Science in Christian Perspective



The Scientific Method and Faith

From JASA 9 (December 1957): 12-13.

The phenomenal growth of science in the last few hundred years is so amazing that people in general have come to think that if given enough time and money, science can do anything. It will be able to find a cure for cancer, provide honeymoons on Mars, and even create life itself. How, may we ask, does science go about getting its results? The controlled experiment is the key. It starts by asking a question such as, what one substance is most essential for the growing cancer cell? Then an hypothesis or educated guess is made and an experiment is devised to test it. In the example chosen, cancer cells are isolated and grown in tissue culture, a tremendous feat in itself, then specific growth substances (metabolites) are withheld one by one and their effect on cancer cell division noted. The results are evaluated, and a new experiment is devised to test the conclusions. Thus experiment by experiment science moves ahead.

Men have not always experimented to find answers to their questions. In the Middle Ages men sought their answers from authorities such as Galen in Medicine, or the Church. In fact they did not dare do otherwise. Galileo demonstrated that all objects close to the earth's surface fall with the same acceleration. This contradicted what Aristotle taught; namely, that things move toward the earth because of their badness, a heavy stone contains more badness and so should fall faster than a light one. For contradicting Aristotle, Galileo lost his professorship at Pisa. With his telescope he brilliantly supported the Copernican heresy. This brought him before the Church Inquisition at Rome, where he was ruthlessly and unjustly condemned.

Some questions were thought to be unanswerable because an immaterial, vital force was responsible. Berzelius (1820), a leading chemist of his day, believed that the synthetic production of organic compounds was impossible, for a " vital principle" associated with living organisms was required. Wohler's synthetic urea (1828) refuted this idea and suggested that the body also produces urea according to chemical laws.

Pasteur believed that so called unorganized ferments or albuminoid substances were not ferments (enzymes) but the nutriment of organized beings. His disproof of spontaneous generation was intended to refute the possibility of fermentation apart from the presence of organized beings. In this respect he was a vitalist, for he believed that a vital force was essential for fermentations and organic syntheses. Liebig believed that non-living ferments caused fermentation just as they cause digestion, (ie. pepsin in gastric juice), by a chemical process.

Edward Buchner (1897) attempting to preserve medicinal yeast extracts with sugar noticed that bubbles
of carbon dioxide were formed. This fermentation process occured in solutions passed thro ugh a Berkefeldt filter  so it could not be due to yeast or bacteria. This discovery settled the Liebig-Pasteur controversy about the nature of ferments. Both men were partially right. The so called organized ferments acted within the cell whereas the unorganized ferments acted outside the cell.

As late as 1900 the ferments were still considered by many leading chemists as the peculiar domain of life, and hence could not be explained in ordinary chemical terms. Sumner (1926) succeeded in preparing urease in pure crystalline form. Its activity was due to its protein structure and was lost through denaturation. A crystalline enzyme can hardly allow for a vital principle, unless life is defined as the undenatured, active state of an enzyme. Today the total structure and function of living cells are considered understandable in terms of the relative concentration, activation and spacial orientation of the enzymes that compose them.

Gradually the areas in which life is considered to be distinct from chemistry and physics have diminished. One of the last strongholds of a vital force is still holding out. It is the phenomenon of regulatory behavior in embryological development. This is considered today by such men as E. Sinnott, to be inexplicable by chemical and physical mechanisms, and to be essentially the same as the mental and spiritual capacities of man in his purposeful goal-seeking.

The assumption that all life processes are essentially chemical and physical ones is the very heart of the experiment. The success of scientific experimentation has justified, and in the thinking of many scientists, has proven this assumption. I believe that a materialistic explanation is of necessity a complete one, but it is not the only explanation, though it is the only one which science is able to, study. A painting, for example, can be completely described by measuring the amounts and the locations of the various pigments which compose it. 'We can all agree on such a description, and if anyone doubts it, he is at liberty to measure it for himself. But the effect the painting has on a person and so its beauty or value, can not be universally agreed upon. (Hubble) But that it does have an effect we all agree. Such a description is complementary to a materialistic one and makes it meaningful to us.

In view of the necessarily materialistic basis of science no one should be disturbed when a scientific explanation leaves God out or contradicts a revelation from God. The Bible states that God created the plants and animals to reproduce their kind. Science explains the diversity of plant and animal life, and the ingenious way in which they are adapted to live where they live and do what they do, by a process of evolution. Organic evolution starts with a primaeval soup of organic compounds. Life, then, gradually evolved by the right combinations just happening at the right time. Random hereditary changes without any purpose or design, if they proved to be an advantage in the struggle for existence, were preserved. These fortunate occurrences accumulated through the ages, adding up to life as we know it. If those who believe the Bible had to imagine how it could have happened by natural processes alone, how else would they explain it?

The issue involved is one of faith. If a person believes in God he will see God's hand in many natural phenomena. If he does not believe in God, he will only see the natural processes. It is possible to say that God is responsible for all natural phenomena for He made the laws which they obey. But it is impossible to objectively know the existence or nature of God, unless it is possible to distinguish natural processes alone from natural processes through which God is working.

Faith in God assumes a knowledge of God. For the Christian this knowledge is revealed by God to man through the Bible. We believe that the statements of the Bible, as originally inspired by God, are true. The Bible then in addition to the world about us, is a source of truth. But our understanding of the statements of the Bible as also our understanding of the world, is not perfect and may not be correct. Scientists believe that the Universe is orderly and simple; therefore, they assume that the simplest explanation that accounts best for all the known facts, with the fewest exceptions, is closest to the truth. People untroubled by this conviction may find complex or unrealistic explanations quite satisfying. Our scientific theories are tentative, subject to new knowledge. Our religious beliefs should also be subject to new knowledge and simple. Not all theories of science are equally probable. Some theories are so well authenticated that they are considered to be laws. Some of the doctrines of the Bible are repeated so often and in so many diff erent ways that the possibility of misunderstanding them is slight, and so they too could be considered as laws.

An attempt has been made to convey a feeling for the way biological science has developed. Its necessary disregard for religious beliefs and hence its limitation has been shown. Attention has been called to its unassuming simplicity as a desirable ideal for theology.


1. Bertalanffy, L. von, Problems of Life, London, Watts, 1952.
2. Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom Columbia Univ. Press, 1956.
3. Gabriel, M. S., and S. Fogel, Great Experiments in Biology, Prentice Hall, 1955.
4. Hubble, Edwin P., The Vature of Science, San Marino, Calif., Huntington Library, 1954.
5. Krauskopf, Konrad, Fundamentals of Physical Science, 3rd edition, McGraw-Hill, 1953.
6. Pasteur, L., Annales de chimic et de Physique, 64, 1-110 (1862).
7. Santillana, G. de, The Crime of Galileo, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955.
8. Sinnott, E. W., The Biology of the Spirit, The Viking Press, N.Y., 1955.