¿Son realmente autónomas las ciencias?

Are the sciences really autonomous?

Author: José Ignacio Murillo
Published in: "¿Son realmente autónomas las ciencias?", in Aranguren, J., Borobia, J. J., Lluch, M., Fe y Razón. I Simposio Internacional "Fe cristiana y cultura contemporánea", Pamplona, Eunsa 1999, 473-488.
Date of publication: 1999

It is commonplace to speak of the autonomy of the sciences, but what is meant by this expression? More fundamentally, does it have a real content? And if so, what does it really consist of?

Scientific and interdisciplinary activity

To purpose of the first question, it is worth noting that the autonomy of the sciences is often invoked to isolate scientific activity from any interference from other disciplines. According to this claim, each science has its own method and its own object, so that it does not need any outside interference from knowledge . This warning is obviously addressed, in a particular way, to those sciences which, because of their pretensions to become position of everything that is real, may be more tempted to interfere in the principles, methods and results of other particular disciplines. This is clearly the case of Philosophy, be it theoretical or internship, or theology, since the position taken with respect to other particular sciences is usually different. Precisely one of the clearest characteristics of contemporary scientists is their propensity to work in teams and to invoke and put on internship the so-called multidisciplinarity to solve the problems that concern them.

Why, then, does this recognition of external input not usually extend to the above-mentioned branches of knowledge, which we may call wisdom disciplines? In my opinion, the cause of this rather widespread attitude is to be traced more to a cultural problem than to the nature of scientific activity itself. Ultimately, it often turns out that the scientist not only boasts of having his own method and object, but is convinced that his way of acting is appropriate to the reality he is studying, so that any contribution from a so-called superior discipline must sound to him like an undue invasion or a poetic, and in no way scientific, approach to what only he and his colleagues have the privilege of knowing in depth and seriousness.

It is precisely this last claim, the claim that the scientist's actions exhaust the reality he studies, that is the weakest in the argument, and ultimately poses a problem that goes far beyond the realm of the particular sciences. The very history of modern science demonstrates its inconsistency. The sciences are not fixed; even their boundaries are labile. To take just one example, physics and Chemistry were clearly distinct sciences until they reached a unified theory. Are they now the same as before? Moreover, we may ask, why is physics different from biology? They both study realities Materials. So what is the reason for their apparently rigorous difference? Only extra-scientific reasons, i.e. external to each of them, are at the origin of their distinction. The very determination of the field of reality under study, which presides over the foundation of a science, is alien to it. Where, then, does the claim that they exhaust their object of study come from? What is the reason for the scientist's propensity to purge science of all budget and of all philosophical implications?

The answer to these questions takes us back to the history of the constitution of these disciplines as sciences. Before it, the continuity between any explanation of reality and Philosophy was peaceful. Ultimately, it was thought, the sciences explain what we see, but their explanations are not radical. The so-called natural Philosophy inquired about the principles of realities Materials. It was only because these principles were not the ultimate principles that one could speak of differentiated sciences. Consequently, if the ultimate explanation of reality must be referred to metaphysics, any science that does not reach the ultimate principles can only be a prelude to metaphysics. The same can be said about any discipline internship . If its task is to guide action, it can only be subordinate to that science which leads to the ultimate end. That is why it cannot be emancipated from ethics.

The mathematical paradigm

However, even in antiquity, it was possible to recognise the existence of a region of science that was able to maintain its autonomy outside the first sciences. These are sciences which do not study real principles, but rather relations between mental perceptions. These are logic and the mathematical sciences. Among these, the mathematical sciences occupy a special place because they are not purely formal sciences; they contain reality, albeit not as it is. The reality of mathematical entities depends on a partial consideration of the mind, which abstracts certain properties and objectifies them apart from their real being. That is why mathematics is the abstract science par excellence. As Aristotle points out, mathematical science does not consider efficiency or finality, and studies the subject in an ideal way, not as it occurs in reality. That is why the continuity of its object with metaphysics or ethics is problematic. Mathematica non sunt bona *(1) and, we may add, nec activa, although its clarity and evidence make its study especially attractive to the mind.

The great revolution of the natural sciences consists precisely in the mathematical formulation of their object. It is clear that this goal was far removed from the then disqualified vision of the natural philosopher. Well, this mathematical formulation corresponds to what we know as a law. Laws are the statement of quantitative relations between phenomena. The core topic lies in isolating some quantitatively measurable aspects of reality and finding their mutual relationship.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what is meant by law, a notion that will play a decisive role in the origin or emancipation of all modern sciences, both natural and social. Law explains how reality works, what are some of the links between its parts. Surely, the most interesting of its potentialities consists in the fact that it allows us to predict the behaviour of reality in the face of certain variations. The cognitive value of the law is largely predictive of future states.

The moment of their formulation is one of the most important in the sciences: modern science does not exist until the laws of the object under study are stated. Thus we can consider mechanics to be inaugurated with the expression of the laws of motion, and something similar could be said of electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics or relativistic mechanics. And what we say about the natural sciences also applies to the human sciences. The law, whose paradigm is the mathematical laws of natural science, especially mechanics, occupies a privileged place in the new sciences.

But the law is not a cause. By stating it, I extend my knowledge of the functioning of the real, but not of reality itself. Now, if the goal of these sciences were only the finding of these laws, the already secular quarrel between them and the Philosophy would make no sense. Modern sciences could claim without any problem their autonomy from metaphysics, based precisely on the mathematical nature of their results. The sciences would thus have as their only goal the enunciation of laws that govern the behaviour of phenomena, leaving the study of the nature of these phenomena to the natural Philosophy .

However, scientists do not seem to be willing to be satisfied with this picture. Rather, they tend to act as if the sciences they cultivate were the knowledge of reality without skill, and, in fact, that is how they present them. It is enough to read a scientific journal or listen to a researcher on any area to see that their interest is not only to mathematise reality, but also to know it in the broadest sense of the term. For the scientist, this is a task that cannot be taken away from him.

If this is so, the scientist is driven by two distinct objectives, although they are often not recognised as such. One could speak of two "attractors", which end up configuring what he understands under the rubric of the science he studies: on the one hand, the attempt to formulate laws that describe the phenomena, which, it must be pointed out, has as budget a certain pre-scientific knowledge of the same; and, on the other, the attempt to advance in the knowledge of the nature of the reality with which he is confronted. In summary, on the one hand, mathematics; and, on the other, the Philosophy of nature.

To understand this unconfessed duality with an example, we can think of one of the human sciences such as Economics. Of these, it is certainly in this field that the project attempt to develop a modern science has been undertaken first and most successfully. From agreement with it, the economist will put his interest in enunciating laws that govern economic phenomena and in designing explanatory models. Something like what primitive astronomers did with regard to the movements of the planets, trying to find regularities in them to predict them. But when the ancient astronomers were engaged in their calculations and hypotheses, they did not pretend to know the nature of reality, but only to save the phenomena, trying to organise and predict them (at least this is how Geminius expresses himself in the 1st century BC). Do economists behave in the same way? I believe that a glance at their way of proceeding can convince us otherwise.

First of all, it is enough to read or listen to some of his statements to see his claim to know what the nature of economic activity consists of. But in addition to this, the economist not only elaborates his theories, but also considers himself to be the right person to judge their application. It is at this point that the ambivalence of the way in which he conceives his activity is most noticeable. The application of economic theories to reality requires not only to know the laws that are formulated to explain them, but also their limits. And this is impossible without paying attention to the nature of these theories, and to the previous nature of the reality to which they are applied. However, this knowledge requires a method different from the one used to formulate the laws, and which is, in the end written request, philosophical. How is it possible to apply the knowledge of the economic laws to action without knowing the ethics, that is, the global objectives of human activity? And how is it possible to explain the nature of the economic without inserting it in an anthropological study?

Failure to realise this can lead, as in fact it does, to gross errors in the name of the autonomy of science. Invoking it then becomes a subterfuge to reduce reality to the limits of one's own point of view, i.e. to disregard the partnership of the philosophical perspective, which in this case cannot be absent.

The confusion of epistemological planes

This attitude is the cause of many of the difficulties of scientific culture. First of all, reductionism, which is always lurking. In reality, this distortion of the scientific attitude has a logic that is entirely consistent with this way of proceeding. It is not for nothing that we are often reminded that, according to Galileo, nature is written in mathematical characters. Whatever Galileo may have meant by this, and without excluding the part of truth there is in it, it is clear that only if the reality I study is exhausted in the laws I formulate about it, is it possible to replace the natural Philosophy by mathematical physics. And the same can be said of the other sciences, adapting it to the peculiarity of the laws it formulates, which always, let us remember, have as model those of natural science, and which tend inexorably to allow the application of mathematical calculation to the reality they study.

For the aforementioned attitude it is inevitable that reality appears as a set of laws, which govern phenomena without depth, since the emphasis is placed on the laws that relate them. It is not strange that, in this context, freedom appears as a receding reality, since knowing reality is identified with knowing the law, however mathematically necessary, that governs it *(2). Thus it is postulated in some scientific circles that, when we have a unified theory of physics, we will have fully understood the universe. This is reminiscent of Laplace's divine calculator theory. According to it, whoever could know the position and velocity of all the particles in the universe at a given instant, could calculate everything that had happened in the past and everything that would happen in the future *(3). The condition required is interesting. To fulfil this goal it is not enough to know the law, but also something extraneous to it, namely the position and motion of the particles. Mathematical laws leave out a large part of the reality they explain. It is therefore impossible to reduce the study of reality to mathematical laws. Moreover, such a condition requires agreement to delimit where the particles begin and where they end and to presuppose that nothing physical is relevant outside the factors that are contemplated.

The confusion of planes also affects the way we understand knowledge. If our knowledge of reality is the one provided by the sciences, it is also subject to its limits. The scientistic optimism of past centuries was tempered when it became clear how precarious the enunciated laws were. And this had a special effect because it happened in mechanics, the pioneering science. First the theory of relativity and then quantum mechanics, together with the recognition of their irreconcilable contradiction, led to the realisation of the provisionality of the scientific knowledge . It is interesting to note the ease with which this fact has been elevated to a global gnoseological theory, extending it to all areas of knowledge *(4). Once again we find at the base the same budget: our knowledge of reality is identified with the one reached by the sciences; and, once again, the same confusion originated by the unconscious conflict between the scientist's interest in knowing reality and the partiality of the results he considers relevant.

As can be seen, the contradiction is not in science, but, it should be noted, in the scientist himself. What is science? Despite its claimed autonomy and seriousness, it is difficult to clarify if we ask scientists. Against this background, what clarity can we expect from their contribution? It is precisely this clarity, together with the apparatus of rigour and seriousness with which it appears to the public, that can sometimes provoke the philosopher's inferiority complex. However, if we dig a little, it is not difficult to discover a profound helplessness, which sometimes pushes those who do not share the illusory reductionist optimism to the sceptical attitude of those who think "I know what I must do to behave as a scientist, but I do not know exactly what I can expect from my activity".

The fact is that the spread of this mentality has meant that Philosophy has been increasingly marginalised in its field of action. At the same time, knowledge has diversified into a set of supposedly autonomous sciences, to which nothing seems to be able to be added from outside. The unity of knowledge has been shattered and specialists proliferate, whose theories dazzle with the simplicity of their assertions and the exuberance of their experimental apparatus, until sooner or later they collide with the reality they were intended to explain or are replaced by others that are better, or just more fashionable.

What is the solution, to invite scientists to intellectual austerity, to demand that they moderate their pretensions? It does not seem so. There are several reasons why this position should not be taken. Firstly, entrance, because what we understand today as modern science does not seem conceivable separated from the interest in unravelling the nature of the real; not only does it demand as budget a knowledge, as adequate as possible, of the reality it investigates, but it is also obliged to give an account of the relation of its achievements with the reality it investigates. Secondly, because it is true that the scientist is the best placed to know in depth the reality he studies, precisely because he is at contact with it in a particularly intense way. Moreover, the very evolution of scientific theory and of the instruments of observation leads him to discover new phenomena that cannot be overlooked in a philosophical study of reality.

What is urgently needed, therefore, is for the scientist to consciously assume his status as a natural philosopher and to take it seriously *(5). That is to say, as long as he continues to conceive his activity as he has been doing in the last centuries, only a high scientific interest in the gnoseological, ethical *(6) and metaphysical problems he encounters, without simplifications or arrogant attitudes, can allow him to control his activity.

In my opinion, only the philosophical training of the scientist, and its application to the activity he exercises, can bring the dialogue of Philosophy and science, and therefore of reason and faith, out of the impasse in which it finds itself. There is only dialogue between those who speak the same language. If the Philosophy has to dialogue with the sciences, it is not only for the same reason that it has to give a reason for all reality, but also because physicists have philosophical interests. That is why it seems appropriate to demand that scientists consciously and fully cultivate the Philosophy, as the best way to establish the instructions in order to achieve the unification of their own disciplines with other sciences and with reality. Perhaps this attitude will, in the process, awaken philosophers and bring us out of the literary reverie in which we often find ourselves. Perhaps this is the way to a scientific revolution that will finally put things in their proper place.


  1. Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, III, 2, 996a34-35; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 5, a. 3.
  2. In any case, there are ways of conceiving laws, particularly in the field of human sciences, which do not contradict freedom. Cfr. Rubio de Urquía, R., "La encíclica Sollicitudo rei socialis y los sistemas de organización de la actividad económica", in programs of study sobre la encíclica "Sollicitudo rei socialis", Unión publishing house, Madrid 1990, p. 252.
  3. Cf. Mason, S. F., Historia de la ciencia, 3, Alianza, Madrid 1987, pp. 43-44.
  4. See, for example, Popper, K., Búsqueda sin término, Tecnos, Madrid 1977.
  5. Juan Arana's analysis of the often artificial separation between Philosophy natural and science is interesting in Claves del knowledge del mundo I, Kronos, Sevilla 1996, pp. 13-50.
  6. On the ethical implications of scientific activity, cf. Toulmin, S., "How Can We Reconnect the Sciences with the Foudation of Ethics" or Graham, L. R., "Commentary. The Multiple Connections between Science and Ethics: Response to Stephen Toulmin", both in Callahan, D. and Engelhardt, H. T. (eds.), The Roots of Ethics, Science, Religion, and Values, Plenum Press, New York and London, 1981; and also the commentary to these authors and the own position of Artigas, M., La mente del universo, Eunsa, Pamplona 1999.