My vision of the multidisciplinarity

My vision of the multidisciplinarity

Author: Mariano Artigas
dissertation in: seminar room of the group of programs of study Peirceanos of the University of Navarre
Date of publication: Pamplona, 17 May 2001


  1. The multidisciplinarity as an integration of disciplines

  2. The multidisciplinarity and the search for meaning

  3. Naturalism and reductionism

  4. Implications of today's scientific world view

  5. Science, people and truth

  6. Notes

The multidisciplinarity as an integration of disciplines

Nowadays, when you want to prepare a topic, the easiest thing to do is to search on the Internet. To prepare this seminar room, I searched the Internet for the word "interdisciplinarity" using search engine alltheweb. I found 10,819 entries, a issue that far exceeds the possibilities of my intervention. I examined a number of them, and will use some of them to develop my ideas.

The first example takes us to the University of British Columbia in Canada *(1). There, there is the Faculty of Graduate Studies, whose goal is to seek connections across the boundaries. These programs of study are developed in a School of programs of study Graduate Studies, which includes 19 Centres research, 7 Graduate Programmes, 1 Journal and 2 Residencies. For example, at the Centre for Applied Ethics there is a group of research on Genetics and Ethics, and another on Animal Welfare, which is said to be one of the central issues of our time: the treatment of animals in agriculture, research, sport and companionship is the subject of courses, programs of study post-docs, research and Education.

I will underline that, in the corresponding explanations, the typical ideas of multidisciplinarity appear. Indeed, in addition to the aforementioned idea of "connections across borders", other typical ideas are:

  • "To cross disciplinary boundaries" is almost the same thing;

  • "building bridges";

  • "starting from the problem, not from the point of view of any particular discipline" (starting from the problem, not from the point of view of any particular discipline);

  • "listening hard to the unfamiliar language of other disciplines;

  • "trying to forge new methods and approaches from different fields;

  • discipline "creating new knowledge that couldn't have emerged from the perspective of any one discipline" ( knowledge ).

I find it interesting to retain one idea from this list: we always talk about different disciplines, and try to establish relations between them, with a view to achieving results that are only possible through the mutual fertilisation of the disciplines. The starting point of multidisciplinarity is disciplinarity. If there are no disciplines, the raw subject of multidisciplinarity is missing. And it is assumed that the interdisciplinary work respects the specific characteristics of each discipline.

In the examples mentioned above, two types of results are achieved. In some cases, we arrive at an "integration" of disciplines, and the result will be the creation of a new discipline; this internship is common in both natural and human sciences: just think of biophysics, Biochemistry , sociobiology, bioethics, neuroscience or the Philosophy of language. The various "philosophies of" (of language, of nature, of religion, etc.) are philosophical disciplines that rest on an interdisciplinary basis, they are interdisciplinary by their very nature. In other cases, there is a simple "cooperation" between different disciplines; this happens when problems are tackled that require the intervention of several disciplines, whose contributions must be synthesised, without creating a new one discipline. This is the case for many problems whose complexity requires such cooperation: for example, in problems related to the environment, ethical codes in business or medicine, or animal welfare.

The multidisciplinarity and the search for meaning

A different perspective can be found on the website of the Interdisciplinary University of Paris*(2), where we read that:

" goal is to contribute to renewing the dialogue broken by a certain modernity between the order of facts and the order of values, by facilitating the dialogue between scientists, philosophers, theologians and actors in the economic world, in order to better understand the articulation between the implications of the scientific research and the search for meaning".

In this case, we are looking for a goal from another subject. We speak of "the search for meaning", of a broken dialogue that must be recomposed, of the articulation of the world of facts and the world of values. In classical terms, we are looking for a kind of sapiential knowledge that allows us to frame the different forms of knowledge in a general framework that gives them meaning and relates them to the central values of human life.

The problem is important. But it is very complicated, because there are many states in which the subject who poses it may find himself: it is not the same for a believer or an agnostic, for a scientist who seeks to integrate his science in a search for meaning, or for a theologian who wishes to keep his theology in line with scientific progress. It also depends on the historical circumstances: it is not the same to raise this problem in the 13th century or at the beginning of the 21st century.

However, there is one factor that often has a decisive influence on current approaches. I am referring to the enormous development of experimental science, which carries with it the temptation to turn experimental science into the core topic of the search for meaning.

Naturalism and reductionism

Naturalism is approach in vogue in some philosophical circles. There is talk, for example, of naturalising epistemology *(3), which means studying science by adopting a scientific approach, common to the study of any other aspect of reality. This is certainly possible, although it is problematic that approach exhausts what can be said about science. Naturalism is also referred to in other fields. In general, two types of naturalism are usually distinguished: methodological and ontological.

Almost everyone would agree agreement to accept the legitimacy of methodological naturalism. Each discipline adopts a particular approach and disregards dimensions that fall outside of it approach. Scientific disciplines do not need to raise ultimate questions. The problem is that epistemological naturalism can easily be interpreted as an ontological naturalism that denies the reality of what falls outside a given domain. Ontological naturalism is closely related to reductionism.

The advocates of the unity of science or the unification of knowledge argue precisely that such a unification is possible and desirable, among other reasons, in order to put an end to the fragmentation of knowledge into incommunicable areas. Some of them belong to the naturalist tradition. As is well known, within the Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath was the greatest advocate of the unification of science, and promoted the great project of the Encyclopaedia of Unified Science, which was finally truncated (incidentally, it is striking that Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was originally published as part of this Encyclopaedia *(4). Neurath spoke of "physicalism". Without going into details that would be complex (since the doctrines of the Circle were more varied and fluctuating than would appear at first sight), "physicalism" sounds like a kind of reductionism that takes physics as the basic science. One of Neurath's best-known writings is entitled "Sociology in Physicalism "(5).

Reductionism has been criticised in the past decades. Several reductionist attempts have failed, and it is generally accepted that there is a plurality of irreducible, emergent levels*(6). In September 1984, the 13th International lecture on the Unity of Science was held in Washington, D.C.; a preparatory meeting led to the publication of two volumes, the second of which is devoted entirely to the relationship between unity of science and reductionism*(7). The various authors are in agreement in rejecting reductionism, even rejecting the reduction of Chemistry to physics, the two sciences which have the most similarities and, one might even say, the most common parts. The status is such that, nowadays, those who hold positions that may seem to be, or are, naturalistic and even materialistic, often add the qualifier "non-reductionist", as in the case of "non-reductionist physicalism" in the field of theories of mind *(8). But the intention to realise a kind of unification of the whole knowledge "from below" is still alive. This can be seen in works that are widely echoed *(9), but also in the more academic field. For example, in the introduction to an extensive anthology of texts from Philosophy of science, published in 1991 with the intention of becoming an anthology of reference letter, it is stated that non-reductionist materialism is part of the current consensus in the Philosophy of science *(10).

It is easy to turn a methodological naturalism into an ontological one: it is enough to stop considering certain types of questions as relevant. I think this is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Rudolf Carnap provides an example in his autobiography. He tells how, when he arrived at the university, he turned away from religious doctrines for good. At first he replaced the idea of God as a being staff with a kind of pantheism. Then, he goes on to say, he realised that such pantheism was not necessary, "since natural facts, including those of man and society as part of nature, can be explained by the scientific method without any idea of God" *(11).

A paradigmatic case is that of evolutionary theories, which are often presented as the ultimate explanation, or at least the one that could not be surpassed, of reality. I must confess my surprise when, in the course of my research, I came across the reasoning that led the Congregation of the Index to include Henri Bergson's The Creative Evolution of Henri Bergson in the Index of banned books on 1 June 1914 (when this work had already reached 13 editions in French). One argument that the reviewer of the work considered basic is that, in his opinion, the book "is an effort of atheistic thought to explain the genesis of the world, the mystery of the universe, and especially of man, without a powerful and wise God, the creator, author and governor of things. God is a result of ignorance. Science proves that Nature is sufficient for itself, because it acts by itself. This is Bergson's topic " *(12). Today's philosophers and theologians would certainly qualify this interpretation of Bergson, but there is no doubt that the above-mentioned problem conditions a large part of today's discussions. If the scientific worldview is accepted, it would seem that divine action is simply unnecessary. This idea cannot be said to be a novelty. When Thomas Aquinas formulated his five ways to show the existence of God, he raised only two objections: one is precisely this, that created things could be explained without recourse to God, and the other is the existence of evil. These are still two very topical problems.

There are different variants of reductionism and naturalism. They are sufficient to attract the interest of those who are interested in a fruitful articulation of knowledge, both at the philosophical and theological level. There are also various options for those who wish to go beyond reductionism and naturalism. I will now allude to one proposal staff , which I have developed extensively in my book The Mind of the Universe *(13)

Implications of today's scientific world view

It seems to me that, at present, we are in a privileged status to address our problem. For the first time in history, we have a scientific worldview that is quite complete, so that we know, in its basic aspects, the components and functioning of the main levels of nature, both synchronic (status current) and diachronic (evolutionary history). Of course, the scientific disciplines have progressed in a fragmentary way. Until the end of the 19th century, nothing was known about the interior of the atom and therefore little could be known about the mechanisms of the Chemistry. Until nuclear physics was developed, almost nothing was known about the true nature of stars. The progress of molecular biology, and thus the knowledge of the mechanisms of life, has grown dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Much remains to be known, but we have a basic outline of the main aspects of the natural world.

The status in epistemology is also privileged. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Philosophy of science was a pastime of a few philosophers and scientists. The Vienna Circle gave it a great impetus both in Europe and in the United States, but it also conditioned it with a serious positivist ballast from which it has gradually been shed. Nowadays, programs of study has developed considerably from the points of view of logic, sociology, history, methodology, and this, together with the B development of many scientific disciplines, provides sufficient elements to propose a balanced Philosophy of science, which corresponds to science as it exists in reality and, at the same time, delves into the philosophical problems it raises, with guarantees of success.

The social impact of science has also reached a very high Degree and sometimes raises serious ethical challenges that show how closely scientific progress is linked to the search for truth and service to the human being.

It seems to me that this privileged status provides a very appropriate basis for a dialogue between the sciences, Philosophy and theology, leading to significant contributions in the field of the articulation of knowledge. I have found a way to carry this dialogue forward that scrupulously respects the peculiarities and autonomy of each subject of knowledge. Moreover, this dialogue can develop in many directions, although Philosophy is always the end or the means of this dialogue, as I will show below.

The central idea consists of realising that experimental science does not only include the statements, theories and models that have been formulated in each scientific discipline , but also the conditions that make the existence and progress of the scientific business possible. In effect, experimental science is, above all, a human activity directed towards a double unitary goal : to achieve a knowledge of nature that can be submitted to experimental control and, therefore, can serve as a basis for obtaining a controlled mastery of nature. But we will only be able to achieve this goal if three assumptions that can be considered as necessary conditions of scientific business in general are met:

  • that there is an intelligible natural order (ontological assumption),

  • that we possess the capacity to know it (epistemological assumption),

  • that the goal of this business is of such value that it is worth seeking it out (ethical assumption).

Various authors have pointed, in one way or another, to the existence of these three assumptions, which are part of science even if they do not intervene as explicitly formulated statements. Some authors have gone further, pointing in a direction that I have made topic of my work, namely that scientific progress retro-justifies, expands and specifies these assumptions. There is a feedback of scientific progress on the assumptions that make it possible. And the analysis of that feedback leads to a whole series of highly topical problems, which I have explored only in part, providing some insight into many issues that can be explored further.

At the ontological level, the concepts of dynamism, self-organisation, information, emergence and creativity occupy a central place in today's scientific worldview. These topics are of interest in their own right. Moreover, they are related to current discussions of natural purpose, evolution and contingency. And, if taken to the theological level, they raise interesting questions about the immanence of God in the world, natural creativity in relation to divine creativity, the existence not only of natural finality but of a divine plan.

In the epistemological sphere, scientific progress brings to the fore, in a previously unsuspected way, human capacities that were previously only latent and which have been developed thanks to the scientific work . Experimental science appears as the result of methods in which creativity, interpretation and argumentation play a central role. And all this leads to an ever better understanding of the uniqueness of the human being, which combines the Materials and spiritual dimensions in a unity staff. Scientific progress leads us to a better understanding of the subject of science. And the analysis of the peculiar reliability of experimental science allows us to understand its relations with other types of knowledge and experience, facilitating an authentic articulation of experience and knowledge.

In the ethical sphere, experimental science is inextricably linked to fundamental values of human existence. Firstly, because it constitutes a systematic and rigorous effort, which is socially institutionalised, to search for truth. The search for truth is one of the main ethical values of human life, and constitutes the main driving force of the scientific research . This is where the ethical value of scientific realism manifests itself. In this context, it would be very interesting to go deeper into the modalities of truth in the different spheres of human life: truth and experimental science, truth in Philosophy, moral truth, truth in social and political life, religious truth. Scientific progress, on the other hand, contributes to the dissemination of the values implied in the institutional character of science: cooperation, honesty, rigour, transparency, advertising. It can be affirmed that the development of science and technology has notably spread these values, without which the progress of science and its applications would be impossible.

In my book development some of the ideas mentioned, I allude to others, and at the end I comment on some themes that could be the subject of further work programs of study. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I refer to seven themes: God's involvement in creation, God's plans, God's transcendence, God's ways on earth, the smallness and greatness of man, integral naturalism, and the relations between natural, human and divine creativity. In this list I have emphasised the theological issues because the book is set in the context of the dialogue between science and religion. But throughout the book it is clear that the protagonist of this dialogue is Philosophy. It is necessarily so, because only it has the capacity to build bridges between two perspectives separated by different objectives and methodologies.

The Philosophy also has its characteristic aims and methodology, but by its very nature it is incumbent upon it to make explicit the implicit assumptions of the sciences, to analyse and study them thematically, to examine the implications of scientific progress on these assumptions. Thus, Philosophy is the natural bridge for a fruitful dialogue between experimental science and questions of subject metaphysical, in the broadest sense, whether they concern the characteristics of the world, human nature, or religious dimensions.

To all this should be added a further possibility, namely the study of the implications of particular scientific theories. In The Mind of the Universe, my considerations focus on the general assumptions of scientific activity and the feedback of scientific progress on them, but, at the same time, I stress that this approach can be applied to study the implications of a great variety of particular scientific achievements. In that sense, this approach is a seed that is already manifesting some of its fruits, but it contains other potentialities that would deserve to receive adequate treatment, especially if one takes into account that the current circumstances, both on the part of the progress of science and of epistemology, and even of the attitude of scientists, are very favourable for this subject of work.

One of the major difficulties in working on these issues is probably the fear of philosophers or theologians to deal with questions that sometimes seem to be beyond the possibilities of those who do not have a specific scientific specialization . However, it seems to me that both philosophers and theologians deal with many questions that also require an effort, sometimes B, to master other areas of human life. Certainly, to become a specialist in some scientific branch requires an uncommon effort, as in any aspect of human activity. But possessing a knowledge sufficient to tackle specific and well-focused problems is within the reach of any scholar interested in these questions. It seems to me that this is a task that has significant implications for our time, and that these implications are growing.

Science, people and truth

The feedback of scientific progress on the general assumptions of the sciences acquires a peculiar prominence when we consider the subject of science. It is often thought that the new knowledge provided by the sciences shows that there is not only a continuity between man and animal, but that the human being is only a more evolved animal subject than others, without being able to speak properly of spiritual dimensions or essential ontological diversity. However, the approach above leads to a very different perspective.

I do not intend, obviously, to deal here with this problem in all its complexity. I only wish to show what subject of reflections can be made using the method I have adopted in The Mind of the Universe.

In contrast to a simplistic methodology that admits the existence of pure data of experience, which would presumably give rise, by induction, to general laws, contemporary epistemology has highlighted the fact that scientific theories are always our own constructions. We construct them by deploying strong doses of creativity and interpretation. The procedures of experimental science are always interpretative. We must construct languages that allow us to pose questions to nature so that it can answer us through the only language it knows, the language of facts. This requires very sophisticated procedures.

The method of experimental science assumes, at least implicitly, a minimal dose of realism; namely, that we possess the capacity to achieve a cognitive grasp of the natural world. In this vein, Jarret Leplin has written: "At least a minimal epistemic realism, which holds that science can achieve theoretical knowledge , is crucial to rationality at the level of method. More specifically, I argue that unless the researcher assumes that there is some truth regarding whether the entities and processes about which it theorises or experiments exist, and regarding what their properties are, unless it treats such questions as epistemic goals in organising and directing its work, much of that work will be meaningless and arbitrary" *(14).

Scientific realism continues to be the subject of much debate. I have mentioned before that the study of truth and realism in the different sciences and intellectual activities could be an excellent focus for very interesting interdisciplinary reflections.

Contemporary epistemology rightly points out that in experimental science we always deal with our own constructs, and that there are limits to demonstrability. Many see realism as influencing scientific activity as a Kantian-style aspiration or regulative idea, without ever being able to speak of the truth of concrete formulations. It seems to me that this idea, which is quite widespread, influences important aspects of today's culture, not always positive, and that the analysis of scientific truth is a task that deserves some effort.

It is not necessary to accept a strong subject of realism to admit the uniqueness of the human being. The argumentative capacity is also evident in case someone is satisfied with the empirical adequacy of theories and renounces to raise the problem of their truth. The behaviour of the empiricist, assuming that such a being can exist and develop coherently, would suffice to show the peculiar uniqueness of the human being. But the truth is that we seek truth. In a phrase full of philosophical density, John Paul II has written: "Man can be defined as one who seeks the truth" *(15). Experimental science makes sense first and foremost as a search for truth.

This has been the case from the beginning. When modern experimental science was making its way in the 17th century, Galileo would have avoided the obstacles he had to face if he had stuck to the committee given to him by the experts, which boiled down to presenting heliocentrism, as astronomical theories were ordinarily considered, as a useful hypothesis to save phenomena and to make predictions. Galileo's strong sense of realism prevailed. The same can be said of Kepler; only his realism explains why he persevered for years in the search for laws which he thought must exist and must be intelligible to us. Something similar has always been the case. The scientist can play the instrumentalist or positivist philosopher on weekends, but when he clicks on his card on Monday at research center where he works, he will again base his work on an implicit realism.

Realism admits many nuances. In quantum physics, it is difficult to know when we reach real aspects of nature; we are studying phenomena that are far removed from our experience and our possibilities of representation. By contrast, in other scientific disciplines, for example biology, knowledge has a strong realist tone, since it concerns phenomena that we can represent and that occur within stable organisations with which we can experiment quite directly.

Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that experimental science, as a search for truth, has an ethical significance *(16). He concludes that natural science is a moral task. In The Mind of the Universe I have discussed the reasons he gives for this strong argument thesis . He claims that scientific realism can be seen "as what Kant called a regulative ideal. What regulates and what will regulate? The scientist's interpretation of his own work... since Galileo, realism has been the ideal that imposes restrictions on what can count as a solution to a scientific problem and provides an interpretation of scientific results... the internship of science over time involves a continuous adherence to realist goals" *(17). Experimental science is meaningful insofar as it consists in the pursuit of truth, and commitment to this task explains why science is a moral task. Scientific progress implies the historical fulfilment of that historical task; sample that it can be fulfilled, and also that we progress in our morally charged effort to reach a true knowledge of the natural world.

In this line, and from agreement with the importance he attributes to history, MacIntyre affirms: "the continuities of history are moral continuities, continuities of tasks and projects that cannot be defined except in reference letter to the internal goods that specify the goals of such tasks and projects. These tasks and projects are embodied in practices, and practices are, in turn, embodied in institutions and communities. The academic community is one among the moral communities of humanity, and its unity is only comprehensible in view of the commitment to realism. Thus, the continuities in the history of that community are first and foremost continuities in its regulative ideals.... The construction of a representation of nature is, in the modern world, a task analogous to the construction of a cathedral in the medieval world, or to the foundation and construction of a city in the ancient world, tasks which could also be endless" *(18).

These allusions suffice to indicate some of the paths that are open today to a multidisciplinarity that scrupulously respects the variety of different perspectives and that, at the same time, seeks to obtain new insights that can only be achieved by means of bridges between them. I would like to conclude by pointing out that, in my opinion, this is a typically philosophical task, which is of great interest. One of the most typically philosophical tasks is the search for connections between the various perspectives that make up the fabric of human life, together with the search for their meaning. That is multidisciplinarity. I have tried to illustrate this with some examples taken from my own philosophical activity, which, it seems to me, is strongly anchored in multidisciplinarity.


  1. The information is taken from:

  2. Cfr.

  3. See, for example: H. Kornblith (ed.), Naturalizing Epistemology, The MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1994.

  4. T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. II, n. 2, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1970 (2nd enlarged ed.; 1st 1962).

  5. O. Neurath, "Sociology in physicalism", in: Alfred J. Ayer (ed.), El positivismo lógico, Fondo de cultura económica, Mexico 1978, pp. 287-322.

  6. Cf. M. Artigas, "Emergence and Reduction in Morphogenetic Theories", in: E. Agazzi - A. Cordero (eds.), Philosophy and the Origin and Evolution of the Universe, Kluwer, Dordrecht 1991, pp. 253-262.

  7. G. Radnitzky (ed.), Centripetal forces in the sciences, vol. II, Paragon House, New York 1988.

  8. Cf. A. Beckermann, H. Flohr and J. Kim (eds.), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1992; J. Kim, Supervenience and Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1995, and Philosophy of Mind, Westview Press, Boulder (Co.) 1996.

  9. For example: E. O. Wilson, Consilience. La unidad del knowledge, Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona 1999.

  10. R. Boyd, P. Gasper and J. D. Trout (eds.), The Philosophy of Science, The MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1991, p. xii-xiii.

  11. R. Carnap, Autobiografía intelectual, Paidós, Barcelona 1992, p. 36.

  12. L. Janssens, Opinion on L'Évolution Creatrice, in: file of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Index, Protocolli 1914-1917, fol. 93, p. 1.

  13. M. Artigas, La mente del universo, Eunsa, Pamplona 1999.

  14. J. Leplin, "Methodological Realism and Scientific Rationality", Philosophy of Science, 53 (1986), p. 32. See also: J. Leplin, A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism, Oxford University Press, New York 1997.

  15. John Paul II, Enc. Fides et Ratio, no. 28.

  16. A. MacIntyre, "Objectivity in Morality and Objectivity in Science", in: H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. and Daniel Callahan (eds.),Morals, Science and Sociality, The Hastings Center, Hastings-on-Hudson (New York) 1978, pp. 21-39.

  17. Ibid., p. 31.

  18.  Ibid., pp. 36-37.