Science in Christian Perspective




Robert D. Knudsen, S.T.M.

From JASA 9 (December 1957): 19-21.

Sputnik and the Philosophy of Education

The firing of the Russian sputniks has naturally stimulated the discussion about American education. We have been used to the discussions about the "three R's" in our primary education. We have been warned that our educational facilities will be greatly overburdened in the next few years and that we shall have great need for teaching personnel of high ability. But these discussions which have been going on for a number of years have suddenly taken on a desperate note, since it has been driven home to us that America has not been providing experts in the quantity and of the caliber to keep abreast of the all-out technical program in Russia. For one who is not actually on the scene in America it is not easy to get an accurate picture; but it appears that the American public has been shocked by the recent demonstration of the Russian lead, which seems to grow bigger with each satellite rocketed into space.

This shock will undoubtedly give a big push to a program to better our schools for the training of scientists. Such a program is certainly necessary, and the world being what it is, the failure to succeed in such a program will mean the loss of leadership for the United States and might possibly mean destruction. This shock will also mean that intellectual laxness and anti-intellectualism will become less popular. School children will be coddled less and will be urged to enter scientific careers where hard thinking is a necessity, not only something for a few "egghead" intellectuals.

In the discussion, however, as I have followed it up to now, there is often a tacit assumption that must be uncovered and criticized. It is that the ultimate problems of man and of this world can be overcome by means of human technical planning. It is the same assumption about which Eliot has written, when he has criticized those "who dream of systems so perfect that no one needs to be good." It is the assumption that C. S. Lewis has presented in its logical extreme in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

It appears that this assumption is that which guides the Russian social architects also. They are driven by the faith in the inevitable collapse of capitalistic society and in the coming of the world revolution, whether it be by violent means or by more peaceful ones. They have been leashing all their forces to cooperate with this dialectic of history, excising by mass murder the elements which will not cooperate. Fundamental to Marxism is an interest that the person not be exploited. It is possible to speak therefore of a "personalistic" element in Marxism. It is nevertheless true that the individual has never been more subjected to a socially planned machine than under the rule of Communism. Individual worth is measured in terms of its contribution to the cause of world revolution, which means the production of the necessary instruments for world revolution, as measured e.g. in machines and 'realistic" political strategy. This paradox finds its relative justification in the fact that this subservience to the cause of world revolution is thought to be the only means of attaining the idyllic personal freedom which will naturally come after the revolution has eliminated the socioeconomic cause of human misery.

  On the side of the West a strong objection is raised to this program in terms of the belief in the absolute worth of the individual, in other words, in human freedom. Kant expressed this faith when lie said that the individual was not to be treated as a means but as an end. This faith is very active in the West, where it appears periodically in declarations of human rights, which assert the inalienable rights of the individual, which are his because of his human nature. This common human nature is traditionally found by Humanism in man's reason.

There is not a sufficient recognition, however, of the crisis which this Humanistic ideal has undergone in our culture, because of the relativisms e.g. of psychologism and historicism. It is not often known how far the faith in a common human nature and in inalienable human rights has been undermined.

A symptom of this crisis and a huge attempt at a cure is found, for instance, in the existentialistic thought of Karl Jaspers. Jaspers says that there is no knowable human nature on the basis of which one could express a body of inalienable human rights. His philosophy expresses the crisis of our humanistic culture. Jaspers is engaged, on the other hand, in overcoming this crisis by opening up a new level of human freedom, of Existence before the transcendent. We have discussed this attempt in earlier columns, and we shall also have occasion to discuss it in later ones.

It is part of the crisis of our Western world that this threatened ideal of absolute human worth has always had to wage battle with the idea that man has worth in terms of a "function." As Herman Dooyeweerd has shown, this antithesis has been present in humanistic culture from the very first. In his language it is the antithesis of the "personality ideal" as over against the "ideal of science." The present crisis in our Western world is partly that we are continually threatened with the idea that man's worth is in terms of one or another function and with the idea that social planning or human engineering is the way to solve the human problem, and that we are at the same time trying to throw up a dike against this faith in terms of what seems to many to be an outworn rationalistic faith in inalienable human rights.

It is an oversimplification to think that the West stands for human personality and human freedom and that Communism stands for man's worth only as a function; for this antithesis has been present in our humanistic West from the very first. It is not in Russia that the faith in technology was born; it was in the West. Further, it is this faith which animates a surprising number of our Western thinkers. It is true that this faith is continually held back by the antagonistic faith in human personality and freedom. The latter faith is still strong enough to stop us from totally mobilizing human resources in mass planning. But we should not oversimplify. It may sound extreme, but I believe that in the Communism of Russia  the West is faced with some of' its own worst products.  Here the ideal of science has  fewer brakes than in the West; it has been able to show more of it's "hideous strength."  But this  ideal is first
of all a product of the West itself. The same can be said of the, communism and materialism. 

With the coming of the Sputniks and the opening of the interplanetary age (It was a  short
"Atomic age'", wasn't it!) the question of education will become, more acute. That, will inevitably raise the question, "'Education for what?" Loosely, expressed, this is the question of the philosophy of education. The way our predominately humanistic west win pose the question will divide along the lines of the antithesis we have, been discussing. Will it be education of togs for a machine? Will it be an education with the pre supposition that :can be finally erased by means of human planning? Or will it be an education which tries to defend ideal of the absolute worth of the individual?

During this discussion
  the Christian should be ready to unmask the false belief in the scope and power of human engineering. He should also be aware of the crisis in which the humanistic alternative the faith in the absolute worth of the individual, is involved. He should also ask himself seriously whether there is not an alternative statement of both the human problem and of the solution of that problem, to which Humanism is, blind, but which he can discover, led by the revelation of God in the Scriptures.'

Schiedan, Holland.
November 15, 1957.