Science in Christian Perspective


Conference Report
Reported by John A. McIntyre and Richard H. Bube

From: JASA 24 (March 1972): 27-29.

For three days from September 10-12, 1971, a group of 13 scientists (4 physicists, 3 materials scientists, 4 biologists and 2 chemists), 10 theologians (8 seminary professors and 2 campus ministers), and 10 others (2 university administrators, 1 church administrator, 1 co-director of Center for Science in the Public interest, 1 businessman, 1 editor for C & E News, 3 graduate students and 1 consultant) met together at the Kirkridge Lodge in the Pocono Mountains to discuss the impact of science on Christian action in the world today. The occasion for the meeting was the presence in the United States of Dr. Carl Fricdrich von Wcizsackcr, who made three addresses to the group on the Christian's interaction with society: "Philosophical Problems," "The Background for Decision;' and "Practical Problems." Six other participants also gave addresses on related topics.

Dr. voo Weizsaeker is presently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hamburg. His early training and professional career, however, were in the field of nuclear and astrophysics. In addition, as a Christian, he has been a major figure in church and theological circles, having been Gifford Lecturer (1959-60) and initiator of the Gottingen Dialogues between theologians and physicists (F. Gugarten, R. Bultmano, N. Heisenherg). In addition to these significantly Christian activities, he has been involved in social and political affairs as the initiator and ensigner of the Gottingcn Manifesto opposing government plans for nuclear rearmament of the West German Federal Army, initiator and cofounder of the Society of German Scientists, regular participant in the Pugwash Conferences, vice president of the Institute for Strategic Studies, and cu-founder of the German Society for Peace and Conflict Research, Furthermore, he is the author of The History of
, The Relevence of Science, and The World View of Modern Physics. He is a member of the Max-Planek Gcsellschauft, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Alsademie fur Spraehe und Dichtung, Dentsches P.E.N. Zentrum der Bundesrepublik, Gottingen Akademie der Wissenschaften, and Vereningung Deutseher Wissensehaftler. Awards include the Max Planck Medal, Goethe-Prize, Peace Class of Order Pour-le merite, Frankfurt Peace Prize, and Erasmus Prize.

Highlights of Preliminary Talks

Professor Gerhard Barsch, physicist from Penn State, pointed out the growing scientific studies that fall into the realm of Future Planning, with efforts being made to develop various scenarios of the future. All such planning must assume some kind of value system. How should this value system be chosen? One suggestion that has been made is that an international poll be held! Professor Barsch emphasized the importance of involvement of Christians in this kind of activity. Professor Barsch also offered the following model for Christians in the world today, which will appeal to solid-state scientists: Christians as "activating" imperfections in the world "crystal."

Dr. Kenneth Vaux, whose principal concern is the correlation of medicine and Christian ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, discussed two interface issues: the destiny of the universe and the nature of the human being. He proposed that Christians must say "No" to Bultmann's  existentializing theology out of reality, and also "No" to Moltman since theology should deal not only with what could he, but with what should be. Dr. Vaux argued that if cosmic forces are "entropie," then human resignation to the inevitable is the only response; on the other hand if cosmic forces are "purposive," then human responsibility is demanded. Unless this life, this history, this cosmos are at least a correlate of ultimate meaning (i.e., of God's fulfilling His purpose), then Dr. Vaux felt that nothing is justified except pessimisim. Quote: "The meaning of Divine Providence is human responsibility."

Professor Robert Fraocoeur, biologist from Fairleigh Dickinson, argued for recognition of man as co-creator, particularly in terms of the growing technology of reproduction, which is already raising basic questions about sexuality.

Dr. Ian Barhoor, Professor of Physics and Chairman of the Department of Religion at Carleton College, considered attitudes with respect to nature and technology. He summarized replies to Lynn White's claim that environmental degradation has Judaeo-Christian roots as follows: (a) non-Christian cultures also harm their environment; (h) there are diverse strands in the Bible, and emphasis on stewardship and the intrinsic value of nature should not he forgotten; (c) the importance of later developments in the world, such as capitalism and industrialization cannot be overlooked; and (d) in America there are special effects due to a "frontier" mentality and practices carried over into "non-frontier" situations. Dr. Barhour also saw two revolutions currently being waged against modern technology: (1) the pre-affluence revolution by the poor and black, and (2) the post-affluence revolution by the youth and conservationists. Historically a tension has always existed between conservation and social justice for the following reasons: (a) the dispossessed benefit least from technology, (h) technology tends to reinforce the existing power structure, (e) the free enterprise system is insufficient to direct technology, (d) the social costs of technology must be paid by the users, (e) there are limits on economic growth possible, and (f) there is a growing concern for distributive justice.

Professor Rostum Roy, Professor of Solid State at Penn State, discussed his model of how a Christian can participate practically in the decision-making structures of a democratic society. The following speaker, A.J.
Fritsch, S.J., co-director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, disagreed with Professor Roy about working within the system and emphasized instead the need to work outside the system as a modern prophet. He felt that an environmentally balanced system is impossible within the profit motive. Further discussion emphasized the need for both kinds of approach, with openness rather than condemnation of one by the other.

Talks by von Weizsacker

In his first talk on "The Philosophical Background," Professor von \Veizsaeker discussed some basic features of scientific theories. He pointed out that science is usually successful by limiting itself to a given field. Physics does not ask, "What is matter?" Biology does not ask, "What is Life?" Psychology does not ask, "What is mind?" But major breakthroughs do occur when such field-transcending questions are asked.

Von Wcizsackcr argued that the evolution of science is identical with the science of evolution. Not only does nature change (or evolve) with time, but man's theories of nature evolve with time. One can think of a scientific theory as occupying a certain niche (explaining certain phenomena of nature). The occupation of the niche may not be very successful (such as the calorie theory of heat); one or two facts in disagreement, however, are not sufficient to lead scientists to abandon the theory. Rather, a new and more successful theory must be introduced which drives the old theory out of its niche.

Dr. von Weizsacker's thoughtful and carefully qualified remarks, coupled with his humility and Christian understanding, led to an unforgettable experience of how Christians should join together and share the burdens of their world.

Two fields of science involve irreversible phe nomena: organic evolution and thermodynamics. If, as is done in statistical mechanics, the Second Law is defined as stating that systems change toward conditions of highest probability (entropy always increases), then the initial conditions at the beginning of evolution as a system of individual atoms do not represent a very probable state. Complexity is a better index of entropy than disorder. These atoms will combine into molecules and these molecules into more complicated ones and so on, through the stages of evolution. An interesting confirmation of this progression is that the evolutionary history in the rocks always points from the amoeba towards man and never from man toward the amoeba. Of course, this confirmation is valid only if one assumes that evolutionary history has always been subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Von Weizsiicker emphasized that, whether his novel suggestion that entropy increases in the evolutionary process proves to he true or not, there is never any problem for evolution from the Second Law. This follows from the fact that outside energy sources always supply the necessary entropy to drive evolution even if the process itself produces a decrease in entropy (leads to less probable structures).

From these rather abstract remarks about the foundations of science, Professor von Weizsicker proceeded in his second lecture on "The Background for Dc cision", to introduce the concept of ambivalence as a factor which enters into all courses of action in society. By ambivalence, he was referring to the fact that when a social action is taken to carry out a purpose, even though the action is successful, there will he associated results which are undesirable. Examples are the development of technology with its deleterious effect on the environment or the advances in health care with the resulting population explosion. Some people feel that such ambivalence can he escaped by changing the social system or by replacing the politicians. However, von \Veizsacker is convinced that ambivalence is unavoidable in the human situation. He noted that the liberal, capitalistic political system of the West with its desirable freedoms has led to social injustice. However, the replacement of the capitalistic system by socialism with its goal of social justice led to a restriction of freedom. Such ambivalence is not surprising to the Christian whose faith is based on the reality of the fall of man. Sometimes however, the church has forgotten this fact in its passion for a better world social order.

The second lecture closed with an analysis of the problem of war. For the next ten years one might count on an extension of the present stability of the nuclear weapons systems. However, with new systems being introduced about every seven years, the present balance cannot he expected to prevail indefinitely. Thus, unless something drastically new is done, a nuclear war would appear to be inevitable. The only suggestion that might be made is that of a world government with control over the nuclear armaments. However, the possibility of civil war would still remain. Also, the possibility of emigrating from an oppressive government would vanish. But humanly speaking, what else is there to try? World government appears to he a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the avoidance of war.

Von Weizsackcr's third talk took a more personal note. He spoke of his soul-searching after having participated in the atomic bomb project in Nazi Germany. He almost gave up science; the encouragement from a conversation with Karl Barth was instrumental in his continuing as a scientist. Barth told him, "Continue in science if you have Christian faith that Christ will return again; otherwise don't." For a Christian, the outlook for a radical change in history is justifiable.

While the individual Christian must decide how to act in this world, the Church must likewise make such decisions. Von Weizsaekcr again spoke to this point from his own experience. After the war, he found his scientific colleagues abroad often took a moralistic, judgmental attitude toward him as a German nuclear scientist. On the other hand, the Christian church came into Germany after the war to help those in need. The attitude of the Christians was: "We are all sinners together". Because of this experience, von \Veizsackcr turned in a serious way to the Christian Church of his childhood.

Another feature of the church in postwar Germany also attracted him. The church was the only organization that was courageous enough and altruistic enough to take a stand on some politically unpopular issues such as refugees.

Thus von \Veizsdckcr emphasized that, when taking action in the world, the proper attitude of the church is at least as important as what it says and does. It should speak the truth as it sees it (and he sure that it does its homework), but also it should speak with humility.

In summary, the colloquy with Professor von Weizsheker was most fruitful and impressive. Here was a distinguished scholar in several fields willing to devote his keen mind to the intractable practical problems that do not fit neatly into a scholarly discipline. His thoughtful and carefully qualified remarks coupled with his humility and Christian understanding led to an unforgettable experience of how Christians should join together and share the burdens of their world.