Science in Christian Perspective



Christian Philosophy of Science: An Unfinished Business
Department of Philosophy 
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187

From: JASA 23 (March 1971): 4-6.

What contribution does the Christian philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd1 make to the philosophy of science? This was the question debated for four days and four nights by the group of scientists and philosophers who met at Wheaton College in December 1969. Their discussions and disagreements clarified in this observer's mind some salient features of Dooyeweerd's philosophy and identified the problems in philosophy of science to which he speaks. The seminar as a whole provided a worthwhile preamble to further inquiry which is needed in this area.


(1) Dooyeweerd insists that all theoretical thought has pretheoretic roots.' Life is prior to learning; the
lived-world is both logically and chronologically prior to scientific abstraction; the presuppositions by which a man lives will shape his theoretical work as well as his naive experience. The presuppositions by which a man lives are basically religious, in the sense that they embody his ultimate beliefs and values, the orientation of his heart either toward or away from God. Consciously or unconsciously, to some extent be it small or great, be it evident or hidden, be it consistently or inconsistently developed, what we are in relation to God shows up in the way we think. Theoretical thought has pretheoretical, "transcendental," religious roots. As Robert Knudsen put it, "One who is occupied theoretically can, as it were, look back over his shoulder, to the religious motive which is driving his activity and which is establishing its orientation." Dooyeweerd accordingly insists on a "transcendental method" in both critical and constructive thought.

(2) In critical thought, this means examining the "transcendental" presuppositions of a thinker. Calvin Seerveld illustrated it by pointing out the effect of naturalistic assumptions on the aesthetic theories of people like John Dewey and Susanne Langer, and by comparing a series of classic paintings by Christian and nonChristian artists of a similar subject. His point was that both in aesthetic theory and in artistic practice, a man reveals the religious orientation of his life. However, this was not illustrated as specifically in regard to the criticism of either theory or practice in the natural sciences.

The presuppositions by which a man lives are basically religious, in the sense that they embody his ultimate beliefs and values, the orientation of his heart either toward or away from God.

(3) In constructive thought, the transcendental method gives careful and explicit attention to Christian presuppositions. The Christian believes the Creator to be a Sovereign Law-Giver, the structure of whose law is evident in creation and is both objective and universally binding. Aesthetics, logic, psychology, physics and every other science should therefore conform. Dooyewcerd, it should he noted, extends the term "science" to any theoretical discipline concerned with a distinct aspect of human experience. There are at least 15 such sciences, for human experience discovers at least 15 distinct aspects of experience, each subject to the law of Cod. In each case, as Van Riessen pointed out with regards to physical science, the scientist needs a carefully defined concept of the aspect of experience with which his discipline is concerned, and a careful understanding of what makes possible a scientific statement in his particular science, if he is to work effectively in his particular "law sphere". Each science is somewhat different in these regards, different in its subject matter and different in its methodology. Each is therefore sovereign within its own sphere, free from the reductionism that would annex one science to another regardless of differences in the objective law structure on which the sciences depend.

(4) Finally, Dooyeweerd insists that each science, while distinct, is related to the others in a coherent whole, for all creation bears witness and points to one Law-Giver. But it bears witness in the hearts of men [see (1) above] where we either grasp or reject that unity of meaning through the orientation of the heart towards God. A wrong religious orientation misconceives the unity of meaning, and can therefore distort the relationships of the sciences and deceive us about the concept and methods of a particular science. [See (3) above.] This has happened historically, and this is why transcendental criticism is needed. [See (2) above.]
There, in overly brief form, are four salient features of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. In sum, theoretical thought is both subjectively and objectively dependent. In neither case is it autonomous: objectively, it depends on the law-structure created by a Sovereign God; subjectively, it depends on the pretheoretieal, religious roots from which both life and thought issue.


To what problems in the philosophy of science does the foregoing speak, and how directly? I shall comment on four problems that were identified in the discussions.

1. The foundations of science. Ever since David flume exposed the limits of empiricism by opening up the logical problems connected with causation and induction, philosophers of science have been probing this matter. Some have retained an empirical approach by resorting to a purely operational or instrumentalist view of science. Others have reverted to intuitionism or formalism. The problem affects the foundations of mathematics and logic (which Dooyeweerd regards as sciences) as well as the more experimental sciences, and it has concerned phenomenologists like Flusserl and analysts like Russell as well as metaphysicians like Whitehead.

Dooyeweerd too is concerned about it. His transcendental criticism scores other approaches for assuming the autonomy of theoretic thought, as if the foundations of science are somehow immanent within science itself. This, he declares apostate; it ignores both the transcendental (subjective) roots and the Godgiven (objective) law-structure of science.

Is this sufficient, however? Granted that other approaches are non-Christian, just what Christian alternative is proposed? Does it have to altogether bypass intuitionism and formalism and all kinds of empiricism as if the problem they addressed is a pseudo-problem, horn in apostate minds? Perhaps the problem needs restating (just how it would be restated is not altogether explicit), but is it completely and utterly inconsistent for the Christian to be an empiricist of sorts, or an intuitionist? Why? What we need is a careful Christian appraisal of intuitionism (et al), its roots and its fruits, in mathematics and other sciences. This is unfinished business.

(2) Reductionism. Especially since Auguste Comte attempted his classification of the sciences, we have witnessed attempts of various sorts to reduce the methods and concepts of one science to those of another, or of all sciences to those of just one. This is characteristic of positivism past and present, of historicism, psychologism, etc. It is resisted, however successfully, by phenomenologists like Flusserl and analysts like Wittgenstein, and it is resisted by Dooyeweerd.

His vehicle is the theory of law-spheres, each a sovereign state independent of the others, and each concerned with a distinct aspect of experience. If his theory properly represents the objective law-structure of creation, such that the law of God is inevitably fragmented into at least 15 different modes when it intrudes into temporal existence, then he certainly offers a powerful alternative to reductionism.

But it was the irreducibility of law-spheres which provoked most dissent at the conference. (a) Dooyeweerd's thesis supposes a kind of gulf between time and eternity that is not necessarily Biblical. (b) The fixity of law-spheres is too like the old fixity of species to make the scientist happy. It appears to be an imposed dogma rather than an evident structure. Instances were cited where purported law-spheres appear to merge; and the case for fixity is not helped by accommodating the law-spheres to such phenomena.

(c) The relationship betwen man-made classifications (whether of sciences or of pre-scientific experience) and Divinely created structures remains unclear. Within each science, it seems the scientist is responsible for his own classifications. But in the overall the philosopher provides an a priori structure for classifying the sciences themselves.

Dooyeweerd's alternative to reductionism, then, as well as his view of the foundations of science, leaves a great deal of unfinished business.

(3) The status of scientific law and theory. The tendency in science today is to regard laws as manmade formulations, rather than necessary structures. It was not always so. Greek and Medieval science conceived of real forms immanent in nature, and Renaissance science had its imposed laws of motion: in both cases the structure of things is both immanent and necessary. Nineteenth century science, with its positivist reaction against metaphysics, contented itself more with descriptive generalizations, and the present emphasis on models and constructs and operational definitions has not departed as far from that tradition as we sometimes suppose.
Dooyeweerd reminds us that the creation of a sovereign God is through and through ordered and purposeful. There are no bare, unrelated facts waiting to be structured according to the convenience of men. The law-structure is objectively real, and the scientist is responsible to it. Scientific theory has objective controls as well as instrumental values.

Dooyeweerd reminds us that the creation of a sovereign God is through and through orderly and purposeful. There are no bare, unrelated facts waiting to be structured according to the convenience of men. The law-structure is objectively real, and the scientist is responsible to it.

It follows that operationahsm, phenomcnalism, instrumentalism, and related views of scientific knowledge are insufficient, for science should get at real structures, interpretive and fallible though it be. But how does one get at real law-structures in his particular science? What are the respective roles of models and constructs and experimental procedures? What relation has theory to fact and fact to theory in conceptformation and confirmation procedures? Just how do religious roots affect different views of scientific explanation?

 Specifically how and how far do they affect the procedures and assumptions of the working scientist? Until these questions are carefully answered, Dooyeweerd leaves us with some important generalizations, but with an incomplete philosophy of science. This too is unfinished business.

(4) Subjectivity and objectivity in science. The scientist is a historical person, with both individuality and temporal limitations. Writers like J. Bronowski and T. S. Kuhn and Michael Polanyi have stressed the effect these factors have on theoretical thought, while Israel Scheffler has recently urged caution in his Science
and Subjectivity. Dooyewecrd's contribution here is his insistence on the fundamental influence of religious subjectivity in and through and above all other aspects of personal and historical existence, and the demand that we understand the nature of scientific objectivity accordingly.

But this has to be worked out more fully in regard to science as a whole and in regard to each particular science. What does objectivity mean in sociology, and how does it differ from objectivity in physics or in mathematics? Are subjective influences equally evident in all sciences, or are there differences of degree depending on the proximity of a science to (say) theology and ethics? Why is it easier to detect the influence of non-Christian presuppositions in painting than in mathematics? In order to answer these questions, we must see more precisely how religious presuppositions relate to the "presupposita" of each particular science. This too is unfinished business.


The unfinished nature of the project may be an illusion created by my lack of understanding. But at present it seems to be also due to the limitations of Dooyeweerd's philosophy, including the technicality and obscurity of his language and the seeming rigidity of his system, and to the fact that the transcendental method has not yet been pressed far enough to the kind of questions we have raised.

What difference does it make to the research scientist or the teacher? In the first place, we have been discussing the philosophy of science, which is theurretical thought about science, not the teaching of science or its experimental procedures. Whatever difference it makes, therefore, will be indirect rather than immediate. In the second place, practical consequences will not become clear until some of the unfinished theoretical business is taken care of more completely. The effect of philosophy of science on science comes via such things as the relationship between the sciences, the bearing of theory on fact, and the nature of objectivity. Just how Dooyeweerd's approach to these subjects affects the laboratory and the classroom is not yet fully clear.
This much, however, can be said: (1) Science cannot be isolated from religious and philosophical considerations, for in them it finds its own logical basis, and gains selfunderstanding. (2) The scientist must be religiously and "world-viewishly" awake, alert to the role of religious motives and philosophical presuppositions in his work. (3) It must be stressed with renewed clarity that the scientific enterprise is a Divine calling to explore the ways in which the whole creation reveals the law of God, and so bears witness to its Creator.


1The uninitiated reader is directed to Dooyeweerd's In the Twilight of Western Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), and to J. M. Spier, What is Calvinistic Philosophy? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1953). Dooyeweerd's magnum opus is his four-volume New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1953).