Science in Christian Perspective
JOSEPH L. SPRADLEY
Department of Physics
From: PSCF 39 (December 1987): 204-211.
Since the demise of logical positivism, many scientists continue to view science as an autonomous source of reliable and certain knowledge. A review Of the efforts to establish autonomy and certainty in science reveal the difficulties with this view and its eventual failure. Criticisms Of autonomous science suggest the inadequacy of trying to separate science and faith, or of treating them as complementary but independent realms. The more recent historical understanding of science has opened up new possibilities as well as problems in relating science and faith.
Following World War I, European philosophy of science formed an alliance with mathematics culminating in an attitude of certainty, autonomy, and the claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. The rise and fall of logical positivism has been a major theme of twentieth century thought, and illustrates the danger of placing too much emphasis on science and mathematics as an ideal for all knowledge. The restriction of rational inquiry to the modes of scientific verification and the processes of mathematical logic is far too confining for the containment of truth. Not only are religious concepts rejected, but morals and values in general are viewed as not empirically verifiable, and thus meaningless.
Even after the rejection of logical positivism as a general epistemology on the grounds that scientific knowledge was not fundamentally different from other forms of knowledge, it continued to survive as a philosophy of science and became the dominant influence on American science for two decades after orld War 11. Thus, science became isolated from other realms of thought and the gap between science and culture became increasingly evident.1 In particular, many Christians in science tended to separate their faith and theology from their practice and philosophy of science.
Developments in the history and philosophy of science over the last three decades have ended the autonomy of science and have made it easier to bridge the gap between science and culture. One of the earliest efforts to relate science to other forms of knowledge was developed by Michael Polanyi, who anticipated much of the recent historical analysis we will discuss here.2 The implications of his ideas for integrating science and faith have been explored in a number of articles in this journal.3 We will attempt a broad review of the changing ideas about science and mathematics in the twentieth century, and discuss their implications for relating science and Christian faith.
In the nineteenth century, natural science was accepted as a free, autonomous and reliable means for the steady accumulation of knowledge. Beginning with the facts of observation and using only tested modes of inference, science moved confidently to higher levels of generalization. In an effort to analyze the success of this procedure, an early form of positivism was developed by Ernst Mach in which science was viewed as a growing body of concepts which can be directly connected with facts given by immediate sensation.
Excluding any a prion. concepts such as absolute space and time, all scientific statements had to be empirically verifiable and thus capable of reduction to statements about sensations. The difficulty with this approach was that scientific principles contain mathematical relationships not reducible to sensations alone. Mach's positivism, with its empirical emphasis and rejection of absolute space and time, strongly influenced Einstein in the development of the relativity theory.5 Einstein's pilgrimage from empiricism to rational realism eventually led to his break with positivistic science.6 The gradual acceptance of the new physics with its growing emphasis on mathematical theory put increasing strain on Mach's positivistic philosophy of science.
Logical positivism was the product of a group of scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians, known as the Vienna Circle, who were strongly influenced by the empiricism of Mach and the mathematical logic developed by Whitehead and Russell in their monumental Principia Mathematica. The logical positivists concluded that if mathematics could be reduced to logic, then mathematical statements of scientific laws could also be given in terms of mathematical logic. Thus, a scientific theory could be axiornatized by logical relations between theoretical terms, if a way could be found to link the theoretical terms with the observation statements used to describe phenomena. This was a problem that Wittgenstein had developed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was an attempt to show how the basic propositions and associated logic of the Principia Mathematica could serve as a theory of language.7
The Vienna Circle went beyond Wittgenstein by assuming that empirical facts can be brought into correspondence with basic propositions used to describe reports of sensory observations. If all other propositions except declarative ones could be eliminated, then a logically perfect language and a literal description of the world seemed possible. They linked the elements of this idealized language with facts about the world by correspondence rules to ensure the meaningfulness of each proposition. In their opinion, the cumulative success of science consisted in adding to the growing number of propositions, and linking them to obtain more complex propositions. This process appeared to offer a way to reform philosophy and integrate it with physics and biology into a single unified science. At the same time, metaphysical entities could be avoided, as they involved theoretical terms that could not be linked to explicit observational definitions. This led to the verificationist theory of meaning with its claim that all cognitively significant discourse about the world must be empirically verifiable.
Under the influence of logical positivism, science was viewed as distinct from other forms of human experience. Since only empirical propositions were considered valid, moral and ethical judgments were dismissed as pure expressions of feeling having no objective validity whatsoever. According to A.J. Ayer, "in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgement, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely emotive. "' Neither assertions of value nor aesthetic judgments could have any claim to knowledge other than information about our own feelings. Since metaphysical and religious statements involve propositions that cannot be empirically verified, they too must be rejected. Asa result, it was claimed that there was no ground for antagonism
Joseph Spradley is Professor of Physics at Wheaton College, Illinois. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees at UCLA in engineering physics and worked for four years at Hughes Aircraft Company. He has taught at Wheaton since 1959 except for five years on leaves of absence, including two years as Acting President of Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon, and two years as a USAID science specialist at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. He is co-author of the book The Making of a Christian Mind. His recent sabbatical research paper on prewar Japanese physics was published in American Scientist.
Beginning with the facts of and using only tested modes of inference, science moved confidently to higher levels of generalization.
Many Christian thinkers accepted the implications of
logical positivism, assuming that science and Christian
faith were unrelated and should be isolated in separate
domains to avoid conflict.' Such a separation is difficult
to maintain, as science and religion have many mutual
concerns in seeking to understand the world and
account for its order and origins. Furthermore, Christianity cannot afford to surrender the validity of its
claims to truth, nor its responsibility to criticize inadequate systems of thought. The claim of logical positivism, that the only valid kind of knowledge is scientific,
implied a disavowal of all other kinds of knowledge and
a dichotomy between fact and value in which the latter
had no cognitive status. The biblical view of human
finiteness and fallibility recognizes that any such claim
to certainty is suspect, and any attempt to restrict
knowledge to scientific dimensions is inadequate and
Alterations in Autonomous Science
The ambitious hopes and confident certainties of the logical positivists came under suspicion almost from their inception. Part of this confidence was based on the success of classical physics. The challenge of the new physics culminated in the development of relativity and quantum theory and the replacement of many classical ideas and assumptions. Although Einstein had credited Mach with the rejection of absolute space and time, his approach clearly emphasized the creative formation of concepts rather than a mere ordering of empirical material. Eventually this was criticized by Mach, who repudiated his earlier endorsement of special relativity theory.10 The ultimate success of the special and general theories of relativity challenged the very foundations of classical mechanics and introduced a radical new conceptual framework for the ideas of time, space, and matter. The non-Euclidean geometry of general relativity had only a minimum of empirical support, but brought a new unity and order into physical theory.
Einstein's extension of Planck's quantum theory and the development of the photon concept revealed further inadequacies in classical physics. The continuous fields and waves of electromagnetic theory had to be revised to take into account the quantum nature of energy and light. Quantum theory introduced even more fundamental challenges to the nature of physical science and its deterministic presumptions, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle revealed inherent experimental and conceptual limitations in science. For example, since precise values of position and velocity in an atomic system cannot be simultaneously determined, future events cannot be precisely predicted, so alternative possibilities exist.
The wave-particle duality of atomic physics demonstrated that scientific theories are not literal descriptions of nature, but require different models in describing different experimental situations. Moreover, it demonstrated that the process of observation influences what is observed, and thus concepts inevitably enter descriptions of atomic events. The response of many positivists to modern physics was to suggest that all models be discarded, and that equations should be used simply to correlate observables. However, most physicists preferred to follow the approach of Bohr, retaining both wave and particle models as complementary descriptions while recognizing their limitations.11 Mary Hesse argued that models function in science as more than literal descriptions of nature, as devices which "can be generalized, extended and tested, and if necessary modified, as a purely formal deductive system cannot. 12
Since only empirical propositions
were considered valid, moral and
ethical judgments were dismissed as pure expressions of feeling having no
objective validity whatsoever.
Some Christian writers have attempted to use the idea of complementarity as a way of relating science and religion, while retaining the autonomy of each." In this approach, complementary explanations in science and religion are used to address issues on different levels. However, such complementary descriptions must be complete, in terms of their own categories and on each level, to avoid the possibility of conflict. This approach can be helpful, but still tends to isolate science from faith. Furthermore, it is questionable whether such descriptions can be complete on each level, as is required for avoiding conflicts. For example, scientific explanations cannot be complete on a scientif ic level, since they always depend on some pbilosophical assumptions that are not part of the explanation itself."
The relevance of metaphysical and theological ideas would no longer be dismissed a priori by logical positivists on the basis of their verification criterion.
Another goal of logical positivism, the reduction of all knowledge to a single unified science, was thwarted b-, developments in mathematical logic undertaken by one of the members of the Vienna Circle itself. Using a meta-matematical method introduced by Hilbert, it was shown by Kurt Gbdel that axiomatic systems such as Principia Mathernatica, if consistent, must necessarily be incomplete. Furthermore, in any formal system that includes the theory of natural numbers there are undecidable arithmatcal propositions, and aritimetical concepts can be found which are not definable within the system. One evaluation of Godel's proof concludes:
It appears to foredoom. hope of mathematical certitude through the use of obvious methods. Perhaps doomed also, as a result, is the ideal of science-to devise a set of axioms from which all phenomena of the natural world can be deduced.15
Even more disconcerting is a theorem proved by Skolem which says that it is impossible to characterize the number series by a finite number of axioms.16 This is not the kind of logical foundation that will secure a unified axiomatic structure for all of science.
The inability of science to provide literal descriptions
of nature, or complete axiomatic systems for the reduction of all knowledge to a unified science, began to
reveal the similarity of science to more traditional
forms of human understanding. The demands of creationism to interpret the Genesis account of creation as a
literal scientific description suggest analogies with
these unsuccessful efforts of Logical Positivism.17 The
need for conceptual systems in scientific theories,
including concepts that cannot be defined empirically,
paralleled human reasoning in nonscientific fields. The
relevance of metaphysical and theological ideas could
no longer be dismissed
by logical positivists on
the basis of their verificationist criterion which, in fact,
was exposed as self-contradictory and made science itself impossible. The objective realm claimed by
science could no longer be kept completely separate
from the assumed subjective realm of theology.
Attacks on Autonomous Science
Meanwhile, Wittgenstein had disassociated himself from the logical positivists and had become an increasingly skeptical onlooker. They had used his ideas in their attempt to show how a formalized theory in science could provide a representation of facts about nature; however, he recognized the problem of applying any axiomatic formalism to the world as we know it. The positivists believed that all the abstract terms of a meaningful theory could be associated with sensations or observations. Wittgenstein argued that an axiomatic theory defined only logical possibilities which could not be brought into complete correspondence with the natural world, because logical relations held only within a symbolism or language. Even in the Tractatus he recognized this problem:
So too the fact that it can be described by Newtonian mechanics asserts nothing about the world; but this asserts something, namely, that it can be described in that particular way in which as a matter of fact it is described. The fact, too, that it can be described more simply by one system of mechanics than by another says something about the world.18
The connections between language and reality are determined by usage rather than logic. Thus, the relationships between words and the world cannot be given by formal definitions.
Since there is no theoretically neutral
observation language, the goal of an
empirical account independent of theoretical concepts is doomed to failure.
Feyerabend's historical studies have led him to conclude that theories are established by propaganda, persuasion and ideology.
Publication in 1962 of Thomas Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions marked the next stage of the 21 revolt against the idealizations of logical empiricism.
Kuhn distinguished between "normal" science during periods when a paradigm is widely accepted as a model or ideal of explanation, and periods of revolution when there is no agreement between competing paradigms. Such paradigms determine the kinds of problems scientists are interested in, as well as their standards for solving those problems and the very nature of the facts which are considered relevant. A revolution does not involve purely logical steps, but is at least partly a matter of personal or group commitment to a new pattern or perspective. Kuhn's study of historical revolutions tried to reveal science as it actually was rather than as it should be, showing its dependence on psychological, sociological and logical factors.
Extending Kuhn's historical approach, Stephen Toulmin rejects the distinction between normal and revolutionary science with an argument for the continual evolution of concepts.22 Because of these constantly shifting concepts in the development of science there can be Do foundational propositions at all. Kuhn's normal science could yield to logicalist analysis, but for Toulmin there is no conceptual stability available for the application of logical criteria. The context of discovery in the process of theory changes cannot be isolated from the context of justification, which had been the basis for the logical analysis of scientific theories.
The Kuhnian attack on autonomous science revealed the conceptual and contextual aspects of science, suggesting possibilities of a closer relationship between science and other cultural expressions. It is tempting to see the emphasis on personal and communal commitment to concepts in science as analogous to a community of faith in religion. However, some caution is advisable due to the tendency toward subjectivity and relativism in Kuhn's approach. Recent developments in the philosophy of science have either emphasized these tendencies or attempted to avoid them.23 The corresponding implications for relating science and faith will be explored next.
A balanced approach to science must
include both logical inference
and rational interpretation.
Christian influence is most clearly
seen in the doctrine Of creation,
which emphasizes the objective order of nature and its rational intelligibility for human beings as created in the image of God and given responsibility for creation.
Feyerabend's subjective approach encourages a pluralism of competing scientific ideas. It places a healthy emphasis on creativity and diversity, but appears to replace foundationalist autonomy with relativism and anarchy. What seems to be needed is some alternative between these extremes that can retain a measure of objectivity and rationality for science without renewing its isolation or totalitarian claims. A balanced approach to science must include both logical inference and rational interpretation. The relations between evidence and hypotheses must be guided by logical procedural criteria. However, science cannot be limited to the coercive rules of deductive logic. Inductive generalizations are also frequently required, especially in experimental work, and these involve many ingenious logical techniques. Also needed are retroductive (hypothetico-deductive) arguments which seek to find explanatory hypotheses that will make the given data more intelligible through their deductive concepts and consequences. Since this broader approach to logicality in science is not restricted to deduction, it allows for the kind of tentativeness and disagreement that is apparent in the history of science without abandoning objective methods and logical criteria.
In addition to these more formal types of inference, science also involves an interpretative dimension which is dependent on a wider context of meaning and structure. Although interpretation is often controversial, it is a part of scientific rationality and cannot be reduced to the kind of logicality that the logical positivists sought in their attempt to isolate science as a noncontroversial autonomous realm of knowledge, distinct from other types of human activity. The category of rationality is especially applicable to conceptual shifts, and even larger revolutions that occur in science, since these often exhibit the highest form of human rationality.
Interpretation enters into every level of scientific activity, beginning with the perception and selection of data that are shaped to some extent by our conceptual system, and extending to the norms of simplicity and fertility that govern inductive and retroductive inferences. The subjective aspects of interpretation do not necessarily eliminate the constraints and corrections of the objective order. Interpretive skills must be learned, as they depend on both the consensus of shared experience developed within a group and sensitivity to related disciplines. Interpretation is guided by such objective norms as correct prediction and a more effective control of nature. Rationality is not independent from logicality, but often utilizes the modes of logical inference in the process of conceptual selection and interpretation. 28
This emerging historical realism in science suggests the possibility of at least a partial integration of science and religion; somewhere between the total isolation required by logical positivism and the complete integration encouraged by subjectivism, leading to incommensurable views of science. Several authors have argued that Christianity does influence the basic assumptions of science, especially evident during a scientific revolution.' This influence is most clearly seen in the doctrine of creation, which emphasizes the objective order of nature and its rational intelligibility for human beings as created in the image of God and
Historical analysis has shown that science is not independent of psychological and sociological factors in its progress.
given responsibility for creation. Thus, the effort to
relate science and faith in order to better understand
and appreciate both should be a continuing process of
Christian stewardship. Although this task may never be
complete, a number of lessons and guidelines for pursuing the integration of science and faith have emerged.
Several lessons apply to science itself. Science can no longer be viewed as an autonomous activity independent of other forms of knowledge or superior to them. Scientific certainty appears to be an unattainable goal, and any literal description of nature is a naive hope that must give way to the use of theoretical concepts and models. Scientific knowledge does not progress in a steady cumulative fashion, and cannot be unified into a complete and consistent axiomatic system. Empirical significance and meaning cannot be limited to observational language, but depends on an entire conceptual system including logical relationships and language usage. Historical analysis has shown that science is not independent of psychological and sociological factors in its progress; scientific concepts are subject to change in the process of theory development and competition. Science is thus seen as a creative human activity requiring a wide variety of logical techniques and interpretive skills, and is integrally related to its cultural context.
Although faith in the order, purpose,
and reality of God's creation can
motivate and inform scientific efforts to understand the world, we can never assume that our knowledge is complete and conclusive.
These lessons offer new possibilities for relating science and Christian faith. Several ideas discussed above can be listed as guidelines for this process:
1. The Christian view of human finiteness and fallibility should remind us that scientific certainty and autonomy are impossible goals, and that the total separation of science from Christian faith is unacceptable and undesirable for both. We should recognize the dependence of science on basic philosophical assumptions and seek to evaluate its results in the light of these assumptions. Progress in science requires a conviction that the world is intelligible and that detailed study of it is valuable. Although faith in the order, purpose, and reality of God's creation can motivate and inform scientific efforts to understand the world, we can never assume that our knowledge is complete and conclusive.
Scientific results can help to correct theological errors, and religious insights can provide new understanding for science.
2. The potential validity of metaphysical and theological explanations, rejected as nonsense by logical positivism, is reaffirmed by the broader criteria of meaning required by science in the use of coherent conceptual systems and theoretical interpretations. Proper evaluation and application of the results of science depend on appropriate theological and ethical considerations. The demands of stewardship require that our knowledge be related to a wider context of meaning and responsibility.
3. That empirical observations and descriptions cannot be completely separated from theoretical interpretations and assumptions raises doubts about the adequacy of complementary explanations in science and religion for avoiding possible conflicts. Perhaps science and religion can benefit from a relationship of mutual interaction and support. Scientific results can help to correct theological errors, and religious insights can provide new understanding for science. For example, medieval theology developed a conviction of the order and intelligibility of creation that supported new scientific efforts, and science eventually contributed to greater empirical emphasis in theology.
4. The dependence of science on historical antecedents and communal commitments parallels the Christian experience of a continuing community of faith, but such a dependence should not give license to a total integration of science with faith and the production of naive scientific views. Both science and religion should be allowed sufficient independence to develop their own ideas and insights. Both should also be seen as creative human activities responding in different but related ways to the mysteries of human experience.
The Christian view of an objectively ordered and
intelligible creation as a sphere of human dominion
and responsibility provides a basis for the objectivity
and rationality of science. Such a view can answer
the challenge of relativism and subjectivism that would undermine the relevance of science. Responsible Christian stewardship requires a continuing
effort to relate science and faith.
in view of these considerations, science can be seen in its proper place as a cultural activity sharing many of the limitations and uncertainties of other human endeavors. Science can no longer maintain its claim as the ideal for human knowledge and perfection. Stanley Jaki summarizes these conclusions:
Thus for the Christian the ideal of perfection
tied to the ideal
of the perfect man in Christ. That
a man who searches not for
but for understanding in its broadest sense which gives justice to the facts of nature as well as to the facts of
history, and which satisfies man's senses as well as his innermost aspirations.30
In B.F. Skinner's book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity31, C.S. Lewis is criticized for claiming that too much emphasis on science and power over nature leads to dehumanization and to the "abolition of man."" Skinner asserts that the abolition of "autonomous man" is long overdue. In his zeal to subject man to scientific control, Skinner fails to recognize recent developments in the history and philosophy of science that have led to the abolition of autonomous science.
1C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures; and a Second Look, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
2Michael Polyani, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).
3See, for example, W.R. Thorson, "The Biblical insights of Michael Polanyi," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 33(3):129-138; W.R. Thorson, "Scientific Objectivity and the Word of God," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36(2):88-97; W.J. Neidhardt, "The Participatory Nature of Modern Science and Judaic-Christian Theism," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36(2):98-104.4Ernst Mach, The Analysis of Sensations (New York: Dover, 1959).
5Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), chapter S.
6Loren R. Graham, Between Science and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 39.7 L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London! Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922).
10Ernst Mach, The Principles of Physical Optics (New York: Dover, 1926), preface.
11Niels Bohr, Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1933), p. 28.12Mary Hesse, Forces and Fields (London: Nelson, 1961), p. 22.
14Del Ratzsch, Philosphy of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 133-37.
15Carl Boyer, A History of Mathematics (New York: John Wiley, 1968), p. 656.
16Friedrich Waismann, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), p. 105.
17J.C. Whitcomb and H.M. Morris, The Genesis Flood (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Press, 1961).18Wittgenstein, Tractatus, proposition 6.342.
21Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
22S. Toulmin, "Does the Distinction between Normal and Revolutionary Science Hold Water?" in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 25-47.
23Frederick Suppe, The Structure of Scientific Theories, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Dudley Shapere, Reason and the Search for Knowledge (Boston: D. Reidel, 1984).
24Paul Feyerabend, "Consolations for the Specialist," in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, pp. 197-230.
25C. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969); R.L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976).26J.C. Whitcomb and H.M. Morris, op. cit..
27Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1982).
28Ernan McMullin, "Logicality and Rationality: A Comment on Toulmin's Theory of Science," Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 11, R. Cohen and M. Wartofsky (eds.), (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974), pp. 209224.
29See, for example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); E.M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modem Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
30Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974).
31B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 191.32C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1974).