Richard Russell looks at the way scientific knowledge grows out of its philosophical and religious roots.

Tree of knowledge

What is the relation between religion (in the sense of ultimate commitments) and the academic disciplines?  Frequently any positive relationship is denied. The sciences claim to have become autonomous (a law to themselves) with respect to philosophy, let alone religion. And the various schools of philosophy claim to be autonomous with respect to religion. It is generally admitted that this was not always so, but it is now claimed that since the disciplines have come of age, having developed their own methodologies and concepts, they are now autonomous (1) with respect to each other, (2) with respect to philosophy and (3) with respect to religion.

If this Enlightenment view of intellectual maturity is embraced, then religion has no structural role in the special sciences (including even theology) or in philosophy.  Any mention of religion, other than as a phenomenon to study, would be seen as a reactionary and obscurantist intrusion: a source of bias and distortion leading to a loss of scholarly neutrality. Scientific scholarship then requires the elimination of all metaphysics and religion – especially the Christian religion, so awkwardly intertwined with the rise of modern science!

The bush model illustrated here presents an alternative view of intellectual maturity.  The truly critical thinker will seek to explicate the philosophical presuppositions of the special sciences and the religious commitments underlying various philosophical approaches and methodologies. If the three autonomies mentioned above – especially (2) and (3) – are impossible in principle (as Herman Dooyeweerd argued and as growing numbers of scholars are starting to concede, albeit reluctantly) then a Christian re-formation of philosophy and all academic disciplines is possible.  Indeed, it is necessary: for it is mandated by the First Commandment: to love God with our minds [1], and so to make every thought subject to the lordship of Christ [2].

The diagram here illustrates, for the sake of argument, three religious roots that have intertwined in the development of academic disciplines. Theism, materialism and humanism underpin a range of worldviews (pre-theoretical, non-scientific commitments) that have motivated academic work. They in turn produce systematic philosophies that spawn analytical research in communities gathered into a range of disciplines. Paradigms (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense) are generated in each discipline, and working within these, academics hold to theories that contain laws, structures and typologies. These in turn lead to hypotheses, which may in time become new laws and so on. Any of these elements may also in time be discarded – but generally not (pace Popper) on the occurrence of a single refutation: even hypotheses are theoretical commitments! (Dick Stafleu has explored this paradox [3].)  At the tips of the twigs here, we have observations represented as leaves. These have a different status from the other ‘tools of thought’ because they are unique particular experiences. Data are not so much part of scientific knowledge but guide our discernment of the underlying structure of reality, represented by the rest of the bush.

Finally, this model makes clear that there is no simple deductive relationship between religion and the contents of the academic disciplines. What is proposed is a hierarchy, with the lower levels providing the conditions for the possibility of the higher ones: their transcendental pre-conditions. What should also be clear is that the development of Christian philosophy is a prerequisite for a serious Christian renewal of the disciplines (what Dooyeweerd calls the special sciences), for otherwise they will remain in the grip of non-Christian philosophies and religions. Without Christian philosophy there cannot even be a Christian academic theology that is faithful to the biblical religion.

[1] Matthew 22:37

[2] 2 Corinthians 10:5

[3] See MD Stafleu (2016), Theory and Experiment, section 10.1

Richard Russell is a philosopher and ordained Anglican minister. Previously a lecturer in philosophy at Trinity Christian College, Chicago, he is now based in Somerset, England. His Christian Studies Unit online bookshop helped introduce countless thinkers to the riches of the Reformational tradition. The graphic in this post is based on a series of pen-and-ink diagrams that present a range of facets of the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd​.