Science in Christian Perspective



Department of Chemistry
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 6-8.

The Christian confession of creation as expressed by Paul in Col. 1:16f, "all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities-all things were created through Him and for Him. He (Jesus Christ) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together," forms the context and the center stage for any discussion on the theme of unity and coherence. All creation finds its origin and existence (life) in Him and exists for Him (Rom, 11:36). The creational setting of the cosmos is therefore not a static one, but rather the creation is continuously upheld and dynamically directed towards the eschaton (Rev. 4:8,11). The creation on its pathway in history is subject to God's Law (ordinances, will) and thus nothing in reality is self-contained or self-sufficient. Its very meaning is found in being responsive to God's will.

The question before us is how this confession of the integrity and coherence of creation, despite the surd of sin, should impinge on and direct our scientific work. Several answers and pathways have been suggested in history. Maatman personally argues for a presuppositional physical science. Since "all men know there is a God and that He has eternal power" (Rom. 1:20) science cannot be properly taught or practiced without this supposition. In fact, we should find ways "to demonstrate for each aspect of creation that it is a coherent manifestation of God's creative and upholding power." The whole of reality is viewed as a coherent unity, a cosmos, and is therefore not subject to any disorder. The scientist acting on this presupposition believes all observations are interrelated and form a meaningful network.

The subsequent path of demonstration requires us to relate the physical order (regularities, observations, etc.) to God, the ultimate source of order. Certainly God is not physical in any sense nor is He the ultimate physical cause (although Maatman does describe Him as the ultimate cause). Thus this avenue of establishing a relation appears blocked. Maatman opts for another classical approach by suggesting that God, the Creator and Sustainer, acts coherently in a logical sense. it is of the essence of God's nature to be logically consistent and therefore faithful in a non-contradictory manner in his dealings with creation. Order in creation exists because God does not contradict Himself. Therefore, the order we should attempt to disclose in the physical aspect of creation is at bottom a logical order which is simultaneously the ground for any search for unity in creation. For example, the Deut. 6:4 passage, "The Lord our God is one Lord," is seen as revealing the essential oneness (the logical simplicity?) of God and thus condemns every form of polytheism. Any polytheistic parallel in physical theory is therefore also excluded. "The ultimate cause of our gravitational observations" cannot be in conflict with "the ultimate cause of our energy-conservation observations."

Since if there is a single cause of whatever men observe and this cause is subject to the logical law of non-contradiction, it follows that we must be able to logically relate and correlate our observations as we formulate natural laws. We should even be able to link these laws in a tighter logical network and thus conclude that there may exist one law (fundamental idea) or a small (simple) set of complementary laws or principles. Simply stated, any movement from many observations to fewer principles is a movement in the direction of greater logical unity. This unity, if reflective of God's nature, should be evident in our scientific endeavors. In fact, Maatman continues, the history of science is but the confirmation of this central principle.

It is unclear to me why the search for unity in creation has to follow this particular path. I think, if I may state it succinctly, it misreads the scriptural revelation on the Creator/creature distinction. It all too frequently interprets it in the scholastic mold of an analogy of being: Ultimate Cause, immediate cause(s); ultimate Unity, relative unity; Archetype (of these who care), ectype. Does this approach not support the idea that God is subject to logical laws or conditions that must necessarily hold for Him as well as His creatures? How can God then be considered as the Sovereign? If God is perceived as the Ultimate Cause, does this not rule out probabilistic approaches and stochastic processes in the sciences and argue instead for a (static) determinism? What remains of human responsibility in our scientific endeavors? Or are humans not subject to conditions in the manner physical entities are?

Although other questions could be raised, the major point I wish to explore is the validity of Maatman's claim concerning the historical development of science, "history ... shows that physical scientists understand more clearly, as time passes, that there is but a single cause of all physical scientific observations." (p. 70) Taking science in its present form, Maatman wishes to derive from science (and ultimately from God's nature) the model of its explanation and understanding of natural phenomena. One key feature in this argument is the conflation of physical and logical order in the sense that the logical order reflects the physical order, i.e., the order in time of cause and effect is reflected in logic in the order of premise and consequent. This close "identification" also suggests that scientific knowledge is best acquired by taking the logical product of statements describing the components of natural processes, or conversely by empirically testing the truth of statements that are the consequences of higher-order theories or laws (fundamental ideas). in general one can ask if this approach does not assume a derivational reduction scheme is normative for physical theories, and further whether it rests on a methodological commitment to the logical unity of science.

The norm of derivational reduction is hardly met by most, if not all, extant physical theories. Efforts at axiornatization of theories such as classical mechanics, thermodynamics, classical electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics have not been all that successful. Often several axiornatizations are possible for a physical theory. In the main, scientists come up with descriptions of various structures and regularities that are related, for example, by having a common object of study, rather than by being immediately deduced from a common set of fundamental ideas (laws) or axioms. I do not mean to minimize the role that reduction and axiornatization can play in the development and extension of physical theories. But it cannot be the dominant theme. If it were the "name of the game" or ruling paradigm, we would have to either discard many of our physical theories or issue promissory notes, due who knows when.

One brief example illustrates this points. Despite many efforts, the classical program of physics "tracing the phenomena of nature back to the simple laws of mechanics" as Heinrich Hertz expressed it, has not been realizable. The universal validity of the second law of thermodynamics could not be reduced to dynamics, or conversely, Carnot's principle as expressed in the second law does not follow from the conservation of energy (first law of thermodynamics). Even the statistical regularity of systems composed of a large number of molecules, as described in statistical mechanics, could not be reduced to classical thermodynamics. The macroscopic irreversible processes described by the second law cannot ultimately be explained by the reversible motion of microscopic entities. Spontaneous fluctuations at the microscopic level had to be introduced as an irreducible Fremdkorper into the theory. Classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics appear to be physically complementary, each with a different range of validity and application.

Limits of space prevent me from discussing other examples, but an examination of the relations between, say, special relativity and general relativity or between classical chemistry and quantum chemistry will cause similar reductive issues

Arie Leegwater was educated at Calvin College (BA 1962), Ohio State University (Ph.D., 1967) and The Free University of Amsterdam (1967-1969). He is presently Professor of Chemistry at Calvin College and offers occasional courses in the History of Science. Professor Leegwater has received various awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the area of history and philosophy of science. He is presently investigating the interrelationships between chemistry and physics during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
to surface. We are faced with a plethora of theories and laws many of which are not related to each other in any apparent or imaginable deductive scheme. If that is the case, what does it say about the claim of (logical) unity in science? I would maintain that a different historical point can be made. Efforts to find unity within creation tend to conflate or reduce one physical theory to another, and consequently minimize the diversity of approaches that are required in the investigation of typical structures of matter (e.g. atoms and molecules).

Despite the existence of a range of general, universal laws (laws of motion, special theory of relativity, laws of classical thermodynamics, conservation laws) and some more restricted ones (laws of classical electromagnetism) none are capable either singly or jointly of explaining or giving an adequate account of the structure and stability of an atom of a particular element. By emphasizing only the more general relationships in reality insufficient recognition is given to the fact that physical entities are generally individuals of a certain kind. As integral wholes with their own typical structure (law) they are often irreducible to their constituents. Such instances must not mean that we declare the classical, more general theories to be invalid, but should rather encourage us to develop an understanding of reality in which the mutual dependence of theories and laws is highlighted and honored in our scientific work. For an elaboration of this position, see the recent book by M.D. Stafleu, Time and Again: A Systematic Analysis of the Foundations of Physics, Wedge Publishing Foundation, Toronto, Canada (1980).

The theme of unity and coherence properly explores the mutual relatedness of all things in creation. Man, as the crown of creation, and all creatures great and small are inter-related and inter-dependent. The creational setting in which man finds himself-as revelation-requires that he respond to God's call and act responsibly in unfolding, disclosing, and even enjoying the richness and diversity of potential and actual structures. But no structure or relation-whether physical or logical (or analogically conceived)-can grasp or encompass the radical character of the creature's dependence on the Creator. There is always a sense in which the very structures themselves defy analysis and explanation. Their individuality and uniqueness harbor the mystery of creation: the divine origin and continued sustenance of all things.

No structure or relation can grasp or encompass the radical character of the creature's dependence on the Creator. There is always a sense in which the very structures themselves defy analysis and explanation.