Science in Christian Perspective



Schematic Portrayals of the Personal Component in Scientific Discovery
W. Jim Neidhardt 
Physics Department 
New Jersey Institute of Technology 
Newark, New Jersey 07102

From: JASA 32 (March1980): 60-63

In "Science and Religion: Compatible," Journal ASA 30, No. 4, December 1978, Wiebe has pointed out that scientific knowledge is in a key way similar to religious knowledge, for he asserts that scientific knowledge can be accounted for only "if science itself is seen as a 'fiduciary' enterprise-i.e. as involving personal judgment (fiducia, trust? faith) that of necessity exceeds the grounds of evidence from which it first arose."

Michael Potanyi, in his many writings, has more adequately provided the evidence for the validity of this premise. A novel way of representing Polanyi's thesis that scientific knowledge is personal knowledge is shown in Figure I where the processes of the act of scientific discovery that involve personal judgment and commitment are clearly differentiated from those processes that are more-or-less automatic, following strictly logical operations. One tees from Figure I that only the purely deductive steps in scientific discovery can be done in an automatic, strictly logical manner. The other steps, i.e. induction of a hypothesis (involving creative, imaginative elements), experimental testing, modifying a hypothesis, confirmation leading to strengthening of a hypothesis, and, finally, recognizing a strengthened hypothesis as a theory; all these steps are embedded in personal judgments and commitments, tacitly held.

                                                  Figure 1. The Processes of Scientific Discovery
Double-line arrows: Process embedded in personal judgements and commitments.
Single-line arrows: Process completely logical, automatic.
OD--Objective Data. WV Worldview. 1---Inductive processes involving creativity and imagination. I-I Hypothesis. D Deduction. DP-Deduced propositions. ET-Experimental test. 115Hypothesis strengthened. MH-Modify hypothesis. CH-Confirm hypothesis. DNP- Deduce new propositions. T-Theory.

Figure 2 extends the analysis to consider possible ways in which scientists come to accept a new theory rather than an established one. One way is to have an established scientific theory predict some results which are not confirmed experimentally. The actual, anomalous data obtained then serve at new objective data from which scientists can run through the cyclic processes of scientific discovery until a new theory is established. This is the typical physics textbook description of how Einstein utilized the anomalous results of the Michelson-Morley Experiment (an ether drift was not observed; the speed of fight was not affected by the earth's motion) to formulate his theory of special relativity. Another way a new theory could come to be formulated and accepted is if a creative scientist of great ability departs from an established theory to formulate a new theory by an imaginative leap seeking greater unity and simplicity (thereby encompassing a wider field of knowledge). Such an imaginative leap obviously requires great individual personal judgement and commitment to standards of intellectual beauty and unity.

At Michael Polanyi has pointed out (Personal Knowledge, the University of Chicago Press, 1962, pp. 9-15) on the basis of personal correspondence with Einstein and considering the contents of his 1905 paper formulating relativity theory, such a creative leap is probably the way Einstein created his special theory of relativity.
The Michelson-Morley experiment did not, according to Einstein, play a major role in the origination of relativity theory. Einstein was in all probability motivated instead by the strong desire to preserve the beauty of nature and the laws that protected that beauty; he wanted to maintain the form of the laws of electromagnetism (Maxwell's equations) against deformation in going from one inertial frame to another.

To summarize, Figures1 and 2 schematically portray the fact that personal judgments and commitments are a component part of the processes of scientific discovery. Also Figure 2 points out that scientific theories may originate in many different ways. The act of scientific discovery is thus seen to evolve not only out of completely logical, automatic, machine-like processes as portrayed by mechanistically inclined philosophers but also to evolve out of processes embedded in uniquely human personal acts of judgment and commitment which require both (what can only be called) genius and a persevering humble reflection upon the facts of nature. Thus as Wiebe has noted, scientific and religious activity bear deep similarities to one another for both are rooted in uniquely personal, human rather than automaton-like creativity. Theologically speaking, human beings imperfectly (due to sin) reflect God's creativity being made in his image; automatons or computers more imperfectly reflect man's creativity, as they are made in man's image.

An Einsteinian Model of Scientific Discovers

The assertion that science is indeed based upon personal judgment that necessarily exceeds the evidence from which it first arose is clearly seen if we consider the question of what it is that motivates a scientist to continue his work at times when established theories and concepts are no longer found adequate to describe physical reality and his or her own experimental and theoretical efforts to reformulate scientific understanding meet with repeated failure. The history of science provides many examples of scientists who faced Web obstacles and difficulties and eventually overcome them. Such men and women could not have continued their work if not strongly motivated by a deep faith that reality, which exists independent of us, nevertheless possesses a structure that is at its core intelligible (perhaps at a deeply hidden level); reality is rational in nature and therefore capable of being grasped by the human mind.

As Figure 3 shows, the mind of the scientist, coupled to the presuppositions of the general culture, is composed of structures and laws that bear a striking correlation with respect to the entire realm of human experience which exists independent of it. Figure 3, adapted from a diagram of Einstein,1 is a portrayal of how the mind of the scientist encounters reality. First, experience is scanned, and from this search the scientist imaginatively formulates a pattern or hypothesis that he thinks will explain what has been observed. It is important to note that creative scientists such as Einstein have acknowledged that there is no logical path from experience to a hypothesis but only intuition supported by being sympathetically in touch with experience. In this searching of experience for an explanatory pattern the scientist comes with an open mind; he tries to avoid as best as humanly possible attempting to fit experience to a priori models of reality. The scientist scans nature motivated by the strong conviction that the basic laws that describe nature will be simple and symmetric; but the exact form of the laws must be found from experience and not from preconceived ideas about experience. A good scientist is motivated and guided by his hunches but he is always willing to modify them and even to be completely surprised by nature's actual behavior. The following suggested creed for a scientist is fully in keeping with these last thoughts:

"I believe in the intelligibility of nature, in the absolute difference between truth and falsehood, and in the duty of the scientist to discover truth. I believe that nature must be taken seriously; I think of myself as one among many who try to understand it, and 1 believe that arguments which are valid for me are valid for others also. I believe in the unity of nature's law; I accept that they can only be unraveled
by observation and experiment, not by arm chair thinking; and I regard the scientific endeavor as endless, I believe that faith-expectation of results as yet unproved-must be exerted if progress is to be made. I believe that order does not arise of its own account but needs to be explained, whereas disorder calls for no explanation. I believe that nature is basically simple and beautiful and that much of it can be understood only in mathematical terms."2

Last in the sequence of scientific discovery, formal deductive reasoning is used to deduce propositions which can then be tested against reality. Imagination and personal judgment is again required in this last process of comparing and relating the deduced propositions to actual experience. In this sequence of processes that represent scientific discovery only the deductive steps are seen to be automatic, machine-like, and strictly logical in nature; the other processes are not contrary to logic but are alogical. But none of these processes will take place unless the working scientist has a strong faith that a correlation of rational structures and laws exists between the human mind and experience; such faith is essential to provide the personal motivation the scientist needs to overcome the many pitfalls and ambiguities present in ongoing research. One of the founders of modern quantum physics, Louis deBroglie had admirably expressed this faith:

"When we find ourselves confronted with the still empty grid of a crossword puzzle, we know that a mind like ours has, according to certain rules, arranged in this grid words which we try to discover with the help of the clues given. When the scientist attempts to understand a group of natural phenomena, he begins with the assumption that these phenomena obey certain laws which, being intelligible to our

                                                  Figure 2. The Formulation of new theories in science.

Symbols the same as for Figure I with the following additions: AO 0- Anomalous, objective data. T'-New theory. P-Predicting new objective data. ILSGU, S,...-Imaginative leap seeing greater unity, simplicity,...

reason, can be comprehended. This is not, let us hasten to note, a self-evident postulate which leaves no room for qualification. In effect, what it does is to reiterate the rationality of the physical world, to recognize that the structure of the material Universe has something in common with the laws that govern the working of the human mind. Having admitted this hypothesis, which we construct quite naturally without always fully appreciating its boldness, we try to discover the rational connections that this hypothesis suggests must exist between apparent similarities."

That such a faith motivates the scientist to extend his enquiries ever forward into unknown regions is cogently pointed out by the theologian, Thomas F. Torrance:

"There is something (a basic rationality of the human mind and the universe) that we assume and operate with continually in ordinary experience and in science without attempting to explain it. If the nature of things were not somehow inherently rational they would remain incomprehensible and opaque and indeed we would not be able to emerge into the light of rationality . . . scientific knowledge is that in which we bring the inherent rationality of things to light and expression, as we let the realities we investigate disclose themselves to us under our questioning and we on our part submit to their intrinsic connections and order
it remains an awesome fact that if the nature of things were not intelligible and apprehensible, knowledge could not arrive at all . . . As the universe becomes progressively disclosed to our scientific enquiries, it is found to be characterized by an intrinsic intelligibility of an ever deepening dimension which far outranges our powers of comprehension, invoking from us awe and wonder. Moreover, we become aware of being confronted in and behind it all with a transcendent reality over which we have no control but which, while utterly independent of our minds, has an indefinite capacity for revealing itself to them in quite unanticipated ways. It is in response to this transcendent reality that our minds develop their own powers of comprehension and in recognition of it that they derive their primary thrust in passionate search for understanding and truth."4

To conclude, the personal component necessary to all good scientific work can be clearly seen if one considers Einstein's two criteria for theory evaloation.5 His first criterion was that a theory must be capable of external confirmation and in doing so "the theory most not contradict experimental facts." Secondly a theory most be characterized by what he termed "naturalness" and "logical simplicity" in terms of theory components and the relationships between those components. Einstein clearly relied on both criteria, not only the first, in evaluating his own work as G. Holton has pointed out:

Figure 3.
The interplay and correlation of the human mind and experience during scientific discovery.
WV, land H, as in Figure I. HM the human mind. E -The region of experience. Dl, D2 Dn Deductive processes. P1, P2
Pn-Particular propositions. El, E2, En Experimental tests against experience. MS -Metasystcm of culture, general human values. U-Undeeidabitity, basic questions of science that are not decidable from within science. R -Recognizing a hypothesis as a theory. T, T*, T" Theories. C -Correlation. A basic, often tacitly held premise of all who do science is that the region of experience which exists independent of the human mind nevertheless bears a correlation with respect to the structures and laws of the human mind. Anyone who does science assumes that reality is intelligible, all experience possesses an intrinsic rational structure which can be grasped by a human mind governed by similar types of rationality. If scientists did not deeply believe this they would not have the fortitude to continue so formulate and test hypotheses when good agreement with experience is not quickly found. Scientists act out of a profound faith that the human mind can arrive at hypotheses that truly represent reality. From such a hypothesis one can deduce propositions that test in agreement with experience sufficiently to make the accepted hypothesis a reasonable representation of reality.

"Just how effectively he followed this first criterion was shown repeatedly, for example, in his steadfast and unswerving adherence to his ideas, when from time to time, evidence came that purported to show his predictions, though not in unambiguous flat contradiction to the 'facts of experience,' at the very least were not supported by experimental test. Moreover, though unwilling to accept the possibility of confirmation of a theory by 'verification' of its prediction, Einstein in practice also held to the falsification principle only skeptically (or weakly) when the theory being purportedly falsified by experimental test had in his views certain other merits compared with its rivals. (See, for example his refusal to accept Walter Kaufmann's experimental 'falsification' of 1906 of Einstein's newly published special theory of relativity. The limited, ad hoc character of the rival theories that seemed to be born out by Kaufmann's experiments signaled to Einstein that those theories 'have rather a small probability.' It turned out that he was right; the experiment, as is so often is the ease, was far less decisive or 'crucial' than others had thought)"6

Why Present the Processes of Scientific Discovery, in Visual Fashion?

1 he fragmentation of much of culture today stems partially from basic misconceptions as to the nature of science. Science is seen as the only valid way of seeking truth. Science is too often characterized as an activity devoid of uniquely human personal involvement. As a result many young people either worship science or hate it as lacking in true humanity. If science could be more universally recognized for what it is -an activity that is just as dependent upon personal involvement as other parts of human experience-both hate and worship of science could be replaced by a balanced appreciation of its true worth. Science could then be restored to its proper role as a means to appreciate more fully with awe the greatness of God's creation and, secondly, to manage it in order to preserve nature and mankind.

It is therefore appropriate that as many different means as possible be sought to communicate the true nature of science as a uniquely personal endeavor. One such means is a visual representation, particularly as visual learning is sometimes neglected in formal education, From considerations of his own work, Einstein suggested that truly creative thinking is a result of the integration of two complementary modes of thinking: sequential analysis and holistic vision. The analytic mode operates by breaking into parts, in this way abstracting, separating, distinguishing, and manipulating concepts. The holistic mode operates by connecting, holding things together; it unifies by wiping out boundaries, integrating, and finally enhancing visual patterns.

"Albert Einstein used visualization as well as analytical thinking to enable him to formulate and more fully understand his time and energy theories. He used both sides of his brain or consciousness as 'combinatory play' and claimed it was important for creativity. An example of how visualization helped him to understand motion and energy is demonstrated by the following anecdote. He tells of a man holding a sphere in his arms and standing in a cage which is being pulled away from the earth by a long rope. He asks the question: If the man lets go of the sphere does it fall to the floor of the cage, as we think gravity causes things to do, or does the cage move up to meet the sphere? The formulation of the energy-motion problem and its solution both depended heavily on Einstein's ability to visualize as well as analyze."7

Thus the two modes of thinking, sequential analysis and holistic vision alternate with one another in an integrative fashion when truly creative discovery takes place. Although our thinking processes form a whole, the creative person seems to have special ability for reaching into his intuitive, image-filled holistic mode while harnessing and illuminating his experience with his analytic mode of thinking. It is therefore quite appropriate to attempt to present the personal nature of scientific discovery in visual terms. Such a representation communicates by appealing to the creative elements in cognitive thought; hence it is an effective meant to reinforce the assertion that science proceeds by utilizing personal judgment and commitment as well as formal, strictly logical thinking.

1Gerald Holton, The Scientific Imagination, Cambridge University Press, London, 1978, p. 97.
2 Transactions of the Victoria Institute 88 (1956): 68.
3Taken from Arthur March and Ira M. Freeman, The New World of Physics, Vintage Books, New York, 1963, p. 143.
4Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969, pp. vi-vii; and Space. Time & Resurrection, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Michigan, 1976, p. 191.
5Holton, Op. Cit., pp. 95-100. 
6Holton, Ibid., p. 98.
7Kurt Hanks and Larry Belliston, Draw?, William Kaufman, Inc., California, 1977, p. 14.