Science and faith: new perspectives
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Après Galilée. Science et foi: nouveau dialogue, under the direction of Cardinal Paul Paupard, Desclée de Brower, Paris, pp. 199-214.
Date of publication: 1994
It is now generally recognised that science and faith represent two different perspectives, and that any conflicts between them are the result of illegitimate intrusions that can always be avoided. Their peaceful coexistence therefore seems assured. But should we be content with a separation that would be tantamount to mutual ignorance, or, on the contrary, is it possible to integrate these two areas harmoniously? This is one of the major challenges of our time.
Indeed, there is often talk of "borderline issues" between science and faith, suggesting common themes and the possibility of a positive partnership . However, such a partnership will only be possible if there are bridges between the worlds of science and faith. My reflections focus on the existence of such bridges (1*).
The rationality of nature
Nobody today believes that science can solve all problems. Optimistic scientism is a museum relic. We find a clear example of this status in Paul Davies, who after writing in his last book: "I have always wanted to believe that science can explain everything, at least in principle", adds: "but even if supernatural events are ruled out, it is not clear, however, that science can explain everything in the physical universe. The old problem remains about the end of the chain of explanations. However successful our scientific explanations may be, they always include some assumptions in their point of departure.... The ultimate questions will therefore always remain beyond the reach of empirical science"(2*). The quotation is especially significant considering that Davies, a physicist and author of twenty widely read books, does not admit the existence of a God staff, and in one of his earlier books he claimed that science provides a surer way to God than religion (3*).
The allusion to the assumptions of science is important, and Davies develops it further in the following terms: "The success of the scientific method in uncovering the secrets of nature is so astonishing that it may prevent us from noticing the greatest miracle of all: that science works. Even scientists normally take for granted that we live in a rational and ordered cosmos, subject to precise laws that can be discovered by human reasoning. Why this is so, however, remains a tantalising mystery... The fact that science works, and works so well, points to something profoundly significant about the organisation of the cosmos" (4*). Davies is right. So the next question we must ask is: where does the success of science point to?
Davies claims that science rests on "a crucial assumption: that the world is both rational and intelligible.... The whole of the scientific business is built on the assumption of the rationality of nature". He adds: "I grant that it cannot be proved that the world is rational. Certainly it is possible that, at its deepest level, it is absurd.... However, the success of science is at least strong circumstantial evidence in favour of the rationality of nature"(5*).
Indeed, scientific activity assumes that nature is rational, intelligible, rationally knowable, ordered. It is not chaotic; it consists of hierarchical levels in a continuous and gradual manner, and each of the levels and the mutual relations between them respond to laws. Scientific progress sample that this assumption is true. It can be stated, more specifically, that this progress retro-justifies, expands and clarifies the realist assumptions concerning the natural order (6*). The greater the progress of science, the broader and more precise is our knowledge about the order that characterises our world.
The rationality of nature is a necessary condition of scientific activity, an assumption that cannot be justified by scientific methods but is indispensable for the existence of science. Scientific progress does not eliminate this assumption; on the contrary, sample its adequacy and broadens its scope. Thus, the rationality of nature constitutes a bridge between science and the ultimate questions of meaning. The bridge can be widened if we consider, as we will do below, the knowledge that current science provides about the organisation of nature.
A new worldview
For the first time in history, we have a scientific worldview that is complete and rigorous. The current picture of nature is not complete in the sense that nothing remains undiscovered; however, it is complete in another, more interesting sense: it extends to all levels, from the microphysical to the astrophysical to the geological and including the most important level of all, that of living things. Moreover, not only do we know many laws at each level, but also laws that relate one level to another. Nature is presented to us sample as a true system that encompasses levels of progressive organisation, in such a way that the higher ones include the lower ones and surpass them.
Is it not an exaggeration to say that we are at a privileged status with respect to our predecessors, and that we have for the first time a complete and unitary worldview? It is not, and it is even easy to understand why this statement is correct. The sciences adopt partial perspectives. Their progress, since the 17th century, has been made by formulating particular theories in the fields of astronomy, mechanics, optics, electromagnetism, atomic theory, subatomic particle physics, molecular biology and others. We have climbed a long ladder, step by step, one rung after another. Finally, we now have a hitherto inaccessible perspective that allows us to relate the different facets of nature to each other.(7*)
We find ourselves at a real advantage compared to those who have gone before us, status . It is not just a matter of a greater accumulation of knowledge, but of something really new: we have, for the first time, a picture of nature that is coherent, unitary, complete and rigorous. This fact has interesting implications. For example, the mechanistic picture, which was presented for several centuries as the scientific picture of the world, has been replaced by a much richer and more interesting representation. Systems theory and morphogenetic theories can be mentioned in this context.
Systems theory, proposal by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, supplements the mechanistic perspective with holistic and directional factors: systems are not a simple aggregation of components, but possess holistic properties that belong to the system as a whole. In this context we speak of emergent properties, which are not reducible to those existing at lower levels. Furthermore, holism implies that the components act cooperatively; in this sense they manifest a directionality, so that we are witnessing a certain rehabilitation of the concept of purpose, which seemed to have been banished from the scientific realm.
Morphogenetic theories study the genesis of new forms. There are several such theories subject, and not only at the biological level, but also at the physico-chemical level. The thermodynamics of irreversible processes, also called non-linear thermodynamics or non-equilibrium processes, formulated by Ilya Prigogine, allows us to understand how higher-order Structures can arise from lower-order states. Hermann Haken's synergetics studies how new qualities and Structures arise from cooperative phenomena. Along similar lines are René Thom's catastrophe theory and recent deterministic chaos theories (8*).
These theories build bridges between the physico-chemical and the biological level, and are at the basis of new approaches to the self-organisation of subject. It is becoming increasingly clear that subject is not merely passive and inert, but has its own dynamism and tendencies that explain the training of natural entities. (9*)
The unfolding of natural dynamism
Nature can be characterised in terms of two basic aspects that are closely intertwined: dynamism and structuring (10*). Current knowledge shows that subject has its own dynamism at all levels; it is only inert from certain perspectives, and the static corresponds to dynamic equilibria that occur in particular circumstances. Furthermore, nature no longer appears to be governed by laws that only affect it externally. Today's worldview is centred around "patterns", which are formed spontaneously at all levels. Morphogenesis is not a phenomenon exclusive to living things; the physico-chemical level is full of "tendencies" towards concrete patterns.
In this context, nature (in the classical sense of the natural-physical or material) can be characterised by the intertwining of its own dynamism and spatio-temporal structuring. This intertwining is typical of nature and makes it possible to distinguish the natural from the artificial and from the artificial staff. The natural possesses a dynamism of its own, the storage and deployment of which is intrinsically linked to Structures spatio-temporal.
The activity of nature manifests itself as the "unfolding" of a dynamism that produces Structures, patterns, order, organisation. In turn, the new Structures are source of new kinds of dynamism. Particular dynamisms not only interact, but are integrated through processes of "patterning". And the intertwining of dynamism and patterning relates to a concept that is increasingly central to our knowledge of nature: "information". We know the importance of information Genetics in the biological domain, but we can also speak of information in many other biological phenomena and at other levels; structural and dynamic patterns can be seen as the storage and display of information that guide natural processes.
Natural processes are not undifferentiated. They are characterised by a "directionality" which manifests itself in the form of "trends" and "cooperativity". Any scientific breakthrough can be considered as a particular knowledge of directionality, since it points out the possible channels of natural processes. But there are particularly significant examples, which refer to the constitution of the subject from its lowest levels and, therefore, at all levels. This is the case, for example, with the "exclusion principle" (formulated by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli) in quantum physics, according to which two particles that are fermions (they correspond to the Fermi-Dirac statistics) cannot have the same quantum state in the same system. Since the basic components of the subject are leptons and quarks, which are fermions and therefore follow the exclusion principle, it follows that the subject is structured, from its lowest levels, from agreement with very specific laws.
This example and others like it show that the nature we know is the result of laws that have a selective character. Many factors are involved in natural processes, and the importance of "chance" is often mentioned in this connection. But this is a very special kind of chance, because the fundamental laws are at work at all levels and make it possible to understand how the subject is organised to form ever more complex Structures , from molecules to living organisms. In this context, one speaks today of the "self-organisation" of the subject.
The emergence of new patterns is of particular interest today, and is the subject of the morphogenetic theories mentioned above, which are part of a broad topic often referred to as the "self-organisation" of nature. (11*)
The current worldview presents us with a nature that is self-organising agreement with patterns, developing processes that can be qualified as "creative", through an unfolding of natural dynamism that produces new patterns of increasing complexity. A nature in which, as already noted, the concept of "information" plays a central role. Information is stored in Structures, which in turn are the result of previous unfoldings of information. In today's worldview, nature does not appear to us as a set of heterogeneous and passive pieces to be adjusted by external actions, but rather as a great system resulting from the unfolding of a dynamism articulated with Structures spatio-temporal agreement with progressive levels of organisation.
This perspective leads hand in hand to the problems related to finality, which today are once again considered as fully legitimate. And finality brings us to the gates of natural theology. Reflection on the rationality of nature in the light of current scientific knowledge thus enables a broad bridge to be built between science and faith.
Naturalism seeks to explain the organisation of nature by resorting to the blind combination of chance and necessity, as Jacques Monod famously put it. It denies that there is any predetermined direction. The admirable order of nature, which extends from the basic microphysical Structures to the mechanisms of life, the radar of bats and the human brain, would be the simple result of random variation, struggle for survival and natural selection.
If by "chance" we mean the confluence of independent causal lines, chance undoubtedly occupies a large place in the development of natural processes. It is very difficult, however, to attribute a central role to it. Even if we were to admit that there is a fantastic proliferation of random outcomes and that only the best adapted survive, we would still not have begun to explain how the surviving outcomes that constitute the nature we know, including ourselves as physical beings, are formed.
For example, the development of living organisms is based on a prodigious cooperation of constitutive and regulatory principles, and in this context we speak of "intelligent genes" to designate those genes that, at any given moment, dictate the instructions necessary for the processes that are at the basis of life to be carried out or interrupted. Spectacular advances in molecular biology in recent decades have given us insight into the fantastic processes that routinely take place in living organisms, involving millions of highly specific and cooperative interactions. The speech between cells, the training and the functioning of organs and systems, as well as all other biological processes, are based on the encoding, storage, transmission, interpretation and integration of information that is embodied in physical media.
Current knowledge therefore allows us to attribute to nature an "unconscious intelligence", and although this expression is metaphorical in nature, it reflects a real status . Even if we assume that the present results are only a tiny fraction of those that have been produced in the course of evolution, it is not easy to understand how they have come about. Naturalism denies that there is anything surprising in all this; however, if we reflect objectively on the results of scientific progress, we find reasons to support the attitude of wonder at nature.
Directionality runs through natural processes and manifests itself above all in the form of tendencies and cooperativity. Of course, our existence and that of nature as a whole is contingent: if conditions had been different or laws had been different, the present order would not exist. Moreover, we know today that our small world depends crucially on the energy that comes to us from the sun, and we can be sure that, in a certain time, our life on earth will no longer be possible. At final, the natural order as we know it is contingent. It is not, therefore, an inevitable result of natural dynamism. But it would not exist if that dynamism did not possess its characteristic directionality.
In this context, the teleological argument for proving the existence of God on the basis of natural finality takes on new interest. The fifth Thomistic way affirms that natural beings devoid of intelligence act, in an unintended way, with a view to an end, which is proved by the fact that they act agreement with regular patterns and in such a way that they achieve optimal results. The constancy serves to rule out that the results are mainly due to chance, and the reference letter to optimal results points to the admirable organisation of nature that we are trying to explain. The argument concludes that the actions of natural beings refer to the plan of a higher intelligence: the "unconscious intelligence" of nature refers to a conscious intelligence. If we also take into account that the activity of natural beings responds to their own way of being, we can conclude that this superior intelligence is that of a creative God staff .
The fifth way was formulated seven centuries ago, when a worldview was accepted which, in many respects, has been superseded. However, its basic lines take on a new value when considered in the light of today's worldview. More than ever, man appears as the summit of a system of laws, entities and co-operative levels, of agreement with a directionality which, if it does not find its reason in itself, must refer to a higher plan. And it is easy to see that the former defenders of the teleological argument, if they were alive today, would view with great satisfaction the scientific advances that considerably widen the empirical basis of that test.
Indeed, it is no longer just a question of the instincts of unreasoning animals, and it used to be very much so. Today's science presents us with a world in which the subject, from its lowest strata, is organised into very varied and specific coherent patterns which, in turn, form the basis for new patterns of a higher order, and the production of new patterns at new levels of complexity forms an unbroken succession over many steps. Using deliberately anthropomorphic language, we can say that leptons, which include the basic particles that make up atoms, "know" that they can only come together by respecting the exclusion principle of quantum physics, and this explains the specific organisation of the building blocks of subject. If we jump to molecular biology, we find genes which, as we have already seen, are qualified as "intelligent genes", because they indicate with great precision when to start and stop the complex biochemical operations that are at the basis of the functioning of any living thing. The examples of the spontaneous organisation of nature at all levels can be multiplied without difficulty.
It would seem as if we are returning to the idea of subject of the pre-Socratics, an animated and living subject at all levels, permeated by intelligence and bearing divine dimensions. When we try to explain nature by resorting exclusively to random variation and natural selection, we leave unanswered the main question: how do we explain that the subject, at all its levels, possesses the capacity to organise itself in highly specific patterns, forming a continuous upward gradation whose organisation defies imagination? If by chance we mean the accidental coincidence of independent causes, we must admit that there are strong doses of chance in nature; but pure chance does not explain the fundamental laws, the real potentialities, and the synergy or cooperativity that constitutes one of the main areas of the current research .
Mechanism sought to eliminate all reference letter to forms and ends, and succeeded in creating the impression, which still enjoys a certain popularity, that these concepts were fictitious, sterile and responded to an anti-scientific anthropomorphism. Nowadays, however, the progress of science sample is emphasising the importance of holistic and directional factors. This is a real conceptual revolution that is widely echoed in the reflections of scientists. And natural teleology points to the action of a God, both immanent and transcendent, who provides the radical foundation for the rationality of nature.
The bridge between science and faith is philosophical. It could not be otherwise, since they are heterogeneous perspectives, and to unite them there must be something in common with both. The Philosophy of nature relates to the assumptions and implications of the sciences, and provides the basis for metaphysical reflection: it is therefore a legitimate bridge between science and faith. It stands to reason that the new perspectives that today's scientific worldview opens up for the Philosophy of nature provide equally new perspectives for the dialogue between science and faith. (12*)
We would be wrong to view this dialogue too defensively. Undoubtedly, there are misunderstandings that need to be clarified with the necessary patience. But today's scientific worldview invites bold and positive approaches, fully consistent with the content of faith, and capable of bringing new light to a cultural status that is waiting for it.
Scientific worldview and human uniqueness
I will complete my reflections with some references to the human person. Human uniqueness manifests itself today, in a privileged way, through scientific progress. Experimental science is an activity in which we establish a dialogue with nature, and this dialogue is only possible thanks to the peculiarities of the human being. Indeed, nature does not speak; it manifests itself only through facts. For science to exist, it is necessary to invent procedures that allow us to question nature and, moreover, to obtain interesting answers. This is what is achieved through the experimental scientific method.
The concepts, laws and theories of science are constructs of the human mind. They are not the simple result of observations, nor are they obtained using purely automatic procedures. Experimental science is made possible by the creativity and argumentative capacity of the human person. Experiments have to be planned and interpreted. Undoubtedly, there is a natural order independent of our consideration; but if we wish to make progress in its knowledge, we must resort to highly sophisticated constructions and arguments. Scientific creativity is one of the main manifestations of human uniqueness. (13*)
On the other hand, today's scientific worldview also makes it possible to recover the valid elements of anthropocentrism, viewing man's place in the cosmos in a new light. The continuity of the levels of nature, their mutual dependence and progressive complexity, the astonishing cooperativity that exists between them, the profound interconnection of the different aspects of nature, make our existence possible and can be seen as conditions of possibility for the emergence of that enormously singular being that is the human person.
However, when the Christian affirms the existence of a God staff who created the world with the human person in mind, he or she may be puzzled by cosmic and biological evolution. How can we explain that our planet has emerged as result from a process of billions of years in which billions of stars and galaxies have been formed, what does this enormous expenditure of energy mean, how can we understand that the human organism is the result of another process, even more complex, that crosses the entire biological scale?
In reality, cosmic evolution can be viewed as fully logical on the assumption that God did not want to create the universe in a finished state, and that he wanted to rely on the cooperation of natural causes. The immense magnitude of the universe may have been necessary to bring about, through natural processes, the conditions necessary for the existence of a planet like ours, small but enormously unique. The status is similar with respect to biological evolution. In this case, even the time available seems too short. The most elementary forms of life involve a fabulously higher complexity than that found at the level of inorganic subject . Theories of the origin of life on Earth have to assume initial conditions and basic laws that allow for the training, in a relatively short time, of the enormous complexity represented by primitive living things. The successive processes of mutation and selection must be based on the existence of tendencies and cooperativity that have nothing to do with pure chance.
At final, the current worldview allows us to contemplate the world and man as the result of a divine action that does not eliminate the activity of created causes but, on the contrary, is pleased to count on them.
I will not dwell on the current wide-ranging discussions about the "anthropic principle" and its philosophical implications (14*). Suffice it to recall that, in whatever form, the anthropic principle underlines the uniqueness of the conditions that make our existence possible; for example, if the basic quantities and laws of microphysics had slightly different values, the existence of stars like the sun would be impossible; therefore, neither would the earth and life as we know it exist, nor would we exist. Our existence depends on an extraordinarily fine-tuning of the fundamental quantities of physics.
It has been repeated ad nauseam that science has shown the falsity of anthropocentrism, according to which we occupy a central place in the cosmos. Human existence would be a mere accident in cosmic and biological history. Today's worldview, however, provides a very different perspective. Everything seems extraordinarily fine-tuned to make our existence possible. Earlier I referred to Paul Davies, who is not a Christian and even finds it very difficult to admit the existence of a God staff; however, reflection on the current worldview has led him to write that "the universe appears as if it is unfolding from agreement with some plan or outline.... The rules seem as if they were the product of an intelligent plan. I do not see how this can be denied. (15*)
Davies does not, for the moment, make the leap to the affirmation of a God staff creator. This leap requires a minimum dose of metaphysics and also depends on personal attitudes, since it implies a whole conception of human life. This makes his conclusion about the implications of the current scientific worldview all the more enlightening. His last book ends with these words: "I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is a mere whim of fate, an accident of history, a mere incidental crest in the great cosmic drama... it cannot be a trivial detail, a minor by-product of mindless forces without mind or purpose. It is indeed foreseen that we are here" (16*). But foreseen by whom, how can it be argued that we are not simply the result of impersonal forces, without affirming the existence of a God staff?
Obviously, the scientific worldview does not lead, by itself, to the affirmation of a God staff creator. But it does lead to the gates of that affirmation, and sample the validity of a much more sophisticated anthropocentrism than that of antiquity. Moreover, he discovers that nature possesses a profound intelligibility that is fully consistent with divine action and even demands it as its radical foundation.
The bridge between science and faith rests on the intelligibility of nature. The maturity attained by the sciences today provides a worldview that greatly facilitates the overcoming of old misconceptions based on an insufficient understanding of science, its assumptions and achievements, and provides a very adequate framework for understanding nature and the human person in a way that is congruent with Christian faith.
Teleology is of crucial importance for building bridges between science and faith (17*). This idea is certainly not new. What is new is that, after having been criticised for several centuries in the name of science, the current scientific worldview suggests a reformulation of teleology that gives it a previously unsuspected scope, depth and rigour.
The problems surrounding teleology can be articulated in four successive steps. First: in natural processes there are "terms" that are reached by virtue of a dynamism of their own. Second: these terms can be considered as "goals", insofar as natural processes are directional (they show tendencies and cooperativity), although the goals are reached contingently, depending on circumstances. Third: these goals possess "perfection", "value" or "good", especially when considering the total system of nature as a succession of interrelated levels that make human life possible. Fourth, goals are achieved through subtle concatenations involving the storage, encoding, deployment, transfer and integration of information, all of which point to a "materialised rationality" and thus to a "plan". The logical clarification of the problems related to teleology requires, in particular, that the notions related to "perfection", "value" and "good" be given central importance. (18*)
The perspective we have outlined has nothing to do with concordisms based on simplistic interpretations of science; on the contrary, it demands a deep penetration into the meaning of scientific activity, its assumptions and its achievements. Nor is it a rigid and monolithic interpretation; rather sample the possibility of building bridges between science and faith, but its construction admits different modalities of agreement with the different points of view adopted in each case. On the other hand, although it is based on the current state of the sciences, it points towards general assumptions and implications that transcend the particular circumstances of the moment. It seems logical to conclude that we are faced with a new cultural status that allows us to establish, on solid instructions , a cooperation between science and faith that is up to the demands of our time.
- A recent sample of the different opinions of scientists on these issues can be found in: H. Margenau - R. A. Varghese, Cosmos, Bios, Theos. Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life and Homo sapiens, Open Court, La Salle (Illinois) 1992. Of particular interest is Varghese's foreword (pp. 1-26). On the general approach to the relationship between science and transcendence, see: M. Artigas, "Science and Transcendence", in: E. Agazzi (publisher), Science et Sagesse, Editions Universitaires, Fribourg 1991, pp. 87-101.
- P. Davies, The Mind of God . Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning, Simon & Schuster, London 1992, pp. 14-15.
- Cf. P. Davies, God and the New Physics, Dent, London 1983, p. IX.
- P. Davies, The Mind of God, cit. pp. 20-21. Cf. also p. 148.
- Ibid., pp. 162 and 191.
- Cf. M. Artigas, "Three Levels of Interaction between Science and Philosophy", in: C. Dilworth (publisher),Intelligibility in Science, Rodopi, Amsterdam 1992, pp. 130-134.
- Epistemological aspects, especially those referring to the truth, objectivity and reliability of science, are analysed in: M. Artigas, "Objectivité et fiabilité dans la science", in: E. Agazzi (publisher),L'objectivité dans les différentes sciences, Editions Universitaires, Fribourg (Suisse) 1988, pp. 41-54;Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 2nd ed.
- These themes are extensively developed in: A. Boutot,L'invention des formes, Editions Odile Jacob, Paris 1993, where it is stated that the current programs of study on morphogenesis implies a major paradigm shift in our idea of nature and in our relations with it.
- Along these lines, Paul Davies argues that we are witnessing a paradigm shift from reductionism to holism at withdrawal , and that this is as important a shift as any in the history of science: cf. P. Davies - J. Gribbin, The Matter Myth, Penguin Books, London 1992, pp. 22-23.
- These ideas are extensively articulated in: M. Artigas, La inteligibilidad de la naturaleza , Eunsa, Pamplona 1992. Some of them are presented, more briefly, in my bookEl hombre a la luz de la ciencia, Ediciones Palabra, Madrid 1992.
- Current publications on this topic are numerous. An overview covering a wide range of topics can be found in: P. Dumouchel - J. P. Dupuy (eds.),L'auto-organisation. De la physique au politique, Colloque de Cerisy, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1983.
- To see to what extent we can speak of a current renaissance of the Philosophy of nature, full of important implications, see: F. Guéry, "Une philosophie de la nature d'aujourd'hui", in: A. Jacob (publisher),Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle, Presses Universitaires de France, vol. I, L'univers philosophique, Paris 1989, pp. 454-461.
- Cf. M. Artigas, "Scientific Creativity and Human Singularity", in: C. Wassermann - R. Kirby - B. Rordorff, The Science and Theology of Information, Labor et Fides, Genève 1992, pp. 319-326.
- See on this subject: J. D. Barrow - F. J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986.
- P. Davies,The Mind of God, cit. pp. 124-125.
- Ibid., p. 232.
- Illustrative in this respect are the remarks contained in: E. T. Oakes, Final Causality: A Response, Theological Studies, 53 (1992), pp. 534-544, although they do not attribute to the teleological argument a demonstrative value.
- This idea is underlined in: M. Bedau,Where's the Good in Teleology?, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52 (1992), pp. 781-806, where one finds an interesting logical analysis which, however, is applied too narrowly.