Science in Christian Perspective



Making Sense of Me
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From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 20-24.

The view of myself presented me by my own discipline of biochemistry is clearly a mechanistic one. Biochemists see man (used here in its broadest sense to include male and female, individual and species) as a biochemical machine. We know a lot about how the machine operates and are learning more all the time.

In spite of its usefulness for scientific investigation, the machine model of man is not received with joy by most people. Its detractors include thoughtful nonscientists not otherwise antagonistic toward a scientific outlook, and some scientists, especially those whose work has not led them to investigate human beings. Such persons express concern that use of the machine model has a dehumanizing effect on all who touch it, and worry about the distorted picture of humanity gained from its use.

This paper has grown out of my response, as a biochemist and as a Christian, to such criticisms. Some of my professional colleagues silence critics by ceaselessly pointing to medical applications of biochemistry, since few people are willing to say they would gladly do without life-saving medical knowledge. Badgered by the argument that so much modern medical practice is based on our understanding of biochemical mechanisms, they may grudgingly tolerate the mechanistic view underlying it.

That tactic has little appeal for me. Even if medicine were God's footstool, I doubt that we should swear by it. The danger of dehumanization that may arise from looking at man as machinery is undeniable. I have seen it even in hospitals, among practitioners busily engaged in saving lives.

This paper is not a defense but an inquiry. What is the alternative to a mechanistic view? If we are not to see ourselves as biochemical machines, what

other view should we adopt? And what can be done with it? Perhaps we can't do biochemistry. I am one biochemist free to accept that possibility, since I no longer have an economic stake in the field. Having resigned from biochemical employment, I've found I can get along without a lot of biochemistry, and that I can't afford much modern medicine.

Refining Some Past Ideas

What I can afford in my umbilically detached state is philosophy. Let me correct that before professional philosophers throw up their hands at yet another unwanted refugee from science whose vain babblings threaten to give their field a bad name. What I have time for now is what Charles S. Peirce called "the Pure Play of Musement,"1 My recent musement leads me to refine some ideas I have written about in the past. For example, in an article entitled "ContraCyclops; or, Getting the Whole Picture ,"2 I contrasted two ways of looking at things, saying that my scientific view and my Christian view complemented and enriched each other. Certainly many profound thinkers have contrasted the scientific way of looking at things with "the other way," Christian or not. C. P. Snow, of course, wrote a very famous essay on "The Two Cultures."3 Later, in The Two Cultures: and a Second Look4 he responded to criticisms by those who couldn't see themselves fitting into either of his two categories:

I respect those arguments. The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process. Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. I have thought a long time about going in for further refinements; but in the end I have decided against it. I was searching for something a little more than a dashing metaphor, a good deal less than a cultural map: and for those purposes the two cultures is about right, and subtilising any more would bring more disadvantages than it's worth. (p. 16)

In "A Biochemist Shares His Faith,"5 I said that most of us recognize in ourselves two basic perspectives or dominant modes of thought, a subjective mode and an objective mode. That dichotomy still seems valid to me, resulting from our dual status as individual persons and members of our species. We can try to see ourselves either "from the inside" or "from the outside," as we would look to our fellow human creatures or to our Creator. And although in science we stress the objective mode, I think most of us acknowledge that we operate in both modes both as scientists and as Christians.

What I have come to see as divided into at least three parts is not the perspective from which we see ourselves, but what we see ourselves as. The model we use affects not only what we see but even what we mean by "seeing." To summarize my tentative conclusion in the most blatant oversimplification possible, I suggest that there are two basic alternatives to Man as Machine: they are Man as Animal; and Man as Spirit. It is the argument of this paper that the three models are equally valid, each representing a component of our human nature not to be neglected. A further argument is that we are unlikely to do much better, to combine them into some supermodel. That is, I suspect that the appropriate arena for synthesis, for wholeness, is human life itself rather than a highly refined philosophical view. In other words, as undissected persons, we serve as living models for each other. And, of course, Jesus Christ serves as the supreme model for Christians.

If Man as Machine is distasteful to some, I doubt that Man as Animal and as Spirit are any more tasteful to many. At least I tried to choose more neutral and more equally balanced terms than RenČ Duhos used in his recent book, Beast or Angel? Choices That Make Us Human.6 One suspects that Dubos is more comfortable with Man as Spirit than with Man as Animal. To indicate the opposite preference, I suppose he could have called his book "Highest Primate or Devil?"

Perhaps some terms for mental activities associated with the three models are less value-loaded than names for the models themselves. Thus, "thinking" is what we do like higher machines; sensation or "feeling" is what we share with higher animals; and "knowing" (in the sense of Michael Polaoyi's "tacit knowledge" or perhaps of "moral conviction") is what we have in common with higher spirits. Although we recognize differences in these three ways of "seeing things," in some usages they are essentially interchangeable. I can say, "I think I'm having trouble getting my point across"; or, "I feel I'm having trouble getting my point across"; or, "I know I'm having trouble getting my point across."

Well, I sense that I'm having trouble getting my point across. What did Jesus mean when he said that the "great and first commandment" is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37-38,

Many Christians yearn for a world- and life-view that will provide a single, integrated viewpoint. I suspect that man is too complex for that.

nsv)? I take it to mean that we are to love God with our whole selves, a composite of emotional, volitional, and intellectual elements.

Making Sense

I would like for this paper to be more than an elaborate play on words, but I confess that it began that way. I was musing on different ways of using our minds to "make sense," struck by the nuances of various words derived from the Latin sensus or sentire ("to feel, perceive"). I had been listening to my son's over-amplified rock music. To its driving beat, I responded with sympathetic vibrations of various motor connections of my central nervous system. A bit later, listening to music of my own choice, I found myself responding to a delicate baroque piece in an entirely different way. The contrast led me to dwell on the difference between amplitude and discrimination in sensory perception and brought the two words "sensuality" and "sensitivity" to mind. Later, my musically trained wife, trying once more to interest me in learning to play the piano, assured me that music should fascinate someone of my turn of mind because of the mathematical logic of its scales. In other words, music was also "sensible." Conceivably one could respond to a given piece of music in all three ways simultaneously: with a sensual or emotive response; with a sensitivity to the artistic perfection or "rightness" of the piece; and with an understanding of the "mechanism" of how the notes fit together, of their sequences and harmonic interactions.

Although I'm almost as tone-deaf in philosophy and psychology as in music, the three "senses" in which my mind could (at least theoretically) respond to a complex stimulus made immediate "sense" to me. I had a flashback to my nervous participation, years before, in a university faculty forum on the subject, "What is Truth?" Before my turn came to speak I had listened to an existentialist, a rationalist, and an empiricist each defend his own criteria for truth. Each showed that the other two were dead wrong-yet all three made sense to me. The existentialist sensed what was true from within himself, from his feeling for what was real at the moment. The rationalist distrusted changeable human feelings but had confidence in an enduring structure of reality he could sense beyond our human imperfections. The empiricist trusted neither his feelings nor revealed insights, but at least part of the world made sense to him because he could think of a way to test its truth (or rather, its falsity). In my stumbling synthesis, I commented that the three systems seemed to agree that truth is "that which endures" (if the "now" of the existentialist is taken as "the eternal present"). I said that as a Christian I saw Christ as the Truth, the Alpha and Omega unbounded either by time or by imperfection, yet available to us and inviting us to put him to the test by trusting in him.

I realize that I have used carelessly a number of terms whose precise definitions are important to various disciplines. I have also used some that are almost indefinable. "Spirit" is probably one such word. "Mind" may be another. In What, Then, Is Mats? A Symposium of Theology, Psychology, and Psychiatry7 Paul Meebl and his co-authors said in an appendix that the word "mind":

. . has become a synechdochical catch-all for almost everything psychic, intellectual, emotional, and whatnot. It may be regarded as a term which describes an aspect of the behavioral content, such as memory, consciousness, unconsciousness, knowledge, will, and feeling. Its use has become so broad that it may serve the person who believes that man has a soul as well as the one who does not. For definitive purposes the word has all but lost its value. (p. 320)

Yet the word "mind" was used throughout that excellent symposium volume! For an amateur it might be safer to copy Charles Reich8 and refer to Models I, II, and III, and the perceptions associated with them. Whatever we call them, I think we lose something valuable from our human repertoire if we neglect any one of them.
If we fail to recognize our animal nature we are likely to play down emotional aspects of our life that stem from biological drives and needs. Our empathy capacity toward others may become attenuated, so that toward Cod as well as man we become "heartless." Also, we may forget that we occupy an ecological niche in a delicately balanced nature; to ignore our need for a biologically sustaining environment is to endanger our species as well as others. Neglect of our animal nature may cost us the experience of living in the simple present tense.

On the other hand, one thing that seems to distinguish us from other animal species is a kind of awareness of ourselves and of the possibility of self-conscious choices in our behavior. If we fail to cultivate moral sensitivity, we live on an animal level in the "now" and cut ourselves off from the past and future, let alone the eternal. If we lose the possibility of reasons for action, of reason itself, of ultimates from which we can reason, we become trapped in our immediate environment, unable to transcend it.

I suspect that until the rise of scientific thinking, these were the basic possibilities for human beings, either to be influenced by the immediate environment or to transcend it by rational or spiritual insights. There remains a third possibility: to change the environment. Even if technology arose from accidental discovery and was originally handed down by tradition, it led little by little to deliberate manipulation, to asking "What would happen if ...?"-eventually to modern science.

Science has in common with the first outlook that it is grounded in the immediate phenomena of nature and in common with the second that it eventually provides a means of transcending nature with a theoretical structure. It differs from the first in its goal of impersonal objectivity and from the second in its focus on proximate rather than ultimate questions. It asks not "How do I feel about this?" or "Is it right?" but "Will it work?" It is concerned solely with a chain of cause-and-effect, with mechanics; when it deals with man it gives us a mechanical picture of ourselves. If we neglect it, we lose that much capacity to analyze critically, to predict behavior of persons and things, and to innovate.


Scientists are often accused of reductionistic thinking, perhaps rightly so. But it seems to me that reductionism is what you get in any of these outlooks if you neglect the other two. Much of modern American life looks to me like reductionistic hedonism. And a minister who says that the only important question is whether or not a person is saved is as much a reductionist as my biochemical colleague who used to insist that the only important questions are those that can be answered by quantitative experiments. Reductionism leads to chauvinism, in which proponents of a particular way of looking at reality defend it against all others. Finally we get to a kind of gnosticism in which one view is seen as accounting adequately for the others. We have seen scientists assume that man is nothing but a biochemical machine; argue that increasing the federal research budget is the only way to save the country and mankind; and explain away religious convictions as obviously the products of social channeling of biological responses. Some of us who are Christians have probably also seen our scientific curiosity and tentativity regarded as evidence of retarded spiritual growth.

Personal preference for one model over the others may be unavoidable, but all of us should beware of "nothing buttery," which is Donald MacKay's illustrative term for reductionism.9 But even if we can't achieve a completely even balance individually, we can help provide balance collectively. Balance is particularly needed within the Christian community. Whatever danger of mechanistic reductionism exists outside, I suspect that within the church the mechanistic aspect is the one most likely to be neglected.

Two examples of its neglect come to mind. I recently read an autobiographical narrative written by an outstanding Christian woman. Throughout her book she emphasized love for God and man as "feeling," as hurting when others hurt. Theological scholars who hold orthodox doctrines without showing their own feelings upset her. Only once or twice in the entire book did she ask any questions about anything. Her only curiosity focused on her own emotions or on people she wanted to help, "What must they be feeling?" Any lapses into analytical thought, however, were attributed to her physical exhaustion, illness, or loneliness. She would get some rest or go have a pizza with a friend and her questions would go away. There is no doubt that she has been an effective witness for Jesus Christ. But is her witness a balanced one?

I have also recently seen a church go through a process of shaking out many of its most thoughtful members because loving Cod became limited in another direction. There it came to be defined as submitting to elders and "apostles" who "knew" God's will and who regarded honest questioning as Satan's way of dividing and attacking the church. No doubt these elders have been right about some things, at least on occasion. But is their church as whole as it should be?

There are certainly temptations to sin mechanistically. I doubt that they are greater than temptations to sin animalistically or spiritually, just different. Perhaps in our biological aspect we find it easiest to be selfish, to put our own needs above those of others. But it's also there that compassion for our own kind, and by extension to others, is most easily generated, along with the sheer joy of living as a creature in God's world, Our spiritual aspect may make us more susceptible to pride and rebellion, but it's also there that we acquire our moral responsibility, our sense of justice and protection for the oppressed. Perhaps thinking mechanistically does make faith more difficult for us, or at least more complicated. Yet it can also open for us new possibilities for imitating our Creator, for sharing his relationship to the world, and for continuing his work with our minds and hands. For machines, unlike animals and spirits, are put together by humans. To think of machines is to appreciate what it is like to be a creator, and to think of ourselves as machines is to appreciate more fully that we are God's created beings.

Being God's Machines

However, mechanistic thinking is relatively new, and that may make it harder for some Christians to accept. Science was developed in a systematic way long after both the Old and New Testaments were completed. The Bible shows concern for man's biological well-being along with his spiritual well-being. But there is very little analysis or technical detail. A case could be made that Jesus taught his disciples to question tradition, and that the kind of faith he engendered was a "try-it-and-see" kind of trust akin to experimentation. I won't try to make that case here. It's enough for me that Jesus told us to love God with all our minds. Whatever the mind set of his followers then, our minds are set by the culture in which we live to think mechanistically. We should abandon anything in our culture that gets in the way of our love for God, but everything else should be offered up to God in worship. Christians trained in science learn to worship God by thinking as well as by feeling and knowing.
Although I wish to pay due respect to the machine model of myself, I want it understood that I prefer the company of whole persons to that of machines. I am not likely to confuse the two, even though I once went so far as to give my Underwood typewriter coauthor status on an essay about men and machines.10 In another essay, "Whole People and Half Truths,"11 I expressed my concern about the mechanization of human beings:

In science, as in other fields, the machines we have increasingly come to rely on are highly complex, "almost human," But as machines take on more human attributes, we see human beings not freed to become more human, as we had hoped, hot constrained to become more and more like machines. This mechanization of people seems to come not so much from under. standing ourselves mechanistically as from competing among ourselves for the available resources. Machines perform sub-human tasks more efficiently than humans can. One makes a machine of himself simply by limiting himself to a single objective at a time. That is the way to "get things done." Competition forces us to that kind of efficiency. (p. 95)

We need not fear recognition of our machine nature, if we are God's machines. That should enable us to do God's will more skillfully and therefore even more responsibly and joyfully. It is when we let competition or the fear of it turn us into heartless, self-serving machines that the mechanistic picture becomes almost unbearable. I remember from my old economics textbook a description of that kind of model, the "economic man":

who is dominated exclusively by motives of loss and gain. He is represented as a kind of calculating machine, who measures all his actions in dollars and is governed by no other consideration. At least, he is so visualized by his critics. A truly economic man would budget his income in the most economical manner possible, so that he would always get the greatest possible value for his money and would never spend a dollar for one thing if he could get more utility by spending it for something else. Other things being equal, he would always buy every commodity at the lowest price for which it could be secured. As a business man, he would hire labor at the lowest possible wages and drive an equally hard bargain with all of those from whom he purchased materials or borrowed capital. He would produce those goods whose prices were highest, in proportion to the labor and capital employed, and would sell them to those who offered the highest prices.12

The same textbook said that most men are not economic in the extreme sense of that term, but that business men are probably more like the model than consumers or laborers:

This is not because business men are any less susceptible to ordinary human emotions than other people, but the immediate objective of every business enterprise is to make profits, and all the activities of a business are means to this end . . . So; in deciding upon policies in the employment of men and in the marketing of their products, pecuniary loss or gain will be the most important and deciding factor, and they will buy where goods can be had at lowest prices and sell where they get the highest prices, all other things considered. Except in retail markets, where goods are sold to ultimate consumers, and in the labor market, where services are sold by individual workers, business men are the active parties on both sides of most price transactions. We will not be far wrong in assuming, therefore, that in such eases, consideration of loss and gain will have a predominant iofluence.12

That description of a man who is cold and amoral in his business dealings, forced by economic competition into a machine-like role, makes me glad I've been a biochemist instead of a business man. Although the Bible is not concerned with biochemistry or other sciences, at least my scientific thinking about biochemical mechanisms never seemed to separate me from God. I didn't worship biochemistry or build my whole life around it, so when God had other things for me to do, I could walk away from it. The Bible does say clearly that we cannot serve both God and mammon.

Finally, I know that many Christians are not satisfied with having to use multiple models to make sense of man. They regard the multiplicity as unwieldy and as untrue to man's unity as a created whole. They yearn for a world- and life-view that will provide a single, integrated viewpoint. I wish them well, but I suspect that man is too complex for that. But if we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, it seems to me that we will demonstrate our wholeness, if not individually as Christians, then collectively as the body of Christ.


1Charles S. Pierce, "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," Hibbert journal 7, 90-112 (1908); reprinted in Values in a Universe of Chance, ed. by Philip P. Wiener, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.
2W. R. Hearo, "Contra-Cyclops; or, Getting the Whole Picture," Right On, CWLF, Berkeley, September 1972.
3C. P. Snow, "The Two Cultures," New Statesman, 6, October 1956.
4C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures: and a Second Look, Mentor Books, 1989.
5W. R. Hearn, "A Biochemist Shares His Faith," in Why I Am Still a Christian, ed. by E. M. Blaiklock, Zondervan, 1971.
6Rene Dobos, Beast or Angel? Choices That Makes Us Human, Scribner's, 1974.
7Paul Meehl et al., What, Then, Is Man? A Symposium of Theology, Psychology, and Psychiatry, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1958.
8Charles Reich, The Greening of America, Random House, 1970.
9Donald M. MacKay, The Clockwork Image, InterVarsity Press, 1974, p. 21.
10W. R, Hearn, "Three Perspectives on Men and Machines. III," Journal ASA 22 (4), 136.1, December, 1970.
11W. R. Hearn, "Whale People and Half Truths," in The Scientist and Ethical Decision, ed. by Charles Hatfield, InterVarsity Press, 1973.
12Raymond T. Bye, Principles of Economics, F. S. Crafts and Co., 1941, p. 296.
13Raymond T. Bye, op. cit., p. 297.