Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (March 1966): 8-11.
*Richard H. Bube is Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA


The geometric axiom that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts is familiar to every high school student of geometry. Not so familiar, however, is the application of this axiom as a basis for the understanding
of man and the world. In transplanting the axiom from
its geometric context into a metaphysical context, two
types of fallacies are frequently introduced.

The first fallacy is that the whole is identical with the
sum of its parts. It is contended that if all the parts
are understood as separate entities, then the whole that exists as their sum is also understood in terms of the same characteristics that define the parts. No characteristic or property of the whole can exist that does not exist in the parts from which the whole is composed. This is a fallacy of scientism.

The second fallacy is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts because something has been added
from "outside" above and beyond the parts that compose the whole. To the parts, each of which may be understood in separation, has been added a mystic extra that exists independently of the parts. This is a fallacy of mysticism.

Both of these fallacies are common in treatments of
the problems relating to man and the world. A more
complete and adequate understanding of problems involving body vs. spirit, material vs. spiritual, natural
vs. supernatural, evolution, human interactions, and religion, results from a perspective on the relationship
between the whole and the sum of its parts that avoids these two fallacies. It is the purpose of this paper to
introduce and illustrate this kind of understanding, especially as it is related to common concerns in science and Christianity. It is hoped that this discussion may lead others more skilled in the disciplines involved to interact with the proposed perspective.


It will be easy to interpret some of the proposals of this paper as the result of a desire to substitute "natural processes" for "God's processes." Nothing could be farther from the truth. All of the discussion is based on the foundation that "natural processes" are "God's processes." In accord with Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:17, man and the world are viewed as up held in all respects by God. This means that if God were to vacate His position as Upholder, the result for the world would not be the initiation of chaos where before there was order; the result for the world would be the cessation of existence. In such a case the world would lapse into the nothingness from which it was called into being in the biblical creation. Thus even to speak of God acting by "using" natural law is inappropriate. God does not use natural law as a man would use a shovel that exists independently of him; the very existence of natural law depends on the up holding work of God. Everything said in this paper is intended to be consistent with these foundations.

Physical Examples

To orient our thinking we consider first several examples of the relationship between the whole and the sum of its parts as drawn from the physical world.

Consider a hydrogen atom. It consists of a proton and an electron. The electron can exist in a number of allowed energy states. The atom has mass, velocity, and both kinetic and potential energy. The isolated atom, however, cannot exhibit vibrational motion and cannot possess vibrational energy. The existence of vibrations implies the presence of a restoring force to an equilibrium situation. Vibrations result, for example, when a weight suspended from a spring is stretched; the restoring force is supplied by the spring and the weight executes vibrational motion about its equilibrium position. A single hydrogen atom has nothing "against which" to vibrate.

When two hydrogen atoms are brought together, an interaction between them gives rise to a binding energy resulting in a stable hydrogen molecule. The hydrogen molecule consists of two atoms separated by such a distance that the binding energy is a maximum. If one or both of these atoms in the molecule is displaced slightly from its equilibrium position because of some other influence, vibrations about the equilibrium position result. Although it was not possible for the isolated atoms to have vibrational energy, it is possible for the two interacting atoms in the molecule.

In the case of the hydrogen molecule, therefore, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. There is an additional property of the molecule that neither atom possesses in isolation. But this property of vibration is not something that was superimposed upon the system from the outside. It arose from the interaction of the parts comprising the whole. If the molecule is again separated into atoms, its vibrational property does not now "return" to another realm in which it has independent existence. The property of vibration follows directly from the nature of the hydrogen atoms, the parts, but is a property exhibited only by the whole. It is the effects of interaction that make the whole more than the sum of its parts, yet this "more" is a natural result of the properties of the parts themselves.

Other examples abound. The interaction of isolated atoms gives rise to all the complex properties of crystals. The interaction of wood and oxygen gives rise in combustion to flame. The interaction between light waves gives rise to interference effects. Almost every phenomenon investigated in physical science results from some kind of interaction. The phenomenon is not observed without the interaction, yet the phenomenon is implicit in the properties of the interacting species once interaction is possible.

Note that the "more" added by interaction is of a qualitative and not only a quantitative kind. The electrical and optical properties of crystals is qualitatively different from that of isolated atoms. The properties of a flame are wholly dissimilar to the properties of non-interacting wood or oxygen.

Body-Soul Considerations

The body vs. soul problem is one of long standing. Interpretations of the situation have led to a wide variety of errors ranging from identification of sin with the body as opposed to the spirit, to spiritualism with its concept of a universe occupied by disembodied spirits.

Treatrnents of the problem traditionally involve one form or the other of the whole-parts fallacy. On the one hand there are those who maintain that man consists of individual processes each of which are or soon will be capable of description in terms of purely physical (biochemical or biophysical) terms. They therefore conclude that man, the whole, is no more, than the sum of his parts, and is therefore only a rather complex biochemical machine, a kind of organic computer.

On the other hand there are those who maintain that man, as he exists here and now in this world, possesses (or "is") a soul or spirit that exists independently of his body. The "I" of a man is divorced from his body. They commonly speak of man's spirit as living "in" his body. When death comes, this same immortal spirit leaves man's body behind and departs for independent existence to await the reunion of disembodied spirit and spiritless body at the resurrection.

The present perspective seeks to eliminate both of these fallacious views by insisting that man's spiritual capabilities are the result of complex interactions between the many "physical" parts of which man is composed. Just as the vibration of a hydrogen molecule results from the interaction between two hydrogen atoms, so it may be suggested that man's soul or spirit results from the interaction between the biochemical or biophysical parts that compose his body. Such a position is in accord with the biblical view of man as a psychophysical unity, a position amply illustrated by recent development in psychology and medicine. It is also in accord with the biblical stress on the importance of the resurrection, an emphasis at least a little surprising if the existence of a man's "I" is really concentrated in his spirit, independent of his body.

The spirit of a man is quite real and qualitatively different from his body, But the spirit, at least in man as we know him in this life, is not properly considered as having independent existence apart from the body. The question may be immediately raised as to the meaning of such a statement relevant to events after death. This is clearly a theological area, quite distinct from the questions of the nature of man's spirit and body in this life. As such it is not susceptible in the same way to the investigation of science. Real knowledge of events after death must await our ultimate experience. Even in speaking of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15:44, Paul speaks of the resurrected body as being a "spiritual" body in contrast to the "natural" body that previously died. We can speculate as to his meaning in view of the immediate context of his statement, but we cannot mechanistically describe the significance of a transformation from a natural body to a spiritual body. If our statement above that man's spirit should not be conceived as having an existence independent of his body seems in hopeless conflict with the promise of Jesus in Luke 23:43, or the affirmation of Paul in H Corinthians 5:8 (a conflict that we personally do not believe is necessarily hopeless at all), it is still a theological possibility to propose a change in man's spirit upon death. Paul's identification of the resurrection body as a "spiritual" body suggests the necessity for a "spiritual" spirit to replace man's present "natural" spirit. Further delving into such subjects on the basis of our present knowledge or experience can hardly be more than playing with words.

Evolutionary Hypotheses

There is a definite relation between the perspective of this paper and problems raised for Christians by evolutionary hypotheses. It is not our intention here to enter into the evolution controversy. Our own personal bias is that the evolutionary hypotheses concernIng the development of man's body are neither established by scientific evidence nor in violation of the teachings of the Bible on the metaphysical or spiritual purposes behind the creation of man.

One of the most persistent problems is the meaning of man's spirit if man's body has been formed by natural evolutionary processes. The usual implication of a contrast between natural processes and God's work is without foundation. In addition, the objection to evolutionary hypotheses on the grounds that a spirit would have to be infused into man from "outside" at some moment in the development of his body is not valid'. In accord with the present perspective, the existence of man's spirit results from the interaction between his bodily parts. There is thus no need to insist on the infusing from within of an "alien" spirit into man's body.

In this framework to speak of "spiritual evolution" is not contrary to the biblical teaching of the creation of man. By "spiritual evolution" is meant no more than that God's work in the development of man's body manifested itself in those characteristics of man that we commonly associate with his spirit. Just as the flame bursts suddenly into being as a qualitatively new entity due to the interaction of wood and oxygen, so the spirit of man can be envisioned coming into being under the guidance of God. In fact, it would seem that if the evolutionary hypotheses concerning the development of man's body are ever to be accepted as sufficiently corroborated in Christian circles, this contention would be almost a necessary corollary.

Continuity of Development

Several other problems related to body vs. spirit and evolution also find a more satisfactory resolution in the proposal that man's spirit is the result of interaction between his physical parts. Here we consider just three examples.

1. At what point in the development of a human embryo does the spirit come into existence? If the spirit is considered as something infused from without, then the embryo is considered one moment to be spiritless and the next moment, after a supernatural intervention by God, to be in possession of a spirit. Such a view has no satisfactory counterpart in physiological understanding of embryonic development. The bodily development is continuous. If a spirit is infused at some moment, then the independence of spirit from body is given exaggerated statement. The view that the spirit is a natural result of interaction between bodily parts, however, preserves the observed continuity of development and does away with the "intervention from outside" view.

2. What differentiates human spirit from animal spirit? Anyone who has lived with a pet animal, such as a dog or cat is not able to believe that such animals have nothing of that property we call spirit in man. How then does one describe the similarity and the difference between human and animal spirit without resorting to an exaggerated body-spirit dichotomy? On the present view, spirit is always related to body. An animal has just as much spirit as his body can "hold." That is to say, the physical functions of an animal are such that their interaction produces the kind of spirit we observe. The physical functions of a man are such that interaction produces human spirit. There need be no scientific or theological discontinuity to safeguard the uniqueness of human spirit on the one hand, or its relationship to animal spirit on the other.

3. What is the unique distinctive of life itself? Discussions seeking to define the meaning of "life" are usually fruitless. It is suggested here that life is not an ingredient that some bodies have and some have not. Like spirit, the property we call "life" results from the interaction of constituent parts, no one of which need possess "life" in itself. This Is why life, like spirit, is so elusive. In general if the parts are separated to look for it, life has vanished. Thus the view advanced here provides also for the continuity of life from inanimate to animate matter, as well as for the continuity of spirit from non-human to human beings.

Material-Spiritual Problems

All that has been said so far are special cases of a more general problem that takes the form of a material vs. spiritual, or a natural vs. supernatural conflict. It is almost universally assumed that material realms and spiritual realms are intrinsically separate and of a different genre, that natural and supernatural have no common meeting ground.

It seems a reasonable proposition that many of these conflicts result from a whole-parts fallacy. There is a failure to recognize that the interaction of material parts may involve a spiritual whole, or that the spiritual nature of reality need not be imposed from "outside" upon the material, but may have its origin within material interactions themselves.

Likewise the supernatural need not be a violation of the natural on the premise that the sum of natural events can only be a natural event and nothing more, but may fittingly be included in a more general view that sees the manifestation of the supernatural in the interaction of natural events. We need to be more prepared to see the supernatural as the natural result of natural interactions, yet no less the supernatural because of it. It is not possible to do justice to this subject, but it seems probable that a large measure of our difficulties at the present time lies in our attempts to express reality in terms of a false dichotomy that we have drawn between the material and the spiritual, and between the natural and the supernatural.

Such a dichotomy is all the more surprising in the light of abundant biblical evidence that supernatural judgment, for example, Is manifested through strictly natural chains of events. The judgments against sin are built into the natural structure of the world, yet are completely the judgments of God. The drunkard, the adulterer, the liar, the covetous-all bring God's judgment upon themselves as a direct and natural result of the very sin committed. This is in part the vitality of the Ten Commandments, that they set forth the relationships of love necessary for existence without judgment in the world as it is.

Personal Interactions

Man's emotions are often the focus of an investigation of the characteristics of man's spirit. A little reflection suggests that such emotions as love, hate, courage, envy, jealousy etc. all have one thing in common. They are the expressions of interactions between persons. If there were only one man alone, they would have no meaning. Such emotions are like the characteristic of vibration for a hydrogen atom. Put two persons together, and these characteristics spring into being. In a strict sense they are not characteristics of a man, but of interpersonal interactions.

Thus the attributes of man living in society can be associated with interactions between men, just as spiritual attributes of man can be associated with physical interactions within man. Religion itself is the result of a personal interaction between man and God, and much of religious activity is the result of interactions between men who individually and corporately interact with God. It is not by coincidence that the Bible correlates the activity of the Spirit with the interactions of Christian individuals in the church.


A new dimension is added to our ability to understand and describe occurrences in man and the world around us if we adopt a dynamic rather than a static perspective. Parts interacting with one another may impart attributes to the whole that are qualitatively different from the parts, yet arising directly from them. In such a case the whole is not identical with the sum of its parts. Nor are the unique attributes of the whole superimposed from "outside" where they have separate existence independent of the parts. Suggested areas for application are spirit in animals and in man, life, and the origin of the spiritual or supernatural. In every case the upholding work of God necessary for the very existence of the created world is emphasized.