GHC Review 14: The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God

GHC Review 14; Philosophy of Science and Belief in God
The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, by Gordon H. Clark, Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964, 2nd edition 1987, 121 pp.

On the cover of the 2nd edition of Gordon Clark’s The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God is a picture of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The editor of the book, John Robbins, then notes, “An event 73 seconds after lift-off destroyed both crew and vehicle.” This failure in modern science (or engineering) provides an apt metaphor for Gordon Clark’s view of the failure (and inevitable failure) of science to produce any knowledge. Robbins’s choice of cover surely was not accidental.

Letters between Gordon Clark and the editors at Christianity Today show how little Clark himself was impressed with space travel. David Kucharsky wrote to Clark and others on Aug. 14, 1958 asking:

“The eyes of the world of science are turned more and more to the prospect of a shot to the moon. At the moment, the word here in Washington is that such an attempt my come any day now. Is there a moral, even a spiritual side, from which this concentration of interest may be viewed? What may be said to be the religious and ethical implications of a successful shot to the moon (or even an unsuccessful attempt)? What does it indicate about man as created … as fallen? Where may it lead us (away from God, nearer to God)? Can you give us fifty (50) words of pithy comment for the 160,000 clergymen and lay leaders who read each issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY? We are asking 25 distinguished Christian leaders in the world of theology and philosophy for their comment, and will be most grateful for your reply at your earliest convenience, for we plan to correlate these comments in the earliest possible issue.”

On Aug. 15, 1958, Clark simply responded:

“Dear Mr. Kucharsky, Aside from the military implications, it seems to require some stretching of the imagination to see any new religious or moral significance in the attempt to ‘shoot the moon.’ Yours sincerely, Gordon H. Clark”

Carl Henry then got into the mix writing to Clark in an undated letter:

“Gene Kucharsky, our news editor, tells me that he recently asked for fifty words of commentary on the projected U.S. shot to the moon. Your own comment was a bit facetious, indicating that you could find no special significance in the event. That may be, and perhaps you want to leave it that way. But I thought I should indicate that we have gotten some mighty good quotes from most of the folk that have been approached, and that Karl Barth, among others, has sent in a pointed comment.”

Finally, on Sept. 15, 1958 Clark wrote back to Henry:

“Dear Carl, My previous remarks on shooting the moon were not exactly facetious; but here is another statement and you may choose which to use. … I appreciate the publicity you furnish me in this way, and your many other favors, but honestly I believe this moon business is rather silly. … The attempt to “shoot the moon” has no more religious significance that any other great scientific advance. To suppose so is on a level with interpreting the Apocalypse by the morning newspaper. God’s first command to Adam contained the injunction to subdue nature. Shooting the moon therefore is a divinely appointed task. Unfortunately, however, the ungodly are generally reputed to have obeyed this commandment more successfully than devout Christians have.”

Moving on then to the book at hand, we find that in the foreword John Robbins favorably quotes Bertrand Russell giving a skeptical statement on science:

“All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: ‘If this is true, that is true: now that is true, therefore this is true.’ This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say: ‘If bread is a stone and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish men; now this bread does nourish me; therefore it is a stone, and stones are nourishing.’ If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based.” (p. xi)

To identify the fallacy, induction “affirms the consequent.” That Clark held this as well is seen his A Christian View of Men and Things where he writes,

“A closer examination of the logic of verification should be made. In the example above, the first veterinarian probably argued: If bacteria cause milk fever, Lugol solution will cure; the disinfectant does cure it; therefore, I have verified the hypothesis that bacteria cause milk fever. This argument, as would be explained in a course on deductive logic, is a fallacy. Its invalidity may perhaps be more clearly seen in an artificial example: if a student doggedly works through Plato’s Republic in Greek, he will know the Greek language; this student knows Greek; therefore, he has read Plato’s Republic. This is the fallacy of asserting the consequent, and it is invalid whenever used. But it is precisely this fallacy that is used in every case of scientific verification.” (p. 211)

Similarly in the present book, Clark writes,

“The given hypothesis implies certain definite results; the experiment actually gives these results; therefore, the hypothesis is verified and can be called a law. Obviously, this argument is the fallacy of asserting the consequent; and since all verification must commit this fallacy, it follows that no law or hypothesis can ever be logically demonstrated.” (p. 71)

Something better must be found for knowledge.

Robbins writes, “Christianity, of course, is not dependent upon induction, experimentations, observation, or experience; its method is revelation and rigorous deduction from the revealed propositions, for it is only through revelation that truth can be obtained.” (p. xi) “Science is false, and must always be false. Scripture is true and must always be true.” (p. xii)

This study “traces the history of science from older theistic construction to more recent anti-religious positions.” In this Clark wants to “attempt to say what science is: an attempt in other words, to sketch a philosophy of science.” (p. xv) “This monograph will divide the history of science into three chapters, corresponding to three scientific eras characterized largely by their divergent views as to how a body moves.” (p. xvi)

1. Antiquity and Motion
The first aim of this chapter is to bring the difficulties of motion to light. Motion is usually taken for granted, but what is motion? “It presents some peculiar puzzles.” (p. 1)

The first of these puzzles which Clark presents are Zeno’s paradoxes. How can an object move from one point to another when there are an infinite number of points to cross over between any two points? Infinity cannot be exhausted. But perhaps, as Clark notes, “there are many examples where the collective all has qualities quite different from the distributive each.” (p. 5) Perhaps Zeno was mistaken “because he insisted that a moving body must pass every point, when as a matter fo fact, it need only pass all of them.” (p. 6) Clark however does not commit himself to this solution.

Next is “the Heraclitean Flux.” For Heraclitus “all things flow.” Nothing remains at rest; everything changes. But “If all things change, if nothing remains at rest, what follows?” (p. 7.) “The possibility of intelligible speech presupposes the existence of entities that remain unchanged for some finite time; and conversely a theory of universal change makes speech and knowledge impossible.” (p. 8) “If a thing is changing, it does not exist; or, to generalize, if everything is changing, nothing exists.” (p. 9) “Universal change implies universal non-existence. And this implies that the changing is unreal and reality is unchanging. Why, this sounds like Zeno all over again!” (p. 9)

Then there is a section on Aristotelianism. So that knowledge might be possible Aristotle concludes that something must exist that does not change. In every case of motion something must remain unchanged during the change. “Motion then presupposes an unchanged substratum.” (p. 10) Clark notes that “some Christian theologians, surprisingly enough, have advanced a theory called continuous creation.” (p. 11) That he calls it surprising indicates that Clark did not accept such a theory; there being only one creation in the Scriptures which then, as the Westminster Larger Catechism states of the creatures at least, God preserves and governs. For Democritus motion is assumed; it is an ultimate brute fact. While he sought to explain each motion, Aristotle believed it possible to explain motion in general. He rejects mechanism and defends teleology. “One may indeed suppose that natural objects, such as trees and rocks, are at least as self-evident as motion. In fact, since motion is always the motion of some such objects, since therefore the objects are logically prior to the motion, why is it not better to begin with them than with it?” (p. 12) “Nature, for Aristotle, is a principle of rest and motion, immanent in these bodies per se.” (p. 13) Aristotle defines motion as “the actuality of the potential qua potential.” “Potentiality is a source of motion.” His definition is fraught with circularity. “Aristotle defined motion in terms of potentiality, and … he is defining potentiality in terms of motion.” (p. 16) “Circularity, therefore, has not been avoided, and we still do not know what motion is.” (p. 16)

2. Newtonian Science
In a paradigm shift Sir Isaac Newton mechanistic theory overtook Aristotle teleological one. But “What did he think of the nature and purpose of science?” (p. 27)

The heliocentric model of Copernicus was mathematically simpler, but no more accurate, than the former theory of epicycles. But what makes the planets move? Is “gravity” any better an answer than the occult qualities of the medievalism? “It was inconceivable to Newton that one body could affect another body without physical contact.” (p. 33) “Newton’s final word on the subject was that he did not know what the cause of gravity is.” (p. 33) “What is meant by scientific explanation?” (p. 34) “If we ask a person why a stone, when dropped, falls to the ground and he replies, ‘Oh, that is because of gravity,’ has he explained anything at all?” (p. 35) “This law as applied to freely falling bodies is that the body falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. Now, to substitute the law itself for its name, the question, ‘Why does a stone fall? is answered by saying that it falls because it falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. But how does a statement of the rate of the fall explain what makes the stone drop in the first place, and how does the rate, ever so carefully measured explain what makes the stone fall constantly faster? Does it not become clear upon reflection that the law of gravitation is not an explanation? It explains neither the fall of the stone nor the revolution of the planets.” (p. 35-36) Here, philosophy comes in to the picture. “A statement of fact is not an explanation. It is the very thing that needs to be explained. Viewed in this light, Science explains nothing.” (p. 36) “The necessity of non-scientific or non-experimental principles becomes all the clearer.” (p. 38)

“Perhaps the main difference,” Clark writes, between Aristotle and modern scientists, “is that modern scientists experiment on principle whereas the ancients only observed, or at most experimented on a very small scale without any definite plan. Today’s scientist does not sit and wait for some natural event to happen by chance. He deliberately does something.” (p. 40) “In ancient physics mathematics was largely unused; but mathematics is the soul, or should one materialistically say the ‘main-spring,’ of modern science.” (p. 41) “Nothing contrary to mathematics could possibly occur.” (p. 42) This is the theory of mechanism. Man becomes a machine, souls are not needed, and neither is God. Mechanism “is a method which depends on quantitative measurement and disregards qualities.” (p. 48) “… red and blue, sweet and sour, loud and soft, hot and cold do not really exist.” (p. 49) “Instead of being actually in the bodies, red and sweet and hot are merely reactions that occur in the mind of a sensitive organism.” (p. 49)

Reaching a section of criticism the reader finds Clark arguing “the processes of science as actually carried on in the laboratories do not justify the conclusion that the laws of mechanics describe how nature works. Newtonian laws never were discoveries pure and simple. Contrary to Carlson, these laws do not exclude all non-observational and non-experimental authority. At best, scientific law is a construction rather than a discovery, and the construction depends on factors never seen under a microscope, never weighted in a balance, never handled or manipulated.” (p. 57) Clark then provides examples. Mechanism proves to be a choice rather than a discovery.

3. The Twentieth Century
Scientists in the twentieth century are “more willing to admit that science does not discover absolute truth.” (p. 63) “The revolution in science is not a mere addition of newly discovered laws to the laws previously discovered, but rather is a rejection of the earlier laws and their replacement with different laws.” (p. 63-64) Straight-line motion does not exist as there is no fixed point in the universe to compare the motion to. Science is shown to be in a self-contradictory state in believing light to once be a particle and then a wave; two theories that cannot both be true. “Science changes with ever-increasing rapidity.” “What is needed now is not so much a new science, but a new philosophy of science. And attempts in this direction are not lacking.” (p. 72)

Following sections on operationalism and skepticism, Clark concludes “Science then must not be regarded as cognitive, but rather as an attempt to utilize nature for our needs and wants.” (p. 93)

Postscript: The Limits and Use of Science
This section, reprinted from a 1978 essay, is an addition to the book in the 2nd edition. It essentially repeats material and positions already stated in the chapters of the book.

Of biographical interest, here Clark notes “the law against elderly people with arthritis in their fingers that prevents them getting indocin in easily opened bottles.” It was this drug, indocin, which ultimately led to Clark’s death as it destroyed his liver over many years of use.

While the original cover of the book is show above, these also have been used:GHC Review 14; Philosophy of Science and Belief in God 3 GHC Review 14; Philosophy of Science and Belief in God 2

For the previous review in this series see here.
For the next review in this series see here.

4 thoughts on “GHC Review 14: The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God”

  1. Pingback: GHC Review 13: William James | A Place for Thoughts

  2. Pingback: GHC Review 15: What Do Presbyterians Believe? | A Place for Thoughts

  3. Clark also states that induction is a formal fallacy here:
    “But the crushing and basic reply to the Montgomery position is that all inductive arguments are formal fallacies.” – Gordon H. Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy, p. 131.

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