Science and transcendence

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: E. Agazzi (publisher), "Science et Sagesse" (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1991), pp. 87-101. speech presented at the Symposium of the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences, Fribourg (Switzerland), 1990.
Date of publication: 1991


1. The methodological gap

2. Border issues

3. Partial overlaps

4. The quest for integration

Is it possible to achieve an integration of the scientific and the metaphysical perspective? They are different approaches. However, it is possible to integrate them, as long as their diversity is respected and the perspective required by each problem subject is adopted.

1. The methodological gap.

Although it is generally accepted that experimental science studies nature in search of a knowledge that can be subjected to experimental control, there is no unanimity about the evaluation of its scope. In any case, it must be admitted that science is basically characterised by its resource to the construction of theories and experimental control.

Indeed, the objects studied in experimental science are constructed from agreement with perspectives that involve the adoption of basic predicates and instrumental operations. In this way, a cut is made in reality, through which the study is focused on the ideal models that are constructed. The meaning of scientific constructs is defined within a theoretical context that refers to reality by means of certain criteria. Obviously, any objectification of this subject has a historical character, as it depends on the concepts and instruments available at the time.

In this way, scientific intersubjectivity is achieved, involving the adoption of definitions and operational criteria, which are partly conventional in nature. It is possible to argue that this way of operating makes it possible to reach a truth that is contextual and partial, but authentic* (1).

Since each scientific discipline operates within a particular objectification, the scientific method leaves open the possibility of a study directed towards the radical conditions of being. Whichever metaphysical position one adopts, it must be acknowledged that there is always a methodological leap between the scientific and metaphysical perspectives.

However, from agreement with some naturalist positions, no such leap would be made, since the scientific method would be the only legitimate one. According to Ian Barbour, these positions claim that there is only one acceptable subject of explanation; they extrapolate scientific concepts beyond their legitimate use, so that they give rise to naturalistic philosophies; they ignore the abstractive and selective character of the sciences; and they fall into what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness* (2).

In effect, naturalism gratuitously turns the difference in methods into a contradiction by denying the validity of any perspective other than the scientific one. It often claims that, as science progresses, metaphysical arguments must recede, and concludes that it would be legitimate to get rid of them once and for all. He concentrates on historical examples that seem favourable to his thesis , leaving the underlying problems untouched. Moreover, the alleged replacement of metaphysical explanations by scientific ones is often due to a lack of philosophical depth, as is the case, for example, when the activity of physical systems is presented as incompatible with the existence of spirit or God.

Kurt Hübner claims that naturalism is the ontology of science, and combats it by arguing that it is an unprovable Philosophy and that its acceptance therefore depends on subjective reasons. He concludes that, in our scientific age, it is legitimate to accept perspectives that include a mythical structure, in the sense that they view nature as a reflection of transcendent dimensions*(3). However, it is not accurate to say that science presupposes a naturalistic ontology, if one speaks of ontology in the strong sense. Naturalism is rather a form of scientism, or a pseudo-scientific ideology, when it is presented as being endorsed by science. And it can be disorienting to defend the legitimacy of transcendence by resorting to the mythical, although Hübner specifies that he does not understand this term in its classical sense, but as the contemplation of nature imbued with spiritual dimensions.

Although it is generally accepted that there is a methodological leap between science and metaphysics, it is also often claimed that the two perspectives must be related in dialogue, and that science leads to questions bordering on theology*(4). However, it seems that natural theology is to be based on metaphysical considerations and not on science*(5). It is therefore logical to ask whether such borderline questions between science, metaphysics and natural theology really exist.

2. Border issues.

John Polkinghorne states that "there are questions which arise from science and which insistently demand an answer, but which, by their nature, transcend the competence of science"* (6). These would certainly be typical frontier questions.

To characterise them more accurately, it should be explained what it means that these questions arise from science. This could mean that they arise or are caused as a consequence of something that is properly scientific. But it is difficult to understand how this can happen, given the methodological gap between the two perspectives.

Two possible cases can be distinguished. One concerns scientific problems that may cause the subjects studying them to raise metaphysical questions; these would be subjective connections. The other concerns general assumptions of science and general perspectives on its achievements; these seem better candidates for frontier questions.

In the first case, that of subjective connections, Polkinghorne speaks of "a widespread feeling among practitioners of science, especially among those of us who have worked in fundamental physics, that science does not say everything about the physical world. As a consequence of this feeling, we live in a time when there is a revival of natural theology, by scientists even more than by theologians"* (7). As an illustration, Polkinghorne refers to Paul Davies.

This reference letter is not very illuminating, since Davies proposes a pantheistic subject perspective, related to the possible self-creation of the universe, as if it were related to science. Moreover, Davies presents his ideas as if they were generally accepted among physicists, and claims that science today offers a surer way to God than religion*(8). It is therefore a very confused position, which can hardly be considered as an example of genuine borderline issues; indeed, Davies raises the classical problems of natural theology, but uses arguments to solve them that are not rigorous from the point of view of either Philosophy or science*(9).

Cosmology is, at present, a source of alleged borderline issues. Scientists and theologians generally claim that scientific cosmology can neither prove nor disprove the doctrine of creation* (10 ) But some claim that "there is sufficient evidence today to justify the belief that the universe began to exist without a cause"* (11). It is not difficult to show that, in reality, creation is a metaphysical problem that cannot be dealt with by the methods of science; if an attempt is made to do so, it is an illegitimate reduction rather than a borderline question.

Polkinghorne also refers to the anthropic principle as another borderline question, which would even be one of the pillars of the new natural theology that is emerging from science*(12). However, it seems rather to be a new case of the tendency of some scientists to raise metaphysical problems at purpose of their work in science. Of course, the scientist has as much right as anyone else to raise metaphysical problems, and if one then speaks of borderline questions, one can find as many as one wishes. But this does not mean that science, as such, leads to metaphysics; rather, its method is alien to metaphysical questions, and does not allow them to be formulated and solved.

At final, it seems that no problem that can be posed within science will be a genuine frontier question. It is understandable that metaphysicians and theologians appreciate that scientists relate their problems to metaphysics; but this is a factual question, which responds to the metaphysical tendency of every person. Properly speaking, metaphysical questions require their own approaches and solutions, which cannot be reached by the method of experimental science.

In the second case, the boundary issues would be the general assumptions of science and the general perspectives on its achievements.

In this context, Polkinghorne mentions intelligibility as a good candidate to be a borderline question. Since reality is unitary, it must be possible to formulate coherent explanations that connect the different levels of reality. Furthermore, Polkinghorne refers to insight, which is "a way of considering the totality of things that has coherence and intelligibility"* (13).

Certainly, science assumes that reality is intelligible, and the success of science can be seen as a justification of that assumption. In addition, science provides knowledge that makes it possible to formulate a picture of the world. The analysis of the intelligibility presupposed by scientific activity and of the intelligibility implied in its achievements is properly a philosophical task. However, it is a task intimately related to the existence and achievements of the sciences. Therefore, it is possible to consider it as a borderline question.

The general assumptions of science are another good one candidate. In Barbour's list of borderline issues, it is at the top of the list*(14). These are the assumptions of scientific activity as such, without which science would be meaningless; they can therefore be regarded as necessary conditions of science, and the success of science can be interpreted as a retro-justification of the validity of these assumptions. These are, for example, causality; the belief in the simplicity and uniformity of nature; the theoretical motives that lead scientists to the quest for intelligibility.

For example, the important role that Christian convictions played in the birth of modern science has been highlighted, by providing firm beliefs about the intelligibility of nature, about man's cognitive capacity as a creature made by God in his image and likeness, and about the contingency of a world that, precisely because it is contingent, must be explored with the financial aid of experimentation*(15). A similar function can be recognised for ontological and gnoseological realism, which becomes a necessary assumption for scientific activity to make sense*(16). Consequently, these questions can be considered as legitimate borderline questions.

To be sure, there is a long way from the implicit Admissions Office of these assumptions by scientists to their philosophical articulation. But these are questions that can be explored at goal and that point to important points of confluence between scientific activity and metaphysical ideas.

3. Partial overlaps.

Other borderline problems arise when the possibility of using the scientific knowledge in metaphysical arguments arises. Many questions that are usually considered to be borderline belong to this category. They are partial overlaps.

Of course, the scientific knowledge can be used in metaphysical contexts, just like any other authentic knowledge . However, it must be subjected to a prior epistemological evaluation, which is not always an easy task.

There is a danger of resorting to metaphysics when scientific explanations are incomplete. Theologians have repeatedly warned that, in natural theology, this way of proceeding is not legitimate, leading to what they have called "the god of holes". They even warn that some surprising facts, such as the special features of the early universe that would have allowed the physical conditions for human life to exist, can be considered as compatible, coherent or consonant with theism, but not as a proper demonstration of divine activity*(17).

In the framework of natural theology, Alvin Plantinga has underlined this difficulty, and for that reason, even when he examines in detail the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, he concentrates on the logical aspects, making only brief and trivial references to the sciences*(18). Richard Swinburne has made an analysis of the different types of scientific explanations, as a way of determining what can be considered scientifically inexplicable. He states that there are two types of phenomena in that class: those that are too improbable in the framework of scientific explanations, and those that are too large to fit into any explanation. The latter are the more interesting ones, since they lead to questions concerning, for example, why anything exists at all, or why the most general laws of nature are valid*(19).

Quentin Smith claims that it is possible to provide a naturalistic explanation of the existence and basic laws of the universe. To this end, he proposes a statistical explanation that seeks to show that naturalism is logically and empirically possible. However, he must admit that, as always, naturalistic explanation encounters limits; but he argues that these limits are increasingly receding beyond what was hitherto thought possible*(20). It is an example of the naturalistic tactic that interprets the progress of the sciences as test of the illusory character of metaphysics; but this approach rests on an illegitimate extrapolation of the scientific method, since it assumes, without proof, that any subject problem could receive a scientific answer.

Again, it must be stressed that the methodological gap between science and metaphysics is an unavoidable fact. It is possible to make the leap, but it can only be made by building a bridge that includes philosophical reflections which, while they have to be coherent with science, are not a mere consequence of it.

4. The quest for integration.

Philosophical reflections that bridge the gap between science and metaphysics depend to a large extent on ideas about truth.

As result of the crisis of the foundations of the sciences that occurred towards the end of the 19th century, the idea of truth came into crisis, and was eventually replaced by the less strong idea of intersubjectivity. It became clear that the sciences use constructs that are not determined by nature itself, and therefore include conventional factors. In these circumstances, it could be thought that there is no such thing as scientific truth, and that cognitive achievements would have only pragmatic validity.

However, the analysis of scientific intersubjectivity leads to a rehabilitation of truth. Indeed, while it is true that each scientific discipline adopts a particular objectification, it is also true that, when the objectification is well defined, it includes criteria for assessing the correspondence between theoretical constructs and the results of experimentation. Therefore, when rigorous demonstrations are achieved, truth can be said to be given. It is a contextual truth, since it refers to the context of each objectification; therefore, it is also a partial and perfectible truth. But this does not prevent it from being an authentic truth.

This explanation of scientific truth combines the contextual, semantic and pragmatic aspects, which correspond respectively to the theories of truth as coherence, correspondence and praxis. And it can be extended, with the necessary clarifications, to the general problems of knowledge. It thus becomes clear that there must be no conflict between the knowledge gained through different approaches to reality, and that it must be possible to integrate them in a coherent way.

Indeed, there is a widespread awareness of the importance of epistemological reflections in order to adequately address the relations between the sciences, metaphysics and natural theology. The search for integration between these perspectives must include a notion of truth that takes into account its contextual, referential and pragmatic aspects*(21).

However, other factors also come into play. To the extent that it is intended to deal with the fundamental questions, the search for integration will depend on philosophical and theological ideas which, while they can be subjected to rational reflection, will also include personal commitments. The search for integration can only be rigorous if, in each case, the value of the knowledge whose integration is being sought is specified.


  1. A broader development of these ideas can be found in: M. Artigas, Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, Eunsa, Pamplona 1989, whose approach coincides to a large extent with the realist objectivism of Evandro Agazzi: cfr. E. Agazzi,Eine Deutung der wissenschaftlichen Objectivität, Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 3 (1978), pp. 20-47; Vérité partielle ou approximation de la vérité?, in: AA.VV., La nature de la vérité scientifique, Ciaco, Louvain-la-Neuve 1986, pp. 103-114; L'objectivité scientifique, in: E. Agazzi (ed.), L'objectivité dans les différentes sciences, Editions Universitaires, Fribourg 1988, pp. 13-25; P. A. Rossi, Attuali tendenze dell'epistemologia italiana: la corrente oggettualista, in: E. Agazzi, (ed.), La filosofia della scienza in Italia nel '900 , Franco Angeli, Milano 1986, pp. 403-458.

  2. Cf. I. G. Barbour, Ways of Relating Science and Theology, in: R. J. Russell - W. R. Stoeger - G. V. Coyne (eds.),Physics, Philosophy, and Theology : A Common Quest for Understanding, Vatican Observatory, Vatican City State 1988, p. 25.

  3. Cf. K. Hübner, Die Wahrheit des Mythos, C.H. Beck, München 1985; La naissance de l'age scientifique, resultat des lois ou du hasard?, Epistemologia, 10 (1987), pp. 27-38.

  4. Cf. I. Barbour, o. c., pp. 21 and 33-40; F. Russo, Objectivité scientifique et options religieuses et philosophiques, in: P. Poupard (ed.), Science et foi, Desclée, Tournai 1982, pp. 96-97.

  5. Cf. J. Casanovas, Cosmologie et religion, in: P. Poupard (ed.), Science et foi, cit., p. 66; W. N. Clarke, Is a Natural Theology Still Possible Today?, in: Russell - Stoeger - Coyne (eds.), o. c., pp. 103-105.

  6. J. C. Polkinghorne, A Revived Natural Theology, in: J. Fennema - I. Paul (eds.), Science and Religion. One World: Changing Perspectives on Reality, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1990, p. 88.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Cf. P. Davies, God and the New Physics, Dent, London 1983, pp. VIII-IX, 38 and 223.

  9. Cfr. M. Artigas, Física y creación : el origen del universo, Scripta Theologica, 19 (1987), pp. 347-373; W. E. Carroll,Big Bang Cosmology, Quantum Tunneling from Nothing, and Creation, Laval théologique et philosophique, 44 (1988), pp. 59-75; W. L. Craig, God, Creation and Mr Davies, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 37 (1986), pp. 163-175.

  10.  Cf. S. L. Jaki, From Scientific Cosmology to a Created Universe, The Irish Astronomical Journal, 15 (1982), pp. 253-262; E. McMullin, How should Cosmology Relate to Theology?, in: A. Peacocke (ed.), The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame 1981, p. 39.

  11. Q. Smith, The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe, Philosophy of Science, 55 (1988), pp. 39-57.

  12. Cf. J. Polkinghorne, o. c., p. 89.

  13.  Ibid.

  14. Cf. I. Barbour, o. c., pp. 33-34.

  15. Stanley Jaki argues that experimental science suffered repeated abortions due to the organicist and pantheistic ideas of ancient cultures, and that it only found its only viable birth in a Christian cultural matrix that shaped an entire culture over several centuries, providing solid instructions for the ontological and gnoseological perspective needed for experimental science to make sense: cf. S. L. Jaki, Science and Creation, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh 1974. He also argues that these instructions remain a condition, at least implicit, of all creative science: cf. S. L. Jaki, Chance or Reality and Other Essays, University Press of America, Lanham and London 1986, pp. 161-181. And which coincide with the realist instructions of the classical proofs of God's existence: cf. S. L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1978.

  16. Larry Laudan claims that, for now, "it is only wishful thinking that gives rise to the claim that realism, and only realism, explains why science works": cf. L. Laudan, Laudan, A Confutation of Convergent Realism, Philosophy of Science, 48 (1981), pp. 19-49. However, it seems that some realist assumptions are crucial, at least for the rationality of research: cf. J. Leplin, Methodological Realism and Scientific Rationality, Philosophy of Science, 53 (1986), pp. 31-51. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how an instrumentalist perspective, which would not even be able to account for the empirical adequacy of scientific constructions, can be compatible with science.

  17. Cf. E. McMullin, Natural Science and Belief in a Creator : Historical Notes, in: Russell-Stoeger-Coyne, o. c ., pp. 49-79; W. N. Clarke, o.c., p. 103- 105; J. H. Brooke, Science and the Fortunes of Natural Theology : Some Historical Perspectives, Zygon, 24 (1989), p. 16.

  18. Cf. A. Plantinga, God and Other Minds. A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 1967, pp. 3-25, 95-111, and 269.

  19. Cf. R. Swinburne, The Existence of God, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1989, pp. 71-79.

  20. Cf. Q. Smith, A Natural Explanation of the Existence and Laws of Our Universe, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 68 (1990), pp. 22-43.

  21. N. Murphy, Truth, Relativism, and Crossword Puzzles, Zygon, 24 (1989), pp. 299-314.