Is the scientific revolution over?

Is the scientific revolution over?

Author: Mariano Artigas, University of Navarra
Published in: Reuniones Filosóficas (Unpublished text)
Date of publication: 1989


1. The meaning of the scientific revolution
2. Three images of nature
3. Organicism and mechanicism
4. The systemic perspective
5. Scientific truth
6. The scope of the scientific perspective

1. The meaning of the scientific revolution

When we talk about the scientific revolution, we usually think of the historical phenomenon that crystallised in the 17th century, i.e. the process that led to the birth of modern science. This is an unmistakable fact. In the experimental science of the 17th century, for the first time in history, mathematics and experimentation were combined, resulting in a controllable knowledge of nature and serving as a basis for technological applications. This revolution, prepared for centuries by work going back to antiquity, took shape thanks to geniuses such as Copernicus, Kepler and especially Galileo, and came to maturity with Newton's formulation of mechanics.

In this sense, the scientific revolution is equivalent to the systematic birth of modern experimental science, and represents a definitive achievement in the history of mankind. The subsequent scientific revolutions, thanks to which, alongside physics, other sciences such as Chemistry and biology were consolidated, and new theories were formulated in each of them, such as the quantum and relativistic theories in physics, appear as particular developments of a global paradigm that was basically established in the 17th century with the formulation of classical physics. In normal life, birth is followed by growth. Similarly, new branches and new disciplines have been added to classical science, and the process continues; but these are developments of the same basic phenomenon, just as the adult state of the same person is in continuity with his youth.

Seen in this light, the question: is the scientific revolution over? has a clear answer: yes, it ended 300 years ago. Newton's physics was already modern science in the truest sense plenary session of the Executive Council.

However, this answer, while true, is too superficial. The birth of modern science represented the culmination of one period and the beginning of another. Few events are of such significance in dividing the history of mankind into stages. It seems logical, therefore, to wonder about the significance of such a momentous event.

It is not just a question of the external repercussions of an event that would, in itself, be neutral. The founders of modern science certainly did not see it as neutral. On the contrary, the new science appeared before their eyes laden with philosophical, theological and sociological implications. The birth of experimental science was accompanied by a clear awareness that something momentous was happening in human history.

Certainly, this awareness took on different manifestations from agreement with the genius of scientists and the concerns of philosophers and theologians. In this sense, it could be questioned whether it is the scientific revolution itself or rather the interpretations that usually accompany any relevant social event.

My purpose is to argue that the scientific revolution itself has far-reaching implications that largely condition important current problems that are not satisfactorily resolved. In this sense, to the question: has the scientific revolution ended, my answer is: no. In addition to not having ended, it has not yet ended. In addition to not being over, its implications have not yet been fully manifested. And I think that here lies a decisive core topic for understanding particularly critical aspects of our civilisation.

One of them is the idea of the goal and the subjective, with its multiple implications in the field of theoretical speculation, behaviour internship and social organisation. Experimental science is presented as rigorous knowledge centred on the study of the relations between phenomena and the determination of causal mechanisms, excluding from its scope the consideration of final causes and, in general, everything related to metaphysics and transcendence. The metaphysical realm is relegated to a world apart; at best, it would be a subject of reflections which, although it could be considered legitimate, would lack the intersubjective validity characteristic of experimental science and would refer, as a matter of principle, to the private conscience and life of each person. The Education and, in general, all social life, should be governed by an aseptic, plural and uncompromising vision, from agreement with the demands of objectivity characteristic of the public knowledge , in which there seems to be no place for ends. And the paradigm of objectivity and of the public knowledge would be given by experimental science.

The dichotomy between the scientific-goal and the metaphysical-subjective is one of the basic characteristics of our culture, and seems to be an inevitable consequence of the scientific revolution. However, once we have overcome the measles of positivism, which can be considered as an infantile disease that has accompanied scientific and technical progress in a bygone era, this dichotomy is sample unsatisfactory. The conviction persists that there must be a unity in knowledge, so that it is possible to obtain an image of the world and of man that satisfies, at the same time, the demands of scientific rigour and the search for meaning proper to metaphysics. Nor does it seem logical to admit that any philosophical perspective is equally valid. There is also a need for a minimum metaphysical basis which can serve as a basis for resolving the serious ethical questions facing humanity, which are due in large part to the results of science and technology.

These aspirations, together with the development of new scientific perspectives that are openly interdisciplinary in nature and that offer points of connection between approaches that until recently were considered to be mutually exclusive, have given rise to attempts that can be considered characteristic of our time, whereby attempts are made to bridge the gap between the scientific and philosophical perspectives. In this context, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century could be seen as a starting point that is only partially valid, supplemented by other scientific perspectives that are the fruit of later developments. In other words, the scientific revolution would not have ended even in the scientific field itself. The seventeenth-century revolution would not be a general paradigm in which subsequent revolutions would be encompassed, but only the launching of modern science, conditioned by partial points of view that now, with broader perspectives, should be completed. In particular, it would be possible to achieve a perspective in which scientific rigour and profound questions about human life would be integrated.

Several such attempts can be mentioned subject. Their variety sample that they occupy an important place in today's scientific culture. Some are situated in the domain of particular disciplines and address fundamental problems, such as the origin and end of the universe in cosmology, and the constraints of human freedom in biology. In other cases, a new natural Philosophy is proposed, based on scientific achievements such as quantum mechanics and the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, which would have profound implications for concepts such as causality, time, and the self-organisation of subject. Other attempts formulate interdisciplinary perspectives that aim to extend to both natural and human sciences; such is the case of systems theory, synergetics and, recently, the programs of study on the existence of patterns in complex phenomena that are labelled under the degree scroll of chaos.

In addition to these attempts, which take place in the scientific field, the Philosophy field of science proposes perspectives that revolve around the same basic problems. Suffice it to mention the discussions about scientific rationality and human rationality in general, which in recent decades have multiplied to remarkable proportions.

If the variety of unifying attempts reveals that the problem is perceived with intensity in our time, it also shows that there is no unanimity in the way it is approached. There is a widespread awareness that we are in a new epoch, different from the ancient pre-scientific culture but also increasingly distant from the scientific culture of modernity. However, there is no common, generally shared basis on which to unify the old, finalistic and metaphysical approach and the modern, mechanistic and scientific approach , or at least to integrate the valid aspects of both approaches into a new synthesis.

When there are significant differences around a problem, there is reason to believe that a revision of the approach may be fruitful. In our case, there are several typical worldviews that have accompanied scientific progress or have been presented as its legitimate interpretations. Therefore, it seems appropriate to turn to some historical reflections in search of financial aid to situate the problem in its real dimensions.

2. Three images of nature

The custom of dividing history into major periods, corresponding to different conceptions of the same problem, has become a commonplace in historiography and at Philosophy. In relation to the problem at hand, various classifications of the problem have been proposed subject. Five of them are discussed below.

Robin George Collingwood proposed a tripartite division into Greek, Renaissance and modern ideas of nature *(1). In the Greek idea, nature would be conceived as an organism, a kind of rational animal with its own mind that imposes order. According to the Renaissance idea, nature would be like a machine that works from agreement with laws dictated by the divine creator, who created the machinery, set it in motion by giving it its initial movement, and governs it through the laws established by his wisdom. In the modern vision, nature would no longer be conceived as a set of substances but as an unfolding of evolutionary processes subject to a progressive historical development which would be oriented in a finalistic sense. Collingwood placed his own perspective along the lines of this third view, which has idealist overtones, attributing its formulation to Hegel, and its development to Henri Bergson, Samuel Alexander and Alfred North Whitehead.

A similar conception of the first two periods has been put forward by Stanley Jaki*(2), who has focused his attention on Aristotle as the main representative of the organicist idea of nature, and has illustrated in detail the birth of the mechanistic conception in the fourteenth century and its development in the seventeenth century. Unlike Collingwood, Jaki conceives of the third period as a revival of Pythagorean ideas, characterising the modern perspective as a pan-mathematics along the lines of quantum physics, which focuses on mathematical formulations and dispenses with imaginative representations.

Gerald Whitrow has also proposed a tripartite division*(3), which coincides with the above with regard to the first two periods and differs with regard to the third. The three periods are characterised by the analogies of the organism, the machine and society. The organismic image would correspond to the Aristotelian teleological universe, where the temporal is subordinated to the permanent in a cyclical alternation and the fundamental explanations are based on natural finalistic tendencies. The image of the machine would be that of the Newtonian universe, which is conceived as a mechanical clock, created and directed by divine intelligence, where Aristotelian tendencies and forms are replaced by hypotheses and laws expressed in a mathematical way that allow us to calculate the development of processes in time. Finally, the evolutionary universe of modern science is represented as a society in which there are processes with a history, in such a way that the characterisation of time as an independent variable, neutral with respect to processes, gives way to a new idea of time that is related to the irreversible character of real processes and to the history of the universe.

An analogous perspective has been put forward by W.W. Spradlin and P. Porterfield *(4). Spradlin and P. Porterfield *(4), who introduce an important change. Indeed, they focus their attention on the search for certainty as the common thread of the three great ideas about nature. They claim that the old picture, which they present in close connection with Christianity, offered purely verbal explanations of events and obeyed anthropomorphic tendencies that led to the introduction of spiritual beings as causal agents. The modern image is described, as in the aforementioned authors, as a combination of machines and numbers. The current image would be that of the world of processes, in which, as a consequence of the uncertainty inherent in microphysical phenomena, no certainty could be given any more.

Nicolai Hartmann presented an overview which, although it has points of contact with the previous ones, differs in its philosophical meaning and scope*(5). Hartmann distinguished four periods in the history of natural Philosophy followed by an interregnum. The first period runs from the Platonic Philosophy to the end of the 16th century and is centred on Aristotelian and scholastic natural teleology. The second, announced in the 14th century and matured in the 17th century, is that of the classical physics of Galileo and Newton, in which a cosmology based on exact laws was formulated, disregarding final causes. The third, which crowns the previous period, is represented by Kant, and especially by his works on the general history of nature, the metaphysical principles of natural science and teleology; Hartmann claims that the Kantian critique marked the end of the old teleology, and describes it as a feat that put an end to the Aristotelian natural Philosophy and posed the Philosophy of the organic. The fourth is the idealistic metaphysics of nature of Schelling and Hegel; it was a throwback to teleological ideas, but it was only a brief interlude that was soon superseded by the development of the sciences. The later period, marked by the exclusive dominance of the positive sciences and the dispersion into specialised methods, is the positivist period, and amounts to an interregnum in which attention was paid only to methodological problems, without addressing the properly philosophical ones. The current stage would be represented by Hartmann's own natural Philosophy , centred on the study of cognitive categories and marked by an essential dependence on the state of the sciences at any given moment.

These historical perspectives suggest that the three images of nature have occurred in successive epochs. There seems to be a basic agreement regarding the first two, the organicist and the mechanistic, and the point of reference letter to establish a break between the two is usually placed in the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The disagreement on the third image is, however, B. Why?

This disagreement is probably due to the complexity of the issues involved, which have rather complex historical and systematic aspects. From the epistemological point of view, the nature of experimental science is still subject to different interpretations. Of course, as long as this question, which is at the basis of the five schemes mentioned above and others like them, is not clarified, an adequate understanding of the philosophical implications of science cannot be expected. From a historical point of view, it is not clear whether the break between the organicist and mechanistic images was total, nor to what extent this break was a necessary consequence of the new physics or, rather, was due to interpretations that have been superseded by the later development of science. There are, moreover, data that do not fit well with the idea of a temporal succession of these two images; for example, mechanicism and organicism coexisted in ancient Greece, and organicism has reappeared in contemporary times in perspectives such as the philosophies of Bergson and Whitehead, which claim to take account of modern scientific progress. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that there are disagreements when it comes to assessing the current status and suggesting new syntheses.

3. Organicism and mechanicism

Let us take a closer look at the first two images. From antiquity to the present day, one of the central problems of Philosophy has been the confrontation of the mechanistic and finalistic conceptions. Both were formulated in the Greek Philosophy , and their pathway continues throughout the history of Western thought. The finalist conception of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle prevailed over the mechanism of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, and provided for two millennia the basic outline to which explanations of nature ultimately referred. But the scientific revolution of the 17th century reversed the terms. The anti-finalism of Francis Bacon, the mechanicism of René Descartes and the mathematical physics of Isaac Newton brought the triumph of a mechanical image that was soon supported by scientific and technological successes of the first magnitude. The mechanistic paradigm was canonised in Immanuel Kant's Philosophy as a necessary condition for the scientific knowledge of nature, while finalism was reduced to a regulative idea, useful for the biological research , but lacking objectivity.

Soon after, Charles Darwin's revolution seemed to liquidate the biological redoubt that still served as a justification for finalism, proposing an explanation of apparent natural finality in terms of mechanical processes combined by chance. The result of this long process was an image of nature that presented itself as the definitive triumph of an objective science of causal mechanisms in which there was no place left for finality. Such seemed to be the result of the scientific revolution.

Finalism is often associated with a metaphysical perspective in which nature is conceived as a hierarchy of entities referring to a transcendent cause. In this respect, the case of mechanicism is more complex, since it has been used to support both metaphysical and materialistic perspectives; indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries the mechanistic worldview was widely used as a support for natural theology, and from the late 18th century it became increasingly associated with materialistic and naturalistic ideas. In the 19th century, the progress of science was identified with the success of mechanistic explanations and was easily seen as a test in favour of materialistic ideas.

The scientific revolutions of the twentieth century brought about changes in previous views. Quantum physics showed the limitations of the mechanistic perspective at the microphysical level. The progress of biology, while allowing the knowledge of the deepest mechanisms of vital phenomena, related them to the ideas of self-regulation and information, in which organicist and finalist nuances can be discovered. In this context, scientific perspectives have emerged which, while admitting the value of mechanistic explanations, reject mechanism as a general worldview and admit the validity of finalistic ideas. For example, general systems theory has formulated explanatory models that bring together various aspects of mechanicism and finalism; the thermodynamics of irreversible processes and programs of study on chaos provide the instructions to understand how natural patterns of behaviour emerge from disordered phenomena, overcoming the rigidity of classical physical models and explaining the emergence of different types of order; synergetics explains how the cooperation of components produces effects that could not be predicted if only the sum of the partial effects were taken into account.

In all these cases, the old dichotomy between mechanism and finalism seems to be overcome in a new synthesis that is formulated on the purely scientific level. If such a synthesis is viable, the scientific revolution would appear in a new light. Indeed, it could be argued that the dominance of the mechanistic conception was only a first step which, although it helped to achieve partial successes, did not exhaust all the possibilities of experimental science. And also that the scientific revolution has not been sufficiently understood until, thanks to the development of new theories, disciplines and approaches, insights have been gained which, it seems, would be applicable even to the problems of the human and social sciences.

4. The systemic perspective

In holistic perspectives, organised totalities are claimed to be on a level beyond the mere sum of the components. This approach is characteristic of the above-mentioned perspectives, and has been developed above all in general systems theory, which aims to provide a new scientific paradigm, and even a whole Philosophy, where the analytical perspective, typical of classical science*(6), is overcome.

Central to this paradigm are notions such as order, organisation, form, interaction, coordination, teleology, and the like, which refer to Structures and global behaviour*(7). Of course, systems are seen as composed of elements, but with a peculiar nuance: the interdependence of the elements in the whole is always taken into account. A system is conceived as a set of functionally interrelated elements, so that each element is a function of some other, and there are no isolated elements. Therefore, the system does not result from the sum of the elements as mere parts, because each element has a function that is coordinated with the functions of the others. And therefore the organisation plays an essential role. The system is a holistic entity.

These characteristics make it possible to obtain a synthesis between the mechanistic perspective, of subject analytical, centred on the component elements and their aggregation, and the finalist perspective, of subject synthetic, in which the properties of the whole play a decisive role. The notion of system is in itself neutral with respect to the atomist and globalist perspectives, and seems to integrate both.

The systemic perspective can be situated at the methodological level, if it is used only as an explanatory model , and at the ontological level, if it also refers to the articulation of reality. Moreover, it is a perspective with interdisciplinary possibilities, as its notions can be applied to many different types of organised entities, regardless of their physical, biological or sociological nature. It is an integrative metalanguage that can be applied to mathematics, physics, cybernetics, biology and sociology. And, if the general theory of systems is projected in the form of Philosophy of systems, we would obtain a new Philosophy of nature capable of resolving the disputes between mechanistic and finalist conceptions, arriving at an image of the world as a great organisation in which, however, it would not be necessary to admit the anthropocentric images that used to accompany the old organicism.

For these reasons, the systems perspective has been presented as an effort to bring together fragmented expertise into a coherent unitary picture, while enabling the much-desired unity between the sciences and Philosophy. Does it really serve these ambitious goals?

A touchstone for assessing this is the case of anthropology, which obviously has a special relevance in the context of the relationship between the sciences and Philosophy. Ludwig von Bertalanffy claimed that, from the point of view of biology, the very specific character of man's place in the universe is due to the fact that man creates a world of symbols in order to live in it; this would be a necessary and sufficient condition for demarcating human language, behaviour, history and culture from purely biological behaviour. For this reason, von Bertalanffy concluded that, as a biologist, he was opposed to a biologistic conception of man, i.e. to the reduction of the human being to mere biological factors, because culture, art, ethics and religion cannot be explained in this way*(8).

In this context, the classical mind-body problem would be viewed from a new angle; indeed, it would not be posed as the enigma of the psycho-physical interaction between mind and subject, since physics itself would have dispensed with the classical notion of subject. According to von Bertalanffy, in modern physics, the subject is resolved in dynamics, in formal relations that are also expressed by means of statistical laws, so that it would not make sense to affirm that the ultimate reality is constituted by units Materials and physical-chemical laws*(9).

However, the systemic perspective has also been used as an instrument in the formulation of philosophical ideas of subject materialist*(10). It is not clear, therefore, that by itself it is sufficient to elucidate the philosophical problems involved in anthropology.

Von Bertalanffy rejected as obsolete the idea that the human knowledge leads progressively to truth or reality. The knowledge would only be a tool that would allow man, or any other animal, to get along in the world and survive, using schemes that, although useful, do not reflect the universe as it is*(11). In this way, the question about the value of science and of knowledge in general, which was hinted at earlier and which now reappears in the framework of the systemic perspective, is explicitly raised. If knowledge has a purely instrumental value, is it even possible to formulate properly philosophical questions about reality itself and the value of our knowledge, or about the validity of mechanistic and finalist explanations?

Therefore, in order to delimit the value of the systemic perspective as a bridge between the sciences and Philosophy, the epistemological problem must be tackled at its base. This is not surprising. On the contrary, it is not difficult to see that, behind the problems related to objectivity, there are mainly epistemological subject questions.

5. Scientific truth

I have devoted my last book to the Philosophy of experimental science, and there you will find an analysis of the aims, methods and constructions of the sciences, together with reflections on objectivity and truth*(12). I will refer now only to some ideas that may represent a financial aid to situate the problem that concerns us here.

In scientific activity, the search is for the knowledge of nature, and for this purpose theoretical constructs are used, which are not mere translations of reality. These constructs, and the methods used to experimentally test their value, are based on conventional assumptions. What can be said, under these conditions, about the truth of the statements of experimental science?

We can distinguish two senses of scientific objectivity: a weak one, which is identified with intersubjectivity, and a strong one, which refers to truth. In the first sense, intersubjectivity is achieved through objectification, because the scientific object is constructed in such a way that there is a correspondence between theoretical constructions and experimentation. Any discipline is based on basic predicates that delimit the subject of objects to be studied, and requires the formulation of protocol criteria, by means of which it is established which experimental statements are considered valid. In order to formulate these, it is necessary to resort to conventional agreements or stipulations. All this defines a concrete objectification.

The existence of conventional assumptions not only does not prevent intersubjectivity, but is a condition that makes it possible. Once the instructions of a rigorous objectification has been established, valid intersubjective demonstrations are obtained, although they are always, in this field, contextual demonstrations, since their validity refers to the theoretical and practical context of each particular objectification.

On this basis, the validity of objectivity in the strong sense, i.e. the correspondence of scientific constructs with reality, can be delimited. Indeed, contextual demonstrability implies referential demonstrability, since the contextual demonstrability of a statement implies that the meanings and references of the terms are well established, and that the same is true for the methods of theoretical and experimental operation. Therefore, a contextual demonstration automatically provides the meaning and the reference letter of what is demonstrated. At final, if scientific demonstrations are rigorous and free of interpretations that go beyond the methods used, we can affirm that scientific statements refer to reality in the precise sense that is given by contextual demonstrations.

As a consequence, if the truth of any statement must be assessed with reference letter to the context of the objectivation and stipulations adopted, it is obvious that it will always be possible to obtain new truths by progress in objectivations and stipulations. That is: because scientific truth is contextual, it is also partial. A concrete objectification does not exhaust reality. Thus, the truth of statements is simultaneously authentic and partial: well-founded statements refer to reality, but view it from the point of view implied by the respective objectification, thus leaving room for further modifications of the objectification.

On the other hand, when contextual demonstrations are well established, that is, when they can be related to experimentation, then their pragmatic truth can be affirmed, since it is possible to apply them to the explanation and control of factual problems. It can now be seen more clearly why we have asserted that contextual demonstrability automatically guarantees referential demonstrability. Indeed, once we establish contextual and pragmatic truth, correspondence with reality is fixed. Statements refer to the ideal model defined in the respective objectification, and that model refers to reality through a set of operational criteria. Thus, statements that are valid in the context of the established theoretical and practical conditions correspond to reality within those limits.

At final, we attain authentic knowledge that is at the same time partial, approximate and perfectible. Partial, because they only refer to those aspects of reality that are accessible to the corresponding objectification. Approximate, because the theoretical constructions correspond to reality within a margin imposed by the available theoretical and experimental possibilities. And therefore they are perfectible, since we can achieve deeper and more exact objectivations. Moreover, they reflect reality through signs that require interpretation, that is, through the language of each theory.

The equivalence between contextual and referential demonstrability does not eliminate all the difficulties, but it points the way to face them. Obviously, in order to clarify the significance of scientific constructions, one must have recourse to concepts whose thematic study is proper to Philosophy. The aim is to make explicit in a rigorous way, with the help of the relevant philosophical concepts financial aid , what is only implicit on the scientific level.

The way to explain scientific truth may seem paradoxical. It consists of recognising from the outset the conventional aspects involved in the construction of the scientific object and in the demonstrations, and then delimiting in what sense the theoretical constructions refer to reality. The paradox lies in the fact that the starting point for the foundation of an unconventional concept of truth is precisely the recognition of the conventional factors of science. But this is the method used in real scientific activity, and this is how true results are achieved, in the sense of the contextual and partial truth we have examined. On the contrary, if one starts from an image of science centred on strict logical demonstrations and tries to introduce in that context the concept of truth, one comes up against an insurmountable obstacle: the existence of conventional factors that have been overlooked but which, being real, appear at the last moment, preventing the truth of the theoretical constructions from being explained.

6. The scope of the scientific perspective

The above reflections on scientific objectivity and truth allow us to situate the authentic scope of the scientific perspective. This scope is determined by the subject of objectification used in each case.

Any experimental discipline is based on a minimum requirement, namely that it is formulated by means of an objectification in which the basic predicates and protocol criteria are well defined in relation to repeatable experiments. This is the requirement of experimental control. This requirement cannot be fulfilled if aspects of reality are studied for which it is not possible, in principle, to carry out repeatable experiments; this is the case, for example, with human freedom and any problem involving spiritual dimensions. Such dimensions can only be the subject of experimental science to the extent that they are related in an entitative or causal way to the controllable aspects.

In this sense, the scientific revolution of the 17th century was final, since it meant the systematic establishment, for the first time in history, of a science based on experimental objectivations. It is debatable when this approach was definitively achieved, although it seems clear that, in its main lines, it was already formulated in Newtonian mechanics.

A different problem is the awareness of it. Indeed, up to our time, no satisfactory approach has been achieved about the nature of the experimental method. This should not be surprising. For three centuries, experimental science has advanced through the establishment of very diverse branches and disciplines, so that it has not been easy to distinguish the fundamental features of its method until a sufficiently developed picture of different approaches has become available. Moreover, the systematic study of epistemology has only been consolidated in recent decades, and it is only recently that the positivist conditioning that gave it its definitive impetus has been overcome. In order to achieve a balanced approach to the Philosophy of science, it was necessary to wait until experimental science and epistemology itself had matured sufficiently. At final, the scientific revolution, in its basic aspects, can be identified with the systematic development of experimental science in the 17th century and, in this case, it must be said that it ended at that time. However, its full understanding has only been achieved in a very recent epoch.

On the other hand, the objectivations of experimental science have been greatly enriched over the course of three centuries. In this sense, we can speak of profound transformations that, in a way, allow us to consider the scientific revolution as a range whose possibilities are progressively opening up. For two centuries, the basic scientific paradigm was classical physics, and for this reason, experimental science was associated with the ideas of subject mechanistic. The revolutions in physics in the 20th century did not affect the nature of science in its essentials, but they introduced profound alterations in many basic concepts and helped to distinguish the fundamental aspects of the scientific method from more particular aspects of specific disciplines and theories. The great development of biology in our time has helped to further deepen this distinction, revealing the partial value of explanatory models that were previously considered necessary features of science.

In this line are the factors that have been foregrounded by systems theory. Consider, as an illustrative example of particular relevance to the argument at hand, what has happened to the notion of finality. As we have seen, it is sometimes claimed that one of the main, if not the main feature of the scientific revolution has been the elimination of any allusion to finality. However, developments in cybernetics and biology show that finality plays an important scientific role, and systems theory has explored the various senses in which this happens.

For example, von Bertalanffy has distinguished a static teleology, such as that which occurs in configurations that seem useful for achieving certain goals, and a dynamic teleology, i.e. a directionality in processes, such as the behaviour of a system that seems conditioned by the final state, so that the same state is reached in different ways through feedback mechanisms*(13). And it can even be said that, in the field of classical mechanics, there were already aspects related to the idea of finality; for example, the principle of minimum action and, in general, the laws that establish that a system, in its evolution, satisfies certain global conditions. Broadly speaking, all conservation principles, which play a major role in both classical and modern physics, could be related to finality.

It is not adequate, therefore, to characterise the scientific revolution as a change of perspective that left out all teleological considerations. However, it should be noted that, in experimental science, it will always be aspects of teleology that can be studied from agreement with the subject of objectification characteristic of the experimental method. This means that, while cybernetics, biology and general systems theory have formulated explanations that are both scientific and teleological, aspects of teleology involving specifically metaphysical or anthropological subject considerations remain outside the possibilities of the experimental method as it is applied in the natural sciences. Of course, it is possible that the range of problems of subject teleology that become amenable to experimental study will continue to expand, but for this to happen, objectifications must necessarily be achieved that satisfy the requirement of experimental control.

Similar considerations can be made with regard to the new possibilities opened up by the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, synergetics, and other similar points of view which have an interdisciplinary integrative capacity and are able to deal with many problems without being restricted to the limitations of classical models. These perspectives certainly open up new horizons, help to put the validity of classical models in their proper place, and also allow us to examine various problems of the natural Philosophy in a new light. But, insofar as they are approaches specific to experimental science, they must necessarily satisfy the requirements of experimental control and, therefore, those of the objectification that makes it possible. Consequently, philosophical problems that demand a totality perspective, examining questions concerning meaning, require the adoption of an objectification that is, in part, different.

Anthropological and metaphysical reflection, insofar as it wishes to be rigorous, must also undergo a process of objectification which is analogous to that of experimental science, since it must be based on the data of experience and on logical rigour. But it is concerned with questions that affect the whole of reality, in itself or from the point of view of our interpretation of it; such questions constitute the presuppositions of any particular knowledge , and therefore its study goes beyond objectifications using conventional models. Instead, it can make extensive use of metaphors and analogy, which are highly effective tools for dealing with the deepest layers of reality.

The metaphysical knowledge implies a certain commitment staff, in which individuality plays an unsuppressible role. However, this does not authorise relegating it to a subjective realm in the sense of relativism. Scientific progress does not eliminate metaphysics; on the contrary, the validity of experimental science constitutes a verification of realist ontological and epistemological ideas. And it is not surprising that metaphysical rigour is more difficult to achieve than that of experimental science: this difficulty is logical if one takes into account the vital commitment that metaphysical ideas imply. The dichotomy between the goal-scientific and the subjective-metaphysical is not agreement with rigorous epistemological analyses; however, the deepening of metaphysics is a demanding task that requires, in a special way, the cultivation of ethical attitudes.

If one of the distinctive features of the human person is the use of symbols, it can be said that experimental science emerged when it learned to create a particular symbolic language that allows, so to speak, a dialogue with nature. This language necessarily relies on an activity, experimentation, by which one actively intervenes in the course of natural phenomena, and this conditions the possible modalities of scientific language. The world of this language was definitively opened up with the scientific revolution of the 17th century. But subsequent revolutions, although only partial, continue to open up new horizons, sometimes with a strong philosophical density. It can be said that the modern scientific revolutions allow us to better understand the very nature of experimental science, the nature of metaphysical reflection, and the harmony that exists between the two perspectives.

I have argued that the scientific revolution is not over, in that, so far, a fully satisfactory interpretation of what is meant by the perspective of experimental science has not been achieved. The very difficulty of topic explains this status. However, we are now in a position to fill in this task in its essential aspects. To the extent that we succeed in doing so, we will be able to say that the scientific revolution is over.


  1. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1964 (1st edition 1945). The Greek conception is discussed on pp. 3-4 and 29-92, the Renaissance one on pp. 4-9 and 92-132, and the modern one on pp. 9-27 and 133-177.
  2. S.L. Jaki, The Relevance of Physics, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1970 (1st edition 1966). The first part of the book is devoted to the three great models of the world according to physics: the world as an organism (pp. 3-51), as a mechanism (pp. 52-94), and as a numerical design (pp. 95-137).
  3. G.J. Whitrow, The Role of Time in Cosmology, in: W. Yourgrau - A.D. Breck (eds.), Cosmology, History, and Theology, Plenum Press, New York 1977, p. 159-177.
  4. W.W. Spradlin - P. Porterfield, The Search for Certainty, Springer, New York 1984.
  5. N. Hartmann, Ontology. IV: Philosophy de la naturaleza, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico 1960 (original 1950), p. 5-13.
  6. See, as basic references: L. von Bertalanffy,General System Theory, George Braziller, New York 1968; and E. Laszlo, Introduction to Systems Philosophy, Gordon and Breach, New York 1971. A succinct exhibition can be found in: E. Laszlo - L. von Bertalanffy, Hacia una Philosophy de sistemas, Revista Teorema, Valencia 1981.
  7. A survey of the vocabulary of systems theory can be found in: S. S. S. Robbins - T. A. Oliva, The Empirical Identification of fifty-one Core General Systems Theory Vocabulary Components, General Systems, 28 (1983-1984), p. 69-76.
  8. L. von Bertalanffy, Perspectivas en la teoría general de sistemas, Alianza, Madrid 1986, p. 45.
  9. Ibid., p. 66-67.
  10. In this sense, Mario Bunge has extensively used the approach of systems theory in the formulation of his ideas. See in particular his Ontology II: A World of Systems, Reidel, Dordrecht 1979 (volume IV of his Treatise on Basic Philosophy).
  11. Cf. L. von Bertalanffy, Perspectives on the General Theory of Systems, cit.
  12. M. Artigas, Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, Eunsa, Pamplona 1989, chapter VI. I basically agree with Evandro Agazzi's ideas and I have used them in my study; in this respect, see: M. Artigas, Objectivité et fiabilité dans la science, in the collective work L'objectivité dans les différentes sciences, edited by E. Agazzi, Editions Universitaires, Fribourg 1988, p. 41-54, where references to Agazzi's main works on this question are also included.
  13. L. von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, cit. p. 77-80.