Science in Christian Perspective




Richard H. Bube
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 32 (September 1980): 129-134

[This is the last of three keynote addresses on the theme, "Choices We Face," presented at the 1979 Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Stanford University, Stanford, California.]

Freedom proves to be a very elusive concept. There are many different kinds of freedom: personal freedom, political freedom, religious freedom, and economic freedom. There is freedom from; and there is freedom to. Wars have been fought and ringing testimonies made: "Give me liberty or give me death." Still misconceptions seem to multiply concerning what freedom is, how much freedom is available, and how to maintain and preserve freedom. Here I discuss four aspects of freedom: (1) How is freedom related to restraints? (2) What demands does responsibility place upon freedom? (3) Is it possible to increase both responsibility and freedom? (4) Why does compulsion so often replace responsibility in restricting freedom?

Freedom as the Absence of Restraints

The dictionary's first definition for freedom is "the condition of being free of restraints." This general concept of freedom is illustrated in Figure 1. Infinite freedom is achievable by reducing restraints to zero; zero freedom is achievable by increasing restraints to infinity. To be truly and completely free in this picture is to have no restraints; it is an anarchist's view of freedom.
Such a view, if taken literally, appears however to violate what we mean in everyday life by "being free." If we were free of all restraints in the physical world, if there were no gravity, laws of nature etc., we would have physical chaos in which we could not even exist, never mind be free. Restraints make life possible. If we were free of all restraints in the social world, if there were no social mores, no courtesy, no consideration for others, we would have social chaos in which our individual freedom would disappear completely. Restraints make life bearable. If we were free of all restraints in the spiritual realm, if there were no God, no Ten Commandments, no Lord and Savior, we would have spiritual chaos in which our spiritual freedom would never exist. Restraints make life meaningful.

As long as people hold on to the concept that freedom is the absence of all restraints-and this is not at all an uncommon view-they strive for some kind of idealized existence that is incompatible with life in this real created world. If they persist, their final effect can be only to destroy their own freedom and ours as well.
Science and engineering teach us clearly that freedom in this real created universe depends not on our being rid of restraints, but on our understanding and knowing

Figure 1. The symbolic relationship between freedom and restraint if it is assumed that freedom is the absence of restraint. Infinite freedom is achieved with zero restraint, and zero freedom is produced by infinite restraint.

what restraints there are, and creatively working within them. If I wish to fly, I must understand the restraints of aerodynamics and work within them, not try to ignore them or do without them. If I wish to make a high efficiency solar cell (and I do!), I must understand the restraints of semiconductor materials and the properties of the solid state and he creative within them, not try to ignore them or act as if they did not exist. Most of my failures result from ignorance of what the restraints are, If I wish to remain free and active, then I must realize the restraints that are imposed upon me; I cannot walk off the top of a tall building, I cannot ingest poison, nor can I lie down in front of a crocodile.

As a Christian, as well as a scientist, I see these same kinds of restraints operating in the interpersonal relationships of the world as well. To be free in the vital dynamic sense of the word in this real world means that I do not demand the absence of restraints on personal selfishness or greed, injustice between persons, or social persecution. Nor do I demand the absence of restraints on killing, hating, stealing, committing adultery, lying, slandering or coveting. To be truly free is to recognize the inbuilt constraints of our created situation and our created nature, and to live within these constraints. I am indeed always just as free to hate as I am to walk off a tall building; the nature of reality does not restrain me by preventing me from exercising my choice, but I am restrained in the sense that the consequences of my choice are sooner or later known if it violates the nature of created reality.

It has been argued that the laws governing the physical universe are different from "religious laws" governing interpersonal relationships because the former are never broken whereas the latter are.1 But we must be careful what we mean by "broken." Just as physical laws are not broken, but still I may choose to act contrary to them to soy own hurt, so interpersonal laws are not broken, but acting contrary to them leads inevitably to judgment and the suffering of the consequences.

We recognize that all in all the representation of Figure I is not an adequate one.

Tradeoffs Between Freedom and Responsibility

We turn next to a second way of looking at the question of freedom: as a tradeoff between freedom and responsibility as shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2. The symbolic tradeoff between freedom arid responsibility. A transition from state A to state B automatically involves an increase in responsibility and a decrease in freedom.

Here we appreciate that the maximum freedom as well as the maximum responsibility is finite for finite creatures such as we. A transition between two states, indicated by two points on the curve, always corresponds to either a loss of freedom and a gain in responsibility, or to a gain in freedom at the expense of a loss in responsibility.

The increase of contacts between members of a human society inevitably leads to a loss of previously possible individual freedoms in order to face new needs responsibly. The existence of many ears on the road calls for a responsibility in driving, which causes the freedom to drive at any desired speed or in a manner decided upon only by the driver to be lost in order that some positive contribution may he made to preserving lives; the lonely cowboy riding his horse through the unexplored and uninhabited lands of the west a hundred years ago had no need to exercise such responsibility. The existence of many waste-disposing individuals calls for a responsibility in preserving the environment, which causes the freedom to dispose of waste in any convenient way to be curtailed in order that human beings may breathe and live; the lonely country dweller need not be concerned about the droppings of his dog, but the city dweller today is often enforced by law to carry a "pooper-scooper." In many ways there is a sharp contrast between present-day society and earlier days and places when there was a much lower population density; open frontiers lay always ahead, and the ability of the natural ecology to absorb perturbations was sufficient to handle the problems. The shrinking of the world demands a transformation of individual freedoms into corporate responsibility.

The challenge of Christian responsible living is to provide the limitations on our own freedoms so that we may better serve the rest of the world, both our immediate world and our extended world. The classical example of this kind of transformation of freedom voluntarily into responsibility is provided for the Christian by the writings of Paul in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8. Even when every possible case can be made for the validity of our freedom, still we choose not to exercise that freedom if it will prove damaging in any way to someone else. What dues it mean to follow Christ by choosing servant-hood, except to he willing to lay aside our freedoms in order to live responsibly before God?

Gaining Responsibility and Freedom

There are some very special types of situations in which it is possible to show more responsibility without losing any freedom, or even with a gain of freedom at the same time. These marvelous situations, one might think, should he under high demand, hot curiously such possibilities are singularly low in public acceptance at the present probably because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom.

This type of situation is illustrated in Figure 3. 

Figure 3. The potentialities introduced by new relationships in the tradeoff between freedom and responsibility. By entering into new relationships, a transition from state A t,, state B May invoke ail increase in responsibility without a loss in freedom and a transition from state A to state C involves an increase in both responsibility and freedom.

The symbolic curve linking freedom and responsibility such as is shown in Figure 2 represents the possibilities within the context of a given set of relationships. Another set of relationships, however, might well be represented by another freedom/responsibility curve. In this way there are opened possibilities for increasing responsibility without loss of freedom, or even of increasing both responsibility and freedom together, by making a transformation from one set of relationships to the other.

What are some examples of such relationship-transforming potentialities? I suggest just two that are well known: marriage and Christian conversion.

In at least the traditional Christian view of marriage 2 this relationship consists of a unity formed from the mutual lifelong love commitment of two individuals, who are willing to trust each other and God, and therefore are willing to entrust themselves to one another. "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh." Certain individual freedoms are willingly surrendered but only so as to receive the much greater freedoms of the marriage relationship. Modern efforts to make of marriage a 50-50 partnership instead of an organic union, violate these conditions and minimize the opportunities to genuinely exceed the freedom/responsibility tradeoff. Insofar as the movement toward contract marriages is a premarital accommodation to a lack of willingness on the part of the participants to entrust themselves wholly to each other, it breaks down the relationship transformation that is most fruitful in making new potentialities possible. Concerted attempts to preserve individual rights and identities in marriage at the expense of organic union also move marriage from the marvelous institution it can he to something much less. Here we see enacted, "Whoever would keep his/her freedom will lose it, and whoever will give up his/her freedom for the sake of the marriage will find it." This is the dynamics that govern the kind of relationship that transforms the freedom/responsibility curve.

We are, of course, as Christians familiar with the original statement from which the above statement was burrowed: "He who will save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will save it." The biblical picture of Christian conversion is rich with images that emphasize the increase in both freedom and responsibility that come with Christian conversion. We who were slaves of sin, and hence not free at all, becomes slaves of Christ, and hence truly free, By Christian conversion we move deeper into the warp and woof of the nature of the created universe, and so we move more and more within the constraints of that universe as new creatures, children of God, and members of the household of faith. Before Christian conversion we were not free to be responsible; after conversion we are responsible as an expression of our freedom. We understand the meaning and the power of Jesus' words, when he said, "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." (John 10:17, 18)

As long as people hold on to the concept that freedom is the absence of all restraints, they strive for some kind of idealized existence that is incompatible with life in this real created world.

There are possibilities, therefore, of opening new opportunities through new relationships as we consider the exchange of freedom and responsibility.

Responsibility vs Compulsion

The reader may by this time be increasingly restless: all this talk of freedom and responsibility is very well, but it doesn't characterize much of the real world we live in. Opportunities for responsibility have been largely taken over by the demands of compulsion.

Figure 4 expresses this dimension of our actual situation. 


Figure 4. The symbolic representation of compulsion as orthogonal to the freedom/ responsibility plane. Transitions from state A to states B and C involve the loss of the same amount of freedom, but the transition to state B brings a tradeoff of freedom for responsibility due to choice, whereas the transition to state C yields no responsibility since the transition was made by compulsion.


We can give up freedom in two ways: because we choose to (responsibility), or because we have to (compulsion). There is an axis of compulsion that runs orthogonal to both freedom and responsibility; we can lose our freedom and gain nothing in responsibility if our actions are compelled by fear of punishment or loss. We must realize at once that compulsion is not responsibility (either unenforced or enforced); a large portion of the world today speaks glibly of social responsibility, but what they really mean is social compulsion. They may indicate that such compulsion is only a temporary necessity, on the way to true responsibility, but historical examples of getting past this step are hardly common.

We have for this case again some biblical analogies. When we restrict our freedoms solely out of fear of the law, we lose both freedom and responsibility. So Paul speaks of the law: "Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian (schoolmaster, KJV) until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith." (Gal. 3:23-26) Therefore the Christian is called to do responsibly out of love for Cod what under the law was a matter of compulsion: by entering into the new relationship in Christ compulsion is transformed into responsibility. The same issues constantly arise again; every resort to legalism rather than to responsible discipleship is an attempt to substitute compulsion for responsibility. Such a substitution seems quite appealing: certainly it is both safer and easier to have a strict legal code that can be followed without thought or choice rather than leaving individual choices to the personal responsibility; this is not, however, the kind of Christian maturity to which Christ has called us. Note that this framework avoids extremes: we cannot live responsibly without the law, for it shows us what living responsibly means; but if we attempt to settle all the issues of living by construction of a legalistic code, we have destroyed the opportunity for responsibility.

If we examine the structure of our social life today, we quickly find that to an extreme degree compulsion has been substituted for responsibility. The best of motives, e.g., to aid the poor and sick, becomes the foundation for a bureaucratic system of compulsion that all too often fails the goal for which it was conceived, while at the same time taking away the incentives for any individual voluntary choices. So we see a desire to strengthen the power to act resulting in the transfer of power from local to federal levels, a desire to insure industrial safety resulting in the sometime excesses of OSHA, a desire to give financial aid to the poor resulting in the welfare system, a desire to insure responsible accounting of public funds resulting in roadblocks of red tape that paralyze progress, a desire for tax relief (California's Proposition 13, for example) resulting in an effective transfer of funds from the community to the federal government, a desire for fair practices in employment resulting in such a conglomeration of requirements that unfairness is as likely to be promoted as fairness, and a desire to eliminate discrimination resulting in an absolutization of those extraneous factors that perpetuate the environment for discrimination.

The justification for this process goes something like this. (1) Here is a genuine human need. (2) This need is not being met by voluntary choices. (3) People ought to respond voluntarily to such needs. (4) People would respond voluntarily to such needs if they were properly informed and motivated. (5) "Education" about the needs sometimes then leads to compulsion to fulfill them, or frustration with people not voluntarily doing what they ought to leads to compulsion so that the need may not go unattended. (6) Therefore it is right and good to force people to do what they ought to voluntarily but don't.

If human beings were intrinsically altruistic and unselfish, then one could make a case for removing compulsion in order that responsible living might be able to express itself. One could argue that the very existence of compulsion makes responsible living impossible. I had a discussion with distinguished faculty in the commencement line at the time of Proposition 13 in California. They were certain that if real estate taxes were lowered, the outpouring of voluntary giving would more than make op for it to continue all worthwhile and needed services. I do not think there is more than a token of empirical evidence to back up that hope since then.

But we must also keep in mind the immensity of the task. I pay (by compulsion) about 1/3 of my salary in taxes; a high degree of altruism would have to be present to keep me doing that if taxation stopped, and I would certainly demand a much better accounting of how my money was being spent. 40% of my direct salary (in a private university) is paid by taxpayers who are under compulsion to do so; another 40% of my general support comes from these same taxpayers. Assuming that we believe that my type of job is worthwhile, could we rely on the altruism, vision and generosity of human beings to voluntarily maintain such support?

In this framework, taxation becomes a necessary evil in a complex and sinful world. One may argue with the libertarians that taxation for such purposes is an improper activity of the state, and should be left to voluntary actions of the individual citizens; but it is highly unlikely that enough citizens would sacrifice voluntarily to meet the need if they were not forced to. As usual the rich would make out all right, and the poor would suffer even more. Or one may argue with the welfare state that no responsible human being can stand by and watch others suffer because of people's ignorance or indifference; surely taxation is both necessary and an inducement to moral action by people unlikely to take it on their own. But it seems that such a choice makes it less and less likely that people will make any voluntary responsible choices, for they have so little left to make them with!
The strength of the Christian church in those situations where it is supported by the free and voluntary gifts of its members, appears at least partially to derive from this voluntary method of support when compared with the state churches supported by universal taxation; these state churches all too often generate a dead religion: a society that is Christian in name, but without the commitment or the faith of true followers of Jesus Christ.

Rights and the Christian

Today we see more and more another phenomenon

There are some very special types of situations in which it is possible to show more responsibility' without losing any freedom, or even with a gain of freedom at the same time.

generated by this state of affairs. Sensing that their freedoms are being stripped by more and more compulsion, and desiring to hang onto a sense of freedom and responsibility, people are raising an essentially legalistic outcry to translate freedoms into rights. The demand is made for the exchange of freedoms that depend on the goodhearted voluntary cooperation of all into hard legal realities that stifle responsibility (since they no longer must be earned) and invoke compulsion in the name of freedom.

In such a day when "obtaining one's rights" and "fighting for one's rights" is viewed as the battle-cry of enlightened humanity, the Christian faces a peculiar challenge indeed. For the Christian is, in some sense, a person without rights. We are called upon to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, whose whole existence is summed up by his renunciation of the rights he had as the eternal Son of Cod in order to become incarnate as man. Christians are indeed

Look down the lists of the countless "rights" movements and you will find very little talk of "Why not rather suffer wrong?" or "Why not rather be defrauded?"

called upon to work for the justice and fair treatment of all people, but this is quite different from insisting on "my own rights." Paul laid it on the line when he heard that Christians in Corinth were suing one another in order to get their "rights": "To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?" (I Cur. 6:7) How alien this approach is today! Look down the lists of the countless "rights" movements and you will find very little talk of "Why not rather suffer wrong?" or "Why not rather be defrauded?" There is indeed the problem of discriminating between demanding one's rights and being a doormat for the world, but I do not think there is much question about which direction we err in most of the time.


In this fairly general treatment of the subject of freedom and responsibility, we have tried to make the following points.

1. Freedom does not arise from the absence of all restraints, but by recognizing the restraints that are present and acting creatively within these restraints.

2. To live responsibly in a world with increasing limitations and interactions, voluntary restrictions on freedom are necessary.

3. There are possibilities for entering into new types of relationships in which both freedom and responsibility can he expanded. Marriage, friendship, and Christian conversion are examples of such possibilities.

4. When the solutions to needs are not taken voluntarily by responsible choices by which one limits one's own freedom, concern for the welfare of all leads in a complex and sinful world to the need for compulsion. There are always great dangers in this direction, since compulsion removes freedom without increasing responsibility. Unfortunately the removal of compulsion, on the premise that we live in a world of intrinsically altruistic and self-giving individuals, leads to just as destructive a corruption of human welfare, as does the overdevelopment of compulsion on the premise that individuals most be programmed by a super-intelligence for their own welfare.

Perhaps seeing these distinctions and problems a little more clearly provides a first step for the Christian in seeking applications and significance in his or her own life.3 At the very least, the value of the opportunity to express responsibility should he upheld against a fairly universal tendency to use compulsion in any and every avenue of social interaction.



1See Dan McLachlan, Letters, Physics Today, January (1979); and Richard H. Bube, Letters, Physics Today, April (1979)
2See Richard H. Bube, "Human Sexuality," Journal ASA June and September (1979)
3Sometimes this can he done at a very elementary level; the challenge to the Christian of properly regarding his/her "rights" can he faced when someone cuts ahead of you in a waiting line or when someone starts from a Stop sign when it was your turn.