Reading the book of nature

Reading the book of nature

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Texto inédito. Reuniones Filosóficas de la Universidad de Navarra, (24.IV.1995)
Date of publication: 1995 

I intend to analyse the place of God in our relationship with nature. My reflections are articulated in three parts: in the first I will analyse some aspects of the problem today, in the second I will present some personal proposals that refer to the bridge that connects the sciences and natural theology, and in the third I will allude to some particular characteristics of this bridge.


We are immersed in the birth of a new era. I think there is no need to justify this assessment. It is also clear that the new ideas and habits revolve to a large extent around the natural sciences, their interpretations and their applications.

Scientific progress seems to have contributed significantly to the bracketing of God. Laplace's famous reply to Napoleon is an index of a status that has become widespread today: God has become an unnecessary hypothesis not only in physics, but also in biology and anthropology. We are witnessing the systematic bracketing of God in all fields of scientific knowledge. And, since it is doubted that there is any other way to obtain objective and reliable knowledge, a representation of reality in which God plays no role is proposed. It has become a new edition of the "Idle God", the "Idle Architect" of deism. agreement But this time it does not even seem necessary to have recourse to Him for the creation of the universe, either because Withdrawal raises the classical metaphysical problems, or because it goes so far as to speak of an alleged "self-creation" of the universe which would have arisen, according to the laws of physics, from a fluctuation of the quantum vacuum: although it is noted that the quantum vacuum is not nothingness, there is no lack of arguments to equate the origin of the universe according to scientific cosmology with a "creation without a Creator".

At final, we are witnessing a hegemony of naturalism, which in the contemporary Western world appears closely related to the positivist mentality.

Certainly, positivism and its neo-positivist version are officially dead and buried. However, it would be a mistake to consider them definitively gone. Although many of the interpretations they proposed have been devastatingly criticised and their inadequacy has become evident, their basic thesis have not only survived, but have acquired such a persuasive force that they are not even discussed, although they largely condition current ideas. It is a new case of "reigning after death".

Indeed, it is easy to see how widespread naturalism is today. The revival of scientism is sometimes virulent, as can be seen in a recent book by Francis Crick, deservedly famous for his finding, together with James Watson, of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. In recent years, this award Nobel Prize winner has devoted himself to the study of the brain and consciousness, and has published a book entitled La búsqueda científica del alma *(1)(The Scientific Search for the Soul). He sets out his thesis , which he calls the revolutionary hypothesis, in these words: "The revolutionary hypothesis is that "You", your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your own sense of identity staff and your free will, are nothing more than the behaviour of a vast array of nerve cells and associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice would have put it: "You're just a bunch of neurons". This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it may well be called revolutionary" *(2).

Naturalism is usually presented in a more academic garb, but its basic thesis still retains its full force. In an extensive anthology, recently published by MIT and offered as material for a wide range of courses on Philosophy of science, it is stated that, after the break-up of the positivist-inspired paradigm, "until recently no new consensus has emerged in the Philosophy of science", adding that "a new "post-positivist" consensus has emerged", and specifying that the new consensus does not refer to a particular philosophical conception, but rather to the major problems of Philosophy of science and the relevant options. When the authors explain the new paradigm, one of the concepts that appears most frequently is that of "naturalism" *(3). The new paradigm is presented as a non-reductionist naturalism, which admits the existence of different levels both in nature and in science, and Withdrawal to reduce them to a basic level; for this reason, it is also presented under the degree scroll of non-reductionist physicalism. A glance at current discussions, especially in the field of anthropology, reveals refined elaborations that revolve around new concepts, such as that of supervenience, and old concepts that are remodelled to adapt them to the current status , as is the case with the concept of emergence, recovered from oblivion after having experienced a great boom in the 1920s and 1930s. In these discussions it is explicitly stated that it is a matter of defending a materialistic perspective in which there is no place for spiritual dimensions *(4).

Naturalism is linked with the disenchantment of nature. Friedrich Schiller already referred to this using the expression "Entgötterung der Natur", and Max Weber, a century later, used the expression "Entzaüberung der Welt". In reaction, proposals for the "re-divinisation" and "re-enchantment" not only of nature but even of science proliferate today, but these are generally unsatisfactory attempts: they are often right in their criticisms, but fail to propose viable alternatives. I will refer to some particularly significant examples.

On the one hand, some leading scientists propose a new worldview that would encompass both science and Humanities. Mention can be made in this context of the new alliance discussed by Ilya Prigogine *(5), and also, to some extent, of the humanism developed by René Thom and Hermann Haken. In these cases, new scientific perspectives, which are of undoubted interest, are used as the basis for a new world view which, however, seems to be limited to projecting these particular approaches onto a general construction which is too fragile. The metamorphosis of science of which Prigogine speaks includes the overcoming of mechanicism, affirms the importance of temporal dimensions, and takes into account the synergistic or cooperative dimensions that science discovers in nature. These are important factors in today's worldview. But it is not even clear that they can be applied to Humanities, since they refer to characteristics of nature and its experimental scientific study.

There is sometimes talk of a post-modern science characterised by the Withdrawal approach to certainty, by the importance attributed to indeterminism, and by the recognition of interpretative factors in scientific objectivity *(6). In this context, it is claimed that there are no fundamental differences between the objectivity of the natural sciences and the human sciences. But neither the judgement of scientific truth is exact, nor is the conclusion of agreement with the peculiar objectivity of the natural sciences. It seems obligatory to recognise that in experimental science there is a specific intersubjectivity, impossible to achieve in other fields, precisely because it is limited to those aspects of reality that can be related to experimental control: therefore, to the material aspects. It is no disgrace that this intersubjectivity cannot be achieved in the Humanities, whose object of study includes spiritual dimensions that cannot be treated in the same way as material ones, without this implying renouncing the rigour of strictly philosophical proofs.

Sometimes a genuine reform of the natural sciences is claimed *(7), which we do not even know what it might consist of, as if these sciences could be reconstructed according to the dictates of ontologies that present themselves as scientific (especially the Philosophy of process). Or an amalgam is proposed in which science, as well as Philosophy and theology, are reformulated in a synthesis that can hardly be recognised as authentic by any of the parties *(8).

With these critical remarks I have tried to pave the way to show what could be an appropriate approach of the problems. I will now devote the second part of my speech to show those positive ways, making it clear from the outset that I do not intend to argue for a monopolistic approach : it is only a possible way forward, which I certainly consider not only feasible, but important and promising.


First of all, I would like to stress that there is a methodological gap between the natural sciences and philosophical reflection that must always be respected. The sciences seek a knowledge that can be subjected to experimental control, and no extra-scientific written request can set itself up as the judge of their results. Philosophical reflection, for its part, focuses on the study of the conditions of possibility of the sciences: it studies their assumptions and their implications. Therefore, if we stick rigorously (as we should) to the possibilities of the respective methods, we will not find problems that can be strictly qualified as borderline questions.

Under these conditions, we might doubt that there can be a dialogue between the sciences and Philosophy. However, I have already indicated a way forward: the study of the assumptions and implications of the sciences. Indeed, although the sciences are autonomous at their own level, they nevertheless use assumptions whose validity is required for science to be possible and meaningful. Moreover, further scientific progress has implications of philosophical interest. In short, I will affirm that the sciences are based on philosophical assumptions, and their progress retro-acts on them: it retro-justifies them, expands them and makes them more precise. The rest of my intervention is aimed at explaining this thesis and exploring its consequences.

I will refer to the philosophical assumptions of the sciences in general, that is, those that are common to any scientific activity. Broadly speaking, these assumptions are of two kinds. Epistemological assumptions refer to the human capacity to confront nature as an object, to construct models and to test their validity by means of experimentation: the existence of a subject who possesses an argumentative capacity and a cognitive structure that allows him to link material and intellectual aspects is thus assumed. The ontological assumptions refer to the existence of a nature, independent of our will, which has its own consistency and possesses a specific order: a structure in different levels related to each other in a unitary way. Nature must also be intelligible, i.e. capable of being conceptualised logically and coherently.

It is not difficult to see that these assumptions express authentic conditions of possibility for the sciences, because their validity is indispensable for the sciences to exist. They do not impose any specific approach on the sciences: they express nothing more (and nothing less) than dimensions of nature and man without whose existence scientific activity could not exist. In fact, science not only exists but is making remarkable progress, and this can be used as test for the validity of the above assumptions. In that sense, scientific progress retro-justifies the adequacy of those assumptions. Moreover, as this progress opens up new vistas both in the representation of nature and in the modalities of its knowledge, it can be said that it broadens and clarifies the assumptions that serve as its basis. Indeed, the more science progresses, the better we know both the order of nature and our capacities to represent it.

Nor is it difficult to see that a systematic reflection on the epistemological and ontological assumptions of the sciences will lead to central problems of gnoseology and ontology, and that if we carry our reflection to the end, the typical problems of natural theology will appear. Therefore, philosophical reflection provides, on the one hand, the ground for the scientific research , and on the other hand, the complement that science needs so that its results can be integrated into a unitary worldview that includes the different dimensions of human experience.

At this point, it may be useful to refer to the classic metaphor of the book of nature, which has been used in different contexts over the centuries*(9). It is one of the most fruitful metaphors for expressing the problems at hand: how can we read this book, what are its characteristics, what is the value of our reading, where does it come from?

By underlining that reading the book requires the use of language, this metaphor allows us to underline that science is a true hermeneutic activity. For several centuries it has been repeated that modern experimental science was born when scientists began to observe nature without prejudice, collecting facts and relating them by formulating laws. This idea is a central part of the positivist mentality. However, it provides a veritable caricature of real science. Dedicated to observing without preconceptions and interpretations, men would not have become scientists, but owls, and not exactly of Minerva. Nevertheless, this image of science has exerted an influence B and continues to do so today.

That science is an interpretative activity is strongly emphasised in contemporary epistemology, sometimes to an overly forced extreme that leads to a certain relativism, by making the scientific knowledge dependent on paradigms whose truth could never be proven.

The wonderful thing about experimental science is that it combines the interpretative aspect with a rigorous evaluation of the validity of the models used. It is never a matter of applying a univocal language in a routine way: there are no automatic methods that guarantee creativity, either in proposing new hypotheses or in testing their validity. Note that I deliberately stress the importance of creativity not only when it comes to formulating new theories but also when trying to test their validity: the analysis of current scientific programs of study sample ad nauseam that scientific tests are often enormously sophisticated, and have little or nothing to do with the routine application of pre-established logical methods.

Nature is not written in any specific language, mathematical or otherwise subject. Nature does not speak. The metaphor of the book, in this case, assumes that there is an interlocutor (us), capable of creating a language that allows, at the same time, to express the properties of nature, to formulate a coherent speech , and to propose arguments about the validity of that speech. It is we who make nature speak. By obeying it, no doubt, but also by forcing it to reveal its secrets through very subtle interrogations.

However, nature possesses such characteristics that allow the construction of scientific languages. The knowledge we draw from it is expressed in our language, but, when well verified, it reflects real characteristics of nature, although not always as a simple photograph.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of nature is precisely that, being made up of apparently "blind" components and forces, it can be represented and studied through coherent rational languages. The relationality of nature is closely related to the assumptions I alluded to earlier. And scientific progress provides increasing confirmation B of the extent of this rationality and its highly sophisticated character.

It is precisely in this area that we find a line of reflection that leads to the relationship between the sciences and natural theology.


The bridge between the sciences and natural theology is necessarily a philosophical one. It does not belong to the specific domain of the sciences, but to the reflection on their assumptions and implications. It is thus understandable why one should not try to force the sciences to pronounce on matters which, as a matter of principle, fall outside the scope of their own methods. But it is also clear that the sciences contribute important elements for the construction of a unified world view in which scientific knowledge and humanistic reflection are integrated.

From a historical perspective, it is interesting to note the role played by Christian ideas about creation in the systematic birth of modern experimental science. There is no need for a detailed analysis of this theme, which is amply documented in well-documented works*(10). While acknowledging the influence of ideas from other cultures, it is striking that the only viable birth of modern science has taken place in the context of a "Christian cultural matrix", thoroughly permeated by Christian ideas about God staff as creator and provident, about the world as a rational work of divine wisdom (thus knowable as possessing an inner rationality), about the contingent character of the world (thus to be studied by experimental investigations), about man as the image and likeness of God (thus capable of knowing the world). These ideas provided a basis on which the scientific business made sense, and the testimony of the great pioneers of the new science corroborates the importance they actually exercised. It may even be added that, although in the preceding centuries no relevant scientific results were achieved, much work was nevertheless done which slowly prepared the way for the scientific revolution of the 17th century *(11).

It can be stated, at final, that Christian ideas about a creative God staff , with all that this implies, were of decisive importance in the birth and development of experimental science. Obviously, they did not provide the specific resources, but the cultural factors that made their fruitful use possible. All this is an answer to current questions about the relevance of theology for our relationship to nature and our work in the sciences.

Once the sciences are underway, is the presence of the conditions that made their birth possible still necessary? It is possible to argue that, even if their theological matrix can be dispensed with, the basic assumptions of science are still present, at least implicitly. This is attested to by the reflections of quite a few truly creative scientists, irrespective of their religious convictions: Planck, Einstein and Heisenberg, for example, who are among the pioneers of the major scientific revolutions of the early part of the 20th century, can be cited in this respect. And it may even be added that these assumptions can hardly find a coherent justification if one disregards their theological background *(12).

It is certainly possible to get on a moving train without worrying about the conditions that make its construction and operation possible. In other words, it is possible to work effectively in science, even if one does not reflect on its assumptions and implications, and even if one eventually holds ideas that are incompatible with them. For this reason, the testimony of scientists, although always interesting, has no decisive argumentative value. What counts are the actual connections, whether explicitly noted or only implicitly used.

In this sense, the implications of scientific progress are of great importance. Indeed, the sciences provide a vision that, for the first time in history, extends to all levels of nature and its connections.

Of course, this can be interpreted as a success of the reductionist programme*(13), because it implies the extension of scientific explanations to a wider and wider range of phenomena. But the above reflections will allow us to understand that scientific progress and metaphysical reflection should not be opposed to each other. Indeed, metaphysical reflection on the assumptions and implications of science becomes all the more important the greater the scientific progress. These are two sides of the same coin. In contrast to the prejudice that sees metaphysics retreating as science advances, it should be noted that, on the contrary, the better knowledge of nature leads to metaphysical questions being posed more and more vividly.

Take molecular biology, for example, which is a privileged field of current scientific progress. It is a fantastic world that is beginning to be understood in detail. The life of a single cell is a true marvel, and involves the coordinated unfolding, in both space and time, of multiple, enormously sophisticated processes. An organism such as ours consists of trillions of cells, and includes a whole host of organs and systems, each of which also possesses extraordinary subtlety. The study of these subjects is fascinating. The task of metaphysical reflection is not to introduce new physico-chemical or biological explanatory factors; rather, it is to make explicit the assumptions and implications of what science allows us to know: modes of being; virtualities; tendencies; cooperativity; information that is stored, unfolded and integrated; all existing in material conditions and functioning through forces that we may call "blind" because they do not respond to intelligent activity. It is easy to see that the perennial problems about the relations between nature and metaphysics find here an optimal basis for their present formulation, and in fact, it can be seen that these problems continue to provoke an endless number of programs of study in which, regardless of the evaluation results, all the problems of the Philosophy of nature and, ultimately, of natural theology, are given quotation .

In conclusion: God can be methodologically bracketed in the scientific work , as in any other human activity, as long as we limit ourselves to carrying out this task with the sole concern of complying with efficiency standards within an established paradigm. However, when we ask ourselves about the conditions of possibility and the implications of this activity, a whole set of metaphysical questions inevitably arise, which can only be seriously addressed through a properly metaphysical reflection.

BThe proliferation of current publications, both specialised and popularised, in which the great themes of the Philosophy and their theological implications are explicitly dealt with, can be cited as support for this conclusion. Even the proliferation of programs of study in the direction of naturalism is a testimony to the validity of the metaphysical approach , since naturalism can only deny some metaphysical thesis using reflections that, in a way, are also situated at the metaphysical level.

This conclusion refers to metaphysics and natural theology in a generic way, although I have alluded to the historical importance of some Christian ideas. No doubt a more explicit reference letter to specific metaphysical and theological ideas would require further reflection. It is not difficult to see, however, that the metaphysics of being and of the participation of being, together with the classical ideas about essence, subject and form, and Aristotelian causes, can be greatly enriched when provided with a basis for reflection such as that provided by the sciences today. But this belongs to another speech which would oblige me to go beyond the time possibilities available at the moment.



  1. Cf. F. Crick, The Scientific Search for the Soul. A revolutionary hypothesis for the 21st century, discussion, Madrid 1994.

  2. Ibid., p. 3.

  3. Cf. Boyd, R. - Gasper, P. - Trout, J. D. (eds.), The Philosophy of Science, The MIT Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1991, "Introduction", pp. xi-xiv.

  4. See, for example: Beckermann, A. - Flohr, H. - Kim, J. (eds.), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1992; Kim, J. "Concepts of Supervenience", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 45 (1984-1985), pp. 153-176; Papineau, D. Philosophical Naturalism. Blackwell, Oxford 1993; Stöckler, M. "A Short History of Emergence and Reductionism", in: Agazzi, E. (ed.), The Problem of Reductionism in Science, Kluwer, Dordrecht 1991.

  5. Cf. Prigogine, I. - Stengers, I., La nueva alianza: metamorfosis de la ciencia, Alianza, Madrid 1983.

  6. Cf. Madsen, D. L. - Madsen, M. S., "Fractals, Chaos and Dynamics: The Emergence of Postmodern Science", in: Earnshaw, S. (ed.), Postmodern Surroundings, Rodopi, Amsterdam 1994, pp. 119-132.

  7. Cf. Griffin, D. R., The Reenchantment of Science. (ed.), The Reenchantment of Science. Postmodern Proposals, State University of New York Press, Albany 1988; Cobb Jr., J. B., "One Step Further", in: Russell, R. J. - Stoeger, W. R. - Coyne, G. V. (eds.), John Paul II on Science and Religion. Reflections on the New View from Rome, Vatican Observatory Publications, Vatican City State 1990, pp. 5-8.

  8. Cfr. Capra, F. - Steindl-Rast, D. - Matus, T., Pertenecer al universo. Encuentros entre ciencia y espiritualidad, Edaf, Madrid 1994. David Steindl-Rast and Thomas Matus are Benedictine Camaldolese monks from Big Sur, California. Fritjof Capra became famous for his 1975 work The Tao of Physics, in which he sought to bring modern physics closer to Eastern religions; he now shows a new interest in integrating his perspectives with Christian ideas.

  9. Cf. Pedersen, O., The Book of Nature, The University of Notre Dame Press - Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Notre Dame (Indiana) - Città del Vaticano 1992.

  10. It is necessary to refer to the pioneering work of Pierre Duhem: see Duhem, P., Le système du monde. Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic, 10 volumes, Hermann, Paris 1913-1917 and 1954-1959. Important analyses of this topic are found, for example, in: Jaki, S. L., Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh - Science History Publications, New York 1974 (second enlarged edition: 1986); The Road of Science and the Ways to God, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago - Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh 1978 (reprints: 1980 and 1985; Italian edition: Iaca, Milano 1988).

  11. This has been clearly underlined, for example, by Thomas Kuhn: cfr. Kuhn, T. S., La revolución copernicana: la astronomía planetaria en el development del pensamiento occidental, Ariel, Barcelona 1978.

  12. See: Jaki, S. L., "Theological Aspects of Creative Science", in: Chance or Reality and other Essays, University Press of America, Lanham 1986, pp. 161-181.

  13. Cf. Stöckler, M., "Reductionism and the New Theories of Self-Organization", in: Schurz, G. - Dorn, G. J. W. (eds.),Advances in Scientific Philosophy, Rodopi, Amsterdam 1991, pp. 233-254.