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Harmonizing Science, Ethics, and Praxis: Part 3

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January 9, 2013 Tags: Morality & Ethics
Harmonizing Science, Ethics, and Praxis: Part 3

Today's entry was written by Calvin DeWitt. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In this three-part series, Cal Dewitt offers insights and examples of why science and ethics must work together to help us make informed, practical decisions within our society. Dewitt’s science-ethics-praxis model provides a framework by which we can live more effectively as God’s stewards.

Originally published in Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation.

Taking Actions on Things for Which There Is No Theory

While I had unconsciously operated within this science-ethics-praxis triad for decades, I had not articulated it until my conversation with students around the table in that New Hampshire coffee shop. Only then did I become aware of how to represent what I had been doing. Not only did that experience help me articulate an explicit framework, but it also taught me that I had been engaged for a long time in doing something for which I previously had no framework or theory.

That I had been operating without a framework or theory became even more apparent following a lecture I gave to the Land Resources class at Au Sable Institute in 1995. I had told the class how, as chair of the Town of Dunn, my fellow citizens and I had developed and implemented a land stewardship plan, and how, after a couple of decades of work, our town was granted the Renew America Award for growth management. Earlier that summer I had presented an opening series of lectures at Au Sable on key ethical principles for our work.

Now my students had a question. “How were you able to implement these obviously biblical principles in the public square in your town?” The answer I gave surprised my student audience—and it surprised me. I told them that when I held town office, I had not yet articulated these principles; they had not yet occurred to me and I had not sought to discover them. It was only after concluding my terms of political office in the Town of Dunn that I had spelled out these principles. I also observed that what we did in the Town of Dunn was nevertheless fully consistent with the principles I had not yet articulated. As I answered the students’ questions, I recalled a comment from a pastor friend and scholar a few years earlier about my work in the town: “Cal, you are doing things for which we do not yet have a theory.” He had told me then what I was just now coming to realize: I had been operating more out of who I am than from any systematized theory. This raises again the question of how we can act on something we have not articulated. The answer, I think, lies in the matrix of story, song, and exposition in which I was nurtured.

Telling Stories and Singing Songs

I grew up immersed in a culture of storytelling and singing. What’s more, the stories told and the songs sung all came together to form a system of remarkable consistency and integrity. This immersion allowed me to begin living my life as a psalm—and only later find out why! The matrix of stories, songs, and their exposition in word and deed began in my childhood home and gradually extended outward to neighborhood children and families, customers on my newspaper route, handling delivery complaints at The Grand Rapids Press, activities at church and school, and learning and then teaching at the university. From there his matrix fed and nourished my praxis, including my work in the Town of Dunn, and beyond.

As a scientist, I have come to wonder about the nature of this system of stories and songs that gracefully nurtured and tied us together in our community, and about the nature of their scholarly and practical exposition. How does this matrix compare with other people who have lived lives committed to achieving and sustaining environmental integrity? This question inevitably led me to wonder about the place of religion in all of this.

Religion and Ties That Bind

Etymologically, “religion” means something quite different than the troubling associations many people have attached to it. Derived from the Latin religio, it has to do with tying things together. A religion is a system whose components are tied together—ligated with some kind of ligaments—to form a consistent integral whole worldview or story. Religions, of course, may differ significantly one from another in kind and in quality. But each religion affects how one lives in the world, and none must be discounted.

As recently as the 1960s, many North Americans assumed that religion would fade as science and secularism took center stage. How wrong this proved to be! Most people now recognize that religion is deeply relevant to almost every area of life. More than being relevant, wrote renowned German physicist Max Planck in his 1937 essay “On Religion and Science,” religion is necessary. I stumbled upon that essay on one of my frequent stops at Rosenblum’s Hebrew Bookstore as I traveled between Michigan and Wisconsin and have treasured it ever since. “Man needs science in order to know; religion, in order to act.” In everyday life, he explains

Our decisions, made by our will, cannot afford to wait until we gain complete knowledge or become omniscient. We stand in the stream of life, surrounded by a multitude of demands and needs. We must often make quick decisions or immediately implement certain plans. No protracted deliberations can help us here, only the definite and clear guidance obtainable from unmediated communion with God. This alone can grant us that inner assurance and that enduring peace of soul which we must treasure as life’s supreme good.1

Later, some time after the 1994 publication of his book Caring for Creation, I would meet the philosopher Max Oelschlaeger at Northern Arizona University. This book describes his “conversion” from believing that religion was the cause of the environmental crisis to seeing religion as the solution. “I think of religion,” he writes, “as being more important in the effort to conserve life on earth than all the politicians and experts put together. . . . My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative.2

Some of us might prefer not to identify our system of beliefs as “religion.” But no matter what we call it, it is this system of beliefs, in which everything holds together with some kind of consistency and integrity that enables us to act. I now see how my own cultural and religious inheritance included in such a system. But before I go further down this path, I need to mention briefly something I learned about paradigms.


I discovered another way to get at the interesting idea of “acting on things before one has a theory” immediately following an oral examination of one of my graduate students. The candidate had been asked to define the word paradigm. His answer raised additional questions, as so often happens when professors interact with students, and these questions drove me to pick up my copy of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when I returned home. Kuhn is well-known for his work in explaining “paradigm shifts” but was criticized for using the word paradigm in so many different ways. As expected, one of these usages describes a paradigm as a kind of mindset out of which a culture operates—perhaps the most common usage when talking about paradigm shifts. But another possible use of paradigm is as an example—an example from which a theory can be developed, for which there might yet be no theory.

My immediate response to this finding was to begin writing a manuscript entitled The Dunn Paradigm. Every morning I spent a couple of hours in a local eatery where I could write on my computer with little distraction other than a cup of coffee. I produced forty-eight short stories based upon my experience as an officer in the town of Dunn. Every few pages, upon completing a story, I mined what I had written for lessons and principles. In this way, I began to see my own life story as a kind of paradigm—an example of someone who works to foster stewardship of land and life. The things I were doing in my life and work were things for which I did not yet have a theory—but nonetheless they flowed out of who I had become and who I was becoming. The lessons and principles that flowed from working within my community joined my matrix of story, song, and exposition to generate and sustain its practical application in the land and life of my town and place.

I have come to believe that the matrices that underlie our action in the world hold truths greater than the forms available for their expression. Presumably everyone has a matrix that incorporates such things as neighbors, fellow citizens, land, and life experience, and that helps us to do what is necessary in order to live rightly. Such matrices provide the resources we need to develop insight and a plan of action for the events—both anticipated and unanticipated—that take place in our own lives, in our society, and in the world. This is all to the good, even as it is expected. Recognizing and understanding these matrices can lead us toward doing what is right in a God-created world!

I have little doubt that a person nurtured in a matrix quite unlike my own, but that does justice to the three questions of the science-ethics-praxis triad, could also be empowered to strive for a quality world. Even those of us who would prefer not to identify our system of beliefs as religion still likely hold to a system of beliefs that enables us to act. The question “If given the opportunity, would we strive for a quality world?” remains a valid one. What would our motivation be? What would provide the rationale or passions to strive relentlessly for integrity in landscape and in life?

Of course, some people are raised in a matrix of beliefs and practices that seem to undermine a quality life on earth. This brings us into the mystery of evil, a subject I leave to the theologians. But my own religious matrix gives me the hope that the Creator, whose Spirit is at work within us and among us, is guiding us toward a new creation that is “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

Putting It All Together

“How do you, as a scientist, as a student of the Scriptures, and as someone directly involved in town politics, put it all together?” those inquiring students had asked me. Sketching a triangle on a napkin with the words “Science,” “Ethics,” and “Praxis” on its corners, I explained how I worked to keep those three elements together in dynamic interaction. Action flows from interacting scientific and ethical knowledge, and it is shaped by interactions among all three of these. And with that sketch began my own journey of discovery—a journey that continues to this day.

My own development grows from a matrix of biblical storytelling and worshipful song-singing, together with proclamation in Word and deed. These provide the basis and inspiration for my actions—actions taken even before I had a theory to explain them. My aim, then, is not to do science on its own, but within the context of what I have described here as “quality religion”—a system of thought and action in which everything is held together with consistency and integrity for the purpose of helping people live rightly in the world. Such “re-ligation” is not only relevant, but necessary for “putting it all together.”


1. Max Planck, 1937, "On Religion and Science," reprinted in translation as Appendix A in Aaron Barth, The Creation in Light of Modern Science (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Post Press, 1968), 147.
2. Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 5.

Dr. Calvin B. DeWitt is a scientist, writer, and conservationist whose work builds bridges among environmental science, ethics and practice. DeWitt is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Director emeritus of the Au Sable Institute. He serves as president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists, an organization dedicated to responsible stewardship of creation, and lives at the Waubesa Marsh in Wisconsin, were he has created a sanctuary for animals to travel a glacial drumlin island that emerges from the marsh.

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HornSpiel - #75841

January 9th 2013

Leave it to a scientist to need a theory to understand or justify his actions. Most people go through life without any consciousness of their underlying motives. It’s a live from your gut world. Even Dr. DeWitt’s story shows that since he “acted on things before he had a theory.”

I have always had an arms-length relationship with models such as DeWitt’s triangle. Most  such social science theories are in the form of triangles or circles. Certainly they can be useful to gain insight into relationships or, as in this case, behavior. Still the relationship between these “theories” and reality are, in my mind, tenuous. It’s impossible (right now and perhaps ever) to go into the brain and see if these theories correspond to any physical reality, which a true scientific theory requires.

Still I believe DeWitt is pointing out a basic truth. We all need a foundation of beliefs that tie our actions together—religion, in its etymological sense. This is where I feel religion can make its greatest contribution to science. J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, and others have advocated for a distinction between theistic or Augustinian science and naturalistic or Duhemian science. This is also a basic premise of the ID movement. I’d like to suggest that DeWitt’s model above is an Augustinian theory which incorporates an important role for Duhemian science in moral decision making.

When he asks How does science work? I take it that he is talking about Duhemian science, models of the physical world. When he talks about What is right? and the Dunn Paradigm, he is talking about Augustinian science, models of human behavior. The irony is that what we believe about reality is more important to out behavior than reality itself—unless, of course your Augustinian science says Duhemian science is the only true science…

Merv - #75847

January 9th 2013

Thanks for sharing your experiences and gained wisdom, Dr. DeWitt.  You also strike me as someone who has probably read Wendell Berry’s wealth of novels about human cultures and the importance of place. 

There are times when conviction is lightyears ahead of science as well as other times when conviction would do well to wait on more information.   Now, how can we tell which is which before the fact ...?


Jon Garvey - #75853

January 10th 2013


Jon Garvey - #75854

January 10th 2013

Ah! The above nonsense test post is the first that BioLogos has accepted from me since the New Year - apologies for intrusion. Mysterious, too, why the site seems so fickle.

Merv, I’ve just finished John H Walton’s academic treatment of his “functional Genesis” approach, which is very compelling not only about the concerns of Genesis, but about the ancient world view in general.

It confirms to me that the concept of “ancient science”, in the sense it is used of “primitive understandings of the physical world”, are themselves anachronistic as the ancients didn’t believe the world is physical - or rather, they didn’t believe the physical nature of the world was a core concept.

Neither were they concerned only with human behaviour (your “Augustinian science”?).

Their concern with how the cosmos was ordered for its purpose - in the case of Genesis, for the benefit of mankind in serving as the image (aka representative) of God. As Walton points out, in Genesis and across the ANE that mainly concerns the provision of the organisational essentials of time (in the sense of regular seasons), of weather in the right place at the right time, and of fecundity in the form of crops, abundant life, children and so on. To be the Creator is to ensure that those things are well-administered to their determined ends.

That kind of view of reality predominates in both the Old and New Testaments (have you noticed how the descriptions of creation in, say, Romans 8 or Colossians 1 talk mainly about powers and authorities rather than things?). So does it constitute a third kind of science - the one that makes sense of, and integrates, both “Duhemian” and “Augustinian” science? It would seem wrong to ignore it when it’s the only kind of science that seems to concern our Holy Scriptures.

bill wald - #76228

January 28th 2013

Pragmatically, the greatest difference between “Christian” and other social contracts might be how Christians define “neighbor.” Super-pragmatically, this difference does not seem to make any difference when we get on the Freeway.

Merv - #75863

January 10th 2013

Welcome back, Jon!   I look forward to more interaction with you unencumbered by any interfering fickle powers.  But meanwhile, it does appear that you intended your reply for Hornspiel, rather than me.


p.s.  I share your resonance with Walton’s approach, though my own familiarity with Walton only comes from reading his views second hand on this website and not from reading his work for itself.  What I’ve heard makes a lot of sense, though.

Jon Garvey - #75886

January 11th 2013

Quite right Merv - I was panic-stricken enough to have to do an explanatory post that minor details like who I was explaining to slipped past me.

Merv - #75864

January 10th 2013

Allow me to correct my postscript above.  I *have* read some of Walton’s material since he is the contributor to multiple series of essays here over the last couple years (which I devoured).  It would be his full books or other publications that I haven’t yet.

Let’s also get too far away from Dr. DeWitt’s contribution in this particular thread about Science, Ethics, and Praxis.  There is much fruit to be had yet in that discussion of immense practicality.

Merv - #75865

January 10th 2013

Insert a very important ‘not’ between ‘also’ and ‘get’ in my post above.  Sorry about that.  I’ll go away now.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #75878

January 10th 2013

Augustine and the other ancient church fathers created an excellect model or Model of the Christian God and that is the Trinity.  God is not simple, like Allah, but God is One.  God is not plural like the gods of the nature religions, but God is three, Many and diverse.

Humans are created in in the Image of God, which for Christians is the Trinity.  We are body, mind, and spirit.  We are each and all of these.  How we use them is who we are.  If we overemphasize any one of them, we distort God’s image in our lives.        

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