Science in Christian Perspective



Associate Professor of Psychology
Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

From: JASA 20 (June 1968): 33-36, 47.                    Evaluation by Leif Torjesen

The knowledgeable Christian world must come to understand and deal with theoretical and metaphysical determinism. Because this theory has permeated our conceptual styles it is difficult to think in terms of alternatives. It is this author's belief that the hypothesis of determinism should be labeled for what it is-just an hypothesis. Some suggested alternatives, which may facilitate further discussion and inquiry into the topic, are presented.

One of the most pressing problems confronting the Christian today, on a theoretical level, is the question of determinism in its various forms. Determinism is an underlying assumption in the natural and behavioral sciences and influences, explicitly or implicitly, our world-life view. As a Christian clinical psychologist, it presents a difficult theoretical problem, and it also influences in a practical way my professional contacts with those who are in need of help. To the college student, it often appears an insurmountable world-life view as it necessarily must influence the very core assumptions we make about ourselves and the world around us. Paul Meehl, in his excellent discussion of the problem, states: "Scientific naturalism (philosophically underpinned by logical empiricism), often in an unquestioned and even unstated form, is today the strongest intellectual enemy of the church and among educated people gives the most powerful no to the church's proclamation."1 Continuing his discussion on this topic, he goes on to say: "Determinism and its (seeming) implications constitute for the psychologist both a scientific stumbling block in respect to miracles, conversion, and the action of God in history, and a moral stumbling block in regard to responsibility, choice, 'freedom,' election, and related concepts."2

Determinism either social, psychological, or physical, implies that for any event there are antecedent causes. One can explain the movement of billiard balls on a table in terms of the energy used to set off the chain of events. In like manner the psychologist tries to explain human behavior in terms of lawful relationships between the past and present. Claustrophobia, a fear of small enclosed places, may be related to a psychic trauma in youth, e.g., being locked in a closet by accident. Most psychologists and individuals in the 

1. What, Then, Is Man? A Symposium of Theology, Psychology, and Psychiatry. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 1958, p. 173.

2. Ibid, p. 174.

social sciences presuppose that past experiences influence and often dictate what behavior will transpire in the future. The only reason that one cannot predict human behavior with 100 per cent accuracy, the social scientist often states, is because all the laws which govern human behavior have not been discovered. Also, at this stage in our understanding of man, even if the laws were known, there is no one knowledgeable enough to assemble the information into a conceptual package which matches man's complexity. This does not imply that the social scientists cannot predict human behavior, but the prognostications are usually framed in terms of probability statements.

The clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, and educator, often make predictions about human behavior in light of current and past knowledge of an individual. This is commonly accepted; but the assumption underlying such predictions is seldom challenged, i.e., psychological determinism. The clinical psychologist predicts what will happen to a patient if placed back into the environment which caused the abnormal reaction. The educator predicts academic success from academic records, teacher's evaluations, test findings, etc.

The poignant question which the Christian must ask is: "Is this true of religious experience also?" If it is, then one might assert that the experiences which one has had and has labeled as uniquely Christian might not be of supernatural origin but a by-product of the environmental influences at a particular moment. Therefore, many college students discuss their Christian experiences in terms of "being psyched out." Regretably to many, prayer, conversion, meditation, and worship become just another example of the overwhelming influence of the moment-an emotional chain reaction produced by the psychic machine. "Why include a supernatural element into the process?", they retort. While the lawful psychological influences in religious experiences cannot be casually dismissed, the spiritual dimension must not be eliminated a priori in favor of a fatalistic determinism.

The deterministic assumption, underlying all of science, is so ingrained into our culture that it is difficult for us to conceptualize differently. For instance, when we meditate on the problems of the inner city we think of the causes which precipitated them. We often hear of poverty, the lack of male models, lack of adequate education, or inadequate work opportunities as causes for the riots and despair which have torn and plagued our country. Is not this determinism in a practical context? It is stated that if these people in the inner city are to become productive citizens with personal dignity, their environment must change. Therefore, proposals for better schools, opportunities for employment, etc., are suggested. Change the causes and the behavior will also change is the underlying assumption.

Determinism is only an assumption and should be accepted as such. One would have to admit that it is a highly productive assumption as the history of the natural and behavioral sciences is reviewed, but it must be accepted that it is a hypothesis which is open for criticism and change if necessary, as is any theory. It is subject to review and change in light of further information. The problem which is often faced in intellectual circles is that this hypothesis becomes a metaphysical truism and many have built a world-life view around it and have defended it as tenaciously as a Christian would defend the deity of Christ. This, of course, makes the task of critical evaluation much more difficult; but one must appreciate the high regard with which many hold this hypothesis.

Sigmund Freud, one of the most ardent and complete determinists, is an example of one who holds determinism in such high regard. To Freud, anything which suggests freedom is only an illusion. A slip of the tongue, the act of forgetting, dreams, accidents, are all meaningful in light of past experience and can be understood when these past influences are brought into consciousness. Freud extended this deterministic principle to religious behavior in such books as Totem and Taboo and The Future of an Illusion.

In contrast, the existentialist position states as a hypothesis that freedom to choose against one's past is crucial in understanding the nature of man. It states that man makes choices, is free to make these choices against the past, and is in control of the choice-making process. He, therefore, is responsible for his behavior and is the master of his life. The awareness of this choice making and its counterpart, man's sense of responsibilih-, is one of the basic ingredients in man's humanness, the existentialists claim. To relegate man to the model of a deterministic machine is to make him an object and to dehumanize him. The person propounding the existential viewpoint takes the other horn of the dilemma and pushes determinism aside as incorrect and perhaps irrelevant. The conflict which exists between the two positions has lasted for many centuries and will probably continue for many more. Almost all psychologists pragmatically or theoretically perceive the existentialists' assumption to be incongruous with the facts which support the deterministic presupposition.

Psychologists assume that man functions lawfully and that their task is to discover these laws and apply them to practical situations. When these laws are discovered and methods of measurement have been developed to measure the variables, man's behavior can be predicted and, therefore, controlled. The industrial psychologist is an example of those presently involved in this predictive process. The task of minimizing the number of misfits for certain jobs has saved business concerns large sums of money. The educator, clinical psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist, and researchers in human and animal behavior support the hypothesis that man functions systematically and is, therefore, predictable. Even though success in prediction is not completely possible, it is the claim of the determinist that it is the fault of the measuring instruments or lack of knowledge of the variables; it is not a function of man's ability to live above or outside the context of lawfulness.

 There are various forms of the deterministic hypothesis and every Christian should be aware of the alternatives. The following ones are not meant to be inclusive but are to help clarify what frequently is unclear or at least unstated. 

The first, and most obvious position, is that of complete determinism. This basically states that man is a creature of law and always will function within this lawful framework. His environment and heredity determine his choice which his past dictates. This is true even though he has an awareness of "freedom" in the cognitive choice-making process, This assumes the mechanistic, scientific model about man and this assumption is frequently rejected by Christians. They claim that it reduces man to a machine and encourages fatalism. It is my belief that most of our social scientists accept this view and espouse it in the classroom as "truth." A deist could accept this position by stating that God made the world to function lawfully and remains detached from His handiwork. A theist who believes that God is actively involved in the affairs of man frequently finds this form of the hypothesis offensive because it allows no freedom for God's intervention and interaction with man and allows no room for human responsibility. A few Christians appear to live harmoniously with this hypothesis but they usually are Calvinistic in theology and rest heavily on God's sovereignty, providential care, and stress education as a method of bringing a person to salvation in Christ. They tend to stress the determinism which is present in Scripture. Such verses as "Bring up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it," or "Whatsoever a man sows that shall be reap" and others are used to stress both theistic and psychic determinism. Perhaps it is for this reason that psychology, psychiatry, and mental health facilities have been stressed by the groups heavily influenced by Calvin's theology.

The second form of the hypothesis is a pragmatic determinism held by many. This hypothesis states that it is helpful in research and theory but it may not be the whole picture. Because it has been functional in our investigation of man we will continue to assume it, but such persons will not be pressed into a complete deterministic position. They would state that man is too complex to finalize such a hypothesis and perhaps indeterminacy will be proven to exist. This is a wise, scientific attitude, but frequently it is held because the individuals espousing it have not taken the time and energy to think through the whole problem of the nature of man. The Christian can bold to this hypothesis and conduct productive, creative, research, but the difficulty which must be confronted is the pragmatic problems of dealing with the individual in the classroom or in the counseling chamber. Is man treated as a responsible choice-making person or as a victim of deterministic forces? Traditional psychoanalysis and much of the therapeutic world assumes the deterministic model. One can assume this form of the hypothesis for research purposes but it becomes a significant and pressing issue in the therapeutic encounter and must be faced in more depth.

A third form of the hypothesis is proposed by Paul Tournier in his book The Person Reborn. It is his contention that determinism and freedom are not opposites and they are both true at the same time. It is like looking at the proverbial elephant from two different vantage points. Man is obviously determined by his past but at the same time he has the awareness of freedom to choose. Tournier claims that there are just two different ways of looking at the same behavior. This is appealing because it appears that one can bold to both positions and not have conflict in choosing between them. Perhaps at this stage of our knowledge it is a healthy position for a Christian to take, but it could be just shoving a complex problem into the category of "unsolvable" and dropping the issue.

A fourth position is that man has freedom to choose against his past and man is also determined but the degree of determinism and freedom will vary from person to person. A person in the mental health professions could say that the healthy person has more potential freedom than the unhealthy and this varies on a continuum. The neurotic has more freedom than the psychotic and the mentally healthy person more freedom than both. To phrase it another way, the more a man is motivated by the unconscious the less freedom be has to choose against his past because be is less aware of the factors impinging on him at any choice point. This appears to be a view which represents reality to those working with the emotionally disturbed.

A fifth view, which could possibly be assigned to one of the other views, is the habit-freedom hypothesis. This view proposes that man is determined by his past experiences but could depart from this pattern if he so chooses. Most people, however, do not choose to change the habit patterns and conceptual style which their past pressed upon them. They become creatures of habit and choose not to challenge the deterministic factors which dictate their behavior. They are, therefore, quite predictable until they decide to reevaluate their past and possibly choose another course of action. This, say some, is a picture of most humanity-victims of their culture and environment, choosing to passively respond to its pressure without a struggle. This may be a pathetic picture of humanity, but it probably represents most of the human species.

Many Christians tend to identify with the existential position in regard to the problem of determinism and consider phychic determinism a threat to a historic, theistic view. I would like to suggest that determinism as an explanatory hypothesis is not incompatible with a Biblical view of man. In my opinion, any of the afore mentioned theoretical options within a deterministic framework could be maintained by a Christian depending in part upon the theological framework from within which he works. The most difficult position would be that of complete determinism, but it is possible to believe this if one is strongly convinced of theistic determinism which stresses God's sovereignty.

The deterministic-freedom problem in some respects sounds like the predestination-freedom problem which has plagued the church since its conception. From my vantage point, to disregard the deterministic position is to alienate oneself from the stream of in tellectual investigation which has captured the minds of men and characterizes much of the research in the social sciences. The Christian must face the issue and consider the options within the theoretical framework. To suggest that determinism in the affairs of man is not a powerful factor is to ignore the mass of data the social scientist has amassed during the past five or six decades.

Evaluation by Leif Toriesen*

The difficulty with the discussion of freedom and determinism as Dr. Dolby has tried to suggest it, is it has no specifiable meaning in relation to the general model of scientific activity. The scientist is seeking model of scientific activity. The scientist is seeking within the realm of all possible relationships, one type of general relationship, the relationship of independent/dependent variation between or within physically specifiable field (A) and (B). He expresses these relationships in mathematical or statistical quantities in addition to purely logical symbols. He progresses in his search for such relationships through theory creation. Here there is no causation, no teleology, no value-meanings. Absolute meanings or essences give way to provisional operationally specified definitions. There are no incorrigible starting points  and no final conclusions. Science is a continuing activity of experimental discovery, theory creation and falsification by experiment is the only meaning in scientific activity according to Karl Popper in his Logic of Scientific Discovery.

From the point of view of such scientific procedure neither 'freedom' nor 'determinism' are presupposed or rejected. They are irrelevant, adding no functional meaning to the work of the scientist. His conclusions represent the continual discovery of independent/dependent physical variation relationships, specified according to space-time co-ordinates and mathematical, statistical and logical symbols. The question of 'freedom' or 'determinism' is a question about the total causal process. But the scientist does not deal with the total causal process. He is interested in physical relationships of independent/dependent variation which reflect the total causal process, but hardly exhaust it. 

*Leif Toriesen is in the department of philosophy of Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A Response to Mr. Torjesen:

As I understand Mr. Torjesen's objection it is science cannot, or at least should not, make a metaphysical statement of causality, but should be content to hypothesize and judge the hypothesis in terms of some operationally defined experiment. As a scientist, I whole-heartedly support this viewpoint and must re
mind myself of it often. 

There are three observations I would like to make, not in refutation, but as practical difficulties which seem to make this problem more complicated than it may appear in theory. First, even though determinism is a metaphysical assumption, it is also a useful functional hypothesis. It assumes that the universe is in some way
lawful and that a cause and effect explanation seems to help in the descriptive process and it also adds an
impetus for further research. The cause and effect model has encouraged men to ferret out experimentally
the nature of the relationships which appear causal. To be sure, one cannot say that A caused B, but there
is a reaffirmation that the universe is lawful and one is encouraged to press on.

The second observation is that the functional hypo thesis has produced research which has enabled man  to predict both the behavior of billiard balls, children's  value systems, and the product of chemical mixtures. This ability to predict from past experimental data and would appear to support the cause and effect model.  Since there are no other alternative explanations of  which I am aware which compete as legitimate op tions to the causal model, one is prone to make the jump from a functional hypothesis to a metaphysical statement. Incorrect or inappropriate though it may be, it is difficult not to make the jump.  

Another problem which the scientist has is the one of changing roles. As a human being be lives with certain explicit or implicit metaphysical assumptions. I make the assumption that my interaction with my chil dren influences their lives. When I reward them for falsification by further experiments. The possibility of certain deeds I expect that this rewarded behavior will tend to continue and when I punish for other deeds I expect that this behavior will tend not to occur. In  other words, as a parent or a psychotherapist, I func tion as if determinism is a metaphysical reality. It is my contention that it is difficult, if not impossible, for at least the social scientist to change hats when enter ing into the laboratory or the program of social represent neither 'freedom' nor 'determinism'. They search. How does one neatly bifurcate the research role from the role of everyday living? I contend that it cannot be done neatly, if it can be done at all.

  Response by Leif Torjesen:

 The basic difficulty here remains the underlying confusion of consistency, lawfulness, predictability and interaction with 'causation.' We certainly all believe that consistency, lawfulness, predictability and interaction are fundamental reflections of causal process. But they are not themselves causation. They are func tional criteria which allows us to separate causally related from causally unrelated processes-but they do not give us causation. To say that A and B vary con sistently with each other is to say that there is some causal process (C) to which A and B are related in such a way that they vary consistently with each other. But it does not give us (C). The total causal process (C) is a metaphysical notion-it includes all possible existing relationships which have an effect on some A or B. The scientist is interested in physically specifiable relationships alone. These can never exhaust the total causal process underlying any A or B. And one does not have to be a monistic materialist to do science. One simply recognizes that the scientific model in a functional one, which can be fruitful only by restricting itself to physical space-time co-ordinates. There are other models. And Being does transcend physical space-time co-ordinates.

The question of freedom is related to just such a model which transcends the physical space-time model of the practicing scientist. The consistency and predictability of much human behavior is related to the model of personhood, treated not within the frame of reference of physically specifiable objects or behavior configurations, but considered within the frame of reference of the physically unspecifiable, time and space transcending subject. The subject who is actively conscious, placing values, retrieving meanings, giving concern, realizing wrong, accepting love and so on. A person can be studied scientifically by bracketing the subject and considering the events of consciousness in terms of mental objects (introspection) or in terms of relationship to specifiable overt behavior (behaviorism). Such approaches are extremely fruitful and have revolutionized part of our understanding of man. But they cannot settle the metaphysical questions of the subject underlying all of this objective activity. Here is where the question of freedom properly arises. Dr. Dolby's children behave well not only because they are lawful physical-chemical mechanisms, but because they are unified, healthy persons who have deep personal ties to their father which gives a fundamental definition to their own personhood. Consistency and lawfulness were first of all possessions of the subject. In creation the Absolute Subject bequeathed them to the whole universe of objects-which men now study.