Science in Christian Perspective


Gary R. Collins, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Deerfield, Illinois
Irving W. Knobloch, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48823
Walter R. Hearn and Underwood Standard, Serial SI 1-5679794, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics Iowa State University Ames, Iowa

From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 135-137

I.   Gary R. Collins

In their attempts to understand issues and find solutions to complex problems, scientists often form pictures or models of what they perceive to be reality. According to Bube, the formation of models

... is the theoretical side of the scientific process, In order to form these models of reality, the ... (scientist) attempts to simplify the actual problem, singling out the really important elements of the problem and neglecting minor effects. He almost immediately deserts physical reabty for a model of his own making that he can profitably use in thinking about the problem. Without the use of simplifying assumptions to reduce the number of variables that enter the problem, the scientist would be generally unable to solve it.
Success in dealing with nature consists only in the ability to construct a satisfactory model ( 1968, pp. 23, 38-9).

The scientific study of man, like the study of physics and chemistry, has postulated a number of different models. Freudians and the researchers in animal psychology have used biological models. Gestalt psychology was built on a model from physics. Estes and other contemporary learning theorists have utilized mathematical models. Some have conceptualized human behavior in terms of neurophysiology, communication systems, and economic models.

More recently, behavioral scientists have been using a computer model. According to this conception, man is viewed as a complex electronic machine which receives "input" data; codes, categorizes, stores, manipulates, and retrieves information; and responds with behavioral "output" (see Miller, et. al, 1960). Unlike earlier models, this newer approach to behavior permits us to test our theories by programming them into a computer. If the computer "behaves" like a person, then we can assume that our model is an accurate picture of reality. If the computer's "behavior" does not approximate human responses, we assume that our
theoretical model needs correcting. (Mebrabian, 1968). The use of models as pictures of reality and guides to scientific inquiry, has contributed significantly to man's ability for understanding, predicting, and controlling behavior. There is always the danger, however, that a model will be taken too seriously and that we will begin to think that people really are the same as the models. In many respects, man is like a machine, and in some computer simulations machines are very much like men. From this it does not follow, however, that man is a machine. To say, as does the question in this symposium, that "man is only a complex machine" is to make the error of confusing the model with reality.

In a recent paper entitled "The machine that is man," Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner quotes from a paper by D. M. MacKay.

If I say that an electric advertising sign is . . . (only) a certain array of lamps and wires, I may mean one of two things: 1) I may mean that an electrician could make a complete catalogue of all that is there, and have nothing left over, without mentioning 'the advertisement.' This is true. 2) Or I may mean that since there is nothing left over from the electrician's account, there isn't really an advertisement there at all. This is the error of reductionism. It consists in confusing exhaustiveness with exclusiveness. The electrician's account is exhaustive, at least in the sense that a perfect replica could be constructed from it. But the elec-trician's account and the advertiser's account of 'all that is there' are not mutually exclusive. The advertisement is not something to be fitted into a gap in the electrician's account. It is something that we find when we start all over again to describe what is there in another complementary language (1969, p. 62).

The complete description of the sign does not reveal "all that is there." According to Skinner, "an 'advertisement' is not a physical property of a sign, and no physical analysis will permit us to predict its effect upon those who see it. Yet it is this effect that makes it an advertisement' (1969, P. 62).

Even if all of man's behavior could be simulated by a machine (and this is very unlikely), this would not be an exclusive account of "all that is there." There would still be something missing. Human feelings, aesthetic appreciations, moral standards, awareness, beliefs, attitudes, satisfactions, aspirations, meanings, and faith, to name a few, could never be built into a machine. A model, be it a machine or something else, can only be an incomplete picture of the complex man that was created by God, after His own image.

Several months ago, an entire issue of Psychology Today was devoted to the topic "Man and Machine." The authors of the various articles did not seem to be much interested in the question of man's nature and whether or not he is "only a machine." Instead, they were concerned lest the machines which men have created, which have served us so effectively, and which have been used as models of behavior, become too complex and so powerful that they take over. "All we will require is a computer, however simple, to form another more complex than itself, however slightly. That will be the chain reaction that will produce the computer explosion" (Asimov, 1969, p. 39) in which the creator (man) is in danger of being destroyed by the creation (machines.) Such a possibility is too real to be relegated to the status of science fiction.

According to the Bible, man was created not as a machine, but as a creature "in the likeness of God" (Genesis 5:1). Man was given pre-eminence over other creatures. He was instructed to subdue the earth and to have dominion over divine creation (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8:6). We must now make practical efforts to insure that the creation does not get dominion over us.


Asimov, I. And it will serve us right. Phychology Today, April, 1969, 2, Pp. 38-41, 64.
Bube, R. H. (Ed.) The Encounter between Christianity and Science. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968,
Mehrabian, A. Computer-simulation approaches to the study of personality. In An analysis of personality theories. Engle wood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968, Pp. 165-179.
Miller, G. A., Galantcr, E., and Pribram, K. H. Plans and the structure of behavior. New York: Halt, Rinehart and Win ston, 1960.
Skinner, B. F. The machine that is man. Psychology Today, April, 1969, 2, Pp. 20-25, 60.63.

II. Irving W. Knobloch

Serenity seems to be becoming an increasingly rare commodity these days. Where are the solid, placid folks so common in the "good old days"? Is it just an illusion that most people seem harried, impatient, frustrated and, at times, bitter? Where will it all end, in Bertrand Russell's pit of despair?

So fearful are many that they seek solace and answers in Indian mystics, in astrologers and, not a few, in various religious movements.

We are writing here, for reasons of space, on only one aspect of twentieth-century uncertainty. We refer to the conflict between mechanism and vitalism. Well might you ask why this dispute is worrisome when we might better write about the evilness of war or the decay of law, order and justice? Mechanism implies that the universe operates strictly by natural laws, that it came into existence by the operation of these same laws and that there is no such thing as a vital force or God operating today. Vitalism is an idea implying the opposite view. There is a Creator, there is a provider and there is a glorious purpose to life. Someone answers your prayers and someone cares.

The objections to mechanism are (1) that it supposes that laws operated in the pre-historical past and that they always will operate (clearly an assumption), (2) that mechanisticallyinclined scientists are discovering the truth and reality (and this is highly dubious) and (3) that a "machine" like the universe, infinitely more complex than any known machine, was brought into being without the aid of a Designer (a very improbable situation).
The objections to vitahsm are, in part (1) it is a hindrance to research if supernatural causes must be reckoned with when scientific work is undertaken, and (2) no case is on record in which it can be proven that divine providence interfered with the operation of the universe.

Each person must decide for himself which side he will he on. No ready answer is available. Some of us prefer to believe in aspects of both theories. We believe in a Creator or Designer whom we will all meet when the Second Law of Thermodynamics has reached its terminus. On the other hand we think that man, with free will and an advanced cerebral cortex, is complete Master of his fate while here. God's logical function now is only in the realm of the spiritual. Man's only legitimate hold upon God today is in the foregiveneis of sins to the end that His ultimate purpose may be realized.

III  Walter R. Hearn

People I enjoy most are those least like machines; machines I enjoy most are those least like people. Yet I realize how much I have in common with machines. My heart is a mechanical pump. My brain is full of wires and transistors. And if as a Christian I think of myself as God's creature, that puts me in the same huge class as other "made" things. Considering my humanity a gift, I try not to be a snob: I mourn for elms and behave cordially toward ants or raindrops attending picnics uninvited. I keep my pocketknife free from rust and enjoy its companionship. I feel a moral obligation to bring out the best in my fellow creatures, both people and things, but I also feel I should keep the distinction clear.

A machine is in the sub-class of things to be appreciated, taken care of, and used wisely. A person is more, a special kind of creature to be appreciated and taken care of, but not to be used. Instead, he is to be known and loved. In a sense you can know and love a machine. That is, you can know enough about it to admire its perfection. You do this by a logical process. Man can be known by the same process; a hydraulic engineer already knows a lot about the human heart.

The basic difference between man and machine is that you can know a man in a unique way. Here the logical process will not work, because it gives power over the known to the knower. For personal knowledge a fiducial process is necessary. That is, you trust yourself to the other person. The trust must be mutual, a reciprocal giving that is impossible between man and machine.

It isn't clear to me at present whether there is more to this difference than complexity. As machines get more complex we recognize many man-like characteristics. Recently I had an amusing interview with a computer programmed to give psychiatric help. Conversely, it is certainly possible for men to act like machines-precisely the goal of military training. Sometimes we want human behavior to be as predictable as clock-work. Prescribed tasks are done more efficiently when we act like machines, but always at the risk of losing our humanity. We are aware of the opposite risk, when human behavior becomes eompletdy unpredictable ("Preserve us from hippies and Yippies!"). Learning to know ourselves and each other as persons, not machines, minimizes both risks.

So let us not be intimidated by even gigantic ma chines. If the cleverest computer crammed with the knowledge of the ages had been asked to write on "Is Man Only a Complex Machine?" would reading the essay bring you any closer to friendship with the computer? These paragraphs of mine are at least a step toward personal encounter between us.

A secretary once complained about having to type my long letters because they were "too personal." I replied that I always write to persons, whatever the business at hand. She knew better. That was no way to run an office. Or an army, or maybe even a government laboratory. It is inefficient non-machine behavior. But how should a university be run? Or the whole human family? And why do you suppose I was asked to write this?
Yes, old pal- I know you had a part in it and I'm grateful. Here, let's sign it together: