Science in Christian Perspective
Science for Liberal Arts and
DANIEL B. SUTER**
From: JASA 15 (June 1963):44-48
The scope of science is expanding today at an almost explosive rate, placing increasing demands upon the teacher who conscientiously tries to keep up with new developments. However, it is possible that we in science education are so occupied with keeping ourselves abreast of scientific developments in an everbroadening field and with preparing the science majors in our collegiate institutions for graduate and professional training that we neglect the students in our "humanities" curriculums and pre-theological courses. We "prune" our science courses here, "soup them up there," add a two-hour course here and a seminar there so that our majors get "accepted" and we smugly pat ourselves on the back as we draw from the professional schools such ego-flattering comments as, "That little
*Slightly revised version of a paper presented at a Conference on Christian Education for the Space Age sponsored by the Washington-Baltimore area Section of the ASA at Greenbelt, Md., Nov. lo, 1962.
**Dr. Sutter is Associate Professor of Biology, Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, Va.
college down there in East Cupcake really turns out some terrific science majors." And all the time this same college is supposedly doing its duty toward the nonscience majors by having them elect 12 hours of biology, chemistry, physics or mathematics; these students often "satisfy their science requirements" with a few courses like Astronomy for Beginners, Introductory Mathematics, Bird Study, General Science, and Elements of Geology. They then presumedly are prepared to cope with the rigors of the scientific age, to teach social studies or art to students who have been conversant with neutrons, DNA, and radio-carbon ever since taking a TV science course in the fifth grade, or to deliver from the pulpit sermons which are "enriched with illustrations drawn from current science."
The situation just described may be somewhat exaggerated, and there are certainly many good institutions where this charge could not, be laid. However, it would be a good thing if those of us who are involved in Christian education would take a critical look at what we are providing our non-science majors from our science departments. Are they taking with them from our laboratories scientific attitudes, scientific principles of problem solving, a Christian perspective of science? Have they learned such basic concepts as the nature of matter, what life is, how life reproduces itself, the nature of energy, and others? Have they gained a healthy view of what science really is as well as what its admitted limitations are? Have we led them to realize that our knowledge of nature is dynamic and progressive and not a static assortment of so-called "scientific laws" to which we ascribe a sort of sacred immutability? Are they taking from our laboratories more than just assorted facts and figures?
What are some of the values to be gained by the non-science major in his brief sojourn in our laboratories? One way to arrive at some of these values is to examine a definition of science. Nobel prize winner Williard Frank Libby (1) has defined science as the dis ciplined observation of nature and the deduction of natural law therefrom. The scientific method consists in the impersonal recording of natural observations, the reporting of the same, the checking of the observations of others, and the deduction of the broad general principles revealed thereby. All of this is based on the assumption that an observation made at one time and in one place will be reproducible and can be made at another time and place."
One of the implications of this definition is that in science one must be willing to look at facts and measurements with an unbiased mind. It is just as important to be willing to have a hypothesis proved wrong as it is to have it proved correct. Indeed, possibly one should even try to be proved wrong. The body of scientific knowledge is advanced and enhanced just as much by disproving incorrect theories as by proving correct ones. This attitude of striving to be unbiased and of being just as willing to be proved wrong as right is one which can with great value be transferred to disciplines other than science.
Another value of science implied in Libby's definition is the opportunity it affords the student to sharpen his powers of observation and discrimination. Proper scientific training emphasizes accuracy in making and recording observations; it stresses the importance of careful discrimination, logical reasoning, and keen insight. When these traits are cultivated in our science courses they become valuable tools for the studenes use in other areas.
'Still another value of science is the training it gives in the ability to make logical inductions from the observations made during the investigations. The student learns that these inductions are not necessarily immutable laws, but that they are principles which may need to be modified as he makes more observations and as his observations become more accurate.
In addition to these there would seem to be some other values which the Christian student should find in a knowledge of science. The study of the physical sciences will give the student an understanding of the nature of the physical world about him. A study of the biological sciences will help him to understand the nature of the animal and plant worlds in which he lives and if these courses are taught from a Christian perspective the student will come to see the transcendence of man over the rest of creation. Then as he increases in his knowledge of the fundamental structure of matter, of the nature of life and of the structure and organization of the universe, his appreciation and respect and trust in the one who is the maker and sustainer of all these things, will increase accordingly.
Although this paper is concerned with science primarily in its more limited scope-the biological and. physical sciences-it should be pointed out that the values and objectives of science stated above also can be achieved effectively through the social sciences. Furthermore, it is through the study of the social sciences that man becomes aware of his relation to his social environment and the interaction between himself and his fellowmen. Thus through the sciences in their broad sense man is made aware of his total environment and of his relation to it.
This list of values of science does not presume to be exhaustive and there may be some important values which have been omitted entirely. However, they are typical of the types of values which we like to think of as outcomes of our science courses. The question now arises: does the humanities student or preministerial student who comes to our smorgasbord of science offerings to elect a few hours for his science requirement really have the opportunity to acquire the methods and tools which we feel are important outcomes from the study of science? Certainly no one course will meet all of these objectives nor would any hit-or-miss assortment of courses likely cover them. Possibly we will need to give more attention to the matter of the science curriculum and even outline for the non-science major a science course or curriculum which we believe will meet the objectives which we have in mind for him.
At this point I should like to raise several more questions. First, does the title of this paper, "Science for Liberal Arts and Preministerial Students," infer that the science courses for non-science majors should be different from the science courses taken by our science majors? For example, - should we have one biology course for biology majors and one for other liberal arts students? Should we have a chemistry course for chemistry majors and another more watered-down chemistry course for our non-science majors? Or is there some way in which we can meet the needs of both groups by a single course and thus conserve personnel, time, and educational facilities? Second, how can we possibly cope with the current growth and magnitude of science as the body of scientific knowledge grows and the number of different scientific fields proliferates? It has been estimated that the body of scientific knowledge doubles every ten years. One almost despairs and wonders how it is possible to include anything worthwhile in 12 or 15 credit-hours of science. Still a third question is how to handle the problem of integrating in our basic science courses students with such widely varying backgrounds of pre-college science-some with several years of mathematics, chemistry, etc., and others with almost none. These problems are accentuated in the small college.
1. In the first place I believe it is possible by careful planning and by good teaching to meet the needs of both the science and of the non-science major at the same time even in spite of the great proliferation of scientific knowledge. This may require the elimination of some of our time-honored courses in the sciences and it may mean the substitution of some new courses which we are not currently offering. These new courses, which we could call concept-centered courses, would include the basic ideas and principles that we are trying to get across to all of our students, science majors as well as non-science majors. These concepts, such as the nature and relation of matter and energy, the nature of life, reproduction of life, history of the earth, response to stimuli, etc., not only constitute the type of material that humanities students should become acquainted with, but also form the foundation upon which majors in biology, chemistry and physics should be built. Some entering freshmen will certainly be familiar with many of these basic principles, but the repetition of such foundational material would seem to be excusable.
Another way of helping students attain a broader background in science is by the assignment of supplementary reading. The "paperback" publishers have made available some stimulating titles in the history and philosophy of science as well as some excellent syntheses of recent developments and concepts in chemistry, physics, biology, sociology, psychology, and other sciences.
2. We must continue to up-date our science offerings and revise our curriculum. Someone has likened college curricula to cemeteries which are continually being added to, but from which nothing is ever removed. What very often happens is that a new professor comes into a department and brings with him some course which he particularly likes to teach and which he feels should be in the offerings, and so his course is added. Finally the professor moves on and the course remains in the curriculum indefinitely. Sometimes by careful study and arrangement it is possible, instead of adding a new course, to incorporate some of the subject materials of that course into our current offerings.
3. We need to revise our courses continually. We should remove out-dated material and material which is not fundamental or of lasting value. On the other hand we must work into our courses new material such as the new ideas and results of our nuclear and space programs as well as medical research. Many times the new materials can be incorporated by using them as new illustrations of old principles; sometimes, however, they must be added as the revelation of new basic principles. Too often this revision of courses amounts to little more than writing some of this new material into the margins of our lecture notes or stapling clippings to our notes and adding it as a postscript to our basic lecture. It is of far greater value, even though more time consuming, occasionally to reorganize and completely rewrite our lecture notes in the light of recent research.
4. If we are going to make really valuable the few semester hours that our humanities students and preministerial students spend in our laboratories, we should use our very best teachers at this basic level. It is unfortunate that some colleges and universities put their freshmen teachers to work practicing on the freshmen courses in biology, chemistry, or physics. We should pack into these few hours the very best instruction that our science departments can give. We should do all we can to make these basic concepts simple, clear, and even thrilling. This requires the skill of a first-rate teacher who himself is thrilled with what he has to teach. Furthermore, brilliant young students will turn to the sciences or stay in the sciences rather than another profession only if science is more interesting and exciting than any other profession.
Closely related to this is the matter of team-teaching. If we should go to the concept-centered type of course such as, for example, a course entitled "The Nature of Matter and Energy," we would want to call in our top chemistry professor, a physics professor, and possibly even a biologist who has a radiobiology background. These men would then form a team to draw up the plan for this course and be responsible to teach it. They would possibly call in some other members of their departments as well in the final production of the course. A concept-centered course on "The Nature of Life," as another example, might call in not only biologists but a biochemist, a psychologist, and a physicist; by thus bringing together men from these various fields they would be able to approach this concept-centered course from several viewpoints and would be able to provide a course which would be broad in scope, yet integrated and characterized by a minimum of overlap in material.
5. A still broader concept of this team idea -which would considerably enhance the impact of our science courses for the non-science major would be an increase in conversation between the various academic disciplines. There should be more fruitful intercourse between the humanities and the sciences. Sometime ago Dr. James Killian in addressing a meeting of the American Acade~y of Arts and Sciences, was stressing the danger of cleavage in academic circles between the scientists and the humanists. He made the following statement (3): "This attitude toward science is described more bluntly in academic circles by well worn observations.
One of them notes that the scientist knows nothing of the liberal arts and regrets it, while the humanist knows nothing of science and is proud of it. The other reports an incident in a liberal arts faculty meeting. When a student named Cicero was reported as having flunked Latin, everybody laughed, but when a student named Gauss was named as having failed in Mathematics, only the science professors laughed." Certainly much tension and misunderstanding and many rash statements by both scientists and theologians would have been avoided in the past had they been more willing to sit down together and openly discuss their ideas together with an aim to understand each other's viewpoints as well as to proclaim their own. It would be of great value for our humanities faculties to know what we are teaching their majors and for our theology faculties to know what we are teaching their prerninisterial students, and we likewise would profit by knowing what they are teaching and by understanding their viewpoints.
Finally, in the teaching of science to humanities and preministerial students in the Christian college, no matter how the science requirements are organized, the material must be taught from a Christian perspective. This will mean more than occasional sermonizing. It will mean that a Biblical philosophy of science will form a foundation which gives purpose and meaning to the objectives of the various courses in the curriculum. It may be valuable for every science faculty to draw up a statement of its philosophy of science. Such a statement would likely differ for each institution and would reflect the thought and personality of the various science teachers.
Among the postulates which could and possibly should be included in a statement of a Christian Philosophy of Science, I would submit the following as suggestive:
a. God, the Creator, is transcendent over His creation, the ultimate cause in nature, and the ultimate source of truth.
b. God has revealed himself not only through the revelation of Scripture but in nature as well; thus the Word of God and scientific truth have an ultimate unity as a consequence of the unity of their source.
c. Man was created by God and was so endowed physically and rationally that he could comprehend and enjoy the creation; he was commissioned to subdue and assume dominion over the creation and to develop its resources for the good of man.
d. When man rebelled against God, he passed under condemnation; nature also became involved, and presents today, as Erich Sauer (2, p. 57) states, a "mysterious hybrid disharmonious condition, which in its conflict between happiness and unhappiness, wisdom and absurdity, purposeful adaptation and confusion, seems to render equally impossible both faith in God and denial of God." God's plan for the redemption of man includes the ultimate redemption of nature.e. The Christian carries not only his commission as man to have dominion over material creation, but a new commission as redeemed man to pro claim the Gospel of the new creation in Christ Jesus.
What shall we teach of the relationship of theology and science? Is there something of value to be gained by the student in following the history of the conflict between science and theology? How shall we handle the theory of evolution in a Christian college? Here again there is possibly no single answer which will be satisfactory to all science faculties. It is difficult enough to find a good measure of unanimity within one faculty.
It is my own opinion that there is little to be gained by the average humanities student in making a historical study of the science-theology conflict. The value might be greater for the pre-ministerial student. It would seem, however, that it is more stimulating to make a positive study of the relation of science and theology. Ile student could be encouraged to make such studies as the meaning and method of creation, the place of man in creation, the importance of creation to Biblical faith, the Christian meaning of creaturehood, revelation and creation, the relation of scientific truth to religious truth, the transcendence of God. The more we can emphasize synthesis and harmony and deemphasize conflict between science and theology, the more we will build faith in our students.
As to evolution, we must see that the student knows what evolution is, what it purports to explain and what it does not. We must be thoroughly honest in showing the evidences for as well as against evolution. The student should be made aware of the possible mechanisms for evolution and their limitations. If in our teaching we denounce evolution as an explanation of origins, we must be prepared to offer something better and more reasonable in its place. We dare not "pull the rug" from under our students and leave them with nothing on which to stand.
In conclusion, our science departments dare not neglect the needs of humanities and preministerial students and leave them to feed on the husks of our science offerings. We should see in this group of students not only an opportunity to enrich their lives and improve their service, but also to be stimulated ourselves. Furthermore, science students will likely continue to be a minority, so here is an opportunity to communicate to a majority of our college graduates some of the concerns and values which we hold as scientists. We must give more attention to planning our basic courses so that, if possible, they can serve the needs of both groups at the same time. We must continually up-date and upgrade our courses and use our best teaching manpower in the most efficient manner. We must endeavor to approach every science course from a Biblical foundation and give it a spiritual perspective. We must strive to build a positive relation between science and theology and to be thoroughly honest and constructive as to the theory of evolution.
I would like to close by emphasizing that the key to the whole matter is good teaching--excellent teaching- teaching that will impart not facts alone, but enthusiasm for learning; not just knowledge, but the desire for understanding; not only an acquaintance with science, but a romantic experience that will grow ever deeper, richer and more thrilling.
1. Libby, Willard F., "Tomorrow in Science"
Bulletin of the
Medical College of Vir&4 Vol. 54, No. 2, p. 5, 1962.
2. Sauer, Erich, The Dom of World Redemption, Wrn. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1953.
3. Shilling, C. W., "Educational Signposts---Renaissance or Retrogression" The Medicoswa, Vol. 10, No. 10, p. 8, 1958.