Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D, Knudsen, Th.M.

From: JASA 6 (June 1954): 19-20.

Those interested in the history of science will enjoy reading a review discussion by 1. Bernard Cohen, "Some Recent Books on the History of Science." Journal of the History of Ideas, XV (1954), 163-192.

The discipline is a very young one, the author says and up to now very few universities offer a program in it leading to a higher degree. Its pioneers are such men as Paul Tannery, Moritz Cantor, Karl Sudhoff, George Sarton, Lynn Thorndike, Pierre Duheni, Charles H. Haskins, and Charles Singer,

Cohen gives considerable attention to George Sarton, professor emeritus of the history of science at Harvard university, and founder and editor until 1952 of the magazine Isis. Sarton is well known for his three volume, Introduction to the History of Science (Publication No. 376 of the Carnegie Institute of Washington). Cohen considers this work to be indispensable to anyone studying the subject.

Sarton has projected an eight volume work on the history of science. The first volume has already appeared: A History of Science: ancient science through the golden age of Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952, Of this work Cohen writes, "Never before has the whole panorarna of ancient science been so displayed for the general reader in its mighty dimensions" (p 173).

Another volume by Sarton is a general survey of the literature of the history of science: A Guide to the History of Sclence. Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica Co., 1952. This survey of books has been published as an appendix to the author's lectures in London on science and tradition. Among other things Sarton deals with the worthwhileness and possibility of teaching the history of science.

Cohen also reports that,Charles Singer is planning a five volume survey of the history of the developinent of technology. In the June, 1953, issue of this column I pointed out the importance of the problem of technology in recent discussion. Fortunately, among those concerned with the problem there are Christian thinkers, e.g., the Dutch professor, Van Riessen.

Also of interest is Cohen's report on the work of Lynn Thorndike, who is continuing his well known, History of Magic and Experimental Science. Six volumes have already been published, and he is now completing the volumes on the seventeenth century.

Another article that struck my attention was that of Frank E. Hartung, "Cultural Relativity and Moral judgments." Philosophy of Science, XXT (1954), 118-126. For a long while I have been wondering whether the relativists should not be classed along with the Communists as fifth columnists, since by saying that all standards are relative they dull our insight into the serious nature of differences and corrode our moral fibre. It is interesting that Hartung claims that, by calling all standards equally valid, the cultural relativists have destroyed the foundations of rational judgment and have undermined resistance to the advance of undemocratic world forces.

The cultural relativists, Hartung argues, have discovered that cultures differ widely in defining certain acts as morally good or evil. From this discovery they have concluded that the customs or institutions of one culture are valid equally with those of another. The acceptance of the equal value of all cultures isargued by the relativist as an aid to objectivity and tolerance. Hartung claims, however, that the relativist fails to see the difference between cultural variation and cultural relativity. From the trite fact of cultural variation one can not argue logically that all standards are of equal value. That is to go farther and to assert that there is cultural relativity, and that there is no possible intercultural standard for evaluating cultural differences. Relativists (e.g., Hume, Westmermarck) make choice rest upon personal preference. The effect is to destroy the very objectivity after which the relativist is striving. If objective standards arc destroyed, ". . . we are deprived of any rational grounds for making choices and decisions". . . and . . . "the cultural relativist disarms himself against aggression by an authoritarian" (p. 125). In addition, if we cannot appeal to a standard above the diversity of cultures, and if choice is a matter of personal taste, we are reduced to saying that our tradition is best and that all should follow it. So Hartung claims that ". . . the cultural relativist position is not the result of scientific analysis, in the sense that it is not based upon a comparison of all cultures against a set of moral criteria equally applicable to all cultures., ." (p. 121). Instead of being objective the relativist position is "ethnocentric", causing the person surreptitiously to intro duce his culture as the universal norm.

Hartung's article is stimulating in the face of statements like those of Ruth Benedict: "As soon as the new opinion (cultural relativity) is embraced, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence" (Patterns of Culture. New York: Pelican Books Inc., 1946, p. 257).

1 believe Hartung's attack is marred, however, when he says that it is scientifically correct that morality is cultural in origin . (p. 121). What one suspects early in the article comes out clearly near the end, that Hartung is merely attacking the idea that all cultural standards are of equal value. He believes there is an empirical means for deciding between various standards. It is difficult to see, however, if he says that all morality is cultural in origin, how he himself can escape falling into the morass of cultural relativity and skepticism.

Denver, Colorado
May 1, 1954