Science in Christian Perspective
A Communication Model of Human Exploration and Discovery
W. Jim Neidhardt
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, N.J. 07102
From: JASA 35 September 1983): 182-184.
Today many people envision scientific knowledge as completely impersonal, thereby being free of all human values and of all risk. Scientific knowledge, from this point of view, bears no similarity to other human endeavors such as art, philosophy, or religion. This perspective has filtered down to the general public where it is widely accepted. It's adoption by secondary school students and college undergraduates may partially account for declining enrollments in science courses. For this reason I have for the last two years taught an undergraduate seminar at New Jersey Institute of Technology entitled Aspects of Scientific Creativity that presents an alternative to this dehumanized portrait of science. In this endeavor the epistemology of the physical chemist and later sociologist of science.
Michael Polanyi, was particularly helpful; he envisioned the scientist to be a whole person continually engaged in the exploration of external reality, such exploration taking place in the context of communication with other human beings and physical reality. The following model of the scientist as a communicating explorer is intended to capture Polanyi's central insight that science is a unique but nevertheless personal activity, for to use Polanyi's own phrase: all knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is personal knowledge. The model is schematically portrayed in Figure 1 where the human mind, represented by three subsystems interacting hierarchically with one another, is actively engaged in ongoing communication with external reality. Students taking the seminar on scientific creativity found the Figure to be helpful in providing a visual summary of the complex, personal nature of scientific investigation.
Figure 1. A Communication Model of the
M-The mind of the human explorer, the level of mental organization, can be thought of as three subsystems interacting hierarchically with one another. These mental systems are: (a) CM-The core of the mind, those ultimate commitments (basic presuppositions) that tacitly undergird all mental activity. Without belief (rarely made explicit) in some basic presuppositions, human thought about oneself and external reality is impossible. Such ultimate commitments are responses to the totality and richness of all human experience; they provide essential motivation and guidance to all acts of human communication with external reality. By their tacit direction particular paradigms of theories are formulated; these theoretical structures enable the communication process to become specific and concrete.
(b) T & C-Theories and conjectures about external reality. These working commitments come about as the thinker attempts to understand and to find order with respect to one's communications with external reality. in their formulation guidance is provided by one's core presuppositions about the external world; they can, in turn, alter and enhance specific core presuppositions.
(c) M'-Specific mental structures, models that the mind uses to represent a portion of the external world that is being communicated with. These models come into being as a result of observations interacting with theory; they are guided by theories and can enhance and alter specific theories.
AG-The attention grid (a mental filter). This grid consists of three layers build up by Feedback, F, from the three subsystems of the mind. The function of the attention grid is twofold: (a) The specific mental structure generates many affirmations and questions (1); the attention grid selects out for transmission to external reality those that are in harmony with one's basic presuppositions, theories, the models of
immediate experience. (b) Much information reaches the observer from external reality (2). The attention grid excludes all information not relevant to one's models of immediate experience, theories, and basic presuppositions.
The communication process between the human explorer and external reality ran be of several specific forms:
(a) Observation. A simple, one-way message from a physical object or another human being.
(b) An Experiment. (1) Messages that assume the form of measuring processes directed by human theories and conjectures at external reality. These messages are designed as "questions" expressed through measuring processes. (2) Responses are specific "answers" (usually quantitative) to the given measurement probes. These responses, guided by one's theories and conjectures about physical reality lead to further measurement probes. The signals 1 and 2 are not symmetric in the sense that in principle, I is structured freely by the mind and 2 is structurally determined by the inherent order of the object under investigation. 2 represents the completion of a feedback loop with respect to the human communicator; such loops are essential to all true communicative acts.
(c) A Personal Encounter. (1) Message from one person to another consisting of affirmations and questions. (2) Responses from the other person consisting of both affirmations and further questions. These affirmations guided by one's theories and conjectures about the other person lead to further messages. The messages I and 2 are symmetric in the sense of both intrinsically being structured freely by human minds. 2 represents the completion of a feedback loop with respect to the human communicator, such loops are essential to all true communicative acts.
MSC-The metasystern of culture, the matrix of human values and basic presuppositions unique to a given culture.
U-Undecidability. Basic questions that are undecidable from within the context of the observer's core presuppositions and theories.
The three subsystems that represent the human mind's functioning as an explorer are deeply embedded in personal commitments often tacitly rather than explicitly held. These three subsystems are: (a) the core of the mind, those ultimate commitments that tacitly undergird all mental activity; (b) one's theories and conjectures about external reality; and (c) the particular mental models that one uses in describing the external world. All three subsystems of the mind are deeply embedded in a theoretical outlook on the world. All aspects of science, the data chosen, the problems considered, the priorities established, the investigative methods used, and final interpretations given are fundamentally related to a particular theoretical structure. And when we, as scientists, indwell such a theoretical framework in order to gain knowledge, we are only tacitly and subsidiarily aware of all the details of the framework, for they point beyond themselves to a new whole, an integrated perspective that provides their meaning.
Indwelling is the activity of knowing whereby the mind dwells in a coherence or integration latent in some object (or teaching or person) in order to interiorise it until there is a structural kinship between the knowing subject and the object known.1
By utilizing such a structure of tacit and subsidiary awareness we can actually know far more than we can tell. Such indwelling knowledge is intimately related to the community aspect of science, for we best acquire such tacit skills when we live and work in a community of knowers who affirm a common vision of reality.
What is the nature of commitment in science that establishes the personal character of scientific knowledge and makes it similar to art, philosophy and religion? Scientific commitments may be characterized as either ultimate or working in nature. Science is totally dependent upon certain ultimate or fundamental commitments for its very existence. These basic beliefs come to be believed as the scientist, acting as a whole person, encounters experience in its totality. As such they cannot be "proved" but are yet truly rational for they are genuine personal responses to the totality and richness of the flow of human experience. Such commitments are truly ultimate in that there is no higher or wider system for which they can be derived. A classic example of such an ultimate commitment "is the conviction that there is order in the universe which we would have to assume in order to prove; but without such a conviction we could not believe that the universe is accessible to scientific inquiry."2
It is under the motivation and guidance of these ultimate commitments that the scientific community develops its working commitments, the particular paradigm-structure of theory and natural law that are used to describe a restricted region of reality. Such working commitments, or explicit scientific theories, are provisional in nature; they are continually tested against experience that brings about both enhancement and modification. The provisional nature of all scientific theories
is itself grounded in the ultimate belief in the contingency of the universe, i.e., that the universe might have been otherwise, that it could well have been different. It is belief in the contingency of the universe that is also the determining ground for the conviction that in our search for order and regularity in the universe we cannot do without experimental questioning and nature itself, and that our understanding of the order and regularity of the universe which we formulate in natural laws and theories may well have to be changed.3
Thus we see that it is under the controlling power of ultimate commitments that working commitment, or theories develop. But another factor also plays a role.
Theory formulation is greatly aided by the human mind's ability to construct specific models of particular phenomena being observed," Such models are imagined mechanisms or processes that are postulated by analogy with familiar mechanisms or processes. They help one make sense of specific perceptions, but they are not literal pictures of reality. Models are learned from the scientific community as well as being derived from specific observations. From such models of reality an overall theory is built that describes, ties together, and in some sense explains the nature of the relationships between phenomena. Existing theories guide all model building. As models develop they can enhance and alter such theories. Note that the personal character of scientific knowledge manifested as an integration of ultimate commitments, working beliefs or theories, and models in dialogue (communication) with external reality can itself be pictorially modelled as Figure 1 indicates.
The personal character of scientific knowledge is again seen in the respective roles that human communities, the scientific community and the whole society, playing in developing and maintaining a framework of commitments, ultimate and working, as well as specific models of portions of reality. As Thomas F. Torrance points out:
... the framework of belief is embodied in the existence and continuity of a scientific community, that is in groups of like-minded scientific inquiries or in the world-wide community of scientists who share a common belief in the existence of reality and its intelligibility, and who exercise among themselves control through mutual criticism and conjoint verification of their work, in the course of which their common beliefs are tested and clarified and deepened. It is only within the continuity of such a supporting community and the tradition it carries that the basic beliefs are transmitted from generation to generation in such a way as to give power and thrust to its search for deeper and deeper understanding. But all the time the community's normative beliefs (working beliefs or theories, parentheses mine) are, or ought to be, steadily re-examined in the course of this expansion in understanding, so that they are continuously put to the test and reappropriated.5
Furthermore the scientific community does not devise and maintain its commitments independent of the larger society it is embedded in. Indeed the whole structure of scientific authority as we have envisioned it would collapse if separated from the larger society's ultimate commitment to such basic trusts as:
... the belief in obtaining the truth by free discussion and free inquiry. Every scientist is a part of the government of science and participates in formulation of ongoing scientific understanding. There is no absolute central authority to arbitrate controversy. Issues are settled by debating them in the forum of public opinion. This manner of settling disputes and establishing consensus is a heritage common to our general democratic institutions.8
Second and corollary
is a belief in the reality of the truth and our obligation and capacity to discover it. A community that resolves its disputes by free discussion and inquiry is dependent upon the belief that humans can recognize and share a rational and universal standard.7
This dependence of science upon the values and experience of the larger culture has been stated in striking fashion by Victor F. Weisskopf. He has ...
pointed out that science itself has its roots and origins outside its own rational realm of thinking. In essence, there seems to exist a Goedel's 'Theorem of Science,' which holds that science is only possible within a larger framework of non-scientific issues and concerns. The mathematician Goedel proved that a system of axioms can never be based on itself, in order to prove (decide upon, parentheses mine) its validity, statements from outside the system must be used. In a similar manner, the activity of science is necessarily embedded in a much wider realm of human experience.8
In other words the methodologies, tactics, and presuppositions of science do not arise entirely from within science; in order to decide upon their validity, resources from outside science must be used. As an example scientists often use the criterion of simplicity in evaluating theories; by simplicity is meant the possibility of finding a conceptual point of reference that unifies a wide variety of experience by the use of a minimum number of primary concepts and interelationships. Does not the justification for this belief in the simplicity of scientific descriptions of the world come from the ultimate belief that the universe is harmonious and beautiful, a view long held to be true by the larger culture's philosophers, religious prophets, and artists? This dependence of science upon the values of the larger culture is represented in Figure 1 by the metasystem of culture which resolves questions that are undecidable from within the scientific communities ultimate and working commitments.
Up to this point, the discussion of Figure I has concentrated upon developing a rationale for the human mind portrayed as a structure of commitment systems interacting hierarchically with one another. But Figure I has one other important aspect, for human mind does not exist in a vacuum but is in continual communication with external reality. This communication between the human mind and external reality, by means of the attention grid, is filtered through-a matrix of the mind's basic presuppositions, theories, and models of immediate experience. This filtering causes both the questions and affirmations one addresses to external reality and one's observations of external reality to be deeply influenced by the activities of the commitment-embedded structure of the human mind. Accordingly neither one's observations nor one's questioning of external reality are independent of the ongoing activity of a human mind. It is in this sense that all knowledge is personal knowledge, for knowledge cannot exist independent of the person seeking it. But to affirm that all knowledge including scientific knowledge is personal is not to downgrade it, for such knowledge can be truthful in that it faithfully though not exhaustively represents that portion of reality that is being focused upon.
In summary, Figure 1 presents a model of the human explorer in which the mind represented as three interacting subsystems is in ongoing dialogue with physical reality. It is an attempt to capture the most significant aspects of human exploration and discovery. What has been argued is that the observations, experiments, and personal encounter present in all acts of discovery are not performed in a random or haphazard manner; they always are guided by models of external reality formulated by the mind; these models in turn are guided by structures of working commitments, that is, one's theories and conjectures about external reality. Furthermore one's models and theories concerning reality are not created through the evaluation of objective data alone but also are formed and molded by the core of the mind, the framework of a person's ultimate commitments as to the nature of reality. It is this framework of ultimate commitments that motivates one in the integration of cognitive and volitional insights and urges. Biblically this core of ultimate convictions is called in the Old Testament "the heart" and is thought of as the center from which springs the deepest motivations that guide us as human beings in continual dialogue with God and all His creation. From the heart springs one's deepest personal commitments concerning the ultimate rationality of all reality, one's standards of intellectual and moral integrity, and, finally, one's criteria for intellectual beauty. All these play a key role in guiding theory formulation. Such theories, in turn, guide the creation of specific models of external reality. Note that communication flow between the three subsystems of the mind is two-way. The success of specific models can both enhance and alter the theories or working commitments that guide the formulation of models; and, in turn, the resulting success or failures of theories can both enhance and alter those ultimate commitments that guide theory formulation.Reference
1Thomas F. Torrance, editor, Belief in Science and in Christian Life, The Handsel Press, Great Britain, 1980, "Notes on Terms and Concepts" by Torrance, p. 139.
2Torrance, Ibid., "The Framework of Belief" by Torrance, p. 19.
3Torrance, Ibid., "The Framework of Belief " by Torrance, p. 20.
4I.G. Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, Harper & Row, New York, 1974.5Torrance, Op. Cit., "The. Framework of Belief " by Torrance, p. 21.
6R. Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, p- 46.7Gelwick, Op. Cit., p. 46.