Science in Christian Perspective



Department of Biology
The King's College
Edmonton, Alberta T5H 2MI

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 2-6.

As theoreticians think about the foundations of their disciplines, the idea of unity holds a peculiar fascination for them. However, "unity" has been used in several different ways. Before discussing R. Maatman's book The Unity in Creation1 I would like to examine some of the more important ways in which the term "unity" has been used by biologists and philosophers of science. I do this in an attempt to contribute to the discussion started by Maatman's book.

The Tendency Towards More and More Inclusive Explanatory Theories.

In physics, the trend towards one fundamental explanatory concept which can explain all the phenomena in the field is remarkable. Bromley, in a 1980 review, states:

The past five years have been the most exciting, challenging, and productive in world physics since the late 1920's, just after the discovery of quantum mechanics. We appear to be on the threshold of an entirely new understanding of physical phenomena on a more fundamental level than ever before. And, gratifyingly, we find that in contrast to the fragmentation that characterized physics-and indeed many other sciences-in past decades, the underlying unity and coherence of our science is once again emerging.2

The unification theories bring under one explanatory roof, electromagnetism and weak and strong nuclear forces. Perhaps physics will be able to realize Einstein's dream and be able also to include gravitation in a unified field theory.3

Will biology be unified in a way similar to physics? Many biologists would like to see this; others feel that a unified theory will never be able to do justice to the great diversity of biological phenomena. Attempts at unification of biology have usually been based on the theory of evolution or on recent dramatic developments in molecular genetics.

The theory of evolution raises complex questions for the Christian. These have often been discussed in the pages of this Journal. Some Christians believe that progressive complexification has occurred under the guidance of the Creator; others do not. Not all Christians who accept a theistic version of the evolution theory accept that the theory is capable of unifying all of biology.

The functions of DNA, and related topics such as genetic engineering and viral genetics, are much in the news. Many biologists are of the opinion that an understanding of DNA has provided a key to an understanding of all biology. in this way, genetic theory is serving as a unification theory for many. The discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953,4 and subsequent theories of its function, excited the biological community. it meant for this community the possibility of a truly mechanistic5 interpretation of biological phenomena.

Perhaps it is because the theory of evolution was never able to free itself entirely of teleological connotations that there was such delight and excitement in the biological world over the discovery of the structure of DNA. Genetic theory complemented evolutionary theory, but, at the same time, provided a more mechanistic explanation for mechanisms of heredity and change.

How does one, as a Christian, evaluate the current fascination of the biological community with DNA? The first thing we need to say is that the structure and function of DNA have been elucidated by very ingenious and valuable work. We now have a fascinating description of the biological phenomena that lie at the basis of biological function. At the same time, in my opinion, it must be said that we would do an injustice to the complexity of creation if we identified the diversity of these biological phenomena with this biochemical substructure. It would be an injustice because many phenomena that biologists normally deal with are not suitable objects for biochemical explanation (e.g. phenomena in ecology or animal behavior). Thus, if we absolutize the role of DNA we lose some of the diversity of biology through a regrettable reduction.6

The tendency to absolutize the role of DNA is not confined to biology; it has spilled over into the social sciences. This is clearly shown in the controversy and events surrounding the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by E. 0. Wilson. According to Wilson, an organism is merely nature's way of perpetuating DNA.

In a Darwinian sense, the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to produce other organisms. It produces genes and serves as their temporary carrier.... The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA.7

Furthermore, Wilson suggests, altruistic behavior in animals and people is a mechanism by which DNA, an individual's own or that of a related indivdiual, is preserved.8 Wilson uses animal and human data to suggest that all behavior is completely genetically determined. Whether this is true of animals makes an interesting discussion, but most Christians would be quick to point out that it is not true for human behavior. To equate love of one's neighbor with the preservation of DNA is an inadmissible reduction because the biblical concept of human responsibility is lost in process. Sister Marie Augusta Neal has written a sensitive, incisive, Christian critique of Wilson's ideas.9 The fascination of the academic community with Wilson's ideas has led to their adoption in fields of study such as ethics10 and psychiatry.11 Dickson reports that extreme right-wing groups in Britain and France have used statements of sociobiologists to bolster claims of racial superiority and to excuse acts of violence.12 While some academics defended Wilson's views, R. Lewontin suggested that the Chinese might refer to them in terms of the three vulgarities: "vulgar Darwinism, vulgar Mendelism, and vulgar reductionism."13

We have seen that unification has brought integrity and excitement to physics, is more difficult in the biological sciences due to the diversity of biological phenomena and sub-disciplines, and can be reductionistic when one attempts to unify by applying biological theories to social disciplines. 14 This should not imply that a non-reductionistic theory or set of theories will not be posited in the future. In fact, unification theories in physics have also been described as reductionistic or non-reductionistic, i.e. holistic.

As we describe ways in which the concept of unity is used, we see that one of these is in connection with holistic theories and another is connected with a school of thought with reductionist tendencies.

The Goal in Holistic Theories.

The physical eclipse of mechanism ... has emboldened biologists to approach their own subject matter in synthetic as well as analytic terms-to perceive Gestalten where once they could see only additive assemblages of parts. And with this radical shift in perspective has come a sharpened awareness of the meaning of process in living systems: namely, the recognition of organisms as active and dynamic centers of directive striving rather than as inert or static mechanisms responding only passively to external stimuli.15

The organism as a unity, a whole, and a coordinated center of biological activities has been the concern of several wellknown thinkers. While many of these recognize the value of understanding isolated biochemical or physiological processes, they also feel that the complexity of such processes, their physiological context and meaning to the organism, must also be recognized. The term "holism" was coined by the South African general and statesman J. C. Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution." In this book Smuts suggests that in order to understand biological phenomena or structures, an appreciation of wholes, whether these be atoms, cells, or individual organisms, is essential. He attempts to do this without falling back into a speculative vitalism, characteristic of eighteenth century biological thought. This was a trap that other theoreticians who were concerned with the problem were often not able to avoid. Marjorie Grene, in her discussion of Adolph Portmann's work, has also shed light on the topic of the animal as a center of activities. 17 When biologists address these problems, they inevitably bring the idea of purpose of biological structures and processes into the discussion, to the horror of biologists who are more mechanistically inclined.

The concept of system has also been used by some writers in an attempt to bridge the gap between mechanistic and vitalistic theories. Ludwig von Bertalanff y, who coined the phrase "general systems theory", has suggested that within many disciplines are systems (types of processes) that can be approached by basic equations with a cross disciplinary character.18

For example, the exponential law or law of compound interest applies, with a negative exponent, to the decay of radium, the monomolecular reaction, the killing of bacteria by light or disinfectants, the loss of body substance in a starving animal, and to the decrease of a population where the death rate is higher than the birth rate. Similarly, with a positive exponent, this law applied to the individual growth of a certain microorganisms, the unlimited Malthusian growth of bacterial, animal or human populations, the growth curve of human knowledge .... and the number of publications on Drosophila.19

Von Bertalanffy gives equations for some of these processes, and suggests that in this way a unity can be perceived in the sciences. N. Weiner also describes systems, cybernetic or feedback systems, which apply to biology and other disciplines.20 Von Bertalanfly has postulated his theory as an alternative to the unity of science concept suggested by the Vienna Circle (see next section).21

Holistic (or wholistic) theories have been described for many disciplines by scientists concerned with the integrity of the phenomenon being studied, the unity of the organism in which these phenomena occur, or in reaction to the fragmentation that results from reductionistic or scientistic theorieS.22 In biology, holistic theories have received renewed interest by the environmental movement which, in turn, has received impetus, it would seem, from existentialism. Studies of topics such as biotope, ecosystem, food cycles and pollution, are an indication of this interest.

In an effort to do justice to such holistic theories and also to molecular, biochemical, and physiological topics, introductory 

Harry Cook studied at the University of British Columbia (B.Se.A.1960, M.Sc.A. 1962) and the Free University in Amsterdam (A.D., 1966). He has taught at Trinity Christian College (1969-77) and at Dordt College (1977-79). Since 1979 he has taught biology at The King's College in Edmonton (10766-97 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T5H 2M1). His research is on the endocrinology of fishes and on some of the theoretical problems that confront biologists.
college textbooks often adopt the "multi-level approach" or describe "levels of organization" in biological organisms.23 Such books deal with molecular biology, the cell, tissues, organisms, populations, and environmental topics. Thus the choice between a mechanistic or a wholistic approach to biology does not need to be made.

The Goal of Logical Positivism.

The scientific world conception is characterised ... by its basic attitude, its point of view and direction of research. The goal ahead is unified science. The endeavour is to link and harmonise the achievements of individual investigators in their various fields of science. From this aim follows the emphasis on collective efforts, and also the emphasis on what can be grasped intersubjectively; from this springs the search for a neutral system of formulae, for a symbolism freed from the slag of historical languages; and also the search for a total system of concepts. Neatness and clarity are striven for, and dark distances and unfathomable depths rejected.24

in order to achieve this ambitious aim, logical positivism, the philosophy put forward by the Vienna Circle of thinkers, rejects all "metaphysical speculation" such as religious ideas or biological vitalism. instead, this school emphasizes empirical verification, logical analysis, and takes physical science as a model for the other sciences. Several sources describe the ideas of this group.25

Unification has brought integrity and excitement to physics, is more difficult in the biological sciences, and can be reductionistic when one attempts to unify by applying biological theories to social disciplines.

Der Wiener Kreis was active in Vienna during the 1920's and 1930's. Some of its leading members were M. Schlick, R. Carnap, and 0. Neurath. The group accepted some of the ideas of Ernst Mach, and maintained ties with prominent philosophers in other countries, notably the Empiricists in Great Britain, The group disbanded in the 1930's, and its doctrines are no longer widely held. However, we do well to look at the effects of the Vienna Circle on modern science and the ideas of the Circle on the unity of science.

We have seen that logical positivists insisted on a strictly empirical approach and were critical of metaphysical concepts. These concepts include not only religious or philosophical assumptions, but also such ideas as vitalism, entelechy, or even wholeness. This, in turn led them to reject such theories as intuitionism in mathematics, assumed regularity in physics, teleological notions in biology, and undefined entities in psychology and sociology.26 While we must praise efforts to eliminate speculative or mystical concepts from science, the result of the Vienna Circle's critical approach has been its support of reductionistic schools within disciplines, notably behaviorism in psychology.

One of Mach's main concerns, which the logical positivists shared, had been to unify science, especially by rejecting the view that psychology is about an "inner world" that is different from the "outer world" which physical science investigates. The doctrine that both physics and psychogy describe "experiences" made such a unification possible.27

The unity espoused by the Vienna Circle is one which is based on the application of the methods of mathematics and physics to biology and the social sciences. We feel this unity is achieved by doing violence to the integrity of created reality.

While logical positivism has been pronounced dead as a school within philosophy, it lives on in the practical empiricism held by scientists within the various disciplines.28 Logical positivism has greatly influenced "the received view of science." Such practical positivism is illustrated in the rather naive philosophies espoused in opening pages of many books in biology. Witness this florid example:

So intense and urgent is the human desire to uncover the Secrets of the universe, both animate and inanimate, and even the mysteries beyond life, that much of the time, energy, and resources of many intellectually endowed individuals, have, since time immemorial, been expended in what is now called scientific investigation: the search for experimentally demonstrable truth.29

Scientific information thus began to spread from country to country and, more recently, from continent to continent. Instead of a few great scholars who were thought (even by themselves!) to know everything, men began to realize that there were boundless deserts and plains and illimitable dark forests of ignorance only awaiting the axe and plow of the devoted researcher to yield rich crops of wonderful, golden knowledge.30

Reaction against such an idealistic view of science was to be expected. Among scientists within the disciplines, the most widely read antipositivist author has been T. S. Kuhn. This author, oddly enough, published his book in "The International Encyclopedia of Unified Science", a series published by the logical positivist movement. An extensive review of this book has been published in this Journal previously.31

The Order in Creation Speaks of The Creator in A Unified Voice.

In the first place, there can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things, and, in particular, of an order of Nature.32

While philosophers have differed on whether there is order, either "out there" in nature or imposed by the mind, most practicing scientists believe in an ordered universe. Most have not thought about this distinction and expect an orderliness in the phenomena they study.

The Christian accepts by faith that this order refers beyond itself to a Creator. "Loving the Lord our God with all our mind must include using our minds in a search for the patterns according to which events in his universe are reliably predictable," states Donald M. MacKay in one of his books.33 Other Christian writers have written similar comments. The Dutch philosopher H. Dooyeweerd expresses as a major theme in his writings that "creation is meaning."34 Thus, he says, creation points beyond itself to a Creator."35

We may conclude that for most Christians, it is an essential part of faith that creation proclaims the glory of God. For the Christian scientist "creation" is not only the mountains and trees, but also sub-particles of the atom, metabolism of vitamin A, the embryological development of the starfish, and the migration of fish, to give a few examples. Thus creation speaks of God in a "united" way.

Unity as Discussed by R. Maatman.

At this point we consider how Maatman uses the concept of unity in his book. He is a physical scientist, so it is not surprising that the origin of his fascination with unity lies in the physics, in the tendency towards more and more inclusive theories that deal with phenomena studied by this discipline. He discusses this in Chapters 3 and 4 of the book. At one point he states:

We can make observations concerning the physical aspect of the universe.... We correlate our observations and express those correlations as physical laws. Further correlation shows us that many physical laws are related to each other; there is then a hierarchy of laws, so that there are only a few, but more inclusive, laws higher up.... The laws which are highest are sometimes referred to as fundamental ideas; physical scientists might yet develop a single law or fundamental idea at the top.... (p. 60).

In Chapter 5 the concept of unity is extended to include some aspects of our fourth point: there is a unity in creation which speaks of the Creator. There is structure and order that we perceive as we study natural events and processes. The notion of power is then introduced, first as a factor in cause-effect relations, then as an indication of God's upholding care in these events and processes. It is this power that for Maatman refers beyond creation to the Creator.

We owe Maatman thanks for pointing out to the Christian community that there ought to be a greater connection between our Christian commitment and understanding the theories of unity that are prevalent. Very little has been written by Christians in the sciences on this topic. I mention three points that need further clarification.

In the first place, Maatman presents unification of science as a goal. I have tried to point out that unity in science means different things to different groups of people. To some, especially those influenced by positivistic modes of thought, this unification has reductionistic emphases (see endnote 6). Maatman has stated clearly that he does not strive for unity if boundaries between disciplines are to be crossed (p. 129 and on). The Christian scientific community will have to work to clarify which uses of the concept of unity are acceptable.

A second comment is closely related. Maatman describes how different disciplines study different aspects of creation (p. 127). (This may be somewhat simplistic, as Maatman also knows, but we'll accept this for the discussion.) We cannot presuppose what these disciplines are, and where the boundaries between them lie (p. 130). Within an aspect, theories can be unified, at least potentially (p. 136). 1 appreciate in this line of reasoning that boundaries between aspects, disciplines, or whatever, are to be established empirically, rather than superimposed by a theoretical system. I also appreciate that by not wanting to unify if natural boundaries will be crossed, Maatman is attempting to prevent the reductionism found in some disciplines. My criticism here is that there seems to be a circularity in the argument: we can unify if natural boundaries are not crossed, and we perceive natural boundaries when our unification attempts fail.

My third point deals with Maatman's discussion of causality. There is a tendency, especially on p. 56, to discuss order and structure first, and then causality. in this way law, order, and related concepts have a tendency to become static concepts, devoid of the processes studied within a discipline. A concept of law, creation structure, order, etc., needs to include process, causality, and the like. God's upholding word, his law for creation, should not be seen as static, deterministic, or as a rational order. In other pages of the book, Maatman recognizes this and indicates that causality should not be seen as separate from creation order (pp. 64, 65).

The discussion started by Maatman is an important one which needs to be continued. We are thankful that he started it.


I am grateful for helpful suggestions by Drs. T. Van der Merwe and W. Van Dijk, and several colleagues at The King's College.


1Russell Maatman, The Unity in Creation, (Sioux Center, Iowa: Dordt College Press, 1978). All further references to this work appear in the text.

2D.A. Bromley, "Physics," Science 209,(1980), 110,

3ibid., p 112.

4J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick, "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," Nature 171 (1953), 737-738.

5 Mechanistic, a term used in several places in this article, can be used in two ways. It can be taken to mean a mechanical (e.g. physical or chemical) explanation for a process that can be explained in such terms. It can also be taken to mean a commitment to the use of mechanical explanations in all disciplines, even those where, in my view, they do not fully describe the complexity of phenomena in this discipline (see also endnote 6).

6Reductionism has a variety of definitions. For this article we can say that a reductionist approach to one of the disciplines is taken when phenomena of a more complex discipline are explained in terms from a less complex discipline. For example, reductionist approaches to biology attempt to explain biological phenomena only in physicochemical terms. Reductionist theories have been postulated for most of the disciplines. Many Christians think these do an injustice to the integrity of creation.

7Edward 0. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 3. The book is almost 700 pages long. It must be a source of irritation to Wilson to have the book reduced to a few cryptic sentences, such as the ones in this article.

8See also R. Dawkins, The Se~flsh Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

9Sister Marie Augusta Neal, "The Challenge of Sociobiology," Christianity and Crisis 40 (1980), 342-349.

10A.L. Caplan, "In What Ways are Recent Developments in Biology and Sociobiology Relevant to Ethics?" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 21 (1978), 536-550.

11MT, McGuire, "Sociobiology: Its Potential Contributions to Psychiatry," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 23 (1979), 50-68.

12D. Dickson, "Soclobiology Critics Claim Fears Come True," Nature 282
(1979), 348.


14Margaret J. Osler, "Apocryphal Knowledge: The Misuse of Science," in M.P. Hanen, M.J. Oder, R.E. Weyant, eds. (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1980), pp 273-290.

15Floyd W. Matson, The Broken Image: Man, Science and Society, (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966), p 146.

16Jan C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution, (New York, Macmillan, 1926), Other authors concerned with wholeness are discussed by Matson (footnote 15).

17Marjorie Grene, Approaches to Philosophical Biology, (New York: Basic Books, 1965), Chapter 1.

18For von Bertalanffy's views on wholensss, the importance of the individual organism as a unit, see his book Problems of Life, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960). For a review see P.B. Medawar, Mind 43 (1954),105-108. For a description of General Systems Theory, see L. von Bertalanfly, "An Outline of General Systems Theory," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, (1950), 134-163. For a discussion, consisting of contributions by several authors, see Human Biology 23, (1951),302-3M.

19von Bertalanffy (1950), p 136.

20Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Cambridge: M. 1. T. Press, second edition, 1961).

21von Bertalanffy (1950), p 164.

22Examples of holistic approaches to disciplines are Gestalt theory in psychology (see the pioneer work K. Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1935 and 1963) and structure functional theory in sociology (see, for example, R.K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Practice, New York: Free Press, 1968). C. Seerveld recently published a theory for a Christian holistic anthropology: "A Tin-Can Theory of Man," Journal ASA 33 (1981),74-81.

23See e.g. D.D. Ritchie and R. Carola, Biology, (Reading, Mass.: AddisonWesley Publ. Co., 1979), p 8; G.T. Miller, Jr., Living in the Environment, (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth Publ. Co., 1979), p 41.

24Otto Neurath, Empiricism and Sociology, M. Neurath and B.S. Cohen, eds., (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publ. Co., 1973) pp 305-306.

25J. Passmore, "Logical Positivism," in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: Macmillan Publ. Co., 1967); Neurath, Chapter 9.

26Neurath, pp 311-315.

27 Passmore, p 55,

28Passmore, p 56.

29M. Frobisher et at., Fundamentals of Microbiology, (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974), p 3.

30Ibid., p 16 ;

31H Cook, rev. of The Nature of Scientific Revolutions by T.S. Kuhn, Journal ASA 25 (1973), 34-38.

32Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modem World, (Mentor Books, 1963; first published 1925), p 11.

33Donald M. MacKay, Science, Chance and Providence, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

34Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1953) 1, p 4.

35Ibid., p 10 .