Science in Christian Perspective



A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives
Part 2
Science Isn't Nothing
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 28 (June 1976): 82-87.

If the contention that science is everything is one extreme, the other extreme is that science is nothing. The reaction to the exclusive claims of science has been dramatic. If the rational, materialistic, objective, reductionistic view characteristic of science makes it impossible for man to be truly-human, then the whole package must be rejected so that man can be honest to the experiences and knowledge that he has of himself as a living and experiencing human being. Repelled by the emphasis on the impersonal, the mechanistic and the intellectual, the pendulum swings without stopping to embrace the subjective, relativistic, and anti-intellectual. All objective reality is lost. All absolutes cease to exist. Man may not be reduced to a machine, but be ends up being little more than an animal, reacting to the claims of his viscera.

 Similar reactions are common to both science and religion. Reaction against rationalism quickly becomes reaction against the traditional Judaeo-Christian position with its deep roots in rational and historically based faith. Instead there is an explosion of infatuation with nonrational and non-historical expressions of pseudo~religious variety.

Irrationalism as a World View

The flight from scientism has many able and widely read advocates outside of any historical religious context. In The Greening of America, Charles Reich says

At any rate, Consciousness III believes it essential to get free of what is now accepted as rational thought. It believes that reason tends to leave out too many factors and values-especially those which cannot be put into words and categories. . . . It believes that thought can be 'non-linear,' spontaneous, disconnected. It thinks rational conversation has been overdone as a means of communication between peopIe.1

In view of the excesses to which rationalism (reason raised to the pinnacle of existence through scientism) has gone, the motive behind such words as these is clear. If rationalism symbolizes the impersonal society, the profit landlord, the self-seeking politician, the nation at war to protect its own materialistic interests at the expense of its neighbors, the reduction of the human being to a number-then, of course, there is a need to speak out against such excesses. But to be rational is not identical to being committed to rationalism. To be verbal is not identical to being indifferent to emotional response. Instead to be rational and to be verbal are unique distinctives of the human being, not shared with any other member of the animal kingdom. To denounce the disciplined use of one's mind and the careful choice of words for communication as principle, is to reject some of the essential qualities that define humanity.

Another exponent for irrationality is the historian Theodore Roszak. In reviewing his book, Where the Wasteland Ends,2 psychologist-theologian Vernon C. Grounds says

Yet in that book he calls for a fierce repudiation of scientific reason and depersonalizing logic; he calls likewise for an uncritical liberation of feeling, alleging that only thus can we hope for the renewal of our sick society. In that book he indiscriminantly applauds a wide range of mind-blowing techniques-psychedelic experimentation, sensory awareness, Gestalt therapy, contemplative disciplines, willful zaniness, primitive lore, ritual, occultism, passion, the heart, poetic genius, inspiration, intuition, sensation, sympathy, and imagination.3

Grounds feels that Roszak is calling for us "to go back to an irrational mysticism which is really paganism resurrected."4

In a later installment we consider in more detail the issue of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion, of a kind of mysticism that goes as far in its own way of depersonalizing man as scientism does in its way. Having called attention to the kind of defense of irrationalism of concern to us here, however, we limit our-

A serial presentation of notes based on Freshman Seminars at Stantord University in 1974 and 1975, and a course given at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1974. Part 1, "Science Isn't Everything" appeared in March (1976), p. 33-37.

In neither the Old nor New Testament revelations is God seen as a uniquely 1~c religious" figure; the understanding of Creation and Cosmos does not come from a completely relativistic and subjective worldview.

selves to setting forth the positive contributions that science can make to a worldview. These positive contributions are of significance not only for science itself, but also for the context in which the Judaeo-Christian tradition is seen. Jehovah is Lord of Creation and of Redemption; Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of the Cosmos. In neither the Old nor New Testament revelations is God seen as a uniquely "religious" figure; the understanding of Creation and Cosmos does not come from a completely relativistic and subjective worldview. If science is consistently seen to be nothing, then many of the deepest values of human thought have been lost.

Science and Reality

Two words that need to be defined carefully, and that are intimately related, are the words "reality" and "truth." When these words are used, the speaker may be thinking about only relative realities and relative truths, i.e., realities and truths defined by the one who experiences them, or he may be thinking about the reality and the truth that exist and may be sought but cannot be independently defined by different people. The difference between these two possibilities is enormous.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the basis for the existence of an objective reality is found in the Biblical doctrine of Creation. Creation means that there is a structure to the world (certainly not a static structure, but a dynamic pattern of interactions) which is given to us. This is a created structure, a structure that is independent of us, a structure which is whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not. It is this created structure that gives content to what we mean when we speak of "reality" and even of "truth." It is this created structure of the universe that we mean when we speak of an objective reality not at the disposal of our subjective intentions.

To say that there is an objective reality is not to claim that this reality can be completely known by us at any specific time. It is however to claim that we should not confuse our perceptions of reality (sometimes highly subjective and always constantly changing) with the existence of reality itself. If the only reality there is consists of our perceptions of reality, then it makes sense to speak of "my reality" and "your reality" even if these are mutually contradictory. If, however, there is an objective reality that does not depend upon your or my perceptions of it, then this objective reality exists and persists quite independently of us. It is a goal toward which we can strive, even though we cannot apprehend it fully. It constrains us, rather than we constraining it. The doing of science depends upon the assumption of the existence of such an objective reality. Thus, not surprisingly, the successful doing of science depends implicitly on the existence of a structure as defined by the Biblical doctrine of Creation.

"Truth" is again a very significant word. It is often bandied about rather like "reality," with claims made for the significance of "what is true for me," and "what is true for you," even if the two "truths" are logically incompatible. The link between "truth" and "reality, may be directly made; the true is that which conforms to reality. To the extent that a concept or a statement reflects the real situation, it is true, If our understanding of an event conforms to reality totally, then we have an understanding of complete truth-a situation rarely, if ever, encountered. Even if our understanding of an event conforms only partially to reality, however, we still have an understanding of partial truth. It is in the realm of partial truth that we as finite human beings are primarily confined. The search for truth is the search for knowledge of reality. Knowledge that does not conform to reality reveals itself to be non-truth. The search for truth is the search for understanding of the created structure of the world; this means not only the physical and chemical structure, but the biological, psychological, sociological and theological structure of the world as well. To speak in this way of reality and truth does not mean to imply that all truth is abstract. The Judaeo-Christian tradition sees truth also as profoundly personal; Jesus says, "I am the truth."

Science is one attempt to understand and describe the structure of the world. It is an attempt based upon a specific methodology, which limits both the questions that are asked and the answers that are received. Scientific truth is a partial kind of partial truth. It is a partial kind of truth since our scientific understanding is always incomplete and changing to conform closer and closer to the objective reality given to us. It is a kind of partial truth since it probes only certain aspects of reality and neglects whole realms of other aspects.

Although historical instances of scientists who did not consider acceptance of an objective reality to be essential (who, for example, regarded the practice of science simply as the manipulation of recipes) can be cited, the scientific enterprise as a whole has always assumed a belief in the existence of objective reality as a condition for its existence and progress. The formulation of scientific laws is an attempt to describe relationships characteristic of this objective reality, not to foist upon a shapeless realm the laws that have their origin only in the minds of their inventors. To do science means to strive as much as possible to stand open before this reality, probing and testing it for its content, without attempting to force it to adjust to presuppositions or preconclusions derived from any other philosophical or religious source.

The Christian scientist takes the created structure of the world seriously and believes that this work of God is a faithful and reliable witness. The non-Christian must no less stand open before the created structure in order to be successful in science. In a very real sense, it is only by the non-Christian's tacit assumption of the Christian position with respect to the givenness of the universe that he is able to be successful in the pursuit of science.

Science as Revealer of Reality

In many different ways the pursuit of science in its basic and especially its applied forms forces upon us the realization of the objective reality of the created structure within which we live. We are constantly reminded that the created structure encompasses and rules us, and not we the structure.

Scientific truth is a Partial kind of partial truth.

If a man mistakenly believes that a description of reality in terms of the law of gravity is something totally imposed upon the universe by human minds and hence not binding on himself, he is certain to suffer the consequences of violating the conditions of life in the context of that law. If he believes that the attraction of gravity is available for subjective interpretation and that he has the individualistic freedom to walk off the top of a tall building in defiance of any objective reality to gravitational attraction ("Your reality may include gravitational attraction, but my reality does not"), he soon learns to his hurt that violations of the structure of the world cannot be made without paying the price.

If a man mistakenly believes that the laws of biochemistry and biology are such that taking a large dose of strychnine will have no affect on him, he soon learns that the structure of the world dictates what is poison for the human system and what is not. This dictate is not suspended by his attempt to ignore reality.

Engineering, technology, applied science-even more than basic science-bring home the necessity to conform one's design to the reality of the given structure of the world. The grandest idea, the noblest conception of the drafting room, the most elegant design conceived by the human mind, all must face the ultimate and intrinsic test of conformity with the natural world, A burning desire to design an airship in the shape of a giant octagon does not result in getting the craft off the ground unless the structure of the world that dictates the requirements of acrodynamic flight is heeded. Man can imagine what he will; his thoughts are confirmed only if they are consistent with that Pattern of created structure which is given to him, which he did not form, and over which he has no ultimate control.

Is not one of the major ecological lessons man is learning today the simple fact that he is constrained by the given structure of this world? He is not free to violate this structure endlessly and without limit; his forgetfulness of this limitation leads him to upset the balance of nature that is infinitely more complex and intricately interconnected than he ever supposed before.

Interpersonal Reality

Reality is more than atoms, molecules and matter. Reality in the world in which we live involves persons and the relationships between persons. Although it is very difficult for competent science to deal as clearly with the created structure in the realm of interpersonal relationships as with the structure in the realm of physics and chemistry, still the perspective of science prepares us to be open to the possibility of created structure here as well.

The Christian believes that there is an objective reality about the world of physics and chemistry, and he believes also that there is an objective reality that governs the relationship between persons. For he sees persons as also being created and hence partaking of the created structure of the universe. There are patterns of behavior which define the appropriate structure of interpersonal relationships when persons live as fully as possible in accordance with their created attributes. These patterns of behavior are part of a complex objective reality that is ultimately just as independent of the individual as are the physical laws of nature. The Christian sees such Biblical summaries as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount as expressions of the nature of the created structure governing interpersonal relationships. They describe the structure of these relationships if man is to live fully human within the intentions of the created universe. These structures cannot be violated with impunity, any more than the structures governing the physical aspects of matter can be violated without suffering the consequences.

Consider, for example, the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." This commandment summarizes the profound truth that a society in which stealing is absent is a more human society than one in which stealing is present. We should expect that the findings; of mature and competent science will confirm such statements; by a careful combination of psychological and sociological study, scientists conclude that stealing is not a positive element in a human society. Why is this true of stealing? Because of the attributes of human nature with which the human being is endowed. How is the human being endowed with these attributes? The ultimate answer must be either by Chance or by Creation. We wish to consider the meaning of that answer in more detail further in a later installment; for the moment it is sufficient to realize that human beings are so constituted that their humanity is decreased in the presence of stealing. This constitutes a law of interpersonal relationships. The Christian finds its origin in the same creating God who created other aspects of the universe.

Man can imagine what he will; his thoughts are confirmed only if they are consistent with that pattern of created structure which is given to him, which he did not form, and over which he has no ultimate control.

It is as pointless to claim, as some do, that "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is only a subjective judgment of a past culture, as it is to claim that "Thou shalt not take poison," or "Thou shalt not jump off a tall building," are only subjective judgments of a primitive people. To suggest that "not bearing false witness is the right way to live for you, but it's not the right way for me is as irrelevant as to suggest that "not jumping off a tall building is the right way for you to live, but not for me." It is not that moral and ethical values are not formed by society; rather it is that the created attributes of human society define the moral and ethical standards that are appropriate for living in a fully human way.

If it is objected that aboriginal societies are well known to anthropologists where stealing, adultery and lying are common and accepted practices, it can be concluded only that that aboriginal society is a good deal less human than it might be if it conformed to the created structures of living for human beings. R. F. R. Gardner, gynecologist and theologian, offers the challenging observation,

There are those who point out, correctly, that other societies have different patterns of relationships between the sexes, patterns which often approve of pre-marital intercourse, and sometimes permit multiple partners. What they do not go on to point out is that the quality of family life in these societies is inferior, both so far as the status of women is concerned, and in romantic love to our ideals. I write from experience of having worked among both polygamous and polyandrous peoples. Our traditional ideal of virginity before marriage and chastity within marriage can only be replaced by practices which are not only lower on an ethical standard, but yield less satisfaction to their practitioners.5

It is not strange that these last two descriptions should go together. Because of the created structure of interpersonal relationships, practices which fall short of the ethical demands of the fully human must of necessity yield less than fully human satisfaction,

Even the most ardent advocate of ethical relativism will be found to admit to some absolutes. At least in my experience I have never found anyone who would argue that for a human being to hate another human being was ultimately beneficial either to the individual involved or the society in which he lives. It appears, therefore, that "Thou shalt not hate another person," is indeed an ethical absolute. Why should this be? Again it is the consequence of the way in which human beings are made, a consequence of the created structure of interpersonal relationships. I have also never found anyone who would argue that it was beneficial for a human being to treat another human being as a thing to be exploited rather than as a person to be related to. Another ethical absolute appears, therefore, "Thou shalt not treat a person as a thing." And is this not, after all, the message of the biblical teaching about the ways that human beings should treat one another, perhaps more recognizable in its positive form as "Thou shalt love another person as a person even as you also are a person to be loved."


The term "freedom' is part of the language that deals with persons. Atoms and molecules are not free, and attempts to construct illustrations of freedom in terms of physical indeterminacy (as we shall see further in a later installment) are largely misguided. It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to realize that this science-based appreciation for the objective structure of the world is essential for an understanding of what we mean by living in freedom.

To live without due regard for existing structure is not the exercise of freedom; it is rather an invitation to loss of freedom both temporarily and possibly permanently. The truly free person must recognize fully the constraints and limitations by which he is bounded; any attempt to act contrary to these constraints and limitations produces only loss of freedom.

Freedom can be experienced and developed only within the confines of created structure. No amount of  individual subjectivism enables one to violate the physical laws describing this created structure in order to pursue some concept of absolute freedom. And similarly no amount of individual subjectivism enables one to violate the interpersonal structures of life in order to pursue some ideal of absolute freedom. Absolute freedom does not exist in the created universe, because it fails to take into account objective reality. Absolute freedom is characteristic only of chaos and is incompatible with order.

True freedom, freedom which is faithful to reality and which can therefore be experienced, operates with in the framework of the created structure in both the physical world and in the world of interpersonal relationships. The freedoms of friendship can exist only within the constraints of love and understanding; how much more so the freedoms of marriage.


Reactions against the excesses of scientism have often led to a wholly relativistic, subjective and nonrational (or irrational) view of life. If scientism reduces man to a machine, irrationalism reduces man to an animal. To be human means to be rational and verbal, as well as to be emotional and feeling. An appreciation for scientific descriptions aids us in avoiding this extreme.

The pursuit of science is generally based on the acceptance of the existence of an objective reality that is not ultimately dependent on men. To perceive such an objective reality is to be able to speak of truth and to be delivered from a wholly relativistic view of life and values. The Judaeo-Christian worldview sees this objective reality to be the created structure of the universe, extending not only throughout the physical realm but throughout the area of interpersonal relationships as well. Although as finite human beings we have access only to partial truth, and through science only to a partial description of this partial truth, still such partial truths can be adequate for life. An individual's inability to know ultimate reality totally does not mean that there is no ultimate reality. We strive to make our perceptions of reality and truth conform ever closer to the objective reality and truth given to us by creation, and to know in a personal way the Creator.

The doing of science and the application of science is a constant reminder of our need to conform our practice to the structure of the given universe. The truly creative imagination is not one that runs amok disregarding the materials and principles of this world, but is one that brings new insight, new life and new understanding of reality through the materials and principles of this world.

 A scientific understanding also helps us to appreciate what it means to be truly free. To bbe free does not mean to disregard with impunity any restrictions, but it means to live creatively and fully with due regard for the constraints and limitations given to us in the structure of our universe. It becomes clear, therefore, why all attempts to bring absolute freedom into  practice must result in self-destruction. Since irrationalism is a movement motivated to a large extent by the desire for absolute freedom, it carries the seeds of its own failure.

Even the most ardent advocate of ethical relativism will be found to admit to some absolutes.


Consider the basic human emotion of love. When you love someone, are you engaged in a rational, a non-rational or an irrational activity? What circumstances determine your choice among these three terms? In one of the most well known definitions of love by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13:4-7, he says,

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

If you were to take Paul's concept of love, which of the three above terms would you apply to it?

2. Is religious worship a rational, non-rational or irrational activity? Can a general answer be given? What did he have in mind when the Apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 14:15,

 I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

3. What assumptions about the nature of the universe is a person making if he assumes that ultimate truth either doesn't exist or can be apprehended only through irrational mysticism?

4. Consider the close relationship between the rational and the religious indicated in Jewish thought by Exodus 20:8, 11. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. And in Christian thought by John 1:3,

5. Consider the following two statements from the Time article on "Reaching Beyond the Rational" (April 23, 1973, pp. 83-86),

Do these two statements say the same thing or two different things? Is there a difference between having room for the nonobjective and mystical in personal life and having room for the nonobjective and mystical in the discipline of science? What will happen to science if the mystical is called scientific? Is the solution for "the cold, narrow rationality so long stressed by scientists" the radical alteration of the discipline of science itself?

6. It is sometimes argued in effect that because we can never know God totally, we can never know God at all. Is this an accurate assessment? Do we ever know another person totally? Do we ever understand the physical universe totally? Show how partial knowledge can in each case give us sufficient insight into reality for us to live faithful to that reality.

7. What is involved in the claim of Jesus, "I am the Truth"?
8. Alchemists believed that they could transform lead into gold. Why couldn't they?
9. Consider the internal combustion engine and its role in the automobile. Indicate a number of ways in which the structure of reality limits its unrestricted use, e.g., availability of fuel, variety of environmental pollutants, need for highways and parking lots, etc. How much of the earth could be blacktopped for highways and parking lots before the temperature of the earth would rise sufficiently to melt the polar ice caps?

10. There is probably not a single person in the world who would not admit the constraints and limitations inherent in physical laws. Why are there so many to whom a corresponding set of relations governing interpersonal activity is completely unthinkable? What are the underlying assumptions?

11. The student of history knows that the record of human activity in the world is one of continuous inhumanity of man to man on the large scale of world events. Why are there so many who believe that a perfect world is about to appear tomorrow, or at least the day after? What are the underlying assumptions?

12, What are the minimum characteristics of an individual and of his circumstances in order for a description of his "freedom" to be meaningful? Must freedom itself actually be described on a variety of levels from the physical through the theological?

lCharles Reich, The Greening at America, Random House, N.Y. (1970), p. 257
2Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, Doubleday, N.Y. (1972)
3Vernon C. Grounds, "Neo-Mysticism versus True Supernaturalism," Christian Heritage, December 1973, p. 24
41bid., p. 24
5R. F. R. Gardner, Abortion: the Personal Dilemma, Eerdmans, Michigan (1972), p. 256


J. N. D. Anderson, Christianity: the Witness of History, Tyndale (London) (1969)

True freedom operates within the framework of the created structure.

S. D. Beek, Modern Science and Christian Life, Augsburg, Minnesota (1970)
R. H. Bube, The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and Christian Faith, Word, Texas (1971)
"A Proper View of Science Corrects Extremist Attitudes," Universitas 1, No. 6, 3 (1973)
L. Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: the Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge, Doubleday (1959)
Green, Runaway World, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1968)
V. C. Grounds, "Neo-Mysticism versus True Supernaturalism," Christian Heritage, December 1973, p. 24
C. F. H. Henry, Ed., Quest for Reality: Christianity and the Counter Culture, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1973)
0. Guinness, The Dust of Death, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1973)
K. G. Howkins, The Challenge of Religious Studies, Tyndale (London) (1972)
R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Eerdmans Michigan (1972)
G. I. Mavrodes, Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion, Random House, N.Y. (1970)
A. Plantinga, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational justification of Belief in God, Cornell Univ. Press (1967)
H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1970)
F. A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, InterVarsity Press, Illinois (1968)
God Who is There, Inter-Varsity Press, Illinois (1968) Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, Tyndale, Illinois (1970)
J. W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1976)

Time, April 23, 1973, pp. 83-86