Gordon Clark and the Falsity of Science

Dr. Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) was a notable Christian philosopher from Butler University and was also just as widely known for his presuppositionalist thought in respect to his views on epistemology, education, science, and logic. Some of his books include Thales to Dewey (1989), Logic (1988), Behaviorism and Christianity (1982), The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (1987), Three Types of Religious Philosophy (1989), A Christian Philosophy of Education (1988) and many others. The only work I’m interested in examining here for our discussion is his notable book The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (1987) [1].

Through the scope of this book, Clark makes the notable statement that “any argument for or against religion, any argument that claims scientific support, depends more on the philosophical implications of science than on bits of detailed information” [2]. Thus, through doing so (in light of this understanding), Clark tries to “sketch a philosophy of science” (xv). However, to what degree do arguments against religion from scientific groundings find serious complications for the theist?

In the Introduction to his book, Clark notes that “[v]arious scientists and several philosophers have used scientific conclusions in an attack against religion” [3]. Of course, this insight is one that Clark recognizes and also uses as a motivator to show that science cannot necessarily say anything regarding religious truths or propositions. I tend to agree on the ground of science’s very definition, but Clark speaks for himself. In the postscript to his book (“The Limits and Uses of Science”), Clark near the end of his essay writes that

[t]his article concerns physics; totally, totally, incompetent, both positively and negatively, to make any metaphysical or theological pronouncement. Science is always false, but often useful. [4]

This surely seems like a bold statement on behalf of Clark’s position. However, it is where we are led once we consider the “useless of science” when it is unleashed and unrestricted to other domains besides its own. As Clark writes,

Finally, to show the uselessness of science outside its own restricted sphere, science cannot determine its own value. No doubt, science enables man o dominate nature. [ … ] The value of science depends on the value of life; but the value of life, when suicide is a possible choice, and therefore, the value of science itself, must be determined by some sort of general philosophy, of which science is neither the whole or the base, but only a subsidiary part. [5]

Analyzing Clark’s Thesis

It should be first understood that although he himself was a presuppositionalist, Clark did not express the same views on science as Van Til did. Cornelius Van Til in his Christian Apologetics (2003) commented that modern philosophy, along with modern science, is inherently phenomenalistic. In other words, “ultimate reality is unknowable by man” [6]. A proper understanding of science, according to Van Til, would namely be to presuppose certain Christian truths in order preform an intelligible discourse in science. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, Divine Providence and the Doctrine of Creation contain respective claims where “the very aim and method of science requires these doctrines as their prerequisites” [7].

It is unclear as to how far Gordon Clark would go to agree with Van Til on this point, but I would personally say that he would disagree. Clark being a rationalist, saw science to be more independent from Christianity than Clark did. Though there isn’t necessarily any explicit evidence to show this (none that I know of), the language of Clark however denotes this resulted view  of science as somewhat successful and even separate from Christian truths. For instance, consider this passage from the postscript of Clark’s book:

Every student must choose a life work. The problem is a real one. But Christian students may face the alternative of preaching the Gospel or doing physics. They are not likely to deny that the Bible approves of every method of making a living except those that are sinful. There are many occupations; and not every Christian, however sincere, is obligated to enter the ministry. Science is therefore a legitimate vocation. [8]

There are of course other evidences to draw from Clark’s book, where he says that the “best-known fact about twentieth century physics is its tremendous advance beyond everything that has preceded,” [9] and so on and so forth.

However, as to whether or not I personally agree with Clark’s thesis is another issue. I believe he has some real insight in his presuppositionalism (although I myself am not a presuppositionalist), but the solution he tries to produce is a direction I believe that we (Christians) don’t have to go down in order to say that science cannot make “theological or metaphysical pronouncements.” Nonetheless, considerations and insights can be found throughout this book, although we may or may not disagree with it [10].

____________________________

Notes:

  • [1] Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, 3rd edn. (The Trinity Foundation: 1996)
  • [2] Ibid., p. xv
  • [3] Ibid., xii
  • [4] Ibid., p. 113 – emphasis added.
  • [5] To allow Clark’s clarification: “contemporary confusions” refers to a possible title for his third chapter on contemporary physics. As he writes: “The changes in scientific theory that these experiments initiated proved to be far more revolutionary than at first suspected. Indeed, recent advances have left scientists grasping for breath. Things have become so disorganized and topsy-turvy that one is tempted to entitle the third chapter “Contemporary Confusion.” But in order not to frighten the timid no to prejudice the case before its hearing, we shall be content with the innocuous title, “The Twentieth Century” (xvii).
  • [5] Ibid., p. 95
  • [6] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd edn. (P&R Publishing: 2003) p. 167
  • [7] Ibid., p. 58
  • [8] Clark (1996), p. 97
  • [9] Ibid., p. 63
  • [10] For further interest in the subject, see George Smith’s critique of Clark’s book at http://www.anthonyflood.com/smithclark.htm.
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