Science in Christian Perspective



Natural Science and Christian Faith as Elements in a Cultural Continuum
Department of Physics The King's College Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. 10510


From: JASA 25 (September 1973): 91-96.

Many of the contemporary problems, including the science-faith controversies, call for a holistic view of Man and of the intellectual enterprise. Natural Science and Christian Faith can no longer be viewed as autonomous, but must be seen as related via a cultural continuum. The integration of the two areas is difficult with a simplistic view of scientific method. As the complexity and humanness of the scientific process is understood, we can gain appreciation for the similarities of approach in the two disciplines, science and faith. This hopefully can lead to a reinforcement and enrichment of each.

Academic Specialization

There seems to he, in our generation's overemphasis on fragmentation, an academic specialization which fails to recognize a holistic view of man, of his environment, his social interactions, and his faith. Each academic discipline seems to cherish a vision of man as centered about the reference frame of that discipline. We so often find such terms as creativity, liberal arts, and humanity defined in terms of what they are not. For example, creativity is sometimes defined as that which is not logical, liberal arts are defined as those disciplines which are not practical or technological, humanity is defined as that which is not related to material existence etc. We are in many of these cases acting as academic bigots and fail to realize that our generation desperately needs a holistic view of man.

Proposing A Synthesis

My particular concern in this paper is a rapprochement between science and religion. In a broader context, I am concerned with the synthesis of the academic disciplines in an evangelical context of the liberal arts ideal. If indeed all truth is Cod's truth, then our preoccupation with academic provincialism is producing, rather than a liberal arts synthesis, a multi-arts fragmentation which negates the overwhelming integrating enterprise to which we are called. If we believe in the integration of faith and learning, we must attack the walls that separate, and we must aim for a complete view of the intellectual enterprise.

A synthesis is suggested by the following diagram, which I label The Cultural Continuum.

Figure 1 is an adaptation of an idea of H.G. Cassidy in The Sciences and the Arts.1 It suggests that the disciplines are peripherally and radically related. The coherent view of man is integrated by means of philosophical systems and theological frameworks which draw upon, as well as provide a world view for, the various disciplines. Philosophy and religion form the necessary focus for any integrated picture of man. Circumferentially, the disciplines interact with each other, sharing models, languages, methods, paradigms, etc.

The differentiation of the several liberal arts in this diagram could involve such factors as the role of man, the role of language, the role of objectivity, the role of society, and the role of community. I assert here that if there are differences around the circle, they are substantially those of degree, and not of kind.

There are some common approaches in the two academic disciplines, science and religion, as well as common experiential forms. Before making a comparison, it is essential to understand the goals and methodology of science.

Definition of Science

What is science? An operational definition of science is that it is the search for conceptual schemes or structures. The schemes seem to be man-made, in the full creative sense. The conceptual structures help to organize our experience. They seem to he open to modification and continual testing.

The goal of science is not power, or practicality, or the good of mankind, or survival, or better mousetraps. It seems to me that the goal of science is understanding and everything else is spin-off. At the elementary level, a chaos of stimuli, which we might call percepts, or experience, seems to he un-interpreted. Science attempts to organize, i.e., interpret these stimuli in a consistent conceptual structure. The major constituents of a conceptual structure are called theories, and each theory, then, represents the synthesis of common elements in the various experiences. In this role, theory construction betrays science as being, according to Jacob Bronowski,2 a highly creative activity. Bronowski defines creativity as the fusion of common elements from various apparently diverse experiences. The goal of science is the creation of theories, and the theories of a given science constitute its conceptual structure. Stated in other terms, the goal of science is understanding.

Caricature of Scientific Method

There are some who ascribe a method to science. In this classical view of scientific method, the following happens invariably:

1. One collects as much data as he feels necessary. This stage is called observation. The more sophisyi cated call it experimentation.
2. One makes an hypothesis. The hypothesis is some generalization from the data of step 1. The hypothesis is a tentative guess at some relationship inherent in the data. This step of hypothesis formation is called induction.
3. New experiments or observations are suggested by logical means to be consequences of the hypothesis. The logical process here is called deduction-the determination of particulars from some general principle.
4. The process of verification follows, and, if the hypothesis is confirmed directly or indirectly enough times, the hypothesis achieves the status of a scientific law or theory.

This picture of scientific method is a caricature of what the scientist actually does. I interpret it to he a method of four steps-1. observation, 2. induction, 3. deduction, and 4. verification. The overall method is also viewed as objective, in that the scientist acts as an impassive, impartial recipient of data and a mechanical sort of creature, who, with the proper training, accomplishes the theory construction reliably. In a real sense, given the data one is forced to inevitable conclusions, according to this caricature.

There are several reasons why this view of scientific method is inadequate.

1. It so often pictures the complete method as one grand logical procedure. In truth, only one of the steps, deduction, is strictly logical. In the other three steps, the scientist's creativity, his scientific and nonscientific context, accidental occurrences, and all sorts of other non-logical factors hear upon the scientific investigation.
2. The objectivity of the scientist is suspect. Rather than being a non-interacting, disinterested, and impassive spectator, the scientist is in reality emotionally as well as physically involved in his experiment. He has most likely determined beforehand to prove something. He does more than simply discover whatever comes his way. And, according to Niels Bohr and other quantum physicists, we should be very much aware that the process of measurement' is not simply an objective procedure; it is an interactive process. The observer is part of the observation.
3. Objectivity is suspect on a second count, here with regard to the nature of scientific data. As Barbour3 has expressed it, "All data is theory-laden." That is, the scientist is selective in his gathering of data. By the very act of designing experiments and setting up instruments to measure, the scientist is being discriminatory. At the same time, he is refusing to record data not of interest to him, i.e., he is biased in his attitude toward data. The major cause for this bias is the conceptual framework its which he thinks. The scientist can never completely escape his conceptual framework, and this fact makes strict objectivity impossible.
This picture of scientific method is a sequence of steps. It appears to be open-ended, and as such overlooks the interactions among the steps. It fails to recognize that some theories may be well accepted, even though not experimentally proved. In actuality the four steps may occur in concurrence, they may be juxtaposed from this caricature, some step or steps may be missing, and most important, some other processes may be occurring which have been overlooked. Among these other processes are those which we may classify as self-corrective. Indeed, self-correctiveness has been one of the important overlooked elements in the scientific method. I find the feedback systems concept of regulatory mechanisms helpful here.
5. This classical view fails to distinguish between public and private science. These terms are from Gerald Holton,4 and he uses them to suggest that the more rigid views of scientific method, as above, seem to be concerned with science from the view of the scientific community. However, there is a more creative, less methodologically precise science being done on the individual level. The individual scientist fails to acknowledge a rigid plan. For example, the falling apple is a key to the synthesis of terrestrial and celestial mechanics for Sir Isaac Newton. A bath is the crucial experience for Archimedes law of buoyancy. A trip-like dream leads Kekulé to a geometrical model

  If we believe in the integration of faith and learning, we must attack the walls that separate, and we must aim for a complete view of the intellectual enterprise

for the benzene ring. The list goes on, suggesting that the scientist operates as a creative contributor to the growth of public science only as he is free. Science is impossible without freedom, in particular that freedom from prescribed methodological procedures.

Correction of the Caricature 

I find, then, that these five shortcomings above characterize a popular misconception of what I have termed the Classical Scientific Method. In Figure 2 I suggest how some of these failings might be corrected. This I call the

Scientific Process. This model is given in more detail in a diagram in Introduction to Natural Science by Parsegian, Meltzer, Luchens, and Kinerson.5 The authors use six blocks and about twenty feedback loops to emphasize the self-corrective features of the Scientific Process. They recognize cultural, historical, and environmental factors as important inputs to the process. Their model emphasizes the complexity of the scientific process, and avoids some of the oversimplification of the classical and other views. What are the self-corrective mechanisms which operate in the creation of scientific theories? In other terms, what criteria serve to evaluate the suitability of a particular conceptual scheme? Various factors seem to cooperate in the construction and the survival of scientific theories. I list several here: 

1. Simplicity. Given two candidates for a theory, that one which involves the fewer concepts and complexities is to he preferred-all other things being equal. This was one of the important criteria effecting the choice of the Copernican heliocentric system over the Ptolemaic geocentric system. Each of these two theories seemed to predict and explain the phenomena mechanically-but the sun-centered system involved fewer assumptions, a shorter list of devices for explanation, and an overall simplification of conceptual relationships. Other terms which express the criteria of simplicity are economy and parsimony. 
2. Generality. A theory is judged most successful when it encompasses a large number of instances. A significant reason for the success of the Newtonian gravitational law was its comprehensibility. The previously accepted Aristotelian schemes pictured a layered universe, with separate theoretical pictures for each layer. The Newtonian synthesis unified these regions in one universal conceptual scheme. Obviously, the concept of generality is closely related to the idea of simplicity.
3. Internal Consistency. Where logic is required it should he correct. There have been instances in the history of science where this was not so. There is not much more to say about this criterion except that when a scientist is involved in a complex matrix of logical interrelationships, he should be very careful. On the other hand, he is confident that logic is of such a nature as to lead to new insights, new relationships and new predictions.
4. Falsifiability. The theory must be open to test, and indeed the theory should suggest how one might attempt to disprove its consequences. The clearest cases of pseudotheories are claims of medical quacks. These practitioners resist probing tests of their data, an open admission of some failure in their theories. A theory which cannot be tested is not a scientific theory.
5. Repeatibility. Not only should the theory be falsifiable, the testing should he repeatable-by different people, at different times, in different places. This is a criterion which is never satisfied to the letter, but as in the case of objectivity, the scientist aims for the ideal.
6. Predictability. The aim of science is understanding. Understanding is gained as successful predictions are made. The degree of predictability varies from science to science, but to some extent every science attempts to deduce future phenomena as consequences of the theory.
7. Visualizability. The scientist works with models, i.e., he focuses his attention on various features of his experience and somehow pictures the complexity of the situation in terms of things like billiard balls, levers, water waves, chunks, or wheels, etc. Most successful theories have involved the use of pictures.
8. Aesthetic nature. There are several less easily identified factors which serve to evaluate theories. The scientist talks of beauty, of symmetry, of elegance, of perfection, etc. Because of the creative nature of the scientific process, the scientist shares with other artists those unutterable experiences which are evident in all intellectual disciplines. The final form of Maxwell's equations of electromagnetic theory, for example, were originally adopted because, in the words of Norman Campbell,6 the second set of equations were "prettier". Beauty is one of the features of the scientific process which is too often overlooked.

Relating Theories to Experience

There are at least four views of the relationship of theory to experience: positivism, instrumentalism, idealism, and realism. The positivist believes that theoretical schemes are artificial, misleading, and to be avoided at all costs. From this viewpoint, there is nothing but data, instruments, and man as the receiver of information. The real is the observable.

Instrumentalism holds that theories are means to an end. Science to the instrumentalist is useful. There may be some relationship of theory and experience, but that is beside the point. We value theories for what they will do for us, according to this school.

Idealism views theories as mental constructs. The idealist is imposing mental pictures upon the chaos of sense data. Here the emphasis is placed upon man as knower.

The realist holds that theories represent the world of experience. Theories to him arc more than artificial, or useful, or imposed by the mind. Theories are in some sense pictures of the real world. To the strict realist, they are exact pictures.

Convergence of Science and Religion

Rather than being in isolation or conflict, science and religion have the potential to reinforce one another. There are at least two senses in which the two disciplines converge. First, the two quite often are dealing with the same phenomena from different viewpoints. Each, for example, is concerned with origins, with life, and with sustaining forces in the universe. The fundamental substratum of reality that each is addressing seems to be the same. Here there is the potential for conflict or mutual support.

The second area of convergence is in terms of method. Analogically the two seem to display similar processes in the search for acceptable understandings.

We read the following:

Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created
Genesis 1:26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him
Genesis 2:19: And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Romans 1:19, 20: That which may be known of God
is manifest in then) for God bath shown it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. John 8:32: If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed: and ye shall know
the truth and the truth shall make you free. John 16:13: Nevertheless, when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth.

Several strands of ideas run through the above verses, and suggest to me that science and religion both require the participation of man as creative knower and interpreter.

1. A fundamental aspect of God's nature is His Creatorhood. And Man is made in God's image. By nature, Man is a creative being. In the same context of being made in God's image, Man is given the charge over nature. Mao is given the responsibility to utilize his creative energies to understand and control nature. As I have suggested in describing the scientific process, there is no control without understanding.

Rather than being in isolation or conflict, science and religion have the potential to reinforce one another.

2. In this charge from God, the scientist has an arena of freedom appropriate to any creative being. Adam named the animals. The scientist today names his concepts. He can name the animal whatever he wills, and he has a wide range of tenable conceptual theories, but the animal does not change with the name, nor does the substratum alter as the conceptual structure is modified or abolished. The aspects of creativity, self-correctiveness, and experience cooperate to provide understanding. Man as knower requires at least these three.

3. The section from Romans suggests that there is an underlying substratum which evidences the typical features of orderliness-causal relations, uniformity in time and space, common qualities, etc. The substratum is understood through the things that are made, by Man as creative knower.

4. There are prerequisites for knowing, both in science and religion. At a minimum, each requires a type of commitment.

5. There are differences between science and religion as regards man as knower.

A. There is nothing in science comparable to religious revelation.
B. Faith in science is in terms of working principles, orderliness, etc.; faith in religion is commitment to a Person.
C. In each, there are no un-interpreted data. In the case of Christianity, we hold that the Holy Spirit is a reliable interpreter of the Christian revelation. In science, man is the interpreter of all data. All data in science is theory-laden. Likewise, no religious statements are concept-free.

There are differences in subject matter and emphasis, but I hold that many differences are in degree only, and that there can be no rigid dichotomy.

One of the criteria for a successful scientific theory was that of visualizahility. Symbols and models seem to abstract away features not of interest in a given theory construction. The model is normally then a caricature of any total experience. It is a picture drawn in terms of known objects and relations as extended to the new experiences. The model is a representation of the unknown in terms of the known. A model is an analogy. The totality of models of a given conceptual structure is sometimes called a paradigm.7

Religion abounds in models and symbols. Jesus Christ, for example, is (1) the light of the world, (2) the good shepherd, (3) the bread of life, (4) the way, the truth, and the life, (5) the Lamb of God, (6) the door, (7) the vine, (8) the Word, and (9) the resurrection and the life. These are, basically, models which are used to convey certain understandings to us. Likewise, the parables of Jesus serve as models. And countless other examples of the use of models are integral to the expression of the Christian message.

Features of Models

Several features of models are appropriate in both science and religion:

1. The model uses visual or verbal pictures to convey understanding.
2. The model may convey more understanding than we expect it to. In other words, it may be extendable and provide new insights.
3. The model may convey less understanding than we expected it to. Stated otherwise, all models have limitations. The Newtonian model was thought to apply to all physical situations; it failed on the submicroscopic level. Likewise, the statement of Jesus, "I am the bread of life" gives us the understanding that we are to live in a vital dependence on Him - the model does not serve to give us a visual or a physical-chemical understanding of Jesus. Combining 2. and 3., then, we can say that all models are extendable, with limitations.
4. A distinction should always be made, therefore, between a model and understanding.
5. Since models serve to provide understanding, they must be expressed "in the language of the people". The models of science include diagrams, equations, and logical statements. The models of religion serve a wider constituency, and those models which cross the cultural and social continum are appropriate here.

We as Christians and scientists need to get beyond the stage of talking to ourselves and arguing with each other. We need also to go beyond the point of talking to people who never listen and to people who aren't there.

Significance of Community

For my final comparison, I emphasize the significance of community to the scientific and the religious processes. The Bible informs us:

Ephesians 2:19-22: Ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone, In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

We are all aware of the many other Scriptural passages which point to the importance of the church as a community: that the church is Christ's bride, that it is essential that we meet with other Christians, that we cooperatively advance the cause of Christ, that the members of the church seek unity, that the church continues despite loss of its leaders, that the church serves a role of indoctrination, that the church serves as a voice to those outside its borders, that the church serves as arbiter of differences, there is no Christianity without the church, etc.

William Pollard, in Physicist and Christian,8 draws many important comparisons between the role of community in science and religion. He speaks as one who shares membership in the two communities. Recalling some of his comparisons, I will list characteristics of the scientific community, trying to parallel what was said above:

1. Scientists meet regularly in scientific conventions, under the auspices of ongoing scientific societies. These meetings serve informative and administrative functions.
2. Scientists cooperate toward various goals. As Jacob Bronowski2 has stated, there is an almost religious sense of commitment, toleration, and honesty at work as scientists seek new understandings of the natural world. The goal is more important than individual differences or prejudices. Science, like the Church, is international and transcultural.
Although science cherishes strong leaders of the Newton-Einstein caliber, science does not die without them. Science progresses because men as creative knowers in interaction with the natural world can cooperatively understand. Religion advances when men as creative knowers in interaction with God, the natural world, and others, cooperatively understand.
4. The scientific community serves the role of indoctrination. The textbook, classroom, journal, and scientific meetings serve to transmit the systems of paradigms from one scientific generation to the other. The role of education is essential to both science and religion.
5. The scientific community serves as arbiter of differences. The scientific journals with their reviewing procedures screen those contributions which seem significant to understanding.
6. Finally, I hold the obvious to be true: there can be no science without the community of scientists.

These are some of the things that have impressed me regarding the relationship between natural science and Christian faith. We as Christians and scientists need to get beyond the stage of talking to ourselves and arguing with each other. We need also to go beyond the point of talking to people who never listen and to people who aren't there.

A responsible integration of faith and scientific learning in the cultural continuum will, to my mind, involve the appreciation of a personal-infinite God and of what He has created, the articulation of a well formulated Christian philosophy of science, and the affirmation of what we as evangelicals know to be true as a result of the infallible revelation of the Word of God. 


1 H. C. Cassidy, The Sciences and the Arts, Harper Brothers, 1962.
2Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, Harper Torchbook, 1965.
3 3Ian Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, Prentice Hall, 1966
4Cerald Holton, Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Ad dison-Wesley, 1958.
5 V. L. Parse gian, A. S. Meltzer, A. S. Luchins, K. S. Kinerson, Introduction to Natural Science, Academic Press, 1968.
6Norman Campbell, What is Science?, Dover, 1952.
7Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962.
8William Pollard, Physicist and Christian, Seabury Press, 1961.