Science in Christian Perspective



Religion and the Limits of Science

From: JASA 15 (December 1963): 104-107.

Science is a human mental creation, It is limited by the source of its data, the logical operations which analyze them, and its incomplete model of the universe. It can never yield an answer to the basic question of human existence, "Why are we here?" Religion, however, deals with that question and provides a metaphysical framework to clarify the normative and teleological areas of man's existence, Christianity needs creative thinkers who are bridge-builders mastering the insights from various disciplines and bringing them to bear on problems, like evolutionary theory, faced by the Christian community.

The purpose of this paper is to examine candidly some of the inherent weaknesses of science and to suggest how religion meets these limitations and goes beyond them. I do not aim to be definitive and above all, I do not mean to imply that those who disagree are, by definition, wrong.

Modern science began when men crashed through the stuffy dogmatism of the Medieval scholastics who in turn had tried to stand on the shoulders of ancient Greek and Roman giants, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Galen. The scientific knowledge explosion goes back to the time when Renaissance intellectuals discovered that looking at Nature could be more exciting than merely reading Aristotle. Since then we have had a tremendous knowledge explosion which today is virtually getting out of hand.

Glass and others have stated that scientific knowledge is growing so fast that the amount of significant knowledge doubles approximately every 10 to 15 years (3). During the past 200 years the number of scientific journals has been doubling every 15 years until at present we have roughly 100,000 journals in science alone (6). Even though this unmanageable growth of knowledge has numerous ill side-effects which I shall not go into here, one result of this growth is to make the public aware of the large scope and high status of science. One reason for this is that 90 percent of all scientists who ever lived are living today (7, p. 96).

While some persons may regard science as a sacred cow, most people probably see it as some large insatiable monster blasting away at all the bedrocks of ingrown security and creedalism. The scientist is seen as a precision automaton in a white coat or a stoopshould,cred fuddy-duddy in baggy pants with a forgetful mind. While these caricatures are worth their usual quota of jokes, they do not illuminate the task and scope of science.

Despite the impossibility of formulating the definition of science, I personally like the one offered by Simpson: "Science is an exploration of the material universe that seeks natural, orderly relationships among observed phenomena and that is self-testing" (11).

Science, therefore, is concerned with more than description and fact-finding. It moves beyond these levels and is concerned with relationships and generalizations that supposedly exist between and among the observed phenomena. It is concerned with the literally material and objectively physical aspects of our universe; insofar as our discussions relate themselves to the nonmaterial our treatments are metaphysical. Science must also be a self-testing cybernetic system in which generalizations and principles are always more or less oriented toward the material universe.

Into what kind of world did Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg and others lead us? The world shaped by these men's minds is a world of excitement, sweep, and incompleteness. To discover things for oneself, to listen to first-rate minds clash over an idea, to partake in the thrill of helping push back the frontiers of knowledge can be fun and loaded with excitement. Science is sweeping in its scope for it tackles many problems, utilizes many approaches and techniques, and has far reaching effects piercing into virtually ~every nook and cranny of our existence. I choose to expand a bit in the least understood facet of science, its limitations or incompleteness.

A widespread idea is that science is precise and exact; indeed, about as perfect as anything could be. Many people still feel that science is perfect and the most complete and certain of any human mental crea tion. Philosophy, theology, and metaphysics might be fuzzy, marred by imprecisions, and scarred by endless and trivial debates such as the number of angels that can dance on a needle point. But science never! It does not get sidetracked by such vagaries, but is straightforward, precise and certain. But wait! While it once appeared as though our descriptions of nature could be complete, orderly and precise, we are not at all cocksure now. Scientists and philosophers are reappraising the nature of science; they now remark that while

*Mr. Keener is Asst. Prof. of Biology, Eastern Mennonite College. In 1963-64 he will be an NSF graduate fellow in botany at North Carolina State working toward his Ph.D. in botany.

science is good and can do much, it is by no means perfect. But this does not make science any less desirable, for as Warren Weaver maintains, who wants to marry a woman who is totally predictable and completely perfect? (12)

just in what way is science imperfect and incomplete? First, science is essentially a statistical study of the natural world about us. This statement points to several problems. Scientists work with empirical data based on observations which are then reduced to factual propositions. Now defining a fact is not easy as Hanson points out (5, p. 31). Yet our scientific laws are based on these so-called facts, i.e., the observations we make of certain natural phenomena. Because we cannot observe and analyze everything, we study samples. The meticulous analysis of our sample is then supposed to tell us about all the other unmeasured and unobserved members of the set from which our sample was drawn.

Not only do we sample but we also perform measurements of various kinds. No measurement is ever completely accurate simply because our gadgets cannot perform the measurements with an absolute degree of refinement. Therefore, because our measurements lack perfect accuracy, and because ideas or laws derived from a study of a sample may not reflect the true characteristics of an entire population, we must conclude that perfect accuracy either of a conclusion about a whole population or of a prediction based on our past analyses is impossible of attainment. For these and other reasons, Scriven would say that the only thing we can now say for the so-called laws of nature, e.g., the law of gravity, is that they are inaccurate. Scriven has

. . . called inaccuracy the key property of physical laws because its almost universal presence is a kind of unadmitted shocking fact like the Emperor's nakedness, and needs to be pointed out if we are to get a true picture of the role of laws" (9, p. 104). Gordon H. Clark would go even further; he would say that the laws of nature are false, i.e., they are a possible approximation of the truth, but never the absolute and final truth (2, p. 209). And Hanson adds, ". . . there is no such thing as the law of inertia, the law of force, the law of gravitation" (5, p. 94).

Because we choose our laws instead of discovering them, the laws of nature may be as illusory as the universal ether. Since our chosen laws or statements are approximations, they can never be true in an absolute sense. Confusion arises when we take our view of nature for the final (correct) one. We assume too much when we say we think God's thoughts after Him. We approximate the truth, but we never arrive at it-our "laws" are incomplete.

Secondly, our formulations of natural phenomena are seemingly dominated by logical operations. Yet in these operations inherent defects are apparent. By its construction, deductive logic cannot create new truths because all of the residual information is contained in the premisses. The work of the brilliant metamathema-tician, Kurt G6del, showed that any deductive logical system is essentially incomplete, for it is possible to ask questions which cannot be fully answered within the axiomatic framework of that syste-m. The question of whether or not there is an inner logical flaw in a given deductive system is a question which is simply unanswerable. Percy Bridgman states that " . . . logical certainty is unobtainable and in hoping for it we are deceived by a mirage of our own creation" (1, p. 481).

If deductive logic is powerless to create new truths, inductive logic is powerless to absolutize the truths it can create, for these truths are of an inferential kind. They are at best probability statements. The problem here is to justify our inductive inferences. Either we must postulate an a priori, in which case our logic winds up being a philosophical assertion, or else we are forced into an endless round of question-begging statistical statements. Let me illustrate one facet of the problem. If we would pick out a piece of wire from a box and find out that it conducts a current we would confidently predict that other similar pieces of wire would also conduct electricity. But suppose we would go to Mars, find a native, and learn that he calls himself Wormaldia. Are we then willing to predict that all Martians are called Wormaldia? What is it that makes us sure in one case and hesitant in the other? Logic, as Goodman asserts, is in a state of confusion (4).

To what does all this lead? No matter how thoroughly a scientist tries to describe the physical world in terms of information derived from sense experience, he can never be sure that he has accurately and completely mapped it. Analysis of our universe appears to be an unending task. Simpson puts it succinctly: "It has become increasingly evident in our century that science is uncertain in its very nature . . . Indeed one thing of which scientists can be quite certain is that they will not achieve a complete solution of any worthwhile problem" (10, p. 5).

The final limitation is the biggest one of all. Science does not furnish us with any really ultimate, satisfying, Dr certain explanation of anything. Except on trivial levels, scientists do not seem to be unanimous on any basic question. Two illustrations must suffice to show this point. Philosophers of science do not agree on the relationships between our factual observations and theoretical formulations. Some with Kemeny consider that the main task of the scientist is to gather facts. Out of a vast assemblage of facts we then formulate our theories. Others like Popper say that a scientist gets his theories by sudden flashes of creative insight. His task then is to try to disprove his "guesses" via empirical tests. The question of how scientists get their theories is partially answered by both the inductive and the hypothetico- deductive approach.

Another difficulty scientists face is the problem of the complexity of their theoretical formulations. If several theories attempt to explain similar phenomena, most scientists are inclined to choose the simplest on the assumption that a good law of nature is a simple one. But how can we say that one law is simpler than another?

Nobody knows just what constitutes a good test for simplicity in science. Goodman (4) emphatically asserts that the problem of simplicity needs a lot of hard work and that " . . . the problem is not only one of the most important in the philosophy of science but also one of the newest to be tackled seriously."

We would like to be certain about our pronouncements of natural phenomena, but about all that remains is uncertainty and incompleteness. It is no wonder, as Anne Roe observed, that scientists must tolerate a high degree of frustration in their work (10). Popper looks to religion and philosophy for certainty, firmness of faith, and absoluteness of conviction, but not to science:

. . . the old scientific ideal of episteme-of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge-has proved to be an
idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevi table that every scientific statement must remain tentative forever. It may indeed be corroborated, but every corrobor ation is relative to other statements which, again, are tentative. Only in our subjective experiences of conviction, in our subjective faith, can we be 'absolutely certain' (8, p. 280).

Whatever the public may think of science, scientists see it as an exciting and sweeping undertaking, yet one which will never yield true and final answers to any worthwhile problem. Science can give us an imperfect (i.e., essentially incomplete) model of the world. It can attempt to explain how things work, but it cannot tell us the answer to the deep cry of human existence, '"Why are we here?"

The function of religion as an ordered metaphysical framework is to clarify the normative and teleological areas of man's existence. Religion helps man to find meaning and beauty in life as against the mood so well reflected by Holderlin's words, "To us has been no resting place. Mortal men plunge and fall, like water tossed from rock, down into the unknown forever." Religion attempts to find a rationale for existence by answering three basic questions concerning man's humanness: Why am I here? What does it mean to exist? Where am I going? The Christian religion in terms of God's revelation adds a fourth: What does God think of me? Christianity does not see a god of cyclic recurrence in a world of total immanence. Nor does it see an eternal world full of gods. But it meets God in history in the person of Jesus Christ.

The concept of "religious truth" implies a finality and an absoluteness in that religious truths involve neither objective tests nor corrections. Scientific truths are thus quite special; they imply nothing eternal and final but establish only a relative degree of confidence by means of adequate empirical corroborative tests which aim to falsify the original hypothesis. Thus scientific truths are realistically and directly related to the material universe, whereas religious truths are not so related. It is helpful to distinguish between different kinds of truth by the methods used for establishing truth. Because religious truths speak to the problems of man's existence, they become qualitatively more important for mankind than the probabilistic truths of science, since these can never be absolute and final. Thus one function of religion is to go beyond science and touch vital areas of man's life which are closed to empirical methods.

Individuals must choose the options of Christianity or else reject them. They cannot be forced willy-nilly on anyone. If a person rejects the claims of Christianity, that must be his decision and his alone. But he does not decide because science tells him it is the intellectually respectable thing to do. I am a Christian now because the claims of Christianity make sense to me. It matters terribly for me to know what die God I worship thinks of me. And I see the answer at Calvary in Christ who can heal the broken heart and give a meaningful existence to a sin-shattered history. But I cannot prove this. I can only witness-which is all the Master asks us to do.

It seems to me that college campuses have enough critics. We need more than critics. We need creative thinkers who are willing to engage their intellects in an analysis of the issues that confront us. just as a biological population will die out unless it can meet the pressures of a changing environment, so Christianity also will loose its influence unless it can adapt to a changing cultural and social environment. We therefore need Christiad scholars with a highly disciplined intellect and a liberalized mind who are eager to tackle the problems beset by an ever-changing environment. We need thinkers who will provide us with intellectual mutationsfresh and perhaps fantastic ideas. We need boundless imagination in many fields, for as Disraeli once wrote, " . . . prevailing opinions are generally the opinions of the generation that is passing." We must have teachers and thinkers who realize that the transmission of knowledge involves selection and ordering of materials. All of this calls for a high degree of creativity, particularly if the cultural gap between the humanities and the sciences is to be bridged.

Not only should we master our own fields of interest, but we should become bridge-builders, learning what men are saying in other disciplines besides our own. This is the only way to avoid the cultural psychosis which so plagues our generation. Creative conversation can arise only by bridge-building, by scholars reacting vigorously with the insights afforded by another field. For example, specialists in religion must converse with the sciences, with psychology, and with art, for these and other disciplines have insights that will help not only to understand better the pressures of our times but also to serve as a feedback to religion, helping to sharpen its focus on the critical issues of the 1960's.

To illustrate, evolutionary theories pose one of the continual challenges for the evangelical thinker. I am not sure why Christians exhibit so much emotion when evolution is discussed. At any rate, I think it is time for Christians who ought to know better to stop writing nonsense about evolution and treat it as they would any other theoretical formulation in science-an explanation of natural phenomena that is neither final nor absolute. It is not sufficient simply to reject evolution. What must be done is to go beyond mere feelings of conviction about one's perceptions to the formulation of an assertion which contradicts the empirical premisses of evolutionary mechanics and which includes instructions for testing the new formulation in an empirical manner. We need Christian scholars who will master the literature of evolutionary mechanics, do some research in evolutionary theory, and then let their insights speak to the hermeneutical problems in Genesis. This is only one field; there are many others.

We have indicated that science is an engaging human mental creation attempting to explore the natural universe, which is held to be orderly and self-testing. However, it is limited in what it can accomplish; it can never arrive at any final and absolute truths. Weaver's comments sum up my ideas:

To those who expect science to be perfect, who expect it to be irresistibly all-powerful, who think of it as being infinitely precise and logically impeccable, who see science marching relentlessly forward 'explaining' one thing after another in cold and mechanical terms, who even feel that science squeezes the beauty and mystery out of all that it touches-to all such persons it is necessary to say: "My friends you are mistaken" (12).

Religion furnishes us with the necessary absolutes to grant meaning to one's existence. The Christian accepts God's revelation as normative for his life. Acceptance of such options is not subject to any demonstrable proof Df superiority, but these options become meaningful only as they speak to the real problems of man's existence.

Finally, the essential task of the Christian scholar is c)ne of bridge-building, of mastering the insights afforded by various disciplines and then bringing these insights to bear on problems faced by the Christian community. For the dedicated and committed Christian, I think exciting days lie ahead of us in terms of creative bridge-building-bridge-building in terms of the fulfilled life that is found only on the other side of losing life.


1. Bridgman, Percy, Reflections of a Physicist, N. Y.: Philosophical Library, 1955.
2. Clark, Gordon Haddon, A Christian View of Men and Things, Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1952.
3. Glass, Bentley, "A New High School Biology Program," American Scientist, 49 (4): 524-531, Dec. 1961.
4. Goodman, Nelson, "The Test of Simplicity," Science, 128: 1064-1069, 31 Oct. 1958.
5. Hanson, N. R., Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
6. King, M. Hubbert, "Are We Retrogressing in Science?" Science, 139: 884-89o, 8 March 1963.
7. Platt, John Rader, The Excitement of Science, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962.
8. Popper, Karl, The Logic of Sc;entific Discovery, N. Y.: Basic Books, 1959.
9. Scriven, Michel, "The Key Property of Physical LawsInaccuracy," in Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, eds., Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science, N. Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pp. 91-101; 103-4.
10. Simpson, George Gaylord, Principles of Animal Taxonomy, N. Y.: Columbia University Press, 1961.
11. - - - - -, "Biology and the Nature of Science," Science 139: 81-88, 11 Jan. 1963.
12. Weaver, Warren, "The Imperfections of Science", American Scientist, 49 (1): 99-113, March 1961.