Science in Christian Perspective



The Give-and-Take Between Science and Religion*

From: JASA 15 (March 1963):

Many a modern man may rule out religious faith in favor of scientific theory. But, says the author, many areas of science are riddled with inconsistency and ignorance. He explains why there is a great need for healthy skepticism in both science and religion.

It was a famous astronomer who wrote: "In the beginning was the Word, it has been piously recorded, and I might venture that the word was hydrogen gas." To say that this remark contains the whole conflict between religion and science would clearly be unwarranted, but it is no exaggeration to claim that it accurately suggests the principal source of disagreement.

Was God the beginning "Word," as the HebrewChristian tradition affirms? Or was hydrogen gas, as the astronomer supposes? Is there a plan behind the patient evolution of the centuries? Or does the universe simply do what comes naturally? There is much more to the conflict of science and religion than this, but most of the other points of dissent have their origin in this fundamental variance.

The determination of the facts is not an academic issue, but a matter of the most profound significance to every human being. It is anybody's guess what an honest ballot would reveal about the convictions of most people in this country today. Mine is that hydrogen gas would be an easy winner, and this disturbs me because I have become increasingly sure that many men and women desperately need to cultivate a healthy skepticism about the science to which they so readily ascribe both omniscience and omnipotence.

Skepticism is often a virtue - in religion as in everything else. It was only when Moses began to doubt the soundness of unlimited vengeance that he laid down the principle of no more than an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth; and many centuries later it was only when Jesus doubted Moses that he proposed the need to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. Monotheism would have been impossible had no one been skeptical of its polytheistic predecessors; human sacrifice would have gone unchecked had no one challenged the assumption that God coveted such evidence of man's loyalty; and slavery would still have been counted a divinely ordained institution had no one wondered whether God really loved the master so much more than the slave.

"Skepticism," writes British clergyman Geoffrey Arketell Studdert-Kennedy, "in its proper place is just as necessary and just as much a duty-as faith. I must not, and cannot, accept any story that I would like to be true, nor must you. Intellectual honesty in matters where the intellect applies is just as necessary a virtue as the honesty which forbids you to steal your neighbor's Sunday boots . . . Religion leaves a million questions unanswered, and apparently unanswerable. Its purpose and object is not to make a man certain and cocksure about everything, b

*Reprinted by permission from THINK Magazine, Copyright 1962 by International Business Machines Corporation.
**Dr. Pearson is the Dean of Andover Newton Theological School.

at all. Religion does not relieve us from the duty of thought: it makes it possible for a man to begin thinking."

"It ain't necessarily so" is not always an irreverent assertion. It was a wise theologian who said that "God must take all of the risks of honest inquiry," and skepticism is often not an affront to religion but its most relevant expression.

But the skepticism which is justifiable when applied to religion is equally warranted when turned on science. Why? Because science is not nearly so consistent~ objective or successful as many laymen assume.

For one thing, it is not so consistent.

Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, for example, that since the beginning of the present century absolutely nothing of the seemingly solid structure of mathematical physics built by men like Newton and Descartes had been left unshaken and unchallenged - "not a single major concept."

Ian G. Barbour reminds us that the Swedish chemist Svante A. Arrhenius received the Nobel Prize for his electrolytic theory of dissociation and that the same prize was later given to Peter J. W. Debye for showing that the theory of Arrhenius was unsatisfactory.

Marcel Proust warned: "Medicine being a compendium of the successive and contradictory mistakes of medical practitioners, when we summon die wisest of them to our aid the chances are that we may be relying on a scientific truth the error of which will be recognized in a few years' time."

And die earth which once was thought flat and later declared round has now become pear-shaped.

Inconsistency can be an evidence of growth, and the confession of error is a token of the scientist's integrity. But the layman's impression that science is a monolithic, unchanging and infallible expression of incontestable facts is as far from the truth as it is from the conviction of the reputable scientist himself.

For another thing, science is not so objective as the average man supposes. "The statements of science," writes Warren Weaver, "were once thought of as being wholly objective, We now know that this view was an illusion. No scientific statement is an absolute and objective dictum. It is merely a statement concerning a relation between man, the observer, and nature, the thing observed. And since the observer is essential to this relationship, science always contains a subjective element."

Indeed, there is probably nothing more narrow than die unconscious bigotry of the resolutely broad-minded man, and it is not uncommon to discover that materialistic science has been made as closed a system as the most conservative form of religion. Hence is created what Edwin C. Kemble, Harvard professor of physics emeritus, calls a "scientific orthodoxy," which can be at once a protection of the scientist against wasting his energy in pursuing foolish suggestions and as surely an instrument of prejudice as any fundamentalist theology. "It would be foolish," writes Kemble, "for orthodox scientific opinion to claim immunity from professional prejudice. Einstein's theory of relativity was not welcomed with joy by the physicists of the first decade of this century. Freud had to win his way against the prejudice of academic psychologists, and even today the development of psychiatric understanding is retarded by the prejudice of orthodox medical science in favor of the therapeutic properties of drugs."

This is not to castigate the scientist for being what he cannot help being - a human person. It is only to insist that he is a human person and that both he, himself, and the discipline he embodies share the fallibilities of the rest of his fellows.

For still another thing, science is less successful than the layman assumes. In spite of the amazing scientific advances of the centuries the chasm of our ignorance is still so vast that one able observer could say: "We don't know the millionth part of one per cent about anything. We don't know what water is. We don't know what light is. We don't know what gravitation is. We don't know what enables us to keep our feet when we stand up. We don't know what electricity is. We don't know what heat is. We don't know anything about magnetism. We have a lot of hypotheses about these things, but that is all."

It is a frequent assumption that we explain an object or a phenomenon when we give it a name. But you do not explain emotional disturbance by calling its victim "a psychopathic personality." You do not explain the "manna in the wilderness" of the ancient Hebrews by dubbing it "a precipitate of nutritive carbohydrates." You do not even explain a cat by naming it a cat.

Modern science is so complex that the average man can never hope to understand all of its implications. Hence we face the irony that a discipline which depends upon reason is both accepted on faith and accepted with a credulity which would be incredible if awarded to the religion which considers faith one of its principal virtues.

The fact is too easily forgotten that man's world has far wider horizons than those of science.

Consider William Macneile Dixon: "There is, as everyone knows, a province of human life - and only upon reflection do we perceive how vast, how boundless is that province-to whose interests and problems the most extensive knowledge or control of nature's machinery affords no entrance, a country upon which the bright sun of science sheds not a ray of light. It is the country of the soul. We have our affections and sympathies, we have loves and friendships, we have hopes and fears and admirations, inmates of a province of real things as broad and deep as the telescopic heavens above our heads. Of these things science never speaks. She sits above the battle and has no share in our joys and sorrows. Of good and evil, freedom and justice, science has nothing to say."

In other words, the successes which science derives from its method of abstraction are matched by corresponding limitations. For example, a man has a box half-filled with marbles and half-filled with acorns. If he decides to study only the marbles and throws the acorns away, he simplifies his task - but he also tacitly acknowledges the partial scope of his investigation. When we ask the universe physical questions, we get physical answers, When we ask it biological questions, we get biological answers. The nature of the question determines the nature of the answer, and beyond the borders of the particular query and response there are other realms to which both may be almost wholly irrelevant.

"The heavens declare the mathematical accuracy of God," said a famous theologian, "and the firmament showeth his geometrical mastery; but that is all of glory or handiwork that science can find there. We need not be dismayed at this; for physical science is not concerned with moral questions, and no science, as the word is now understood, is concerned with ultimate explanations; there is no occasion for alarm in the fact that science has not found what it never sought." But if science is not concerned with "moral questions" or "ultimate explanations," man certainly is; and outside the fences of science there are fields that matter even more to human beings than the undeniably abundant treasures of their scientific heritage.

Thus it is a matter of tremendous consequence that the religious spirit ultimately dominate the scientific interest. And let me hasten to add that this does not mean the domination of science by religious institutions. Rather, it recognizes that science is rightly no more than the means to an end, that however important means may be, the ends are even more important.

The domination of the scientific interest by the religious spirit is essential in the scientist himself. This is true, in part, because the effectiveness of science as a discipline depends upon the integrity of the scientist as a man. "Science cannot be divorced from ethics," writes D. Elton Trueblood, professor of philosophy at Earlham College, "because science would not be permanently possible except upon a prior basis of trustworthiness. If we should ever give up the basic moral position, according to which a man is strict with himself, even when he might not be detected, in reporting negative evidence as carefully as he reports evidence which supports his favorite thesis, science would soon come to an end. Without trustworthiness the finest laboratories would be relatively worthless."

In part, however, this is also true because the scientist cannot wholly divorce himself from responsibility for the use which other people make or are likely to make of his discoveries. "To blame the scientist for misapplication," says Yale University's Professor Edgar Boell, "is like blaming Stradivari because the instrument that can make sensible the art of Beethoven or Paganini also can give rise to the desecration of boogie woogic." But Boell's words paint only one portion of the picture. The man who is a scientist is still a man, still a moral agent, still responsible when he knowingly puts in the hands of his fellows instruments for their perversion or destruction. The scientist who releases a discovery to mankind is releasing it to an entity of which he himself is inescapably a part and for whose use of his discovery he himself is partly answerable. Whether the power of science is wielded for good or evil depends primarily not on principles inherent to science but on goals and motives which belong in the domain of religion.

He was right who said that there can be bitterness in air-conditioned houses and gross injustice among people who drive to the courtroom in fenderless cars, that neon lights do not make men more virtuous than kerosene lamps, and that trivialities are just as trivial when transmitted by the wonders of television. It is more than sentimental piety to remind ourselves that in an age of science man's highest life and deepest need are still found only in that area of his being for which no better word has been found than "soul." For the fulfillment of his life and the meeting of his need, science is a tool, and the incontestable requirement that the tool be kept free of superstitious corrosion does not refute an even more urgent insistence: The tool is no more than a tool, and its noblest use is for the noblest ends of man.