Science in Christian Perspective



The Scientific Method As Viewed By A Historian
formerly of the American University of Beirut

From: JASA 7 (September 1955): 26-29.

Any historian who comments on the Scientific Method finds himself in a quandry because he is obliged to chronicle the development of the method using techniques and assumptions derived from the method. He is subject to errors similar to those committed by a drunkard describing the effects of alcohol. Understandably the ideal of detachment is difficult for a historian to achieve. This predicament, however, is not that of the historian alone but is shared by all scientists and social scientists who include in their discipline any developmental concept. In fact, because the historian attempts to achieve the perspective of totality, he may be in a better position than most scholars to understand the many applications of the Scientific Method and to detect its limitations and misapplications.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the historian to the understanding of the Scientific Method has been the recognition that it is applicable only under certain circumstances and then only to particular kinds of subject matter. At least two other methods, the historian feels, are necessary for an understanding of the universe . . . the Historical Method and, what might be called, the Method of Faith, although not necessarily of the religious variety. Each method is operative in its own sphere.

The Scientific Method, for instance, is applicable in the sphere of the natural world . . . the world of insensible matter, of plant life, of animal life. This sphere even includes those elements of man which are not controlled by his thinking processes. In this natural world it is assumed that there are uniform, universal, and timeless "natural" laws which can be discovered and made comprehensible by the Scientific the scientists who have found the means of releasing Method. In general, the historian's only concern in this sphere is in describing man's efforts to master it. 

The second of the three spheres is that of Mankind . . . the world which is the conscious product of the thoughts and actions of man exercising what he choses to call "freedom". In this sphere all present ideas and events are built on the past but each experience is unique, each occurs but once in time, each has its own particular setting, and each is self-consciously a human product. This world of mankind, in contrast with the world of nature, is one of tendencies, not of laws; of evidences, not of facts; of discernment, not of discovery. Although it is customary to call the modern study of mankind "scientific", the methods are in reality those of the Historical Method which relies on description, judgment, and synthesis rather than on the mathematically controlled techniques of the physicists.

The third of the three spheres is transcendent, apart from both the human and the natural world. It is concerned with purpose and meaning in a sphere where evidence can be neither physical nor human. Such questions as: "How and why do the laws of nature exist?" and "Why do certain tendencies develop in human society" are generally beyond the competence of both the Scientific and Historical methods. Nevertheless, scientists and historians delight in positing answers to such questions without explaining that their methods . . . by definition . . . exclude fundamental consideration of such questions and that they have, in fact, invaded the field of metaphysics. Any answers to such questions as these arc essentially the products of faith ... whether in God or in the growing perfection of mankind through the exercise of human ability or in the eventual self-destruction of nature. H. G. Wells as well as Augustine was a man of faith.

The compartmentalized study of these three spheres using the method in each which is particularly applicable, is even now only imperfectly achieved. This confusion is not only widespread but ancient. Certainly the typical medieval peasant considered the vagaries of the weather, the weeds in his crops, and the foul disposition of his reeve, phases of a single, divine operation. (It should be recognized that medieval theologians seldom committed the same error.) Kepler and Brache, so renowned as the fathers of-scientific astronomy, were also enthusiastic astrologers who traced their own destinies and those of mankind in the heavens. In our own day Communist Russia has attempted to force the principle of heredity, the social behavior of human beings, and the negation of all religion into a single, naturalistic faith deduced from Marx.

Unfortunately, not only Communist but Western society has been similarly guilty of confounding systematic study. There are today frequent demands that the scientists who have found the means of releasing and utilizing atomic energy should, by the same Scientific Method, control its use . . . as if the Scientific Method were a device applicable in human affairs and a device for social control. In fact, such a misunderstanding of the Scientific Method and of its primary applicability in the sphere of nature led Auguste Comte more than a century ago to devise a philosophical system now known as Positivism which preached that a perfect world with a perfect society could be developed through the consistent application of the Scientific Method or, as it was then known, as the Newtonian method. By definition Comte and his multitude of modern but unconscious disciples have reduced all human activity to the status of natural phenomena . . . whether marriage or thought or the marketing of produce.

Such a misapplication of the Scientific Method (and such a neglect of the role of the Historical Method and of Faith) is possible only because most people have failed to understand what it is and to recognize that, as it has been refined by the physical scientists, at least, it is a precise method with a limited scope.

In its broadest definition the Scientific Method is a procedure by which the laws of nature can be discovered. (By such a definition rather than by proof the Scientific Method eliminates from its concern miracles or God.) It is applicable only to a subject matter which can be measured and stated in a numerical relationship. (Conversely, it does not apply to any matter which is subject to the reasoned or unreasoned whim of man.) It assumes that any phenomenon it studies is universal, having no relationship to historical time or space. (At this conference Dr. Allan A. MacRae has made a very lucid and logical objection to this fundamental assumption of the Scientific Method as being not only beyond proof but, when applied outside historically present time, as being highly suspect.) In its modern form the Scientific Method relies heavily on deductive thought (as well as inductive thought) on at least three levels. the framing of any original hypothesis; the defining of the factors which are considered relevant to proving or disproving the hypotheses of other investigations and other investigators. (We might say here, rather candidly, that pure empirical science which all too often is taught as the Scientific Method died where it began, with Francis Bacon.) The Scientific Method makes use of carefully controlled experimentation in which the scientist manipulates his subject matter in such a. way that the experimental situation differs in only one particular from the control situation. And finally, because of logical limitations, even with the most careful technique, the conclusions of the Scientific Method are never more than probabilities. In fact, most frequently its results are stated only as working hypotheses or theories. Even when they are stated as laws : they are not considered as immutable as any generation which has been conscious of Einstein or atomic fission must know. (The Scientific Method in the hands of its masters never claim to lead to the Truth.)

Some of you respond that if these are the conditions of the Scientific Method, many fields which claim to be scientific fail to meet the minimum conditions. This is certainly true. In common usage "scientific" has ceased to refer to a self-validating methodological procedure and, all too often, refers to no more than an honest examination of a particular problem using any techniques at all. We must either admit that there are many different "scientific" methods, many of which have dubious reliability, or that in some fields the Scientific Method is most imperfectly and improperly applied. Even the field of the life sciences (zoology, botany, etc.) which is customarily called scientific claims the right not because of adherence to the tightly conceived Scientific Method but because, in accord with the classical concept of science, descriptive data is brought together in an encyclopedic compendium. Classification and not the isolation of phenomena, numerical analysis, and controlled experimentation have been the foundation of the life sciences. Similarly, in such a field as geology, the modern Scientific Method is generally inapplicable and the techniques which are called "scientific" owe far more to the Historical Method than to that of the physicists.

The Scientific Method when it has been applied where it is applicable has opened broad new areas to human knowledge and human control. When it has been misapplied or applied in analogy, as it often has been in the second of the three spheres of study I mentioned, the sphere of mankind, it has frequently given false ground for confirming prejudices and ignorance. In our own experience most of us can recite a long list of once-designated "scientific" theories which are now discredited because they failed to meet the procedural conditions of the Scientific Method. Lombroso, the father of criminology, was certain that the shape of the skull and the construction of the face determined criminal behavior. Locke and Hobbes developed scientific theories of government. . . which supported conflicting systems. Adam Smith, who thought he had detected the fundamental law of human nature, balanced upon it an entire system of economics. Marx, who seemed blind to the methodological weaknesses of his predecessors, brazenly called his deductive and determinist system "scientific." (Motesquieu's historical realism has always been refreshing to me because he recognized that mankind is understandably only when it is studied in a social situation by the historical method.)

In more recent times the systematic study of Mankind (in distinction from the study of Nature) has been designated the Social Sciences. These include, generally, sociology, economics, political science, psychology, cultural anthropology, and, though with dissent, history. These academic disciplines as they now exist have been strongly influenced by the id of Auguste Comte: that the theological and metaphysical represent past stages in the development of man; that Western man has now entered the scientific or positive era; that the same Scientific Method applies to all "sciences" from mathematics to sociology; and that this Scientific Method is not only the key o the knowledge of the universe but to its control. Although many of the details of the system devised by Comte were refuted during his generation, generalized Positivism is implicit in much that today calls itself Social Science. In many cases this implicit positivism has been reduced to two deductive hypotheses: an atheistic assumption that any consideration of God must be relegated to a past era and a naturalistic assumption that all human life can be, by scientific study, reduced to a series of invariable laws.

The original positivism of Comte was confirmed i its naturalism two generations later by the Social Darwinians who naturalized the humanistic idea of Progress suggested by Condorcet into a mechanical and deterministic one. With this hypothesis as a basis what was called science (although scarcely even akin to the Scientific Method) advocated a series of iconoclastic theories. Natural theology claimed to prove the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism. Government, it was claimed, had evolved from tribalism to its highest form in egalitarian democracy. Popular history stood waiting for supermen and super races. Psychology, after several alse starts, reduced man's behavior to a totally naturalistic but optimistic state.

Even scholarly history adopted the title "scientific" but in a sense totally different from that of the Positivists and only slightly reminiscent of that of the physicists. In the Baconian spirit the "scientific historians" set out to collect all the facts ... which would in theory speak for themselves. (No one recognized that facts in the sense that the word is used in science do not exist in history, that one is unique and the other universal, that one as discovered stands without meaning and the other exists only when it has meaning.) Such scientific history, which is usually associated with the great German historians who followed in the train of Leopold von Ranke, introduced new standards of objectivity and even today, with its shortcomings recognized, it remains the foundation on which is built all monographic historical study. Nevertheless, however objective the account and however close to the truth the conclusions may be, such history the physical scientist used the Scientific Method. (This should not imply, however, that the Scientific Method is any more capable of leading to the truth than the Historical Method or than Faith.) Conversely, the scientific historian uses a highly refined descriptive method which emphasizes: a careful delimitation of the problem in terms of time and space; a rigorous searching for all  accounts which are relevant to the defined problem; the testing of the validity of all sources by what is known as critical techniques; and, finally, the reconstruction of the events as they took place through, the subjective wisdom of the historian.

The gloom that resulted from World War I pricked the rosy bubble of optimism of the Social Darwinians, in the Social Sciences the certainty of the Positivists was exchanged for the relativism of the Pragmatists; the historians became conscious that neither complete objectivity nor detachment was possible in any Social Science; and the scientists freely admitted that many scientific laws were neither invariable nor immutable and that what order does exist is beyond explanation by the Scientific Method. The door was set ajar awaiting the philosophers and theologians who were ready to say that neither the Scientific nor the Historical Method were adequate to give an understanding of the universe. It became popular for the scientists and the social scientists to profess belief in a supernatural force . . . but always one operative outside their particular discipline. After more than a century it became respectable and relevant to discuss the fundamental assumptions which lay beyond proof by either the Scientific or Historical methods.

This new admission did not modify the methods nor do more than cast slight doubt on their absolutism. In practice, however, it became customary to recognize that the natural world, the human world, and the transcendent world deserved autonomous study in spite of pleas for interdependence. It was recognized that there was no practical relationship between a belief in God and a study of the boiling point of liquid lead. A naturalistic faith in no way changed the objective data on the mating habits of howling monkeys. Humanistic faith could scarcely alter the method or conclusion of an investigation into the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Fragmented study of isolated phenomena did not lead naturally to a recognition of interdependence.

In fact, only when a total body of research was synthesized, only when it was fitted into a comprehensive philosophy by a Toynbee or a Huxley, did a particular faith system become apparent. Such speculative thought was, in fact, in a domain where few scientists or social scientists have shown great familiarity or brilliance and, all too often "confessions of faith" were succeeded by the most inadequate scholarly application.

The recognition of these changes is elaborated by a co-operative volume, The Social Sciences in Historical Study, published last year under the sponsorship of the Social Science Research Council which analyzed the considerable changes in attitudes which have taken place in the past ten years since a similar volume was published. The unobtainable ideal of absolute objectivity has been replaced by a relativism, a single "scientific" approach has been replaced by one for each discipline, and honorable subjectivism is recognized as inevitable if not desirable. The reasoned conclusion of the study was that a man should keep himself in step with the prevailing temper of thought, be it democratic or totalitarian, agnostic or Christian, socialist or capitalist, and exercise his objectivity, if it can be called that, from this perspective. Such a viewpoint was christened "Objective Relativism" and is probably as complete a disavowal of the popular concept of science as has proceeded from the social sciences.

For lack of time and relevance to my topic as given, but certainly not for any lack of importance, I have deliberately excluded any systematic discussion of the third sphere outlined at the beginning of the paper. Obviously, it is not one where the Scientific and Historical methods have been or, even with gross distortion, could be applied. However, the dependence of these methods on certain unproved assumptions justifiable only in the field of metaphysics and faith, is often overlooked. I have attempted to emphasize some of these assumptions as I have developed this paper because I feel, both as a Christian and a historian, that the limitations of the Scientific and Historical methods are not, primarily, methodological but philosophical and theological, if that term can be used today in a non-sectarian sense. It is unfortunate that, in the past, so much that called itself "Christian science" was either sheer negativism or pious ignorance rather than a grappling with the fundamental assumptions. (I find at this joint meeting of the ASA and the ETS an indication of a marked change in this regard and one which presages the achievement of respectability for Christian scholarship.) It is a shame on Christendom that many of the scholars who potentially are qualified to relate scientific and historical achievements to Christianity have been suborned into silence by heresy hunters. It is indicative, I believe, that some of the most creative scholars in the American Scientific Affiliation are men who are not associated with Church-related or religious institutions.

Given the opportunity I would have been stimulated by the opportunity to outline what I feel is a Christian interpretation of history and one which inter-relates the three spheres . . . nature, mankind, and faith . . . at the only level where I feel a true synthesis can be achieved. It should be obvious that my personal faith leaves no rooni for a synthesis of knowledge other than a Christian and basically a Calvinistic one. This task, I feel, is too large for one man. I feel that a truly Christian synthesis of human knowledge which places the Scientific Method in its proper arena, in the sphere of nature, which places the Historical Method in its proper arena, the sphere of mankind, cannot rely on the verbal formulations of the Fourth, the Thirteenth, the Sixteenth, or even of the Nineteenth centuries. The task is waiting to be done and must be done by scholars like yourselves.