Science in Christian Perspective



Mechanism, Naturalism, and the Nature of Social Science
Department of Geography San Fernando Valley State College 'Northridge, Calif. 91324

From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 141-145.

The arguments for mechanism are undercut by the necessary presuppositions of rational and ethical debate: reason, conscience and awareness of personality cannot arise from matter-inmotion. Mechanism represents only one level of understanding; there must be complementary levels to accommodate all the data. Man's rationality indicates that he is not wholly reducible to nature, and any attempt to reduce man to mechanism denies an essential feature of "social science". Social data are only partially external, objective and quantifiable. Deeper insight results from recourse to internal, subjective data which are not reducible to a mechanistic or naturalistic level, a fact which affects all disciplines that deal with man, including human geography.

Surely it's an obvious fact, so obvious that a mere layman must hesitate for fear of a logical booby-trap, that none can argue that man is but a mechanism without destroying his own case. For the mere attempt to maintain such a thesis must assume the validity of reason, and how can reasoning be either valid or open to validation if it's all a matter of mechanism? Not even the addition of the most complicated of biochemical reactions will save the day, either, for the principle remains the same: how can rationality arise from matter in motion? There's little point in the mechanist making a plea for "the autonomy of human reason," for how could human reason-or any reason whatsoever-be either trustworthy or autonomous if it he wholly dependent on so irrational a source? Can it be generated from cooling lava or the heat of the sun on mindless slime? Is it not a most irrational leap of faith (if "faith" is possible) to make appeal to the presumed byproduct of meaningless matter? Is not the mechanist busily sawing off the lever he's sitting on?

Is Reason So Unreasonable?

Incredible as it may seem, this is surely what is being done. Let us consider, for a moment, the implications of Bertrand Russell's eloquent affirmation that

Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals hencefor-ward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and
fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations at atoms; that no fire, no hero-ism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.1

Eloquent, yes, but isn't there more of mysticism than logic in all this? How could such rich fertility be spawned by so barren a source? How could love and fear arise from the purely passionless, and intensity of thought and feeling from that which is thoughtless and unfeeling? Just how could the soul (revealing word!) safely build on so impermanent and desperate a foundation? And why indeed does atheistic naturalism seek to beg so many crucial questions? Could it be that the question of Origin is a haunting one, that the thought of a Personal God makes sense of the personal data? CS. Lewis put his finger on the nub of the matter:

The myth [of mindless Evolution] asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended byproduct of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational . . . . how shall I trust my mind? They say in effect 'I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from physics.' The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one's suspicion that we here touch a radical disease in their whole style of thought.2

How could love and fear arise from the purely passionless, and intensity of thought and feeling from that which is thoughtless and unfeeling?

A Matter of Ethical Matter

Radical indeed, as Dooyeweerd deduces when he postulates an a priori religious commitment, a basic orientation of the heart which determines the pattern of our philosophy. And the same issue emerges in another assumption that (we hope) controls the debating method of the mechanist, the insistence that we ought to slick to the facts and not wilfully pervert them to score debating points with the uninformed-a very unethical practice, sir! And that "ought," a word which springs so naturally from the lips, cannot but give the case away. For where is there any room for an "ought" or an "ought not," for any ethical system whatsoever, if all we say or do is ultimately reducible to the merely mechanical? How can a mechanical or naturalistic process give rise to the moral sense?

Again, the very process of argument seems to involve naturalism in self-destructive circuity. Of course, it may be urged, right and wrong are not really real, they're just matters of human convenience and cultural conditioning. But even the most convinced of moral mechanists and cultural relativists seem to have a curiously unmechassical reaction when they note some cheating in debate or exam room, or see a pick-pocket making off with their money ... And if "good" is simply that which people are conditioned to believe in, why the condemnation of Hitler for sending millions of Jews to the gas-chamber, or the moral indignation about a massacre, the imposition of racial inequalities, or the pollution of the environment? If our standards have no anchorage outside of matter in motion, and if variant moralities are simply a by-product of mechanism, how can the Nazis or the racists be faulted for behaving according to their "equally valid" lights? And if it be retorted that their standards were retrogressive or inferior, primitive or perverted, is it not clearly implied that there are some known norms that make our moral judgments valid? If they should have known better, how can it be argued that there are no common standards, no absolute that gives meaning to our relativities?

And if there are indeed such overarching principles, are we to suppose they are derived from matter in motion? Does it suffice to answer that the common standard is "the good (or survival) of the human race"? Where do we get that from? And just why should we bother about that pale and remote idea, especially if it competes with the good of Number One? Because it's instinctive? But why should we bother with such an instinct (if there is one) when we've "seen through it all"? And why suppress that strong instinct for self preservation in favor of that much weaker instinct for the good of the race if it should urge me to risk my life to drag that fellow from the burning house, especially if he's too old and weak to be anything but a burden anyway? And why not applaud acts of co'vardice, treachery and torture if they serve to shorten the war and help our side (and of course the human race) in its progress? Because we ought not?

Well, let's break off that line of argument before we are accused of being cold-bloodedly mechanical rather than humane, but not before taking note of the fact that Christianity is wholly consistent on this point. For all the confusing relativities and uncertainties of the human situation, rational thought is valid because it is a drop from the ocean of Divine Rationality, and the moral law within derives its ultimate sanction from the wholly moral nature of God. Out of nothing nothing comes, but out of the Moral and the Rational comes the moral and the rational. The river does not rise above its Source,

A Problem of Personality

We are, for that matter, quite aware of the fact of personality. Karl Heim's analysis2 is so apropo. We are all aware of the ego, the seeing point that is itself not visible, the presupposition that makes all science possible, the non-obi ectivisable "I" that lies on this side of all objectivity. We are all aware of the fact of decision-making, of the "now" that joins the solidified and already-determined past to the molten and yetundetermined future. We are all aware that we are knit by flesh and blood to time and place yet simultaneously aware of another undeniable reality, a "second space" in which the "I" can meet the "Thou" and person make meaningful contact with person. There's a quite unexpungable awareness of our distinction from the purely physical and even animate world around us, and an abiding sense of truth, beauty and goodness. We are all aware of responsibility and guilt, what Goethe somewhere called "the kingly crown of mankind," and a score of other archetypal words ring with undeniable resonance in our minds. Why do we strive to reduce all this to "an accidental collocation of atoms"?

In point of fact the very effort to reduce man to mechanism and deny the image of God betrays the deep-rooted tendency of apostasy, the urge of "man in revolt" to deny his Origin. But in so doing how can he but deny himself? Why does he adopt a procrustean method that shears away all of the data that will not fit? Why this strenuous will-to-believe which seeks to reduce the rich and varied range of human experience to mere mechanism?

The Reign of Regularity

Partly, of course, it is not a matter of will-to-believe: it is a matter of method. In one sense of the term, science is a search for "scientific laws," and the seemingly relentless extension of precise laws is no longer confined to physical science. It affects the whole of human life, with a network of lawfulness spreading across the seemingly dissolving divide between the physical and social sciences and into the very depth of the psyche. The patterns of our secret thought seem to be governed by a one-to-one relationship with physico-chemical changes, and the areas of freedom to be narrowing down to the vanishing point.

Small wonder that some have grasped at the almost certainly irrelevant straw of Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy or sought refuge in ascientific (if not anti-scientific) forms of existentialism.

Fortunately, however, as Gilbert Ryle points out, 4 the case for free and responsible personality does not rest on the "very, very long odds" left us by real or hypothetical holes in the network of lawfulness; it rests on a different level of awareness, a different level of interpretation. "Natural laws" are not to be seen as prescriptive but as descriptive, and, as Coulson points out,5 determinism and freedom can he better envisaged as two sides of the self-same coin. From the observer's "objective" viewpoint the pattern of development may fit the deterministic framework, but from the participant's "subjective" viewpoint it discloses a sequence of responsible choice. As Gilbert Ryle has underscored the point, an uninitiated observer of a game of chess might deduce that every move was governed by some rule and thereby leap to the conclusion that "heartless necessity dictates the play," but such a conclusion would be based on sheer optical illusion. Every move may be "governed," in one sense of that word, by some law, but not a single one might be so "ordained", even as the rules of grammar may govern every sentence but ordain not a single one.

A Complementary Level

Thus the principle of eomplementarity must be invoked, not as an escape from the network of scientific law but as an element absolutely essential for interpretation. Mechanism and persooalism must both he adhered to and held together. Yet a further point needs to be made; the "lower" may be necessary for the expression of the "higher", but the higher is not thereby subject to reduction.

The point is acutely made by two such different Christian thinkers as C. S. Lewis and Herman Dooyeweerd. As Lewis envisages it7, it is a notable fact that the self-same flutter in the pit of the stomach can be induced by sea-sickness and evocative music, and the lines the artist pencils on a flat sheet of paper may seem just that and nothing more, or they may capture the essence of a landscape flecked with light and shadow and fading into infinite distance. Something rich and complex is of necessity reduced as it is "transposed" to a lesser medium; the greater may include the lesser but not vice versa, and those who have no eyes to see may see all the facts but none of the meaning.

The point raised by the philosophical school linked with Kuyper and Dooyeweerd is a different but related one. As the total reality which we confront in naive experience passes through the prism of thought, we inevitably analyze it into different law-spheres or modalities which display a cosmic order; and some, such as the numerical, spatial and physical, necessarily "precede" and undergird more complex and richer modalities including the biological and psychical, the social and ethical. But no single aspect of reality is reducible to the others; to absolutize one is to relativize the others and distort the overall pattern, and this, as Spier summarizes it, is precisely the downfall of non-Christian philosophies. By deifying the physical modality, "the materialist seeks to anchor his heart in matter. He disavows the sovereignty of the post-physical modalities and would reduce all existence to force and matter". Others deify the psychical, economic or

Where is there any room for an "ought" or an "ought not," for any ethical system whatsoever, if all we say or do is ultimately reducible to the merely mechanical?

historical modalities, but all succumb to the error of functionalism: the view that one modal function is the origin of all the others. Only Christian philosophy can avoid this error. It alone knows the true religious center of the cosmos, which transcends all temporal modal functions.8

The Natural Man?

This warning against the absolutization of any single aspect of human experience is a timely one, and this seems to be the basic intent of Jeeves' statement that the "Christian view of nature insists upon seeing man himself, including his mind and his capacity for rational thought, as an integral part of nature.'9 Maybe, though not all of us would necessarily agree with that statement.

It could, in fact, be argued that it is precisely the refusal to immerse man in nature that characterizes the Christian view. After all, if it is a Christian affirmation that man was made of the dust of the earth, it is also a Christian affirmation that he was inbreathed with the breath of God and stamped with the divine image. To this writer, at least, it seems preferable to follow C. S. Lewis in his assertion "that God and Nature have come into a certain relation, almost in one sense a common frontier, in every human mind", and to repudiate all thought of a Naturalism which strives to reduce all to the closed system of a spontaneous and purely selfsufficient Nature. If we read the situation aright, Lewis is emphatically correct when he affirms that man's "rationality is the little tell-tale rift" that reveals that Nature is not all, and that 

if we continue to make moral judgements . . . then we must believe that the conscience of Man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is the product of some absolute moral wisdom . . . not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.10

And best also to note Langmead Casserley's warning that the current tendency to engulf man in nature is creating both semantic and spiritual confusion. To extend the term "nature" to mean everything is to dilute its meaning to the point where "the assertion that man is part of nature will mean no more than . . . man exists" and obscure the fact that for all his links with the natural world there are notable discontinuities. Reversing the primitive "pathetic fallacy" that elevated even inanimate nature by the infusion of life and personality, modern man now embraces the more dangerous "apathetic fallacy" which "puts the living to death" and "reduces nature and man alike to mechanism."11

Subjective Insight and Social Science

In point of fact, if Casserly is right, this also confuses a very valid distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences. Mathematical or statistical formulae may have a certain ultimacy and finality in physical science where the observer cannot penetrate beyond an exterior and "objective" analysis of his data, but not in the social sciences. Of course, as Polanyi insists and as Sizoo and other reaffirm, the division between the objective and the subjective sciences is far from complete; they manifest not so much a cleavage into discrete entities as a series of varying positions along a continuum terminating in objective and subjective poles.12 But the point that seems relevant here is a somewhat different one; the natural or physical sciences are necessarily objective in the sense that the data are viewed overwhelmingly from the outside, while the social sciences are necessarily subjective in that inside data are both available and essential to comprehension. As Vico perceived centuries ago,'3 the "social sciences" are ignoring a most crucial source of data if they seek a radical objectivity which is foreign to their nature. Man's relation to external nature could never be more than that of an external observer and manipulator, but his relationship to the data of the social sciences is both internal and external, both subjective and objective. The observer stands within the social complex, a vantage point from which

we have an insight into our data, an immediate experience of human and social phenomena as they are in and for themselves in the light of which to check our theories and formulae.14

No amount of objectivization, quantification and modelbuilding can or should bypass that crucial fact; we have an inside awareness, a special, introspective knowledge of what it means to he human. Thus, in any truly social science the statistical phase is merely the prelude. The investigator can and must press on beyond such formulations to a deeper understanding of the human situation.

Rational thought is valid because it is a drop from the ocean of Divine Rationality, and the moral law within derives its ultimate sanction from the wholly moral nature of God.

Maps, Models, Mechanism and Meaning

This principle, of course, impinges on every discipline that deals with man, including human geography. At one level of investigation, we can and must stand outside our data and view it objectively, sifting out the relevant area] facts and plotting the patterns on the map, or expressing them in models and mathematical formulae. But for all the illuminating area] correlations that may thus emerge, maps and models are abstractions, covering only selected facets abstracted from reality; it takes human insight to see the significance. Real life is more than the model.

Bound up with this fact are certain presuppositions regarding the nature of man and the relationship of man to nature, and here the cloven hoof of naturalism is all too often evident. Admittedly, there were once errors in the other direction. Geographers shared in the misguided effort to fit the shape of the earth to dubious exegesis of Scripture, and teleological interpretation was sometimes interjected at the factual-scientific level, a basic methodological error, as Hooykaas has pointed out:15  there is no "Christian geography." But perhaps the pendulum has swung the other way: a necessary methodological separation is sometimes pressed into an ontological separation, and man is presumed to be wholly "natural" in origin and characteristics. Even at the methodological level this may not be wholly healthy; as de Jong suggests, it is true that in geography, of all disciplines, we must hold man and nature in cohesion, but the implied distinction of nature from culture is also a prerequisite "if we wish to define the various factors with which geography is concerned."16

Nor is it necessary for geographers to reduce their understanding of religion to a purely cultural, indeed a purely naturalistic, level. As de Jong again points out, it is a Christian conviction that religious truth is rooted not in nature but in revelation, and truth is ultimately independent of varying environments. This is neither to deny a legitimate and indeed essential place for an "objective" geography of religions which treats them all on a level, but it is to query any trend towards ultimate naturalism and cultural relativism in human geography.
These trends are not peculiar to geography, however. In fact their roots (though not all their fruits) seem to lie outside of the discipline. But. as Tatham wrote in his summation of the history of geographical thought, "probably the most interesting aspect of the whole story is the sensitive way in which geographical ideas at all periods have reflected contemporary trends in philosophic thinking."17 And, as we see it, this interaction will he the healthier if it reflects Christian presuppositions, presuppositions which surely include the conviction that "the chorological (area]) diversity of the earth is one of the treasures of the creation,"18 and an awareness that man's dominion over the world and its resources must be viewed not in the framework of naturalism or mechanism, but in the light of the primal cultural mandate to subdue and replenish the earth.


1Bertrand Russell, "A Free Mao's Worship," Mysticism and Logic, (London: Loogmaos, Green & Co., 1919), pp. 47, 48.
2 C. S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," Christian Reflections, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), p. 89.
3Karl Heim, Christian Faith and Natural Science, (New York: Flarper Torchhooks, 1957).
4Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1949), pp. 76-82.
5C. A, Coulson, Science and Christian Belief, (London: CaBins Fontana Books, 1951), pp. 96-97.
6Ryle, op. cit.
7C. S. Lewis, Transposition and Other Addresses, (London: Godfrey Bles, 1949), pp. 9-20.
8J. M. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1954), pp. 67-69.
9Maleolm A. Jeeves, The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith, (Downers Grove, Illinois: The Inter-Varsity Press, 1969), p. 154.
10C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (London: Gneffrey Bles, 1947), pp. 38-48.
11J. V. Langmead Casserley, Morals and Man in the Social Sciences, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1951), pp. 122-136.
12See especially Jeeves, op. cit., pp. 41-53.
13Casserley, op. cit., pp. 122.124.
14Ibid., pp. 127.128.
15R. Hooykaas, Philosophia Libera: Christian Faith and the Freedom of Science, (London: Tyndale Press, 1957) and The Christian Approach in Teaching Science (London: Tyndale Press, 1960).

No single aspect of reality is reducible to the others; to absolutize one is to relativize the others and distort the overall pattern, and this is precisely the downfall of non-Christian philosophies.

16G. de Jong, Chorological Differentiation as the Fundamental Principle of Peography, (Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1962), p. 18.
l7George Tatham, "Geography in the Nineteenth Century," in Griffith Taylor (ed.): Geography in the Twentieth Century, (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 69.
17G. de Jong, op cit., p. 137. See also de Jong, "The Nature of Human Geography in the Light of the Ordinances of Creation," Free University Quarterly, (Amsterdam), Vol. 5, 1957-58, pp. 97-119.


The question of the adequacy of Mechanism and Naturalism to account for the data also involves the question of miracle, which C. S. Lewis (Miracles, p. 15) is surely right in defining as "an interference with Nature by supernatural power", a definition which this writer would prefer not to dilute. We may rightly challenge the consistency of Hunse who sought to replace the regularity of natural causation with observed sequence and yet appealed to the regularity of natural law to "down" miracles, but there does seem to be a current tendency to merge the miraculous and the natural in a way which could confuse the layman.

It is, of course, true that God is not "a God of the gaps," that He is immanent as well as transcendent. In a sense, C. A. Coulson is surely right in affirming that "either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He's not there at all." (Science and Christian Belief, p. 35) and in a sense, Robert Boyd is emphatically right in saying that "God gives us our daily bread and that is natural, and Christ fed the multitudes, and in the circumstances that was natural too." (D. M. Mackay, Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1965, p. 117). But use of a word with double meaning could he confusing, and it is equally necessary to emphasize that what was "natural" for the Lord of Nature was not necessarily "natural" in the commonly accepted meaning of that term. Surely we must boldly face the fact that all who believe in a transcendent God believe in the "Supernatural," and that belief in miracle involves belief in something which does not wholly flow from previous natural patterns but flows into them from "something other." The foundational miracle of the Incarnation surely implies that Something without natural precedent, Something from "outside" spatio-temporal Nature, flowed into and interlocked with time and place to modify the subsequent flow of events. That which followed was all of a piece; such mighty "signs" as the raising of a decaying corpse signified the presence of a Power beyond the normal powers of Nature.