Science in Christian Perspective



Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 11 (December 1959): 28-30.

Chemists as a class seem to be less concerned than other scientists about the philosophy of science. The most profound problems touched on at our joint meeting with the E.T.S. devoted to a Christian philosophy of science seemed to spring from the physicist's description of matter on the one hand and from the biologist's description of man on the other hand. As "molecule-watchers" we seem to be philosophically adrift, becalmed between the storms experienced by the "meson-watchers" at one extreme and the "birdwatchers" at the other; we begin the day's work by washing yesterday's glassware instead of by thinking about the axioms on which our work is based. At the meeting our colleagues in philosophy (the "axiomwatchers"!) chided us for this callousness toward the philosophical implications of what we are doing. Some of us were tempted to return a chide for a chide instead of turning the other cheek, but even while doing so recognized the value of being jarred out of our naivete.

For those of you who missed the joint meeting and our Annual Convention in Chicago, I would like to recommend a book which was praised by both philosophers and scientists present: Philippe Frank's Philosophy of Science, published by Prentice-Hall in 1957. It is also available at a reduced member's price through the Library of Science, 59 Fourth Ave., New York 3, N. Y., a "science-book-of-the-month-club" which many of you might be interested in joining. Professor Frank's book is very readable (even to a chemist) in contrast to a number of other books on the philosophy of science I have tried to wade through. The author's own background as a theoretical physicist makes his approach thoroughly modern and capable of being appreciated by a working scientist; yet he shows clearly the links between modern physical theories and the historic systems of philosophy such as idealism and materialism, whose terminology is not usually part of the working vocabulary of a "bench-chemist."

Another book which has made a deep impression on me because of the discussions at our joint meeting is Values in a Universe of Chance; Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce, edited by Philip P. Wiener. It is available as a paper-back Doubleday Anchor Book for $1.25. Peirce was the American logician who lived between 1839 and 1914 and who first formulated pragmatism as a doctrine of meaning and method of inquiry-later taken over, popularized, and converted into a more psychological version by William James. So far, I have had time to read carefully only the brief section on "Science and Religion" near the end of the book, but this section has whetted my appetite for 'the whole book. Without knowing much about Peirce's personal history, I felt a strong sense of spiritual kinship from his writings about Christianity. His essay, "What is Christian Faith?" emphasizes the Law of Love as the basis of Christian faith without deprecating conservative doctrine; in this essay he says that miracles seem to him to be intrinsic elements of a genuine religion, and adds: "Doubtless, a lot of superstition clings to the historical churches; but superstition is the grime upon the venerable pavement of the sacred edifice, and he who would wash that pavement clean should be willing to get down on his knees to his work inside the church."

The essay in Peirce's writings which struck the strongest chord of response within me, however, was his "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," first published in the Hibbert Journal in 1908. At one point in the discussions at our joint meeting the comment was made that scientists, philosophers, and theologians are all engaged in essentially the same task but going about it in different ways: that is, we are each trying to understand our experience by building "models" of the universe and "playing" with the models we have made. For the scientist, a simple mechanistic model may seem more satisfying than an elaborate logical model of a philosopher, but this is not to say that either is a "better" model: the important thing is that each should have a model he enjoys playing with. It occurred to me that as a Christian, it is more important to me that the universe' or my model of it, be enjoyable than that it be logical. From the poor reception this idea received, I had about concluded that no philosopher would ever agree with me, when I picked up Peirce's essay recommending the "Pure Play of Musement" as being a neglected way of arriving at the hypothesis of God! Peirce thought fifty years ago that this argument was being neglected by theologians, who ought to have described it and defended it. The argument is that "playing" with the ideas in any of our Universes of Experience will give birth to the hypothesis and ultimately to the belief that they have a Creator independent of them. Of this argument, he says, "In the mind of a metaphysician it will have a metaphysical tinge, but that seems to me rather to detract from its force than to add anything to it. It is just as good an argument, if not better, in the form it takes in the mind of the clodhopper." Perhaps that is why it appeals to me! This book also deals with the links between science and the historic systems of philosophy, but its description of science is of course not so modern. The style is rambling and sometimes quaint, but full of vigor and wit, which makes the book thoroughly enjoyable even to a "clodhopper".

Another book which I have read since our joint meeting and which I recommend most highly is William G. Pollard's Chance and Providence, published by Scribners in 1958. The subtitle is God's Action in a World Governed by Scientific Law. Pollard is the Executive Director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies who went into the Episcopal ministry from an established career in physics, and who therefore has had formal training both in science and theology. His book is written from a thoroughly Biblical (though perhaps somewhat neo-orthodox) point of view for the benefit of Christians who are trying to integrate their theistic concepts with mechanistic descriptions of the universe; however, it should also be of great value in helping our non-Christian scientific colleagues come to a simple faith in Jesus Christ. For one thing, Pollard does not fall into the trap of basing human free will on direct application of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and is careful to point out other false solutions to the problem. The basis of his analysis is the difference between "scientific time" and "historical time". Scientific time has an arbitrary starting as early he chooses a convenient point for the zero on his time scale, and when someone in another laboratory repeats his work he sets his zero time in such a way as to duplicate the plot. The time intervening between the two experiments has no bearing on the results, because point: when one plots a variable as a function of time scientific time is uniform. Historical time, however, the kind in which we actually live, is sharply divided into three segments of non-uniform character. All of existence is encompassed in the "now" which divides the fixed events of the "past" from the highly unpredictable events of the "future". It is in historical time that God operates, says Pollard, and it is those events which are called "chance" and "accident" by the scientist which bear the marks of His workmanship.  And these are not isolated events, emphasizes Pollard: It is the very essence of the nature of a universe describable in probabilistic physics that every event is a chance event, with genuine alternatives, no matter how small a probability can be assigned to them.

Pollard's book seems to me to be a magnificent approach to the objects we have set for ourselves is
the A. S. A. I intend to keep at least one copy circulating among my scientific colleagues, Christian and
non-Christian. Perhaps some of you with better backgrounds in the philosophy of science would care to
contribute full-length reviews of the books I have mentioned here. The Editor welcomes reviews of significant books as well as criticism and discussion in the form of letters.

My comments in a previous column on time-saving devices brought some response from Professor James D. Bales of Harding College, Searcy, Arkansas. One of his very good suggestions is that of doing a thing once for all when possible. He writes: "For example,  when I read, instead of deciding to, come back later to clip out what I want, I clip out the article and mark it or filing right then and there. Even when I do not have time to read it, I see what it would go under and mark it for filing so that when I am ready for a study of that subject the material will be waiting. When I am reading on one subject and run across material on other subjects that are in my range of interest, Ijot down the reference as to where the material is so it can go in my files and later on I can check back and fiind that material. If one does not do it at that time he may remember he ran across a good reference but may forget where it was. Of course the problem of what a thing should be filed under, what subject or phase of the subject, is a very big problem and
one never gets it solved satisfactorily, I suppose. But  I am a great believer in files as evidenced by over seventy filing drawers pretty full of material." Wow! And he adds that he didn't get started at filing things as he is now trying to encourage his students to do!

 Even though my filing is done on a much more modest scale, I have learned the value of Professor Bales' suggestion. Not only does a good filing system  save time spent in looking for lost references, reprints, etc., but I think it actually prods one in the direction of creative effort. That is, it forces you to think of  possible future uses to which you may put such material, in the very act of choosing where to file it. "Am I ever liable to write a paper (or an article or a book) or do some lab work on this subject?" Making a file folder on the subject which invites you to collect other material on the same subject, seems to have the effect of committing you to the task!

 This column welcomes the sharing of ideas for helping its readers to improve their efficiency as students, teachers, investigators, administrators, or in whatever area of professional responsibility they might be. "Be
wise in your behavor toward non-Christians, and  make the best possible use of your time." (Col. 4:5, Phillips).

A lot of chemists in the A. S. A. have been doing interesting things that I don't have time to report on in this issue. The author of this column has found himself with two additional responsibilities this yeaf, that of being Secretary-Treasurer of A. S. A., and that of being the father of a second child, Russell Houston Hearn, born September 25, 1959. If any of you have been planning to contribute to this column "eventually," now is the time!

  I can't close without referring to a paper in the August 5th issue of the Journal, of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 81, pp. 3944-8. The title is "Resolutions and an Attempted Partial Asymmetric Synthesis in Papain-Catalyzed Syntheses of N, N'-Diacy1hydrazines from Hydrazides and Acylated Amino Acids." It caught my eye first of all because it is in my own field of amino acid chemistry, and secondly because I noticed that the senior author is one of our A. S. A. members, JOHN LEO ABERNETHY, of Fresno State College in California. Finally, I was fascinated by the unusually long section at the end entitled "Acknowledgements." That section of the paper modestly but eloquently tells a story of patient, dogged determination to accomplish something in research in spite of circumstances. Those of you who are teaching in small colleges with no funds for research and only undergraduate students with whom to work should gain inspiration from this example. John enlisted financial support from several different sources to buy chemicals and equipment, obtained an undergraduate research fellowship for one of his students, utilized half a dozen other students in the project, and got help from several well-known investigators in the form of discussion of the problem and advice on the organization of the final manuscript. It can be done, even in small Christian schools where research has never been done bef ore, if we really want to do it, and if we go about it in the right way. If you are in such a situation, be sure to read John's paper. I expect he would be glad to send you a reprint.