Science in Christian Perspective

Book Reviews


JASA Book Reviews for June 1980

Table of Contents
CONSEQUENCES OF GROWTH: The Prospects for a Limitless Future by Gerald Feinberg, Seabury Press, New York, 1977. 157 pp. $9.95.
FAITH, SCIENCE AND THE FUTURE edited by Paul Abreclit, Church and Society, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland 1978. Paperback. 236 pp.
HUMAN SCIENCE AND HUMAN DIGNITY by Donald MacKay. Hodder and Stoughton, Toronto. 126 pp. $2.95.

CONSEQUENCES OF GROWTH: The Prospects for a Limitless Future by Gerald Feinberg, Seabury Press, New York, 1977. 157 pp. $9.95.

This is a book in a fairly classic humanistic optimism mode in which no limits are expected on the future of mankind provided that we proceed with a strong will and a pure heart. The author, Professor of Physics at Columbia University, has written a number of books on. physics, philosophy and the future. Here he is at pains to tell us that no technical problems facing us are insurmountable, and although some non-technical issues may arise, they also should not be able to deter us from a glorious future. He makes his position perfectly clear in the words,

"In the natural world outside man, there are no purposes that we know of. In the absence of such purposes, the only ethical criterion we can apply to man's influence on the world is what human beings want." (p. 139)

"We must rid ourselves of the notion that some master plan guides our actions, either providentially or malevolently. Instead, we must recognize that only the human mind, in the known universe, is capable of making the value judgments that underlie all rational action. If we accept this situation and the responsibility that it gives us for deciding our own futures, we can make of the earth, and eventually of the universe, what we wish." (p. 145)

Now Christians are often accused of being too pessimistic about the future and of trying to cop out and leave tough problems in the hands of God rather than accepting personal responsibility. To such an error in the opposite 
direction, Feinberg's approach may act an an antidote. Except for this, however, Feinberg's approach is clearly non-biblical and fails to include inputs from many real aspects of the universe.

This book is one member of an extensive series called "The Tree of Life," edited by a philosopher with the marvelously euphonious name of Ruth Nanda Anshen. In a Foreword on the series, Anshen sets the tone. She sees us as existing in an "indifferent universe," in an "indifferent eternity," in the midst of "the indifference of nature," and a "badly messed up creation," but seeks to " reaffirm the glory of the human spirit." To this end she urges that science move from simply describing what is, into the realm of establishing and defining human values, admitting "into its orbit, revelation, faith and intuition." Here then is another example of a growing trend to blur the distinction between science and religion, with the result that both authentic science and authentic religion are swallowed up in mystic subjectivism. This approach cannot do without religion completely, of course, and Anshen has her own god: "We bow to the life force, to that mysterious energy which creates life." Her poetic yearning bubbles over in one of the longest sentences I've come across in some time:

"The fruit he has eaten from the Tree of Life has carved out for him a difficult but rewarding path: a revolt against traditionally accepted scientific principles and a yearning for that qualitative metamorphosis in which the new stage of consciousness comes into existence as the result of a decisive jolt and is characteristic of a life of the spirit which, when coupled with the organic development, is like the planting of a seed whose successive unfolding has given man the nourishing fruit of the Tree of Life, for man's organism is instinct with the drive toward primal unity. Man is capable of making the world what it is destined to be . . "(p. xviii)

In her passionate attempt to have religion without the God of the Bible, Anshen commits herself to a strange course indeed:

"Thus in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we conclude that there is a continuing and permanent energy of that which is not only man but all of life itself. And it is for this reason that we es pouse life. For not an atom stirs in matter, organic or inorganic, that does not have its cunning duplicate in Mind. And faith in life  creates its own verification. (p. xx)

Those who advocate an open embracing of this "new consciousness" perspective for the Christian, should listen carefully to the commitment being proposed.

Feinberg addresses himself to three technical problems And the resolutions be sees for them in the future: space - colonization, control over aging, and materials shortages. Since it is clear that earth's size and resources are finite, optimisms about a limitless future are driven to space. Feinberg, following the suggestion of G. O'Neill, sees ,pace populated by man-made planetoids with controlled Atmosphere, each with about 10,000 inhabitants. These colonies would obtain their raw materials from the moon and from the asteroids, and would soon become independent of earth. Such colonization of space would continue the trend "that our species has been following since prehistory," create "a new ecological niche for life," provide insurance for the human race against the day that the earth might become uninhabitable, and allow a significant growth in the human population in the universe. This last is a basic good for Feinberg since - we may expect that when there are more people ... we vvill all be better off." This issue is a fundamental one for the Christian to consider: is the universe "better" by having more human beings living in it? Feinberg does not mention that to increase the population in the universe by 1/3 over the present population of the earth would require 100,000 such space colonies!

Feinberg is confident that we will be able to slow the aging process and takes as the basis for a discussion of its effects the situation where aging could be stopped at the physiological age of 20. Eliminating all causes of death except accidents, Feinberg guesses that the human life span would be extended to more than 2000 years. There is a curiously anti-biblical ring to the words,

"We can expect that the removal of the fear of death would act as a liberating force on the human mind. and would result in people much better balanced psychologically than they are now." (p. 49)

There is also a curiously ironic sound to the words,

"Perhaps this activity heralds a new day. when we will become the masters of our fife processes, as we have mastered the world outside." (p. 62)

God forbid that we should extend desecration of the physical world to the desecration of the human person.

Feinberg then addresses the possible limit to future growth imposed by the exhaustion of materials through the depletion of high grade ores. He argues that all of the materials needed for far into the future can be obtained simply by processing the top 100 meters of the earth's crust. He is not concerned with the sources of energy to do this job, simply stating, "I shall assume that the problems involved in utilizing at least one of these sources on a large scale will be solved." He admits that it may be necessary to process as much as 10 billion tons of rock every year in the C.S. Doing this efficiently will probably require the rather destructive treatment of sever~ square miles of land each year, to a depth of 100 meters or so." (p. 90)

and that there may be some personal objections,

"In the case of strip mining, some people not living near the mines have objected simply because they dislike the looks of the land that has been strip mined. It is not clear to me how widespread such views are in the U.S. population, but if they are held by a large number of people it casts doubt upon whether the whole program of obtaining raw materials from common rock could be carried out." (p. 91)

In the remainder of the book Feinberg treats postmodern science in which he states his conviction that "there is nothing intrinsic in complex systems that differentiates them from simple systems;" long-range goals and environmental problems in which he rejects the common view of a balance of nature and questions the desirability of living in harmony with nature instead of molding nature to fit our desires; and human aspirations and their limitations in which he looks forward to biological and psychological renovation of the human species and expresses the hope that "If there is some specific purpose we wish to accomplish, it would be surprising if we could not accomplish it in some way without producing undesirable changes in the biosphere."

As examples of naive optimism at its best (worst?) I was particularly struck by the following two passages:

"When considering choices that will affect the whole human race, it is essential that the widest possible group of people be involved in making the choices." (p. 15)

Ideally, it would be best if the aspirations of different people were sufficiently similar that a world could be made which would satisfy all of us. (p. 142)

Feinberg's book does raise a number of questions that Christians should be considering. Unless Christians grapple with issues like these, and understand the alternatives offered by humanistic optimists, we will not make the contribution to our times for which we are called.

Reviewed by Richard H. Rube, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305.


FAITH, SCIENCE AND THE FUTURE edited by Paul Abreclit, Church and Society, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland 1978. Paperback. 236 pp.

Subtitled "Preparatory Readings for the 1979 Conference of the World Council of Churches," this volume was intended to be read as source material before the conference held July 12-24, 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was put together by an eight-person editorial committee. The first 13 chapters are unsigned, while the final 7 chapters are signed. The book is divided, after an introductory chapter, into five sections: a theological and ethical evaluation of science and technology; energy for the future; food, resources, environment and population; science and technology as power; and economic issues. The keynote phrase of the volume is "a just, participatory and sustainable society;" this is the proposed goal of human efforts.

The major theological input of the book appears in Chapters 2 through 4. Chapter 2 deals with "Faith, Science and Human Understanding," and reflects a sound understanding of the issues. Four characteristics of contemporary science are sketched: an absence of talk about "scientific method," in the sense of some single universal method of science; willingness to use different complementary models; a rethinking of scientific objectivity; and the posing of many intriguing problems by the expanding boundaries of science. Two major changes in common conceptions of faith are outlined: faith is not an explanation in competition with scientific explanations for the working of nature; and faith is not a supernatural tool for manipulating nature and other people.

Chapter 3 deals with the promises and threats of science and technology. It is realized that the power of science and technology can be used for either good or bad, and that even well-intended technological developments often have undesirable and unintended consequences. The overrating of scientific abilities is discussed together with the kinds of frustration and dilemma that result from such unreal expectations. Two temptations awaiting Christians are warned against: making faith irrelevant to ethical decisions on the one hand, and trying to find in the Bible specific answers to questions never before faced by human beings on the other.

The fourth chapter deals explicitly with the topic, "The Biblical Interpretation of Nature and Human Dominion." The richest revelation concerning God and nature comes to us in the Old Testament which emphasizes the iminanence of God in the created world as well as the transcendence of God over it. Alienation of God is linked directly to alienation from nature, His creation. The major New Testament contribution to this subject is the assertion that liberation of the created order is at hand in and through Jesus Christ. Human dominion over nature (Gen. 1-28) must be seen only in terms of God's dominion (Gen. 1-27). "Jesus of Nazareth is not the end of the process God started with his creation; he is the anticipation of a new earth and a new relationship between humanity and nature." (p. 43)

The remaining sixteen chapters of the book seldom if ever mention the name of God or involve biblical teaching. This should not be taken as totally critical, for we must not fall into the error of dismissing the "purely practical" as if that were ipso facto non-Christian. In Chapter 5 on "Rethinking the Criteria f or Quality of Life," however, one might have expected a biblical analysis. Instead the author writes, "For the effort to define quality inevitably leads to the philosophical-ethical question of the nature of the good, which is a perennial and basically unanswered question in the history of human existence." He follows this sentence with a reference to Zen and the Art of Motor-Cycle Maintenance as a source to demonstrate that the question about the good "inevitably leads beyond the limits of critical rationality." The author argues for "social education which will eventually overcome personal greed," and closes with the negative statement, "But there does not seem to be any evidence of the existence of an invisible hand operating to steady and guide the chariot of history." (p. 50)

The book touches on a wide variety of issues, often supplying useful summaries and analyses of the problem and proposed or possible solutions. These issues include biological manipulation of human life, energy prospects either including or excluding nuclear energy, food prospects, limits to resources, environmental deterioration, population growth, technology and the oceans, technology and the structure of government, technology transfer and dependence, quest for appropriate technology, technology and the world economy, a Soviet view of the environment and social production, and a plea for a post-modern society.

Like other treatments of these topics, the book often invokes the necessity for "society" or "the people" to have a direct voice in decisions about science, technology and government. The use of these terms is easy and gives the appearance of a democratic spirit. The determination of exactly what these phrases mean, however, and how to involve the convictions of the informed common man rather than the ideological or demagogic pronouncements of those who exalt themselves in the name of "the people" is an unsolved problem of major proportions.

The authors often lapse into purple rhetoric. The Secretary of State for Industry in the United Kingdom, A. W. Berm, argues that our present needs "must necessarily lead to the strengthening of international and supranational institutions big enough to encompass the totality of man's needs as he gradually learns that brotherhood has moved from a moral aspiration to an essential prerequisite of survival," (p. 182) and "The groundswell demand for free trade unions or socialized education or socialized medicine ... bubbled up in the community, lapping around the foundations of the establishment until it acquired sufficient momentum to swamp the opposition in Congress or Parliament." He closes his chapter with the words, "the statesman of today ... must carry on the struggle until, in God's good time, the people vvith all their power and might step forth to the rescue and liberation of mankind." (p. 184) He is matched by P. 01dak, Soviet Doctor of Economics, who writes, "Modern man should match the great power which he has acquired ,vitb great intelligence. Man is a creator, but not an irresponsible creator. He is predestined to realize the most vivid dreams, but only if he does not destroy the medium of his own habitation 'on his way to the stars.' " (p. 216)

Overall the book is a useful summary of many of the current issues. If the reader can replace some of the liberal humanism and idealism of the text with his own biblical sensitivity, he can put the book to good use.

Reviewed by Richard H. Babe, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. This review was originally published in TSF Bulletin.

HUMAN SCIENCE AND HUMAN DIGNITY by Donald MacKay. Hodder and Stoughton, Toronto. 126 pp. $2.95.

Donald MacKay's 1977 London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity present us with some of his broader concerns in the area of humanness. What does it mean to be human? What constitutes human dignity? And, perhaps above all, does the science of human behavior jeopardize a biblical view of man? These are questions with which Donald MacKay, Professor of Communication and Neuroscience at the University of Keele, is well qualified to deal. As in all his writings, he brings his astute logical mind and resolute biblical faith to bear on them.

One of Map-Kay's basic theses is that a truly scientific approach to the study of man in no way threatens his dignity. According to MacKay, Christians should be seeking a scientific understanding of human nature, rather than running away from it.

For MacKay, man as a phenomenon requires many levels of analysis to do him justice and to reveal the rich-

ness of his nature. He is concerned to discover how explanations at these different levels may be correlated; hence his well-known emphasis on their complementarity. This leads him to stress the unity of man, with body, mind and spirit as aspects of this unity.

Human dignity emerges as a reflection of man's capacity for inter-personal relationships, of the way an individual uses his social repertoire, and of his response to God. From this it follows that human dignity should not be defended by denying similarities between man and other species, nor by attacking the positive scientific theory that all physical events are determined by physical causes. MacKay is, nevertheless, at pains to point out that a distinction must be made between this form of positive determinism and its negative form which is nothing more than a metaphysical doctrine.

In extending his discussion to our responsibility for the future, MacKay lays down some very useful basic principles. For instance, he distinguishes between contentment with the unalterable and complacency in face of the alterable, the former being a Christian virtue and the latter a rejection of one aspect of human responsibility. He points out that human engineering may be a means of serving God, while human improvability may be best considered using guidelines based on compassion, obedience to God, and answerability to God. Useful as these principles are, MacKay fails to work out their implications in practical terms, a deficiency which is particularly evident in his sections on genetic engineering and cloning, both of which tend to be superficial. He is on surer ground in his discussion of behavior control, and his consideration of manipulation with emphasis on the role of answerability is especially helpful.

The specific quality distinguishing human conscious experience is that of being treated-as-a-person. Mechanistic analysis cannot therefore destroy personal significance. Indeed, personal identity is closely linked with our priorities, an idea which MacKay applies superbly to our present lives and future eternal prospects.

This book is a testimony to the way in which a courageous biblical faith should be tackling contemporary issues in the scientific (and non-scientific) realm. In places, MacKay fails to apply his ideas as rigorously as he might; but there is no denying their immense stimulation and challenge. As always MacKay has indulged in a ground-clearing exercise. It is for others to take up the challenge and demonstrate how some of these principles can be applied.

Reviewed by D. Gareth Jones, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia.