Science in Christian Perspective




Some Thoughts on a 
Christian Philosophy of Science


From JASA 10 (December 1958): 14-16.

In every age the most comprehensive thinkers have desired to encompass all that gives depth to life and provides universal application to their system. One has but to glance, however. at the history of such ideason-the-large- scale to see that this vearning to find significance has been of many hues and that the cry for profound meaning beyond the triteness and oversimplification of the day has ever been lost in the rise of other voices seeking interpretation in another fashion in a later generation. The plea to evaluate anew carries with it the demand to assess aright, but the impatience of the human leaves the imperative to later re-evaluation and revision.

It is as part of this play, this flux, that the Christian apologete finds his lines. He colors, and is colored by, the issues and struggles of the mind in his day. To whatever extent this blending may occur, it is inevitable. Man is not an isolated thinker; his values, his problems, his desires, and his motivations are part of the spectrum of thought in his contemporary world. Asking, as he does, for all to recognize the eternal significance of his message, the Christian thinker must see himself in this light. An apologetic for Christianity is always a plea with the concepts at hand, that is with the problems and ideas of the contemporary scene. Whatever may be the timeless values involved, an attack on the compartmentalizing of experience or thought must be seen in turn as incomplete and hasty in the defence of the future apologete.

The Christian as a scientist should view himself in this light in at least the following several ways. He must first grant the present limitations of his discipline and seek to ascertain, as far as he is capable, their extent. Thereby, his defence of science to the critic within and without the church will be shored with the proper bulwarks and emphases. Next he must see the philosophy of science as a varied thing, a method and a set of results not universally agreed upon as to meaning or epistemological derivation. To the extent that this is understood, the Christian researcher in nature cannot fail to place himself, at least roughly, within certain streams of philosophical thought and to understand his outlook on the relationship of science to his religious beliefs so much the better. Then it is necessary to attain a feeling for the past and the future. Neither philosophy nor science is unchanging in scope

* Paper presented at the Twelfth Annual convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, August, 1957.

or significance. Whether gaining new knowledge or simply clarifying insight and meaning, neither leaves any man or generation with the final axiological or ientation. Just, then, as humility demands that we grant what is tentative explicitly, it asks us to show care in giving finality to what may implicitly and covertly need reassessment. But it asks more: it ham mers home the need to restate ancient problems, to clarify old solutions, and to examine the credibility of the arguments of the apologete for the faith in whose steps we now tread, just as ours must be examined by
our contemporaries and future friend or foe.

It is in the shadow of these points that I should like to turn to the remainder of this paper. I hope it is unnecessary to remind ourselves that in so attenuated a scope one can but be both audacious and timorous; audacious in suggesting on the small scale what needs study in the grand manner as part of a whole and timorous in requesting a hearing for a tentative Christian evaluation of what is itself tentative - science and its philosophy.

Our problem begins with the late medieval period for it is here that modern science is born. Bringing together the Greek and Christian ideas of a rational universe capable of being, at least imperfectly, reflected upon by the human mind, the necessary presuppositions for the study of nature tinder the sustaining of a creator God appeared to be provided. But at once strains implicit in Aristotelian metaphysics as well as in earlier church thought showed up explicitly in the tensions developing around systematic attempts to correlate nature and the revelation of Scripture. One has but to recall the Arabian neo-Platonic interpretations of Aristotle, which so color the thought of the period, to see the germs of strife. The Averroists had taught an eternal creation by an eternal God. Thomas Aquinas replied that since the essence of things in the universe is independent of time, logic cannot show that God necessarily willed it in time rather than in eternity. While holding that revelation showed a temporal origin to the universe, his views on matter as pure potentiality brought to actuality by secondary causes is basically one with the Arabians in a continuous creation. Too, in the doctrines of distinct philosophical and theological truth in Albertus Magnus, the superiority of the will to the intellect in Duns Scotus, and the sharp distinction of faith from experience taken as the only source of knowledge in Occam we see the roots of the later division of science from theology. We are told today that science has returned from antagonism to dwell in peace once more with Christianity. One may well wonder if it ever has lived in actual harmony.

Three roads lay then, and lie now open in the realm of faith and of science and its relation to the church. One may reject the spiritual (or at best dichotomize it and after Francis Bacon's claim to a new key to knowledge, a multitude of great minds and lesser have followed this road. On the other hand, one may react as did St. Bernard in feeling that spiritual satisfaction lies; in neglect of nature as a source of truth. He did this to the point of divorcing the spiritual from nature and atrophying the senses. This led to a Manichean misapplication of ascetism in treating the body and nature as evil and the spirit alone as good. Neglecting Auustine's polernic against this travesty of God's creation, the strain grew into pietism and its refusal take the beauties of nature seriously save as part of a doomed creation. Leaving the "old nature" became the avoidance of all nature! As with the first road in the secular realm, this road is frequently followed in the Christian church. 

The third way is rather obviously a synthesis or transcendence. This is the way of the great systematic theologians, of the antideistic writings of a century and more ago, of Catholic philosophers in the grand manner, of Descartes and Berkeley, and of contemporary Protestants such as Tillich, Heim, Reinhold Niebuhr, Tennant, and the personalists in the more liberal wing and Dooyeweerd and the Dutch school with varied British and American writers of note in the more conservative camp. Reflecting for a mornent on the great diversity of opinion encompassed in these at tempts, it is soon apparent that unity of science with theology must be variously construed and resolved, and that the solution of one man or school rnay not be the resolution of contemporary or later apologetes facing the same task. The roots of this diversity in developing a coherent world view are complex and difficult to clarify, let alone overcome. Of course, they cannot be explored here, but rather, let us look at a conternporary challenge to all who would synthesize and, by means of suggestions as to its resolution, provide thought for subsequent discussion on future possibilities of unification.

In the 20's a new spirit (for it refuses to be called a school) arose asking for serious analysis of syntheses of the type mentioned above. At first flush, it claimed to show that the metaphysician, Christian or no, could no longer stand in profundity and truth at once. His debates in the past were construed as profound nonsense and his speculative systems construed only as possible and not certain at best, or only as consistent speech far from the facts of experience at worst. Such a charge, if correct, shakes and topples all past and all future Christian views of God and nature. In logical positivism as represented by Carnap, Feigl, Neurath, Godel, Kraft, and Schlick (along with kindred spirits  such as Reichenbach, Popper, and Wittgenstein) the synthesizer became a mere verbalizer and statements of faith and revelation became meaningless since not empirically based. Surely this is a truly scientific philosophy - but if it is, it leaves no room for the Christian.

Today there are hardly any old positivists of this  strictly empirical tendency of thought, but while it lasted, it exerted a tremendous and continuing influence  on what James called the "tough minded." Its progeny still refuse truth to other than that based on sense but they do allow meaning to the theologian and the traditional philosopher, but a meaning only as imperative or emotive. To state that God is creator means only that this is what I like to believe or that it is what I to would like you to believe or God to be. Propositional truth in revelation and truth in systematic theology  and Christian philosophy are negated. Starting as an attempt at understanding rather than as an explicit
 attack on Christian belief or as an attempt at another  philosophical system (neither of which it allows as the task of philosophy), it turned at worst to a hidden enemy masked as a neutral questioner and at best and to the removal of prejudiced ideas and attitudes and the unfolding of new realms of discussion.

Modern analytic philosophers construe a statement as an assertion if it has factual meaning, that is, if some possible sense experience could bear evidence against it. Only thus can a statement be weighed as to truth or falsity. However, though this ends the task of science, philosophy can go beyond to clarify what sense experience has given us to know and to show  us what is meaningful and meaningless in the way we write and talk about it while, as mentioned above,  it can study other uses of language such as for ethical or religious purposes. But if the Christian believes that God has spoken to him in Scripture and through  the Spirit to reveal truth beyond the senses and about
 creation as a whole (both areas analytic philosophy refuses to countenance) his criterion of truth cannot be sense. Are not other experiences, however, implied as giving truth or at least tending to count for it? It is true that much study is needed here on the distinction between inspiration and illumination and on public checks for such truth, but the Christian says that only the eyes cleared by God can see, and one need not define them a Priori out of existence on the challenge of the apostate.

Yet there are items of faith, axioms if you will, which are not readily obviated by experience. We pray, but regardless of the consequences, we state that God answered. We say God is good and somehow feel no amount of apparent evil can weigh against this. We say God created, but we cannot prove that the universe ever began and have no idea what an ex nihilo creation could be like. I suspect it is about time theologians in the conservative camp began to sound less like they thought that when God speaks to man He speaks just as man to man though with different content and to realize when they talk about creation and miracle they deal with the unique and that statements about them are not like other historical or observational remarks. Theology is not natural theology and faith is not philosophy. Christian dogma demands that one realize it is not just sanctified rationalism and to this degree the neoOrthodox has had a salutary influence whenhe tells us that religious experience and statements about it have not identical truth content or validity.

Here, to my mind, lies the heart of the problem of a Christian philosophy of science. Supposing I ask not just that one get some inner satisfaction from doing what he thinks is the will of God in pursuing a scientific career, but that he make sense when he says that he sees the design of God in nature and from the fruits of his labors he get actual intellectual satisfaction as he better understands the greatness of God. Does he really see God as good, rational, and powerful in the human sense? Does nature have implicit in its glories the hand of God for all to see and can they see when it is pointed out to them? Or, is he rather saying that, believing as he does that God created and sustains nature, what he sees must be illustrative of what God means when He says He is good, rational, and potent? Is he saying that nature has glories the Christian cannot neglect for God gives them to man but that all cannot see and hence, miss the thrill of being a God illumined scientist?

I am sure that these questions are as old as the Bible. Common grace, natural theology, and mystical illumination are old issues in the church. Apparently the breaches are still wide. However, I will show some of the audacity mentioned earlier and in timerity place them in contemporary colors. As mentioned above, the Christian claims that all men have experiences beyond sense and that he has additional ones. Is it not apparent then, that truth for him can be more broadly conceived than it is for the unregenerate, and does not this imply that, say as a scientist, he thereby conceives of his task and its results differently than his fellows? Is he not also saying that his belief in God contains religious elements of experience beyond his beliefs about God? But what about these? The former is the notoriously difficult area of religious crisis, though unlike the neoSupernaturalist, I conceive it as having intellectual content. It also has elements of will, apparently moved by God, and at this point it lies beyond truth and falsity.

As to the latter beliefs, one may inquire whether in a sense they are not presuppositions in the eyes of the unbeliever, that is, prejudices deciding how assertions are to be set up and interpreted. I think that they are attitudes and that they are axiomatic and there is no skeptical argument that cannot be so interpreted by them as to lose its power. Here is where the Christian scientist says that as sinner his fellow simply cannot see as lie does, hence cannot appreciate why his challenging problems lose their weight to the Christian. But one must remember that much weighs in favor of these axioms also. They are not the product of blind faith - they are the result of the peculiar experiences of the Christian. Hence, we may say that, for example, nature in general reveals God clearly to him who alreadv believes because particular experiences within the totality of God's creation give credence to such belief.

Of course, all is not yet clear. To say to the skeptic that his arguments can never change us since, as far as he is concerned, our beliefs are axiomatic is not to say that in the totality of our experience, inclusive of those of which he knows nothing, they do not enter in. Experience of apparent evil and imperfection in nature will always carry weight along with other experience in trying to make coherent God's goodness and His omnipotence. The non-Christian simply has not all the factors and tools of value judgment that we do. He can, with his lights, theoretically have a coherent evil universe. But one may ask again whether the evidence should ever change the Christian's belief. I think not, if God cannot change. It is a hypothesis one may ignore. However, whether it could change it is obviously answerable in the affirmative as some later claim to disbelieve. The value judgments have changed, possibly because of change in the will. Into this problem of the security of the believer and intellectual carnality I cannot go.

Let us then sum up by saying that at one level (to the world) our belief is axiomatic and fundamental. At another level (in our personal life) belief has partly an element of will and is a value decision. Here lies the risk which makes it faith. Here lies the area in which our statements of Christian belief remain assertions capable of verification of falsification. They not only have meaning but truth also. "God creates and sustains," "nature reveals God's goodness" and so on, are statements capable of being true and believed to be so. They may be analogical and such terms as f1create ... .. good," and "sustain" may change somewhat radically in talking about God or as He reveals Himself in Scripture. But the demand for some univocal element between our concept and God, necessitated by the fact that otherwise, any word could equally well be used to describe God, leaves science with the capability of studying, in part at least, what God means when He talks in Scripture about nature and His relationship to it. The question of the univocity, the adequacy of the analogy, is a task, on the other hand, for the philosophy of science on the grand scale. It is a challenge, but then that is the spirit of science and of the life of the intelligent Christian.