Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 17-18.

For this issue 1have again asked Dr. William W. Paul to take the column. Dr. Paul is Professor of Philosophy at Shelton College. This last academic year he was visiting Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College. He has submitted the following review article on the philosophy of science.

A Philosopher Looks at Science

John G. Kemeny, who has the distinction of being both a Professor of Philosophy and the Chairman of the Mathematics Department at Dartmouth College, gave to his recent text the title, A Philosopher Looks at Science (Princeton, Van Nostrand, 1959, 285 pp., $6.50). The work is especially fine in those sections devoted to the role of mathematics and measurement in the sciences. Kemeny believes that mathematics, like philosophy, is not so much a distinctive subject matter as it is a distinctive way of approaching experience. It is a most general branch of human knowledge which aims to provide the theoretical means for ordering all natural phenomena,. As Russell and Whitehead demonstrated fifty years ago. mathematics has its roots in the symbolic logic which defines the concepts and demonstrates the properties of that quantitative science. What the author succeeds in showing with admirable clarity is that the symbolism of pure mathematics and logic can be applied to experienced reality to aid in the formation of scientific theory and law.

One will also find here a clear review of such topics as scientific methodology, the frequency concept of probability, confirmation theory, the idea of a hierarchy of laws, and the interplay between fact and theory in science. Noteworthy is the critique of P. W. Bridgman's theory, which equates each scientific concept with a set of operations defining its meaning. Kemeny feels that this is an impossible demand to carry out and that science has to be satisfied oftentimes with testing its theories through deducible predictions.

What then is science? Well, the method is the all important factor, and science, Kemeny seems to say, is that body of knowledge brought together by a hypothetico-experimental method. Kemeny apparently subscribes to the view that to have a "unified science" the social sciences, psychology, and biology must be increasingly "reduced" to chemistry and physics. The third part of the book, however, which deals with some of the problems raised by science in areas where life, mind, values, and society are vital, provides no real support for the reductionist thesis. A more pluralistic approach is certainly a live alternative. especially a pluralism which seeks unity in terms of the interactions between the dimensions of experienced reality rather than in terms of reduction. For the scientist who believes in a sovereign Creator, unity and continuity are fundamental presuppositions and expectations, and they are a iustification for the use of the principle of induction: but for the author the purposes of God, if there be any, have no bearing on science.

Kemeny makes the striking suggestion that the ideal aim of science is to establish a record of every event in the history of the universe! This is surprising not only because he knows very well that it is the task of science to establish laws and to predict as well as to describe and "keep records," but also, because of the way he goes on to talk about an all-inclusive "law of nature." "Imagine," he says, "that some all-powerful heavenly agent keeps a careful record of all events in the universe, then these records, together, would form a law which covers everything that happens in the universe" (p. 40). Yet now-here does Kemeny indicate that he believes there could be a God who
could not only keep such a record, but who could by His sovereign power actualize a plan. He simply claims that it is the "all-inspiring goal" of science to find this one law which will enable the scientist to explain all facts with perfect accuracy" (pp. 47, 167). Whether Einstein's Unified Field Theory will meet this test, the mathematician is not yet prepared to say.

Without any supporting data Kemeny claims that the average practicing scientist is a materialist, a monist who considers "the mental to be an offshoot of the material world" (p. 219). It may be questioned whether the "average scientist" has thought through metaphysics to that extent. Many probably hold to a common-sense realistic approach to the world and perhaps also view mind and matter as two interacting poles of human experience.

In keeping with the materialist approach is Kemeny's discussion of evolution. He sees "no religious danger in rejecting the scientific content of the Bible" (p. 196) because he fails to recognize that the moral and spiritual claim of the Bible cannot be easily dissociated from its factual credibility. He shares some common misconceptions about the account of creation: that it teaches that the "various species were created independently of each other" (p. 197) and that it rules out completely the possibility of mutations. I hope that Kemeny will notice how these matters are frankly discussed in the book edited by Russell L. Mixter, Evolution and Christian. Thought Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959. 230 pp., $4.50). Kemeny himself recognizes that on a neoDarwinian theory alone it is difficult to allow for enough favorable mutations in 40,000 generations to account for the evolution of man in the last million years (p. 201).

He admits that there is no clear support for the theory that evolution shows qualitative direction due to the supposed advantage a given change brings to the species. This leads him to suggest that a Lamarckian type of environmental influence may be a necessary corollary to neo-Darwinianism in order to provide "direction" to what would otherwise be chance mutation. Whatever causes changes in chromosomes remains unknown, but apparently for Kemeny it remains unscientific to bring the continuous creative power of God anywhere into the picture. In the light of the many uncertainties concerning what J. S. Huxley calls the "machinery of evolution" it might just be unscientfic to continue ignoring the Biblical presupposition.