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The knowledge of truth

The knowledge of truth

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Unpublished article
Date of publication: October 3, 2005


The crisis of truth
The meaning of science: the search for truth
Scientific truth
Science in the service of truth
Faith helps science
Functionalism and pragmatism
Scientific rationality, metaphysical knowledge and Christian faith

One of the main problems we encounter today is the lack of confidence in the value of the human knowledge . Certainly, our knowledge is very limited; but this limitation is often interpreted as if we can never be sure about anything. This scepticism often applies especially to moral and religious truths, which are interpreted, from agreement a relativistic stance, as if they are completely subjective and it is never possible to reach certain conclusions.

The Church's interest in defending that we can attain true knowledge is great, as Pope John Paul II affirms: "For the Church, nothing is more fundamental than to know the truth and to proclaim it. The future of culture depends on this. He recently reminded Catholic Universities in the Apostolic Constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" (1990, n.4): "Our age is in urgent need of that form of selfless service which consists in proclaiming the meaning of truth, core value without which freedom, justice and human dignity perish". This is the primary mission of the Church, because she is the servant of the One who has proclaimed himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. The Church constantly acts as man's advocate, capable of embracing the whole truth. She also encourages research which explores all orders of truth, convinced that all converge for the glory of the one Creator, who is Himself the supreme Truth and the light of all men, those of yesterday, today and tomorrow "*(1).

John Paul II dedicated his encyclical Fides et ratio to defend the human capacity to know the truth and to confront the difficulties that the knowledge of truth encounters in our time *(2).

Back to table of contentsThe crisis of truth

The problem of truth is not new. Difficulties about the objectivity of truth have always arisen, for example, because of the disparity of views that exist in different societies and even within each society, and because of the changes that sometimes occur in opinions and beliefs in different epochs.

But there are also factors specific to each era. Today, among the most influential factors are those related to the natural sciences. The great progress that these sciences have made in modern times has given rise to a number of problems, because there is no general consensus about the value of the knowledge they provide. agreement .

These problems date back to the birth of modern experimental science in the 17th century. This was a real conceptual and practical revolution, because this science was truly new: although it was based on work that had been done for centuries, it was based on a method that had never been applied systematically and was clearly different from the approaches that had hitherto been used to study nature.

This explains the unfortunate trial of Galileo. In fact, Galileo did not suffer any physical punishment and scientific progress was not interrupted, but the trial showed that both Galileo and his judges had a poor understanding of the method and scope of the new science. Subsequently, the situation became worse and worse; Newton himself, one of the greatest scientists in history, set out in his major work some rather confused reflections on the scientific method, and from then on, science always progressed much faster than the understanding of its meaning and scope.

Many believe that the sciences only provide models that are always subject to change, never reaching true conclusions. At the same time, experimental science is often regarded as the most reliable knowledge we possess, because its models can be subjected to experimental control and intersubjective demonstrations that are independent of personal beliefs. Combining these ideas, it is concluded that if we cannot reach definitive truths in the sciences, which are considered to be the best knowledge available to us, much less will they be reached in other areas, such as philosophy and religion, which are strongly influenced by personal and social factors.

In this situation, some react by criticising the claims of science in order to leave the way open for faith; they stress, for example, that scientific knowledge is always conjectural, and that only in faith do we find certainty. However, this path does not seem to be the most appropriate. Indeed, faith is based on reason, and if reason is undervalued, it is easy for faith to be damaged as well. Certainly, the sciences cannot solve all problems and it is important to show their limits, but this has nothing to do with downgrading true scientific achievements and the rational capacity that makes them possible.

Back to table of contentsThe meaning of science: the search for truth

Pope John Paul II underlines that the goal of science is the search for truth: "The search for truth is the task of fundamental science (...). Pure science is a good, worthy of much love, since it is knowledge and therefore the perfection of man in his intelligence. Even before its technical applications, it must be honoured for its own sake, as an integral part of culture. Fundamental science is a universal good, which every people must be able to cultivate in full freedom from any form of international servitude or intellectual colonialism" *(3).

A knowledge is said to be true when it expresses things as they are in reality. Therefore, truth cannot be subject to manipulation, it does not depend on tastes or interests: things are as they are, and our knowledge is only true if it conforms to reality. It can therefore be said that truth has its own rights, and John Paul II says this in expressive and clear words, speaking specifically of scientific truth: "Like all other truths, scientific truth is accountable only to itself and to the supreme Truth which is God, the Creator of man and of all things" *(4).

Science has a twofold commitment. On the one hand, the theoretical commitment to seek the truth: "Science serves the truth, and truth serves man, and man reflects as an image (cf. Gen. I, 27) the eternal and transcendent Truth which is God" *(5). And on the other hand, the practical commitment to seek, in its applications, service to man: "There is no reason to see our technical and scientific culture as contrary to the world created by God. It is obvious that the scientific knowledge can be used for good as well as for evil. Whoever investigates the effects of poison can use this knowledge either to save or to kill. But the point of reference to which we must look in order to distinguish good from evil must be perfectly clear. Technical science, oriented towards the transformation of the world, is justified by its service to man and humanity" *(6). Moreover, the practical sense of scientific applications is not unrelated to truth, because the success of these applications is based on the truth of the theoretical knowledge .

At final, truth occupies a central place in human life, and science is a privileged way to seek and find truth.

Back to table of contentsScientific truth

The difficulties of scientific truth are understandable if we take into account that, in many branches of experimental science, abstract models and mathematical concepts are used which are not a simple translation or snapshot of reality. Moreover, the experimental method requires the adoption of stipulations that are not determined by the nature of things themselves. In addition, from the point of view of logic, it is not always easy to achieve conclusive demonstrations.

In many cases, however, true knowledge is achieved. It is, of course, a contextual and partial truth, because it depends on the language used (the concepts of each theory) and is always open to further clarification. But this truth can be, at the same time, authentic. In the sciences we find a situation similar to that in other areas. For example, the result of a sports meeting is an undoubted fact, although many aspects related to the meeting are less certain, opinionated or very difficult to know; something similar happens in the sciences: new knowledge solves some problems but opens up new ones, and we do not know everything with the same Degree of certainty.

It is sometimes assumed that knowledge would only be true if we could prove its truth by pure logic and in an absolutely certain way. But we can attain much genuine knowledge by means of proofs which, although not purely logical demonstrations, are nevertheless sufficiently convincing. The fact that knowledge is limited, partial and perfectible does not mean that it is always hypothetical or conjectural.

When we insist on the conjectural nature of knowledge, what is often intended is to emphasise that we must adopt an attitude open to further clarification or rectification, avoiding a narrow-minded dogmatism that can impede further progress. But this rational attitude, always ready to qualify what we really know and how to express it, has nothing to do with an extreme critical attitude that denies the possibility of attaining true knowledge or of knowing that we possess it.

Back to table of contentsScience in the service of truth

Without going into specific details of the philosophy of science, John Paul II affirms the close connection between science and truth, and underlines the continuity of the Popes' teachings on this question: "I feel in full solidarity with my predecessor Pius XI and with those who have succeeded him in the Chair of Peter, who invited the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and, with them, all scientists, to make "ever more noble and intense progress in the sciences, without asking anything more of them; and this because in this excellent goal and in this noble work consists the mission of serving the truth": Pius XI, In multis solaciis, 28.X.1936AAS, 28 (1936), p. 424" *(7).

Science is a way to advance towards the truth, and therefore possesses a particular goodness. This is what John Paul II says: "Science in itself is good, since it means knowledge of the world, which is good, created and looked upon by the Creator with satisfaction, as the book of Genesis says: "God saw all that he had made, and it was good" (Gen. I, 31). I like this first chapter of Genesis very much. Original sin has not completely altered this primitive goodness. The human knowledge of the world is a way of participating in the knowledge of the Creator. It constitutes, then, a first level in man's likeness to God; an act of respect for Him, since everything we discover pays homage to the first Truth" *(8).

Science and faith respond to two different perspectives, but they complement each other. The cultivation of an authentic scientific mentality means an openness to truth, a sincere and objective search, an effort to distinguish truth from error. This explains that "when scientists advance with humility in their investigation of the secrets of nature, the hand of God leads them to the heights of the spirit" *(9).

Back to table of contentsFaith helps science

The positivism of the 19th century, and its new forms in the 20th century, presented religion as an obstacle to scientific progress, as if science implied an attitude incompatible with the truths of faith. In order to support this thesis, the case of Galileo is often magnified, disregarding the historical rigour and the circumstances that allow us to understand it; moreover, this case is presented as if it were the exponent of a constant struggle between science and faith, which is not true.

On the contrary, many scholars acknowledge that Christian faith did in fact contribute to the birth and consolidation of modern experimental science. In fact, the birth of modern science took place in a Europe that had been permeated, for centuries, by Christianity, and which possessed a culture in which the doctrine of creation played an important role.

"Faith does not provide resources for scientific research as such, but it encourages the scientist to pursue his research in the knowledge that he finds in nature the presence of the Creator" *(10). The pioneers of the new science, around the 17th century, believed in the existence of a personal Creator God who, being infinitely intelligent and good, created the world in order to share his perfection with creatures. They were therefore convinced that the world has a natural and rational order, which, moreover, can be investigated by man, created by God in his image and likeness. These convictions played an important role in the birth of the new science, when it took a great deal of effort to build an edifice of which only small fragments existed. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see that the pantheistic, or polytheistic, or fatalistic worldviews of subject , which abounded in antiquity, were not favourable to the consolidation of experimental science.

Back to table of contentsFunctionalism and pragmatism

Objections to truth do not usually stem from science itself, but from misinterpretations of its methods and results.

Thus, there is often an attempt to explain science apart from truth, as if the main or only value of science were the ability to master nature, i.e. the success of its technical applications. John Paul II states in this regard: "If science is understood fundamentally as "technical science", it can be conceived as the search for a system that leads to technical success. That which leads to success counts as "knowledge" (...). 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 would find its meaning outside the realm 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" *(11).

The functionalist perspective, which disregards truth, is related to pragmatism, which is sometimes called instrumentalism: knowledge in general, and science in particular, would have only a practical value, which would consist in making it possible to foresee and master actions.

Undoubtedly, our actions are based on knowledge and, in this sense, we are all pragmatists and instrumentalists: we seek knowledge as the basis for our actions. Misunderstandings arise when we deny the possibility of attaining truth or simply dispense with it, reducing the value of knowledge to its practical utility in terms of interests that cannot be justified by appealing to truth.

John Paul II warns that "Our culture is permeated in all fields by a largely functional notion of science, according to which the decisive factor is technical success. The fact of being technically capable of producing a given result is considered by many as sufficient reason for not having to ask further questions about the legitimacy of the process leading to that result, or even about the legitimacy of the result itself. Clearly, such a perspective leaves no room for a supreme ethical value or even for the very notion of truth" *(12). The consequences of this situation are very negative, because morality is deprived of its basis, and actions are justified by recourse to the criterion of a practical success that is alien to the demands of objective truth. It is understandable that the Magisterium of the Church has had to explain in depth and in depth, in our time, the foundations of Christian morality, based on objective criteria, which enter into crisis when functionalist, pragmatist or relativist doctrines are adopted.

Back to table of contentsRelativism

Closely related to functionalism, relativism considers that there is no objective truth, or at least that we cannot attain it: there are only truths relative to subjects or groups, dependent on the particular conditions of their existence. In its most radical versions, relativism also dispenses with the very notion of truth.

Certainly, our access to truth is conditioned by personal and social circumstances. Moreover, reality is often complex, and different perspectives must be taken into account in order to represent it reliably. However, we have the capacity to be aware of these conditioning factors and therefore to qualify our assertions by taking into account our limits. If we do not recognise the possibility of attaining true knowledge, no discussion would be possible: it would not even make sense to state the theses of relativism.

In order to support relativism, an alleged scientific basis is often invoked, which would be provided by two physical theories: the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. The theory of relativity would supposedly signify the withdrawal, on the part of fundamental physical science, the claim to absolute knowledge: everything would depend on subjective points of view. And the indeterminacy principle of quantum physics would mean the impossibility of achieving precise and certain knowledge.

However, both claims are based on misconceptions. The theory of relativity stresses the need to take into account the reference framework in which physical phenomena are observed and measured; but, once that framework is fixed, calculations and measurements have precise values. Moreover, the theory contains expressions that are invariant for any reference system. On the other hand, the principle of indeterminacy states that there are limits to the precision of measurements, when we try to measure certain quantities at the same time; but each of them can be measured separately with great precision, and, in any case, the existence of limits in our knowledge does not mean, in any way, that we cannot reach the truth: it only means that the truth of our knowledge is contextual and partial, but at the same time it can be authentic.

Back to table of contentsScientism

The difficulties surrounding truth stem in large part from scientistic doctrines, according to which the natural sciences are the only valid way of knowing reality, or at least the model that should be imitated by any claim to knowledge. But this thesis cannot be proven by any concrete science, and therefore scientism is contradictory: it affirms the same thing it forbids.

It is now generally recognised, at least among specialists, that natural science, although very important and the only way to gain detailed knowledge of natural processes, is not the only valid knowledge . Reality is complex, and there are different levels of problems that need to be addressed by agreement with appropriate perspectives. No single perspective exhausts reality.

The natural sciences precisely delimit the scope of their objects, construct models whose validity they try to test by means of experiments, and in this way achieve a great deal of valid knowledge about material nature. By adopting such a perspective, a rigorous study is ensured, but at the same time many other problems are left out: for example, those concerning the meaning of nature and of human life.

It is not a question of arbitrarily placing limits on science; it is simply that experimental science cannot study dimensions of reality that cannot be subjected, in some way, to experimental control, i.e., to repeatable experiments. This situation has been compared to that of a fisherman using, in the sea, nets whose mesh is made up of squares of one metre on each side; if that fisherman, even after great efforts and good results in fishing, were to affirm that there are no fish in the sea measuring less than one metre, he would have to be reminded that his conclusion is false: in fact, even if there were very many fish, he could not catch them with his net.

There are problems that cannot be dealt with by the methods of the natural sciences. For example, scientific research into the origins of natural beings is of great interest, but this is largely because it is often mixed up with "a question of a different order, which goes beyond the domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the cosmos materially arose, nor when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of this origin: whether it is governed by chance, by blind fate, by anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent Being, intelligent and good, called God. And if the world proceeds from the wisdom and goodness of God, why does evil exist, where does it come from, who is responsible for it, where is the possibility of freeing oneself from evil?" *(13).

Back to table of contentsScientific rationality, metaphysical knowledge and Christian faith

Experimental science enjoys its own autonomy, and its results must be assessed using scientific canons. But experimental science is not independent of other perspectives. It can be argued, for example, that it rests on philosophical assumptions, such as ontological and gnoseological realism: the existence of a natural order and the human capacity to know it. Without these assumptions, science could not exist and would not even make sense; but the study of such assumptions is a philosophical task, since it requires adopting a different perspective from the scientific one.

Philosophy relies, in part, on the knowledge acquired through the sciences, and brings, above all at the level of metaphysics, a knowledge that reaches the most general principles of reality and the meaning of life. "Science alone is incapable of providing a complete answer to the problem of the basic meaning of human life and activity. That meaning is revealed when reason, going beyond physical data, uses metaphysical methods to reach the contemplation of "final causes" and there discovers the supreme explanations that can shed light on human events and give them meaning" *(14).

Philosophical reflection is necessary to achieve a synthesis of knowledge, overcoming the fragmentation of culture that is so characteristic of our times. There is a danger of being left with a large amount of specialised knowledge, but without a synthesis that would allow us to find its meaning. The philosophical perspective looks at the problems at their roots and is in a position to propose an integrative synthesis of the different partial perspectives.

In this integrative and meaning-discovery task, philosophy is greatly helped by Christian faith, which has the answers to the main questions of human life. Theology reflects on faith and, aided by philosophy, considers all problems in the light of God's plans. "The search for fundamental meaning is by nature complicated and open to the danger of error, and man would often remain groping in the dark if it were not for the help of the light of faith" *(15).

The Christian has a great task ahead of him, to succeed in integrating the different aspects of his personal life and to propose solutions which also serve other people and even society as a whole. Referring to the ideological crisis of our time, John Paul II states: "This common crisis also affects the believing scientist. He will have to ask himself about the spirit and the orientation in which he himself develops his science. He will have to set himself, immediately or in the medium term, the task of continually reviewing the method and purpose of science under the aspect of the problem of the meaning of things. All of us are responsible for this culture and our collaboration is required so that the crisis can be overcome. In this situation, the Church does not advise prudence and caution, but courage and decisiveness. There is no reason not to take the side of truth or to be afraid of it. Truth and all that is true is a great good, to which we should strive with love and joy. Science is also a path to the true, for in it reason is developed, that God-given reason which, by its very nature, is not determined towards error, but towards the truth of knowledge" *(16).

Back to table of contentsNotes

  1. John Paul II, speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 29.X.1990: Insegnamenti, XIII, 2 (1990), p. 964.
  2. See: Mariano Artigas, "El diálogo ciencia-fe en la encíclica Fides et ratio", yearbook Filosófico, 32 (1999), pp. 611-639.
  3. John Paul II, speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 10.XI.1979, n. 2: Insegnamenti, II, 2 (1979), p. 1108. In this text, the Pope speaks of "fundamental science" or "pure science" to designate the scientific knowledge , distinguishing it from what he later calls "applied science", which refers to technological applications.
  4. Ibid.
  5. John Paul II, speech to a group of Nobel Prize winners, 22.XII.1980, n. 2: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), pp. 1781.
  6. John Paul II, speech to scientists and students in the Cathedral of Cologne, n. 4, 15.XI.1980: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), p. 1206.
  7. John Paul II, speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 10.XI.1979, n. 1: Insegnamenti, II, 2 (1979), pp. 1107-1108.
  8. John Paul II, speech to the European Physical Society, 31.III.1979: Insegnamenti, II, 1 (1979), pp. 748.
  9. Ibid., p. 750.
  10. Ibid.
  11. John Paul II, speech to scientists and students in the Cathedral of Cologne, n. 3, 15.XI.1980: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), p. 1204.
  12. John Paul II, speech to a group of Nobel Prize winners, 22.XII.1980, n. 3: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), p. 1782.
  13. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 283-284.
  14. John Paul II, speech to a group of Nobel Prize winners, 22.XII.1980, n. 3: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), pp. 1782-1783.
  15. Ibid., p. 1783.
  16. John Paul II, speech to scientists and students in the Cathedral of Cologne, nn. 3-4, 15.XI.1980: Insegnamenti, III, 2 (1980), p. 1205-1206.