The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective


Del Ratzsch

InterVarsity Press, 2nd ed., 2000, 189 pp.


Ratzsch is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the author of The Battle of Beginnings.  This is a “philosophy of science” book.  The author describes how views of science have changed, gives an introduction to intelligent design, and suggests civility and charity in dealing with science-faith issues.


“The philosophy of science is basically the study of what science is, what it does, how it works, why it works and what we should make of it.” (Preface)


“Our worldviews…are now inescapably shaped by science.”  (8)


“If, for whatever reason, we misconstrue science and grant it too large a role, we may…distort or destroy some deep part of ourselves and our human meaning.  If…we grant it too small a role, we may…destine ourselves to crawl in regions where we could fly.”  (8)


Three concepts—the empirical, the objective and the rational—are key to the nature of science.  “In addition…a number of philosophical assumptions characterize science.  For instance, it has been historically assumed that nature is understandable.”  (14)


“When scientists collect data, they have to have some presuppositions, some idea of what is or what is not going to help this particular study.  When they organize their data, they must have some views concerning what goes with what and what goes into what category.  And although these views or hypotheses or theories may be suggested by the data, they are not logical consequences of the data.  They are the results of creative insights on the part of humans.”  This raises questions of how rational, objective and empirical science really is.  (20)


Positivists insisted that “all concepts, ideas and substantive knowledge available to human beings must ultimately rest solely on experience—in particular, on sensory experience or observation.”  This amounted to an attempt to “reduce all knowledge to scientific knowledge….”  Positivists claimed that “most metaphysics, philosophy and religion were literal nonsense, and they tried to keep them out of science by constructing requirements for confirmation that such principles could not meet.”  “It was a short step from there to the conclusion that all real human knowledge was scientific knowledge.” Since nothing else could be known, “the material is all the truth there is.”  (27-30)


But positivism sank under its own logical burden of criteria for empirical testability.  (31)


Popper showed logically that theories could never be positively verified but only falsified.  But he also demonstrated that human choice unavoidably entered into scientific judgments, which further undercut the traditional assumptions that science is rational, objective and empirical.  (34-6)


Kant pointed out that “our only access to the world outside ourselves was via experience, all we could study directly and all we could really know about scientifically were our own experience, our own perceptions.”  “Thus science…lost the external world it was supposed to be studying.”  (40) 


“The most influential movement within philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s [associated with Thomas Kuhn] was built around the general idea that various mental facets of human beings affected not only what a person actually and truly perceived but even to some extent the reality that was being perceived.” (40)


“Some psychologists have recently argued that one’s expectations, mindset, conceptual framework and in some cases specific beliefs have some effect on one’s perception, on what one sees.” (45)


Kuhn’s view is that “the only access we have to any world is through perception, and perception is paradigm-colored.”  [We see it through some preformed mental grid.]  “There really is something out there…but we cannot get at it…free of a paradigm.” (47)  “The Kuhnian movement has placed humans and human subjectivity…firmly in the center of science.  …science is a decidedly human pursuit.  Science is seen as no more ruggedly and rigidly objective and logical than the humans who do it.” (50)


Postmodernists share a nonnegotiable hostility to the conceptual and cultural structures associated with science, including the idea of an independent and objective reality, one objective Truth, i.e., “one correct, global, all-encompassing story or metanarrative about reality,” etc.   For postmodernists, “any reality we know—and perhaps any reality there is—is socially constructed and fundamentally reflects nothing but the structure of the constructing culture.” (54)


“As many postmodernists see it, the picture science produces of reality (or reality itself) is human invention.”  “The real subtext of science is simply the repressive perpetuation of social power and privilege.” (56)


“Postmodern views (at least in full-blown form) have not been accepted by most professional philosophers of science or by scientists themselves.” (57)


“Philosophers of science have begun to pay more attention to the human side of science.”  (62)


“It is now generally conceded that …judgments are generally made against the canvas of one’s background beliefs and commitments—other theories, beliefs, values or commitments one has that bear on the acceptability of theory, data or their relationship.  Often such judgments are subject to nonscientific influences as well.” (66)


“Current tendency, however, is toward the view that the core of neutral, common perception provides objective constraints to keep the community of scientists going in the same general direction and that scientific consensus is not simply a sociological artifact.” (67)


“The realist believes that in principle theories are to be taken literally to some degree, that to some degree they provide us with actual descriptions of the underlying structure of nature or with actual truth.  The antirealist believes that theories cannot and do not tell us any such thing.” (73)


“We have already seen that science does not provide any means of proving the truth of empirical generalizations.”  “Theoretical principles are no more provable than empirical generalization.” (76)  Furthermore, theories cannot be proven false. (77)


“It is just as important to know what science cannot tell us as to know what it can.”  “If any part of reality lies outside the boundaries imposed on science by its methods, that part of reality will be beyond the competence of science; and if knowledge is artificially restricted to scientific knowledge, we will thus be sheltering ourselves and our beliefs from the relevant portions of reality.”  (92)


There are many areas in which pure science cannot directly speak.  Science cannot validate its own foundations.  They must be accepted on some other grounds.  “This implies that science cannot be the only legitimate basis for believing something.” (93)


“Science cannot give any ultimate naturalistic or mechanical explanation for the existence of the universe with which it deals.”  “To explain that, one needs prior principles.”  “When questions such as those of ultimate origins arise, scientific method cannot be effectively applied.” (94)


“Restricting science in practice to naturalistic concepts is perhaps all right so long as one realizes what one is doing and so long as one does not then try, in the name of science, to force such restrictions onto areas for which purely naturalistic concepts are inadequate or inappropriate.  A method of investigation deliberately restricted to the naturalistic (or the purely material or mechanistic) will not be competent to deal with most of the fundamental questions of morality and value, psychology, theology and religion, philosophy and some other areas as well.” (96)


Ch 7.  “Scientific” Challenges to Religious Belief

Ratzch lists and refutes four kinds of challenges to religious belief—“that religious belief is defective in not being scientific, that it is defective in not being provable, that it is defective in that there is no (or insufficient) evidence of it and that it is scientifically superfluous.” (100)  For example:


“When the religious critic says that there is no evidence, he certainly does not mean to be denying the existence of the world, or of life, or of himself, but is serving notice that he does not accept the background principles that give evidential status to those things.  By claiming that there is no evidence, then, the critic is really saying in effect that the background principles that a believer holds—for instance, that there could not have been a world had it not been for a Creator—are false.”  “The critic’s claim that there is no evidence implies that any principle connecting existence to createdness is false and that no one will know of any such connections, ever.  What is his evidence for that sweeping claim?”  “If he has no evidence for that position, then in holding it he is violating the very principle of ‘no belief without evidence’ that he is trying to use against the Christian.”  (102-3)


“If part of reality lies beyond the natural realm, then science cannot get at that truth without abandoning the naturalism it presently follows as a methodological rule of thumb.” (105)


“If God designed his laws to accomplish his purposes, why should we see him then as being in competition with those laws, so that we have to choose between God’s activities and natural laws a somehow rival explanations?”  (106)


“If your neighbor presents you with an apparently flawless scientific case that you do not really exist, do not get too rattled if you cannot find any obvious mistakes in the case.”  “The point is that scientific cases, although often quite powerful, are not conclusive cases.”  (109)


Ch 8.  Design & Science

“A design is an intentionally produced (or exemplified) pattern, where a pattern is an abstract structure that resonates, matches or meshes in certain ways with mind, with cognition.”  (113)  “Since design involves the deliberate production of pattern, there is always agent activity somewhere in its history.” (114)


“If there is something nature could not or would not produce unaided, yet there it is right in front of us, it follows that something else—a human, alien, or other agent—was involved in its production.” (114)


“A supernatural agent who created a cosmos could build design into the very structure and interrelationships among the fundamental laws governing that cosmos….”  “So if a supernatural agent indirectly constructed life, for example, we could scientifically investigate the origin of life without seeing direct supernatural agent activity, seeing only the operating of natural laws and conditions constructing life.” (118)


“The complexity of an artifact may indeed suggest design, but mere complexity alone may not.” (119)


“It is widely held that the concept of supernatural design is illegitimate in science….” (120)


However, “appeal to design produced by finite agents is perfectly legitimate in scientific contexts.  Furthermore, there is nothing inherently unscientific even in claiming to identify evidences of design in living organisms….”  “…the difficulties are rooted in the supernatural part of that equation.”  (120-21)


“The standard prohibition on the supernatural in science is generally referred to as methodological naturalism.  The basic idea is that science must proceed as if philosophical naturalism is true (whether or not it is)….”  (122)  Ratzch critiques 5 reasons for wide acceptance this principle.


“…it is not at all obvious that we have some rational or scientific obligation to adopt methodological naturalism in science.”  If using that method limits the search in a way that hinders understanding of nature, then the limitation itself needs examination.  (129)


The intelligent design movement rejects methodological naturalism as a norm.  It contends that design concepts can be genuinely empirical and cannot be ruled out a priori.  “The design evidences cited by this group generally consist of either particular types of complexity, certain types of improbability…or considerations involving ‘information’ in biological systems.”  (130)


Nearly all in the intelligent design movement would insist that a Darwinian (chance-driven) evolution is empirically hopelessly inadequate.  “But even if life had an evolutionary history, that would not, on their view, change the fact that the biological realm exhibited evidences of deliberate design.” (130)


“My own view is that for the moment the question is genuinely open.” (131)


Ch 9.  Christianity & Scientific Pursuits considers the relationship of Christians to science and, in doing science, how they should relate to the principles and presuppositions that generally govern science.


The Appendix calls for scientists of differing views and Christians of differing views to be considerate, thoughtful and civil to one another, to consider the possibility of being wrong, and to do their homework well before embarking on critique, i.e. to speak the truth in love.