Science in Christian Perspective



Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 11 (March 1959): 21-24.

To those of you who think our Journal is thinner than it ought to be, what did you think of No. 22 of the 1958 volume of Chemical Abstracts? Whew! Reading the literature in your own field is getting to be a tremendous chore, and brings into sharp focus the problem of allocating our time wisely, a problem that always seems to come up when Christian faculty people get together. Maybe we could be of help to each other by sharing ideas for making the best use of our time. One scheme I often try is combining two different activities into one. For instance, I like to keep up my reading in foreign languages, so I bought some inexpensive New Testaments from the American Bible Society in the languages in which I want to maintain some proficiency, and do part of my Bible reading in one of these. Currently I am reading Romans in Spanish. An added advantage is that doing this slows me down enough to make me rethink the meaning of the passages that have become familiar in English. I once read each chapter at a time in the Gospel of John in English, then in French, then in German, and finally in Russian, in order of my decreasing ability;

I knew very little Russian, but by that time I knew the passage so well that I could read understandingly without using a Russian-English dictionary.

Some of my other time-saving gambits backfire occasionally. The other day I went to an oral Ph.D. examination as late as I dared to without offending the poor student being examined, in order to save a few minutes in a busy day, only to discover that I was the first member of the committee to arrive! The other professors were trying the same stunt! So of course the student and I had to wait f or them, and I ended up spending more time than I would have ordinarily at an examination.

Seriously, have you done some thinking about this problem in your life? Every Christian has the problem of learning how to be in the world but not of the world, but the Christian who tries to do any kind of scholarly or creative work must feel the problem more intensely. As a Christian lie feels the need to identify with the people around him in order to communicate the Gospel, but as a scholar he must withdraw to some extent in order to get his work done. How do you avoid spreading yourself too thin, at one extreme, and completely cutting yourself off from effective contacts with people at the other extreme? Where do you draw the line? Have you just given up trying to read Chemical Abstracts! I would be glad to pass your comments on to other readers of this column in future issues.


An A.S.A. member who thinks I was too harsh in my criticism of "vitalism" in one of my articles on the origin of life has kindly sent me the current issue of the London Times Quarterly Science Review, containing an excellent article on "Enzymes and Life" by Malcolm Dixon of Cambridge. Dixon, by the way, who is well known for his excellent publications in biochemistry, including a brand-new reference work on enzymes (reviewed in J. Am. Chem. Soc. 80, 6152 (1958).), is also President of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in Great Britain. After discussing the high degree of cellular organization which has now been revealed (illustrated beautifully in Tahmisisian's paper at the 1958 A.S.A. Convention, some of you will recall), Dixon has this to say about the idea of a "vital force":

"Of course, 'force' was the wrong word: 'pattern7 or 'organization' would have been more to the point There is no need of a new force to account for the chemical activities of living matter; the chemical reactions are brought about by known chemical forces. It is the organized pattern of chemical reactions, directed toward one end, that is the unique characteristic of living matter. If belief in a 'vital pattern' is vital ism it is a vitalism which is abundantly justified by both electron microscopy and enzymology."

Touche! I agree with this point of view, of course. But to the theologian who asks rhetorically, "Are we then to think of life as merely a complicated chemical system-of man himself as merely an extremely intricate machine?" I still think it is best to say: "Yes, if you want to learn how the reactions are coupled or how the machine works; No, if you want to think about the purpose of this chemistry and machinery." As human beings we do want both kinds of answers. As scientists we are interested in finding the best possible mechanistic descriptions. As Christians, we find we have been given the answer to the teleological questions, an answer which now must apoy in our daily attitudes toward a the chemistry and machinery in God's universe, including ourselves, and concerning which we must bear witness to others. The problem of having to ask two different kinds of questions to get two different kinds of answers does produce tension in our lives, I think. The other evening I was attending a lecture on the effect of vitamin deficiencies on the production of congenital abnormalities. A photograph of a terribly abnormal stillborn human child was projected on the screen, and I was immediately conscious of two possible ways in which I could respond: I could regard this thing with compassion and pity, or I could consider it as a scientifically interesting phenomenon. Actually, I'm afraid I sat there wondering if any others in the group were having this same conflict in their minds!

The next week, Dr. Kirtley Mather, the famous Harvard geologist, was on our campus and I had a chance to discuss this matter with him. Dr. Mather has written in American Scientist and elsewhere on evolutionary geology and its implications for Christian faith and I expect some of us would not completely agree with his point of view; nevertheless he is now some sort of representative to the United Nations for the YMCA, and it was under their auspices that he visited our campus. After his talk on "Science and Ethical Values" at the YMCA Faculty Forum, I asked him if it might not be possible that a man could be a better scientist by being "less human," and told him about my experience described above. He gave me an interesting answer. He pointed out that much so-called scientific work could now, in theory at least, be carried out by machines. In fact, the only thing that cannot be done by machines is creative, conceptual thinking. And who knows how that comes about? In other words, he was suggesting that some kind of tension might be an asset to conceptual thinking, and that this kind of thinking is the only really significant contribution a scientist is likely to make. Then I asked, "But suppose my choosing to think scientifically makes it harder for me to feel compassion? As a Christian, maybe I wouldn't want to be that good a scientist, if that were the price I had to pay." He admitted that I had touched on a really difficult personal problem, and had no answer for it. He said he thought a biochemist might feel more of a problem here than a geologist, since a geologist seldom feels compassion for the rocks with which he works!

This kind of conflict between modes of thought may be more extreme or more explicit in the life of a scientist, but I think it is a universal problem. You react always either objectively with your reason or subjectively with your emotions in any situation and you can't really do both at the same time. Or can you? It seems to me you usually have to make a choice, and this involves not only immediate conflict but also an influence on the choices you make in the future. I know I am getting over into the territory of the psychologists and philosophers here, but I would like to stick my neck out and get some criticism of one of my own concepts about the Christian life: It seems to me that the real function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian is to allow us to remain stable in the midst of this kind of conflict. That is, the Christian is enabled to live creatively (and thus to conform to the image of his Creator) because he is able to interchange these two approaches to life's problems freely and continuously. In other words, because he has committed his ultimate will to Christ, he is not in a desperate turmoil over which of these two approaches to life is the best one, but is free to use them both, in any situation. If I am confronted by tragedy, I can think of God's purpose in it, and also of ways to avoid it in the f uture, and I am not torn between these two viewpoints; they are both valid for me. If I am confronted by my own sin, I can confess and repent subjectively, and at the same time analyze my sinfulness objectively to see what is really wrong and exactly where my own responsibility lies. By the phrase "at the same time" I suppose I really mean "without making the other mode of thought more difficult," since it is probably necessary to concentrate on one or the other as an operational procedure. To be justified by faith in Christ means I am free from having to make attempts to justify myself: I can be honest about the extent of my sinfulness and yet live joyfully! That is, the Holy Spirit allows me to plumb objectivity and subjectivity both to their ultimate depths and thus to live "abundantly." The conflict is not resolved entirely for the Christian, or at least in my own experience, but its destructive power is broken. The Christian can live as a redeemed and creative human being instead of as ,,just a machine," or as "a spiritual being," or (even worse) as something which swings violently back and forth from one of these poles to the other. What do you think of this idea?

The article by A. J. Bernatowicz, "Teleology in Science Teaching," Science 128, 1402 (December 5, 1958), is of interest as a demonstration of how hard it is to think in purely mechanistic terms even if one tries to rid himself of teleology and anthropomorphic thinking operationally. Several of my colleagues agree that it is almost impossible to give a lecture completely devoid of the kind of non-rigorous language Bernatowicz deplores ("H and 0 combine to form water." Better form, mechanistically: "H and 0 combine and form water"). Of course, some A.S.A. members would argue that teleology need not be excluded from science (Frank Cassell has been debating this point with me in correspondence; how about a rebuttal in the Journal, Frank?). Some might even argue that tele ology should not be excluded from science (See review of John DeVries' new textbook elsewhere in this issue).

One of our members, a chemist by the way, has been doing some serious study of this problem recently. George K. Schweitzer, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, is on leave of absence in New York City this year under the auspices of the National Science Foundation doing work on "the interrelationships of religious thought in various cultures and the practice of science in these cultures." He is taking course work at Columbia, Union Theological Seminary, and N.Y. U., and may end up with an M.A. in the philosophy of religion with a minor in the philosophy of science. In his research he is attempting to see if the lack of the Christian doctrine of creation can be the reason, or part of it, why science failed in every culture up until its flowering in the 16th and 17th centuries of Western civilization. George writes:

"I agree with you regarding operational procedure in science. Of course, as we both realize, there are some non-mechanistic presuppositions behind the whole scientific endeavor, but once they become part of the scientific Weltbild, then it must be mechanistic from then on! This historical problem that I am working on is one of the strongest evidences of this. For it turns out that it was not until science restricted itself to efficient causes (excluding its ability to work with final causes) that it really flowered. This, of course, was what prevented Greek science from developing. I have thoroughly shown that the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinos, and almost all the Greek philosophers believed that you could enter into 'the mind of the divine' and discover the patterns in nature by operating with final causes, that is, teleologically. It was only when science gave up the search f or final causes, and concentrated on efficient causes, that we had the Scientific Revolution."

Incidentally, George's address until the end of the summer session is Apt. 411, 434 W. 120th St., New York 27, N. Y. It's too bad he won't be able to make it to the A.S.A. Convention in June-he would be "loaded" for our joint meeting with the E.T.S. on "A Christian Philosophy of Science." I hope the rest of you can be there!

Finally, I might call your attention to an article which not only points out some of the non-mechanistic presuppositions of science, but then goes on to state that religion is superior to science because "there are elements of perfection in religion that do not have counterparts in science." The Saturday Review article (January 3, 1959) is entitled "A Scientist Ponders Faith," and was written by Warren Weaver, vicepresident for the natural and medical sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation. Although some A.S.A. members might object to some of the statements in his brief paragraph dealing with the idea of progress in religious thinking, I think you will all appreciate his development of these arguments for the superiority of religion over science: "First, scientific thinking always expands out to face an ever larger area of unsolved questions whereas religion closes in, more and more securely, on an inner core of truth; second, as the external successes of science grow, it becomes more and more clear that there are unavoidable and inescapable inner imperfections in the underlying structure of science; and third, there is a quality of permanence to religious thought which is not to be found in science."