Interview with Professor Evandro Agazzi

Interview with Professor Evandro Agazzi

Author: Santiago Collado

topic The science-faith relationship was the subject of the seminar room given by Prof. Agazzi at the group of research Interdisciplinary on "Science, Reason and Faith" (CRYF).

Prof. Agazzi is currently Full Professor of Philosophy of science at the University of Genoa, President of the International Academy of Philosophy of Science (Brussels), Honorary President of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP), Honorary President of high school International of Philosophy (Paris) and of other academic institutions in different countries. He has participated as author, co-author or publisher in more than 60 books and more than 600 articles, the latter including contributions to various books, anthologies, encyclopaedias and scientific journals.

This interview focuses on some of the issues discussed at seminar room.

The birth of modern science in the 17th century seems to have been marked by its confrontation with religion. Is this confrontation inevitable?

In reality, the anti-religiousness that seems to be associated with modern science is not intrinsic to science itself. What happens with the birth of science is nothing but the reissue of an "anti-religious inclination" that runs through much of history. It is true that, with the method that is making its way into the new science, this "inclination" now has new weapons, but the polemical attitude against religion has always existed. I think, therefore, that the confrontation to which you refer was inevitable, but its roots are not due to causes internal to the scientific method.

Why is it that this "anti-religious inclination" can count modern science as an ally? If science deals with truths, how is it possible that it can be wielded against religion?

You really pose a question that is not easy to answer in a few words. In any case, I will try to be brief and, consequently, given the complexity of topic, the answer will necessarily be incomplete.

I think it is important to point out, as an argument against an intrinsic civil service examination between science and religion, something that is well known: the creators of modern science, the first great scientists, as well as the most important scientists of the 20th century, were religious people, they lived their faith. It was not they, with rare exceptions, who wielded the arguments of science against religion. In those early scientists, and also among the intellectuals of their time, we can recognise, rather, an attempt to harmonise the results of their research with the affirmations coming from their religious faith. In reality, what we can see from our historical perspective is that there was a certain lack of understanding of the scope, and also of the limitations, of the method they were inventing. That misunderstanding, together with the patent achievements of the new science, was a new opportunity to claim, in a polemical way, the triumph of science and reason over faith.

This is not the place for a detailed historical and sociological analysis, but it does seem clear that there are a number of prejudices that have found their way into the modern era under the cover of science and that are the channel for this confrontation. I would classify them into three categories:

  1. The problem of truth. Science imposes itself as the indisputable way of knowing the truth. Religion contains falsehoods that science is gradually uncovering. Even miracles can be explained in a scientific way.

  2. Science promotes a critical attitude at civil service examination to the dogmatism that faith would supposedly impose. At that time, there is a tendency to identify an attitude of faith with the acceptance of superstitions.

  3. Freedom of thought. The critical spirit that is defended at that time goes beyond the use of reasoning that makes it possible to accept or refute an affirmation; what is pursued is to establish complete independence with respect to any authority subject in the field of knowledge. Religion is accused of trying to exercise control and censorship also outside the spheres that it could defend as its own.

It seems clear to me that the root of the confrontation is therefore not scientific but ideological.

You said that early scientists sought to harmonise the results of science with the contents of their faith. What paths did they follow and what results did they obtain?

The heart of the problem, in my opinion, lies in the establishment of two poles that have sometimes been presented as incompatible. The question is whether I can believe - the knowledge of faith - without having to give up knowing rationally. As you can understand, this problem is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. It is clear that at the beginning of Christianity, and for many centuries afterwards, the primacy of knowledge rested on faith. The problem then was to find the rational categories that would make it possible to express a knowledge that was considered clearly superior to the knowledge provided by human reason, by the philosophers. The aim was to transmit without betraying its content, in the most universal way possible, the knowledge provided by revelation. The great ally and the most effective instrument for undertaking this task, from the intellectual point of view, was the Philosophy.

In the Western world of the 17th century, with a scenario so different from the previous one, the primacy of faith is still unquestionable for the great majority of intellectuals. Moreover, many scientists of the time saw the advance of science as a fruitful source of apologetic inspiration source . There were even representatives of the Catholic culture of the time who greeted the new science with jubilation. Cardinal de Bérulle, for example, openly encouraged the young Descartes to carry out the reform of the Philosophy which he advocated and which seemed so desirable at the time. Cardinal Bossuet's "watchmaker God" argument is also a clear example of what we are saying. Many of them, however, saw their expectations clouded after only a few years.

How to harmonise the new Philosophy - science - and faith?

In reality, the basic aspiration contained in this question was no longer, as in the first centuries of Christianity, to express the richness of the contents of faith in rational categories that were valid for any culture, but to demonstrate the compatibility between science and faith. Without this being explicit, it was now a matter of safeguarding faith from the unstoppable advance of science. This seemed to be what the supposed harmony between faith and science had been reduced to. On the other hand, for many, the new knowledge would be able to provide an increasingly complete and rational answer to everything that had previously been based solely on religious beliefs.

In this way, the search for harmony from the pre-eminent position of faith is transformed into a defence of faith that seeks to be carried out with the weapons of science. In this whole process, it is clear how the misunderstanding of what the scientific method is and what it can do is a determining factor.

Descartes' attitude is paradigmatic in the process we are describing. On the one hand, the French philosopher defends the traditional primacy of metaphysics, proposes a new test of the existence of God, assigns absolute supremacy to the sphere of the spirit, morality and traditional institutions. On the other hand, it entrusts to the categories provided by the new science, and to the mathematical method on which they have their main support, the interpretation of what happens in the sensible world and the construction of a cosmological synthesis. Harmony, in this case, has been achieved through the separation of two spheres in which the world of science and the world of faith can move at ease. If religion and science belong to incommunicable spheres, the defence of faith is assured.

This approach to the problem of harmony between science and faith was clearly insufficient, and problems were bound to arise. An example that perfectly expresses the point reached by such an approach is the famous episode between Napoleon and Laplace: When the scientist explained to the illustrious occasional student the general outlines of his cosmology, the latter asked him what place he had reserved for God in his system. Laplace's reply was "I have had no need of that hypothesis". This sentence encapsulates the spirit of a philosophical current coherent with the landscape we have just sketched and which was born at that time: Positivism.

Has this bipolar view of science and faith been overcome today?

Positivism has undergone successive versions over the last centuries. Spiritualism, vitalism, scientism and the various deisms are a clear consequence of the split between reason and faith which, in its origins, goes back a few centuries before the emergence of modern science; in particular, we can associate it with Nominalism. Its consequences seem to me to be still alive today. I believe that John Paul II's encyclical "Faith and Reason" is a call to bridge the gap opened by these approaches between faith and reason, although here we are referring more specifically to a part of reason which is science. Achieving this welding requires, in the field of science, further work to deepen the understanding of the scientific method and to give it its rightful place in the wider framework of rationality. I believe that important steps have been taken in recent years. The creation of interdisciplinary groups, for example, can help in the realisation of this task that is still pending. It is necessary to get to the root of these problems, otherwise they will simply be postponed and will reappear sooner or later in different forms and under different titles.

Do you think that today's science makes it possible, as the early scientists tried to do, to better achieve the desired harmony between science and faith?

The danger remains the same as it was then. Today, too, it is difficult to escape the temptation to reduce harmony to defence. Today, as in the early days of modern science, the scientific knowledge we are gaining does not prevent us from admitting the knowledge provided by faith: we do not have to renounce faith in order to be men of science. The broadening of science only makes it clear that the limits of what we do not know are also widening. To know more is also to know that there are many more things that remain to be known. Science provides answers but, at the same time, it allows us to better understand the depth of the mysteries by which human reason has always been measured. At the end of the 19th century, there were many who announced the imminent end of physics, which was then the paradigm of what could be called scientific. It was thought that we were in a position to reach a global, and not only global but complete, understanding of the Cosmos. Today, along with the spectacular progress of science, this illusion seems more than ever a mirage. It is necessary to understand what is meant by harmony: neither absolute separation of fields as a means of mutual defence, nor methodological confusion that would lead to similar consequences. It is not the scientific knowledge that allows us to establish the aforementioned harmony, but our understanding of science and its method that allows us to establish paths of transit between the different disciplines, with the mutual enrichment that this speech entails.

Doesn't what you are saying lead to reclaiming the role of Philosophy in the understanding of Nature?

Indeed, any attempt to reduce knowledge to pure science or to reduce reality to what positivism, in any of its versions, offers us is doomed to failure. The Vienna Circle was an attempt to rescue positivism by supporting it on the basis of a renewed science, which they considered to be the only reliable way to knowledge reality. Their attempt was in line with the "anti-religious inclination" we spoke of at the beginning, but it did not escape the prejudices that were to make their way into the modern era and which we classify into three categories. The promoters of Neopositivism explicitly reject metaphysics. They consider that metaphysics only serves to prove religion right. The first positivists, at least, wanted to find rational arguments to explain why God was not necessary to explain the world. God is not needed in that explanation because the world explains itself. Neopositivism, in fact, has fewer pretensions, it simply accuses metaphysics of proposing foolish claims. It is paradoxical how an "excess" of rationality leads to its rejection, to its dissolution in neopositivist scientism.

In spite of all that has been said, Philosophy is still being made of Nature today. Moreover, the same questions that occupied the reflections of the metaphysicians of antiquity and the Middle Ages continue to be raised. Although it is not called metaphysics, many authors continue to take up the themes that the old metaphysics dealt with. It is also true that sometimes these issues are raised without the subtlety that the masters of metaphysics achieved. Today we are in a position to understand much better the extent to which science, reason and faith have a mutual claim on each other. In this partnership, the Philosophy plays a very important role. But to speak of this would take us too far.