Science in Christian Perspective
Scientific Truth: A Case Study Within the Biblical Christian World View
ROBERT B. FISCHER
La Mirada, CA 90639
From: PSCF 41 (September 1989): 130-136.
The meaning of truth is considered, as the term is used in common discourse, in philosophical analysis and in the processes of science. Within the biblical Christian world view, God Himself is truth. Our awareness and understanding of biblical truth and of scientific truth are based upon our study of His special and general revelations to mankind. All truth, including all valid biblical and scientific truth, is coherent because it is rooted and grounded in the God of the Bible.
The intent of this paper is to attempt to contribute to a clarification of the identity of the biblical Christian world view, and thereby to expand our comprehension of its awesome greatness. The plan of this paper is to consider the meaning of the concept of truth as it is encountered in everyday communication and in its philosophical significance, to list several aspects of truth as it is encountered in the methodology and content of science, and to identify the significance within the biblical Christian world view of truth in general and of scientific truth in particular.
The Meaning of "Truth"
In Common Discourse
"Truth" is one of many words that are used frequently in everyday thinking and communication that have meaning but are hard to define. Dictionary definitions are helpful but not fully satisfying. They include, for example, "the body of real things, events and facts," "agreement with facts," "conformity to fact or actuality," "correspondence with facts or with what actually occurred. " All four of these expressions include the word "fact," a concept which is equally hard to define as are the concepts of realness and actuality.
Fortunately, even though it is difficult to define truth rigorously, there is a common understanding of what the term signifies. Somehow, a principle which is true is one that has rightness rather than wrongness. Somehow, a truth is consistent with other truths rather than being contradictory to them. Somehow, that which is true is not false; it is somehow correct and not erroneous. To be sure, the word truth is at times used loosely and even inconsistently in everyday discourse. Nevertheless, it represents a concept that is useful and meaningful when interpreted and understood in the context in which it is used.
In Philosophical Analysis
The meaning of the concept of truth has been the subject of philosophical analysis for hundreds of years, even for thousands of years. Shils has brought a historical perspective to bear on this point: "Over 2,000 years ago, of course, Plato already found it necessary to defend the concept of truth against the Sophists; at the purely philosophical level, the new sceptics are still employing the arguments of their Greek predecessors.... Yet whatever view we finally take about that still-controverted question of what truth consists in and how it is to be recognized, it takes a hardy sceptic to deny that over the centuries human beings have built up a body of reliable information."1
In further comment on the situation over the centuries and up to our own era, Clark has summarized the continuing difficulty encountered in philosophical analysis of the meaning of truth in these words: "And of all people the philosophers, who have paid the most attention to these enigmas, are in greatest disagreement... perhaps a source of truth does not even exist... or at least no one knows where it is. "2
O'Connor expressed a similar conclusion in discussing the concept of "fact" by stating that very few philosophers would even attempt a definition. He then proceeded to note the other side of the coin, so to speak, by suggesting that there is no need to do so. "It might be said that we all know what a fact is," or at least we think we do, and may be entirely justified in accepting a vague, pre-analytic notion of it. "3
The meaningful usefulness of the concept of truth, even without a generally accepted precise definition, is further elaborated upon by Polanyi and Prosch: "Ideals as scientific truth, justice under the law, and good art cannot be given concrete definition ... what they are is simply what all members of each relevant group are striving together to delineate. Truth, for instance, is given specific form only as the community of scientists is free to work out what its form is, and this task is never finished. "4
It may appear to be a bit paradoxical to claim, on the one hand, that it is not possible to define truth in a way that is precise and satisfying and, on the other hand, that the term may be used meaningfully in everyday communication and in scholarly discourse. In an effort to resolve this seeming paradox, let us turn our attention to some general criteria for assessing truthfulness, within the "vague, pre-analytic notion" of what truth IS.
General Criteria of Truth
Without some general criteria for truth, we would be engulfed in an anarchy of claim and counterclaim, and the very concept of truth would be meaningless. Fortunately, an analysis of the scholarly literature on this subject, and observation of how the concept is used in common discourse as well, indicate that there indeed are some criteria that make the concept of truth meaningful and useful.
So let us note briefly two general, alternative criteria for truth, which we will then use in subsequent sections of this paper as we make more specific comments upon scientific truth and upon truth within the biblical Christian world view. We will take both of these criteria from a summary of the scholarly literature, as reported by Frank.5 He listed two general criteria for truth, either one of which is generally sufficient to cause persons to accept a principle or a statement:
1. It is logically derivable from self-evident, clear, intelligible principles.
2. It can be used to derive results which can be checked by observation.
It may be noted right away that the two are opposites of each other, in the sense that truth is based in one upon its origin and in the other upon its consequences.
Robert B. Fischer is a chemist by training, with degrees from Wheaton College (B.S.) and the University of Illinois (Ph.D.). He served as an Instructor at the University of Illinois, as Professor at Indiana University, as founding Dean of the School of Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and as Provost and Senior Vice President at Biola University. He now has Emeritus standing at the latter two institutions. His areas of specialization have included analytical chemistry and chemical instrumentation, and in more recent years academic administration. He is a past President and Executive Council member of the A.S.A.
Within criterion (1), the authority is to be found in the identity of the principles and in the logic of the derivation from the principles. With respect to the principles, controversies have raged for centuries as to whether or not there really are principles which are clear, self-evident and intelligible-in brief, over whether there is any ultimate structure or coherence to the universe. If there is no such coherence, criterion (1) is surely not valid. To state it differently, if a principle is not true itself, there would be no reason to assume that anything derived from it would be true.
With respect to the logic of derivation, there has been controversy as well. There are varied systems of logic, although essentially all of them agree on the meaning of such basic concepts as consistency and contradiction. Therefore, it would appear that criterion (1) falls short of being totally valid as a means of assessing truth. Nevertheless, imperfect as it may be, it is of some significance and is unavoidable as a working tool as people live out their lives individually and collectively.
The authority within criterion (2) is to be found in the testing, in the observation, and in the necessity of interpretation of that which is observed. There are basic weaknesses or uncertainties in all three of these areas. Even more basic, however, is an inherent weakness pointed out in the thirteenth century AD by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and by others both before and since that time: this criterion can never be absolute, never totally convincing, simply because a positive confirmation indicates only that the postulated truth may be right, not that it must be right. Or, to state it differently, the more the tests and observations that have been made, and the more convincingly the consequences of each one appear to corroborate the postulated truth, the more strongly we believe it to be true, but we can never totally prove it.
With either or both criteria, the truth is necessarily formulated and stated in words, in numbers, and/or in other technical indicators, and this adds another dimension of vagueness to any truth-statement. Words are symbols and thus have no absolute meaning within themselves. The significance and meaning are to be found in that which the words represent, not in the symbols per se. Thus, words must be interpreted if they are to be meaningful, so any word-statement of truth is a symbol of truth and not the truth itself. Numbers, too, can be an additional source of uncertainty in any statement of truth. Apart from the counting of discrete objects, all numbers represent comparisons to some defined standards (length, weight, time, etc.), so there is at least some plus or minus uncertainty in any numerical statement of a truth.
In summary, there are general criteria for truth.
They may not lead clearly and unequivocally to absolute truth, but even so they do lead to conclusions that may be accepted with confidence as truth, and which may be useful and meaningful in the minds of people.
Methodology and Content of Science
The methodology and the content of science are described, of course, in considerable detail in many places and by many authors. So a few brief comments will suffice as we begin our consideration of scientific truth.
Science may be defined as "the body of knowledge obtained by methods based upon observation."6 Four implications of this definition are important in ascertaining the meaning of the concept of scientific truth.
First, the practice of science is a human activity. It is human beings who do the observing, employ the methods, and gain the knowledge. Second, there is an authority in science that is external to the scientists. This authority is, in effect, the realm of nature, of matter and energy, for it is in that realm that their human senses enable human beings to make observations. (This is basically valid in the social and behavioral sciences as well as in the physical and biological sciences, although this point will not be discussed further in this paper.) Third, there is an inherent limitation to science. Anything that is outside of or beyond that realm is, in principle, outside of or beyond the bounds of science. Fourth, there is a building upon the authority of science. The methods are based upon, not limited to, observation.
If a principle is not true itself, there would be no reason to assume that anything derived from it would be true.
As human beings engage in the practice of science and come to the realm of matter and energy, they bring with them a theory or concept to be tested. It may already be quite specific and refined, or it may be little more than a mere hunch or a wild guess or an expression of curiosity. It may have arisen from any conceivable source. These human beings also bring with them a composite of mindsets and presuppositions, which may have been developed consciously and with considerable confidence, or which may be very vague and perhaps even outside the awareness of the person involved. Human beings then gain impressions of what has been observed. They give expression to these impressions in the data that have been collected, and in statements expressed in words and numbers and other symbols.
The impressions and expressions and data are interpreted in the form of scientific explanation. Scientific explanation consists essentially of cause-and-effect relationships within the realm of matter and energy. This interpretation includes assessment of whether the "theory" that entered into the process is corroborated or contradicted. If corroborated, it can be believed and accepted with even greater confidence. If contradicted, it is thereby made subject to possible modification or even rejection. If neither corroborated nor denied, the test has not been fruitful, at least not with respect to the goal to do so. Most frequently, this assessment does not result strictly in corroboration, contradiction, or in complete irrelevance, but rather in some partial combination of these alternatives. Accordingly, the process is repetitive and cyclical, as the human beings go back and forth among postulated theory, observation, and interpretation.
Truth in Science
Let us now consider the meaning of truth in science by suggesting several of its characteristics, all of which flow from the two general criteria for truth as they relate to the methodology of science.
(1.) In an ultimate sense, the authority within science, and thus truth in science, lies in the realm of matter and energy and not in any human interpretation of what is there. As stated by Polanyi: "Scientific discoveries are made in the search for reality ... of a reality that is there, whether we know it or not. The search is of our own making, but reality is not.... For the scientist's quest presupposes the existence of an external reality. "7 Einstein is quoted as having stated: "The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all the natural sciences."8 Bube has stated succinctly: "Truth (is) that which conforms exactly to ultimate reality, to that which is. "9 Thus, scientific truth is that which conforms to the reality of the realm of matter and energy, and science per se is limited to that which is there in this realm.
(2.) In a sense which is pragmatic and less than ultimate,
scientific truth is to be found in the content of scientific knowledge. There is
a sense in which scientific explanation, the generalizations and the scientific
laws developed in the building of scientific knowledge, may be considered to be
true. In this way, something is scientifically true if it produces order in past
observations and has been found to predict correctly the results of further
observations. This is the second of the two general philosophical criteria for
truth listed above, and it is the usual meaning of the term "scientific
truth." Thus, the term scientific truth often is very significant and
meaningful, even though it is never absolute in the sense of being ultimate
truth. Even a statement of scientific explanation that has been positively
corroborated by many observational tests is subject to refinement and/or to
other change. We should note here that some philosophers of science raise
objection to using the word truth for anything other than ultimate or absolute
truth. For example, Popper stated his preference to simply avoid the use of the
concept of truth in scientific work, preferring rather to use such expressions
as "logical consideration of derivability relations" and 11
corroboration or contradiction of accepted basic statements" in place of
what others refer to as scientific truth.10 Nevertheless,
there is no disagreement with the significance of the concept represented, only
with the choice of words to represent it.
Words must be interpreted if they are to be meaningful, so any word-statement of truth is a symbol of truth and not the truth itself.
(3.) Scientific truth is necessarily relational in its scientific content and its application. There is a coherence to scientific truth in that one scientific truth cannot contradict another. To be sure, there may be at any point in time apparent contradiction between two understandings or expressions of scientific truth, but that is only because of their imperfection.
(4.) Scientific truth deals with ranges of magnitudes of size, time, etc., that extend far beyond the ranges of human perceptions and normal mindsets. This means that tools of observation must be used, and this introduces additional factors into the interpretation of observations. It also means that "model-building" is useful, at times even essential, in the thought processes of scientists and in their statements of scientific explanation. This introduces the need to recognize continually that the model is not the real thing.
(5.) In the pragmatic meaning of truth in science, it is often necessary to oversimplify a complex reality in nature in order to express it with meaningful understanding. An approximation is not untrue simply because it is not precise, as long as it is clearly identified
(6.) As with other truths, a statement of scientific truth is in words, numbers, and other specialized symbols. Thus, there is always a danger that it may be interpreted differently by persons who try to communicate with each other. Indeed, the use of technical terminology often makes it difficult, even virtually impossible, to communicate that which is scientifically true within a specialized area of subject matter to persons who are not experts in the terminology of that area.
(7.) Scientific truth is not necessarily the totality of truth as it relates to any particular item of subject matter. There are, conceivably at least, alternative ways of looking at anything, even at things and events within the realm of matter and energy. For example, a physical scientist, an artist, a philosopher, a theologian, and a lay person who is none of these, can look at the same sunset over the ocean, and see it and describe it very differently without any of them being untruthful in doing so.
Truth in the Biblical Christian World View
Identity of the Biblical Christian World View
The biblical Christian world view may be defined as the "overall comprehensive view of all reality based upon the transcendent and immanent God of the Bible as the one primary, independent fact." The words "all reality" signify that this view includes all time past and present and future, all space, all of the realm of nature and all matter and energy of which it consists, all of the realm of the supernatural to whatever extent it exists, all people, all else that exists or ever has existed or ever will exist. The designation of the God of the Bible as the one primary, independent fact signifies that all else is secondary and dependent. It further signifies that nothing that is secondary and dependent can be viewed correctly unless it is viewed in consistency with that which is primary and independent.
How is it possible, if it is possible at all, for human beings who are secondary and dependent to have any knowledge of the God who is primary and independent? It would seem that there is no possible way, apart from whatever God has revealed of Himself to human beings. Those of us who accept the biblical Christian world view as valid believe that this is precisely what God has done, and that the methods and timing have been of His own choosing and at His own volition.
We further believe that He has chosen two means of doing so, commonly referred to as "special revelation" and "general revelation." Special revelation consists of the Bible. God Himself is the primary author, having worked through the intermediary of several human authors whom He has chosen and moved to accomplish this purpose. General revelation consists of the realm of nature, created and sustained by God and observable by human beings within it. Within the biblical Christian world view, both the Bible and the realm of nature exist with a reality that is not rightly explainable apart from God Himself. The Bible refers in many places to these two means whereby God has revealed Himself to mankind, for example: Psalm 19, Romans 1, Hebrews 1:1, 11 Timothy 3:16, and 11 Peter 1:21.
What is the meaning of truth in the biblical Christian world view? Where is truth to be found? Where and how do human beings have access to this truth? The answer is both simple and deeply meaningful-God Himself is truth. He is ultimate truth, absolute truth. God is the source of truth, and He Himself is truth.
"Model-building" is useful, at times even essential, in the thought processes of scientists and in their statements of scientific explanation.
We know this because God, the one primary and independent fact, has revealed it to us. He has revealed it to us in the Bible. Christ, ,-.-ho was the eternal God incarnate in time and place, repeatedly referred to Himself as truth; for example, in John 14:16, "I am the way, the truth and the life," in John 8:32 with reference to others knowing Him, "You shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free," and John 1: 14 identifies Christ as "the Lord ... full of grace and truth." In 11 Timothy 2:15, the word of God is referred to as "the word of truth." The concept that God is ultimate and absolute truth is not based merely upon these and other isolated biblical statements. Rather, it is fully consistent with, and basic to, the overall thrust of all that God has revealed of Himself to human beings, including both special and general revelation. The assemblers of the historic Westminster Confession have expressed the overall concept that God is truth in this way: "God is infinite, eternal and unchanging in His ... truth." God, unlike any lesser authority, is fully omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal-He is truth.
Biblical Truth and Scientific Truth
Now, if God Himself is truth, and if He has revealed Himself to mankind in both special and general revelation, it follows that human beings have access to truth through reading, observing, and interpreting that which is contained in these revelations. In so doing, it is important to recognize the distinction between God as absolute and ultimate truth and human understandings of that truth.
We have already emphasized the need for interpretation as scientists observe in the realm of nature and seek to gain understanding of scientific truth. It is also essential that the written Bible be read and interpreted if one is to gain an understanding of biblical truth. To make this statement is not to downgrade or to cast doubt upon biblical truth. Rather, it is to recognize the nature of biblical truth. Truth is to be found in the Bible, not necessarily in any one interpretation of it, even though interpretations are needed for us to gain understanding of its truths. Geisler and Nix have stated the distinction in this way: "In the ultimate sense, only God can give a revelation or disclosure of truth," and "The truth of Scripture is not to be found in what the Bible says, but in what it means, in other words, in what it reveals, not in what it records."11
An additional comment may be in order here as to the place of the realm of nature and scientific truth within the biblical Christian world view. God is both the creator of the realm of nature and the sustainer of that which He created. Our human understanding and statements of scientific truth, with all their limitations and imperfections, represent our best explanations of how He provides for and sustains that which He has created.
It is fully possible for human beings to engage in scientific work and to gain scientific knowledge, all without any recognition of the relationship of the realm of nature to the God of the Bible. There is a close parallel in biblical study and theology, because a person can study the Bible and gain theological knowledge, all without any acceptance of the concept that the Bible is anything other than a book of strictly human origins. indeed, one person can approach the study of either the Bible or the realm of nature with a strictly humanistic mindset and presuppositions, while another may approach either one with a strictly biblical theological mindset, and both may interpret that which they study as confirming their initial mindsets.
The Coherence of All Truth
Both of the general criteria of truth which we noted above involve some measure of consistency of one truth with another truth. In criterion (1), it would only be faulty logic if two or more "truths" derived from the same self-evident principles were to fail to be consistent with each other. In criterion (2), the whole concept of multiple testing with repeated corroboration signifies that a truth must be consistent with other truth.
Within the biblical Christian world view, the unity and coherence of all truth is assured by the reality that God Himself is ultimate and absolute truth. As noted earlier, all but God is secondary and dependent, and so cannot be viewed rightly apart from consistency with God who is primary and independent. Therefore, the biblical Christian world view provides a basis for the concept of the coherence of all truth. All truth, including all valid biblical and scientific truth, is rooted and grounded in the God of the Bible who is absolute truth.
Early church fathers recognized these relationships. Their writings, as reviewed by Holmes, indicated their convictions that all truth is God's truth wherever it may be found, also that all truth is not necessarily contained in the Bible. 12,13 However, it is of extreme importance to keep the right perspective in identifying scientific truth as God's truth. It is not that a scientific truth exists, so it must be God's truth. Rather, it is that God exists, so scientific explanation is true to the extent that it accurately describes relationships within the realm of nature which God has created and which He sustains.
In pressing this point further, it may be noted that this concept does not refer merely to the unity of isolated bits of truth. Much more than that, it refers to coherence within the overall body of established truth. When one wishes to assess the truth of a postulated bit of truth, one looks not only for isolated bits of truth with which there may be agreement or disagreement but also at the overall thrust of the totality of established truth. Clark referred to this point by writing of "divine omniscience, the emphasis on the systematic unity of all truths, and the supposition that a particular truth derives its meaning or significance from the system as a whole."' Schaeffer has pointed out that there is a unity of methodology of all truth as well as of its content, by noting that "scientific proof, philosophical proof and religious proof follow the same rules," and then identifying the first of these rules as "the theory must be non-contradictory and must give an answer to the phenomenon in question. "14
All truth, including all valid biblical and scientific truth, is rooted and grounded in the God of the Bible who is absolute truth.
In keeping with the purpose of this paper, we have been addressing the subject of truth in the biblical Christian world view, and not that of the truth of this world view. However, let me add two brief comments on the latter topic. First, the assessment of the truth of this world view can follow essentially the same path as we have been discussing for assessment of truth in it. Second, there is no philosophical, scientific, or theological means of proving unequivocally that this world view is true, nor even that the God of the Bible really does or does not exist. It would appear from what God has revealed that this is intentional on His part, as indicated for example in Hebrews 11:6 "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (emphasis added-note that the words are faith and believe, not proof and prove). This does not mean at all that faith is a blind guess or wishful thinking, nor that it necessitates proceeding contrary to evidence. Indeed, many scholars and others have and do conclude that the biblical Christian world view is corroborated, not contradicted, by the totality of the evidence in both special and general revelation. In addition, it is substantiated by the indwelling Holy Spirit, as noted, for example, in I Corinthians 2:10-16.
The plan and the intent of this paper were noted at the beginning. I have endeavored to follow the plan, and I trust that the intent has been accomplished. From a very personal standpoint, I can testify that my own years of study and work as a physical scientist, along with concurrent study and involvement in the biblical Christian world view, have contributed tremendously to my own awareness and appreciation of the greatness of God.
1E. Shils, et al., The Academic Ethic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
2Gordon H. Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).
3D.J. O'Connor, The Correspondence Theory of Truth (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1975).
4Michael Polanyi and H. Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).
5Philip Frank, Philosophy of Science (Englewood cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957).
6Robert B. Fischer, Science, Man and Society (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co., 2nd edition, 1975).
7 Michael Polanyi, "The Creative Imagination," Chemical and Engineering News, April 25, 1966.
8C. Susskind, Understanding Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
9Richard H. Bube, The Human Quest (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971).
10Karl B. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discot)ery (New York: Basic Books, 1959).
11Norman L.Geisler and W.E. Nix, A General introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968).
12Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth is God's Truth (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
13Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
14Frances A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, IL: InteTVarsity Press, 1968).
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time ...
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.