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Science and World View
  • Introduction
  • What is Natural Science?
  • The Roots of Modern Science

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Science and World View

Greg Grooms


A popular caricature of science would divorce it entirely from the world of ideas. In the minds of many people science deals with facts only, never with faith or beliefs. Mixing science and world views is to them like mixing oil and water or facts and fiction. At best, it is seen as unwise, at worst impossible. This caricature fails, in the end, because it makes science a less-than-human activity. Every person has a world view that influences everything he does. Scientists and science are not exceptions to this.

In the past, failures to see the world scientifically were first of all problems of world views, not of innate intelligence or primitive technology. So, too, the success of the Scientific Revolution sprang, not from smarter people or better tools, but from a better world view, specifically the Christian world view.

A corollary of the modern caricature of science states that Christianity is its enemy, that the means and ends of science exclude those of the Bible. In truth, however, Christianity and science are tied together, both historically and philosophically. Far from being the enemy of science the Christian world view was the foundation upon which men first began to see and understand themselves and their world scientifically.

In answering the "hows" of existence, science makes a valuable contribution to the larger picture of our world view. However, there are questions that science cannot answer: questions of ultimate origins, of meaning and purpose, of morality, of what it means to be human.

  1. What is natural science?

    1. It is very hard to define precisely what science is.

      In the modern era descriptions of the scientific method have traditionally included a combination of empirical observation, experimental investigation, and inductive reasoning, resulting in scientific laws. But in the past scientists have used different methods and pursued different ends than those often taken for granted now. Recognizing this, some recent philosophers of science have suggested that our modern idea of a "scientific method"--an approach to investigating and understanding nature that defines science as science--is more myth than fact.{1}

    2. In light of this it may be more helpful to speak of science's goals than its methods.

      In its simplest terms science can be thought of as any attempt to answer the "hows" of our world: How does the human body function? How does the wind blow? How does a plant extract energy from sunlight? Such questions deal with mechanics, with cause and effect, with the physical forces that make things operate. Everyone asks such questions, so everyone is, in his own way, a scientist.

    3. How we answer these questions is powerfully influenced by our world views, especially by:
      1. Our ideas about the nature of the universe. Is it knowable? Is it worth knowing?

      2. Our ideas about what it means to be human. What significance or value (if any) do we attribute to human actions?

        Thus, our answers and the actions that flow from them, i.e., our science, are reflections of our ideas. Prior to the rise of modern science during the Renaissance (see second paragraph of introduction) and the Reformation, most ancient world views were a hindrance to scientific progress.

  2. The Roots of Modern Science

    1. The ancient Chinese are famous for their scientific accomplishments.

      The invention of paper, a fairly accurate calendar, the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass are among their achievements. Yet despite this, science did not flourish in China, nor were scientists honored there. The ancient Chinese often viewed scientific discoveries as mere oddities or novelties, of the same nature as a conjurer's tricks or sleight of hand, and scientists were held in low esteem, as reflected in this quote from the annals of the Thang dynasty (6th to 10th century A.D.) :

      Mathematicians, surveyors, physicians, and magicians were charlatans. The sages did not regard them as educated.{2}

      The source of these attitudes toward science lay in their view of nature. Under the influence of a mystical, pantheistic world view, the Taoist Chinese saw the natural world as a vast, unknowable enigma, to be worshiped, perhaps, but never to be understood. Science could not flourish in ancient China, because to its people nature was unknowable.

      In any culture the progress of science will be dependent upon its faith in the knowability of reality.

    2. Some scholars--e.g., Whitehead and Sagan--saw the beginnings of modern science in the emphasis given to reason within Greek philosophy.{3}

      The emphasis upon reason within the Greek philosophical tradition from the time of Socrates onward undergirded Greek efforts in geometry and astronomy. But an emphasis upon reason alone proved to be an inadequate basis for science.

      For example, Plato taught that there is a world which can be known rationally, but it is not the natural world. In his mind there is a perfect realm, entirely rational and abstract, of which this world and the things in it are only a poor copy. He once described our impressions of the natural world like this: if we lived in a cave and all that we could see of the outside world were the shadows that passed across the mouth of our cave, then we in our ignorance would mistake the shadows for reality. So, too, in Plato's mind attempting to understand truth by observing this world will only lead to confusion because the things of this world are to truth as shadow is to reality.{4} Unlike the Chinese Taoists, Plato believed that the physical world is real and knowable to a degree, but to Plato it was not worth knowing compared to the world of ideas.

      If science is to flourish people must not only see the universe as knowable, they must see it as worth knowing, they must see that scientific knowledge has practical value.

      To be sure, the ancient Greeks made contributions to the growth of science, perhaps most notably in Aristotle's work in taxonomy. Still the most enduring contribution of ancient Greece to science--the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe-- remained an obstacle to scientific progress for nearly 2,000 years. Had the Platonic Greeks merely examined the night sky, their eyes would have shown them the fallacy of such beliefs. Unfortunately, their thoughts were elsewhere.

    3. In past Islamic cultures, the chief obstacle to the progress of science was their view of human significance.

      Drawing on the scientific heritage of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, early Islamic cultures made significant contributions to algebra, trigonometry, and astronomy. Despite this, scientific and economic progress in Islamic cultures has been and continues to be hampered by their view of the significance of human actions. Islam teaches that Allah determines everything that occurs, everything from the natural events of our world to the thoughts in our heads. Within such a world view human freedom and significance disappear. Rather than dig an irrigation ditch to water his crops, a Moslem farmer may watch his family starve, while thinking, "Allah will send the rain when Allah wills. Who am I to try to thwart the will of Allah?"

      Such fatalism renders the idea of man's dominion over nature meaningless. In such a world, scientific knowledge, while possible, is useless. So why pursue it?

    4. Before considering the contributions of the Christian world view to the birth of science during the Renaissance and the Reformation, one should first ask why institutional Christianity during the Middle Ages was often a hindrance to its growth.

      Perhaps the most important factor to influence the development of science in Europe from the death of Christ to the 12th century A.D. was the assimilation of Plato's teachings into Catholic dogma. In the Catholic Middle Ages Plato's emphasis on the superiority of the spiritual to the physical were seen as an echo of the Apostle Paul's exhortations for believers to be "spiritual" rather than "fleshly" or "carnal." "Spiritual" activities came to be equated with religious activities, such as serving the church or going to mass. Activities like science that brought one into contact with the physical world were by definition unspiritual and of less value.

      Such views are a dangerous distortion of Paul's teachings. Any activity short of sin can be a spiritual activity. Our calling as Christians is not to be religious, but to live all of life, including science, to the glory of God. The Platonic spirituality of the Middles Ages not only served as a roadblock to scientific advancement, it discouraged Christians in every area of culture from creatively using their abilities in serving our Lord.

      To be sure there were advances in science during this era--barbers, blacksmiths, farmers, and craftsmen had to work on the natural world whether it was spiritual or not--but substantial scientific advancement had to wait. Science needed a revolution, a reformation not only of the church, but of men and their ideas, before it could grow.

©1998 Probe Ministries
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