Science in Christian Perspective


The Man Who is There
College of Physicians and Surgeons,
Columbia University, NY. NY. 10032

From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 145-147.

C. S. Lewis, the British scholar and author, wrote a series of children's fairy tales concerning a land called Narnia. Narnia is in another world, one which can be reached from our own only by magic. Several English children had the great fortune of making a few magical trips to Narnia. In one of their adventures, three of them sail on a Narnian ship to the End of the World (the Narnian world being flat). The ship reaches an island at the Beginning of the End of the World which is inhabited by a 'retired star' in human form. Finding this hard to believe, one of the children questions the star, 'In our world,' said Eustace, 'a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.' The star replies, 'Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.'

Few of us would venture to say whether or not a star is, essentially, more than its mere physical manifestation. However, the question does arise for man himself: although we may eventually understand totally the physical components of which man is made, and how these work together, will we then know definitively what man is? Is man merely a complex machine, or is there a human essence beyond physical existence?

Historical Answers

Historically, the answer to this question has often been given in terms of a flesh-spirit dichotomy. There was believed to be an intrinsic difference between the flesh and the spirit. In religious terms, the flesh is worldly, weak, and corrupt, while the spirit is 'otherworldly,' the part capable of reaching out to 'higher things.' Both elements are present in man, but he is to subdue the body and concentrate on the things of the spirit. This idea is one interpretation of Paul's letters, is certainly present in Augustine, and is exempli fied

Let us make the assumption that man is no more than a determined, complex machine and consider some of the possible conclusions based on that premise.

  in an extreme form in some aspects of the Puritan ethic. In philosophy this dichotomy has been expressed in similar terms (although such dire attributes were not necessarily included in the concept of the flesh), the most familiar being the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter.

We still tend to think in such categories today. We see thought, emotion, dreams, and so on, as the manifestations of the spirit or mind. The material body, on the other hand, is that which executes the designs of the mind and is under the influence of the spirit.

The logical conclusion of a determinist philosophy is that whoever has power, whether it be economic, political, physical, or anything else, has the right to exploit other people.

Such simplistic distinctions are becoming blurred, however, as a result of advances in areas such as biology and psychology. Intimate and intricate relationships exist between body and mind: physical malfunction may cause mental and emotional aberrations, and some diseases are certainly psychosomatic. It has been known for a century that destruction of the frontal lobe of the brain causes definite personality changes. Thought is believed to be mediated physically in terms of electrochemical impulses in the brain; perhaps emotion (if it can even be distinguished from thought) has the same type of physical pathway. Does the progress of science in these areas mean that we will soon be Moral Standards able to describe man and all of his functions as com pletely as we can describe a computer circuit?

Will we  find, then, that man is programmed, and thus totally determined as computers? 

Suppose Man is Only a Complex Machine

Let us make the assumption, then, that man is no more than a determined, complex machine and consider some of the possible conclusions based on that premise. Man as a machine is programmed and can do nothing to change that program. This view implies certain things about God, about moral standards, and about man's individual worth.


The term 'personal God' is used in the sense of a God who relates to man. Relationship, in a personal sense, implies change and interaction between two personalities; if there is no relationship, there can be no knowledge of personal attributes. If man is a determined machine, he cannot be affected by, nor can he interact with, the personality of God so as to know God as a person. This means that, at most, man can be aware of God only as a Master Watch-Maker who set the universe in motion and retired to some remote vantage point to contemplate his handiwork.

But some not only reject the concept of relating to a personal God; they would go even farther and totally discard the idea of a God. For many, the concept of evolution provides the framework in which the development of the universe, up to and including the human mechanism, is to be understood. They may simply remain agnostic about the origins of the energy and basic matter that began the process. In some ways, the Christian is no better off logically in explaining the origin of the universe: he attributes it to God, but he
is unable to explain the origin of God. Instead he 11 weasles out" by saying that God is an eternal being. If there is an eternal and infinite God, the Christian is not begging the question; he is merely acknowledging the fact that he, as a finite being, is incapable of dealing with a concept of the infinite. If, on the other hand, God as the Christian 'understands' him does not exist, the Christian is more deceived than the honest agnosic who admits his inability to answer the question of the origin of the universe a step or two earlier in the argument.

Moral Standards

If there be no God personally concerned with the worls, the traditional source of moral standards vanishes. But then, how can man if he is a programmed totally determined, as are computers? machine, be held accountable for his actions? Who is to say that one action is right and another is wrong? If man is determined, he could not change his actions to fit some arbitrary standard, so there is really no point in discussing morality. Francis Schaeffer points out that this is the conclusion reached by the determinist philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. What is, is right. Thus, for example, a man may do whatever he wishes with a woman because he is stronger than she is. Male physical superiority obviously exists to be used.

  The logical conclusion of a determinist philosophy today is that whoever has power, whether it be economic, political, physical, or anything else, has the right to exploit other people. Indeed, it would seem that such a highly complex organism as man would continue to use every means available to insure his survival (that is, to preserve himself at least long enough to reproduce), for survival is, in effect, the goal of evolution. It is unlikely that man would evolve standards of morality that demand self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-preservation, to maintain those standards. 

But this is exactly opposite to what people are saying today. Students claim the 'military-industrial complex' is wrong; the 'older generation' crusades against the evils of Communism; Communists castigate 'imperialists.' All of them are claiming that there is a definite right and wrong, and that their actions (demonstrating against war research, continuing the war in Vietnam, or invading Czechoslovakia) are justifiable according to certain moral values. If there is no such thing as morality, we certainly don't live like it. 

Schaeffer uses Jean Paul Sartre as an example of one who definitely has an amoral philosophy but is unable to live with it. Sartre's existentialism calls for action since it is only by acting that anyone can authenticate his existence in an absurd and meaningless universe. Because there is no ultimate meaning, however, any action is allowed: nothing is right or wrong. Schaeffer points out Sartre's inconsistency in signing the Algerian Manifesto. It is also evident in his recent participation in 'trials' held in Sweden condemning the United States for criminal actions in Vietnam. By claiming that other people are acting immorally, and thus acknowledging a standard by which to judge them, Sartre is rebelling against the logical conclusions to which his world view leads.

Worth of the Individual

If there is, then, no basis for determining right or wrong, one man can destroy another with impunity.
This leads to a third repercussion of the man-as-machine theory; the individual has no intrinsic value. There is no standard by which to evaluate the worth of a human being. The idea that we can express our appreciation of the value of another person through love loses some of its appeal if we recall that, according to our mechanistic theory, the feeling of love is merely a manifestation of chemical reactions. I think most of us would rebel against such a denial of human worth. 

Schaeffer points out that to deny a special essence in man (the mannishness of man, he calls it) is to deny the history of 30,000 years in which man has affirmed that special essence. This is dangerous ground for a Christian to be treading, however. The Christian believes that man's basic problem lies in his struggle, since the dawn of human existence, to be something he is not, namely Cod. No matter bow hard he tries, man can never become Cod, and he only alienates himself from the Creator by rejecting his creatureliness. Thus to say that man rejects the idea of being a machine is in no way proof that he is not just a machine, just as his rejection of creatureliness does not mean that he is not a creature. As with so many other things, the solution lies in finding out what things are really like, not what man would like them to be.


In searching for an answer to the problem, man has noticed that be has the ability to reflect upon himself to a degree not observed in other animals or machines. Teilbard de Chardin defines reflection in The Phenomenon of Man;

From our experimental point of view, reflection is, as the word indicates, the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself ox of an object endowed with its own particular consistence and value; no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows.

Of course, we don't know to what extent animals are aware of their own existence, nor is it unreasonable to expect machines to monitor and maintain (to some degree) their own activities. But man's capacity for organizing and analyzing objective studies of himself appears to he unique. Objectivity is never fully achieved, of course, but the fields of biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology have succeeded in developing a detached enough view of man so as to arrive at meaningful and useful conclusions concerning the human condition.

But even the argument from reflection is weakened if we don't have enough objectivity. How can we be sure that we are looking at ourselves from the right perspective? The Christian says at this point that the

To say that man rejects the idea of being a machine is not proof that he is not just a machine, just as his rejection of creatureliness does not mean that he is not a creature.

only true source of objectivity speaks about and to man through revelation. Consider the Biblical claim concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. He was fully Cod and yet fully man. As man, he was able to communicate clearly with us. As God, the instrument and sustainer of Creation (Col. i;15-17), he was able to take an objective view of his creatures, just as an artist, being separate from his art (and yet vitally concerned with it as an expression of his own personality), can consider it objectively. Thus, Jesus Christ as God was able to discern and state clearly what is wrong with man, was able to see what the solution should be, and indeed provided it himself. This is what man has been unable to do. He has provided partial explanations and partial solutions, but the problem remains. It has brought some to the conclusion that there is no true answer to be found; man is nothing more than a complex machine. This is a conclusion of despair which denies that man has the ultimate meaning and value that he hopes to have.


Christianity, on the other hand, claims that man does indeed have a true essence other than his existence. This essence has been twisted so that it no longer represents what it was intended to be, but that does not mean that it cannot be restored. As Schaeffer puts it, man is not dead, he is fallen. But if man is merely a machine, surely he is dead as far as the possibility of achieving higher human aspirations is concerned.

Is man lust a machine, or is there something special in the human essence that sets him apart from the rest of the created universe? Ultimately, this question calls for a faith response; no one has yet found a way to prove conclusively to another person the truth of either alternative. The most that can be done is to examine the evidence other people claim to have used as a basis for their own decisions. This, after all, was the motivation for writing the Gospels (John 20;30, 31). It is the reason philosophers have written and taught. It is what leads one man to tell his experiences to another. Man has a tremendous capacity for communication. His dilemma is discovering whether or not there is anything truly worth communicating.