Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

From JASA 10 (December 1958): 23-24.

Karl Jaspers on the Meaning of Science, III

Karl Jaspers says that we cannot know the meaning of science. If a sense of science is to appear, it can be only by way of a movement of transcendence, which is fundamentally different from knowing.

The sense of science can be approached only by philosophy. The method of philosophy is not that of science. It does not give us a body of knowledge. The method of philosophy is that of transcending beyond the object of thought.

By way of what he considers to be a transcending movement of thought, Jaspers discovers what he calls the "all-enclosing" or "all-encompassing" (Unsgreifende) which establishes the sense of science, i.e., consciousness in general.

Science is carried on according to the sense of consciousness in general. It gives us particular items of knowledge, which are available and testable by everyone. This knowledge comes with the claim to be universally valid, compelling insight. That it has universal validity means that its truth is valid for everyone. That it is compelling means that any neutral observer is forced to acknowledge its validity.

In terms of the all-enclosing of consciousness in general, Karl Jaspers wishes to establish a transcendental justification for the truth of scientific investigation. But he holds that the truth of science is only one mode of truth among others. Truth is not to be identified with that which is universally valid and compelling knowledge. There are other modes of truth, founded in their own all-enclosings, e.g., immediate vitality, spirit, true selfhood.

As we mentioned in an earlier column, Jaspers holds that it is only because of the impulse of another mode of truth, possible selfhood (mogliche Existenz), that the area of scientific knowledge even becomes delineated, restricted to its proper sphere. Absolutizing science, that is, considering its sense to be the only mode of truth, is destructive of true selfhood. It is the drive of latent selfhood in man that leads him to be dissatisfied with the absolutization of the object of knowledge and that leads him to delineate the special sense of truth which is characteristic of scientific thought.

For Jaspers universal validity and compellingness belong together. They are two inseparable moments of the sense of consciousness in general. Therefore, anything that is not compelling to the neutral observer cannot have general validity. It cannot be a truth which all men ought to accept.

The items of scientific knowledge come with the claim to general validity; but science offers only partial insights. No view which would set forth the meaning of the world as a whole can claim universal validity. Thus no view which can grasp man's selfhood can claim universal validity. When one comes with an interpretation of the whole, he has gone beyond the sense of consciousness in general. Universal validity is reserved for items of compelling knowledge.

As I have shown in my thesis, The Idea of Transcendence in the Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1958), Jaspers' position involves a fundamental antinomy. One cannot claim universal validity for his world view; nevertheless, one cannot think of his world view as being simply one out of a number of other possible world views. One hears the transcendent (God) speaking through that to which he is unconditionally committed. Nevertheless, one must be ready to acknowledge that the transcendent can speak also through opposing world views. This admission may not loosen one's commitment to his own view, by relativizing it.

For the Christian philosopher the question arises whether one can sever ultimate truth from the claim to universal validity without involving oneself in a nest of antinomies. How can one hold unconditionally to a view, and yet admit that God can speak also through contradictory views?

As we mentioned in the first column on Jaspers' philosophy, he says that it is impossible to know that science is or should be to the glory of God. This denial leads us to ask again about the Scriptural foundation for the meaning of science. That sense can be discovered in the divine command to subdue the earth. Its first enactment can be found in the dressing of the garden and in the naming of the animals. It showed itself after the fall into sin especially among those who were of the line of Cain, where man began to erect for himself a human civilization, torn loose from obedience to God.

The Christian should understand the task of science as being part of man's obedience to the divine command to subdue the earth. That does not mean that all Christians need be scientists; but it means that the Christians who are called to be scientists should see their scientific endeavor as a calling from God. Scientific endeavor for the Christian has its own legitimation. It is not of value only to provide illustrations for evangelistic purposes, though it need not be denied that analogles of spiritual truths can be found in nature. Nor is it of value only for apologetic purposes, to provide evidences for the truth of the Scriptures, though it need not be denied that wherever the Scriptures speak they speak truly. For the Christian science has its place, its own legitimation, and the Christian may be a "pure" scientist, without any "outside" ends in view. In so far we can agree with Karl Jaspers, that science must have a legitimation other than its use for an external purpose. We cannot agree, however, that this legitimation cannot be "known".

To Jaspers our position may seem contradictory, for he would not allow any known meaning that is not for some external purpose. Nevertheless, we find that the meaning of scientific endeavor resides in the divine command, and we also claim that this sense should be that of all labor in the field of science. Scientific endeavor should be to the glory of God.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Chestnut Hill
Philadelphia 18, Pa. November 10, 1958