Three Essential Traits for Scientific Exploration and for Life

Three Essential Traits for Scientific Exploration and for Life April 5, 2019

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Matejko. {{PD-US}}

I had the privilege of serving as a project supervisor for my seminary’s Science for Seminaries grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The aim was to incorporate science into our core curriculum with the aid of scientific mentors. I now serve as a theological advisor for the program. Three of the qualities I have most admired in various scientists with whom I have interacted are intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, and intellectual curiosity. In what follows, I will reflect briefly upon each of these qualities and how important they are for scientific exploration and life.

Intellectual Humility:

A striking example of intellectual humility was embedded in the following line by a paleontologist in Washington, D.C., as he showed a group of theologians and scientists various ancient skulls in his lab during a recent science tour: “We are just trying to be less ignorant. We are not out to find the secret of the world.”

Similarly, I often hear scientists remark that a certain question surpasses the limits of their discipline and research, and so they decline to answer. While of course scientists (and theologians!) sometimes make assertions that surpass their areas of expertise, on the whole, scientists with whom I interact seek to root their reflections in the evidence.

Intellectual humility fosters the drive to gain more insight and wisdom whereas intellectual arrogance stifles learning and creativity. Those who think they know all end up becoming defensive in posture and foster political correctness, no matter their vocation. A lack of humility impacts negatively science’s aim to expand our horizons and promote human flourishing. In contrast, a healthy dose of humility serves well AAAS’s own aim: “advancing science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” We must all guard against regress and pursue progress in all domains, including education and enterprise.

Intellectual Integrity:

Connected to the point on intellectual humility is integrity. The same paleontologist noted above also said: “I am simply trying to do my work well, and be able to look myself in the mirror every day.” He saw no difference between himself and a person stocking shelves at Whole Foods. In both cases, they are simply seeking to do their jobs.

It is getting harder for scientists to do their jobs today. As one scientist with a career in politics claimed, in a world where science is often mistrusted as a form of fake news, one finds opinion having greater weight than evidence.

Such challenges require scientific minds to have a passion for their disciplines that far outweigh the struggles they face in the court of public opinion, or even in pursuing grants to continue their research. We must all guard against the political and cultural pressures that would lead us to sacrifice the pursuit of truth for fame, success, or comfort. But what will motivate us to go against the flow and the herd mentality? This brings us to the topic of intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual Curiosity:

While I don’t recall a poignant statement that reflects on the quality of intellectual curiosity in scientific exploration, I do recall three astronomers one night during a science retreat on Mount Hood in Oregon a few years ago gazing at the stars in rapt wonder. Their enthusiasm and childlike fascination were contagious.

While the paleontologist alluded to above did not explicitly exhibit similar enthusiasm in his lecture, it must have been just below the surface. There was no way he could be doing his painstaking, methodical research on a daily basis if he weren’t filled with a sense of awe for his subject matter.

This point on intellectual curiosity is no respecter of persons or disciplines. A week ago, I had a conversation with one of my students who is preparing for doctoral studies in theology. He shared with me that the burning questions he seeks to answer now are the same ones that drove him and ignited his intellect and imagination when he was a small child! The student in question is experiencing diminishing physical vision, but his mind’s eye gleams with the light of a laser beam.

It doesn’t take a PhD in rocket science or similar scientific discipline to understand that the three three traits noted above are exceptional qualities to emulate and attempt to embody. No matter our sphere of exploration or vocation, we should all seek to cultivate intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, and intellectual curiosity.

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