Science in Christian Perspective



Materialism and Modern Man
Department of Biology Wheaton College Wheaton, Illinois

From:  JASA 22 (December 1970): 132-135.

Is man just interacting chemicals? If a scientist says he is, he says it because of his belief that only what science can see, feel, hear, and analyze is real, Douglas Spanner said that a scientist cannot know that he has the single source of a knowledge of reality: if he believes this, his source of belief is not from his scientific methods, and so contradicts itself.1 Science cannot know that science knows everything.

David Dye

In commenting on the nature of physical reality, David L. Dye in his book, Faith and the Physical
2, writes, "atheism, or any religious view, is not scientific, nor necessarily antiscientific, but rather ascientific". He emphasizes that "the strongest claim that science may make is that its descriptions account for all known data consistently.3 It cannot comment on whether a soul exists because a soul is not observable by scientific apparatus. "If we deny real existence of nonobservables, that is, if we assume naturalism or atheism, we can have no implicit assurance that logic is applicable to reality."4 Logic is based on the assumption that there is uniformity and consistency in human minds and the world they observe. So he insists that any particular view of reality is based on one's preference in interpreting data. "What happens in practice is that we select the data or interpretation of data that best fits the meaning we want reality to have. Then some of us have the temerity to assert that one or another world view is 'scientific' or 'proved'. It is clearly seen that such an argument is circular. One's view may be modified, developed, or rationalized, but insofar as it is not physical but metaphysical it is based on unprovable (although possibly consistent) presuppositions. "5

Everyone realizes how well science has explained the observable world. From distant stars to some of the intricacies of mental activity, experimental methods have revealed the processes involved in many phenomena. We can explain where the impulse starts which can be detected traveling over particular pathways to definite muscle fibers. The chemistry of contraction of muscle fibers is fairly well known. Feelings can be initiated by drugs. John Brobeck, Professor of Physiology at the University of Pensylvania, stated, "These range all the way from what might he called super-reactivity, through more conventional states regarded as normal, and on through sedation to deep stupor, with elation, well-being, indifference, dependence, and depression or independence, defiance or aggression to be had almost for the asking."6 Undoubtedly the many expressions of the mind are materially based. Yet it is difficult to imagine that unselfish love, worship, and delight in beauty result from unguided combinations of complicated chemicals.

There is another urge that is characteristic of mankind, man's need for extra-scientific meaning, as phrased by Dye.7 He notes that Augustine mentioned this need in his often quoted classic "we are restless until we find our rest in God." And recently Paul Tillich has "described the tendency of the scientific age to substitute means for ends, to reduce man's status from subject to object." Science has explained the observable world but has not given us guiding moral principles by which we can use the means it gives us for controlling nature for the benefit of mankind. These principles must be derived from the conscience of modern man as it is influenced by the Biblical imperative of love used in wisdom and justice.

It has seemed to me unreasonable that man, with his imagination and ability to state abstract ideas about his past and future, should spend his mental energy in trying to show that he is just a mass of interacting chemicals.

Michael Polanyi

"Life transcends physics and chemistry" is the thesis of Michael Polanyi who has distinguished himself in both physical and social sciences. Two of his recent writings' give the basis of his belief which is summarized in the following paragraphs.

Instead of using the argument that there are some aspects of living organisms that are not machine-like and therefore are unexplainable by scientific laws, Polanyi argues that the more machine-like a living being is found to he, the more it needs to be explained by the controls that were exerted upon it during its formation. "The essence of a machine is to serve a purpose acknowledged by its designer." Much as a dean influences a department chairman who passes on suggestions to his faculty, so living things work on the principles of hierarchies. For example, responsible choice controls intelligence which produces patterns of behavior influencing patterns carried out by muscular actions, whose function depends on the vegetative activities of respiration and circulation. "The material of the machine is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, while the shape and consequent working of the machine are controlled by its structural and operational principles." Machines are made by men, but chemicals could exist even if men were eliminated. This would also be true of DNA which has a molecular pattern of four bases (A,T,G,C, the initials of complex chemicals) arranged in pairs in a long series. This series varies throughout its length and the variations determine what protein will be produced to influence development in an embryo or the heredity of a succeeding generation. The nature of DNA is not determined by the necessary activity of physical and chemical processes but DNA passes on information as a machine designed by engineering principles. Life controls DNA, not DNA controls life. "DNA evokes the ontogenesis of higher levels; rather than determining those levels." Just as a machine was designed, so DNA had to be produced by controlling principles.

A description of a watch in physical and chemical terms, says Polanyi, would not tell you what a watch is. The term "watch" has to be understood in terms of its structure of having hands whose purpose is to "tell" time. Of course, you and I tell time, not the watch, but by knowing what a watch is for, we can let its physical parts he interpreted into a sensible thought of the hour and minute of the day. "A physical-chemical topography of my watch might make it possible, at least in principle, to indentify this particular watch as an object. But it would fail to identify it as a watch, for it is incapable of defining a class of watches, as needed for assigning the watch to that class."

Some neurophysiologists would explain the ability of the mind to memorize as the result of events being recorded in the RNA molecule. This may be true: the RNA is a chemical akin to DNA and it is affected by conditions outside itself. It is like the tape in a tape recorder which depends on the "pattern of the impacts in which the message was embodied." Polanyi calls the determiners of processes and structures the "boundary controls" and these transcend physics and chemistry by being profoundly informative interventions. The structure "serves as a boundary condition harnessing the physical-chemical processes by which its organs perform their functions."

In dealing with the relation of mind to body his conclusion is "the mind harnesses neurophysiological mechanisms and is not determined by them." He sees a parallel with the hierarchies of the body in that the mind also has principles of responsibility transcending its appetitive and intellectual workings and as one recognizes this he can live on the highest level.

Frank T. Rhodes

A thorough analysis of the relationship of materialism to spiritual realities is found in the symposium edited by D. M. MacKay titled Christianity in a Mechanistic Unicerse.9 The summary of his work that follows will enable you to evaluate the nature of man effectively.

Frank H. T. Rhodes discusses the subject as follows. Some observers felt that the mechanistic interpretation of nature either weakened the traditional basis of Christian belief or made the Christian faith either untenable or superfluous. By scientific methods, using observation and experiment, the new age dispensed with tradition and authority. "With the growth of the scientific method there developed, however, the inevitable and necessary attempt to interpret nature as a single, integrated and therefore, within these limits, self-explanatory and self-sufficient system."

Science arose in Western Europe in its Christian civilization which insisted on the rationality of God, as A. N. Whitehead has commented. Science therefore depends on Christian theology as seen in the presuppositions of modern science, which are "belief in an orderly, regular, rational universe, a belief that this orderliness is intelligable to the modern sicentist, a belief in the reliability of human reason, and a belief in a broad principle of causality." These assumptions were made by the pioneers in science because of their belief in a "personal, rational, and dependable God."

To be sure science also had its effect upon Christianity. As illustrations, Rhodes mentions the belief in "the value of social, medical and material progress, and its concepts of the nature and apprehension of truth."
Actually the reason the popular mind associated modern science with atheism or agnosticism was that science was popularized and 'explained' by non-theistic writers such as Fontenelle and his descendants. The scientists themselves in many cases were devout Protestants and Catholics. The mechanistic view is popular because most of the questions we ask are the ones that "are asked in and demand answers in mechanistic and often quantitative terms."

A scientist has made progress by "conscious elimination from scientific argument of questions of final cause and purpose." He selects the aspects of reality he wishes to investigate but he "is never in the position to claim that those which he consciously selects are the only ones which exist or that they are ultimately more relevant or important or real than the rest. He repeats Douglas Spanner's idea by writing, "Science by its conscious abstraction, can never claim to be the only method of apprehending reality." Science only exists because there are people. We should not limit the fields science investigates for it can predict other observations and events besides those already observed. Even though mechanism is found everywhere, "it is everywhere the servant of purpose. The two conceptions are not alternative but complementary" as Prof. John Baillie has written. God is not to he used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Rather nature in all its variety testifies to the activity and nature of its Creator.

Rhodes continues by treating the limitations of science. One is that it is inadequate to treat the whole range of phenomena. To describe light, science has to use the complementary views that light sometimes acts like corpuscles and at other times like waves. "Both are necessary to do justice to our present experience of light." So matter and mind debates would bring out the need to look at reality as both matter and mind which become complementary principles. I like especially his illustration, "If, for me, the love between man and woman or parent and child is adequately and fully described only in terms of physiological and psychological mechanisms, then, as any lover or parent knows, I have never experienced that love, only observed it. I have never participated in it, only recorded it."

The conclusion of this first essay is that just as we cannot know our next door neighbor by mere observation and analysis but must "participate in the encounter as a person" so to know God one must "participate as a person in whatever encounters there may be with him."

Donald M. MacKay

The second essay is by Donald M. MacKay, the editor, on Man as a Mechanism. He mentions that "there is a continual two-way connection between what we can say about people's subjective experience (of sights, sounds, itches, pains) and what we can say about electro-chemical activity in their brains." So man is a mental-bodily unity. It is misleading and dangerous to discuss the relation between mental activity and the corresponding brain activity as one of cause and effect, "It is a relation of necessity, but not a relation of scientific causality." "We have in human nature a 'unity' which demands, to do justice to it, at least two levels of discussion: the level of the mechanical, appropriate for the outside observer, and the level of the personal, appropriate from the inside standpoint of the agent himself." He sees the biblical view as a spiritual life 'embodied' in man's psychological mechanism.

David J. E. Ingram

Plan and Purpose in the Universe is treated by David J. E. Ingram. They are not contradictory but part of a greater whole. At present we cannot show the link between gravitation and electromagnetic energy and matter, but scientists are active in trying to find this relationship which they feel must exist. So a relationship will eventually be found between plan and purpose, even though a scientist cannot prove that "a pattern necessarily involves a purpose." The author stresses that the best way God could reveal his plan is for "Mind to become man" as He has done through His entering man's society in the person of His Son. He writes, "To my mind, the complete and over-all plan and purpose which Christianity gives us is far more intellectually satisfying, far more allembracing and coherent than any alternative view." "But if we ourselves are to have any part in that pat-
tern . we require not only the example of His life but the power that comes from His death and resurrection to enter into it ourselves."

Robert L. F. Boyd

The final discussion is on Reason, Revelation and Faith. Robert L. F. Boyd says that any guiding light for behavior must come either from our own reasoning or be given to us by revelation. Since man alone among the animals "can take an active, intelligent and purposive part in moulding his own future" he should do it. If men reject revelation, it is because "either their God is too small (to quote J. B. Phillips) or their cosmos is too small." To my mind, Boyd shows how big God is, and relates Him to the mechanistic world very effectively when he says, "He is the eternal, unconditional cause of all, of all its being and of all its history, of all the complex pattern of its causal relationship and of all its events. Its existence is always and momentarily contingent on His willing and that same will is continually fulfilled by its opera tions." Miracles then become, not a violation of nature, but "still God's activity and in no sense irregular from the divine point of view,"
I conclude this review of these concepts by four men of science, a geologist, a professor of communication and two physicists by this quotation from Professor Boyd which clearly states an attitude needed by all scientists. "In this age of science we require in our search for truth an empirical openness to all the data that may he relevant. In approaching matters of faith, therefore, we must not reject the evidence of historical events."

The Christian admits that his belief in a mind, or soul, or spirit, is based on his belief in the reliability of the revelation in Scripture. Here is the crucial issue: is the Bible true? Once that faith has been established the reader can confidently search the Scriptures for answers that science cannot give because scientific research is confined to the material aspects of the universe.

Obviously there is the problem of how mind, a nonphysical entity, can exert its control on matter. What originates the thought that causes one to want to raise his arm? Each of us is conscious of a self, a being, a person within but beyond his brain and his muscles that somehow initiates brain functions which cause muscles to work. This personal hunch is corroborated by the many Scripture references to a distinction between body and soul.

God is not to be used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Rather nature in all its variety testifies to the activity and nature of its Creator.

Robert F. D. Clark

In his provocative book, The Christian Stake in Science"), Robert E. D. Clark speculates on the seat of the soul. Perhaps the view of Eccles "according to which the mind lives in the dominant hemisphere -that is, in the cortex of the left side for a righthanded person" is a likely view, He also thinks that possibly the ether of space is the meeting point between God, the Spirit, and the matter with which we are acquainted. Somehow pure spirit has to influence obvious matter. Although Eccles is merely making a hypothesis here, we can be assured that the nonmaterial does have its way of influencing the material. Dr. William Wallace in his lecture to the philosophy of science conference at American University in the summer of 1966 said, "Tile scientific climate now permits scientists to allow for the immaterial, even the spiritual. No responsible author maintains there is now a conflict between science and religion, although there are tensions."

On the positive side recall that much of life is explained on a spiritual basis. Every man has a sense of what is right. If not for himself, at least for what is not right for the other fellow to do to him. Our communication with a higher spiritual power, with God Himself, is the result of our own spirit recognizing Him and having feelings about Him. How could mere material substance imagine anything which is nonmaterial?

J. Bronowski

It has seemed to me unreasonable that man, with his imagination and ability to state abstract ideas about his past and future, should spend his mental energy in trying to show that he is just a mass of interacting chemicals. Therefore I find it refreshing to read the review On The Uniqueness of Man in Science" where J. Bronowski of Salk Institute stresses some of our unique features. This review is of the work of the noted paleontologist, George Gaylord Simpson, who is not noted for his appreciation of teleology. But the review quotes this significant statement of Simpson's. "Looking at man as a biological species, some biologists, professional and amateur, have become so preoccupied with the fact that man is an animal that they have neglected the fact that he is an absolutely unique animal." I think his uniqueness is the result of Godgiven attributes.


1Douglas Spanner in The Christian Graduate, Dec. 1962.
2David L. Dye. Faith and the Physical World. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1966. p. 49.
3p. 51 
4p. 65 
5p. 72
6John Brobeck, Mechanism and Responsibility, a pamphlet of the Wheaton College Scholastic Honor Society. Feb. 27, 1968.
7p. 83
8Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry. Chemical and Engineering News. Aug. 21, 1967. Science, June 21, 1968.
9D. L. MacKay, editor, Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 39 Bedford Square, London, W C 1. 1965
10Robert E. D. Clark. The Christian Stake in Science. Moody Press. Chicago. 1967
11Science, Vol. 165. 16 August 1969. p. 680