Science and God

How empiricism restricted our concept of reason

In the previous post I have shown that Churchman probably elaborated his systems approach over a period of about 30 years (1952-1982). First he used it in his consultancy work as operations research expert, then he started teaching it at Berkeley for at least 14 years (1964-1978) in a rather famous class, which was enjoyed by students and Nobel Prize winners alike, and finally he wrote about it in five books (1968-1982, see below), not counting Prediction and optimal decision (1961), which contains many of the seeds of thought found in Churchman’s later work. There were also shorter communications such as the conference paper I want to discuss now. It was originally given at an Operations Research Society of America meeting under the title of “The Art of the State” in Washington, D.C., May 1962. It was republished under a different title (Science and God) as chapter 9 in Challenge of Reason (1968). It talks about the concept of reason, human reason that is. In the end he imagines a new Age of Reason, which “will regard science and society as whole systems; it will seek the whole system that is the optimal system. It will therefore bring back the concept of God as a necessary concept of all research.” This may sound very unscientific and irrational, but I will attempt to explain it in about seven short paragraphs.

Rationalism        … is the view that “regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge” . Descartes was the first of the modern rationalists and has been dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy. Rationalists were particular (at least in the eyes of 21st century man) in the sense that they needed God as a guarantor of the logical and stable structure of the world (reality, universe). In a previous post I show how Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” was the first step in addressing this issue about God and everything else (some would argue that Descartes’ “radical doubt” was the first step, which is a good point. But then perhaps there would be a need for an environment where radical doubt was not only permitted but could also flourish, which was the Netherlands in the early 17the century, where he stayed for about 30 years from 1618 to 1649). Other rationalists were Spinoza and Leibniz.

Empiricism      … is the view “that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience” , i.e.  observation, and stands therefore in stark contrast with rationalism. This theme dominated the philosophical controversies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Empiricism relegated God to a position of non-interference, which is a view otherwise known as deism, which led to the Enlightenment’s notion of secularism (the exclusion of religious considerations), the declaration that God was not necessarily benevolent (Voltaire’s Candide, 1759) or even dead (Nietzsche, 1882). Nevertheless, scientists such as Newton, remained very religious men, straddling the two views .  Francis Bacon (1561-1626) “has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature” .

Positivism        … is clearly rooted in empiricism. In two respects it can be considered different: (1) by its focus on specific principles of logic; and (2) by its focus on the social dimension of science. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is not only the founder of positivism, he is also by many considered the father of sociology (see also this hilarious 1 minute youtube video of the Open University on Comte’s “religion of humanity”). The trouble with scientific empiricism is that it tends to deny or ignore the possibility of value judgments, while positivism is problematic by using natural ‘laws’ to restrict value judgments. This brings us back to reason, which prefers to remain unbounded (and open-minded) about ‘given’ goals.

Reason and the systems approach       Churchman uses three lines of arguments to show that the systems approach is (potentially) more reasonable than rationalism, empiricism or positivism, including science: (1) in order to find natural ‘laws’, science – including sociology – focuses on narrow relationships between components (or parts or aspects) of ‘objectively’ observable reality. This ignores: (a) key aspects of reason, including intuition and imagination (think of Einstein’s discoveries, Jung’s cognitive functions); and (b) the fact that these components are contingent to their environment (“whole” system, reality, universe); (2) humans are peculiar in that they use a highly complex faculty of valuation – an expression of ‘reason’, itself not a bounded concept – to attach value to whatever they do or experience; (3) humans use their ‘unbounded’ reason to design their social systems. It is humanly speaking impossible to ensure 100% satisfaction with the functioning of the overall design in the sense of a betterment of the human condition. Hence the need for a guarantor to ensure that the components form a whole that functions well in its environment.

Science and god      As I said earlier, contrasting the two (science and god) seems unscientific if not irrational. But the two frameworks of knowledge (theology and science) have considerable overlap in that they both try to give a coherent description of reality (i.e. the world, the universe, and the human role in it) and both seek some guarantee that this description is right. When it comes to the physical world, science is well able to do its work, but when humans and their values are concerned, things become more difficult. Translating scientific success into human progress is risky business. Science has no other scientific option than to convert the valuation of unbounded reason into restricted value judgments. Science gives guarantees of correct observation, but its observations are partial and never of ‘the’ whole. Its notion of ‘the’ whole always comes as an afterthought, as a reassembly of only part of the partially observed parts. This doesn’t mean that the systems approach has the solution, but it does have a rational, a reasonable, a thoroughly reasoned approach that does justice to the aspirations and goals of man. For a description see elsewhere in this blog or in the work Gerald Midgley (see below) or Werner Ulrich (for links, try this blog), both mostly using the critical heuristics version of Churchman’s systems approach

What use is ‘the’ guarantor?      Churchman’s categorical framework for inquiry and planning, which is the centerpiece of his systems approach, has twelve categories (for an online description of the first nine categories see p. 3-4 Churchman, Charles West; Nelson, Harold G.; Eacret, K. (1977). Value distribution assessment of geothermal development in Lake County, CA. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Retrieved from Now ‘categories’ here means ‘categories of inquiry’, which implies that they are labels for inter-related fields of inquiry (for a first version of my description see csl4d). What should be the design of the control of the implemented plan? “Control’ means the ability to change a process in the right direction if the process gets off the track. Further down, Churchman adds: “Finally, a sound and healthy decision-making body would be deeply concerned about the lives of future generations, and would attempt to design guarantees that nothing it decides would permanently mar the quality of life of those who in the future choose to live in Lake County. Our ninth and last question addresses the question of how to design such a guarantor.” Let me repeat, Churchman’s categories are categories of inquiry. Many other questions are possible. See also Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF), which also shows that the systems approach is not difficult to teach or learn, whether it is for systemic inquiry or practical intervention design.

Teaching opportunity     Often the study of philosophy or theology leaves the student empty-handed. He or she has learned a lot, but sees little possibility for their application in practice. With science subjects, something similar is happening: one learns a lot, but when it comes to application, there are too many pros and cons to consider. So we don’t consider them at all. Or we leave the considering to others, higher up in the hierarchy. As we do so, we actually ignore that those superiors are superior in position, not necessarily in understanding. The systems approach is a formidable tool to come to grips with decision-making in a way that does justice to human reason. In Section III: Practice, Midgley (2000) shows how this can be combined with other planning methods. In fact, Churchman (1968b) does very much the same. The teaching opportunity, in my view, is to combine teaching the systems approach with teaching a bit of philosophy (see above, or elsewhere in this blog, or Churchman 1971) and applying it in practice, whether in history or in ‘business model generation’ or any other subject. Such is the generic nature of the systems approach that it can be (ap)plied the intricacies of any human activity system.

“So we could end by saying that operations research [SH: or the systems approach] is at the forefront in the movement toward a new Age of Reason. This age will regard science and society as whole systems; it will seek the whole system that is the optimal system. It will therefore bring back the concept of God as a necessary concept of all research.”     Churchman (1968a 126)


Churchman, C. W. (1968a). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. Retrieved from

Churchman, C. W. (1968b). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Retrieved from (from your library)

Churchman, C. W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Churchman, C. W. (1982). Thought and wisdom. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications. Retrieved from (from your library)

Hay, C. (2009). Newton; Rationalist or Empiricist? In The Theory of Knowledge and the Rise of Modern Science (pp. 72–85). Lutterworth Press. Retrieved from ch6.pdf

Midgley, G. (2001). Systemic intervention: philosophy, methodology, and practice. Springer Science & Business Media. Retrieved from (partial preview)

Midgley, G. (2014). Systemic intervention. Hull, UK: University of Hull. Retrieved from


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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