Science in Christian Perspective
Faith, the Unrecognized Partner
of Science and Religion
W. JIM NEIDHARDT
Department of Physics
Newark College of Engineering Newark, New Jersey 07102
From: JASA 26 (September 1974): 89-95
What Is Faith?
The notion of faith1 as a legitimate component of all human understanding has varied widely through the ages. The following spectrum of definitions and thoughts concerning faith makes this abundantly clear:
1. A schoolboy's definition of faith-"Faith is when you believe something that you know isn't true!"
2. T. H. Huxley3 on faith-"Blind faith is the one unpardonable sin," Does it necessarily follow that faith in general should therefore come under suspicion? Cannot unbelief as well be blind?
3. David Hume4, the dour and skeptical Scotsman, in his lighter moments acknowledged the necessity of having 'a kind of firm and solid feeling." Is this not a possible definition of faith?
4. Hebrews 11:1-"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Biblically, faith is thus taken neither in an exclusively religious sense, much less in specific reference to faith in Christ as Redeemer and Lord, but very generally as an "assurance" and "proving" of objects and concepts which escape our perception because they do not yet exist or because they are not immediately apparent to our senses.5
5. The noted physical chemist and philosopher, Michael Polanyi, has pointed out that no one can become a scientist unless he presumes the scientific doctrine and method to he fundamentally sound and that their ultimate premises can be unquestioningly accepted. Only by an unlimited commitment and trust to these premises can he develop a sense of scientific values and acquire the skill of scientific enquiry. This is the way of acquiring knowledge which the Christian Church Fathers described as fides quaerens intellectum, "to believe in order to know."
Ignoring Huxley's and the schoolboy's judgment as somewhat short-sighted, we see that faith can be defined as an act of trusting, of holding to convictions when the evidence for such commitment is not immediately apparent. It should be noted that faith is not blind, nor does it arise out of a vacuum. Faith stems from man's previous experience; salvation faith from
Faith is illumination by which a truly rational understanding can begin.
specific historical events (seen through the eyes of faith as God revealing Himself
in history), more general faith from man's contact with reality
contact with others and experience of order in nature, etc. Faith, however, is
much more than a mere extrapolation of past experience, for it interprets such
experience and holds to convictions which cannot he reduced to mere inductions
from scientific experience. The conviction that a scientific theory
a rational beauty and symmetry in a unifying sense is a good example.
Faith: A Component of All Human Understanding
How can faith be a necessary component of scientific as well as religious experience? Let us first clearly understand that faith does not provide the data of empirical knowledge; faith rather plays its role in seeking to find a keystone idea, a pattern that will fit and explain the data. Science does not consist merely of the collecting of data; we must recognize what is truly coherent in what we observe, which observations are truly significant. Such recognition is intimately related to having faith in the soundness of some key idea or pattern. Once faith in a key pattern is established, reason then takes over and develops a more ordered picture, looking for possible faults and finally conceiving, of experiments to further test the theory. Faith7, to paraphrase St. Augustine, is not a trusting in unprovable truths which can he disregarded as a rational picture develops; it is, rather, illumination (which guides one in seeing a pattern) by which a truly rational understanding can begin. The scientific enterprise is no exception to the universality of Augustine's insight. A scientist cannot begin his task of deciphering the puzzle of a very complex physical world without an unconditional and complete trust or conviction in certain basic premises that undergird all scientific effort. In essence he must possess a firm faith that nature is intelligible, that an underlying unique and necessary order exists, that there is an ultimate simplicity and inter-connectedness to the laws of nature, that underlying symmetries exist in the physical world, that nature behaves in the same way whether observed or not, that a direct, correct correspondence exists between events of the universe and his sensory-brain responses, that his own senses and memory are trustworthy, and finally that his fellow workers do and report their work honestly. To doubt or engage in endless questioning of such points is to abandon the whole purpose of scientific pursuit. Faith coupled with observation and deduction, not merely observation and deduction, is required for progress in science.
Let me stress that the scientist's glimpse of the simplicity and inter-connectedness of the laws of nature, while being far wider than the layman's, is by no means exhaustive. The condition of the scientist and the man of religion are in this respect the same. Religious faith stems from its own evidences, exactly as that of the scientist; it is not a blind faith. Yet as numerous as religious evidences are they do not form a complete exhaustive set. "Those evidences, like the evidences of science, are rather a prompting toward espousing propositions that imply unconditional affirmation and absolute commitment."8 It is through such commitment that the man of science grasps the simplicity and order present in nature and through a similar commitment that the man of religion grasps the transcendent dimension of God. Michael Polanyi's description of reality is a strikingly fitting example of these last thoughts:
...reality is something that attracts our attention by clues which harass and beguile our minds into getting ever closer to it, and which, since it owes this attractive power to its independent existence can always manifest itself in still unexpected ways. If we have grasped a true and deepseated. aspect of reality, then its future manifestations will be unexpected confirmations of our present knowledge of it. It is because of our anticipation of such hidden truths that scientific knowledge is accepted, and it is their presence in the body of accepted science that keeps it alive and at work in our minds. This is how accepted science serves as the promise of all further pursuit of scientific inquiry. The efforts of perception are induced by a craving to make out what it is we are seeing before us. They respond to the conviction that we can make sense of experience because it hangs together in itself. Scientific inquiry is motivated likewise by a craving to understand things. Such an endeavor can go on only if sustained by hope, the hope of making contact with the hidden pattern of things. By speaking of science as a reasonable and successful enterprise, I confirm and share this hope.9
It would be helpful at this point to give some specific examples that testify to the validity of faith being a necessary component of scientific endeavor. It should be understood that I have picked out a few key cases; the history of science provides an almost inexhaustible number of illustrative cases for the basic thesis.
1. Faith in the orderliness and simplicity of nature is truly required to contribute in a period of scientific revolution where the foundations of existing understanding are overturned by new evidence and new theoretical interpretations.
a) Max Planck terminated the classical era of physics by his introduction of the quantum of energy. The classical assumption of the continuity of nature was shown to be invalid. One had to look for order in a completely new way. Planck's testimony as to how the scientist proceeds in his investigation of nature is illuminating:
The man who handles a bulk of results obtained from an experimental process must have an imaginative picture of the law he is pursuing. He must embody this in an imaginary hypothesis. The reasoning faculties alone will not help him toward such a step, for no order can emerge from that chaos of elements unless there is the constructive quality of mind which builds up the order by a process of elimination and choice. Again and again the imaginary plan on which one attempts to build up that order breaks down and then we must try another. This imaginative vision and faith in the ultimate success are indispensable. The pure rationalist has no place here.10
b) A. Einstein11 in the creation of his relativity theory rejected the notion that space and time are absolute. He defined them in terms of reference to the frame of the observer. Einstein abandoned absolute space and time, but he did not therefore view the simplicity and order of nature as merely constructs of the human mind (this is how idealist philosophers wrongly interpreted Einstein as making the laws of nature subjective). He held rather to the strong conviction that the basic laws of nature are always and everywhere the same, regardless of the frame of reference in which they are observed. This conviction led him to the development of his revolutionary theory.
c) The current state of elementary particle physics has been aptly called an "infernal race". With new "particles" being discovered all the time physicists still persist in searching for order in this "maze". A strong conviction that order exists is an absolute necessity to make progress in this rapidly changing field. One central motivating factor is the strong faith of physicists in the universal validity of key conservation laws. An example from the early history of particle physics shows this clearly. The existence of that unusual elementary particle, the neutrino, was postulated in ordered that certain nuclear reactions maintain the conservation of energy, momentum and spin. For some time, the only empirical evidence for the neutrino's existence was that these reactions would otherwise negate the conservation principles. Even today, the additional empirical evidence we have for the neutrino is quite different from observations of other elementary particles; it cannot be observed in the same ways as these others (electrons, positrons, mesons, etc.). There is good evidence it can never be seen in the sense that other particles are seen. Yet neutrinos are today accepted as a component of real nature. Why? To a large degree, the physicist's faith in a fully lawful cosmos compels such acceptance.12
d) The Medieval picture of the universe was overthrown by Copernicus when he proposed a suncentered planetary model in contrast to the earlier earth-centered model of Ptolemy. The earth-centered system was really in keeping with common sense observations; furthermore, even if the detailed motions were complex, it made accurate predictions. Copernicus' strong faith that planetary motions "are simple" led him to develop his sun-centered theory which violated ordinary sense observations.
e) Newton,13 in formulating his system of dynamics, brought together the results of many earlier workers, as Galileo and Kepler, for example. His great contribution was to see a fundamental pattern to these results that had not been noticed or deeply appreciated before. He was strongly motivated by a basic faith that the laws of motion are truly universal in scope; i.e., an apple falls to the earth in the same way that the "moon" falls to the earth, and that these laws are mathematically simple, i.e., an inverse, integer, power law of gravitational attraction. Such premises were considered to be rather speculative by many natural philosophers of the day.
2. Faith in the interconnectedness and symmetry of nature has played a role in the scientific venture.
a) Faraday, all of his life, searched for a connection between electromagnetic and gravitational forces. He never gave up hope of finding such a connection.14
b) Maxwell pondered over the fact that a changing magnetic field creates an electric field. From symmetry considerations he was motivated to work out the consequences of assuming that a changing electric field creates a magnetic field. He was thus led to discover a valid law of nature that led to the prediction of electromagnetic waves.15 In a similar vein, Faraday was deeply impressed by the experiments of Ampere which showed that electric currents create magnetic fields. This motivated him to search for possible ways in which a magnetic field would create electric currents. His faith in the possibility of finding "symmetrical" effects in nature led eventually to his discovery of the law of magnetic induction.16
c) P.A.M. Dirac, the brilliant theorist who successfully merged quantum theory with relativity, predicting both the existences of positive electrons (positrons) and electron spin, has testified to his motivating faith that scientific theory should be beautiful (simple, symmetric-balanced and possessing harmony):
Yet if we believe in the unity of physics, we should believe that the same basic ideas universally apply to all fields of physics. Should we then not use the equations of motion in high energy as well as low energy physics? I say we should. A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data (of the moment) 17
3. The very fact that mathematical systems formulated by the human mind for sheer intellectual pleasure have later proved remarkably applicable to an accurate description of nature is a great surprise.
As nature is certainly not itself a product of the human mind, the correspondence between the mathematical system and the structure of physical reality is not something that would have been anticipated in advance. A strong faith that such correspondences indeed exist was and is central to the motivation of scientists as they attempt to understand the complexities of nature. To list but a few examples of this remarkable correspondence; the mathematical system of secondorder differential equations coupled with
To express trust and to act on that trust, to act by faith is not contrary to true rationality.
the inverse square law was later found by Newton to describe
precisely the motion
of masses (and physicists found it later to be applicable to charged particles
as well); the abstract four-dimensional geometry of Riemann was later found by
Einstein to be applicable in describing the motion of bodies in each
(the correspondence was all or nothing-ten equations of motion fit the only one
allowable Riemannian tensor); and, as a final example, the infinite dimensional
abstract Vector space developed by Hilbert with its use of imaginary
later found by the pioneers of modern physics to be amazingly
applicable in describing
the quantum nature of both light and matter. Eugene P. Wigner who
concepts in a paper, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in
Sciences, concludes with words that are embedded in faith:
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of nature is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.18
A deep cleavage exists today between the scientific and religious communities, between scientists and humanists in general. The goals, methods, and problems of one group are considered irrelevant, of no interest and significance by the other. Communication between the two groups is at times almost completely lacking. One remedy, suggested by C. P. Snow, is that compulsory courses in science be a requirement at all educational levels. This can be of some help but without a strong personal motivation, the average nonscientist will easily become lost in a "maze of facts" resulting from the scientific knowledge explosion. Following Jaki, I would suggest that both motivation and true comprehension would be greatly enhanced if one looked in detail at the foundations of both the scientific and humanist quests. The history of science, past and present, shows that both the sciences and the humanities have at their center some common mental attitudes. One of them, perhaps the most significant, is man's dependence, as he creatively seeks to understand all of reality, on his "firm and solid feelings," on his faith.19 Faith is a valid component of all human knowledge, scientific as well as religious.
Biblically man plays a unique role in creation for he reflects God's nature, being made in His image. The Bible portrays God not as an abstract idea or a force, but as both infinite and personal: Jesus Christ, the God-Man, stressed the ultimate uniqueness and significance of personality, of personal relationships based on absolute and unconditional trust and commitment, on faith of men toward God and themselves. Jesus stressed that a personal faith is essential to a true relationship to God and He praised those who responded in faith without complete factual details.20 St. Paul continued Christ's message, pointing to Him as the personal creator and sustainer of all reality, who calls us to commitment to Him as our Savior and Lord. Personal response by faith in God is central to Christian teaching and part of that teaching is St. Paul's observation that God's presence can be seen in all He has created, both in the inner nature of man and in external reality.21 Is not the meaning of St. Paul's insight that God, the author of all order, who calls us to a full and complete knowledge of Him by personal commitment, has structured reality in such a way that personal response and commitment, or more simply put, faith, is required by man to gain an understanding of all existence, temporal and transcendent? Indeed, is not man's capacity to have faith a part of his uniqueness that comes from man reflecting the nature of the triune God?
A Biblical aspect of man's nature, necessary for gaining knowledge of God and other people, is also required to gain knowledge of a purely scientific nature as well.
The intellectual mood of our age has presented to us the distortion that faith
is the height of irrationality. Science has been portrayed as a cold,
discipline devoid of faith or metaphysical content; human and spiritual values
cherished as unique are now claimed to be reducible to
It is my belief that the dissatisfaction of many of our young for the
professions (as indicated by dropping enrollments in these fields),
from a rejection of an image of science that is deterministic and impersonal.
These young people ask: How can the same man say that order as expressed in the
countless mathematical invariances of the physicist exists, and yet all we can
know in the moral realm is disorder? Unsatisfied by a caricature of
is devoid of all personal passion, some of our brightest youth have adopted an
extreme form of existentialism in which feeling alone is meaningful
analysis of no significance.
Christians have also reacted to this downgrading of the validity of faith in human experience. Some have reacted by completely compartmentalizing their perspectives of the spiritual and natural orders. Others, perhaps repelled by the very radical nature of the Christian solution to life's dilemma have tried to build a 'Christianity' without the necessity of faith. Such attempts, to my mind, are reactions to a very faulty picture of faith. Faith correctly viewed is that illumination by which true rationality begins, as has been seen through history by men the caliber of St. Augustine, Pascal, Kuyper, Polanyi, and Jaki.
To express trust and to act on that trust, to act by faith is not contrary to true rationality. Remember that faith consists not in what can be proved by results. Rather faith precedes results, faith motivates us toward results. We trust our husband or wife always to have our best interests at heart. We trust that the many long and difficult hours spent attempting to get a finicky piece of scientific apparatus to yield complex and often puzzling data will eventually lead to the universal in scope. We trust that the language and concepts of mathematics created originally for sheer intellectual pleasure will be applicable to the description of specific physical phenomena. Can we also not learn to trust the One who made us in His image, the God whose very trustworthiness guarantees the existence of laws in all of His creation which are both dependable and discoverable human effort? True rationality is to consider all the evidence. Can we not learn to truly trust the Jesus Christ revealed in all the Scriptures, the author of all rationality, the God-Man who seeks us out for fellowship with Him, a fellowship of service and freedom, not a life of bondage to self? As servants of Christ, we have a clear responsibility for developing a world view in which faith plays an integral role. Only such a world-view can do full justice to the great richness, complexity, and order present in all reality which is far wider and comprehensive than we can imagine. Contrary to the critical attitude of some, faith is an inherent part of all human endeavor and as such is not destructive to sense experiences and rational thought but a helpmate to both as seen so well by the pioneering Christian and scientist Blaise Pascal;
Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.23
1The author is greatly indebted to the pioneering work on the validity of faith-experience of Abraham Kuyper, Michael Polanyi, and Stanley L. Jaki. The insights into the nature of human experience of Blaise Pascal and St. Augustine have been of great help and a strong motivation to me in developing the perspective presented in this paper. Key references are:
Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, 1968.
Michael Polanyi a. Science, Faith and Society, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966; b. Personal Knowledge, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1964; and c. Knowing and Being (Marjorie Green-editor), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1969.
Stanley L. Jaki a. The Relevance of Physics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966; b. "The Role of Faith
in Physics," Zygon. vol. 2 No, 2, June 1967. pp. 187-202.
2Jaki, ibid. (b), p. 188.
3jaki, ibid. (b), p. 188.
4Jaki, ibid. (b), p. 188.
5Kuyper, op. cit., pp. 125-146.
6Polanyi, op. cit. (a), pp. 15, 45.
7Alan Richardson, Christian Apologetics, Harber Brothers, New York, 1947. A central theme of the book is St. Augustine's approach to epistomology.
8Jaki, op. cit. (b), p. 199.
9Polanyi, op. cit. (c), pp. 119-120.
10Jaki, op. cit. (a), p. 353.
11Jaki, op. cit. (b), p. 189.
The net result of "warping" of the faith-matrix is that communication on all levels of human experience is transformed into some form of manipulation.
12Henry Margenau, Open Vistas, Yale University Press, New Haven,
1961, pp. 181-182.
131. Bernard Cohen, The Birth of a New Physics, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1960.
l4Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin, D.K.B. MacDonald, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1974.
17P.A.M, Dirac, "Can Equations of Motion be used in High Energy Physics," Physics Today, April 1970, p. 29.
18Eugene P. Wigner, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," Communications in Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. 1, 1960. William G. Pollard, Man an a Spaceship, The Claremont College Press, California, 1967, pp. 44-51; Science and Faith-Twin Mysteries, Thomas Nelson Inc., New York, 1970, pp. 8286.
19Jaki, op. cit. (b), pp. 199-200.
20The risen Christ's dialogue with Thomas in John 21:24-29; Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
21Romans 1:19-20. The King James's Translation of the Holy Bible brings out clearly that God has revealed Himself to men both in the structure of their inner nature (their consciousness) and the structure of all created physical reality.
221 Corinthians 1:17-18. Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
23Blaise Pascal, Pensees and the Provincial Letters, The Modern Library, New York (1941), p. 93.
APPENDIX: A COMMUNICATION MODEL OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING
It is mainly due to M. Polanyi that we owe the rediscovery in modern times of the role of faith as a component of all human experience. In his significant book, Personal Knowledge, he clearly established that science as well as other forms of knowledge comes about through a matrix of personal trust and commitment, i.e., a faith structure. Polanyi came to this conclusion by good scientific methodology if science is thought of in its broadest context. What he did was to examine carefully and comprehensively by means of the available historical record, both the individual and collective aspects of scientific activity leading to the formulation of new scientific theories and discoveries. He was careful not to neglect evidence of the many personal facets of the scientists involved that
had a role to play in the creative discovery process. He evaluated
all this evidence
retroductively seeking a pattern that would successfully explain how
are really made, not merely how they are reported in the impersonal form of a
completed scientific manuscript. Recognition by Polanyi that
scientists work "through"
a faith or commitment framework provided the clue to the pattern that explains
how scientific discoveries actually came about. Polanyi did not acknowledge the
wider context of his work with respect to JudeoChristian understanding; what he
has actually shown by applying sound scientific methodology to the
whole of scientific
experience is that a Biblical aspect of man's nature, necessary for
of God and other people, is also required in order to gain knowledge
of a purely
scientific nature as well. This aspect, which is man's reliance on faith in all
human activity, is part of the image of God reflected in man. Polanyi
scholarly evidence for the Biblical perspective that man bears the
image of God.
Indeed, as F. Schaeffer has argued, the Biblical
portrayal of the nature of the triune God is one in which there are and always
were love and communication. As Figure 1 illustrates, there are three persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the nature of the one God. Between each of
the three persons of the one God there is and always has been a
of love which is expressed in and through communication. Even before
Order had a beginning, love and communication always were. It is
that express themselves in the nature of man as bearing the image of God; and
these attributes consititute man's uniqueness with respect to the rest of the
created Order. Any such act of communication, whether it be on the
level of personal
encounter or on the level of a person seeking to understand physical
act may be looked upon as a form of communication), as Polanyi among others has
shown, is embedded in a matrix of personal trust and commitment,
i.e., a faith-structure.
A communication model of human understanding on all reality-levels in which faith plays a vital role should therefore serve as a useful guide in understanding how the whole person seeks knowledge. It is a model which is fully compatible with both the Biblical perspective and an open-minded scientific perspective. It is, as an example, fully compatible with a behaviorist model of human personality taken as one aspect of the whole person. Its specific insight is that it stresses all communication as taking place through a channel or matrix of faith. This faith-matrix serves as a grid, a filter, and a telescope in:
a. motivating the search,
b. focusing on areas of significance,
c. reducing the noise-to-information ratio by selecting out unrelated areas,
d. seeking relations between different personal traits, conceptual constructs, etc.
In order more fully to understand any act of human communication (whether on the level of person to person or the level of a person seeking understanding of physical reality), one should first examine the actual content of the faith-matrix in which the particular act of communication is embedded. One should clearly ascertain what a person (or group of persons) actually believes to be true and holds as presuppositions (perhaps deeply buried in his or her thinking so that he or she would no longer recognize them) during the communicative act. These basic presuppositions inherent to any human communication come to be believed as the whole person encounters experience in its totality. As such, they cannot be "proved," but are yet truly rational for they are genuine personal responses to the totality and richness of the flow of human experience. Such personal responses are neither subjective or objective. "In so far as the personal submits to requirements acknowledged by itself as independent of itself, it is not subjective; but in so far as it is an action guided by individual passions, it is not objective either. It transcends the disjunction between subjective and objective (M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Harper Torchbook, 1964, p. 300)."
If this model of communication is correct it provides a fundamental insight into the ills of modem society. The channel for acts of communication, the faith-matrix, has become "warped". This "warping" occurs because of modem man's passion to take as a basic presupposition that only one level of reality is truly significant and must therefore provide the ultimate explanation of all human experience. Those committed to scientism brand man as only a complex machine; truly self-giving love in personal encounter is therefore only an accumulation of stimuli-response mechanisms. In a similar manner truly moral acts of men are explained away. The historical evidence that many and varied human societies have expressed conern
for justice and freedom is brushed aside. The modern mystic, on the other
hand, overreacts to such claims of scientism by seeing only deeply subjective
experiences as meaningful; from these all other experiences must be explained.
To the mystic, rational analysis that can be duplicated by others is
of no significance.
In these cases and others, the net result of such "warping"
of the faith-matrix
is that communication on all levels of human experience is
transformed into some
form of manipulation. Basic presuppositions must stem from man's encounter with
the totality of his experience; denial of certain aspects of many dimensioned
reality results in badly distorted vision.
Lastly, the changing perspective of anthropological theory concerning the nature of valid criteria for distinguishing manlike from animal behavior lends further credence to this model of truly human understanding being based in communication.
The older criteria for human behavior were rooted in the capability of a creature to use natural objects as tools and to remake natural objects so that they were transformed into more sophisticated tools. Newer anthropological theories formulate criteria for human behavior in terms of the ability to communicate concepts requiring symbolic representation from one creature to another. Man's uniqueness has shifted from his tool-making ability to his symbol-making and symbol communicating ability.
The model is shown in diagram form. Figure 2 illustrates a model of communication on the personal level as embedded in the matrix of faith. Figure 3 illustrates a model of communication in the sense of a person seeking understanding of physical reality as embedded in the matrix of faith. Figure 4 is an attempt to convey some idea of the complex manner in which communication is channeled through the presuppositions to which a knower is tacitly committed.