Why Do Scientists Honor What Is Good, Seek Truth, and Love Beauty?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

After 29 years working in academic environments (initially as a campus minister), I offer this verdict on most scientists, whether social or natural: By and large, they truly aspire to the good, true, and the beautiful.  That means that most scientists, Christian believers or otherwise, actually are looking for truth, albeit in the narrow sub-discipline in which they confine themselves.  Most live with some kind of moral order in their lives, and so they often make for very good neighbors.  And, when it comes to aesthetics, they are often first in line for operas, art exhibits, and live plays. 

So, why did Tanya Luhrmann, a brilliantly thoughtful social scientist at Stanford University, protest Roger Scruton when she claimed in a Fall 2014 Comment magazine review that in his new book The Soul of the World (2014) he made scientists into “drab fools who see nothing of grace or beauty”? 

What may seem like an argument amongst academics gets to the very heart of why there simply can’t be any beauty, morality, or scientific discovery apart from an Infinite Personal God who really creates, loves, and redeems.

Luhrmann, whose anthropological study of evangelical Christians is widely regarded as a work of brilliance and unusual sensitivity, admires Scruton’s new book, but lets us know that she thinks Scruton (an aesthetician) has a “remarkably thin understanding of science.”  What really bothers her is that “there is no sense in this book that science itself is an aesthetic enterprise, that there is joy in curiosity and love in exploration, and a sharp awareness of wonder.” 

Since I haven’t read Scruton’s book, I have no idea whether Luhrmann may be right. Scruton may be just another philosopher shouting over the historic divide about which C.P. Snow wrote in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959).  But, I am sure that Luhrmann is failing to preach what she practices.  That is, I suggest that she and many highly educated Westerners practice a heroic kind of morality, search for truth, and love for beauty that has unworthy metaphysical roots.  Many are agnostics, but their default is scientific naturalism, or materialism, and they must make a decision sooner or later to either align their metaphysic with their heroic ideals, or risk living in such contradiction that they will resemble Christians rendered vulnerable by the charge of not practicing what they preach.

Let me explain further.  I rejoice that my agnostic and atheist friends practice what I am calling heroic ideals (which were first explicated by Aristotle 2500 years ago, and then refurbished by Thomas Aquinas seven centuries ago).   Most scientists do share a thrill of discovery that, unless stuffed inside, wants to break forth in song and poetry and art.  Except where they may be influenced by postmodern concerns, scientists do so because they really want to find the truth about the little corner of reality they study. I have known some of them to seek out ancient Latin masses for their sheer beauty and mystery.  As I have suggested, most academics and agnostics are first-rate neighbors (like my neighbor who keeps a beautiful lawn and house) with a genteel morality that is strikingly similar to a Judeo-Christian ethic (except for the predictable politically correct embraces of gay marriage and abortion).

I wish, however, that my agnostic and atheist friends would rouse themselves with these questions which Luhrmann may quietly explore, but about which she gives no hint in her review of Scruton’s book:  Why am I on a relentless quest for discovery?  Why does that quest awaken in me sensations of and longings for beauty?  Why do I insist on academic integrity and concern for methods?  Why have I largely eschewed a life of moral chaos for one that resembles that of my Christian friends?

When I challenge my friends to preach what they practice, I am asking them to align their superior ideals with a superior metaphysic (worldview).  As it stands, the default naturalism of many scientists absolutely cannot explain their aspirations for goodness, truth, and beauty.  No one has ever seen pure matter generate moral ideas, nor have rocks pursued truth, let alone imagined painting like DaVinci or Rembrandt.  Those, like Sam Harris or E.O. Wilson, who seek explanations in neurology or evolutionary psychology, cannot escape the materialist feedback loop in which they are permanently stuck.  Even if there is some truth in their ideas, they lack an external frame of reference by which to make the judgments about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Nature cannot be its own judge. Only its Creator can.

Here is the beauty of the Judeo-Christian narrative of reality: This same God has made us in His image.  That is, God has made us possess the same capacities, albeit finite, which are geared toward love for truth, passion for beauty, and commitment to moral goodness.  Even in our sinfulness, those capacities are still present, at least in part or in some distorted fashion.  Jesus Christ offers Himself as the One who can restore within us the full use of those capacities while offering us a worldview that makes us consistent with what we already sought to practice before we believed in Him.

Let us all, with Professor Luhrmann, relish the joy of discovering truths about this remarkable Universe and its human inhabitants.  Perhaps we will see that both the capacity to joyfully discover and the thing being discovered point to the God who is there and is not silent.