Science in Christian Perspective



Truth and Epistemology in Science..

J.C. Keister
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain
Tennessee 37350

From: JASA 33 (September 1981): 138-141.

Dr. Thorson's talks (See Journal ASA 33, March, June, September (1981)) have been most interesting and stimulating to me. He has been most generous (and patient) with me as we have discussed some of the issues together. In fact, we have resolved most of our misunderstandings and are down to basic disagreements (friendly, of course).

Besides our being brothers in the Lord, there is much we agree about. There are a number of statements in particular I would like to highlight from Dr. Thorson's addresses. From the second address:

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, if we also say that we believe it has a rational order, then:

and Dr. Thorson gives two alternatives, accepting the second:

... 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) .... 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.

I refer to the "potentially true" portion later on as a problem which, perhaps, science cannot overcome.

The next statement is taken from his third address:

Scripture clearly affirms that without a revelation of the Word of God we could have no significant knowledge of God to discuss.

And lastly, also from his third address:

Scripture has a great deal to tell us about how "knowing" really works in relation to any level of reality.

I rely in my response on principles similar to the above in discussing questions of truth and epistemology in science.

Remarks About Polanyi

As Dr. Thorson has mentioned, Polanyils book Personal Knowledge contains a wealth of information on the history of science as well as valuable insights about the psychology of learning and the skills of performance. In addition, of course, he has much to say about knowledge in science. The most interesting (and, for Polanyi, the most basic) series of statements forming the foundation for his epistemology of science are the following:

Yet this group of persons-the scientists-administer jointly the advancement and dissemination of science. They do so through the control of university premises, academic appointments, research grants, scientific journals and the awarding of academic degrees which qualify their recipients as teachers, technical or medical practitioners, and opens to them the possibilities of academic appointment. Moreover, by controlling the advancement and dissemination of science, this same group of persons, the scientists, actually establish the current meaning of the term "science," determine what should be accepted as science, and establish also the current meaning of the term "scientist" and decide that they themselves and those designated by themselves as their successors should be recognized as such. The cultivation of science by society relies on the public acceptance of these decisions as to what science is and who are scientists. (pp. 216, 217)

Now, Polanyi tries to give assurance that scientists, by means of cross checking one another, won't go that far
astray, but the record shows that serious errors have been made by the scientific community as a whole. He gives the following accounts:

. . : Ordinary people were convinced of the fall of a meteorite, when an incandescent mass struck the earth with a crash of thunder a few yards away, and they tended to attach supernatural significance to it. The scientific committees of the French Academy disliked this interpretation so much that they managed, during the whole of the eighteenth century, to explain the facts away to their own satisfaction. It was again scientific scepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena occurring in the form of miraculous cures and spellbinding, and which-even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors-denied for another century after Mesmer's first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in a spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture. We regard these acts of scepticism as unreasonable and indeed preposterous today, for we no longer consider the failing of meteorites or the practice of mesmerism to be incompatable with the scientific world view. But other doubts, which we now sustain as reasonable on the grounds of our own scientific world view, have once more only our beliefs in this view to warrant them. Some of these doubts may turn out one day to have been as wanton, as bigoted and dogmatic as those of which we have now been cured. (pp. 274, 275)

It would seem, by inference from Polanyi's views, that what constitutes science, scientific methods, etc., is subject to change as scientists change their minds. In fact, it would appear that the only thing in science which one can guarantee (in principle) will not change is the fact that everything else will. It should be noted that such a conclusion is not all that different from Dr. Clark's and that therefore, inferences from Polanyi's view on the ultimate bases for epistemology in science might well lead one to sympathize with the views of Dr. Clark!

Remarks About Dr. Clark

Dr. Clark would agree with all the remarks that Dr. Thorson has made about his beliefs, with the exception of a part of the following paragraph in the second address:

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 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.

The disagreement, I believe, hinges more around why Dr. Clark considers knowledge in Scripture to be truth and scientific knowledge not to be the truth. It has to do not with the fact that scientific knowledge is personal, but rather with Dr. Clark's belief that the mind of God is unchanging, and truth which is unchanging must be associated with archetypes in the mind of God. Since the world created by a purposive God could well be changing according to his purposes, one cannot establish truth simply by observing the world; rather, one must turn to Scripture to ascertain truth. Dr. Clark is not opposed to science; he considers science to useful and helpful. He just does not

It is not necessarily the case that the faith of Christians would suffer if it were found that the truths and methodology of science were in fact false in some way.

consider science to be a tool to obtain truths, which for him are eternal. He also does not consider that he himself possesses 100%o confidence of having absolute truth!

Truth and Epistemology in Science

The statements made by Dr. Thorson on truth and epstemology in science may be summarized as follows:

1. The basis of science is that God's purposes are invariant and therefore the laws of nature are invariant.

2. The invariant laws of nature can be closely approximated by inference from observed phenomena.

3. Scientific laws can therefore truthfully describe parts of reality, the knowledge of which is cumulative, building up a consistent, orderly account of the world.

4. Any critique cutting down science also tends to cut down Christianity, because scientific knowledge in many respects is like other knowledge, including theology. Therefore, for example, a philosophic position using operationalism in science would seem to force one to use operationalism in theology.

5. Lastly, cutting down science by insisting it cannot contain truth is bad for morale, and will hurt scientific efforts.

In response to the thrust of what (I believe) Dr. Thorson is saying, I would like to consider the science of demography (population growth). In demography, mathematical formulae have been developed based on models of human behavior in an attempt to determine what the population of various countries and the world will be like in the future. The problem with this method is that there is no mathematical formula in the world which can exactly predict the population growth of a purposive people. Each individual person makes his own decisions about the size of his family, where he will live, and so on, none of which can be predicted by mathematical formulae of any sort. One would have to know the mind of the individual involved to be able to understand and predict what he or she will do. To be sure, there is a tendency for an aggregate mass of people to be more "mechanistic" in the short run because the effects of the purposes of large numbers of individuals tend to cancel out. But sometimes, powerful individuals make decisions that can significantly affect the population of the whole world. Consider Hitler and World War 11, Stalin and his 1930 purges, or Mao Tse Tung and the estimated 30 to 60 million deaths he is reputed to have caused. In the U.S., the Supreme Court decision on abortion in 1973 drastically affected population increases. None of the above incidents could have been predicted by any sort of mathematical formula, without knowing the minds of the people involved.

Here is the point of all this:

Scientific laws, represented by mathematical formulae, cannot with certainty or absolute accuracy correlate observable quantities unless it can be assumed that those quantities are governed in a mechanistic, non-purposive manner.

What about the world? Is it governed in a purposive manner? I think the Bible rather clearly states in various psalms, Genesis, Job (esp 37:13) and Hebrews that God both made the world and governs it as well for his purposes.

Perhaps God governs the world but never changes the way he governs it. I think the miracles are evidence that this is not necessarily so. Furthermore, the world had a definite beginning and will end, thus making it impossible for such governance to be unchanging, at least in terms of what is observable.

If we accept all the foregoing, is not God being unfair to us by not specifying how things will be changing and when? An examination of John 21:25 should indicate that many, many books would be required if God were to tell us all his plans for future changes, in view of the books that would be required to tell us all that happened to Jesus in his three short years on earth. In compensation for this, there are the promises throughout the Bible for the protection of the believers. God has indicated that he will take care of us regardless of what occurs.

Note that I am not saying God's purposes change; they do not. But his unchanging purposes may still necessitate changes in operational relationships on earth such that there would be no such thing as "eternal" scientific truths.

Have we undermined Christianity by restricting science in such a manner? I don't think so. As a matter of fact, the Bible has far more authority over truth and falsehood than observations of the world around us, as Dr. Thorson has mentioned. In fact, it would be good to compare some of the differences between the actual methods of knowing (in the biblical sense) and knowing (in the scientific sense):


1. Written without error-the infallible word of God,

2. The actual words are given by God without error.

3. Truth is either specifically mentioned or deducible from Scripture - no logical fallacies are inherent in the process.


1. The world being investigated is fallen and has many flaws.

2. Man translates perceptions into words possible sin and error enter. Also there are measurement errors.

3. "Truth" is arrived at by induction which is technically a logical fallacy. Another theory (besides the one considered true) might also explain the observed results.

These are but a few comparisons that indicate why the truths of the Bible are far more authoritative than any "truth" of science could hope to be. Note, too, that the methodologies are really considerably different. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that the faith of Christians would suffer if it were, found that the truths and methodology of science were in fact false, in some way. Furthermore, one would think that if it is correct to assume that the loss of science would weaken the faith, then how do we explain the fantastic joy, hope, and faith of the early church, before there was any science at all, as we know it today? In fact, I doubt that one could really compare the vitality of the church today and the church back then. I also doubt that one could prove that science has necessarily weakened the faith as some people have maintained, although a case could be made that the misuse of science might have weakened the faith of some. Nevertheless, I doubt very much that God's purposes and plans of salvation are contingent upon the preservation of science as we know it today.

What about the morale of the scientist? If what I have said is correct, than what can the poor scientist do, who has spent all his career life, hoping against hope that the theories he works with are indeed "true"? I'll have to admit that my own reaction when I came to believe this, was similar to the child who had been told that one S. Claus does not in fact exist. But, if what I believe now is correct, should I have been kept in the dark for the sake of my morale?

Finally, what then should scientists and other technical people do? In my opinion, they can (among other things) do the following:

1. Continue with mathematical correlations, but just do not expect from them what they cannot do, namely, generate confidence that one has discovered some sort of invariant eternal law. Remember, according to Dr. Thorson himself,

. . . scientific theories . . . . always remain open to further, unanticipated extensions; they [can] not, even in principle, be "necessary," absolute, or comprehensive in scope.

2. Examine the Scriptures carefully to assure that any socalled scientific laws are not at variance with Scripture. I recognize that we need to be sure our interpretation of Scripture is correct, using Scripture to interpret Scripture. If we are unsure after all this, then we are unsure regardless of what scientific "laws" are brought to bear.

3. Apply whatever correlations one obtains to the task of subduing the Earth. Subduing the Earth also includes solving pollution problems; otherwise, the Earth will subdue us!

4. Continue work on the philosophy of science in concert with studies in Scripture with the objective of obtaining a completely coherent philosophy of science in tune with scriptural principles. As Dr. Thorson has said, "Scripture has a great deal to tell us about how 'knowing' really works in relation to any level of reality."

5. Study more the history of past thinking in science. I think if at the very least the idea of finding "truth" in science is relaxed to some extent, we may strengthen the respect we have for the thinking of other ages. We may want to look especially at some of the thinking that has "lost out" in times past. For example, Leibnitz is reputed to have used "pre-relativistic" ideas to criticize Newton. Newton "won out;" his notion was considered "true" and Leibnitz's was not. Leibnitz's ideas were forgotten for over 200 years. Had physicists been a little less certain that they possessed the truth with Newton's laws, it might have been that the ideas of relativity could have developed earlier (this is conjecture, to be sure!) C. S. Lewis has warned us of the problem of "chronological snobbery" (the idea that we, in this enlightened age, have so much more truth than people of other ages, that we do not need to even consider what such people said). To counter this tendency, he recommends reading "old books." Perhaps scientists may get inspiration and ideas by reading ancient scientific theories as well as the most up to date theories.

Finally, I'd like to comment once again that my disagreement hinges not on my possession of greater assurance of knowledge than Dr. Thorson has but on less. I admire his assurance, although I don't agree with it. I also sympathize with his concern about the fate of science.

Ultimately, though, what we have in common is much more important:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38,39)