth”, which, he claims, can be apprehended fully only in the light of divine revelation. His argu­ment is not unrelated to the starting point of natural theology — that God might be known through nature. But to conflate “honesty”, “truthfulness”, and “truth” in scient­ific methodology with the existence of a supernatural God is to make any number of sweeping categorisations. For one thing, progress in the philo­sophy of science over the past 50 years has demonstrated the continual provisionality of the scientific enter­prise. We have not gone as far as post-modernism, but we are aware that science is a human enterprise, and that in these circum­stances it is by no means a straight­forward exercise to claim that one might be searching for “objective truth”.

A more immediate problem, though, is the New Atheism, which claims that the successes of science are prime evidence that belief in God is redundant. So, to claim, as Profes­sor Charlton does, that this same science is completely corrupt largely because it has lost its belief in God is to play right into “Ditchkins’s” hands.

MARK HARRIS
Oriel College, Oxford OX1 4EW

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