Science is only good with the right foundation

3 July 2020

3.2 MINS

Jemarius Jachin Harbor Jr, born in December 2019, left hospital for the first time this month as a world record holder. Born at just 21 weeks gestation (~19 weeks early), he is the youngest surviving premature baby in history.

In the past, a premature birth was a death sentence. Now, thanks to the incredible achievements of modern science, if they can receive treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) ~24% of babies born at 22 weeks gestation will survive. For babies born at 27 weeks, that number is over 90%. Some scientists believe that we are within 10 years of developing artificial wombs that will reduce mortality to practically zero.

Science is an incredible tool for good, yet there is a hidden danger. Not that science is wrong but that it requires a foundation to direct its application towards causes such as Jemarius’s. The more I look at our society, the more concerned I become that we risk moving that foundation away from what is righteous.


Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” and I agree. However, this does not recognise that “true” does not give any rationale for why it is “good”.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Sam Harris’s talk titled “Science can answer moral questions”:

It needs people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals, and even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things, which is to say that it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.”

This is the culmination of the talk – that science can tell us the best way to maximise flourishing and reduce suffering. I agree, but this relies on a series of assumptions or presuppositions that are unsupported by the scientific method. For example, science cannot answer:

  1. Why is human flourishing morally good?
  2. Why is needless human suffering morally wrong?
  3. Is it morally wrong to cause suffering to one person/group if it improves flourishing in a larger group?
  4. If a person contributes little to the flourishing of others, do they have less moral value?

There are other examples, but these four questions all rely on the assumption that humans have an inherent value. Which is why it terrifies me that only 39% of Americans believe that human life is “sacred” or has “unconditional, intrinsic worth”. Science, properly directed, has a tremendous capacity for good, but I worry that we are eroding the foundations which drive it.

If humans don’t have inherent value, what else defines their worth? Their usefulness to society? Their desirability? Majority vote? Any great oppression throughout history – slavery, racism, sexism and genocide – has been facilitated by defining another group as “less”. Without the assumption that all human life has value, science is simply a tool for the powerful to use however they like.

Why should a society which does not believe in the intrinsic worth of humans develop technology to save the life of a vulnerable child, like Jemarius? Why should we cherish the scientific advancements that allow the survival of a 21-week-old fetus, but at the same time celebrate the passing of legislation that permits the termination of that same fetus?

Science works because it rests upon a foundation of truth – truth defined by God. Science becomes a force for good when it values that which God values. Scripture teaches that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is the source of our inherent value.

Many great scientists are not Christian, but they still rely upon these foundations. Through His common grace, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen,” and so even those who do not believe can benefit from His revelation. It is by this grace that scientists saw that people are made in the image of God, and that even a single 21-week-old foetus has immeasurable value which is worth fighting for.

We cannot allow this foundation to be removed. We (even the church) are permitting a society that minimises God and fails to recognise that human life is inherently valuable. Science without God creates an inconsistent worldview where we seek human flourishing without a strong basis for why this is good, and I cannot see how this can endure.

We need to be reminding the scientific community of its moral foundations. Like all else in creation, science stands upon the promises of God. Science needs God’s direction, and that means the church must engage with it, not in hostile distrust but by continuing to reiterate the foundation upon which it stands. Only through this engagement can we help to apply its discoveries for God’s purposes as good stewards of His creation.

[Photo by Garrett Jackson on Unsplash]

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