Science in Christian Perspective




Colin A. Russell

Open University
Walton Hall
Milton, Keynes
Buckinghamshire MK7 6AA

This Communication was previously published in Science and Faith, Newsletter No. 6 of the RSCF, June 1986, pp. 16-23,

From: PSCF 39 (March 1987): 45-49.


It is frequently uncomfortable to experience a re-evaluation of what has always been taken as "given," to find that a world we have hitherto supposed to be closed is in fact open, and to realise that most of our cherished assumptions may be actually vulnerable to question. Such a situation has no novelty for Christians who have always understood something of the transience of this world and its allegedly unchanging values. However, for professional scientists it can be unnerving when the whole nature of the scientific enterprise is called into question. After all, it is on the power, precision and objectivity of that enterprise that many of us have based our careers.
Of course, we are all used to challenges in matters of specific detail:

Were our observations sufficiently accurate? 
Can the empirical data bear any other interpretation? 
Have earlier results been taken properly into account? Has some relevant piece of data been overlooked?

and so on. But this is different. Over the last 20 or 30 years a new critique of science has begun to raise far more fundamental questions than these. The purpose of this paper is to identify a few of these questions in a very general way and to suggest the kinds of response that might properly be given by scientists who are also Christian believers.

One consequence of these new approaches is a concentration on the nature of scientific knowledge itself. Once given a privileged status in the hierarchy of human understanding, scientific knowledge is now so often reduced to a level of social dependence that its authority and mystique are unrecognisably diminished. It becomes simply one other kind of socially constituted knowledge, no more (or less) "true" than the insights of poet, mystic, politician or prophet. It shares the doubtful privilege with religion of being the object of the most vigorous efforts of sociological reductionism, so far attempted.

It is obvious that much of this radical critique emanates from the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge. As such, it is likely to be preemptorally dismissed by many working scientists, particularly those active in the physical sciences. However, it is not in the least degree necessary to subscribe to this or that school of sociology in order to recognise insights of great value and power, even though these may sometimes be concealed beneath layers of jargon and tendentious argument, and on occasion be embodied in what turns out to be a thinly veiled political manifesto. Furthermore, one has to be a very naive backwoodsman indeed to identify, and dismiss, all the critique as Marxist or even neo-Marxist in origin, inspiration and intention. Historians and philosophers of science of all shades of political opinion are agreed that it is high time to reappraise the status and uses of science in the light of the considerable amount of historical analysis since the War. Just as scientific analysis (properly understood) is the correct mode of enquiry into problems internal to science itself, so historical analysis can be of great value in elucidating the course and nature of scientific development-as it is for any other changes in historical time.

It is not the purpose of this paper to attempt any magisterial synthesis, or to offer a critique of the critique. The issues are far too large for that. One major question underlies all the others: given that there may be substance in some (or much) of what has been written by way of a radical critique of science, what is an appropriate Christian response? Three areas of enquiry suggest themselves. In each case a few provocative quotations may prompt further discussion.

1. Critiques of the Nature of Science

The internalists always seem to me essentially Manichaean; they do not like to admit that scientists have bodies, eat and drink, and live social lives among their fellow-men, whose practical problems cannot remain unknown to them; nor are the internalists willing to credit their scientific subjects with subconscious minds.1 (J. Needham, 1964)

As a mission cannot be neutral, the science done in achieving it cannot either.2 (S. and H. Rose, 1971)

Science is social relations.3 (R. M. Young, 1977)

These citations represent the view that science is essentially a social construct, a product of the societies in which it grew and developed. That statement can, of course, mean a great many different things to different people. At one extreme it can imply merely that the rate of scientific advance is affected by the degree to which society gives (or withholds) its favours to science by funding, education and general encouragement. At the other extreme there may be the suggestion that the very fabric of scientific knowledge itself may be socially conditioned. And, of course, there are all kinds of intermediate positions.

The first, and weakest, form of the proposition that science is a social construct is so obviously true as to be a mere platitude and not worth further discussion. The last, and strongest, form is extremely contentious, and calls for more comment. If it is true, a good number of sacred cows have to be led to the altar. For example, we shall no longer be able to claim total objectivity for scientific knowledge, the "myth of value-free science" will be exposed for what it is, and at last science will be toppled from its long cherished position at the pinnacle of human understanding. Understandably, this view has not met with rapturous enthusiasm amongst the scientific community itself (particularly as it is often articulated by those with the most minimal direct experience of science). That, however, is not the point. Nor is it to our present purpose to engage in philosophical debate, observing en route that the proposition "science is value-laden" is itself a socially conditioned, value-laden statement. That way madness lies! Rather we should ask whether any empirical evidence can be brought to bear on the question. If such exists anywhere it must surely lie within the history of science.

In 1977 the New Scientist carried an article by Professor M. Hammerton4 which designated as "a fashionable fallacy" the notion that scientific advances are ever determined by "social and economic factors." Pointing out that a literal interpretation of this view "is not only false but absurd," he cited the imaginary possibility of a society in which the second law of thermodynamics was denied and in which it did not even apply. He concluded that the best that could be claimed was that society may condition scientific thinking, but that even for this modified form of the original proposition there was insufficient hard evidence. In the subsequent furore it was pointed out that evidence did exist in plenty if only one looked in the right places. One could go further and assert that the historical data point overwhelmingly to a science that has been profoundly influenced by the culture in which it has grown. It is not necessary to suppose, with some Soviet writers of the 1930's, that Newton's mighty edifice of universal gravitation reflected his interests in mercantile and military matters.5 But it is as near certain as can be that his whole scientific philosophy was intimately connected with the world view of late 17th century England, including its theology. Darwinism is another classic case; so are electrochemistry, theories of the ether, uniformitarian geology, thermodynamics and many other areas of science, down to such oddities as astrology, alchemy, phrenology, mesmerism and sociobiology. In all these instances the actual content of theories embodied the values and world views of their proponents.

When the results of studies on the cognitive structure of science are added to those on the scientific community and on individual men and women within it, the case for a social dimension to science becomes unanswerable. The reason is perfectly simple. When we do our science we do not cease to be human beings with motivations. That is the point of the Needham quotation above. Each of us has only one brain and we cannot close off part of it when we shut the laboratory door behind us. When we are also part of a project (or "mission") even more values are imported into our science hence the Rose quotation above. The old-fashioned "internalist" history of science that ignored such considerations did so at its peril. It may have been flattering to scientists to read triumphalist histories of their subjects, but the explanatory power of such anecdotal accounts was negligible.

Despite the success of studies of science in its cultural setting, it is quite unnecessary to go -over the top" and allege a social dependence that is total and absolute. To imagine that in any society thermodynamic laws did not hold and that kettles boiled on icebergs is just silly. To that extent-and only that-Hammerton was right- Tiic faith of the scientist, that there are regularities in nature and that he can begin to discover them- is entirely unscathed by a recognition that how he works and bow be formulates his generalities is a function also of the society in which he lives. A recent writer (Loren Graham) put it thus:

We now must live the middle range of the science-value spectrum, recognizing  the erroneousness of the value-free conception of science so prevelent in the previous generation, and the equal erroneousness of the countering view that "all of science is value-laden "6

How may the Christian respond to all this? I suggest several reactions are appropriate- The first is caution. A familiarity with the history of science will already have given a healthy scepticism to any claims for scientific finality. A comparable restraint is desirable in the face of historical claims of an absolutist kind (e.g., that science is always value-laden). We of all people ought to be willing to face all the available evidence without fear or favour. Much more remains to be done, and until then them is plenty of room for an open mind.

A second reaction could well be to welcome the new insights insofar as they find corroboration in the historical data. For what has gone has been an attitude to science that was profoundly anti-Christian. This was the positivist approach that negated Biblical claims that ultimate truth was only to be found in Jesus, and exalted science as the one way to truly objective knowledge. What has toppled is not science but "scientism," science falsely so-called, something akin to an object of worship for its own sake. At the same time we can bid an unlamented farewell to the whole elaborate artifice of a "conflict" view of science history in which science and religion are portrayed as forever interlocked in mortal combat. That was exactly how the Victorian positivists and "scientific naturalists" wanted us to see things, and indeed was what might have been expected if science alone were immune from social contamination.

Finally, liberation from this dogma enables us to see with a new clarity the historic links between emerging science and Biblical Christianity. Christians may find themselves making common cause with Marxists in uncovering the cultural roots of the scientific enterprise, but they should not be disconcerted. In the search for truth, historical as well as scientific, no holds should be barred. Let's stop being defensive.

2. Critiques of the Motivation of Science

Newton's natural philosophy served as an underpinning for the social ideology developed by the church after the [English] Revolution7 (M. Jacob, 1976)

The founders of British Mechanics' Institutes thought a scientific education would aid in the social control of those artisans who were their designated target8 (S. Shapin and B. Barnes, 1977)

Science as the mode of cultural self-expression by a new social class.9 (A. Thackray, 1974)

Why does anyone do science? Traditionally the reasons might have been any of the following:

To achieve self-fulfillment
To bring glory to God
To benefit humanity by "useful" discoveries
To earn a living

and so on. The first of these is the timeless reaction of a dedicated minority who enjoy nothing more than laboratory success. The second is hard to locate alone from the others; Kepler was probably an example as he "thought God's thoughts after him." The third has been much more common over the last two centuries; it is, of course, the traditional Marxist explanation as well. The fourth justification is quite modern, coinciding with the professionalization of science in the last hundred years. What the radical critique of science has done is to add to these a number of others in which science is pursued for reasons that see it as a means to an end which is often political and rarely to do with science alone. The quotations above are typical.

This extension of sociological thinking may seem of little moment for any except those actively involved in the controversies. But that is an illusion. The first citation above represents a well known attempt to explain away in political terms a sustained exercise in Christian apologetics in the early 18th century, the famous Boyle Lectures. Newtonianism was proclaimed from City pulpits, not because it helped to highlight the absurdity of atheism (the ostensible purpose), but so that it could "underpin the social order." This it was supposed to do because the peddlers of atheistic philosophies were seen as subversive not only of church but also of state. Moreover Newtonian science had built into it the concept of Providential intervention. This was politically attractive to those who had abrogated the "divine right" of kings, deposing James II and welcoming William III (whose landing at Torbay owed much to a Providential east wind!). This alleged use of science for political ends is the author's reason for denying in the first place the status of the Boyle Lectures as a straightforward exercise in Christian apologetics. She simply cannot believe that the debate was "centred essentially on intellectual issues" or that it was "only simple Christian piety that was at stake." Here is a classic case of a radical critique ending up by arguing in a circle: sociopolitical considerations are parmount because they must be paramount! At least the author has been refreshingly candid on what she can and cannot assume.

Similar considerations apply to the second citation (above) that science in the Mechanics' Institutes had the primarily political aim of social control. It is not hard to marshall empirical data that make the proposition look extremely implausible, at least as a widely held objective.10

Which brings us to the third citation, from Thackray. Writing of the famous Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in the late I 8th century, he sees its early members as "marginal men" in the city's community, not hereditary aristocrats or even landed gentry. These were the new industrialists and others who saw in science a way up the social ladder. It was a new and potent status symbol, and could lead to a respected place in society. Whether they were right or wrong they now had another reason for cultivating science, quite apart from its obvious utility to the new industry. Again Thackray's thesis has not escaped criticism, but he is on far stronger ground than either of the other authors cited, By stressing the cultural uses of science he has reminded us again of the complexity of motives in human beings and perhaps hinted at something akin to the Biblical warnings to sit lightly to worldly acclaim and to use the gifts of God for the benefit of others, Those gifts include science.

3. Critiques of the Uses for Science

Science is nothing more than a body of information and techniques accumulated mainly in the last 150 years or so from work on problems relevant to the concerns of the capitalist class." (D. Albury and J. Schwartz,11 1980)

Modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology ... If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.12 (Lynn White, 1966)

From the ideological "uses" of science we turn, finally, to some modern critiques of the more obviously technological applications with which it has been credited. Science has been attacked on at least two fronts.

First, science is sometimes seen as a lackey of capitalism, being merely a tool in the hands of the industrial establishment. The first citation is from an article on the work of Davy on safety in coal-mines. Apart from numerous inaccuracies, it ignores Davy's refusal to gain profit from his invention of the safety-lamp and unsurprisingly reveals that his interests were those of the mine-owners. It was, after all, they who commissioned him. What is truly remarkable is the breathtaking generalisation expressed in terms of naive "nothing buttery." Yet for all its flaws the article does usefully remind us of yet another dimension of our science-its possible use for narrow class-directed ends. It is all too easy to see this in history, too bard to perceive it in our own environment. Once again a truly Christian insight will critically sift the evidence and recall the universality of original sin, recognising a need to use all our gifts responsibly, including that of scientific knowledge.

The challenge of responsible stewardship emerges more clearly in the famous (or notorious) paper of Lynn White in which he addresses the problem of pollution and environmental damage owing to science and/or technology. Unlike the previous two authors he has a realistic understanding of the roots of modern science and locates them firmly in the "matrix of Christian devotion." This insight he shares with many modern historians of science, radical or otherwise.13 Furthermore, technology "is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realisation of the Christian dogma of 'man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature." That being the case, the marriage of science and technology a century or two ago produced an offspring of fearful aspect: a determination to use all modern resources to subdue nature for the benefit of man and (at least in theory) to the glory of God. Thus for our modern ecologic crisis and the rape of the environment "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt."

The remedy proposed is a return to the peculiar blend of romantic pantheism and Christian devotion attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. However, it may be doubted if White is correct in either his diagnosis or the prescribed cure.14 Many individuals have been able to demonstrate a passionate reverence for nature and yet have sought actively to manipulate it-Humphry Davy for one. Again, despoliation of nature and massive pollution have often occurred quite apart from any Christian ideology. One need only recall the foetid rivers of India near Madras or the suffocating air of Tokyo. The pre-Christian world had some prime examples, as in the deliberate deforestation of the Mediterranean seaboard by fire. Indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that much human arrogance towards nature may be attributed to Greek and Roman sources rather than Judaeo-Christian ones. Chiefly, though, the White thesis is comprehensively undermined by many cases of environmental concern that have been specifically Christian in inspiration; one thinks of John Ray, William Derham and Michael Faraday in the past and of insitutions in our own day like Tear Fund or Faith and Farm.

Perhaps some words from Derham (1713) will make a fitting conclusion to this paper. Of the "uses" of nature he wrote:

That these things are the gifts of God, they are so many talents entrusted with us by the infinite Lord of the world, a stewardship, a trust reposed in us; for which we must give an account at the day when our Lord shall call.15

One can hardly be more radical than that.


1J. Needham, in M. Goldsmith and A. Mackay (eds.), The Science of Science, Scientific Book Club, London, 1964, p. 129n.
S. and H. Rose, in W. Fuller (ed.), The Social Impact of Modern Biology, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971, p. 220.
R. M. Young, Radical Science journal, 1977, no. 5, 65, 
M. Hammerton, New Scientist, 1977, 76, 274.
Especially B. Hessen, "The social and economic roots of Newton's Principta," in N. 1. Bukharin et al., Science at the Cross Roads (1931), reprinted by Cass, London, 1971, p. 147.
L. Graham, Between Science and Values, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981, p. 378.
7 C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689-1720, Harvester Press, Hassocks, 1976, p. 17T
8S. Shapin and B. Barnes, Social Studies of Science, 1977, 7, 32,
9A. Thackray, American Historical Review, 1974, 79, 678.
10C. A. Russell, Science and Social Change, 1700-1900. Mac.Millan, London, 1983, p. 165.
11D. Albury and J. Schwartz, Science for People, 1980, 47, 26.
12L. White, Science, 1967, 155, 1203.
13E.g., R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modem Science, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh & London, 1973.
14C. A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions between Science and Faith, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1985, p. 231.

W. Derham, Physico- Theology: Or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from His Works of Creation, London, 1713.