Back Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

Skip Navigation Links
Javier Leach
Objectivity and Subjectivity in Science and Religion: Towards Basing Inter-Religious Dialogue on Rational Grounds


Although scientific knowledge is never completely objective and independent of the subject, the claim to be objective knowledge characterizes science. I distinguish between two types of scientific knowledge: empirical and mathematical. There are profound interrelations and substantial differences between empirical knowledge and mathematical knowledge. I wish to point out two differences and one profound interrelation. The first difference is that empirical knowledge is hypothetical, that is to say, it is based on hypotheses which can be shown to be wrong by observations, while mathematical knowledge cannot be shown to be wrong by empirical experience. The second difference will be shown by distinguishing between the formal models, which satisfy the mathematical theories, and the representative models, which explain the empirical theories. Despite these two differences, there is a relationship between the two types of knowledge as we only totally understand and control that part of empirical knowledge which we have been able to express as mathematical knowledge.

The mathematical formulation represents the objective nucleus of the scientific results. The formalism of Hilbert was the most serious attempt to establish the objectivity of mathematical knowledge. For formalism, as understood by Hilbert, there is a privileged part of mathematics which is based on the pure intuition of specific and discrete signs.

Technological action is the handling and use of nature in accordance with objective mathematical knowledge. As technology is open to risk and innovation, it has the human subject who chooses as protagonist. Technology needs to be based on an option with meaning. It is natural for a human being to base the meaning of life in a cosmic-vision. Is the meaning, as it is understood in religions, cultures and philosophies, something subjective, based on subjective and private experiences in contrast with the objective and public nature of science? Are in particular religious experiences subjective and particular or are they public and communicable to any person, regardless of his culture, race or gender?

The basic differences between the objective nucleus of science and the objective nucleus of religions lies in the fact that the difference between the cognitive experience of the basic signs of mathematics and the cognitive experience of the basic religious symbols.

There is a paradoxical relation between formal and religious reasoning. In some aspects, formal and religious reasoning are opposed:

  1. Signs are opposed to Symbols
  2. Ineffability is opposed to Communicability
  3. Passivity is opposed to Control
  4. Holism is opposed to Definition
  5. Simplicity is opposed to Complexity

Paradoxically, formal reasoning is also:

  1. Simple, because it does not change
  2. Holistic, because it is the same for all
  3. Passive, because we can not change it
  4. Ineffable, because basic formal signs (as for example the concept of set) can not be explained by other mathematical concepts

Mathematics and religion coincide in the search for certain and perennial truth. The strength of mathematics is in the argumentation. Mathematics helps to find common places (topoi) from which to argue, dialogue, encounter. Mathematics itself is the common place par excellence.


Javier Leach is a Jesuit priest and has been director of the Metanexus Local Societies Initiative supported Chair of Science, Technology, and Religion at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas since its creation in 2003. Currently, he is also professor at the School of Computing of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. From 1961-1965, he studied philosophy at the Facultad Pontificia San Francisco de Borja in Barcelona. From 1965-1970, he studied mathematics at the School of Mathematics, Universidad de Zaragoza. From 1970-1973, he studied theology at the Philosophisch-theologische Hochschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). In 1977, he obtained the title of Doctor in Mathematics from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Since 1987, he has been professor at the Universidad Complutense in the area of computer languages and systems. Among other subjects, he has given undergraduate courses on discrete mathematics, logic, logical programming, functional programming, and artificial intelligence. He has given doctoral courses on automatic demonstration, functional programming, methods for the automation of demonstrations in first order logic, and demonstrators of theorems for transitive relations.


1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA  |  Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313   |   Email  |  Privacy Policy