Science in Christian Perspective


Reductionism, Preductionism 
and Hierarchical Emergence

Richard H. Bube
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 37 (September 1985): 177-180.

One of the philosophical puzzles that lies close to the heart of many considerations of science and religion is the question, "How does novelty arise?" Of particular interest, of course, are such major novelties as the beginning of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of human personality. But in its more detailed aspects, this puzzle is not limited to these major qualitative changes, but applies to many smaller changes as well.

Within the context of secular scientism, the question of the origin of novelty has received a single answer: chance, purposeless and meaningless chance. Within the context of historic Christianity, this question has received two types of answers: (1) novelty arises from the direct and instantaneous creative activity of God, without process and without the possibility of continuous scientific description; and (2) novelty arises from the midst of continuous process in which God's activity can be discerned through the eyes of faith.

The first Christian answer is that of fiat creation, in which God's intervention into the natural order is seen as essential for the beginning of the universe, of life, or of human personality. Historically, such an approach has frequently become a case of the God-of-the-gaps: a Christian apologetic which is based on the argument that there is no natural way for these beginnings to have occurred. Since they have occurred, it may be concluded that God exists. Since a scientific description of these origins in terms of continuous process is still in the realm of hypothesis rather than in the realm of established evidence, many Christians continue to hold to these origins of novelty as fundamental evidence for the existence and mode of activity of God in a world increasingly described by science. For such an apologetic to have force, however, it is necessary to maintain both that God did act historically by fiat (the fact that God might have acted by fiat is insufficient), and that no non-fiat description is possible. It is precisely these contentions that seem to be receiving increasingly suggestive answers.

As we learn more about the structure of created reality, it seems more and more likely that indeed it is possible to provide a scientific process description of these origins whether or not they actually did occur by process or by fiat. That being alive does not require the presence of some entity, a vital essence, but can most probably be correctly regarded as a property of the patterned interaction of the created matter become alive, appears to be the consensus of biological scientists, both non-Christian and Christian alike.' That being human does not require the presence of some entity, a soul and/or spirit, but can most probably be correctly regarded as a property of the patterned interaction of the living creature become human, appears to be a growing consensus from both scientific and biblical perspectives.' Even the origin of the universe from nothing, considered as the one absolute scientifically indescribable event, can now be at least theoretically treated in terms of the new "inflationary universe theory" in which the origin of the universe from nothing can be considered within the context of natural processes.'

Although the segment of the Christian community that still holds to fiat acts of God as a necessary perspective is large, it is becoming more and more out of touch with the realities of present understanding. Christians who are involved both with the understanding of the biblical revelation and with a scientific description of this world's processes are turning toward some way of synthesis between these two inputs; i.e., they are turning toward the second answer given above and are seeking ways of integrating it into their theological and scientific world views.

Three types of explanatory contexts have been advanced to deal with the origin of novelty in the world if that origin is indeed in principle describable by continuous process. The first of these is reductionism, the position of secular scientism, and the principal target of Christian apologists because of its materialistic and essentially atheistic perspective. In reaction against reductionism, many Christians have been tempted to the opposite pole to what I have called preductionism. In this communication, I discuss briefly these two antithetical possibilities and advocate a third, hierarchical emergence.


Reductionism deals with novelty by demystifying it completely. All novelty is believed to be the inevitable consequence of the laws of nature as these are applied to situations brought into being by uncaused chance. Since both the laws of nature and chance operate ultimately on the particles and quasi-particles of atomic and nuclear structure, then all events, properties, or phenomena displaying novelty may be properly and completely described in terms of the behavior and properties of matter. Thus all phenomena, whether conventionally described in terms of biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or theology, find their only true and complete description in the physical and chemical description of the behavior of matter. All attempts to describe and explain the world, whether dealing with love, faith, beauty, or courage, are reduced to attempts to express the properties and behavior of the material reactions that are the real source of events to which these illusory labels have been given. Theology must be reduced to anthropology, psychology must be reduced to biology, and biology must be reduced to physics and chemistry. Only physics and chemistry are real; all other terms and concepts are only "shadow" constructions to cover ignorance.

Reductionism advocates the position that the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. If the parts are known, then the whole is known. The properties of the whole that seem to transcend the properties of the parts do not really do so, but merely seem that way to us because of their complexity. Not only is a human being a complex organic machine, but a human being is nothing more than a complex organic machine. Not content with providing an authentic scientific description of reality, reductionism presses further and insists that a scientific description is the only meaningful description of reality that can be given.


With a play upon words, I have coined the term "preductionism" to indicate that perspective that takes complete issue with reductionism by effectively standing reductionisin "on its head." If reductionism claims that the properties of the whole are only illusory because they are not explicit in the parts, preductionism claims that the properties of the whole are authentic because they are indeed implicit in the parts. If reductionism claims that there is no such thing as "spirit" because that is not a category used in physical and chemical description, preductionism claims that the reality of "spirit" is made known by its presence in all of matter. If reductionism deals with novelty by demystifying it completely, preductionism deals with novelty by mystifying it completely.

Preductionism may seem to the Christian like an effective antidote to reductionism, like a wholistic answer to the disintegrating tendencies of reductionism. It may seem like a positive step forward to affirm that aspects of spirit, mind, feeling, and choice are present in some embryonic form in the rocks and trees, even in the electrons and protons, which come to full flower in the higher forms of life. If one wishes to affirm the reality of these properties of higher life, and if one feels unable to demand that they come into existence wholly apart from matter through fiat creationism for both scientific and biblical reasons, is it not a happy solution to solve the problem by asserting their presence in all of matter? To the fiat creationist's challenge, "If spirit and mind are real aspects of personal life, how could they have arisen in an impersonal world from impersonal matter?" it is appealing to respond that there is no real problem because the essence of spirit and mind are present in all dimensions of created reality. In this way many claim to have arrived at an integration of religious truth with modern scientific understanding.

Perhaps a principal difficulty with this perspective is that there is no real evidence in its favor. It is an ad hoc, semi-poetic construction of a mind in search of a solution for a perceived dilemma. Furthermore, it requires only the subtlest of shifts to become identified with a modern form of animism, with some type of pantheism, or with the characteristic monism of Eastern religions. Preductionists tend to emphasize the single organic unity of the universe so that necessary distinctions between properties of different configurations of matter (rocks, animals, humans) tend to become blurred. It is common to be told that we are all part of one another; it is only a small step from a mystical interpretation of such a statement to the affirmation that we are all part of God, or that we are all in some sense God.

If reductionism dehumanizes the human being by insisting that the human person is no more than the matter from which the person is composed, preductionism dehumanizes the human being by insisting that all of matter shares the attributes of human personhood. Both perspectives agree in dehumanizing the human person by insisting that the person has no more value than the matter present in the person; reductionism reduces the person to matter, while preductionism elevates matter to personhood.

Hierarchical Emergence

Full faithfulness to both the understanding of modern science and the biblical revelation, without subjecting one to the other, appears to demand that the answer to our question concerning the origin of novelty must maintain the following perspectives on the relationship between matter and personhood: (1) both matter and the characteristic properties of personhood are created; (2) matter is matter and is not characterized by personhood; (3) the attributes characteristic of personhood are real and not an illusion; (4) in the earthly world of our experience a person does not exist without the matter that composes him/her. Perspective (1) affirms the fundamental Christian doctrine of Creation. Perspective (2) negates preductionism, and perspective (3) negates reductionism. Perspective (4) states the existential reality with which any model must deal.

An approach that deals faithfully with the problem within these boundary conditions is the one that may be called hierarchical emergence. The elements of the world are viewed as being described by a hierarchical model, of which the most obvious levels correspond to material but not living; material and living but not human; material, living and human. Such a hierarchical structure, of which further details might be spelled out at considerably greater length, consists of parts and wholes, such that wholes at a higher level depend upon and yet transcend the parts at a lower level (e.g., biological life and physical "particles") in such a way that the unique properties of the wholes are not present even implicitly in the parts but emerge when the parts participate in a particular, suitable pattern of interaction. It is the pattern of interaction that is responsible for the real properties of the whole, a pattern that is not demanded by the properties of the parts but shapes and focusses their interaction in the way that boundary conditions shape and focus the solutions to a differential equation. To be alive is a systems property of a particular type of material system composed of suitable parts arranged in a suitable pattern of interactions. To be human is a systems property of a particular type of living material system composed of suitable parts arranged in a suitable pattern of interactions.

If the pattern of interaction of the parts does not arise from or is not caused by the parts themselves, where does it come from? From within the framework of a scientific description, we can give no other answer than to say, "By chance." But we should not draw the mistaken conclusion that this is a non-teleological statement. Within the scientific context, any description must be either regular and deterministic-and hence devoid of the possibility of introducing novelty, or it must be a chance description-and hence capable of introducing novelty. From the perspective of scientific description, the appearance of novelty requires the presence of a scientific chance description. But this is to speak from within the level confines of the scientific approach. It leaves open the appropriate answer to the same question when viewed from the far deeper resources of the higher level of theological description. Here we can with consistency affirm the theological insight that God is Creator of the novelty.


Reductionism affirms that the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. Preductionism affirms that the properties of the whole are already implicitly present in the parts. Hierarchical emergence affirms that the properties of the whole emerge from the patterned interaction of suitable parts: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Reductionism demystifies the origin of novelty. Preductionism completely mystifies the origin of novelty. Hierarchical emergence affirms the degree of mystery that is present in reality through the emergence of new properties from the patterned interaction of parts without these properties, but does not demand more mystery than is actually present.

Reductionism dehumanizes by reducing the person to matter. Preductionism dehumanizes by elevating matter to personhood. Hierarchical emergence maintains both the dependence of personhood on matter and the transcendence of personhood over matter.

A Christian perspective on the origin of novelty that is open to continuous scientifically describable process can be consistently developed using the model of hierarchical emergence. This same model is totally consistent with the biblical teaching on Creation.


R.H. Bube, "The Whole and the Sum of its Parts: A Unifying Perspective on Man and the World," Journal ASA 18, 8 (1966)

R.H. Bube, "Do Life Processes Transcend Physics and Chemistry?"Journal ASA 22,125 (1970)

R.H. Bube, "Answering Some of the Body-Spirit Questions," Eternity 18, no. 1,35(1967)

'R.H. Bube, "Science and the Whole Person. Part 9. The Significance of Being Human,"Journal ASA 31, 37 (1979)

S.W. Hawking, "The Edge of Spacetime," American Scientist 72, 355 (1984)  

M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Harper Torchbooks, New York (1964)

M. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, N.Y.

M. Polanyi, Knowing and Being, ed. by M. Grene, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago (1969)

M. Polanyi and H. Prosch, Meaning, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago (1975)

R.H. Bube, The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and Christian Faith, Word, Waco, Texas (1971)

J.F. Haught, The Cosmic Adventure, Paulist Press, N.Y. (1984) 

T.F. Torrance, "The Integration of Form in Natural and Theological Science," "The Open Universe and the Free Society," and "Immortality and Light," in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids (1984)