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Pastoral aspects of the influence of science on contemporary culture

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: XXV conference de Cuestiones Pastorales (5 and 6 February 1990). Castelldaura (Premià de Dalt, Barcelona).
Date of publication: 6 February 1990

1. Introduction

We live in a scientific civilisation that is three centuries old. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century showed its depth when, within a hundred years, Newton's mechanics was consolidated as a rigorous discipline about a vast realm of phenomena, ranging from the solar system to the motions of any small part of subject. Newtonian physics served Kant as the scientific paradigm on which he built a whole Philosophy whose effects are still strongly felt today. This physics seemed to provide a universally valid method that was applied, with mixed success, to other new scientific disciplines, to sociology and even to politics.

The pioneers of the new science were convinced Christians and their science, in the early days, went hand in hand with natural theology. However, the same science was used, at the end of the 18th century, to defend materialistic positions and to criticise the possibility of knowing the soul and God. In the 19th century, the enormous development of experimental sciences made possible a technological revolution that has changed the living conditions of mankind, and served as the basis for a positivist Philosophy that considered theology and metaphysics as primitive phases in the development of mankind, destined to be replaced by the positive or scientific spirit. Thus, scientism, which considers experimental science as the only valid way of knowing reality, or at least as the paradigm that should be imitated by any cognitive pretension, was starkly displayed, while affirming that only or mainly in the sciences were the solutions to real human problems to be found.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the positivist spirit was renewed by the Vienna Circle, whose influence on the modern Philosophy of science can hardly be overestimated. However, the development of epistemology has, in recent decades, led to the acceptance that demonstrations of science have limited validity, due to the great variety of theoretical and practical conditioning factors involved in each phase of the scientific development . Scientists and philosophers of science are now aware of the limitations and tentativeness of the results of science, so much so that many of them claim that it does not even make sense to talk about scientific truth. At the same time, science and technology have continued their almost vertiginous progress and appear more and more interrelated, so that a pragmatist mentality has spread which only accepts the ability to solve concrete practical problems as a criterion of validity. While many admit the need to channel technology along ethical lines, the prevailing pragmatism makes it difficult to admit a common basis for such purposes.

Science has brought us advantages whose importance can hardly be exaggerated. But it has also created theoretical and practical problems that are far from being satisfactorily solved. Current thinking and lifestyles are conditioned, to a large extent, by these advantages and problems. Even today's widespread scepticism about ultimate questions stems in large part from the disillusionment that science and technology, which had been seen as the panacea that could solve everything, are very limited human creations with potentially as many problems as solutions. The nuclear threat, the ecological crisis and the new problems posed by engineering Genetics are a good example sample .

In this context it is interesting to restate the basic questions, which can be reduced to three. The first concerns the value of experimental science as knowledge of reality. The second concerns the power that science provides to dominate nature. And the third concerns the possible relations between science and transcendence. The examination of these major questions provides an essential basis for pointing out their roots, their current formulation, and the ways to confront them with guarantees of success.

2. Science and knowledge of reality

"Science" means "knowledge demonstrated". The ability to do science places us above other creatures but, at the same time, it is a sign of the limitation of our knowledge. Indeed, we know reality in a very partial way, and that is why we need to resort to reasoning that allows us to draw conclusions about non-manifest aspects of reality.

To this end, experimental science uses a peculiar combination of theoretical constructs and controlled experiments. The constructs often include mathematical theories and highly sophisticated models, which are not intended to represent reality directly. The theories of mathematical physics, for example, cannot be regarded as a mirror in which the properties of reality are directly reflected; they are rather abstract constructs whose application to concrete problems must be carried out using non-trivial methods and approximations.

If inter-subjective demonstrations, whose validity is not limited by the personal opinions of the various subjects, are to be achieved in the sciences, a high price must be paid for this. Specifically, one must adopt approaches or points of view that involve adopting a specialised vocabulary, constructed in such a way that well-defined theoretical inferences and experimental verifications can be made. What atomic physics or molecular biology say about their objects can be disclosed in an approximate way, using simplifications and metaphors, but it can only be expressed in a rigorous way using the vocabulary of those disciplines. For example, it would be inappropriate to say that physics asserts that subject and energy transform each other, let alone to draw philosophical conclusions from it; what physics asserts is a certain equivalence between the values of two quantities, mass and energy, which are defined in very peculiar theoretical and experimental contexts.

In order to assess the relationship between scientific constructs and reality, it must be taken into account, in each case, which subject constructs are involved and what evidence exists in their favour. For example, the double helix structure of DNA can be established with certainty, since it is a well-defined representative model with theoretical arguments and repeatable observations in its favour. In contrast, theories of cosmic and biological evolution, while dealing with concrete facts, have a more problematic character, since they usually refer to processes that would have occurred under conditions different from those of today and that can hardly be subjected to controlled experimentation. And abstract theories, such as relativity and quantum mechanics, usually comprise well-tested statements together with theoretical developments that are difficult to demonstrate rigorously, and in any case represent phenomena through mathematical instruments that are abstract constructs.

Particularly popular in our time is the doctrine called "fallibilism", according to which we could never reach a certain knowledge , and should be content with submitting theories to empirical verification, trying to detect the errors they contain and formulating new theories which, in turn, must always be submitted to empirical control and can never be considered as definitive. Fallibilism has been erected in an entire Philosophy called "critical rationalism", which considers the whole of human knowledge , in any of its modalities, as a variant of the basic method of "essay and elimination of error". In this perspective, truth would be an ideal that guide the research, but any pretension to affirm the truth final of a concrete statement is disqualified as "dogmatism". This doctrine would also reach metaphysical and religious problems, with the consequence that we could never reach a legitimate certainty.

Fallibilism seems to identify certainty with an all-encompassing and exhaustive knowledge which, in effect, is beyond our real possibilities. The problem acquires other dimensions, however, if we consider that it is possible to have a true and certain knowledge but that at the same time it is limited and perfectible. For example, we can affirm the existence of molecules and atoms, and many of their characteristics, even though we know that better knowledge can be achieved later. Fallibilism presents itself as the Philosophy that corresponds to an analysis goal of science, but in reality it provides an incomplete picture of science, extrapolates it as if it were complete, and performs a second illegitimate extrapolation by setting up its scientific methodology as a general Philosophy .

On the other hand, it is difficult to formulate fallibilism by escaping contradictions. Indeed, fallibilism should be stated, from agreement with its basic thesis , in a fallible way, that is, as a conjecture, and the same should be true for all the arguments presented by fallibilists about any problem. That the actual status is very different is evident simply by considering the force with which fallibilists put forward their ideas and criticise doctrines different from their own.

Some fallibilists strongly criticise sceptical doctrines and present themselves as defenders of rationality and realism. It cannot be denied that, on some levels of problems, they are right. However, the acceptance of fallibilism as a general Philosophy and even as a religious and theological core topic seems to be strongly conditioned by other perspectives that affirm the necessarily contextual, one-sided and incomplete character of any doctrine.

Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that every human knowledge is framed in some particular context that does not exhaust reality. But here again it should be noted that the contextual and partial character of knowledge does not imply that it is false. The truth admits Degrees, depending on the level at which we situate ourselves and the possibilities of expression available to us. The knowledge can be contextual and partial and, at the same time, true and certain. This statement implies a realist Philosophy , in which evidence and certainty have plenary session of the Executive Council meaning and are clearly different from their conceptualisation in rationalist and empiricist philosophies, which generally constitute the framework of reference letter of the current interpretations of science.

Optimistic' scientism, which regarded science as capable of solving all problems, has not completely disappeared. But it has largely been replaced by a "pessimistic" scientism which, while aware of some limitations of science, continues to regard experimental science as the paradigm of any rigorous knowledge . In this perspective, everything that does not belong to the explicit formulations of experimental science is usually qualified as "metaphysics"; and even if it is admitted that many metaphysical problems can be discussed rationally, it is assumed in advance that they can never be solved definitively. If by "definitive" one means an exhaustive knowledge , one is bound to accept such a doctrine; but one is thereby accepting an important part of the rationalist approach, which has led modern thought into many blind alleys.

Fallibilism, taken as a methodological rule, may represent a healthy warning about the contextual and partial character of the human knowledge . Taken as a general Philosophy , it is a doctrine that unjustifiably extrapolates some methodological aspects and leads to contradictions. Our knowledge, both ordinary and scientific, philosophical and theological, is always contextual and partial, but it can be true and certain. The guarantees that it is true in each concrete case refer to the interpretation of experience and the use of logic. The fact that there are no rules that can be applied mechanically to any concrete case will only be a cause of despair for the rationalist. The resource to reasoned but not impersonal evaluations is the basis of all human knowledge , also of the knowledge provided by experimental science, and is a sign that we possess a rationality that sets us above the rest of the creatures of this world.

3. Science and mastery of nature

If one accepts an instrumentalist image of science, or a Philosophy in which one recognises the importance of truth but denies the possibility of achieving it, one reduces science, and even knowledge in general, to a simple tool useful for practical purposes. The consequences are far-reaching, since it will be inevitable to regard any use of science as good, even if one does not verbally accept this conclusion.

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that the Magisterium of the Church has found it necessary to defend the ability to attain truth by expressly alluding to the scientific context. John Paul II has accurately described the instrumentalist image of science in these words: "If science is understood fundamentally as 'technical science', it can be conceived as the search for a system that leads to a technical triumph. That which leads to success counts as 'knowledge'. The world presented to science becomes like a simple sum of phenomena on which it can work; its object, a functional whole that is investigated only for its functionality. Such a science can even be conceived as a simple function. The concept of truth becomes superfluous; sometimes it is expressly dispensed with. Reason itself will finally appear as a simple function or as an instrument of a being, whose existence makes sense outside the field of knowledge and science; perhaps in the simple fact of living. Our culture is permeated in all its sectors by a science that comes from a functional perspective" (speech in Cologne, 15-XI-1980, n. 3).

The denial of truth or of the possibility of attaining it leads to this functionalist perspective, in which science itself is deprived of the cognitive value it actually has. This is the basis for a functionalist way of thinking that does not admit the existence of objectively valid reasons, even in the ethical sphere. This results in an inability to delimit the use to be made of scientific progress.

The image of science and scientists as belonging to a neutral world, indifferent to human values, was definitively shattered on 6 August 1945. Since that day, it is impossible not to notice what the uncontrolled use of science can mean. The atomic threat has been joined by others. Today, many scientific programs of study require sophisticated technology that is only available to the wealthy, and the result is that, in fact, whether they like it or not, scientists work on the basis of funding that depends on big money, on states, and that their work is used for purposes dictated by financial and political interests, of which the purposes of warfare figure prominently. This status has led some scientists to abandon their work altogether; these are few cases, but they are significant.

To the extent that science provides knowledge that can be experimentally tested, it is the basis for a myriad of practical applications. Undoubtedly, much of the prestige of science is a result of its predictive capacity and its consequent applicability to solve concrete practical problems. It stands to reason, therefore, that in the absence of an objective basis for ethical assessment , both positive and negative applications will proliferate.

On the other hand, experimental control is only possible when knowledge relates to material aspects of reality, for it is in that realm that there is the possibility of controlled and repeatable testing. This, in itself, says nothing against the existence of spiritual realities. On this basis, however, and by means of illegitimate extrapolations, a practical, materialistic scientism has been built up, which denies the reality of anything that does not serve practical material purposes.

Practical materialism is related to utilitarian or pragmatist ideas, which justify any action as long as it serves desirable ends, while denying that there are objective standards for determining which ends are legitimate. Extreme forms of pragmatism lead to consequences that few will be willing to admit, but many will admit these ideas and put them on internship, as long as their extreme consequences are not reached. This leads to a subjectivism in which the boundaries between right and wrong are blurred, if not reduced to a pure matter of opinion.

It is important to note that pragmatism cannot be justified by scientific arguments. On the contrary, science itself is meaningless unless one admits the existence of an objective truth and our ability to attain it. Evidently, experimental science only reaches material realities and, for that reason, can say nothing about the ethical value of ends. But only an arbitrary scientism can draw materialistic conclusions from these facts.

4. Science and transcendence

One of the most important aspects of our civilisation is the dichotomy between science and humanism. While it is important to point out the limits of the sciences, noting where their proper domain ends and pointing out the inconsistencies of scientistic extrapolations, it is natural to ask whether there can be a positive partnership between science and the deepest aspirations of the human person.

That partnership is possible. Science in itself implies valuable attitudes in the context of human life. It presupposes a realistic attitude of objective search for truth, in which it is essential to stick to facts and reasons; in this sense, the scientific attitude favours the cultivation of rationality. This fact is obscured when, due to scientistic attitudes, human rationality is identified with some partial aspects that often do not even really exist in science, as they are the result of false images fabricated in order to affirm scientistic prejudices.

Experimental science is a privileged example of the virtualities contained in human rationality. The efforts of the creators of modern science are admirable, since they required a difficult and tenacious work , supported by basic convictions about the existence of a real order in nature and about the human capacity to know it. In fact, these convictions were provided by the Christian cultural matrix that permeated for centuries the mentality of Europe. The testimonies of the pioneers of modern science are explicit in this respect.

The conviction that the world is the work of a God staff led to the acceptance that it must be intelligently constructed, and that human intelligence, a participant in the divine intelligence, must be capable of knowing the natural order. The conviction that creation is a free work of God led to the admission of the contingency of the world and, therefore, to the realisation of the need to resort to experimentation to find out what the real characteristics of nature are. Modern science was born and has continued to develop thanks to ontological and epistemological assumptions which, although they are not a sufficient condition for the existence of scientific progress, are a necessary condition that was provided by Christianity and which even today is compatible only with a realist Philosophy that is open to transcendence.

It might seem that the subsequent development of science has led to an increasing withdrawal of the aforementioned assumptions; in this sense, it is sometimes argued that scientific progress has unveiled the mythical or fantastic character of human spiritual life. status However, on closer reflection, sample the reverse is true.

Indeed, scientific progress is a result of creativity. A strong dose of creativity is needed to formulate explanations that are far removed from observable phenomena, and to devise experiments capable of testing them. Such a task can only be performed by a being endowed with an intelligence capable of reflecting on nature and on itself, rationally assessing arguments that are often enormously sophisticated.

Of course, no argument drawn from experimental science is sufficient to prove the existence of the spiritual soul, nor is it sufficient to deny it. But a reflection on the scientific results and on the way of obtaining them leads to admitting the existence of capacities that go beyond the material realm. To rigorously prove the spirituality of the soul it is necessary to have recourse to philosophical reasoning, but the analysis of science provides privileged data about the extent of the human Schools , and therefore of its nature, which constitutes the basis for the knowledge of the human soul.

The human knowledge results from a peculiar symbiosis between the senses and intelligence. We exercise intellectual activities through complex neural mechanisms that we are now beginning to understand in some detail. However, when materialism claims to explain intelligence as merely the result of neural mechanisms, it adopts a reductionist perspective that lacks scientific justification. Materialism is content with physical explanations and denies the existence of metaphysical dimensions, but science is only so much, and to use it in a materialistic sense requires arbitrary extrapolations.

It is true that there are no scientific procedures for detecting the soul, but it is equally true that there would be no science if we did not have capacities that place us above material conditions. We experience these capacities continually, and reflection on the success of science is a test that they are even more extensive than what is manifest in ordinary experience. The human soul is not the object of science precisely because it is a condition of its possibility. It is on a level that transcends material conditions, which can be studied scientifically precisely because of this transcendence.

Similarly, the existence of a creator God staff becomes a condition of possibility of the very basis of science, that is, of the existence of a nature which manifests itself as contingent in its being and which is permeated by laws that determine an order goal. The more science progresses, the better we know the existence of the order and the laws that permeate nature in all its layers. The existence of nature and its laws are ontological presuppositions without which science would not be possible.

The relevance of science in relation to the proofs of God's existence is now widely discussed. It is generally accepted that physics, metaphysics and theology belong to non-interfering fields, and programs of study focuses on the possibility of building bridges between them.

An extreme position is that of those who assert the possibility that the creation of the universe, understood as absolute production from nothing, can be explained by the laws of physics. The arguments refer to quantum gravity, a very complex theory which is still at a very speculative stage. And they must resort to unjustifiable extrapolations, since physics studies real entities and processes, and it makes no sense to include among its problems the absolute production of beings.

In the same vein, it is also claimed that the universe could be proved to be necessary, in the sense that a universe different from the one we know could not exist, and this claim is used in favour of the self-sufficiency of the universe and against the existence of a freely created God. However, the necessity that can be known through the scientific method is only relative, since it will always be possible to formulate alternative general theories that explain the same phenomena, and their verification must be supported by experimental data expressing factual conditions. Experimental science makes it possible to draw true conclusions about matters of fact, and to explain facts by means of laws and theories, but explanations always ultimately refer to contingent factual conditions.

The teleological argument to prove the existence of God has often been attacked, using evolutionary theories, which would explain the present world as the result of processes of mutations and adaptations in which only those beings that manage to adapt will survive, which would explain the appearances of order and cooperation between so many different beings. This argument, however, involves a basic confusion. Indeed, the existence of such processes is compatible with divine creation and providence, which are on a transcendent plane and do not exclude the activity of second causes on their own plane.

It is necessary to admit the existence of God in order to explain the very existence of a contingent universe, and the existence of an activity ordered according to laws. The old materialism that conceived of subject as a purely inert reality has given way to the image of a nature that, even at its most minute levels, possesses an internal dynamism that is the immediate source of the order we contemplate. This dynamism leads to such surprising results as those discovered by molecular biology, which are at the basis of the mechanisms of life, and govern it from agreement with precise instructions that are contained in the material Structures .

It is precisely scientific progress that has brought the concepts of structure, system and information to the fore. And these concepts, expressing basic characteristics of nature, point to a power capable of creating traces of intelligence in all strata of the subject. The leap to a transcendent God continues to require specific arguments, but the sciences provide an increasingly broad basis for them.

5. Conclusion

Objective reflection on science, on its presuppositions and its results, sample that the partnership between science, metaphysics and theology is not only possible, but also full of interesting suggestions. This is compatible with the recognition of the autonomy of the respective fields. A poor partnership would be based on a confusion of different planes. But differences do not mean civil service examination or incommunicability. They mean that the specific character of each field must be respected.

The supposed oppositions between these fields do not stand up to rigorous analysis. In specialised fields, this conclusion is generally accepted. One of the most necessary tasks today is to help bring the perspectives that are already commonplace among those involved in research to the attention of the general public, who are sometimes still the victims of confusions and misunderstandings that have objectively been overcome.