Science in Christian Perspective

 

 

 

WHAT IS SCIENCE?

Raymond J. Seeger
NSF, Retired
4507 Wetherill Road,
 Bethesda, MD 20816

From: PSCF 40 (March 1988): 45-46.

Whereas the 19 June 1987 voiding of a 1981 Louisiana law by the Supreme Court (7-2) in the case of Edwards vs. Aquillard 685 centered primarily on the question "What is religion?", the rejection of the 1981 Arkansas Act 590 by a Federal Court in 1982 also involved the question "What is science?" One of the ACLU principal witnesses for the plaintiffs in the earlier case was the philosopher-theologian Langdon Gilkey, a professor at the liberal Divinity School of the University of Chicago. In his interesting 1985 report, "Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock", he notes parenthetically, "Many scientists ... don't really know too much about what science is or is not." If he included philosophers and theologians in his indictment, I would agree; better instruction is needed about the nature of science, particularly its self-imposed limitations. For exampie, the Washington Post recently published two letters: "What do creationists know about science?" (11 July 1987) and "Social scientists are not 'real' scientists" (18 July 1987).

Gilkey notes that creation scientists claim that science is essentially "a body or collection of facts."1 He faults them in that "they center science in the facts it explains, they, therefore, fail to center science in its theories explanatory of the facts." As a theoretical physicist, I disagree with his dictum that "science is located in its theories, in its theoretical structure not in its facts.... It is the theories, not the facts involved in scientific inquiry that makes it science." He finds support in the opinion of another witness, Professor Michael Reese, a philosopher of science at Guelph University in Canada, who claims that "the essence of science lays in its theoretical structure." He agrees with the latter's regard of evolution as a fact-a promotional dogma of many biologists.2 The facts of evolution, I believe, are the observed data-not the theory that explains a carefully arranged sequence. My own view of the scientific method is not so simplistic. It is a complex process which involves at least four sequential ingredients: communal experiential (observed) facts, analyzed related factors, synthesized factitious theory, and experimental (observed) facts-with imagination as a common thread.3 I would hardly designate any as generally central, although the observed facts might be regarded as so-called boundary conditions of partial differential equations.

In his own testimony, Gilkey claims that "the basic forces or factors referred to in a scientific explanation are quantitative"-a common fallacy, presumably because of their common use. The philosopher Rudolf Carnap emphasized that there are three kinds of concepts in science: classificatory, comparative, quantitative .4 Unfortunately, mathematics for the qualitative has not yet been as highly developed as for the easier quantitative. Noteworthy also is Gilkey's careless identification of scientism with positivism.5 I agree, however, with his regard of evolutionism as having a religious aura about the scientific theory of evolution. On the other hand, his statement that "this factual account represented the ,science' of the eighth- to sixth-century Hebrew world (B.C.E.)" suggests a modern connotation of the word "science," which is misleading.

Gilkey deplores that "the wider public, both those who attend church and those who do not, remain apparently unaware that there is no longer any conflict between science and religion." This is narcissic, or at best, wishful thinking. The philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion are always bound to conflict, inasmuch as they both regard the same culture from different viewpoints. The overlapping views involve the same basic questions: What is true? What is real? What is of value? Hopefully, the apparent conflicts will change as each new view and insight becomes more complete, pointing to an ideal and necessary reconciliation. At present, however, I cannot accept his dictum that "there is essentially no threat of religion to science or of science to religion"-a fool's paradise in a greedy, competitive technological world. I do, however, agree that by definition science is agnostic, not atheistic.

Gilkey raises two interesting questions: How is it possible for creation science, particularly the earlier deistic form, to arise in an admittedly scientific culture? And why are some reputable scientists attracted to creation science? I agree wholeheartedly with his own conclusions that so-called creation science is not strictly a science inasmuch as it lacks testable prediction, but that it is religiously related as it primarily deals with ultimate concerns. I also agree with his observation that "today in the Church there is little understanding of creation. The doctrine of providence is not often discussed."

1988

NOTES

1See, for example, the argument from design of William Paley, et. al.

2Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition.

3From the same linguistic root as "theater": a view.

4"Philosophical Foundations of Physics," 1966.

5cf., Richard von Mises, "Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding," 1951.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The love of God, as it is the sovereign remedy of all miseries, so in particular it effectually prevents all the bodily disorders the passions introduce, by keeping the passions themselves within due bounds. And by the unspeakable joy, and perfect calm, serenity, and tra@illity it gives the mind, it becomes the most powerful of all the means of health and long life.

John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. XIV (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1872).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

46 PERSPECTIVES ON SCIENCE AND CHRISTIAN FAITH