The book entitled The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God expounds Gordon H. Clark’s view of science. The book proceeds by historical survey, and the three chapter divisions divide the history into the ancients, the Newtonians, and the 20th century. Roughly speaking, this corresponds to views of science that we could call rationalist, empirical-determinist, and empirical-indeterminist. Each of these is shown to come up short of the standard Clark has set for what science needs to accomplish in order to be true; failing that, each is therefore unable to overthrow the biblical view of God.
1. The ancients could not explain how motion is possible. Zeno’s paradoxes have never been answered in a way everyone finds acceptable. Aristotle’s attempt using potential/actual distinction is circular when all the passages are examined carefully.
2. The early-modern period, spanning Galileo to 1900 (with a few precursors and 20th century hangers-on) posited a mechanical and deterministic world that can be known by empirical methods. Clark’s criticism includes the standard ones (e.g. the universal claim is not itself empirically testable), as well as a cluster of objections that may be unique to Clark, centering around the fact that measurements are not precise:
- The inability to measure precisely and repeatably shows that concepts like length cannot be justified; but science requires these concepts.
- Procedures to overcome the imprecision of measurement, such as averaging, are arbitrary and unjustified.
- The so-called laws of Physics indicate a precise relationship between quantities which can, for example, be graphed. But doing so shows that the formula is but one choice of curve-fitting through data points out of an infinite number that could have been selected. Since there is no reason to favor any one of that infinite number of possible curves, there is a probability of one over infinity (i.e. zero) that the selected one is the right one; therefore we can say that every formula of Physics is certainly false (60, 111).
3. In the 20th century, contradictories are asserted, such as the wave and particle model of light. Because they are contradictory, they cannot be true literally. Physicists themselves often recognize this and have proposed operationalism as the solution. This is a view that rejects metaphysical accounts of concepts, replacing them all with cook-book procedures of measurement, which procedures become the definition of the concepts. Thus, the meaning of length is, the procedure used to produce a number that will be called length.
In a surprising comment, easy to miss in a first reading, Clark endorses operationalism as giving the proper description and place of science (92). But since operationalism does not claim truth in a cognitive sense, 20th century science too is incapable of challenging Christian theism.
Zeno’s arguments against the possibility of motion are interesting, and I tend to agree with Clark that differential calculus does not provide a solution to the riddle, and that the problem is still an open one. However, modern scientists are not assuming the rationalist posture, so it is not at all clear why this is an important topic in a book of this kind. One could say, No answer to Zeno, therefore no motion, or one can say, Motion, therefore I’ll think about how to answer Zeno tomorrow. As a philosopher, Clark would scoff at that attitude. But he has deferred his own answer until tomorrow also: does he believe in motion? does he believe anything physical actually exists? Tell us, Dr. Clark. Don’t just scoff at others.
What is curious about the shape of Clark’s argument in the Newtonian section is that he seems to concede a premise of certain atheist philosophes, if mechanical determinism then no God. For he says,
Therefore, since the Newtonian laws do not describe the actual workings of nature, they cannot be used as a satisfactory demonstration of the impossibility of God and miracles. (58)
But Lorraine Boettner, for example, is comfortable with the idea that radical Newtonian determinism would be consistent with Calvinist theism. It is odd that Clark seems to grant the major premise of the philosophes, and merely limits his argument to denying the minor. That Clark grants the validity of that conditional points, I submit, to a fundamental failure to grasp the presuppositional insight. For Clark, causality and a world are in principle understandable with or without God; an inference from that given to the non-existence of God could in principle be valid; fortunately, Clark discovers that Newtonian science does not actually deliver on its thesis of determinism, so God is safe, for the time being.
As to the impossibility of miracles being refuted, one wonders how miracle would even be defined in Clark’s system; it is not unpacked in this book.
The thesis that imprecision of measurement has great epistemological consequences is repeated in other places of Clark’s opus, such as Introduction to Christian Philosophy, and Christian View of Men and Things, and thus is undoubtedly what Clark regards as his best argument. I want to examine this family of objections from a variety of perspectives:
1. Clark’s exposition that there are an infinite number of curves through any finite set of points still is limited to functional (at most one ordinate per abscissa) curves. I suggest that this is because, if the universe were not of such nature, then there would be no discernible regularity at all. Clark seems to want to admit that there is some function. He should unpack why this is. If we can know that some functional relationship must be there, is Clark absolutely sure we could never discern its form?
2. Clark is agitated by the non-repeatability of measurements, and claims that methods such as averaging are unjustified (59). But this is not true. Overcoming the noise associated with a quantity and its measurement is itself the subject of the discipline of Probability and Statistics. By hypothesizing the noise to be subject to certain statistical properties (such as zero mean), one can derive ways to reduce the noise of the measurement arbitrarily. The success of this project confirms the validity of the hypothesis; and wisdom is justified of her children, Matt 11:18.
3. A theology of probability theory would have been interesting and relevant; but it is absent.
4. Clark may still protest that since we never land on the exact value, we don’t know it. But let him state what he thinks the underlying reality is then. Does it have a determinate nature or is it random fluctuation? If the randomness is radical, then there is, to be sure, no science; but there is also not a world that man could make plans in. That fact should have alerted Clark that something was amiss.
5. Why assume that the statement of a law (the “proposition”) has to be in the form of a bare mathematical equation? Instead of saying that Newton’s First Law implies that a body in free space follows a trajectory given by
x = v t,
(where x is displacement, v is a fixed velocity, and t is time) why not say, the particle follows the rule
x = v t plus or minus epsilon,
where epsilon is specified. Then, to be sure, an infinite number of curves are included in the statement, yet the statement is still true, meaningful, and useful.
6. Clark insists that we don’t know a quantity unless we know it precisely. But that depends on our purpose.
If the football announcer says, the ball is inside the one yard line, he has left open an infinite number of possibilities for where the ball lies; but he has excluded an even greater infinity of impossibilities (with apologies to Cantor). I know a great deal about where the ball is and what the team should do. I am not left with a falsehood.
If I am talking on the phone and I say, “mercy, it’s already midnight,” my conversation partner is not going to shout out “liar! It’s only five minutes until midnight.”
Clark’s whole project was based on an unnecessarily rarified notion of what is meant by assigning lengths and positions.
The meaning of a sentence, even a “law of Physics” sentence, has an intended scope and precision, and its truth-value must be assigned with a view to that scope and intention.
Clark’s point that science does not really explain in a philosophical sense (36) is well taken; and we must be critical about existence claims that might be made for elements of a scientific theory. If gravity can be described alternatively as an all-interpenetrating field or curved geometry, then we must learn to distinguish the thing from the model. Perhaps a good analogy would be the fact that a single proposition can be expressed in a variety of sentences. We need to clarify the grammar and sense of scientific statements, but Clark goes far beyond that without really touching it.
That the universe is so governed by God that there are predictable regularities follows from the fact that God commanded man to subdue and replenish the world (Gen 1:28). From this, it could already be inferred that the thing science aims at is legitimate. Theoretically, God could have created a topsy-turvy universe, in which a plow now digs furrows in the earth against which it is set, but any moment flies off to the moon. But God could not have created such a world and also required his image-bearer to occupy it.
Clark misses this completely. For him, science is either a praxis of pure techne that works, who knows why? or a sinister activity by which men conspire to prove that God does not exist. A Christian philosophy of science for Clark means, merely, a polemic against the atheist’s bad logic; but his strategy lets a virtually self-existent universe sneak in the back door. In trying to establish a radical propositionalism, Clark is not able to close the loop and show that there is a physical universe that it is upheld by the Word of God, and that that Word can be known with progressive accuracy by man, the image of God. In effect, the physical universe becomes a brute fact, dark and unknowable and practically autonomous.
A review of Gordon H. Clark. The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God. (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation 1987 ).