Science in Christian Perspective


Robert D. Knudsen, Th.M.

From JASA 8 (June 1956): 18-19

For this issue I have asked Dr. William Young to present material for the column in philosophy. Dr. Young has been appointed chairman of the department of philosophy at Belhaven College, Jackson, Mississippi, where he will assume his position this coming academic year.

Present day philosophy in the English speaking world is largely devoted to the analysis of language. Among the movements characteristic of this trend, Logical Positivism has occupied the most prominent place. More recently, however, analytic philosophy has dissociated itself from some of the restrictions that marked the outlook of such positivists as the members of the Vienna Circle and A. J. Ayer. This later tendency was initiated by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his last years at Cambridge (See his Philosophical Investigations.), and has been developed by the present generation of philosophers at the University of Oxford. The contemporary interest is in ordinary language rather than in the kind of ideal language which Wittgenstein himself had formerly proposed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The Tractatus discussed problems of direct concern for the philosophy of science, particularly issues in the field of the foundations of mathematics. While the orientation of the Philosophicai Investigations is to common usage rather than to the technical terminology of symbolic logic, the techniques of analysis developed in this work give promise of proving fruitful in the discussion of the foundations of the sciences.

F. Waismann, formerly of the Vienna Circle and a friend of Wittgenstein. is at present Reader in Philosophy of Mathematics at Oxford. He has achieved the rare accomplishment of combining with a philosophical interest a thorough, detailed knowledge both of the development of modern science and of the issues confronting the sciences at present. Waismann no longer represents the standpoint of the Vienna Circle but has attempted to employ the techniques of the most recent type of linguistic analysis in discussing the philosophy of science. ,

Among the prominent changes that this advanced movement has introduced is the abandoning of a naively empiricist approach to the conception of the nature and function of scientific investigation. While this does not mean a return to the nationalist outlook of Descartes or Leibniz, and least of all to Kant, it does signify a renewed emphasis on considerations of a rational rather than an empirical nature. Recent developments in the physical sciences themselves have no doubt contributed to this shift of perspective.

Even more startling than the abandoning of empiricism is the raising of the issue whether scientific formulations may properly be called true or false. This question is similar to that raised by moral philosophers at Oxford today as to the character of moral language. R. M. Hare in The Language of Morals contends that moral judgments are imperative rather than indicative and consequently may not properly be said to be either true or false. The view developed by P. H. Nowell Smith in his Pelican book, Ethics, is similar in this respect.

Waismann has pointed out that the scientific writing of recent years may be searched in vain for the appearance of the words "true" and "false" as applied to scientific statements. Such statements are found to be designated as "accurate" or "inaccurate," as "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory," etc., etc., but not as "true" or "false." He has even expressed himself as admitting the line of argument developed by Gordon H. Clark in A Christian View of Men and Things, pp. 205-209, as a factor contributing to the non-use of "true" and "false" in this connection. Clarks position differs from that of Waismann in asserting scientific laws to be false. "The particular law that the scientist announces to the world is not a discovery forced upon him by so-called facts; it is rather a choice from among an infinity of laws all of which enjoy the same experimental basis. Thus it is seen that the falsity of science derives directly from its ideal of accuracy." (Clark, op. cit., p. 209). The parallel between the views of Waismann and Clark is striking, despite the fact that Waismann would say that scientific laws are neither true nor false in the sense in which empirical statements might be said to be either true or false. The problem that these considerations raise is certainly one that should be faced by scientists and philosophers interested in the relations between science and Christianity.

Toronto, Ontario
April 28, 1956