Metadisciplinarity. Science, philosophy and theology

Metadisciplinarity. Science, philosophy and theology

Author: Prof. Lluís Clavell. Pontificia Università della Santa Croce (Rome)
Published in: (pp. 43-54 of: "Unità del sapere e del fare, una soluzione transdisciplinare? (risultati del Convegno, Napoli, 26-28 ottobre 2000), a cura di Ezio Mariani. Napoli, Istituto per ricerche ed attività educative, 2001, 244 p.)
Date of publication: 2001

1. Un riferimento iniziale a "Fides et ratio".

The intention and purpose of the Encyclical Fides et Ratio are not limited to the relationship between theology and philosophy. This is evident in the conclusion of the Encyclical, where Pope John Paul II turns to the scientists: "Nell'esprimere la mia amrazione ed il mio incoraggiamento a questi valorosi pionieri della ricerca scientifica, ai quali l'umanità tanto deve del suo presente sviluppo, sento il dovere di esortarli a proseguire nei loro sforzi restando sempre in quell'orizzonte sapienziale, in cui alle acquisizioni scientifiche e tecnologiche s'affiancano i valori filosofici ed etici, che sono manifestazione caratteristica ed imprescindibile della persona humana" (FR 106). The document therefore also has in mind other forms of knowledge and science, which, through philosophy, are placed in an orbit of knowledge.

The Holy Father is concerned about the unitary and organic vision of knowledge and affirms: "This is one of the challenges that Christian thought will have to face during the next millennium of the Christian era" (FR 85). The words make us think of a demanding, peaceful and arduous work, which may last for a long time. Ma è molto importante poiché è in gioco la lacerazione dell'uomo contemporaneo: "La settorialità del sapere, in quanto comporta un approccio parziale alla verità con la conseguente frammentazione del senso, impedisce l'unità interiore dell'uomo contemporaneo. How could the Church not be concerned? Questo compito sapienziale deriva ai suoi Pastori direttamente dal Vangelo ed essi non possono sottrarsi al dovere di perseguirlo" (Ib.).

2. Consapevolezza della frammentazione del sapere

Today many authors deplore the fragmentation of knowledge, bearing in mind the right distinction between specialisation and fragmentation. The former is necessary for progress in the field of knowledge and human development, and is inevitable given the limitations of man. The second, however, is harmful. As a matter of principle, specialisation should not inevitably lead to fragmentation. In fact, however, perhaps because of the way in which specialisation has come about, it has been accompanied by the fragmentation of knowledge in sciences that do not communicate.

Specialisation has given rise to a great diversity of research methods, with the consequent creation of very particular languages. According to MacIntyre, the organisational structure of universities into faculties, schools and departments has also led to isolation and incommunicability between the sciences. Fragmentation has penetrated perfectly into the two most sapiential fields of knowledge, philosophy and theology, in whose respective faculties the different areas of research communicate little, so that the unifying role of these fields, which are per se linked to each other in reality, becomes ineffective.

Framing has had a number of negative effects. On the side of known reality, fragmentation has brought with it a plethora of data and knowledge without a unitary vision of reality. Today, man finds himself having to act in a world of which he has only partial and collected images. This gives rise to a sense of insecurity, which is provably caused by the results of technology.

On the human side, there is an even more serious undesired effect, in that, studied only with the methods of natural sciences, the human being has a fragmented vision of itself. The concentration on the subject and the detachment of the subject from the object, characteristics of the modern age, have led to a situation of maximum perplessness on the fundamental question: who am I?

3. La soluzione dell'interdisciplinarità

Faced with the problem of fragmentation, we have tried to promote contact between the different disciplines. More and more meetings and spaces are being created where scholars of different sciences, more or less close to each other, can talk to each other. Courses are provided in which students can face an object of study from different methodological approaches, in order to obtain a synthesised vision.

A first Degree of unity is the multidisciplinary approach, whereby a given question is studied by several disciplines, but without any interaction between them. It is limited to the gathering of information from the various sciences. Interdisciplinarity instead proceeds beyond interaction, because it considers the various disciplines in reciprocal connection in terms of the methods and in terms of the research in the culture.

An important step has been taken with interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary activities have the advantage of facilitating the examination of the problems of the foundations of one or several sciences, of showing the complementarity between them and thus of correcting the prejudices - often ideological - that are at the basis of isolationism and ridicule. The various sciences have found the possibility of encounter and exchange of views on an equal footing.

Not everything has been positive. In the epistemological field, in general, there has been an insistence on the need to avoid the attempt to try to reduce some sciences to others. However, this attempt, which could be called a process of 'cattive unification', has occurred in some cases, as for example with Edward Osborne Wilson (in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge), who proposes to unify all sciences by interpreting them in the key of evolutionary sociobiology.

Prof. G. Tanzella-Nitti made me realise that often the focus on interdisciplinarity is linked to reasons of pragmatic efficiency in the field of action and not to a desire for unity in the order of knowledge: we work and dialogue together in order to produce more and better or to achieve a certain objective more closely, not in order to "respond more fully and therefore more truthfully" to the tasks that count. Obviously, for the purposes of the unit of knowledge, this second subject of interdisciplinarity would be preferable.

Another negative point is the fact that in general, theology and philosophy, which could have had a somewhat unifying role, have remained somewhat isolated in this move towards interdisciplinarity, at least in some geographical and cultural areas.

Turning to the results obtained, the preconception that rigorous knowledge is the privilege of natural sciences, imposed in the form of mathematical speculation, now seems to have been overcome in the majority of scientists. It is the internal critique of science itself that has led to the overcoming of scientific paradigms. More recently Popper has recognised the importance of broader frames of reference, of subject metaphysical, for scientific development.

The epistemological gap between natural sciences and human sciences, linked to the distinction between 'understanding' and 'understanding' has been blurring and overcoming, for example in Von Wright or Ricoeur, and it has been seen that natural sciences and human sciences have common links and aspects, as they have an ermeneutic dimension. Prigogine, noting that pure science is more inclined to a more historical vision of nature, insists that there are links between natural science and human science, a statement closer to an Aristotelian or Bergsonian perspective and contrary to the dualistic paradigm of Cartesian origin.

4. Dall'interdisciplinarità alle questioni metadisciplinari

Gualberto Gismondi (cfr. Fede e cultura scientifica, EDB, Bologna 1993) grade that the interdisciplinary method, designed to remedy the contradictions and frammentation of the scientific paradigm, is no longer adequate to the epistemology of complexity, which characterises the current scientific period. It is necessary to move towards a transdisciplinary method, in which several sciences put together all their basic principles to find the unifying foundation.

Degree According to me, interdisciplinarity is favouring the contact between the different disciplines, but per se it moves on a horizontal level and does not address - or at least does not do so clearly and explicitly - the subsequent questions that arise from a given scientific perspective and that science is not in a position to resolve. It therefore seems to be a partial solution or a first step, because it does not make explicit the fact, which is very important, that there are metadisciplinary questions.

In the world of knowledge there have long been classic developments of meta-disciplinarity, such as, for example, the philosophy of law. This deals with meta-legal issues, i.e., those that are the cornerstones of law, which, however, the jurist cannot ignore. Law depends on a deeper knowledge of anthropology, of what is right and wrong, of good and evil. Another paradigmatic example of metadisciplinarity is Aristotle's metaphysical research. His physics (with biology, astronomy, etc.) posed problems that lay beyond it and constituted metaphysics. For some decades, several metasciences have been developed (metamathematics, metallurgy, metabiology, etc.), which aim to explore a certain discipline in a framework of more general principles than those of discipline itself, thus allowing the solution of undecidable aporia and problems. In a way, it is a question of philosophical reflections on science.

Without pretending to be experts, at least three types of meta-disciplinary issues can be distinguished: a) alcune sono epistemologiche, cioè la considerazione sul proprio metodo, la sua specificità e la sua distinzione da altri metodi vicini, i suoi vantaggi e i suoi limiti; b) others are born from the subjects studied, which, not being fully understood with that method, remain at the foundations, which are found in other knowledge, accessible with other types of reasoning; c) it is possible to speak of a third group of meta-disciplinary questions: la necessità di scoprire e di approfondire il quadro metafisico, etico e religioso di riferimento, all'interno del quale si muovono coloro che praticano quella scienza; un quadro che cambia lungo la storia, ma che sempre esiste, poiché nessun scienziato può essere veramente neutrale di fronte alle questioni radicali e prescindere da queste nelle proprie ricerche.

I would like to try to reflect in a more general way on natural and human sciences. As far as natural sciences are concerned, an interesting example of how to deal with metadisciplinary questions can be found in the recent work of M. Artigas, La mente del universo (Eunsa, Pamplona 1999). In this way, starting from the current state of science and in dialogue with the main scientists and philosophers of science, he tries to discover the various presuppositions: ontological (the existence of an order in nature, which makes it intelligible), epistemological (the human capacity to know that order) and ethical, concerning the values implied in scientific activity.

Beyond these presuppositions there are the fundamental problems of the philosophy of nature, imposed, however, starting from science as it has been developed. Here are the questions of causality, the nature of activity, the quantitative and qualitative aspects, and perhaps most particularly the question of finality, to which Robert Spaemann has devoted a book (together with his collaborator Reinhard Löw, Die Frage Wozu?Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens, R. Piper, München - Zürich 1985). In the modern period, with Cartesian dualism, teleology is lost, and I wonder if this was not one of the reasons that led from specialisation to fragmentation.

The natural sciences therefore call in cause the philosophy of knowledge, both in its precise epistemological perspective (philosophy of science) and in that of the philosophy of nature. It is clear, however, that the understanding of the cosmos does not end at this level, since metaphysical and anthropological issues are involved above all, as Artigas has rightly pointed out.

The field of human sciences appears to be quite complicated. In many cases it has been developed using methods born in the natural sciences, as has been the case, for example, with sociology and psychology. On the other hand, we need to recognise that many sociologists' and psychologists' researches have had a certain philosophical thickness, which has sometimes even enriched philosophy itself. There is also the particularly interdisciplinary field of "cognitive science", in which computer science, psychology, philosophy of language, neurophysiology, education, etc. all participate.

All human sciences are obviously not only concerned with questions of scientific method, but also with the themes of an integral philosophical anthropology, which is also intended to embrace the fundamental questions of ethics and politics.

I would like to underline how important the role of philosophy is in this transition to metadisciplinarity. I am aware of the "goal" services on the internet, which promote a constructive relationship (engagement) between science and religion. But for this relationship, philosophical mediation is necessary. Fides et ratio affirms that if philosophy will have a sapiential dimension, "it will not only be the decisive critical stage, which indicates to the various parts of scientific knowledge their depth and their limits, but it will also be the ultimate stage of unification of knowledge and human action, inducing them to converge towards a definitive goal and a definitive meaning. This knowledge dimension is all the more indispensable today as the immense growth of mankind's technical power requires a renewed and acute awareness of ultimate values. Se questi mezzi tecnici dovessero mancare dell'ordinamento ad un fin non meramente utilitaristico, potrebbero presto rivelarsi disumani, ed anzi trasformarsi in potenziali distruttori del genere umano" (FR 81).

According to these words, philosophy should take on two challenges: one epistemological, i.e. that of reflecting on the method, its foundations and the limits of any science; the other, related to the first but even more intensely sapiential, that of the unification of knowledge and action.

5. Metaphysical and anthropological knowledge

These reflections on metadisciplinarity lead us to some intellectual and moral openings of a knowledgeable nature, which help us to access the inner reality without going beyond the empirical levels, i.e. to pass from the phenomenon to the reality. In other words, both the empirical approach and the subsequent phenomenological vision tend to per se to the metaphysical trace that penetrates into being itself. At the same time metaphysics requires a phenomenological understanding.

In this perspective, metaphysics is not astratic, but universal, radical and concrete. It keeps being in mind the different degrees of being and in a particular way the personal being, which gives the sense of creation. Therefore, alongside the universal metaphysics of being, there is a metaphysics of man, of feeling, of love, of work, of sensuality, of celebration, of gift, of art, etc. (Cfr. T. Melendo, Metaphysics of concrete. I rapporti tra filosofia e vita, Casa editrice "Leonardo da Vinci", Roma 2000, p. 40).

This imposition is along the lines of a metaphysics of everyday life. Si tratta della necessità che "le 'cose ultime' proprie della metafisica arrivino alla gente comune", poiché "la metafisica è cosa di tutti" ed è in questo rapportarci con la realtà stessa che ci giochiamo la vita eterna (C. Cardona, Aforismos, Rialp, Madrid 1999, pp. 20-21). All of this implies a decanting process to eliminate the formal complication that metaphysical wisdom has developed.

Metaphysics and anthropology are not alternatives, but there is a certain reciprocal implication, because the person is the privileged environment for the encounter with being. In order to indicate a sequence between the knowledge sciences, moving towards the most radical foundation, we can propose this order: from ethics to anthropology, and from anthropology to metaphysics.

The combination of metaphysics, anthropology and ethics becomes the sapiential nucleus to which metadisciplinary questions belong. A knowledge research articulated with these elements allows us to approach a unity of knowledge, which does not mean uniformity. It is a unity that was rarely achieved in the past and that the situation of science requires in a new way.

6. Il contributo della teologia all'unità del sapere

There remains one last very important step, which concerns religion and theology. Philosophical knowledge is necessary as a deeper and more radical knowledge on a purely human level. But that is not enough, because this knowledge is intimately linked to the religious dimension of the person, which is characterised by its openness to the being of other people, of the world and of God. Religion has a role to play in the promotion of knowledge and its service to man in his entirety. In a certain way the religious experience embraces in a unity of subject the different aspects of knowledge and action. Today, however, the majority of scientists see the relationship between science and religion in a positive light, with the necessary clarifications, because religions can have their errors and limitations.

As far as the divine relegation is concerned, it has its origin in the Incarnation of the Word through which God has willed in some way to unite Himself to each man, saving and freeing him from sin and its consequences, which have marked human history.

The trinomial of metaphysics, anthropology and ethics is not the last answer, but only the penultimate. It has particularly needed Christology to find satisfactory answers to the most pressing questions of the meaning of existence, pain, death, happiness and the thought of life. "The crucified figure of God is the historical event against which every attempt of the mind to construct a sufficient justification of the meaning of existence on the basis of arguments that are only human is rejected. The true central point, which defies all philosophy, is the death on the cross of Jesus Christ. (...). Quale sfida viene posta alla nostra ragione e quale vantaggio essa ne ricava se vi si arrende! La filosofia, che già da sé è in Degree di riconoscere l'incessante trascendersi dell'uomo verso la verità, aiutata dalla fede può aprirsi ad ad accogliere nella "follia" della Croce la genuina critica a qu quanti si illudono di possedere la verità, imbrigliandola nelle secche di un loro sistema. Il rapporto fede e filosofia trova nella predicazione di Cristo crocifisso e risorto lo scoglio contro il qual può naufragare, ma oltre il qual può sfociare nell'oceano sconfinato della verità" (FR 23).

These affirmations of Fides et ratio help us to grasp the great contribution of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery to human wisdom. Theology is a necessary aid to the unity of knowledge, as J.H. Newman saw very well in his work The Idea of the University. It is pleasing to see how in recent decades there has been an attempt to illuminate so many realities of daily and scientific life with the Rivelazione, giving rise to various sectoral theologies: theology of work, theology of law, theology of technology, etc. But these attempts, so necessary because the collaboration between faith and reason covers the whole field of knowledge, cannot bypass the role of philosophy.

Although divine Revelation has fortunately had a great and positive influence, theology, as a science, has never in the past been able to enlighten the other sciences in a satisfactory way. Therefore, we are faced with an exciting and new competition, also because we live in a highly developed cultural world on the scientific and university level. The search for the unity of knowledge constitutes a very demanding goal and at the height of the current historical moment. In order to save man it is worth breaking away from routine and isolating schemes and trying to overcome fragmentation.