Science in Christian Perspective




Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 13 (June 1961):

Now that the A.S.A. Commission on the Philosophy of Science has been established to give continuing attention to such matters as metaphysics and epistemology in relation to science and Christian faith, a lot of us probably feel we can breathe more easily-somebody else is watching the store. Some of our most capable people will be looking after this aspect of our work; so the rest of us can go back to less complicated matters for which our scientific training and Christian experience have better prepared us. Most of us, perhaps the chemists especially, were well described by C. P. Snow in his lecture on "The Moral Un-Neutrali~ty of Science" before the recent meeting of the A.A.A.S. in New York (Science, 133, No. 3448, pp. 255-62,1961): "We all know that the philosophical examination of the concept of empirical truth gets us into some curious complexities, but most scientists really don't care. They know that the truth, as they use the word and as the rest of us use it in the language of common speech, is what makes science work. That is good enough for them. On it rests the whole great edifice of modern science. They have a sneaking sympathy for Rutherford, who, when asked to examine the philosophical bases of science, was inclined to reply, as he did to the metaphysician Samuel Alexander: 'Well, what have you been talking all your life, Alexander? just hot air! Nothing but hot air!"'

Sir Charles's entire lecture and the accompanying comments by Theodore M. Hesburgh and William 0. Baker are well worth reading. The main theme of the lecture is that scientists cannot be morally neutral because in the first place the doing of science involves us in the love of beauty and the search for truth; in the second place, our "direct" knowledge of the probable consequences of certain actions puts on us "a greater responsibility than is pressing on any other body of men." Snow includes not -only knowledge of what nuclear bombs can do and knowledge that, statistically, if enough are manufactured, some are bound to go off, but also knowledge of what definitely can be done technologically to transform the living standard of half of the world now living in poverty. Hesburgh, from a background of graduate study in Roman Catholic theology as well as of science administration, adds two critical comments: First, he reminds Snow that there are two other generally recognized transcendentals besides truth and beauty: being and the good. Second, he states a personal distrust of statistical certainty where men are concerned. Baker, dealing with practical problems of science in human affairs, points out differences between the scientist's attitude toward truth, certainty, and discovery and the attitude of the ordinary citizen.

A debate perennially carried on at A.S.A. meetings and by oorrespondence in between meetings is over the question: "What effect does my being a Christian have on my research, and what effect should it have?" Usually I have taken the position that the "rules of the game" in science are so restrictive that the philosophical orientation of an investigator should not affect his research; i.e., research done by a Christian will look the same as if done by a nonChristian, and the research papers published by a Christian will give no hint of his theological position. I think the situation is this way, and I think it ought to be this way, but the latter point often stirs up strong reaction. I can understand this from theol,ogians and philosopbers, but a lot of working scientists in the A.S.A. also seem to feel that their research should stem directly from their philosophy and should bear directly upon it. The fact that this feeling has been shared by scientists other than Christians is brought out in the statement from The Principles of Scientific Research by Paul Freedman quoted in the review of that book in this issue. Freedman tried unsuccessfully to base his research on a philosophy of dialectical materialism, but gave up the attempt without giving up the philosophy. His experience is like that run into by many of us in trying to base our research on Christian philosophy.

"A scientist who attempts to start his research from the point that his initial hypothesis must include some or all of the four principles of dialectic materiali~st philosophy will either frame an unsatisfactory hypothesis, or will find that he cannot make any satisfactory progress, do his research in another way, and either decide that dialectic materialism is dseless as an instrument of research or attach it irrelevantly to his final conclusions. The only way in which it seems possible for a scientific investigator to make use of principles of dialectic materialism as instruments of research is for him to proceed with research without using them until he encounters certain effects which naturally suggest to him that he is witnessing a union of opposites, or a negation of a negation, or a change of quantity into quality: he is then able to make use of this discovery in framing a better hypothesis and planning more decisive experiments for its verification."

Christians might answer: "But dialectical mate rialism is a false philosophy and Christianity is true; so it ought to make a difference even if dialectical materialism doesn't." The point is, as the author points out, that "the inherent nature of scientific reasoning" excludes the application of general laws of the universe to a particular problem at the outset, "no matter how true and important such laws might be." I agree with Freedman that the influence of one's philosophy on his science may come naturally, but cannot be forced without damage to the research. When we find that our Christian position does affect the way we approach our investigations, we should certainly be frank to admit it, and in publication as well, but the rest of the time we shouldn't feel that we are "missing something" from either our science or our Christian experience. In areas of social science the bias of the investigator is often extremely significant, and it is a legitimate scientific procedure to acknowledge -this bias in publication and to describe carefully the ways in which it was taken into consideration in planning and carrying out the research. A social scientist friend of mine said once, "Walt, your Christian philosophy may not make much difference if you're trying to grow crystals in the lab or corn in the field, but it makes a lot of difference if you're trying to grow kids. If the corn crop doesn't turn out too well because you used the wrong fertilizer. that may be embarrassing and even painful for a while, but if the crop of kids goes wrong because we teach them the wrong things, that's downright serious."

Well, this column is written for chemists, not social scientists, and many of us do feel that we want our scientific work and our Christian faith to be more closely integrated. How can we go about it if we're merely growing crystals in the lab? I staked out three broad areas the last time this column appeared: evangelizing our colleagues, serving through our technical skills, and contributing our scholarship to the Christian community. To relate this tothe point of C. P. Snow's address, these areas all have to do with the scientist himself, rather than the science he does. Thus a Christian may worship in the lab by rejoicing aesthetically in his scientific work, praising God for the beauty of it (and confessing to God when our work is not as "neat" as it could be). We may rejoice also that our investigations lead us toward better understanding of God's truth in the ultimate sense, and that in carrying them out we are doing and telling the truth in the ordinary sense (and we must confess to God when we are tempted to "fudge" to make our work look better than it really is). Furthermore, we may joyfully take on this tremendous burden of responsibility which our scientific knowledge puts on us to do something for our fellow man (confessing that we are more often priest and Levite than Good Samaritan, always finding reasons why direct aid to the man in the ditch would be bad for him in the long run or would distract us from going about God's business). We can rejoice even though we fail because we know the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. Is this not our witness, as scientists who are His?

Recently in church I was meditating on the sermon and thinking that the points made in it were all such general ones that they could have no direct bearing on the life of anyone in the congregation, and it began to occur to me that almost all preaching is of this character. Preachers are often cri cized fnr not getting down below this plane of platitudes

the level of personal conviction over specific rights and wrongs. At the same time, however, churches are criticized for being socially restrictive to a particular class or economic level. It occurred to me that it is impossible to go in both of these directions at once: If members of a church are from many walks of life and from different educational levels, preaching must be in the most general terms and understandable at the lowest educational level, and even at that is bound to be extremely difficult. If all the members of a church were of the same class, e.g., all scientists, or university professors, or migrant workers, then it would be possible to get down to consideration of the real temptations, sins, and spiritual needs of the congregation. Perhaps this accounts in part for the apparent warmth and spiritual vitality of sects which arise among people who are predominantly in the laboring class. I'm sure I have read accounts of social stratification of denominations in Practical Anthropology which bring this out. The point I am trying to make here is that if our local churches are to cut across boundaries of social class, race, educational achievement, etc., which most of us think is desirable, we are boundto be dissatisfied with preaching if we expect it to be directed at our own lives in any specific way. Looking back over my own Christian life, I find it to be a fact that the most effective work of the Holy Spirit has come in the midst of relatively small groups in which we all had much in common, and not in "public" worship or in the larger church family. This has led me to a re-evaluation of my concept of the structure and function of the church, but this is not the place to discuss that.

My point here is that if anyone is going to apply Christian principles to our lives as scientists, it must be we ourselves who do it. Preachers, theologians, even Christian philosophers cannot do it for us because they are not really familiar with our problems. So this becomes a vital function of the A.S.A., and the A. S.A. becomes a vital ann of the church. I suppose what we are talking about here could be called a Christian "sociology" of science rather than a Christian philosophy of science. Most of us are as poorly prepared in sociology as we are in philosophy! On the other hand, our actual behavior as Christians in science is part of the data, and we are the only ones who can provide it. Discussion of what we ought to do should be based on consideration of what we are doing. We should acknowledge our sinfulness if we seek cleansing.

Actually, what most of us are concerned about are the "how" questions rather than the "why" questions after all. We know why we want to do the right thing-because we belong to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What we don't always know is how to do it.

How do we go about doing research? How do we choose between ideas? How do we feel toward our own accomplishments and failures? How do we teach our students? How do we decide between working as hard as we could at the lab and spending more time with our families? How can we balance justice and mercy when evaluating students? How do we behave toward our research directors? How do we treat our technicians? How should we do these things ?

These are some things I would like to explore in this column in future issues, and I would appreciate contributions from the rest of you, whose experience is undoubtedly different from mine. Suppose we begin next time by discussing ways of choosing research problems. Have some of you had experience of direct spiritual guidance, of answered prayer, of Scriptural insights in handling this problem? Is this one of the areas in which a Christian's approach might be different from a non-Chnstian's? Have scientists of the past who were Christians described their own experiences in the literature? Well, to paraphrase Freedman, let us begin this investigation as scientists would, with the data at hand that bear on the problem rather than with philosophical generalities, no matter how true or important these might be. Eventually we may get to a Christian philosophy of science.

Indeed, we may begin to construct one.