Chapter 3: The Scientific Enterprise

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: The Scientific Enterprise

I begin this chapter, a discussion of process thought’s relevance for the scientific enterprise, with some hesitation. I am not a professional scientist, although for a brief time I studied chemistry as a major interest. But I am encouraged by many conversations with friends who are professional scientists, some of them distinguished men and women in their particular fields, who not only have provided me with considerable information but have confirmed my opinion that process thought offers a useful context for scientific observation and experiment by providing a perspective for the framing of hypotheses.

There was a time, especially in the middle of the nineteenth century, when those engaged in scientific work were inclined to look at the cosmos as a great machine, relentlessly and meaninglessly grinding along. Some historians of science have said that this attitude was the result of the primacy given to Newtonian physics, a primacy which continued for some two hundred years. With the evolutionary interpretation of the appearance of human beings, developed by Darwin and others, the position changed. There was a tendency to see the changes in the natural order, and everywhere else too, as similar to the reshuffling of a pack of cards or the redistribution of particles of matter. Hence we had the construction of philosophies of materialistic naturalism. Mind, spirit, human evaluation, and appreciation, the sense of freedom of choice, and the like were supposed to be merely epiphenomenal, like the steam of a locomotive, which does not make any real difference to the running of the engine. Everything was rigidly determined; little or no room was left for chance, for freedom, for purpose, or indeed for life.

Naturally, that outlook brought about a reaction. In its place some biologists, for example, suggested that each instance of living nature, more especially at the higher levels, was controlled by an entelechy, an invisible spiritual or mental agent. This was the vitalistic hypothesis associated especially with the German Hans Driesch but accepted by a number of other workers in the biological field. For various reasons, however, and chiefly because methodologically it was unnecessary, this view did not commend itself to most of those actually engaged in experimental work. They were convinced that one could get further and discover more by employing a mechanistic model for what even they felt obliged to call "living" phenomena.

Still another possible approach did not suggest the abandonment of mechanistic method but severely restricted its application. The mechanical aspect was there, to be sure, but it was relatively unimportant in the total picture. Thus there appeared the philosophy of creative evolution, whose leading protagonist was Henri Bergson, a French biologist who had turned to philosophical writing. Bergson said that the mechanical models resemble a "still" seen when a movie film has been stopped at a given point. But the reality is the flow of the film, while the "still" is only an abstraction that is misleading as to what the film is about. There is an invisible but ever present life-force, which he called the élan vital, running through everything; this is the reality. The mechanistic models are convenient and useful for special experimental purposes but not finally significant.

There were also scientists who succeeded in compartmentalizing their lives. When they were in the laboratory they were prepared to follow mechanistic methods to the very limit, but outside the laboratory and in other contexts they were eager to speak of mind, spirit, freedom, and God -- yet without relating the two areas of concern. Such a compartmentalization was especially popular with strictly "biblicist Christians," since it enabled them to accept in one area what they rejected in another. For example, miracles are related in the Bible and are to be believed because they are recorded there, but they do not happen in any realm with which modern science is concerned. Such dichotomizing of thought and experience is logically impossible for anyone who grasps the unitary character of things, and above all if one accepts the evolutionary interpretation of the world. Nonetheless, it was -- and occasionally still is -- adopted.

The important event of the past century has been the complete collapse, save within a very limited field, of the older mechanistic scheme. Whitehead once pointed out that as a total picture of how the world goes classical Newtonian physics itself collapsed. Albert Einstein is often named as the person who brought about this collapse, but there were others before him and beside him. While still a fellow and a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge, Whitehead told how he witnessed the breaking down of the Newtonian scheme in the nineties of the last century. Quantum physics, the principle of indeterminacy, relativity theory, and the like, were all instrumental in bringing about this change.

At the same time, a new approach was coming to the fore in the sciences that deal with living phenomena. Vitalism was not a possible view, but neither was the presumably omnicompetent mechanical scheme. In their place an organic (in Whitehead’s word, "organismic") picture was found necessary to the newer understanding of evolution itself. Novelties did occur, but they occurred within the wider continuities of nature. Thus evolution was interpreted as epigenetic, as technical jargon put it; it was not merely or only the mechanical rearrangement of bits of matter.

The thinkers who adopted this view believed that because novelty is real and inescapable the natural order should be characterized as basically a continuity in which, as we have just seen, genuinely new things emerge. The operational word here is emerge. Without any absolute break and without any intrusive introduction of external factors, nature can produce what hitherto has not been present. But how? The answer proposed was that the novelty is in ordering or patterning or arranging previous materials in such a way that a difference appears. The organic, interrelational, interdependent nature of things brings about the emergence of the new. Of course, in one sense potentiality for such novelty is present in the previous "stuff," but it cannot be made actual until the right new relationships are established among the various ingredients of the "stuff."

Nowhere is this seen so clearly as in the appearance of the human species. Below I shall quote at length from a distinguished scientist who has admirably summed up the qualities that differentiate human beings from the animals to which biologically they are related. At the moment, however, I wish to indicate -- relying on the conversation of my scientific friends -- the way in which elsewhere in the understanding of the cosmos a change has taken place. This is found in the study of quanta of energy. The truth is that physics seems more and more to be a study of what Whitehead once called "low-grade organisms." This does not mean that it is identical with the study of living things. The way in which the word organism may be applied at lower physical levels is quite different from that appropriate to living or human experience. Yet it has its analogues.

Two points may be made. First, there is an element of chance or unpredictability running through the physical realm. There is no complete and total determinism, certainly not at the microscopic level. The cosmos might therefore be described as open-ended. At the macroscopic level -- big-scale instances -- determinism may indeed seem to be there, but the activity of the smaller units making up the macrocosm is not absolutely predictable. Second, there is no doubt these days that the ingredients or constituents of the physical order are events or focuses of energy (we may call these "energy events," as I have done earlier). They are not little bits of matter, hard and enduring, bumping against one another. Furthermore, each focus is a concentration of the total cosmic process as it has impinged upon and been used by that particular instance. Thus the interpenetration within the energy event is paralleled by interpenetration of that particular energy event with other such events. Force, a term much used in physics, is not sheer coercion but the mysterious attraction exercised by one entity, understood as an energy event, upon another. This whole picture is very different from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mechanistic scheme.

No responsible scientist today denies that the human species is continuous with the natural order from which it has appeared. It is the cousin of the other primates, yet it is different from the "naked apes," however much it resembles them in certain respects. Sir Julian Huxley has said for many years that there is a distinctive quality about the human species, and contemporary scientific writers are prepared to agree with him. This speciality of the human species has been stated succinctly in Professor Harold K. Schilling’s recent book The New Consciousness in Science and Religion (Pilgrim Press, 1973, pp. 148-49):

When he [man] arrived, evolutionary activity took on a new character. His extraordinary powers enabled him quickly to bring forth a great variety of utterly new realities: tools and processes, abstractions and symbols, languages and logics, rational analyses and syntheses, measurement and experimentation, and many others equally unprecedented. In this way social rather than biological evolution came to dominate change. The arts and literatures emerged, and the religions, and philosophies, laws, the sciences and technologies -- and thus man’s cultures and civilizations, with new orders of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and deception. Moreover, there came to this new being the capacity for self-analysis, which was quite unprecedented. He learned to investigate himself, as well as his world, with both critical objectivity and discriminating introspection, and in depth. He discovered that his "self," his so-called "nature," and his tremendously varied potentialities are not "possessions" or innate attributes of his own but in large part the gift-consequences of his relationships with other entities and processes and with nature as a whole. Through his knowledge and understanding he has achieved a remarkable degree of self-determination. To a large extent he is now in a position to be both the architect and builder of his own future, which could certainly not be said about any of his evolutionary forebears.

This "whole" view of human existence -- I use the adjective whole to indicate an inclusive understanding of human nature -- has become increasingly attractive to those working in the many different branches of science that have a bearing on human existence. Process thinking has made its own contribution to this cooperative attempt on the part of physiologists and psychologists, biologists, chemists, anthropologists, and sociologists to see more completely what is distinctively human. By its stress on event and on patterning and integration, by its insistence that relationships constitute an entity, by its concern for an awareness of the depths of human experience (motivations, desires, drives, and "emotional intensity," for example), as well as by its recognition that we are part of the world and continuous with what has gone before us and even now surrounds and affects us, process thought not only has been in agreement with the newer scientific emphasis on "wholeness," but has also contributed a perspective which can give that emphasis a meaningful setting and a context in the structure of things in a dynamic universe.

So it is not surprising that a considerable number of biochemists and zoologists, biophysicists and biologists, psychologists and sociologists, have been attracted to it. One of the world’s greatest experts on evolutionary development, the late Dr. Theodosius Dubzshansky (formerly of the famous Rockefeller Institute in New York), has written of its value for his own work. Dr. Joseph Needham and Dr. W.H. Thorpe, Cambridge authorities on biochemistry and zoology; Dr. A.R. Peacocke, biologist in Cambridge; Professor L.C. Birch, Australian expert on evolutionary changes in the realm of living matter; and Ian Barbour, American physicist, whose special interest has lately been turned toward the ecological problem -- these are but a few of the many who have publicly avowed their acceptance of a process way of looking at humankind and the world.

I am not claiming that every worker in every field of science takes such a positive attitude toward process thought. I wish only to indicate that in highly responsible scientific circles this kind of thinking has been valued precisely because of the possibility it offers for a unitary vision of human life, with a serious recognition of what makes our existence distinctive and different from anything else in the natural world but at the same time genuinely part of that natural world.

Whitehead himself was a mathematician, and he was also much interested in and wrote about physics. But he became more and more conscious of the importance of what in North America are called the life sciences, particularly biology and its relationship with physical phenomena. His own major concern in science was to work toward a theory that would relate the sciences having to do with life with those that study nature in its inanimate aspects. Whitehead had concluded that reductionism was impossible because it was absurd to interpret living things through nonliving things. He reversed the procedure and sought to apply the operative principles of life to the realm of energy. He found that this was more rewarding and more illuminating, and capable of greatly enlarging our understanding. Hence his remark, quoted earlier in this chapter, about physics as the investigation of lower-grade organisms and biology as the investigation of higher-grade organisms. But for him this did not entail vitalism. His point was pattern, ordering, arrangement, and increasing harmonization of contrasts, and he believed that there was a remarkable analogy, derived from generalization, running through the whole order of nature.

It is precisely here that the scientists I have mentioned have been most impressed by process thinking, for they also see such an analogy running through the order of nature and they find that the use of that analogy is valuable to them in their work. In his fascinating book Nature and God (SCM Press, 1964), Professor Birch has described the ways in which the analogy may be applied in biology. Professor Barbour has done the same for the physical sciences in Issues in Science and Religion (SCM Press, 1966). An American medical man, scientist, and philosopher, Prof. Richard H. Overman, has lately written a careful study of the scientific field from this perspective, applying it to the Christian concept of creation. His Evolution and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Westminster Press, 1967) demonstrates the remarkable change that the use of the process conceptuality can make in talk about creation and its mode, and in the scientific corollaries of this world view. These are but three of the recent relatively popular books which in differing ways make some of the points noted above. In the field of psychology, too, it is interesting to note that Professor D.S. Browning of Chicago (especially in his "Psychological and Ontological Perspectives," which appeared in the Chicago Journal of Religion in October 1965) surveyed the dynamic and gestalt psychologies, along with the so-called depth psychology of the psychoanalytic school, to show a convergence upon a view of human behavior and human self-awareness that is similar to the organic pattern stressed in process thought. Much the same may be said of work in sociology and anthropology, where today great emphasis is being laid on the structural quality of social life, on the patterns seen in tribal custom, and on the holistic behavior patterns of primitive peoples.

The scientist as scientist is not expected to be a philosopher. The scientist has his or her own subject, methodology, and area of competence. That is as it should be. Yet at the same time, the scientist is a person who spends much time with colleagues and is increasingly conscious of the responsibility for use of experimental findings. This consciousness has been especially apparent in the postwar ethical concern shown by experts working in atomic science. The scientist as a person cannot fail to be vitally interested in how scientific work fits into the more general pattern of knowledge and how it is to be employed for good and constructive uses. This is why the scientist needs and desires a vision of things as a whole, in which the scientific speciality has its own place.

My own conversations over many years with my Cambridge colleagues who are dedicated scientists have convinced me that they are seeking almost desperately for a conceptuality that will on the one hand guarantee the validity and autonomy of their own inquiries and on the other hand provide a genuinely humane context for knowledge along with the recognition of responsibility for the results of those inquiries -- a responsibility that such a context can provide. When the process conceptuality is expounded to them they are often greatly impressed and in many instances are delighted to embrace it.

This attitude was demonstrated recently after a lecture I was invited to give to the faculty of a large English technological school. My audience was composed of men and women engaged in research or in the application of research to concrete contemporary problems. It was obvious that they could not accept a supernaturalistic view of things, and it was equally obvious that they were dissatisfied with a conception of scientific work which was unrelated to wider issues and insensitive to moral responsibility. My own inadequate summary of the process conceptuality intrigued them, and it was fortunate that there were present some who were well-known as experts in their own fields of study and who therefore could be given as suitable references for further information about the specifically scientific application of the principles I had discussed from the philosophical side. A fascinating evening followed. I believe that this experience is typical of much that is going on today, and this is one of the reasons that in this first part of the present book I seek to give a bird’s-eye view of process thought with continual reference to the many different areas of human interest.

In the preceding chapter I tried to say something about another of those areas, the humanities and the arts. It is worth noting that it is often scientists themselves who welcome a discussion of that other area. Lord Snow’s portrayal of the "two cultures" is no longer quite accurate. More and more men and women of science are giving marked attention to the humanities and the arts, not only as a relief from concentration on their own disciplines but also as a way of locating those disciplines in a more inclusive setting. As one who is principally concerned with a humanistic discipline, I am also delighted to find that many of my colleagues in that discipline today see clearly the necessity of acquainting themselves with what is going on in the world of science. Process thought has its significance here, too, since one of its main contentions is that a unitary interpretation of existence, human and natural, can make sense of and give sense to all the fields of human inquiry and human enjoyment.