Science in Christian Perspective
Oxford University,, July 1985
DONALD M. MACKAY
Department of Communication and Neuroscience
University of Keele Staffordshire, UK
From: PSCF 38 (September 1986): 195-203.
'Paper presented at the conference "Christian Faith and Science in Society," a joint Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation and the Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship, held July 26-29,1985, at St. Catherine's College in Oxford, England.
As we come to the end of this memorable occasion, I think it appropriate to begin by expressing on behalf of us all the debt we feet to Professor Hooykaas, whose presence with us here has been a great joy to us all. It was from him more than anyone else that the fledgling RSCF learned what truly biblical freedom means neither on the one hand the irresponsibility of the careless and self-centred egotist in science, nor on the other hand the cramped spirit of the slave to a philosophical system. It has been a matter of enduring inspiration to all of us to have had the lead he gave us in those early days and which he renewed by his participation in our first international conference twenty years ago.
Reference has already been made to Malcolm Jeeves's digest1 of that conference, and one of the immediate effects of this extremely enjoyable and stimulating weekend is that I want to go back and read his report again to see just how the scene has shifted since then.
Realism and Reverence
Thinking over the pattern of the weekend, and trying to take a bird's eye view of what our colleagues, by the grace of God, have been able to set before us, what emerges repeatedly is the theme of Walter Thorson I s second keynote speech; the close and natural connection, for the Christian, between realism and reverence.2 There is, of course, a kind of Uriah Heepish piety, a long faced piety, with which we could easily decorate our scientific work by putting an appropriate text over our door and on the laboratory wall; but that kind of "integration" of our faith and our thought, though it goes some way towards realism, is a long way from the sort of thing that Walter and others have set before us. His point was that when reverent love for God has really saturated our being and permeated all our thinking, then a natural outworking of it in our scientific practice is what he called realism. Now realism is not only a theoretical philosophical position; it has many practical facets. One is, of course, an emphasis on the duty of objectivity, to which I want to return. Another is a readiness to reckon with the fallenness of our world, not merely in the sense that we bite our nails and say, "Gee, if only this wasn't a fallen world we would be able to do this and this;" but in realizing that since our whole natural order, the whole drama in which we find ourselves, is under a curse, we cannot even rely on our intuition to tell us what it ought to be like if it were not fallen. In a fallen world we have again and again to face choices, not between bad and good, but between bad and worse. This, which the Bible makes abundantly clear, affects us as scientists quite as much as our fellows in any other walk of life. Nobody can have more reason to be realistic than the reverent learner of the Creator's lessons, whether revealed in nature or in Scripture.
A second key emphasis this weekend has been on the breadth of man's responsibilities as God's steward. I don't think we should allow the frequency with which we are reminded of this precept to cause it to become hackneyed in our thinking. Any number of common misconceptions of "the problems of the scientist" are ruled out once you think of the scientist as essentially a steward. For example, take the question of "scientific freedom." If scientific freedom meant just freedom to speculate, freedom to explore wherever our curiosity took us, and so on, no doubt there are carefully guarded senses in which God's creation of us, and the kind of creation in which He has placed us, give us these freedoms. But of course this view of the scientist fails to put first things first. The Bible portrays each of us as primarily a steward-as one under his master's eye, ready to be asked at any time, "What are you doing, and why ?", and "How much are you achieving of the purposes for which I put you here?". Looked at in that light, questions of freedom to speculate and freedom to explore are automatically subject to proper safeguards. What we have to ask is whether as stewards we have any business in the area in question. if we have, then indeed we are free and must not feel cramped even by our theological systems in the scientific explorations we make.
A further effect of the emphasis on man as God's steward, I think, is to prevent us from lapsing into a pietistic passivity. We are, if you will allow the metaphor, not lap dogs, but sheep dogs. We are not pampered pets whose calling is just to look up into our master's eyes and snuffle our contentment. We are commissioned agents. Not that adoring contemplation is out of place; in my native Scotland you will often see a shepherd's collie, back in the croft after a hard day's work on the hills, put his chin between his master's knees and look up into his eyes in silent and blissful adoration. We are meant to worship God in adoring contemplation; but it is only as part of a life of integrated diligence as his commissioned agents. Admiring and thankful contemplation can be part of our worship; but obedient service with diligence and initiative, courageous where need be but always bumble, is meant to be the other part. Of course, as we have been reminded by several papers, this includes compassionate service to others, both at the individual and collective levels. Here I believe we found a need for a good deal more constructive theological thinking about the ways in which these two levels should be integrated. In our service to the one God, it is not always easy to relate our attempts to be compassionate to each individual as an individual, and our attempts to show compassion for the "welfare of Israel--the welfare of the human population as a whole. I stress this because I think it is not trivial. We all know that there was a sense in which the Nazis, for instance, reckoned to be compassionate at a statistical level, but in the process callously trod down the individual and ignored his needs. In our own efforts to be compassionate, the danger is more likely to be the opposite one of subordinating the good of the human community to the interests of the individuals that claim our attention. We need to work this out carefully and prayerfully and biblically, and I believe the help of theologians competent to remind us of the relevant biblical emphases may be essential.
Donald M. MacKay, D.Sc., F. Inst. P., was born in Lybster, Scotland in 1922 and graduated in Natural Philosophy (Physics) at St. Andrews University in 1943. His WWII radar research with the British Admiralty led him to develop a theory of communication, computing, and control which he has employed for 35 years in understanding brain mechanisms for vision, hearing and touch. Following a teaching appointment in Physics at Kings College London he moved to the University of Keele in Staffordshire to found an interdisciplinary department Of Communication and Neuroscience. Professor MacKay has been an eloquent spokesman for the Christian faith in Europe and America. His concern for developing a Christian perspective has been articulated in such works as The Clockwork Image; Brains, Machines and Persons; and Human Science and Human Dignity.
Turning then to science itself as a form of obedient service, we have had a good deal of critical thinking (in the proper sense, not sniping, but shaking to test the solidity of our ideas) directed at the classical image of the scientist as a map maker. Map-making is, I still believe, a helpful shorthand term for what the scientist's stewardship is primarily about. But the first point we noted was that the map is not a static map. It is a map, or if you like a codification, based on the discovery of causal relations between events. This is, of course, vital for stewardship. The steward has two different kinds of needs. First, he needs to know the lay of his master's land. He must be able quickly and efficiently to find his way about, and to lay hands on what he needs to perform his duties. For this he needs a map in the conventional sense. But he also needs to understand the "go" of things. If something goes wrong, he can be asked by his master, "But didn't you know enough to expect this? Can you excuse yourself for not foreseeing that consequence of your action?" For this he needs something more in the nature of an explanatory diagram, like a radio circuit or the cutaway schematic of a motor car engine.
What I would stress is that although in all this there is an element of prediction and (at least potential) control, the "stewardly" perspective differs sharply in emphasis from that of a popular tradition in the philosophy of science which makes "prediction" and "domination" the key elements in scientific explanation. It supplies quite a different sort of motivation. To be sure, where our stewardly responsibility requires us to dominate or 11 tame" nature, our success in doing so provides one (though not the only) test of the adequacy of our explanations. But as Christian stewards we are not primarily out to discover how to get our own way in the natural world, nor how to gratify our individual or collective ego by making successful predictions. Our primary aim is io become sufficiently clued-up with respect to the structure of our Father's world-to learn the "go" of it sufficiently-to be able to operate reliably in it as faithful stewards. No room here for the arrogance that would preen itself on its ever increasing power to dominate, or that would confuse understanding with mere ability to predict. In so far as our science gives us confidence, we trace this back to our personal confidence in the faithfulness of God, who has promised that "while the earth remains" He will maintain a reliable pattern of orderliness in the succession of events.
The second point about scientific map-making, which Walter Thorson particularly stressed, is that it is not an automatic process proceeding according to a book of rules in an impersonal way: it is a fully human process. It demands personal commitment and it reflects our values and those of the society that ultimately provides the cash for most of it. It is perhaps worth remarking that a good deal of inappropriate mysticism has been spun around the slogan that all human knowledge is personal knowledge, and that all scientific investigation demands commitment. The trouble is that there is a philosophical literature associated with the theme of "commitment" which moves far deeper into the mystical than I believe the scientist is either called upon, or allowed in the course of his normal calling, to go. What I mean is this. Our commitment as scientists is only the kind of commitment that a
The Bible portrays each of us as primarily a steward-as one under his master s eye, ready to be asked at any time, "What are you doing, and why?," and "How much are you achieving of the purposes for which I put you here?"
steward makes in a situation where he is not sure he has got all the facts, but he has enough to be held guilty if he does not use them. His function is in part creative; he is not a detached spectator in the situation, but a participant, a shaper of it. Now commitment in that professional sense, it seems to me, has relatively little in common with, say, the sort of commitment that a husband and wife make to one another: "I plight thee my troth." We should resist the temptation of the mystery-mongers to try to import into the scientific picture as much as possible of the emotive overtones of words like "commitment." Walter certainly did not do that, and I think it is worth noting that he didn't. I suggest that as Christians especially we should be on our guard against attempts to drive us into a mystical fold as scientists, merely on the ground that "all knowledge is personal knowledge" (which is almost tautologous) and that "all investigation demands commitment."
On the other hand, we must be realistic as to the extent to which our map-making commits us to value judgments. In my paper3 I listed a dozen ways in which valuation must come in, explicitly or implicitly, in our choice of things to investigate and in the decisions of society as to what is worth investigating. It is important to bear in mind that although map-making is an act of obedience to what is given, whether we value it or not, nevertheless the result has value to us, and we cannot pretend that in our work we are as free of moral and ethical implications as, let us say, a designer of crossword puzzles.
Note that what reflects our values here is not the map, but the map-making process. The contents of the map itself had better be as free as possible f rom contamination by our particular values if that map is to be useful to those who may not share those values. For Christian propagandists there may be a temptation to try to devise some way of integrating Christian values into our science so that the scientific map would be of more use to the Christian than to the non-Christian; but I see no grounds in Scripture or in anything that was said here for that idea. God sends his rain impartially on the just and on the unjust, and unless we have biblical indications to the contrary we have no reason to suppose that a "Christian science" stimulated by Christian values should be any less useful to a non-Christian than to a Christian.4 Our values may determine the way our scientific spotlight plays over the terrain we are trying to map, and the wave lengths of the light we use, metaphorically speaking. We all know how different a map of the earth from a satellite looks in infrared and visible and ultraviolet light. Our values in that sense can make quite a big difference to the sort of map that emerges, but they don't in general determine what the landscape is. We cannot remind ourselves too often that reverence here means the kind of realism that respects the objectivity of the way God's world happens to be, the way He has given it to us. It is as impious to imagine that our values have any right to distort the way God's world is and is given to us, as it would be to imagine that our values have a right to distort the way God's revealed Word is and is given to us. We are in fact under judgment by both, we are required to be obedient to both, and we cannot be good stewards unless that is our basic orientation. There is a tendency today which is still surprisingly fashionable (one expects these fads to burn themselves out in a few years, but this one is still around) for Marxist-inspired people and others to argue that we "create our own reality." In relation to the world of nature these tendencies need, I believe, to be explicitly resisted by us as biblical scientists wherever we come across them, as directly contrary to the doctrine of divine creation.
Having said that, let us remind ourselves of something we did not touch on very much here, but which has featured in previous agendas of both our associations. Let us remember that in the special "reflexive"
We are ... not lap dogs, but sheep dogs. We are not pampered pets whose calling is just to look up into our master's eyes and snuffle our contentment. We are commissioned agents.
Areas of Challenge to Christians
(1) The Science of the Human Person
In my own field of neuroscience, we have a whole hierarchy of levels which embraces everything from the biophysics of cell membranes and the like, right up to the general system theory of brain organisation, which, as we were reminded by Malcolm Jeeves and others, thrusts upon us questions of the relationship between the physical and the personal. Man, the spectator of nature, the participant in nature, the manipulator of nature, is also a part of nature. Once again the relativistic logic of situations where the spotlight turns its light upon itself can be expected to introduce unique complications to our analysis of what it means to be persons embodied in a physical world. Here is a further area of strong challenge to Christian thinking, not only in relation to the beginnings and endings of personal life, but also in relation to the biblical doctrine of the Christian hope, the resurrection to eternal life.
Closely related is the science of psychopathology. We have a long way to go in understanding how things can go wrong with the brain, and Christians need to do a lot of consecrated thinking to sort out the biblically proper uses of things like drugs and neural transplants (if that becomes possible) as ways of remedying pathological conditions. Not only have we the problem of understanding the boundary between the "me" and the "not me;" we also must seek spiritual discernment
Responsible stewardship means precisely, and always, "basing our decisions on our present limited knowledge." Humbling though this is, we mustn't be ashamed of it.
It is as impious to imagine that our values have any right to distort the way God's world is and is given to us, as it would be to imagine that our values have a right to distort the way God"s revealed Word is and is given to us.
(3) Serving or Manipulating?
When short of data it is not a matter of privilege or prejudice, but of obligation to the God of truth, to keep our minds open and our mouths shut.
There are no doubt many other areas in your minds where our discussion has brought out a need for future work. Let me just mention a couple of theoretical issues and a couple of practical ones by way of final examples. First, I see a widespread and dangerous confusion today between questions of the chronological origin of the universe and that of its ontological origin. The science of chronological origins, which is burgeoning
What I am concerned about is something else-the deliberate selective marshalling of scriptural or other data thought favourable to one theoretical view, and the neglect or disparagement of data adverse to that view, specifically in order to maintain a "clear cut line" in a theoretical controversy.
Secondly, at another philosophical level there is the question of what makes a good explanation. For example, if you read popular physics journals you will find lots of references to things like the "anthropic principle."`15 This is canvassed as a new kind of explanatory answer to ultimate questions. "Why does water have this particular melting point?" or, "Why does a particular constant that determines the structure of the nucleus have this particular value?" Answer, "If these constants didn't have those values you wouldn't be here to ask the question." Now I don't deny that such answers have an attractive "just so" quality; but I don't believe that their logical and epistemic status as a putative explanation has been at all adequately worked out. Granted that there is some feeling of satisfaction, a kind of clunk , as that sort of reply goes home, what kind of intellectual itch is it scratching? Is it really scratching the kind of itch that irritates the scientist, and if it isn't, is it an answer that is of any special theological interest? These matters, I think, could usefully be on the agenda of a future conference.
Once again, I cannot go further into this vital subject. My purpose is only to illustrate the sort of quantitative scientific questions that are crying out for examination by Christians, with a view to getting more of a feel for the dynamics of the task of stewardship. We badly need to enlarge our understanding of the whole socialphysical network that God has given to us as the inhabited world, of which He regards us as stewards in His service.
This brings me finally to two points that vitally affect our whole posture and orientation, both as individuals, and as members of the Christian fellowship. One I touched on right at the beginning, namely the grievous but inescapable limitations of our present knowledge. I have recently seen somebody attacked in print for (I quote) "falling into the trap of basing his decisions on our present limited knowledge." Now, think about that. What is the alternative? We really must absorb the fact that although in the sight of God we are just so dumb He can hardly bear it, given what He knows to be the facts about the intricate structure of the world in which we are trying our best to behave responsibly-yet He asks us to act as His stewards, on the basis of our current knowledge. We must recognise that it is always going to be like that. Responsible stewardship means precisely, and always, "basing our decisions on our present limited knowledge." Humbling though this is, we mustn't
The alternative of "taking a view" and creating a following who stridently share it, where the data do not unambiguously require that view or exclude alternatives, has its demagogic attractions.... But in the end it is poisonous to the concern for truth.
One corollary is that on the basis of our limited knowledge we should be doubly careful before we ever pronounce something to be impossible. An old harbourside worthy in my fishing home town of Wick was once quoted as saying, in response to a claim that something was impossible, "There is only one thing impossible, Jock, and that's for a chiel [Scot. fellow, lad-ed.] to pull his trousers on over his head." Although that may be overly simple (and indeed four-dimensional geometry would put a question mark against it), it may remind us that we should regard the ability to pronounce something impossible, even when we are trying to do so on biblical authority, as something of a luxury, and not part of the normal duty of an obedient steward. When short of data it is not a matter of privilege or prejudice, but of obligation to the God of truth, to keep
Scrupulous fairness is not an optional extra for the Christian ... however dramatic and rewarding may be the short-term payoffs of unfairness on the part of Christian propagandists.
our minds open and our mouths shut, The alternative of .. taking a view" and creating a following who stridently share it, where the data do not unambiguously require that view or exclude alternatives, has its demagogic attractions. Christian bookshops are crowded with examples of this, and thrive on it. But in the end it is poisonous to the concern for truth.
Of course where practical politics are concerned, it can be our duty to make up our minds to vote one way or another on issues about which we are agonizingly short of data. Christians individually may then look for the Grace of God to lead them to the right decision for them; but they do not (or should not) expect to find all true fellow believers led to the same practical decision. What I am concerned about is something else-the deliberate selective marshalling of scriptural or other data thought favourable to one theoretical view, and the neglect or disparagement of data adverse to that view, specifically in order to maintain a "clear cut line" in a theoretical controversy. The commonest examples, understandably, are in Church history, where the sernipolitical nature of the issues has afforded some pragmatic excuse. What is deeply disturbing, to me at least, is to see the readiness with which the same polarizing tactics are adopted on issues (such as the interpretation of Genesis 1-3) where the only practical questions at issue are which camp one's readers will join or stay with or leave.
I hope this does not seem an uncharitable diagnosisI have no wish to be other than clinically accurate and scrupulously fair. The point I am making is a theological one. The God in whose name we dare to speak presumably knows, better than we, the extent to which we are short of conclusive proof for a theoretical position we find attractive. What I am arguing is that for anyone to show unconcern over his shortage of data for some dogmatic pronouncement in the name of God is to insult the God of truth. It is no good his arguing that unless he takes a "firm and clear-cut line" there will be no stopping the drift away from the semipolitical position he is trying to serve. He can by all means be as firm and clear-cut as he wishes in making any practical recommendations as a leader. What he cannot do without denying his pretentions to love and serve the God of truth is to claim conclusive divine authority for theoretical judgments for which he lacks conclusive data. To keep an open mind is not to keep an empty mind. If pressed for a judgment on a theoretically debatable issue, we are of course entitled to give it to the best of our ability; but once we are alive to the awfulness of presuming to pronounce in the name of God on a theoretical issue where data are short, I would hope that we would see nothing wrong, and indeed much to be commended, in replying, "I simply don't know. God hasn't told me, as far as I can see; so I dare not pretend to give you a clear-cut answer in His name; and to give you one in my own name would in these circumstances seem absurd."
Secondly, looking to the future, I wonder whether there is not room and need for serious experimentation in the art of helping one another to shake our theoretical structures and test them for solidity. The obvious example, of course, is the one we have just considered, of the conceptual structures we base on inferences from scripture. One of the really valuable things for me about interactions with RSCF and ASA is the way in which they can help me to look again at some biblical passage or doctrine which I have applied in a particular way, with the question, "But are you sure? Look at it this way: might it not be equally validly read thus?" That kind of process, I think, is a vital part of what is meant by Christian fellowship. Fellowship, or "fellowshiping" as we are now taught to call it, isn't just having a good time together. Christian fellowship is primarily the camaraderie of soldiers back from the trenches, alert to possible cracks, chinks and damage in one another's armour. If one soldier puts his arm round another and says "It looks to me as if you could be vulnerable there," his remark may or may not be a blow to the other's pride; but that is totally secondary to its comradely intent. Is there any possibility, I wonder, of deliberately seeking to develop less abrasive, more constructive ways of helping one another to get our thinking clear and our arguments solid, by gently shaking them? I mean "gently." Everyone knows the blundering bore who just goes in and knocks his brother's whole argument off the table with ridicule or caricature. That doesn't help anybody. But if you take the biblical attitude to your brother, then be ought to welcome your "safety checks," and you ought to feel an obligation to offer them. Participating in a fellowship like ASA or RSCF ought to be understood as positively inviting efforts to test, from fresh angles, the things we have built so far, to see how solid they are. If we can do this for one another, then I believe we can expect God's blessing as a result. In particular, I hope it can provide a check against what I might call selective indignation. Selective indignation means using the most rigorous logical standards to identify weaknesses in an adversary's position-pointing indignantly to logical gaps, let us say in, the theory of biological evolution but then in our own use of Scripture extrapolating wildly beyond the given data and committing faults of logic which may be much more heinous in the sight of the God of truth than those of the wretch whose little step of inductive inference we are condemning. "Equal weights, and a just balance. . . " Scrupulous fairness is not an optional extra for the Christian, still less an apologetic liability, however dramatic and rewarding may be the short-term payoffs of unfairness on the part of Christian propagandists. It is not an optional duty to help one another to be good, careful, fair and honest thinkers in the sight of the God who is always over us, with us, in us, and who is disgraced if we are sloppy in our logical standards, whether of biblical inference and interpretation or of scientific inference and interpretation. To build up the kind of mutual trust that takes all this for granted is, I believe, the pathway to truly realistic fellowship of the kind that I pray that RSCF and ASA will go on providing for generations to come.
2Thorson, R. W. Realism and Reverence, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 38, No. 2, pp. 75-87, 1986.
3MacKay, D. M. Christian Priorities in Science, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 38, No. 2, pp, 67-74,1986.
4Hooykaas, R. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1972.
5MacKay, D. M. Man as Observer-Predictor. In Man in His Relationships (H. Westmann, ed.), Routledge, London, 15-28, 1955; and On the Logical Indeterminacy of a Free Choice, Mind, 69, 31-40, 1960.
6MacKay, D. M. Scientific Beliefs about Oneself, In The Proper Study (G. N. A. Vesey, ed.), Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, Vol. 4, Macmillan, London, 48--63, 197 1.
7MacKay, D. M. Biblical Perspectives on Human Engineering, In Modifying Man: Implications and Ethics. (Craig W. Ellison, ed.), University Press of America, Washington, 67-90, 1978.
8MacKay, D. M. Mentality in Machines (Third Paper in Symposium). Proc. Aristot. Soc. Suppt., XXVI, 61-M, 1952; and From Mechanism to Mind, Trans. Vict. Inst., 85, 17-32, 1953.
9Ackley, D. H., Hinton, G. E. and Sejnowski, T. J. A Learning Algorithm for Boltzmann Machines, Cognitive Science, Vol. 9, 147-167, 1985.
10Hopfield, J. J. and Tank, D, W. "Neural" Computation of Decisions in Optimization Problems, Biological Cybernetics, Vol. 52, No. 3,141-152, 1985.
11MacKay D. M. The Epistemological Problem for Automata. In Automata Studies (C. E. Shannon and J. McCarthy, eds.), Princeton University Press, 235-251, 1956; and Machines~ Brains and Persons, Zygon, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1985, pp. 401-12.
12MacKay, D. M. Information Technology and the Manipulability of Man. Study Encounter, Vol. 5, No. 1, 17-25,1969.
13Mackay, D. M. Science, Chance and Providence (Riddell Memorial Lectures 1977), Oxford University Press, 1978.
14See for example Davies, Paul. God and the New Physics, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1983, and the critical review by Wm. Lane Craig: "God, Creation and Mr, Davies," British Journal of Philosophical Science, 37, 163-175, 1986.
15Neidhardt, W. Jim. The Anthropic Principle: A Religious Response,. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 36, No. 4, 201-207,1984.