Science in Christian Perspective



Notes on "Science and the Whole Person"
A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives
Part I
Science Isn't Everything
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 28 (March 1976): 33-37

In view of all the changes in thinking that have occurred since the first hippie picked his first flower and
urged others to "make love, not war," in the early '60's, it is somewhat surprising to find that so many young
people who have grown up in that period still have a definite mindset toward scientism. This is, not surprisingly, particularly true of those with scientific ability who are looking forward to a career in science. By "scientism" I mean that view of life which starts from the assumption that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to knowledge, that scientific truth is the
only truth available. The education of these young people is also frequently characterized by two other presuppositions: that religion is at best a matter of personal choice like aesthetics, and that the only source for moral judgments is the consensus of the local society. We consider these latter positions more fully in subsequent installments. Here we consider the position of "scientism" and the weaknesses of this position that have become increasingly obvious to many people in recent years.

Not Internally Consistent

One day a bright student in my seminar remarked, "I don't see bow it's possible to say that you can know something if you can't establish it scientifically." Several others nodded in approval. The response needed is simple but devastating.

"Tell me, then, bow you know that it's not possible to know something that you can't establish scientifically?"

Can that basic presupposition of scientism be established scientifically? The student was taken by surprise. He was caught on the horns of a dilemma, with some similarities to the kind of dilemma Charles Darwin commented on when be wrote,

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether Attempts to argue that some approaches the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? 1

Or to the kind of dilemma faced by those who believe that everything about man is completely determined
with no room f or exercise of his free choice or will, of whom C. S. Lewis has written,

But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of the endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational-if what seem my clearest
reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel-how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution?2

Having arrived at the intellectual conclusion that the human mind is only a highly developed monkey's mind,
Darwin was forced by his conclusion to question it! The thorough-going determinist cannot escape the judgment that he is determined to be a determinist, and that therefore his arguments to support his convictions are irrelevant. So my student, and the many others like him, seek to develop an approach to life which is wholly scientific-but at the first step they find them selves cut off. They canot scientifically choose an approach to life. Seeking to live a life based on reason and not on faith, they must make a faith commitment as the very first step.

Any choice of an approach to life, a worldview, an ultimate perspective-a Weltanschauung, must be an act of faith. Nothing can be done until the faith commitment is made. Attempts to argue that some approaches to life are objective and scientific whereas others are subjective and unscientific must all fail.

The claim that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to knowledge is therefore not something that our modern scientific understanding demands. Indeed, if one accepts the presupposition that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to knowledge, he is involved in an inconsistent activity. By his own standard, the acceptance of this presupposition must be a subjective commitment with no more objective claim to truth than one's commitment to standards of artistic beauty or taste in foods.

Impersonal vs. Personal

Rocks and trees do not have personality, but human beings do. Among animals there is a gradation of personality, those with the most personality being most suited as companions for human beings, but no animal except the human being has what we recognize as a human personality. By the human personality we mean such characteristics as rational thought, God-consciousness, appreciation of beauty, self-consciousness, the desire for understanding, insight, duty, faith, love, conscience-and most of all the ability to relate to other persons, including the most profound personal relationship to God.

This crucial distinction between the interaction of a human being with a thing and with another human being is developed at some length in Martin Bober's I and Thou. There he distinguishes between what he calls an I-It relationship, a relationship between a person and a thing, and an I-Thou relationship, a relationship between two persons. Buber writes,

Hence the I of man is also twofold. For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It. . . . The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. . . . As experience, the world belongs to the primary world I-It. The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.3

An I-It relationship has only one subject, the I; an I-Thou relationship has two subjects, both I and Thou. Although many of the activities of a human being involve I-It relationships, those which characterize the human state most often involve I-Thou relationships. It is science's necessary limitation to the realm of I-It that makes it unsuitable for an exclusive description of the life of the whole man.

In a scientific investigation there is only one subject: the I of the investigator. All else is object: the It of the investigated. This is obviously true when the physicist deals with the electron, but it is no less true when the sociologist deals with society. The It is to be observed, measured, manipulated, tested, described and controlled. The scientist succeeds as scientist to the degree that he maintains the I-It relationship, to the degree that he abstracts himself from the matter under investigation. It is of course impossible for the scientist to prevent all interaction between himself and his problem, and this necessary interaction forms one of the limitations of science, but it is the constant goal of science to minimize this interaction. Science is not faulty or "bad" because it is limited to the I-It relationship. The difficulty arises only when it is assumed that the scientific perspective is the only perspective, implying that I-It relationships are the only kind that are possible or meaningful.

One of the distinct capabilities of the human being is the ability to enter into I-Thou relationships. This is a relationship in which two subjects meet, each giving and receiving through mutual sharing and involvement. It is a relationship based upon faith, for rejection and betrayal are pitfalls of I-Thou relationships, and to commit oneself to an I-Thou relationship is to reach out in trust. It is only within the context of I-Thou relationships that the truly human aspects of life can be experienced. I cannot love an It; I can love only a Thou.

The necessary and desirable restriction of science to the impersonal, to the realm of I-It relationships, makes it intrinsically unable to deal fully with the personal, with the realm of I-Thou relationships. One of the saddest and most disastrous consequences of scientism is the attempt to reduce the richness of the I-Thou to the limited scope of the I-It. In this process, usually known as reductionism, the reality of the whole being is stripped down to the reality of the things that make up a whole being. The fatal error is made of equating events in the It-realm with events in the Thou-realm, concluding that Thou-statements are only coverups for ignorance about the real It-statements. Because a particular pattern of biochemical reactions and brain potentials may be measured when a person is experiencing love, it is concluded that "love" is only a coverup word for what is really only biochemical reactions and brain potentials.

It has become increasingly realized that scientific reductionism does not produce the real person or the truth about a human being exclusively. Rather reductionism strips one of his personhood and leaves him only an animal or only a complex organic machine, depending on how far this reductionism is carried. Given the opportunity, the scientific reductionist will "solve" human problems by making the human into the nonhuman. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the belief of scientific reductionism that the whole person is no more than physical, chemical, biological, psychological or sociological causes the treatment of the whole person in such a way that he becomes no more than these that he becomes an It. Reaction against this trend by those who have recognized the importance and validity of the whole person as more than the sum of his mechanistic parts has formed a valuable modern critique of scientific reductionism.

Given the opportunity, the scientific reductionist will 'solve' human problems by making the human into the non-human.

Scientific Ambivalence

Advocates of scientism almost always take for granted that the acquisition of knowledge must produce good results. Ignorance and lack of knowledge are assumed to be the causes of all problems and troubles. Since science provides a reliable basis for increasing knowledge, it is assumed that science must therefore be capable of ultimately solving all human problems. There are several reasons why this line of reasoning is not correct.

Knowledge is not self-motivating for good. To know the good is not to do the good. It is not enough to know what is right to do; it is necessary also to will to do it. Ignorance compounds the human dilemma, but does not cause it. In a world freed from ignorance, freed from limitations of energy, would people be more or less free to live humanly? Although we might be quick to answer, "More free," we would be speaking about only external limitations and would still be neglecting the internal limitations of human nature. If we ask ii~- stead, "Would people live more humanly?" we have no way to answer except on the basis of our presuppositions about human nature, none of which can be provided to us by science alone.

In fact all knowledge is dangerous. Every time that we increase our capability for good by increasing our knowledge, we simultaneously increase our capability for evil. Do we now have the promise of unlimited supplies of energy through our ability to tap the power of the atom? So we also have the threat of civilization's destruction through the use of this same power. Can we now see in the invisible infrared portion of the spectrum so that we can aid medical diagnosis and analysis? So we also have the ability to see in the dark in order to kill more effectively. Do we have now vastly expanded abilities for mass communication through television and the media? So we also have the ability for controlling public thought and action in ways never before possible.

But even further-as a human endeavor, scientific developments produce problems even with their successes, even when the motivation for the research and the motivation for the utilization are good. How well we know that we produce pollution along with enhanced travel and communication possibilities. We accentuate the population explosion by our successes in medicine. It is not only when scientists fail to act out of good motives that undesirable consequences result. Even when scientists act from the best of motives and are successful in achieving their goals-even then the ambivalence of all human activity asserts itself. These failures result because of the complexity of the universe in which we live; they are aggravated when we claim that the universe imposes no constraints upon our unlimited progress.

Many of these questions have been considered by C. F. von Weizsdcker in his book, The Relevance of Science. He questions whether the attempt to govern the world scientifically is at all compatible with human freedom. "Planning is inevitable in a scientific world like ours. . . . Servitude is more easily planned than freedom."4 He asks, "What does science know about man?" and then goes on to point out that "Science cannot select the order in which it wants to treat its subjects according to their importance for human life." I Science is guided by its abilities. A great deal of scientific time has been spent on astronomy, not because such knowledge plays a large role in bettering human life on earth, but because such knowledge is scientifically obtainable.

A man is found at night searching every inch of the street in the light-cone of a street lamp. He explains, "I
have lost my doorkey." "Are you sure you have lost it under the lamp?" "No." "Why, then, do you look for it
thereF "Because here at least I can see." . . . But the key we seem to have lost is just the key to human
nature. Religion has at all times claimed to possess this key.6

The ideal of perpetual progress has been at least temporarily brought to an abrupt halt by the impact of the energy crisis. For the first time we- are forced to realize that there are many things we might do that we cannot afford to do, We cannot build larger and larger nuclear research installations. If, in spite of the evidence that the secret of the universe is not going to be found in terms of some ultimate "particle," we should desire to continue the quest, we are forced to come to a halt because of the finite resources at our earthly disposal. We cannot invest larger and larger sums in the exploration of outer space. There is so much that we would like to know, but we cannot afford to find out. This kind of realization has had a shattering effect on a civilization that has never before thought it.

The growing realization of the ambivalence or ambiguity of scientific power has also contributed considerably, therefore, to a decrease in faith in scientism. Even science's attempts to understand the human being are fraught with the same pattern of difficulties. Freud's psychological insights become the masterplan for evil when put into practice by a Goebbels. Pavlov's study of conditioned reflexes seems to have become the basis for the practice of ideological brainwashing. Science has power, but human beings acting with this power are not purified by their possession of it.

No Scientific Basis for Ethics

Not only, however, does science not provide the motivation and the ability for doing good, but also science has no way of defining what is good. A large part of a person I s concerns are with what ought to ~e done, especially by others as far as he is concerned. It sometimes comes as a shock to realize that this "ought" cannot be scientifically derived.

Here again von Weizsdcker speaks meaningfully.

That scientific knowledge would supply us with the ethical greatness needed to bear this responsibility is a hope not warranted by the facts. I think it can be stated bluntly that scientism, if it rests its trust on the expectation that science by its own nature is enabled to give us sufficient guidance in human affairs, is a false religion. Its faith if going so far, is superstition; the role of the priest does not become the scientist, and good scientists know that; the scientific code of behavior needs a background of an ethics which science has not been able to provide.7

Science has not been able to provide this basis for ethics for the simple reason that at its best science is capable of providing us with a description of the way things are. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. There is absolutely no way to go from a description of what is to a formulation of what ought to be except by the non-scientific route of declaring what is to be identical with what ought to be. This, in fact, is what every attempt at establishing a scientific basis for ethics amounts to. A scientific description can inform and guide intelligent exercise of the "oughts" of life, but can never form the basis for their initial formulation by any legitimate means.

The acceptance of what is as the guide to what ought to be is a faith commitment of the same type as the acceptance of scientism itself. It is no more objective than any other presupposition chosen as the guide to what  law of God. It is an attempt to form ethics by a kind of popular vote, a kind of importation of democracy into ethics, a result of the conviction that all moral judgments are settled by local consensus. Science can tell us that a certain fraction of college students smoke pot or have premarital intercourse; it can tell us very little indeed that will bear in any way at all on the question of whether college students ought to smoke pot or have premarital intercourse, One way in which a link is attempted between the scientific understanding and the formulation of ethics is to apply the criterion, "If it doesn't hurt someone else, it's acceptable." But even this limited criterion, with all its obvious shortcomings (how about hurt to oneself or to God?), is not a scientifically derived criterion.

Science has power, but human beings acting with this power are not purified by their possession of it.

One of the most popular ways to attempt to import ethics from a scientific description is to interpret the evolutionary process as a guide to ethics. If an action advances evolution, it's good. In view of our comments above, it should be clear that this is really another case of identifying what is with what ought to be, without a scientific basis. It is assumed that human survival is the goal and theme of the evolutionary process, and that therefore human survival is the highest "good." But what really fosters human survival? Is it the elimination of the weak and sickly so that the human gene pool is fortified? Or is it the careful care of the weak and sickly because they also are human and deserve to survive? Is it any more scientific to assume that "human survival" is the basis for ethics than to choose some alternate basis?

Perhaps the ethical impotence of science is most critical for the dedicated Humanist. He claims an approach to life with scientific justification, but in which the human being transcends the reductionistic view of scientism. Unable to derive the kind of ethics he desires from a purely scientific basis, he feels the need for a religious context that he has in principle already strongly rejected. The result is often a mode of speech which assumes scientific form but not scientific content, a form of speech which in subtle ways becomes divinized without recognizing God. Particularly in dealing with evolution, the evolutionary process tends to become capitalized into Evolution with a mind and will of its own. Purposes and goals are attributed to nature, which likewise often takes on a capitalized N to become Nature. A typical example might be cited.

The human family dare not defy the dictates of the evolutionary process-that increasing differentiation (specialization) be accompanied by corresponding integration (cooperation) for the good of the whole human family.

The goal of the evolutionary process is the total cooperation of the whole human family, in all areas of concern and enterprise.8

Here we see the evolutionary process dictating what is to happen, and having rather specific ethical goals. But such teleological expressions are alien to science and typical of religion. In many such ways attempts are made to compensate for the ethical impotence of science.


Scientism is the worldview that is based on the assumption that the scientific method is the only way to obtain knowledge or truth. The scientific method is a way of describing the natural world through the interpretation of publically available sense data acquired through contact with the world. There are at least four basic reasons why scientism has come increasingly under attack as an exclusive worldview,

1. It is based on the assumption that the scientific method is the only way to obtain knowledge or truth. But since this assumption cannot be derived scientifically, it cannot be considered to be universally true. Philosophically the view cannot be internally consistent, but must start with an act of faith.

2. Having an essentially impersonal orientation, scientism is unable to deal with the intrinsically personal aspects of human life. If it attempts to deal with them in its own terms, it reduces them to impersonal mechanisms and thus deprives the human being of his personhood.

3. Scientism does not carry within itself the power to deliver human beings from their problems, but is at the mercy of the human choices of those scientists and non-scientists alike who must decide bow to apply the findings of science. Even when the motives of scientists and appliers of science are pure, the application of technology in an imperfect and complex world generates imperfections while solving others.

4. Human choices are driven by a decision as to what ought to be done. Science is incapable of providing the basis for this ought, but can only describe what is. Once again the driving power for human living must be provided from a, source outside science itself. Attempts to provide a scientific basis for ethics, as for example considering evolution as the source of such ethics, are always a case of unscientifically declaring what is to be the measure of what ought to be.

lCharles Darwin, Letter to William Graham, July 2, 181, Down in Life and Letters 1, 285.
2C, S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, Bles 1967, p. 82.
Martin Buber, I and Thou, Scribner's 1958, 2nd Edition, pp.
3 and 6.
4C. F. von Weizsdcker, The Relevance at Science, Collins (London) 1964, p. 20
5Ibid. p. 22
6Ibid. p. 22
71bid, p, 23
8Pearle F, Stone Wood, Evolution, Psychology and the Biblical
Ideal of Love, Exposition Press, N.Y., 1073, p. 27.

Perhaps the ethical impotence of science is most critical for the dedicated Humanist.

Topics for Discussion

1. Consider a question like the propriety of abortion. Without entering into a debate on whether or not abortion should be permitted under any or all circumstances, decide what the basis each person has for making his decision. How does scientific understanding enter these bases? Can a basis be derived from scientific descriptions only?

2. Do you believe that people who wilfully commit crimes to harm others should be punished in any way? Why or why not? If you held a strictly deterministic view of man, what kind of view would you be determined to have?

3. If one of the troubles with our impersonalized modern world is that we have become too oriented toward I-It relationships and not enough toward I-Thou relationships, would a helpful solution be to seek the same kind of relationship with a tree as with another human being? How then do you react to the bumper sticker, "Have you thanked a green plant lately?" Is thanking plants a meaningful activity?

4. Why do the children of child psychologists so often seem to have difficulty? Is it advisable for a psychologist to practice with members of his own family? Why or why not?

5. Scientists have shown that the phenomenon of "anticipation" can be described in terms of a characteristic and reproducible variation of brain potential with time. Does this mean that anticipation is only a particular time dependence of brain potential? Are "anticipation" and "brain potential" the same kinds of language?

6, Which should we strive to maintain; a person with the freedom to choose responsibility even though he may often choose to do evil, or a person chemically and enviropmentally conditioned not to do evil without the freedom to choose?

7. What is the basic assumption about human nature underlying the belief that all human evil is the result of ignorance? Is there any real evidence that increasing knowledge produces decreasing evil? Are our universities the center of moral leadership for the nation?

8. In view of the potentialities for evil associated with scientific technology developed in the last 30 years, would you advocate the obliteration of all results of science during that period? Can you think of possible consequerces (e.g., in medicine, pesticides) of such an action?

9. Every year until recently power companies have called for the annual expansion of power production and consumption by residents of the USA. Can this continue forever? Why didn't we ever realize this earlier? What kind of steps are called for to meet the changing conditions?

10. Attempts to produce an ethic from evolution start with the assumption that evolution is good, that therefore it must be allowed to proceed, and that human beings must take the process of evolution forward. Is this a scientific procedure? Are the second and third parts of the above statement consistent? What are the consequences of accepting these assumptions as far as one's attitude toward change vs. stability, progress vs. steady state, and constant:y altering belief systems vs. a pattern of accepted truth are concerned? Can the assumption bear the weight of these consequences?

11. In Mechanical Man, Dean Wooldridge says, "There is obviously no room for a personal God in a world that is rigidly obedient to inexorable physical laws." McGraw-Hill, N.Y. ( 1968), p. 190. Is this a scientific statement? Dean Wooldridge also believes that "every detail of the behavior of each individual is determined by the physical facts of his heredity and environment." Does this second statement affect your response to the first? On Wooldridge's terms can one know whether there is a personal God or not? What is the function of the words "rigidly" and "inexorable"?

D. Alexander, Beyond Science, A. J. Holman, N.Y. (1972)
I. Barbour, Issues
in Science and Religion, Prentice-Hall, N.J. (1966)
R. H. Bube, The Hurnan Quest: A New Look at Science and Christian Faith, Word, Texas ( 1971)
   "Whatever Happened to Scientific Prestige?" journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 23, 7 (1971)
    "A Proper View of Science Corrects Extremist Attitudes," Universitas 1, No. 6, 3 (1973)
D. L. Dye, Faith and the Physical World, Eerdmans, Michigan (1966)
M. A. Jeeves, The Scientific Enterprise and Christ:an Faith, Tyndale (London) (1969)
J. R. Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, Oxford Univ. Press, N.Y. (1971)
H. K. Schilling, Science and Religion, Scribners, N.Y. (1962)
R. Schlegel, Inquiry into Science, Doubleday, N.Y. (1972)
C. F. von Weizsdcker, The Relevance of Science, Collins (London) ( 1964)