Science in Christian Perspective



A Christian Philosophy of Science*
1711 Prairie St.
Elkhart, Ind.

From: JASA 6 (
June 1954): 4-7.
Paper presented at the Eighth Annual convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Winona Lake, Indiana, September 1-3, 1953.

1. The Need for a Cristian Philosophy of Science

In the last fifty years the science and technolog7 of America arid the world have made tremendous advances. With the release of nuclear energy man has put himself in the vulnerable position where it appears his technology may destroy himself and his achievements. This startling situation has made many non-Christian men aware, for the first time, that science needs religion and morality to control it. It is further recognized that a religion which would control scientific technology must be one which call connect itself in some way with contemporary science. Despite all contentions that Christianity is incapable of doing this, the purpose of this discussion is to show the relation of Christian principles to scientific fact. This view is opposed to that of modern P rote stantism, which holds that moral philosophy and religion are autonomous subjects, independent of natural science.

2. The Basic Types of Science

Perhaps the greatest reason for so much loose thinking about the relations of science and religion is the failure to recognize that science consists of two distinct parts. One part of science is the formal element. This consists of logical deductions which yield a consistent theory. The question formal science asks is, "Can it be proven by logic"' Nonformal science on the other hand asks, "Is it actually true?" Religion has a different relation to each type of science, and we shall consider each one separately.

Formal science consists of a system deductively formulated by the laws of logic. The formal part of an), one science builds oil the concepts of simpler sciences. This ineans that the sciences can be arranged in order of their complexity.

Such a listing follows:
Logic (which introduces the basic laws)
Mathematics (which introduces the ideas of numbers, equalities, lines, etc.)

Physics (introducing the concepts of time, motion, mass, electricity, etc.)

Chemistry (introducing the valence concept)
Biology (adding the terms life, animal, plant, etc.)
Psychology (with the concept of mind and intelligence)
Sociology (dealing with groups of people)
Religion (adding the ideas of ethics, God, etc.)

While this list is not comprehensive it shows that in the formal sense. religion may be treated as a science. In fact if a religion wants to show itself scientifically correct, and intimately connected with science it must be considered as a science in the formal development.

If we were to arrive at a religion by pure reason alone, we would no more end up with Christianity, then we would arrive at the physics of Newton, Planck, or Einstein by reason alone. It must be admitted that all the sciences beyond logic are colored in their formal fabrication by  non-formal truth. One of the new concepts Christianity presents to formal science is ethics. This means its formal development must differ from that of preceding sciences. We can tolerate any view, for example, of physics or chemistry that is logically developed in formal science. However, in Christianity, as a formal science. we must reject any idea or postulate of a preceding science which can be proven to be actually false. As long as we cannot know definitely that a certain postulate is false, we may include it in our formal scheme of Christianity. It should lie pointed out that the basis of Christianity is the Bible. Dr. Machen  has well established the case that a religion not accepting the Bible has no right to be called Christian. Using the Bible, arid any actually true scientific theory, formal Christianity can be developed in a relationship that is intimately connected with modern science. Oil issues where neither the Bible nor nonformal science speak, the Christian may well have views that will be constantly subject to change. and that must be kept, at all times, tip to date. This explains in part why different Christian theologies exist. As long as they accept actual known truth. including the Bible, all that is required is that they be self consistent. If these conditions are met, one Christian theology is just as valid as the next as far as formal development is concerned.

1. Methods of Determining Truth

In formal science the only restriction on the choice of postulates is that they be consistent and independent. In non-formal science we attempt to determine whether a given proposition is in reality true. The philosophy of non-formal science is chiefly concerned with the method used to establish truth. Historically there are four common methods:

1) Dogmatism, which involves appealing to some external authority, either written or verbal. The weakness of this method is the lack of a criterion to determine the correct authority. If some more basic method is used to determine the correct authority this method is generally considered acceptable.

2) Intuitionism. This is the ascertaining of truth through an inner realization of its validity. This seems to lie mainly in the imagination. If one cannot imagine a thing it does not mean it is not true. A person in the tropics may not be able to conceive of such a thing as frozen water, but that does not preclude its existence.

3) Rationalism, which is finding the truth entirely by the use of the laws of logic. It has never been able by its own laws to show that it is a basic method of determining non-formal truth.

4) Empiricism, By a modern definition, empiricism is a method of employing sensory experience to determine truth. Since the time of John Locke ( 17th century), this method of finding truth has been accepted, with a few important limitations. Unfortunately these limitations are often not understood by those who advocate the use of the empirical method. Let us examine them closely. 2

a) Only controlled experiments are of value in determining scientific truth. The results of such experiments give us the answer which lies closest to the truth. This restriction to empiricism answers the objection of the experimental scientist that our senses often play tricks on us. For example, how can one be sure he does not see an optical illusion instead of what actually exists? Consider the case of twenty people reporting on an automobile accident that they all witnessed. The contradictions found, readily convince us that controlled experiments are required. Granting controlled experiments, we still arrive only close to the truth. Consider the historical question of the length called the meter. Originally scientists determined the meter as the length that is one ten millionth of the dis tance from a pole of the earth to the equator. This put this length on a special platinum-irridium bar a standard. Later, more accurate measurement showed the bar to be not quite one ten millionth the distance above. A scientist today in measuring something will get many readings. They wil all agree. By a procedure known as the "method-of-least squares" he concludes what answer is to the actual measurement-but he does not conclude his answer to be the actual measurement.

b) The empirical method assumes the validity of certain fundamental entities, and then either con firms or disproves them. This problem, raised by Kant, is quite significant. Stated another way, we might say we always assume our equipment to be accurate. The equipment may be physical equip ment or something more abstract. For example we assume the laws of arithmetic to hold without question, or we accept the principles of logic. By making these assumptions, we do not exclude the possibility of showing them wrong. In nuclear physics, certain Euclidian geometry propositions, when presupposed, lead to contradictions, and therefore must be rejected. If our assumptions, or physical equipment lead to consistent results, we have no reason to doubt that we have arrived at the truth by empirical means.

c ) No Law of Science can ever be reached that is entirely free of doubt. This consideration proposed by David Hume must be considered valid. That is, the job of the scientist to establish absolute truth, or undoubted laws is an ideal one. It can never be completed in any finite time, because to be absolutely valid it must hold for all cases. To show it holds for all cases by empirical means requires us to examine an infinite number of cases! We cannot conclude, however, that a scientist's work is therefore of less value than if he established absolute truth. What is found is the most probable truth. While the scientist cannot say his conclusion is undoubtable, he can say, upon the use of the empirical method, that his conclusion is more likely true than any other. That is, his conclusion has the highest probability of being correct. This is not to be confused with the physicist's statistical probability. For example Newtonian physics, or classical physics, was accepted as about as absolute as anything ever has been. However, modern physics has shown that certain parts of Newton's physics, while valid for all other cases tested did not hold when very small atomic particles were considered A specific example would be this: In classical physics there is the law of conservation of matter which says that matter may not be created or destroyed. However, modern physicists have found that a photon, which has no mass, but does have energy, can change into a positron and an electron both of which have mass! This is a case in which matter has been created. We have changed our views to believe in a law of conservation of mass-energy. The point is this: Science can establish something with a very high degree of certainty, but it never says the particular conclusion it holds may not be wrong.

2. The Scientific Method

At this point let us summarize the modern scientific method. This is sometimes presented as consisting of three steps: Hypothesis, theory, and Law. The hypothesis is the formal part of the method. Science first of all formulates a logical proposition that it wants to test. This is sometimes called the problem. The second step is the non-formal part. The empirical method is used to arrive at an answerAo the problem. On this basis a probable solution, the;' theory, is determined. Finally, when the theory has stood the test of time, it is called a law. The difference between a theory or law is not distinct or of much importance. A law is simply a theory with an added degree of probability.

3. The Scientific Method and Religion

A vital and debated question today is this: Can the scientific method be used to establish facts about religion? One school of thought says that before the empirical method may be used to find religious truth, it must by empirical means, show that it is valid for that use. If they ask for undoubtable empirical evidence, they must admit that the empirical method cannot produce that proof for any type of truth. This does not however, invalidate the method. If we assume the method to he applicable to metaphysical ideas, we find the results consistent, and therefore this contention is groundless. Fundamental theologians have contended that religious truth is of a higher nature than science. The reaction of many scientists to this has been most unfortunate. If religion must be pigeonholed in a class where their usual reasoning is not applicable, it has no appeal to them. Certainly both have a point. From a science point of view, metaphysical problems lie beyond direct sensory experience, but so do atoms. The major problem is how to determine a factor which lies beyond the physical senses. The answer is by inference. The difficulty which now arises is how one can distinguish between a faulty inference and a valid one. To a scientist the only correct means is the scientific method, which has already been outlined. By this method one can arrive at the logical conclusion that atoms exist, and by this method an equal amount, indeed a larger amount of evidence is produced to show the existence of God. In other words, in the same sense that the existence of atoms can be proven, God can be proven. However, it must be remembered that by "proven" is meant simply that a high probability of correctness is attached to it.

The theologian's point must also be considered. He chooses for example, to believe in God regardless of what science says. His belief must be an absolute belief. It is not enough to believe God almost certainly exists; one must believe, without a doubt, that He exists. In that sense, religion is above reason and the scientific method. In the final analysis religion requires faith. Notice the nature of faith, however. Faith is not believing something contrary to all scientific evidence, but it is believing something that scientific evidence points toward; something that is beyond the end of the pointing finger. Christian faith is essentially dogmatic. It is accepting a concept because of the reliability of the authority presenting it. On the other hand faith must not be thought of as something that bridges the gap between the end of evidence and the unknown. Faith is coexistent with evidence. One must have faith in God where it is backed by reason, and where the probability of His existence is not certainty.

In answer to, the question, "Can the scientific method be used on religion?" we believe that at least the fundamental assumptions of Christianity can be established by the scientific method as surely as any other natural truth. However, we believe that this is not sufficiently sure for the Christian, and therefore he must in addition, have faith.

4. The Place of Christianity in Non-formal Science

Previously it was shown that in formal science religion in general presupposes all the more fundamental sciences. In non-formal science however, the situation is reversed. Other sciences are merely a part of the overall plan of God. God revealed Himself through nature and His Word. Actual truth comes from God. He is the origin of all we have.

IV. Conflicts Between Science and Christianity

In the past, conflicts between Christianity and science have been met in a number of ways:

a) State that Christianity and Science deal with different areas of truth, and therefore, may have existing conflicts.

b) Contend that no conflict is possible.

c) Accept science, and reject that part of Chris tianity which conflicts, or all of Christianity.

d) Accept Christianity always, and reject that
part of science which conflicts.

e) Assume that no contradiction is possible and
therefore look for a possible fallacy in the conclusion that a conflict exists.

The conclusion of this paper is that method a) and b) are illogical solutions, while any of the last three are possible solutions. We have already considered the argument of a). The contention of b), that a conflict is impossible, is a failure to face reality. Those who hold this contention probably do not realize that there are conflicts within science and within Christianity. Why should there not be conflicts between the two? It has just been pointed out that science and Christianity are each just a part of the whole plan of God. Therefore, we should deal with conflicts between these just as we would with conflicts between two scientific ideas, or two Christian ideas.

The first step in solving a conflict is to use method e). i.e. look for a fallacy in the reasoning which claims that a conflict exists. Many conflicts are only apparent because of ambiguous terms, or because of a misunderstanding of either science or Christianity. For example, the contention that science conflicts with the Bible, because science shows that apples could not grow in the part of the world where the garden of Eden was located, and yet the Bible claims Eve ate an apple, is easily solved. The Bible does not say Eve ate an apple. Whether or not apples could have grown there is no longer even pertinent. If the conflict appears to be real, we can either change science or Christianity. Consider first how science might be changed. To illustrate we will use an example in which one part of science conflicts with another part. Physicists have shown that what is known as the special principle of relativity is a valid principle of physics. That is simply stated, that suppose certain physical phenomenon obey laws relative to a certain reference point, (e.g. the earth) they will also obey the same laws relative to some other reference point which is in uniform motion with respect to the first. For example, suppose some big box were traveling at the rate of ten miles per second with respect to the earth, toward a light source on the earth. The same physical laws should hold with respect to the box or the earth. There is another law of physics which states that the velocity of light does not depend on the velocity of the source of the light. That is to say the velocity of light is always 186,000 miles per second. Notice now, that if the first principle is true the velocity of light should he 186,010 for a person in the box. The principle of relativity and the principle of the constancy of the speed of light are clearly in conflict. To solve the conflict we must merely adopt for the theory of relativity the concept of relative time. That is the length of the second is not the same in both of the above systems. The point is, if we can make necessary changes in science to solve conflicts within science, we can do likewise to solve conflicts between science and Christianity.

On the other hand there are conflicts within Christianity, too. Some of these are easily solved. For example, John 19:14 says Christ died at the sixth hour, while Mark 15:25 says it was the third hour. The conflict is readily solved by discovering one was using Jewish time, the other Roman time. A more puzzling conflict would be this: God is love, yet God will punish man by hell fire because God is Just-. This is a conflict. How can God be love and yet be just? The conflict is answered in Christ. God's love devised a means of allowing man to escape punishment.

Consider this case. Some Christians contend the Bible predicts a thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. Others contend the Bible does not predict that. Obviously both cannot be right and the conflict will not be properly answered until Christ comes. This is the important point, however; many things in our Christian viewpoint are interpretations of the Bible. Let it be granted the Bible as originally given is without error or need of change, but if science empirically proves something which our interpretation of the Bible contradicts, we should consider changing our interpretations. Of course, the Christian will never take the view that a problem between science and Christianity requires him to abandon Christianity.

V. Conclusion

Science in its rapid advance needs Christianity to control it. Christianity based on the Bible, is scientifically sound, and adequate to meet the needs of our pres ent world. God produced both, His laws control both, and between the two exists complete harmony.

1. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
2. G. W. Churchman, op. cit. Elements of Logic and Formal
Science, pl5lff


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G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand ]Rapids, Mich., 1946
The American Scientific Affiliation, Modo-n Science and Christian Faith. Edited by F. A. Everest, Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, Ill., 1948
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