Science, Natural History, or Natural Philosophy: What Exactly Are We Calling It These Days?

By Dr. Brian Polk, Guest Author

I recently asked a group of science educators that work for Christian Classical Schools if they prefer the term science or natural philosophy, and I’d like to pause to ask you the same.

I prefer Natural Philosophy for a few reasons, and some explication is warranted. However, most of it has to do with the meaning, literal and implied, of the term science. Once clarified, it’s easy to undo the reduction of science to trivia and see it in service of the Natural Philosopher seeking to understand the Created natural world.

Etymologically, science means knowledge, so natural science would be knowledge of the natural world. Regrettably, when most people reflect on their time in science classrooms, they think mainly of trivial facts that they were forced to remember or perhaps difficult equations that they never quite understood but learned to manipulate for “right answers.” If science is just knowledge, then it is trivia, and thus trivial. In contrast, most people can easily name a book or poem that changed the way they viewed the world. We intuitively imagine the humanities as windows into our souls, but we have bought the lie that science is simply a tool we wield to subdue the natural world, to make it do our bidding. We do so at our own peril. There is a better way.

This reductionistic approach to studying the natural world was not always the case. Prior to the 19th century, understanding of the natural world was sought by natural philosophers. Again, etymologically, natural philosophy would mean lover of wisdom about the natural world. Wisdom stands in stark contrast to knowledge, the first providing a full understanding of the nature of “science” and the second viewing it as an amoral tool. I wish to cultivate a similar understanding in my students—God has given us a created world that we should study to grow in our knowledge of Him as well as in our ability to use it wisely. Further, natural philosophers were often known to have studied theology, law, politics, and any number of other intellectual human pursuits. The silo of science that exists in schools today is a very modern and unfortunate reality.

The reasons science supplanted natural philosophy as the way in which people study the natural world is a bit broad for this writing, but I would like to address a few key outcomes of the paradigm shift. The ancients studied the world under the principles that Aristotle laid out in his key works:  The Physics, Metaphysics, On The Heavens, and his writings about animals. Noteworthy features of his understanding of the natural world include the idea that objective truth is real and knowable, and the four causes (material, efficient, formal, and final) are very important. Most notable in the four causes is the fourth, the idea that things have a purpose—a telos. Modern science, in the hands of the secular humanists and in the name of progress, has worked hard to shed this idea in favor of a worldview that says we are space dust hurling through the Cosmos, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. While no teacher at a Christian school would agree with this assertion, we would be wise to think carefully about how often we unintentionally reinforce this naturalistic idea. When I think of most of the laboratory assignments I have assigned over the years, I’m afraid that I have been far too often guilty of not providing enough context for the investigation.

The real difference between science and natural philosophy is more than semantic. I want to suggest that there are dangerous consequences of viewing science as the accumulation of knowledge by the scientific method. Hanging on many elementary classroom walls is a distorted and reductionistic understanding of science, but not because hypotheses and theories are unimportant, but instead because of the implication that they lead to laws, and laws are thought of as truth. When we teach students the scientific method, we reinforce the idea that empiricism is the only pathway to truth. In lieu of this approach, I have shifted to teaching that science is the process of making models. Think of atomic theory as something we use to explain atoms, which is foundational to the practice of Chemistry. Atoms are smaller than the wavelength of light and we will never be able to see them. We can see large groups of the particles and the effects of their existence, but not the atoms themselves. We have numerous experiments and revised hypotheses from the history of science to support this model, but we do not know for sure the fundamental realities of the atomic understanding of nature. Atomic theory is a model, and I like models as a metaphor because they do not imply truth—just representations of truth. Evolution by natural selection is less intimidating when evaluated as a model. Further, if science is understood in this way, it fits more nicely under the umbrella of natural philosophy. Science is simply a tool of the natural philosopher, used alongside natural history, to read the book of nature made available to us by our Creator.


Brian has just over 20 years of experience in education, including classroom teaching at the collegiate and secondary levels and administrative leadership. He has a B.S. in Biochemistry from Southern Miss and a M.S. in Industrial Chemistry from the University of Central Florida. In 2017, he earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School.

Throughout Brian’s time in Classical schools, he has learned to value deeply the ends of a Classical Christian Education (the cultivation of wisdom and virtue) and holds the conviction that students flourish when these ends are cultivated in the context of healthy school relationships, both students to teachers and teachers to administrators. Brian presently serves as an associate professor of science at The College of the Ozarks, is the board chair for The Ecclesial Schools Initiative in Orlando, Florida, and lives in Hollister, Missouri with his wife and kids as well as a dachshund that he prefers not to talk about.

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