Science in Christian Perspective



Science as the Natural Philosophy of a Christian
Department of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, 
Canada T6G 2G2

From: JASA 33 (June 1981): 65-73.
This is the second of three keynote addresses presented at the American Scientific Affiliation Annual Meeting, August 8-11, 1980, Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.

A Paradigm for Science
ike many of you here, I believe that Scripture is a revelation of God in word, i.e. in language comprehensible to man, and therefore we can have an informed insight about fundamental issues of man's existence. Putting this conviction into practice, I shall use a biblical text as an introduction for today's talk about the nature of science. In this text I think we find the elements for a paradigm of science in its broadest terms.

"And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the Man to see what he would call them,- and whatever the Man called every living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2:19).

For the Hebrews, as for many ancient peoples, to know the name of something (or someone) is to comprehend it, to grasp its inner character, to acquire a degree of mastery or authority or privilege in relation to the thing (or person) named. (This is why the Pentateuch gives such emphasis to names, or changes of name, and why the name of God is such an important question.) Now that we recognize how inextricably our human conceptual powers are bound up with language, we can see that this view is far from superficial!

(1) Objective Reality and Contingency. We are reminded that God formed the creatures "out of the ground," like man himself. God is the maker of things as they are; they do not exist of themselves, but their make-up is "out of the ground." This is very far from the empty dreams of the pagan myths, in which there is an organic connection of divine nature with the universe; it is also very far from Platonic idealism, in which created things have a necessary form and structure derived from a Divine Ideal or Archetype. Things have a real form and structure, it is given to them by God; but it is "out of the ground, " i.e., by principles and forms arising within, and consistent with,

The contingent character of the natural order requires us to look outside ourselves to objective reality itself for validation or falsification of our ideas.

the creation as God has chosen to make it. So here we have the assertion of a consistent external reality, but it is contingent; form and structure are not derivable from pure reason as a necessary reality, but are present as contingent realities by the sovereign acts of God. One of the most crucial issues in the rise of science was the recognition that form and structure in the natural world are indeed contingent; hence they cannot be derived by rational argument alone but require empirical investigation to be found out.

(2) Human Creativity and Authority. The main point of the story is that the Man is expected by God to play a creative role in relation to this created order-and it is a role with real authority. God brings the creatures to the Man, but He says nothing; He is waiting to see what the man would call them. "And whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name"-that is, out of the creative choices of the human mind, in response to what God has made, emerges a description with authority and insight as to the true character of the thing perceived. It may not be absolutized, because the creation itself is a contingent order from the hand of God; but the power of the Man to grasp that order truly is not in doubt.

(3) God's Interest and Value are Placed on the Activity Itself. The spiritual holism of the biblical perspective is manifest in going beyond the intellectual plane to the deeper issues of value, and communion or participation. God is interested in the man's response and choices. Of His own creation, it is said, "God saw that it was good"; here, value is created because God is interested in man's participation in seeing too. What is implied is the possibility of a fellowship or participation, in sharing with God the appreciation of what he has created. This could be quite simple and direct, as in laughter, and I always think of this text when I look at some of the more grotesque animals. But it can also be profound, subtle, and rational, the appreciation of an excellence whose source is divine, and at its highest it becomes worship. Psalm 19 touches upon this in a characteristically Hebrew way, and St. Paul talks about the theological implications of such appreciation in Romans 1:20. Kepler's is only the first of very many voices telling us of the pleasure afforded in the appreciation of rational excellence, and we recognize that this appreciation of rational beauty, in an active rational participation by the thinker, is itself an intrinsic part of the creative activity and its dynamic motivation. In his book Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi has identified this capacity for rational appreciation, and its active exercise, as a primary factor in scientific discovery, and he illustrates it with many examples from the history of science;1 on the basis of my own professional experience I am in complete agreement with him. Charles Coulson, a great scientist and a sincere Christian, comments on this same question in relation to the experience of worship, in Science and Christian Belief.2

Of course this story leaves many questions unanswered, and, according to our theological views of the relation between man's condition now and before the Fall, we may also differ on how validly man now might exercise this function. But in any case the story shows us much that is basic to the character of the scientific enterprise. Fundamentally I am convinced that in spite of a crippling ruin resulting from sin, the Creator's gifts and calling have never been revoked. It was Bacon's view, and one I generally share, that the liberty and opportunity to exercise such creation gifts might be recovered in some measure as general benefits of Christ's redemptive work in individuals and the influence of the Gospel on human society. Indeed, such a conviction underlies the Puritan view of a Christian role in the world and must have been important to such men as Boyle, Hooke, and other early scientists.

In my first talk I indicated that a critique of science based on a fundamental harmony between the scientific enterprise and a biblical understanding of man would have to be focally concerned with the modern philosophies of science and knowledge, and with the way in which they have distorted the truth about scientific knowing and its relation to the whole range of human activity. This was the point to which Michael Polanyi addressed himself first and for essentially the same reasons. These modern philosophies represent the outcome of an important departure from an older and much simpler view of science. It is therefore also helpful to trace the motivations for the development of these modern views to their historical roots, and also to look at the peculiar schizophrenia in modern thought to which they have led.

The older view of science-what I called the "outworn creed," because it is what simple-hearted practicing scientists are all committed to in their work of discovery-could be called a naive realism. It is clearly portrayed in the writings and expressed attitudes of the pioneers of science; again I'd mention the little book by Hooykaas' as a source of information.

Scientific Theory Not Fiction

Firstly, they rejected the medieval doctrine of "saving the phenomena" as a fundamentally unacceptable idea; instead, they considered that a scientific theory may be entertained as a potentially true description of the objective reality to which it refers, i.e., it can have a form and structure corresponding to and compatible with that reality, and need not be a mere fiction full of extraneous and mythical elements. Such a theory would ultimately be compatible with a valid theological explanation-whereas the essential point in the "saving the appearances" doctrine was that scientific theories by their very nature could not do this. To use the imagery of the story from Genesis, it means we could (as little children) tell God without embarrassment about our scientific theories because, although their scope and accuracy is always limited, they are, within those limits, faithful to what He really has made, not unrelated to it; and He would not only listen with interest, but would approve the appropriateness of our account of things! "And whatever the Man called every living creature, that was its name. "

If you reflect on it awhile, you will realize that this claim or belief-as over against the "saving the appearances" doctrine-is really concerned with the value of scientific endeavour, the dynamic motivation for carrying it on, and the means to its continuation; whereas the opposite view is really an argument for being content with existing ideas, for ruling out the relevance or value of further inquiry, and for introducing other "explanations." It was because the early astronomers were convinced that the Copernican hypothesis had very much more to tell them about the real world than did its competitors, that they poured such scorn on Osiander's apologetic preface. In my first talk I have already emphasized these issues of value and dynamic motivation. I have expressed the view that whether scientific endeavour is undercut by resurgence of the medieval view for essentially medieval reasons (as we get, for example, in the writing of Henry M. Morris against the idea of scientific laws), or by a modern radical skepticism about "truth" (as we have in the phenomenalism or operationalism of Mach and Bridgman), the effect is the same, i.e., the devaluation of science and the substitution of false and inadequate motivations for science, such as the technological utilitarianism which currently threatens to destroy science.

Contingency of Natural Order

Secondly, we must not ignore the vigorous emphasis on the contingent character of the natural order which was insisted upon by the pioneers of science-as over against the concept of a necessary order derivable from (self-evident) principles of divine reason. This is the essential complement to the belief that a scientific theory may be entertained as potentially true, because it requires us to look outside ourselves to objective reality itself for validation (or falsification) of our ideas. These complementary ideas are opposite faces of the same coin. Nowadays we scientists take it for granted that theories must be tested against reality, but in the beginning it was not taken for granted. Moreover, a continuing awareness that order in nature is contingent (rather than rationally necessary or self-evident) is vital to the scientific enterprise, because it prevents us from absolutizing scientific theories as axiomatic systems and keeps the way open for revolutionary changes of thought and of our paradigms of description. Thomas Torrance4 has made this point forcefully, using the examples of the Newtonian and Einsteinian conceptions of space-time relations in the universe. And using my biblical text I have tried also to show that we have a sound theological basis for retaining a firm grasp on the concept of contingency: it reminds us that we are also creatures, and directs our attention to the reality outside us which God has made, as the sustaining support for our ideas.

Again it is attitudes which are important here; in using the term contingent, we acknowledge that creation has an external, objective reality, not determined by our rational thoughts about it-we expect to be surprised by it in the future. However, we may also say that we believe it has a rational order. Either, we might believe that its "contingency" is not real, but only apparent and temporary because of the present inadequacy of our theories, and that ultimately we shall uncover its "true order" which is really necessary within itself and completely comprehensive in scope. Or, we might believe its contingency is a truly open one, because it finally depends on a source beyond itself to determine it (i.e., the free and creative choices of a sovereign God). In this second case, scientific theories, while potentially true, would always remain open to further, unanticipated extension; they could not, even in principle, be "necessary," absolute, or comprehensive in scope.

Generally speaking, the modern philosophies of science advance the belief that there necessarily exists an absolute, self-contained, comprehensive "scientific world view," to which they claim the scientific enterprise is leading (for example, see the view presented by Jacques Monod5). I would suggest that one very important reason for rejecting views of science which think of it as absolute, axiomatic, or tautological in its final structure, is that the holding of such views is really inimical to the open creativity of scientific endeavour itself-and is therefore absurd.

Walter R. Thorson is Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. His professional interests are in quantum mechanics, especially its application to problems in the theory of atomic collisions and molecular dynamics. He is a member of the American Physical Society, Canadian Association of Physicists, and the American Scientific Affiliation, and has published about 50 professional papers. He is actively interested as a layman in theology and Christian apologetics, especially in topics bearing on the epistemology of science and its relation to religious knowledge. He is a frequent lecturer at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., where he is Adjunct Professor of the Philosophy of Science. Dr. and Mrs. Thorson and their family reside in Edmonton.

Given their theological presuppositions, it is clear that the pioneers of science were committed to the idea of an open contingency in nature. Moreover they also gave ample evidence that they did not conceive of their scientific knowledge as approaching a final, complete, or absolute character. For example, both Boyle and Hooke were quite explicit on this point: they stressed the incompleteness of scientific theories as hypotheses to be tested and used in further development, and they also recognized the possibility that alternative theoretical descriptions might be given for a given set of phenomena. Their "naive realism" was not merely simple-minded! Yet the scientific enterprise as they conceived it was ambitious and optimistic as to its aim-a true understanding of an objective reality in the creation around us. They were prepared to take their theories seriously enough to apply them in as broad a context as the circumstances of experiment and observation permitted, and thereby they made many startling discoveries.

Natural Philosophy

I have some sympathy for the term "natural philosophy" to describe science, for the term expresses something of this original view: the claim that from a direct and honest inquiry into the actual behavior of things in the natural world, we can build up a consistent, orderly, and rational account of that world, compatible with its behavior in every known and tested aspect, and excluding, by its own existence, an infinite number of hypothetical (but demonstrably false) alternatives. The adjective "natural" expressed a conscious opposition to "philosophies" of whatever type which are derived without a sustaining ground in creation itself and which, therefore, reject the concept of the open contingent universe in favor of ideas of rational necessity or some other extraneous "absolute." On the other hand the noun "philosophy" equally implied a continuity and an undefined boundary between scientific thought and the broader context of human thought, in which it had to be set in order to retain a sound perspective. At some point, the questions provoked by scientific thought can lead us outside the domain of scientific theories themselves, and we shall never be able to tell just when, how, or where that might happen. In describing Itscience as the natural philosophy of a Christian," I am saying that such attitudes are fully compatible with a Christian understanding of ourselves and the world as God's creatures and on the other hand also fully compatible with the most ambitiously creative and optimistic understanding of the aims of science as an enterprise. It is the modern philosophical views of science which are finally incompatible with its vitality.

For the most part it was not the working scientists themselves but the philosophers who were responsible for the departure of modern philosophies from the older naive realism, though to be sure many scientists came to take up the same attitudes, in the long history of the "warfare between science and theology." It was not Newton but Hobbes who tried to formulate an absolutist world-view on Newtonian mechanics, and that pattern has been repeated often.

Descartes: Originator of the Modern Philosophy

As the philosophers themselves do, I would identify Descartes (circa. 1650) as the explicit originator of the modern tradition in philosophy-and the departure from the older creed of science. The Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer has identified the claim to the autonomy of the human mind over knowledge as the essential act of apostasy in philosophical thought, and I think he is basically right about this. In Descartes we have the first clear expression of this claim. Although Descartes acknowledged the existence of divine revelation as a fact, he explicitly rejected the idea that philosophy could rest upon commitments of the philosopher to presuppositions and ideas derived from revelation; in other words, he defined the task of philosophy as the establishment of an intelligible knowledge of the world without presupposing any religious or personal beliefs. The ground for doing so he took to be the knower himself, and from this ground he proposed not only to derive all knowledge but also to establish it with certainty. It is an odd fact that, in spite of wild variations as to methodology and conclusions, the tradition of modern philosophy has tacitly accepted the task defined by Descartes as a legitimate one: a very heavy burden indeed, and grievous to bear.

The Cartesian project of proof emanating autonomously from the self poses insoluble philosophical problems.

I haven't time to give more than a brief summary of Descartes' viewpoint and its profound implications. As you will recall, his fundamental starting point is the famous "Cogito, ergo sum"-"I think, therefore I am." What Descartes means by this is: it is actually impossible for one who is in the act of thinking to actively or effectively doubt the reality of his own existence; the commitment to that is constituted by, and is present in, the very activity of thinking itself. This is true, and I do not wish to discuss it; my question is, what are the implications, limitations, problems and conclusions which arise if we take this as our starting-point? I should like to mention four issues raised by doing so, which unfortunately I cannot develop fully here.

(1) By introducing self-consciousness into rational discussion, as the primary fact of direct, conscious knowledge, Descartes poses the problem of the "self" for philosophy and becomes indirectly the father of existentialism. The sort of knowledge involved in "cogito, ergo sum" is existential, that is, it is accessible only to myself who am doing the thinking; it isn't at all the sort of knowledge I have of the objective external world outside my own mind. Jean-Paul Sartre identified this determined choice, to refuse all other bases for beliefs and knowledge and to insist on starting from the self (" being- for-itself") as himself a Cartesian.

origin, as the essence of existentialism and the really significant element in Descartes-and therefore Sartre called 

(2) Descartes' viewpoint divides reality into two primary categories: the object world, known by the self, and the egocentric subject (self) who knows. All other distinctions are secondary to this one. For example, distinctions as to the character of objective reality: all reality other than "myself" is "object," that is, "that which is known by me"-God, other persons, and inanimate nature are all alike objects of my cognition. This has the effect of emphasizing my activity-as opposed to the role played by the other-in knowing. This may (perhaps) be an adequate stance for knowing the physical world, but what if we try to use it to understand the dimension of the personal in the objective world? The Psalmist understood very well that in personal relationship the role of the other is vital, and in relation to God, it is primary, when he spoke of the fact that God knew him (Ps. 139; Ps. 19).

(3) Conversely, for Descartes identity of the self is constituted only in its theoretical activity of thinking and knowing. "I" am "he who knows"; this is not enriched or amplified by such identities as "I am he who chooses," or "I am he who acts in the world," or "I am he who believes (or trusts)." Indeed, the last possibility is explicitly rejected in the Cartesian program. I mentioned in my first talk that the philosopher of religion John MacMurray analyzed the deficiencies of this program, and, implicitly, of modem philosophy by pointing out that thinking and knowing are only one of the forms of human agency, and that he has developed this critique in a study of modern philosophy, in the book The Self as Agent,6 with the aim of understanding "the form of the personal" in human experience. His work is an invaluable contribution in mapping the influence of assessment of the Cartesian program on modern philosophy and indeed all of modern thought. Moreover, as Michael Polanyi has all of modern thought. Moreover, as Michael Polanyi has so clearly shown, even in the epistemology of science it has finally proved impossible to distinguish the identity "I am he who knows" from "I am he who believes (or trusts)." Lastly, the shallowness and absurd arrogance of the Cartesian identity is very simply laid bare for us by the apostle John: for him, there was something ultimately beyond knowledge, in being "in Him who is true" (I John 5:20), and a far more significant identity, in being "the disciple whom Jesus loved."

(4) The Cartesian project of proof emanating autonomously from the self poses insoluble philosophical  problems. If all truth is "that which is known by the self," and we take Descartes seriously in his insistence that we establish what we know with certainty, how can we do so? In particular, how can we show that such knowledge is not entirely the product of our own minds? This problem has been the grand obsession of modern philosophy. Kant, for example, devoted his main effort to attempting an answer to it, and modern positivism is directly descended from Kant in this concern. My point here is that the whole tradition stands squarely on the Cartesian platform: it has to do so, once the necessity of commitment as the functional context for knowing is rejected.

The scientists contemporary with Descartes mostly disagreed vigorously with his rationalistic outlook, which they quite correctly identified as the continuation of the medieval rationalism they so completely rejected. (Descartes' contributions to science were almost entirely in pure mathematics.)

Polanyi's Philosophy of Personal Knowledge

At this point I wish to comment on Michael Polanyi's aims in his philosophy of personal knowledge, which, I
think, has been widely misunderstood in some popular apologetics. Though Polanyi never discussed his work in
the context of the Cartesian program, it is quite clear that he rejects, as a contradiction in terms, the whole idea of
proof beyond the need for commitment, or a certitude which is beyond the possibility of risk for the knower;
therefore he also implicitly rejects the entire Cartesian program. Polanyi maintains that, for us as human beings, to
know is necessarily to be in a relation involving commitment as a continuing, active participation; commitment
must be responsible, but it is inescapably commitment, and hence the possibility of risk is always apparent to us as
knowers. Logical positivism had attempted to meet the Cartesian demand for objective certainty by completely
removing from science any element of personal participation. But by showing that personal participation in scientific knowledge, as in all our knowledge, is pervasive and philosophy, by pointing out that thinking and knowing are inescapable, Polanyi rejects Descartes and allows the return only one of the forms of human agency, and he has to an older conception of philosophy's task and to the naive realism which I have been defending here.

 I was therefore quite astonished when I first read the assessment of Polanyi's views made by Francis Schaeffer
 (and some other evangelical apologists). Schaeffer, for ex ample, identifies Polanyi's philosophy of personal
 knowledge as the last stage of existential skepticism, since  he interprets Polanyi as questioning whether we can even  have valid scientific knowledge!7 That this is a  misunderstanding of Polanyi's views is evident, and I  would hope that Schaeffer might not hold the same opinion on the subject today as he did when he wrote the passage in
question. More fundamentally, however, it seems to me  that Schaeffer believes that scientific knowledge could be
 obtained and maintained with certainty and without participating commitment and the entailed risk. Now it would seem absurd to me if he does so because he accepts the obligations imposed by the Cartesian claim to autonomy,
since for him (and for myself.) this is the real apostasy of  modern thought; therefore I can only assume that he
believes that scientific knowledge can be given certitude on some other basis. In some of his writing, he suggests that  fundamental presuppositions about the nature of science, and also some minimum of actual scientific assertions, are  part of a propositional revelation to be found in Scripture;  and he apparently feels that it is sufficient for certitude that one may reason logically and in rational, deductive fashion  from these propositions as presuppositional starting points  for scientific knowledge. Now, I would not deny that in  Scripture we have statements which offer us presupposi
tions about the nature of the scientific enterprise (I opened this paper with consideration of just such statements) and also that we have statements with actual scientific content. I would also agree with him that, logically and formally, a Christian view of science and of the universe as a whole can be framed from presuppositions founded in scriptural statements, and I share his concern that we emphasize the objective, referential, and logical character of scriptural statements. However, logical form and consistency are not sufficient to establish certainty for our knowledge. Knowledge is a dynamic thing which involves my necessary participation in a responsible personal commitment, and this inevitably involves risk (from the knower's viewpoint). Certitude is a state of mind, not an abstract rational quality which we may assign to propositions. To talk about epistemological certainty as something deducible in rational fashion from one's presuppositions is to remain within a medieval framework of thought. It is just this rationalist framework which was found wanting at the Reformation and the dawn of the scientific revolution. Our task now is to develop our positive understanding of knowledge, faith, revelation, creation, and the relations between them in a manner consistent with what was good and vital in those revolutionary changes.

In my third talk, I shall try to show that there are fundamental similarities between Michael Polanyi's approach to the problem of truth and human knowledge, and principles expressed in biblical statements on the same theme.

To understand clearly the development of the modern philosophies of science from the Cartesian program, we would have to trace that development through such intermediate stages as the classical empiricism of Locke and Hume, and the philosophical critique of Kant, as the preliminaries to positivism, logical positivism, operationalism, and analytic philosophy. Time does not permit this and I restrict myself to a few remarks.

Kant and Impersonal Objectivity

Kant, as I have said, was very concerned with proving that our knowledge can be true objective knowledge of a real external world. His concern was partly a reaction to romantic idealism, then developing in German thought, which taught that the creative intuition is the source of all our knowledge (the idea is expressed later in Keats' "beauty is truth, and truth beauty. . ."). Kant rightly saw that such a view by itself leads to pure subjectivism. I He attempted to establish objectivity by arguing that although our minds do impose a rational form on knowledge, the content of that knowledge originates in our experience of an external objective reality and is therefore not created by our minds. Using the famous "transcendental apperception" argument, he tried to show that the rational categories constructed by our minds are also not free inventions but are necessarily those appropriate to the objectively real world. This subject is fascinating and far from irrelevant (note, for example, the implicit connections to the ideas of rational intelligibility and contingency in the natural order which are so important to "naive realism"), but for my present purposes there are only two points I want to emphasize: (1) Kant accepted, and tried to satisfy, the Cartesian demand for rational certainty; (2) he tried to achieve objectivity by restricting the contribution of our personal participation in knowledge to a purely logical, explicit, and rationalform. After Kant, objectivity (and the possibility of epistemological certainty) was increasingly identified with impersonality, and the effort began to create an exclusive, objective, absolute "scientific knowledge" as "knowledge from the machine," which culminated in the modern forms of positivism.
The positivist conception of scientific knowledge excludes the possibility of ""truth" as something having intrinsic value or requiring commitment by those who know it.

There is a price for this sort of "objectivity": if what is objective is necessarily impersonal, then by its very nature what is personal cannot truly be objective. That other half of the Cartesian polarity, the existential ego, to whose I reality" we are all committed de facto-that other half cannot be ignored; so we have the emergence of existentialist philosophy as a fundamentally schizophrenic reaction to the positivist ideals. What began as a polarization in Descartes between the self as knower and the object of his knowledge, eventually became a radical dualism in thought. Tragically, "objectivity" went with one pole, but I I meaning" with the other, and modern man has not found it possible to reunite them. Within the Cartesian program, it is impossible.


Let's look at the issues in the myth of the objective as the purely impersonal. I don't have to describe positivism in detail for this audience; you have been widely exposed to it in your scientific education, even sometimes mixed up with the teaching of science itself.

In this myth "scientific knowledge" is identified with a crystalline, formal and logical deposit, whose consistency, validity, and meaning can be assessed and discussed independently of the process of its discovery, and of the knowers who currently believe and practice it. This is a primary assumption: if we accept it, we accept the fundamental dualisms which positivism creates, and all other concerns are secondary.

Such a conception ignores the agency of the knower, not only in original discovery but also in the continued existence and expression, or holding, of that knowledge. It implies that there is a radical distinction-not merely one of precision-between "scientific knowledge" and every kind of art or skill, since these depend vitally for their manifestation upon the presence and agency of a skillful performer. Michael Polanyi correctly saw that this disjunction would lead to the unravelling of Positivism as a philosophy, since the Practice of science is itself a skillful and artistic performance.

Positivist preoccupation with methodology-incidentally, an obsession which has spread far beyond the borders of philosophy in our technique-crazed culture-arises from the compulsion to divorce knowledge from its personal knowers. In the positivist view, a machine should be able to have "knowledge" and indeed generate it too. Descriptions of the "scientific method" are invariably written up in a way which conceals or minimizes participation of the knower in procedures, and instead focusses our attention exclusively on the formal and purely mechanical aspects of investigation. I shall not give a detailed critique of this alleged method, since such critiques are now widely known, but consider two or three essential points: Is it really true that science can be carried on by testing hypotheses generated at random? If not, where do hypotheses arise, and on what basis are some selected before others? Or, how can we impersonally decide whether or not a set of results is consistent with a given hypothesis? Is it really true that statistics provides an impersonal criterion of confidence? As Polanyi put it: this method is not an account of how we discover anything; it is an account of how we verify something we already believe to be true. While the "scientific method" does describe the formal and logical pattern of scientific testing, it does not recognize the personal participation of the skilled knower, whose agency renders the process dynamic and creative.

Positivist tendencies to conceal or deny the motive force or integrative meaning of scientific theories is another expression of the urge to remove the personal. A theory functions by pointing beyond the "facts" with which it is directly concerned as particulars; to a larger context of meaning which transcends them; it integrates particulars, to create for us an awareness of a larger whole, into which they fit as merely subsidiary, albeit necessary, details. Such vision is of course available only to those who commit themselves to the theory. The Copernican theory achieved this for those who believed it (Galileo, Tycho, Kepler, Newton); the Ptolemaic theory did not. Positivism ignores or denies the significance of this. On the positivist view, "facts" are supposed by themselves to assault our scientific nerve-ends and bring forth from our mechanically logical but unimaginative brains new hypotheses to account for them; and theories are merely after-the-facts convenient arrangements of all the relevant data. Nothing could be further from the truth; case after case from the history of science shows how the appreciation of a new rationality and a comprehensive excellence in a new theoretical paradigm has led believers to the definitive experiments which established its claims, while those who did not believe accomplished nothing. Nor is this relevant only for original or revolutionary discovery; it also provides the sustaining power for continued work. An experimental result is not a fact, but an interpretation; whether or not something is evidence depends on what you are looking for. We theoreticians like to remind our experimental colleagues that their very complicated experiments are a concrete manifestation of their deep commitment not to "facts" as such but to an elaborate background of theoretical conceptions which alone can give their data meaning (our reason for doing so, of course, is that we sometimes feel that some of these conceptions are rather mythical: a good case in point is the hold molecular orbital theory has on the minds of organic chemists! But I digress).

The positivist conception of "scientific knowledge" also excludes from it the possibility of "truth" as something having intrinsic value or requiring commitment by those who know it. Science is not concerned with "truth" in the old classical sense, but merely with facts. I have argued that our understanding of a scientific theory can point us beyond facts to a larger context of. meaning which transcends them as particulars; the possibility exists that this larger context of meaning may transcend science itself, so that we are encouraged from our understanding of science toward other more holistic responses. In the old naive realism this sense of a larger possible awareness lay at the heart of scientific creativity, "thinking God's thoughts after Him." Positivism's insistence on radical disjunction, on the impersonal, on "facts" alone as reality, denies that such a possibility exists. Our understanding of physics and astronomy, in short, really adds exactly zero, objectively, to the meaning of the Psalmist's hymn "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Ps. 19), or the dimension of his pondering in Psalm 8: "When I consider the heavens, the work of Your hands ... what is man, that You are mindful of him?" I do not believe that for one moment-and neither do you. Moreover we know that scientists of all sorts (not just Christian ones) are frequently moved to express a sense of awe and wonder by their contemplation of the natural order. According to the "facts" view of science, such responses are not merely irrelevant or invalid; they should not even be occurring. The fact that they do occur, and occur persistently, shows what we really do believe-and ought to believe-about the potential significance of our theories. I'm not pointing this out because I expect positivists to be interested in worship (or even conceive of it!) But suppose a Christian thinks that he can wholeheartedly share Mach's opinion that "scientific theories are merely convenient arrangements of the facts," or adopt Bridgman's operationalism, which says that scientific theories are mere formalisms allowing us to describe the measurable relations of sense phenomena and to manipulate those phenomena effectively; then it is my belief that he has unwittingly thrown away something of the biblical view of man, and has, in principle, accepted the profound dualism between fact and meaning which positivism has created and which eventually leads to the existentialist reaction.

All this leads to the dreadful conclusion-for positivists -that we are inextricably involved as persons with our scientific knowledge, just as we are with all our knowledge. We do not merely "know" it, we believe and hold it, in an attempt to grasp the outlines of an objective reality within which we are placed. It is never possible (even were it desirable) for us to escape such commitments, for our language itself betrays us. The beginning of the end for positivism came when it was recognized that even the most primitive information, to be communicated, must take form in language,- and language in its very structure contains commitments to a tacit theory of reality which we can never fully erase. The force of that conclusion has not been diminished by fifty years of analytic philosophy, and has if anything been strengthened by discoveries in modern linguistics.

 Proper Usage of Word "Truth"

Since we are talking about language, I think it is time now to make some remarks I promised in my first talk about the proper usages of the word "truth." Once again I remind you that I believe as passionately as any of you in "true truth," "absolute truth," or whatever other linguistic extremes you may feel driven to in your effort to reach out to the reality which is anchored in God, and that it is my purpose to proclaim the rationality and operative authority of such ideas. Clearly, whatever we mean by "truth," it is bound up with this business of "objectivity," since none of us holds to those existential philosophies or religions which allows us to suppose that we by our choices create the truth; and on the other hand few of us would like to explore the idea of an "objective knowledge" we possess, which is somehow not "truth."

When I said yesterday that I couldn't agree with the view propounded by Professor Gordon Clark that "science is not concerned with truth" or that "science does not discover truth," I said that this implies a semantic reservation regarding the use of the word "truth." I would take it that he reserves that word as appropriate only to describe the potential knowledge which we have from God by revelation through His word (never mind for the moment whether that revelation is propositional or not). I'd emphasize that it is our potential theological knowledge which is in question. Although of course we are prepared as evangelicals to assert that our actual knowledge is effective as a functionally authoritative approximation to a portion of that truth, we expect like the old Puritan that "God hath yet more truth to break out of His word." I know a great many Christians who wish to make a strong distinction between "ordinary truth"-the sort of truth that we can get at through science, and so forth-and "absolute truth" or "revealed truth"-the sort of truth Dr. Clark calls "truth." Now I think that what most Christians are getting at when they make this distinction, is some sort of claim about the source of the information, and possibly about its clarity as well. They are trying to say that there is a tremendous difference between God talking words to us, and our talking words about God's handiwork. They are trying to say that if God takes the trouble to speak words to us in our human language, then we may conclude that (a) the content of that speaking is much more important for us than created things themselves; (b) there is a clarity and definiteness of meaning in such speech, which comes from the Speaker's infinite wisdom and authority; and (c) there is consistent, logical reference to objective realities known to Him but possibly not yet known to us; therefore (d) such communication should have a transcendently greater measure of authority over us and our commitments. Well, I believe that, too, and I think we have a lot of solid hard work to do, to put these convictions about the importance of a revelation in words from God into intelligent and comprehensible terms. If such a distinction of quality were all that Professor Clark intends by his semantic reservation for the word "truth," then the differences between us would be only those of terminology, though I prefer my terminology for reasons that will become clear shortly. But I fear that his extreme reservation implies an equally extreme disjunction between two sorts of human knowledge: one sort having a kind of absolute, rational certainty to it because its source is revelation,  the other sort being basically wishy-washy and always radically in doubt because it involves our personal blundering around, trying to get the proper conceptual and articulate "handle" on things. I think that this overlooks the fact that all our knowledge, regardless of its source, has to be acquired and held by persons: it is still personal knowledge.

I spoke secondly of what I called a "functional ontology" of truth. Man's interest in the truth arises because he believes himself to be free to make choices which can alter the future in objective reality. Whenever we speak directly of "truth," we conceive that there is, in objective reality, a proper authority to which we should willingly hold ourselves responsible, as a basis for directing thoughts, actions, and even feelings. We conceive that, in commitment to and knowledge of that truth, we may be so instructed in the use of our choices that we ourselves acquire authority and freedom through it, and it becomes effective in shaping our destinies. Lastly we conceive that we may acquire some knowledge, at least in part, of this truth, and we think that our efforts and concern to do so have not been completely in vain, whenever we affirm that something is true. Now this does not mean that truth is "whatever I seriously commit myself to"; indeed, we are well aware that our commitments can be mistaken. Moreover (and it is important to recognize it) we also know that even when we know truth, we may (because of sin) prefer a lie which we or others have created, and enter upon the folly of ignoring and disobeying truth. Yet none of us -unless we have reached that desperate state of wickedness which Psalm I describes as "sitting in the seat of the scorner" -ceases to believe in the existence of truth, and indeed we are continually calling on our fellow men to share our perception of it. To live without truth is to live passively and without hope. We believe truth is; therefore the word is indispensable to us, on ontological grounds. To illustrate: here I am, arguing for a view I believe to be true, and there, on the other hand, is Gordon Clark, doing the same thing. Each of us is aware that both of us can't be right, but we both agree that truth is, and that it should have functional authority over us. Semantically then, I think we must use the word, whenever we recognize the effective presence-or potential presence-of that functional authority, even though we know that the risks of imperfect understanding and sinful desires are present for us as knowers.

To illustrate this "functional ontology" of "truth" in depth, let me give a pertinent example: The Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer, who coined the term "logical positivism," took his philosophy to such extremes that he actually claimed that there is no such entity as a selfconscious mind or ego (i.e. the "self") but only a succession of sense-experiences ("sense-contents"). To this claim, the Oxford Platonist C.E.M. Joad made one of the most devastating replies I have ever read, when he wrote.9, "When Ayer says that there is no such thing as a knowing self, but only a succession of sense-contents, does he include that self which thinks Ayer's thoughts, and writes Ayer's books?" This is devastating because, here is Ayer, passionately arguing for the truth of his philosophical ideas; yet these views are such that, if they were true, they would render such argument meaningless. Since we must choose between the two, surely we have to conclude that for Ayer, the belief in "truth" -something meaningful only to knowing selves-transcends any of his philosophical beliefs, and thereby in fact invalidates them.

Now I think that in the scientific enterprise we do have the potential capability to acquire a functionally authoritative approximation to a true understanding of the objective reality in created things around us, and that there are times when scientific knowledge can and should have such authority as truth, even though of limited scope, that it can correct or enlighten our understanding of communications coming to us from other sources. In fact, we have seen many instances of this in the last four hundred years; our understanding of what Scripture is telling us about creation has been influenced by the truth of science, and we simply can't deny that, nor should we wish to.

Conclusion: the Importance of Language

Positivism has been dead for some time now, and I did not exhume the corpse for the fun of deriding it. I have tried to show that the modern philosophies of science are finally incompatible with the reality of science in practice and with the continued vitality and creativity of science as an enterprise; moreover, the dualism between fact and meaning created by the doctrine of objectivity-as-the impersonal, leads to the reaction of subjective existentialism and ultimately the denial of all objective reality. I have argued that the "naive realism" which was the creed of the pioneers of science contains essential elements of an understanding which unites science in a more holistic fashion with other aspects of human knowing, an understanding in which faith and knowledge were not seen as antithetical but closely linked.

As I said earlier, I think Michael Polanyi's aim in beginning the formulation of a "philosophy of personal knowledge" was to recover for the modern mind an understanding of the common ground within which the essential continuity and interdependence of knowledge and faith ("responsible commitment") could be clearly seen as both inevitable and appropriate. This was not to deny objective knowledge, but on the contrary to uphold it. Christianity claims to impart objective knowledge of spiritual reality; to make this claim comprehensible, we must understand also what is meant by objective knowledge in those areas of focal concern to science, in such a way that it relates to all our knowing.

All our knowledge, regardless of its source, has to be acquired and held by persons: it is still personal knowledge.

Polanyi rightly perceived that this common ground would be found in an understanding of what Thomas Torrance has called the creaturely rationality of man, that is, the manner in which man knows and grasps anything, whether that knowledge comes by the tacit perceptions of his environment which he shares with the animals or by the articulate communications entailed in the gift of rationality and its expression in language. Polanyi realized that language, both as form and as function, provides the key to man's enormous conceptual superiority over the animals, yet in its very nature links this rationality to the tacit forms of awareness and functional skills shared by man with the animals ("out of the ground"!). So language, then, is the evidence on the one hand for the continuity between articulate and tacit awareness, and on the other is the means of man's uniqueness, effective transcendence and responsibility in creation. I did not say "source",- the aim of this understanding is not to build up an autonomous theory of the world or to "explain" creaturely rationality in some mechanistic fashion. On the contrary, it was to identify and proclaim clearly the truth that man is really unique and responsible through this gift of transcendence to a whole new dimension of objective, meaningful realities. This would be, I think, an interpretation of the biblical doctrine of the imago Dei, the image of God, in man. If this is true, we can begin to understand the supreme importance of the biblical concern with language and its affirmation that God speaks to men in a word of God. Although Polanyi did not explore the implications of a revelation in language within the context of his conception of human responsibility, it is an open possibility within the framework he had in mind. I hope to say something about this in my third talk.


1Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul,
London (1958); paperback, ed., Harper Torchlight Series, New York (1966).
C.A. Coulson, Science and Christian Belief. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C. (1955).
3R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Paperback edition, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh/London (1973).
4Thomas F. Torrance, Newton, Einstein, and Scientific Theology,
Eighth Annual Keese Lecture, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga,
Tennessee (1971). See also Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Incar
Paperback edition, Oxford University Press, New York (1978)
(previously published 1969 in hardcover).
5Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity. A. Knopf and Sons, New York (1971) (Borzoi Books).
J. MacMurray, The Self as Agent (1953 Gifford Lectures) Faber and Faber, Ltd., London (1957).
Schaeffer, He is there and He is not silent pp.50-54. Tyndale Press, Wheaton IL (1972)   
This view of Kant's motivations is given by John MacMurray (cf. Ref. 6).
9C.E.M. Joad, A Critique of Logical Positivism. Victor Gollanez, London (1950).