Assessing the signs of ferment.
Modern biology, born scarcely a century ago, now reigns as queen of the sciences, commanding an unequaled wealth of economic, technical, and manpower resources. The fruit of biological knowledge appears everywhere. It has revolutionized agriculture through plant genetics, plant physiology, and soil chemistry. It has transformed animal husbandry through artificial insemination, antibiotics, and biochemically synthesized feeding supplements. It has conquered infectious diseases from polio to smallpox, and now it promises to eradicate heart disease and cancer.
New careers in biology are created almost daily. Biostatisticians, behavior geneticists, and neurophyshopharmcologists are just a few of the biological professions that have arisen in recent decades. The technology of modern biology is a source of wonder; in television soap operas and documentaries we see rooms filled with electronic equipment connected to patients by myriads of tubes and electrodes; gowned and gloved neurosurgeons carve out chunks of brain to relieve intractable epilepsy.
The virility of biological science appears most clearly in the way it encroaches on other disciplines. Optimistic biologists propose incorporating the social sciences and even the humanities into biology. After all, they argue, since man is fundamentally a biological organism, biology provides the proper framework in which to study him. History, for example, is a record of biological selection and survival through the interaction of human gene pools with varying ecological conditions. And war is a product of collective biological behavior placed under conditions of certain biological scarcities. According to such reasoning, the first step toward the solution of human problems, whether psychological or societal, is to put them into biological terms.
In the light of all this progress, if biology had enough money and enough trained scientists, it would usher in the millenium. That this is a naive promise should come as no surprise to evangelicals. But what is genuinely newsworthy is that some scientists think so, too. Although no textbook yet admits it, unmistakable signs of ferment are sprouting in academic journals of widely diverse biological disciplines. Leading scientific minds know that biology, particularly biomedicine, is in a crisis and that the solution is unclear.
Consider the nature of the dilemma and the rare opportunity this dilemma provides for a historic dialogue between biology and the Christian faith. This time around (unlike the debate over Darwin’s Origin of the Species), biology is on the defensive—for several reasons that I want to identify. Look with me at three aspects of the crisis: the philosophical, the ethical, and the methodological.
Biology and Philosophy
Two of the oldest questions in philosophy are central here: “What is knowledge and how is it apprehended?” and “What is the nature of Man?” The first question, that of epistemology, is not usually considered by biologists. But a definite epistemological position is implicit in their activities. Knowing, in science, is viewed as that which results from the application of the scientific method to questions of knowledge. Thus, knowledge is ultimately empirical, that is, derived from experience. But that is a method-based empiricism. Scientific knowledge results from putting experience to a specific test, or experimentation. First, formulate a hypothesis. Then, subject the hypothesis to a controlled experiment designed to confirm or disprove the hypothesis. Next, have other investigators repeat the experiment. Finally, if the results are consistent the scientist expresses the results as “laws of nature.”
Physics and chemistry apply this method most rigorously and most successfully. In other sciences, such as astronomy, one must be content with observations only since we cannot manipulate the sun or the stars experimentally. And in biology other problems arise. Biological systems, all incredibly complex, exist in a state of dynamic interaction with their environments. Experiments with biological specimens must take into account these special difficulties. Nonetheless, in problems of biology the application of the scientific method remains the goal toward which biologists strive.
Additional epistemological presuppositions often accompany the scientist’s faith in his method, such as the view that scientific truth is objective truth, untainted by the bias of the observer. Or the view that scientific truth is fact, in contrast to other truth that is only opinion.
The logical positivists of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries articulated the philosophical foundation of modern biology. They generalized the validity of the scientific method to all of philosophy and declared that the ultimate test of knowledge is empirical verifiability. For a statement to have meaning, one must be able to specify the conditions under which its truth can be proved physically. All else, including metaphysics, was nonsensical to them. Biologists had to refine their methodology to overcome the obstacles inherent in experimenting with live organisms. Today logical positivism stands discredited; it is neither consistent nor comprehensive. And that is part of the dilemma of modern biology. This article cannot detail the overthrow of positivism, but two modern philosophers of science need mention. Both effectively critiqued the positivist tradition.
The first is Karl Popper, an Austrian who in his first major book (1934) claimed that scientific knowledge is impossible to verify. According to Popper, what separates science from pseudo-science is that scientific knowledge is stated in such a way that it could be refuted or falsified. Therefore, though no scientific statement can claim for itself the status of truth, it is possible to test such statements and to discard them if proven false. For example, the statement “All apples are red” is scientific because it can be falsified by finding a green apple. But the statement “That sunset is beautiful” cannot be unambiguously falsified by experience, and so it is unscientific. A quotation from Popper’s book reveals the direction of his thinking. “Science,” he said, “is not a system of certain or well established statements.… Our science is not knowledge: it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability … We do not know; we can only guess.”
Michael Polanyi, who dealt with the objectivity of knowledge, also criticized accepted philosophical dogma in science. Although he said that knowledge of a reality external to oneself is possible, he denied that it is ever apprehended objectively. For, he maintained, the knower is inextricably involved with what he knows, is active in the process of knowing, and makes a personal commitment to what he knows. For Polanyi, then, cool, detached, and rational analytic separation of the observer from the observed, is impossible. Moreover, though this view is relatively harmless in such exact sciences as physics and chemistry, Polanyi warns that in the biological, psychological, and social sciences it is pernicious and destructive. For the objectivist fallacy grossly distorts the nature of living things.
To know another living thing is more personal than to know inanimate matter. This fact is particularly.relevant to the study of man. In human biology, subject and object meet. The subject matter of human biology includes the very faculty upon which we rely for understanding. The human brain of the neurosurgeon examining the brain of the patient in surgery is the meeting of knower with the known. In Polanyi’s terms, “Biology is life reflecting upon itself, and the findings of biology must prove consistent with the claims biology makes for its own findings.”
Polanyi here identifies the Achilles Heel of scientific biology. In its exclusive focus upon the object of the experiment and the elucidation of the laws by which the object is governed, biology is curiously blind to the person conducting the experiment. Yet, according to Polanyi, if a man takes as his object the study of another man, both remain men. The man who conducts the experiment cannot exempt himself from the purview of the hypotheses and generalizations that he uses to understand the man upon which he experiments. If he chooses to view the human brain as a computer and uses that model in his analysis of other brains, then his brain, the brain that views other brains as computers, must also be subject to the limits of that same model.
The implications of Polanyi’s position for biology and for science in general are enormous. They shake the philosophical presuppositions of modern biology to its foundations. If man is nothing but a biological mechanism, certainly his thoughts and theories in biology and elsewhere are the programmed products of a sophisticated mechanical robot. In that case, scientific truth is an illusion.
The attacks of Popper, Polanyi, and others upon accepted scientific epistemology has reopened the question of the status of scientific knowledge. To the question “Are scientific facts known for sure?” one must now reply with a resounding no. And to the related question “Is scientific knowledge truly objective?” the same answer must be given. I hope that this turn in modern philosophy will continue to have a sobering effect on the arrogant scientific climate, particularly on biology.
The second philosophical question “What is the nature of man?” is basic in biology. Biologists have assumed since the great French physiologist Claude Bernard that the model for human biology has been that of inanimate nature. Living things, including man, are explained in terms of non-living matter. Thus, physics and chemistry are the foundational disciplines for biological science.
Some biologists reluctantly admit that complexities in living things can be understood only in terms that can not be entirely reduced to the laws of the physical sciences. But even these views are essentially physicalistic and materialistic, holding that living things, including man, consist of nothing non-material or non-physical. This view sees the dualism of mind and body as an epiphenomenon or artifact of our present state of ignorance. Mental events are explainable in physical terms. This model scarcely allows room for a mind in man, and certainly no space for a soul.
Such a conception of man in modern biology is under attack for good reason. It is patently inadequate. Biologists themselves are beginning to recognize the deficiencies of a materialist mechanist model. Essentially the question is, “Can you understand man in terms of only inanimate nature?” Perhaps, after all, living things do differ from non-living things in basic ways.
Some biologists are becoming brave enough to say that since biology is the science of living things those people in the field should stop their compulsive efforts to simplify everything biological into physics and chemistry, and should begin to proudly proclaim the uniqueness of biology. This cleavage is not merely one of superficial differences between life and non-life; it cuts to the deepest conceptual level. It holds that fundamentally different models must be used for the understanding of living things than for the understanding of the inanimate universe.
A second and more radical division separates man from other living organisms into a class of his own. This posits man as a unique biological entity apart from the rest of the animate world. In this view the biology of man becomes a study that goes beyond the limits of both the physical sciences and subhuman biology. The fleshing out of this thesis is only beginning, but it provides the possibility for a truly human biology.
Biology and Ethics
The ethical domain is the second perspective from which to consider the revolution in biology. Historically, biologists have taken ethics for granted. After all, everyone knew that life was good. Therefore, advances in biology that favored life were also good. And since biology, particularly medicine, was relatively impotent to disrupt the interplay of natural forces for and against life, biologists seldom faced ethical dilemmas.
All that has changed. The accelerating progress of biomedical science has dramatically increased man’s power over the biological world. As a result, ethical considerations now intrude into the entire range of biological activities. The pervasive reach of bioethical questions ranges from biological warfare, contraception, euthanasia, and abortion to the methods used by medical researchers. Think how complex each of these is. Some of the best bioethicists and biomedical scientists in the country are stretching their minds to work out appropriate ethics in the single area of experimentation with human subjects.
In the last decade the new discipline of biomedical ethics has grown. Although its boundaries and methodologies are still being defined, the mission of biomedical ethics is clear: to apply rigorous ethical analysis to moral questions posed by the practice of the life scientists. Established biologists have received their new colleagues positively, for the most part. Whether researcher or clinician, the biologist has been uncomfortably aware that many of his technical decisions have important ethical dimensions. Since his graduate or medical school did not prepare him to deal with these dimensions, he is relieved to accept the offer of help from an ethicist. Moreover, this procedure fits the modern vogue of assembling multidisciplinary teams, each with access to expert knowledge of a particular specialty, to collaborate on a research or clinical problem.
Yet the core of the ethical dilemma in modern biology is not merely the proliferation of techniques and advances that require ethical decisions. Nor will the arrival of a new cadre of professionals, the bioethicists, necessarily solve the crisis. The problem is not fundamentally one of manpower. Rather it is that the philosophical basis of biology conflicts with the underlying basis of ethics, especially with moral imperatives.
Deep in the marrow of every scientist is the conviction that dogma is the enemy, not the ally of science. Ever since Galileo in his pursuit of truth ran afoul of the church, the scientist’s ideal has been to discover facts despite the consequences. Like it or not, ethics is a type of dogma and claims moral force and demands obedience. So it is a considerable undertaking to bridge the gap between biology and ethics. How ironic that the progress of science, to which we owe our ability to control nature, threatens to leave us with no absolutes by which to make those decisions.
This problem is, of course, not new. Ethical theory, beginning as far back as Thomas Hobbes, has wrestled with the relationship of ethical principles to the material realm. On the one hand, if ethics is to be a body of reliable knowledge, it must stand on objective laws of psychology and biology rather than on traditions of ecclesiastical authority. On the other hand, if nature—the world of fact—is ethically neutral, then science and ethics are completely separate domains. Ethical principles are merely subjective expressions of emotion or desire.
For most modern biologists the way out of this quagmire is muddy. But it is eminently clear that biology can no longer afford to ignore its ethical crisis. Christians should be encouraged to see the evidence of a heightened ethical awareness. On the one hand biologists are beginning to realize that no science can be value-free. The idea of value-free science fails to take into account that a fundamental ethical commitment is implicit in the scientific method—a commitment to personal honesty and integrity in reporting results and a commitment to the value of scientific knowledge. And it is now obvious that the pursuit of knowledge never occurs only for its own sake. “What is the point of knowledge?” and “What use will be made of it?” are unavoidable questions. They are unavoidably ethical questions.
Biology and Methodology
In scientific research the highest compliment one can receive from an esteemed colleague is that his experiment is “elegant.” An elegant experiment is brilliantly conceived (the conceptual) and carried out with rigor and simplicity (the methodological). Since methodological rigor and simplicity are hard to achieve in biology, biologists are especially eager to perform elegant experiments. Hidden beneath the flattery, however, are presuppositions that are no longer adequate.
Rigor involves strict control of all variables, the isolation of the living unit from its natural environment, and its manipulation under highly artificial conditions. Simplicity refers to the analytic, reductionistic approach to complex systems. Living units are first cut up, then digested into their simplest components so that the constituent elements can be studied in isolation. Such methodology is too narrow. Biological systems are complex, dynamic, and alive. We need new, less simplistic approaches.
Here, too, I see encouraging signs. Modern biology is now turning to new methodologies in an attempt to do justice to the object of its study. New disciplines such as environmental and ecological biology focus upon the interaction of the organism with the natural world. These disciplines stress observation more than manipulation. They do not seek artificial simplicity but rather natural complexity. They view traditional approaches as inadequate for understanding biological entities as living systems. This is a good trend.
In psychology a similar change is occurring. A revival of a holistic, humanistic perspective is challenging behaviorism. Deterministic psychoanalysis and organic neurologizing are coming under sharp scrutiny. Psychology is emphasizing empathic human understanding rather than experimental manipulating. The new biology says that “Studying monkeys in cages will teach you only about caged monkeys—an unsatisfactory substitute for monkeys in the wild.”
Implicit in this orientation is a new respect for life, for its wonder, its wisdom, its integrity. No longer is science seen as a tool with which to conquer nature but rather as a humbling discipline to help us see our proper place in the natural world.
Biology and Theology
The present upheaval in biology is important to evangelicals. Since science is the intellectual temple of modern culture, and since biology is its chief god, a revolution in biology is bound to permeate our entire society. Moreover, biology and theology both claim to provide a conceptual basis for comprehending man. Each has much to say to the other. Here is the exciting challenge. Today we face a rare opportunity to bridge the vast gulf that separates biology from evangelical theology. Neither of the two disciplines has used terms of reference that allowed intelligent dialogue with the other. How could biology and evangelical theology interact when the model of biology was one of a soulless and probably mindless man, and when much of evangelical theology treated the soul almost as a disembodied spirit?
Evangelicals should seize this rare opportunity to bridge the gulf. Modern biology is in the midst of a fundamental self-examination. It is looking for a new model, a new paradigm. It has already moved in the right direction. It remains for evangelical biologists and theologians to articulate an integrated view of man, man as body and spirit. The new biology needs a soul; the time is ripe for a truly biblical biology.
D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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