Science in Christian Perspective



Department of Physics
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, Indiana

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 8-11.

The cosmos appears incredibly harmonious to me as a physicist, exhibiting a deep unity among its structures within its various domains. At least such a coherence appears authentic when we view the world through our conceptual apparatus of ideas, and of course we cannot easily lay aside this apparatus. We are quite naturally led to ask whether or not this appearance of unity is a false impression, or perhaps wrongly formulated. What, in fact, shapes what we find? Will our unifying perspective of today escape a demise similar to that of the adamantly affirmed ones of past ages?

To get at these questions I wish briefly to consider what has shaped past unifying perspectives, what might be called world views on the grand scale, and to discuss what factors led to their reformulation or abandonment. My purpose is to clarify what, in fact, it means to have a unified viewpoint, and to understand better the factors that have shaped it. We should then be more sensitive to the strengths as well as the limitations of a unifying perspective. Finally I suggest a direction for future unifying efforts. In this short essay I cannot thoroughly consider the full historical support for my premises, but I tentatively put them forth for discussion.

From historical studies it becomes clear that the nature of the unity or unifying perspective that a scientific community adopts is strongly shaped by the community's accepted aim or goal for the scientific endeavor. Furthermore, whether explicitly or tacitly, this adopted aim then influences the choice of scientific procedure to be adopted and, most importantly, it sets the stage for what the community means by explanation. The particular explanatory perspective adopted may in turn influence the perceived aim-but the point is that the interaction of both sets the course in the search for unity. (Naturally this is true only if the aim adopted judges the search for unity as a potentially rewarding endeavor. I assume that it does).

An outstanding illustration of such influences can be seen in the important squabble between Galileo and his contemporary Aristotelians. The Aristotelians can be criticized for their narrow mindedness but not for their lack of a unified system. Their scheme was highly rational and systematic and even led to "deep" explanations. It provided a common-sense way of studying nature, and suggested appropriate questions, even appropriate experiments, while judging others to be improper or irrelevant. But Galileo broke with the Aristotelian perspective when he redefined the aim of science; he formulated a different aim for science, and with it, a new notion of what was meant by explaining something. This new focus led to a new methodology. Science became a search for the quantitative (such as size, weight and number) instead of for qualities (such as color and taste). The task became one of explaining nature by reducing it to a new conceptual set, the mathematical. So while an Aristotelian "explained" motion by identifying certain qualitative aspects and relating such to essential properties, Galileo searched out quantitative relationships and "explained" the phenomena in terms of mathematical relations. These new relations became the real essence of nature. And of course, neither was happy with the other's scientific aim or categories of explanation.

Certainly Galileo is not the only illustration of such influences. Issac Newton also introduced a significant shift in aim and explanatory concepts, as he sketched in the Principia and in Opticks. The search for a scientific understanding became a new search for a unified perspective, and this was to be gained by first investigating the phenomena using analysis. Analysis, for example, isolated the crucial forces behind the phenomena and also aided in formulating a theory relating the forces to phenomena. The success of this endeavor was to be demonstrated by then applying the theory and forces to new phenomena. If success were then achieved, Newton claimed a new unification that could be put forth as an explanation of the phenomena. Nature's secrets had been laid bare, or at least more bare. Certainly in this Newton marvelously succeeded although it must be said that, in fact, he was not completely satisfied with the completeness nor finality of such an explanation. But the initial goal was to have ended here. A new category of explanation-that of force-was introduced. Of course Newton's contemporaries were not all happy either with his aim or his category of explanation. Leibniz thought it akin to re-introducing occult causes; the Cartesians thought it to be lacking the real and essential mechanisms and in violation of indubitable maxims as well.

The important thing for us to note is the central controlling influence that the different aims exerted in shaping the nature of the perceived unity and the character of explanation as well. Galileo's aim differed from that of the Aristotelians, and Newton's from the Cartesians. Each shift in aim modified the nature of the unity expected and accepted.

Now when reviewing such historical struggles, it is tempting to conclude that the essential feature evident is the maturation of science. Science has matured-that I do not wish to deny. However, it is not always clear that a particular shift in scientific aim or in the criteria for what constitutes a good or a complete explanation, is in fact, progressive. Maybe progress was made; or maybe something (not necessarily everything) was lost. But what is clear is that one's judgment is shaped to some extent by his perceived aim for the endeavor. In any case, maturation and progress often come about by adopting a new aim.

Thus historical and philosophical enquiries have led us to recognize the existence of a very complicated situation. We cannot hope to get at nature at a deep level without using theoretical structures to help us define, develop and interpret the needed conceptual ideas. And of course the accepted aim for this endeavor influences our choices of theories and guides our thinking about what we expect to learn about nature from such theoretical /conceptual structures as well. However it is

Robert W. Manweiler majored in physics at the University of Kansas where he received his bachelor's degree, He then pursued graduate study in physics at Cornell University. After growing weary of the "dirty work" associated with electron accelerators, he took the easy road and went into theoretical nuclear physics. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1972, he went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. However desiring both to work with university students and to more substantially challenge them in the Christian faith, Bob left ORNL and attended Biblical Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. He received the M. Div. degree from the latter institution. He then went to Calvin College to teach in the physics department, and for one year he was a fellow of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. The topic Of the CCCS team was "Faith and Reason". Bob is presently in the physics department at Valparaiso University, and in addition to the more traditional physics responsibilities, he regularly teaches a Philosophy of Science course. He and his wife actively work with IVCF at Valpo, and are members of a PCA church.

hard to escape the fact that, to some extent, concepts and theories interact, and meaning and explanation emerge within the context of the theory. Such rational schemes can powerfully extend our probings into the deep structure of nature and therefore help us carry out the perceived aim. But of course their adoption also brings a certain degree of tunnel vision or blindness.

When we attempt to get at the essence of nature, we, at least in the physical sciences, must rely upon these theoretical-conceptual schemes. We use them to identify and analyze phenomena, to formulate our questions. And if we are "lucky" (as were Newton and Einstein) we can formulate more universal, more profound and deeper unified theories. We then hope that these theoretical schemes capture the deep relations of nature.

Since God created man and the cosmos together, should we not expect a complex interaction to exist between the perceiving subject and creation, which also must be rejected within an overall unifying perspective?


But then what happens? These formulations are often turned around to interpret what nature is like! Thus while Newton interprets some of nature's characteristics using his mechanics, Laplace extended its applicability to more dogmatically tell us what nature is really like-it then became mechanistically deterministic because theory said it was so. But was it not the aim of the scientific endeavor to do just this, to formulate theories that then can be used to get at nature at a deeper level? I think so. We still do it today. Indeed, some would argue that such Laplacian naivete has been displaced after the advent of quantum theory, because quantum physics now tells us what nature is really like. Our aim, you see, is the same-to get at nature at an ever deeper and deeper level. But obviously there are pitfalls there, for we so easily absolutize our present conceptual theoretical perspective.

Where do we end up? The aims of the scientific endeavor, carried out by means of concepts and theoretical structures and networks of such all come to shape what we accept as explanatory. Thus the unity that one finds is determined, at least in part, and limited by this aim. Is this subjectivism? Need we therefore become skeptics, plunged into total subjectivism or into an extreme idealism in which our perceptions are so distorted by our minds and by our aim that we learn nothing of the real world?

Certainly historical investigations that bring to light the great distortions of the past may indeed make one skeptical of the present scientific endeavor, leading one to believe that its trustworthiness is no greater than those of yesteryear. But while I think that this critical attitude offers an important corrective to an overly naive confidence in our own conceptual perspective that is only too easily absolutized, I still think that it is much too pessimistic. Yet it does seem hard to find the narrow way between skepticism and a naive view of science. But where do we turn? Need we give up even a modest realism?

Some have tried to resolve the dilemma by arguing that the aim of science should not be one of getting at the deep levels of nature. They suggest that our aim should be to economically organize phenomena in an instrumental sense. In this view of science such claims to knowledge are so weak that one simply lives with a great deal of relativism. But it seems to me that such an extreme instrumental portrayal of science, even though more sophisticated than that of the positivists, still misses the very heart of what we have hoped for in the doing of science. For example, it does not harmonize with Einstein's central motivating drive to get to the essence of nature. I think that we must be slow in accepting an instrumental view. We must resolve the subjectivity problem by another road.

Furthermore, if there is to be any convergence, any progress to the endeavor, and there certainly seems to be such, this must mean that in part the initially adopted aim itself must be shaped and not arbitrary. But by what? It would seem that such guidance must come not only from our own conceptual choices and rational thought as we wrestle to make sense of the phenomena, but it must also come somehow from nature itself. Yet at any present moment one cannot forget the importance of the guidance provided by one's aim.

I think that we can learn something from this complicated picture that too often leads to skepticism. Indeed I think that our Christian perspective can give us an important directive. We should perceive a yet different aim for the endeavor. If so, of what sort? If we accept as a tentative goal the search for unity, should not this unity be one including both creation and its perceiving rational creatures? Since God created man and the cosmos together, should we not expect a complex interaction to exist between the perceiving subject and creation, which also must be reflected within an overall unifying perspective? (And such interaction need not be limited to that proposed by Niels Bohr.)

The existence of such an interaction would not necessarily make our task more futile or radically subjective, but more challenging. It warns us that when we study and theorize about nature, our categories of conceptualization cannot help but have some effect upon what unities we perceive-and so we must work hard also to discern, but not necessarily eliminate, the correlations between creation and our conceptualization of it. This added dimensionality perhaps helps us understand why there are so many different vantage points from which to stand and analyze. Furthermore, the challenge is to relate these different vantage points, perhaps as different levels of explanation. The nature of the unity we might expect should be sought in a likely complicated, multidimensional set of conceptualizations and theoretical structures-all of which organize not just creation, but creation and the rational creatures that perceive it. And when we examine the broad perspective from multiple vantage points, are we not seeing cross-sections of such a complex unity like projections of a multi-dimensional function?

Of course one may argue that we have lost the objectivity of science. But if we wish to maintain a modest realism as our aim, then I see no clear alternative. But of course we have transformed the focus of science from an isolated study of "objective phenomena" to one that acknowledges that the full story is to be found in integrating the complete set composed of rational observer and his conceptualizations with the phenomena. It can then be our hope to really get at nature. And this hope, as Kepler and Galileo recognized, is ultimately based upon the reality that God has created ourselves and nature in unity.

We can likely make some progress in focusing upon only part of this total. But to push forward toward a deeper unity, we need to seek a unity of the whole. This then becomes our higher aim for the scientific endeavor, and we should seek unified perspectives that converge to this whole.