Functional Reason, Metaphysics, Myth and the Unity of Knowledge - Insights from G. Siegwalt's Dogmatics


What constitutes the unity of knowledge? Does this unity lie in the power to encompass phenomenal reality in a single formal theory (physics) or in a set of ideal first principles (metaphysics)? Or, does this unity have more of an epistemological character, being concerned less with the content of theoretical statements than with the cognitive instrumentation at the root of all forms of knowing? Or again, does this unity characterize the phenomenological experience associated with certain types of knowledge, and in particular with radically unitary types, such as those found in the variety of religious experiences? In the context of transdisciplinarity, does speaking of the unity of knowledge not require to be at least attentive to the different perspectives in which the question of this unity can be asked? In doing this, is one not forced to realize that the question of unity has more than one answer? Is there not somewhere a principle or a form of knowledge to be considered first among all and under which all are to be subsumed? Would this meta-principle not rather arise from the conjunction of the different forms of knowledge?

In trying to shed some light on these questions, I will refer to the recent and important contribution1 of the continental theologian and philosopher Gérard Siegwalt.2 Professor Siegwalt’s Dogmatique, the only work of its kind in the French speaking world, was undertaken in 1986 and will be completed in the present year. It will comprise five tomes, each of them divided into two volumes according to the author’s correlation method. We could say that the first volumes adopt an ascending approach that begins by observation (scientific and philosophical) and opens ultimately onto universal revelation (philosophia perrenis), while the second volumes adopt a more descending approach, properly theological or dogmatic, recapitulating mundane problems in the light of special revelation. Thus, volume III/1, entitled “Cosmologie théologique: science et philosophie de la nature”, prepares to speak of nature as Creation (vol. III/2); volume IV/1, entitled “Anthropologie théologique: problématique scientifique et philosophique”, prepares to speak of man as Creature (vol. IV/2).

The fundamental aspects of Siegwalt’s Dogmatique I wish to investigate have to do mostly with his ascending (philosophical) approach. In relation to the natural sciences, such an approach cannot satisfy itself with “pure” formal/empirical statements, but aims at going below and above; below, on the level of epistemology (theory of knowledge and ontology); above, throughout a philosophical interpretation (metaphysical) and deepening of the meaning of scientific theories. In relation to cosmology and anthropology, this deepening opens ultimately on what M. Siegwalt calls “les données élémentaires de la nature” and “les données élémentaires de l’être humain”, which I will translate quite literally here as the “elementary cosmic” and “anthropic data”. Cosmologically, this data concerns such representations as the situation of the earth in the universe, macrocosm and microcosm, the levels, polarities dimensions and “laws” of nature. These elementary, rudimentary data, while constituting the essence of cosmos, are not yet “scientifically” knowable, they are the fruits of experience (experientia) rather than experiment (experimentum) (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 68ff.). Considering them outdated is to hastily overlook their primeval and archaic character. Such age-old representations need to be confronted in the context of the findings of contemporary science. According to Siegwalt, they are the necessary ingredients to a unitary vision of existence, to an inclusive and totalizing philosophy of nature and of humanity, simultaneously formal and symbolic.

A transitory paradigm?

If behaviourism and materialism had tried to ignore it, neuropsychology has recently reconsidered consciousness as a particularly significant “object” of scientific inquiry. The difficulty lies less in establishing correlations between mental states and brain states, than in understanding the “mysterious device” through which such a relation is rendered possible. David Chalmers has convincingly argued that in trying to understand such a “device” we must go beyond a purely functional approach, since such an approach deals with the problem only in terms of spatio-temporal structures (physical, organic, computational) that can explain only other spatio-temporal structures without allowing us to make the transition towards consciousness defined as awareness (David J. Chalmers, 2002).

Nevertheless, the insights from cosmology remain more than ever indispensable in trying to solve this riddle. First, because consciousness of oneself in this world is inseparable from our brains, and hence from our surrounding environment whose frontiers expand indefinitely outwards, thus including the totality the universe. Second, because cosmology has brought forth different types of limit questions: structural and epistemological questions within the nexus involving quantum physics and the role of the observer; teleological questions within systems theory (emergent properties, autopoiesis) and the anthropic principle (fine tuning); philosophical questions, with the distinction operated between ontological and methodological objectivism, etc. In other words, cosmology, in its widest sense, seems to indicate that the relation between conscious awareness and matter cannot be understood solely from an objectifying approach, as if it where an independent and exterior phenomenon. Whereas the classical paradigm of modern science viewed nature as the exterior world, separated from the observer, somewhat ontologically other, the contemporary scientific revolution, with its hermeneutical equivalent within the humanities, seems to be laying the foundations that will permit to establish a better harmony between the domains of exteriority and interiority.

In this regard Siegwalt develops the idea that our contemporary image of nature is imprinted by diverse discontinuities (theoretical, epistemological and practical) within continuity: (a) theoretical discontinuities concerning the explanatory schemes that characterize physics, biology and psychology, which are neither extensible nor reducible to one another – temporarily or definitively -, but also theoretical continuities with theories like evolution, ecology, the anthropic principle…; (b) epistemological discontinuities, with the emergence of such concepts as probabilism, imprevisibility, Plank’s “wall”, the quantum void, etc., that impose a rupture, a transgression of our classical field of representation – in this sense mathematical models call for a new type of reflection – but again, continuity, under the banner of the concept of inseparability between the observer and what is observed in regard to quantum physics obviously, but also in what regards cybernetics and systems theory; (c) finally, practical or existential discontinuities in relation to the multiple dissociations operated between nature, body and reason in the accomplishment of human existence, but here again, factual, phenomenological and mystical continuity, that binds cosmos and bios all the way towards anthropos thus indicating reality’s ontological (and theological) unity. Not only do these continuities and discontinuities call for a philosophical type of reasoning, but through them emerges the question of the possibility, if not the necessity, of a more unitary type of knowledge. It is becoming ever clearer that such a unitary knowledge cannot be founded in the application of one and the same method to all the fields of learning, but rather in the proper coordination of the multiple methodologies (scientific – philosophical – mythological - theological) and correlatively of the different aspects of reality that they aim to understand.

If in the 19th century, the advent of positivism, which presented itself as a form of phenomenism purely concerned with how questions, led science to emancipate itself from philosophy (metaphysics) and theology, it becomes ever more clear today that an epistemological reconsidering of the scientific method and its corresponding statements can only be overlooked at the price of a purely functional approach to nature. Not only has such a functional approach seen itself confronted with new epistemological questions, but the use of nature that this approach sanctions through the means of economy (oikos nomos) threatens nature’s equilibrium and consequently the survival of humanity.

Technical advancements and the functional understanding of nature

Siegwalt recalls that whereas for the Greeks the term “phusis” designated the same reality as the term “cosmos” with an emphasis less on the esthetical aspects of order and beauty than on the dynamical aspects of life and death, generation and corruption, i.e. the qualitative aspects of naissance and growth, a downturn will occur with the Latin conception of “natura” which “consciously acknowledges the achievements of the Neolithic revolution in the perception of the quantitative aspects of labour and growth.” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 38)3 This comprehension of “natura” in the sense of a “res”, a thing, was preparing itself in the Palaeolithic times with the confectioning of tools, first out of stone, then out of metals through the mastering of fire. According to Siegwalt, there is a continuity between this revolution and the more recent technical revolution of the modern period. Also, according to this view, the development of technical skills is less a consequence of the development of science than of what science presupposes.

In modern times, these developments have lead to investigate nature in a more and more quantitative manner. In the words of theologian Pierre Gisel:

“…we have spoken, concerning the birth of the mutation witnessed by modernity, of a “desubstantiation”. If in the Aristotelian world everything was explained in terms of intrinsic properties, specific qualities inherent to things and beings, in the Galilean world, on the contrary, everything is explained in function of sets of relations… We go from a physics of bodies, in interiority, to a physics of relations, in exteriority.” (P. Gisel, 1987, pp. 182-83.)4

Following modernity’s great technical achievements, we have been witnessing the advent of technology in recent years. Technology is not limited to the use and transformation of energy; it is mainly concerned with the use, transformation and elaboration of information. “Technology, therefore, is not only an art that permits the transformation of objects, it is also productive of scientific knowledge” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 119). Again, if such knowledge proves itself more than simply useful, it is primarily of a quantitative and functional nature; it does not tell us about reality in all of its dimensions.

“Besides inquiring into the functioning of things one must also ask the question of their being; this question arises from the functioning of things themselves, because the longings of men cannot be satisfied with a purely functional knowledge, but also because the uncertainty of this functioning (in the sense of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and more generally in the sense of the polarities order and chaos, entropy and the increased complexity of information) render such a questioning inevitable. Cosmology therefore ineluctably leads to ontology” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 134).

It is important to note that ontology thus understood, contrarily to metaphysics as “Kant understands it and consequently criticizes it, does not locate Being above things, but ‘in, with and trough’ them” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 135).

We can now understand better Siegwalt’s position when he says that modern science “is concerned with a ‘phusis’ reduced to a fraction of itself.” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 42) This reduction consists in only considering nature as a thing, located outside ourselves, that can be manipulated and scrutinized mechanically by means of ingenuity and mathematical expertise, rather than as a global and multidimensional process sustaining, containing and transcending our existence.

Metaphysics vs. Metaphysics

We know that in opposition to traditional metaphysics, which concerned itself with the essence, finality and origin of existence, positivism presented itself as a phenomenism confined to the field of what can be directly observed (Comte, A., Discours sur l'esprit positif). Critical rationalism, on the other hand, has brought forth a distinction between metaphysics understood as such, and the form of speculative activity - equally qualified as metaphysical – co-substantial with scientific thought which guides the formulation of hypotheses (Karl Popper). Moreover, sociology of sciences has pointed out the importance of the historical, rather than the realist, character of scientific knowledge (Thomas Kuhn). Particular attention must therefore be paid to the many dimensions of episteme – historical, epistemological, ontological, ethical, metaphysical and theological – inherent to any theoretical stance. The speculative character of scientific hypotheses should also warn against any hasty and abusive judgment concerning such crucial and essential questions as the nature of human ontogenesis or the destiny of consciousness and its powers. We cannot leave in suspense the question of knowing up to what extent the metaphysical activity which operates in the construction of scientific models partitions the attitude taken towards the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics as a means to ponder ultimate questions.

We have seen that the problems related to the multiple discontinuities in the midst of continuity call for a more global understanding of “things”. This is an understanding open to the different dimensions of reality and correlatively to the different dimensions of reason as a whole. Such a global understanding aims at going beyond functional objectivism by adopting a holistic approach which poses that exteriority and interiority, matter and mind, cosmos and anthropos, are essentially complementary and partake of a reality that ultimately transcends them.

“The dominant concept of science is that of a reductive science that perceives itself as purely inductive, established only on reliable “objective” facts. Besides limiting these facts to those that can be incorporated into the dualist schema, it relies on a “positivist” understanding of the notion of objectivity by excluding all other levels (psychical, paraphysical and parapsychical) of reality and first of all its invisible dimension; induction in this sense is reduction. The true concept of science is not only open to the different levels of reason and reality, not only open beyond the visible dimension to the invisible, but is also attentive, beyond the totality of reason and reality, to their ultimate and ontological dimension. Ontological reason asks the question of Being as the foundation (and end) of reality” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 91).

Most insidious according to Siegwalt’s perspective is the metaphysical assertion by which nature and humanity are nothing but objects in external relations, devoid of all intrinsic ontological depth, of all intrinsic dimensions of interiority. These dimensions are not mere abstractions invented by an unbridled mind; rather, they constitute what makes our lives seem most valuable. Since time immemorial, we have had access to these dimensions by means of mytho-symbolical representations. The function of symbols is to reunite what as been separated, to operate a meta-phor, a trans-port, from the known to the unknown, from immanence to transcendence. In this sense myth is the language of the ontological mystery of “things” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 194).

The true concept of science calls for a global, religious, vision which joins (religare) the part to the whole, which gathers and reassembles (relegere) the part and the whole (G. Siegwalt, 1994, p. 253). Not only does such a “religious” science necessarily go beyond dualism (object∕subject, matter∕mind, cosmosanthropos) but it shares with the primitive, mythical and symbolical vision that it is a unitary form of knowledge. In looking at reality as a totality, the primitive vision not only sets an example for the path to be followed, but it gives us a glimpse as to what should be considered as the primary, elementary data of our cosmic existence.

Rémi Brague explains that the primitive comprehension of the totality of the world did not result in the conscious synthesis of the categories of multiplicity and unity. Primitive thought, which is less differentiated and of a more concrete nature, represented the “whole” either in terms of ascending or descending series, for example the sequence celestial bodies, animals, plants, or by a crossed opposition, for example the quadrature earth∕ water on the horizontal and heaven∕subterranean world on the vertical, or finally by a fundamental binary opposition, that is, the couple heaven and earth. According to Brague, this last representation is probably “the first of all those which have designated the world” (R. Brague, 1999, p. 22). Let us mention that this fundamental pair can be associated with several meanings. First, this couple marks a duality or a polarity between two realities that where previously confounded, undifferentiated or simply inexistent. Second, considering that heaven usually impregnates the earth, there lies in this couple a certain eroticism. We go here from the idea of opposition to the ones of attraction and conjunction. Finally, this couple also contains the idea of a hierarchy, in the sense that one of its members possesses more ontological or theological dignity than the other. Usually – with the exception of Egyptian cosmogony, for example – there is a primacy of heaven over earth. If we summarize, we notice that beyond simply representing the totality of the world, we can also associate to this binary representation the ideas of polarisation, attraction, conjunction and fecundation of the lesser by the greater.

Such data, the origins of which obviously go back to prehistory and to the dawn of consciousness, will be systematized during early antiquity. The important role they played throughout all of the medieval period will diminish with the rise of the mechanical understanding of nature. They will survive nonetheless in alternative currents of thought. It is not Siegwalt’s intention to reverse time in a quest for these elementary data. What is meant is rather to actualize them in the light of a dialog with contemporary science. I will try to show, in the following, what can result of such a dialog in the context of cosmology. Note that the same could be done in reference to anthropology.

Preliminary remarks regarding the situation of the earth in the cosmos

Before considering, on the one hand, questions concerning the correspondences between the earth and the universe, the macrocosm and the microcosm, and on the other hand, questions concerning the levels, polarities, dimensions and “laws” of nature, Siegwalt formulates some preliminary remarks concerning the situation of the earth in the universe.

First, neither man nor earth is a self-sufficient reality. It is true that there is a legitimate justification to geocentrism and anthropocentrism since “each human being is necessarily his own center and for each of us the earth is the center of everything” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 192). But as we shall see, geocentrism, like anthropocentrism, when differentiated, implies other levels of reality that indicate its relative character.

Secondly, we have spoken of the necessity of a more global approach to reality, open to its different dimensions. In relation to the situation of the earth in the universe, such an approach must strive to coordinate the three principle types of apprehension of reality: scientific, metaphysical and mythical. According to Siegwalt, science, metaphysics and myth, far from corresponding to three different historical epochs as the positivists would have us believe, correspond rather to three different instances within reason as a whole that need to be correctly coordinated (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 47ff.). There are therefore three different types of apprehension of the situation of the earth in the universe.

The scientific perspective perceives this situation primarily from an objective and quantitative standpoint. Although this standpoint sometimes presents itself as the sole truly global understanding, we have seen, when we considered the diverse epistemological and theoretical discontinuities earlier, that it nonetheless contains blanks. In addition, its global nature is partial since it is concerned only with the functioning of things, not with their essence or being. We have said that such a functional approach calls for a philosophical type of reasoning. This does not mean however that philosophy is simply to be juxtaposed to science. Philosophy rather includes and surpasses the scientific apprehension when it is attentive to the ontological question. But even without being attentive to this question, the philosophical apprehension allows us to reflect on the findings and methods of positive science, and thus “frees the scientific apprehension of nature (earth and cosmos) from its isolation within functionalism by complementing it with the human sciences and by referring nature to man and history (and vice-versa): reality is altogether natural-cosmic and ecumenical-human (or historical)” (D.C.E. III∕1, pp. 193-194). The philosophical apprehension goes beyond the objectivist and functional approach of nature and strives to put cosmos and anthropos in relation; it is not reductive but holistic. But again, this global character cannot be genuine if philosophy is not well anchored in the third type of apprehension, that is, the mythical apprehension. Without it, philosophy runs the risk of falling into abstraction and therefore of functionalising itself.

“If it is true that there is an evolution from “myth to reason” or from mythology to philosophy (A. Comte), philosophical ontology without myth becomes sterile and looses itself. In sum, we can say that “myth is dependant upon ontology” (M. Éliade) and that ontology is dependant upon myth – it is the explanation, and the clarification in the sense of a recapitulation, of the mythical substance at the level of ontological reason or of spirit” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 194).

According to Siegwalt, the philosophical apprehension can only be truly global by being rooted in myth which is, as we have seen, the language of the ontological mystery of “things”.

“We cannot understand the biblical myths of creation (Gn 1 and 2) like any other cosmogonical data present in the biblical tradition without reference to the cosmogonies of Egypt, Summer, Babylon, Canaan, and of the religions of India, China, Indonesia, Australia, Africa and the Americas. It is not that there exists direct positive or negative influences apart from those of Egypt, Summer, Babylon and Canaan; it is rather that the meanings of the different myths mutually illuminate each other, and their diversity, when thoroughly studied, leads us to the Myth in all myths. This diversity, which can be linked back to some fundamental types – for example the type of the cosmogonical egg (or of the Father and Mother or of the cosmogonical parents), the type of cosmogenesis by the dismemberment of a primordial Being (or by a battle between gods), and finally the type of cosmogonies involving a gradual ordering from an initial chaos (“cosmisation”) –, sends back to a kind of common ground, or foundation, owing to the fact that things and hence beings, are perceived as emanating from an unfathomable mystery, in other words that they are referred to a transcendent reality.” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 195)5

 The correspondences

“The idea implied in the elementary datum of the situation of the earth in the universe is that of correspondence – or correspondences – between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (earth, followed by man)” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 199). We know scientifically that the appearance of man is rendered possible only through a long process of geochemical and biological evolution, which in turn depends upon a no less complex process of cosmic differentiation that goes back to the beginning of our universe, to the big-bang. We can therefore say that the earth depends on the universe, like man depends on the earth. It remains that this dependence is not absolute since the principles that are responsible for the appearance of the universe and of the earth are not primary, but secondary: subsists the question of the author of the universe and consequently of the earth. According to Siegwalt, it is precisely this dependence on an Absolute, coordinated with the fact of the contingence of everything, which indicates that the freedom of man derives, above his dependence on the universe and the earth, from his relation to the Creator.

The correspondence between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (man) does not only exist as an a posteriori fact. It must equally be affirmed as existing in its own right, that is a priori. The affirmation according to which spirit, which becomes conscious in Man, exists “elementarily in, with and beneath matter (in its exterior appearance)… is implied in the acknowledgement of the correspondence between the universe, the earth and man” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 200). Siegwalt refuses to conceal this affirmation on the ground that it goes beyond what can be verified experimentally.

The levels

In speaking of the levels of nature, Siegwalt refers to what is traditionally understood as its kingdoms, that is the mineral, vegetal and animal kingdoms. The main idea to be associated with these levels is that of a gradation of reality.

If the mineral kingdom is the first of the three, this does not signify that nothing precedes it in the history of the cosmos. This idea is present in different cosmogonies, as well as in the pre-Socratic philosophies. Contemporary science, for its part, situates the appearance of the earth some five billion years ago. This means that the mineral kingdom is itself inscribed in the becoming of the cosmos.

The vegetal kingdom is in fact the first in which life manifests itself. Immediately, this raises the question of the transition from the inanimate to the animate. We have seen when speaking of the problem of discontinuity in continuity that contemporary science is still caught up with this question. The appearance of living organisms out of what seems to be lifeless remains a sort of mystery. In reference to the mythical apprehension, this transition is understood as taking place under the influence of the four elements. In fact, the mineral level can be understood as a kind of crystallisation of the action of these elements, “being understood that the planet earth can only exist in relation to the solar system” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 208). This leads in the direction of the complex interrelations that characterize the action of the four elements between themselves and with the mineral and vegetal levels. In other words, it is only because the mineral level is sustained by the action of the four elements that it can become the foundation of the succeeding kingdoms. But here again, one must not be misled by the apparent ontological primacy of the four elements; they are only “archai”, not the “archè”, only principles, not the Principle (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 178).

The animal kingdom manifests in turn a new degree of complexity and consequently possesses new characteristics: mobility, greater behavioural flexibility, appearance and development of the brain as we go higher and higher in the hierarchy of the animal species, psychic consciousness and progressively even mental consciousness beneath the level of language proper.

At this point a word must be said in reference to the anthropic principle. We know that in accordance with the weak interpretation of this principle the appearance of man is said to be rendered possible by the cosmos. In the context of the discontinuity that seems to exist between the levels of nature, to say that man is rendered possible by the cosmos does not answer the scientific question of how this appearance occurred and still less does it answer the philosophical questions of why and in function of what it occurred. Like Claude Tresmontant says concerning the process leading to this appearance: “The description of this process is more and more precise, however nothing is said as to why there is such a process, nor are we given an explanation for the fact itself of this organisation, the existence of organization.” (C. Tresmontant, (1996), 2001, p. 174) On the other hand, the strong interpretation of the anthropic principle according to which man is not only rendered possible by the cosmos, but is the main reason for its existence is not more illuminating in regards to the how question, even if it proposes to elucidate why and in function of what. According to Siegwalt, by avoiding the how question, the strong interpretation can only give us very partial philosophical answers since there is no finality without causality. Is Man to be considered the measure of all things?

The polarities

Above the diverse problems we have faced in regards to the question of discontinuity within continuity, be it in relation to the contemporary sciences or in relation to the levels or kingdoms of nature, one thing stands out: the fundamentally relational character of reality. Nature appears as an interconnected whole within which there exists innumerable tensions or polarities. “A polarity is a reality possessing two poles, in other words a duality, given that these two poles exist only because they are linked together, exist only in reference to each other” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 213). In this sense a polarity is synonymous with inseparability, correlation, circularity…

“In relation to our earth and its levels, there exist the following polarities: mineral level-elements, inorganic-organic, vegetal-animal, male and female, natural-human and hence chaos and cosmos, space and time, matter and form, multiplicity and unity (composition and unity), quantity and quality, identity and alteration, individual and group, exterior and interior, vegetative soul and sensitive soul, sensitive soul and psychic soul (conscious and unconscious), psyche and intelligence, soul and spirit, and also continuity and discontinuity, potentiality and actuality, substance and accident, necessity and contingence, conditioning and liberty, dependence and autonomy, intelligibility and mystery, physical and metaphysical, science and philosophy (how and why); and again static and dynamic, passive and active, expiration and inspiration, systole and diastole, hot and cold, becoming and perishing, life and death, irreversibility and reversibility, (entropy and neguentropy), etc.” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 214).

The notion of polarity leads in turn to the notion of the dimensions of nature. “There is something above those polarities that moves them. The polarities are canals, structures of a becoming. The questions of causality and finality concerning this becoming are inevitable, scientifically as well as philosophically” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 215).

The dimensions

Siegwalt holds that among the various polarities existing in the cosmos, one requires a particular treatment since it introduces us best to the ontological mystery of “things”: the polarity of the visible and the invisible.

“The notion of the invisible, in our context, does not come as a surprise. Without having been openly examined, it has indirectly appeared on several occasions: when we have spoken of the scientific enigma and the ontological mystery of nature, of spirit (in relation with energy∕matter), of causality and finality… This notion is intimately linked to that of transcendence, understood as being inherent to immanence without being exhausted by it. The scientific enigma, the ontological mystery, causality, finality, spirit… are invisible and relevant, in one way or another, to the dimension of transcendence of reality” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 215).

Among the philosophers who have held that a true understanding of the visible realm is incomplete without postulating the existence of the invisible we must mention in the first place Plato and Aristotle. We know that according to Plato the intelligible world not only exists before but also independently from the sensible world. For Plato, our world is an interpenetration of being and non-being, respectively of ideal realities and matter which acts as their receptacle (or mould). By reminiscence, which consists of a recollection of ideal forms, the soul elevates itself within this sensible world and eventually frees itself, throughout metempsychoses, from the burden of ignorance.

For Aristotle, on the contrary, we speak of hylemorphism; matter and form do not exist in a separated state. According to Aristotle, matter and form are like potentiality and actuality. Forms only exist in composition with matter, “therefore they are not “ante rem” (before the thing) but “in re” (in it). We could say that Aristotle renders the form immanent. In this fashion he is modern, since modernity is characterized by immanentism” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 217). On the other hand we must recall that for Aristotle inquiring into the causes responsible for change leads to a metaphysical questioning that presents itself as an ontology (the categories of being) and a first philosophy (fundamental Being). Also, Aristotle postulates that there must exist a prime mover which itself is unmoved.

According to Siegwalt, if Aristotle rises above Plato in is comprehension of the how question, he joins him concerning the why (causality) and the in function of what questions. In other words, for both of them, “the question of the cause, which cannot be avoided, leads ineluctably from the visible dimension to the invisible” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 218).

In respect to the mythological apprehension, this invisible dimension does not appear solely in terms of ideas, forms, potentiality or even archetypes; it also presents itself in terms of secondary divinities and intermediary powers. In relation to the cosmos and to history they appear as structural powers, while in relation to individuals they present themselves as constructive and destructive powers, namely angels and demons. It is important to understand that if these personified powers belong to the invisible realms they must not be understood in a Platonist sense as being separable from the visible realm. We have spoken in this respect of the polarity implying the visible and the invisible.

“In fact, the risk of taking the affirmations concerning angels and demons in the first degree, as if they where objective data of the same type as visible reality but of an invisible character, is paralleled when one speaks of God objectively. We therefore expressly refer to the affirmation constantly reiterated in this Dogmatics concerning the non objective (in the scientific sense) but symbolical character of such affirmations of faith. The symbolical character of these affirmations does not signify that they are unreal, or rather that their “object”, the invisible realm and its ambivalence is unreal, but it signifies, with the non-scientific objectivity of this “object” in the sense of a realism of faith (symbolical realism), that these statements are like “numbers” (K. Jaspers) that must be deciphered or interpreted, and consequently they rely on a discernment; their meaning is spiritual and calls for a spiritual comprehension. The invisible dimension of creation is spiritual, and this spiritual character is real, attesting itself in its effects, in other words in its influence, in its quality of power (exousia, etc. in the words of Saint-Paul)” (D.C.E. III∕2, p. p. 284).

The ontological status of the supra-individual powers of the invisible dimension

We have said that contemporary scientific theories have revolutionized our ideas of time, space and matter and call for an overcoming of reductionism and objectivism. Henceforth we speak rather of energy-matter in relation to an irreversible space-time.

We must recall that reductionism and objectivism have been laid down in the context of ontological dualism, that is, in the context of a separation between matter and mind. This separation, which was extended to cosmos and anthropos, has arisen in an episteme where reigned a Euclidian geometric and Newtonian mechanic (reversible relations between forces, mass, speed and movement) comprehension of space and time. In other words, ontological dualism appears in the context of a comprehension of space, and correlatively of nature as a whole, as an extended thing (res extensa); as an essentially exterior reality. For Descartes and Newton space is absolute, homogeneous and isotropic: it is a container in which there are a variety of measurable contents. Overcoming such a conception, Kant will approach the Newtonian notion of space in the perspective of is transcendental aesthetic as something “not simply empirical in the sense of exterior, but also as fundamentally principial and hence interior.”

“In contemporary times, the dualist schema of subject-object and consequently the dualist conception of space yields to a non-Euclidean space, due to the fourth dimension of time (space is space-time) that implies the affirmation of space’s curvature (A. Einstein’s theory of relativity); it gives way also to a non-Newtonian space due to the equivalence of matter and energy (in quantum physics) and to the field theory associated with it. If it is true that Euclidian geometry remains valid in relation to rigid bodies and Newtonian mechanics in relation to our everyday experience, they cannot be applied to the domain of the infinitely small, neither to that of the infinitely large… [T]he concept of space is that of a spatio-temporal continuum of which we have said that it involves everything, from energy-matter to living organisms and even to the psyche. The world is but one field of forces or an ensemble of multiple fields of forces that come under one single force field. It is the affirmation of a dialectically unitary world composed of relations between all of its parts” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 138).

Such a scientific theorization of space, if it presents us with a more “spiritual interpretation of nature” (W. Pannenberg, 1993, p. 40), with a less fallacious concretization of the universe – to paraphrase Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concretedness - remains empirico-functionalistic and hence partakes of reductionism. It concerns only how space manifests itself to our instruments at the microcosmic (quantum), macrocosmic (relativity) and megacosmic (Euclidian∕Newtonian) levels and does not answer the question of its essence.

We have seen that the question of the essence of “things” is inclusive of the why and the in function of what questions. This question is left aside by the dominant scientific perspective when it reduces nature to the status of an object, of a means or device. Such a perspective puts forth a narrow concept of natural law concerned only with how things work.

“These laws are mere abstractions, for two reasons: on the one hand, they state generalities of a statistical order while reality, even if it “obeys” these laws, is much more complex; on the other hand, they isolate certain aspects of reality while neglecting others, thus deconstructing reality. Not that these laws are inaccurate, but by cutting the how from the why and in function of what, and by reducing reality to its functionality, they give, when they are affirmed as absolutes like it is the tendency in modern and contemporary civilization, the illusion of offering a truthful account of reality while in fact they speak of reality in a partial manner; natural sciences are in this sense partial and biased” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 231).

According to Siegwalt, these laws must be integrated in a holistic approach to nature; it is only then that we will be able to access the elementary “laws” of nature. Such an approach has the advantage of making us aware of the essentially relative character of these laws, for two reasons. First, these laws are relative one to the other. This is beginning to be understood by the scientific apprehension in light of the observed interdependence of the fundamental constants that describe and define the becoming of the cosmogenesis and the phylogenesis (fine tuning). Second, these “laws are relative to Man; he is inscribed in universal relativity: he depends on it, and he possesses his (relative) autonomy in it” (D.C.E. III∕1, p. 232). We have seen that ontological dualism occulted the fact of the intrinsic and fundamental participation of man in nature by putting the emphasis on the autonomy of the res cogitans. Now, man’s dependence on nature does not exclude his critical distance from her and hence is responsible autonomy.

All this having been said, the reality remains that, despite the growing awareness of the essentially relative character of the laws of nature; despite the affirmation of the unity of the cosmic force field as mentioned above; despite the connaturality between energy∕matter and mind or spirit postulated by the anthropic cosmological principal; finally, despite the epistemological inseparability of the knower and the known in regards to some interpretations of quantum physics etc., the dominant scientific attitude remains tainted by dualism, objectivism and functionalism. It continues to construct an image of reality that is marked by the discontinuities between energy∕matter (inanimate) and bios (living organism), bios and psuchè, cosmos and anthropos. These discontinuities concern precisely the relations between what we have identified previously as the kingdoms of nature. These discontinuities, we reiterate, are for science of an insolvable character and translate positive reason’s absolute inability to produce metaphysical judgments.

Beyond the presumed incompatibility between objective knowledge dominated by dualism and a more intuitive and symbolic knowledge, and beyond the position of two-language theory which holds that symbolical representations are to be interpreted only in a subjective and existential fashion – leaving the domain of the external world entirely to science -, is there not a way of actualising the essence of myths? Are there not reasons that could contribute to justify the age old beliefs of humanity? In other words, how could it be possible to speculate, while aiming at integrating the richness of our life experience, so as to render intelligible and pertinent the mytho-symbolical understanding of nature, i.e. that nature possesses invisible supra-individual powers?

In contrario, the tenants of demythologisation hold that belief in myth is no more justified.6 According to this view myths have been created to reassure us in face of life’s dangers and uncertainties. Myths, understood in this fashion, would be nothing but obsolete representations. They objectify realities that are in fact of subjective origin. According to this view we should learn to distinguish between false and appropriate objectivity. False objectivity consists in treating as an object what is not or cannot be considered as such, while appropriate objectivity is well exemplified by the scientific method when it proceeds to establish correlations between repeatedly observed facts. We have seen that Siegwalt agrees to say that Being, as well as the supra-individual powers of the invisible realms, should not be approached as objectified objects in the scientific sense. However, Siegwalt does not hesitate to consider the invisible dimension as “something” real. In the case of the project of demythologisation, all forms of transcendence must not be objectified; we cannot legitimately speak in the fashion of the world of something which is not of this world; transcendence is not objective-exterior; it is subjective-existential.

We can see that the whole problem lies in our definition of objectivity. Can we really grasp the significance of such a concept by simply opposing it to that of subjectivity without remaining in a profound dogmatic sleep? Is our comprehension of exteriority not determined by the very nature of our interiority? If measurement is the most appropriate criteria to define objectivity, does that mean that everything that is not measurable does not really exist outside us? And again, what does such an “outside us” mean? We have established a distinction between objectivity stricto sensu, in the sense of scientific objectivity and thus of a functional and mathematical rendering of reality (experimentum), and objectivity in the sense of what constitutes the “object” of our daily experience in all its generality (experientia). We have said that in reference to the gods and to the constructive and destructive supra-individual powers of the invisible realms the conception of objectivity adopted by the compartmental approach prevents one from considering as being exterior to oneself (relatively) what must be considered the “object” of a spiritual discernment.

Not only is the demythologising view relatively closed to the determinations that exceed the horizon of our “normal” consciousness, but it seems to locate on the same level relative transcendence (with its various degrees) and absolute transcendence. From a philosophical standpoint, there is no doubt that absolute transcendence cannot in any way become the “object” of any observation even in the sense of experientia. However, the same should not be said of relative transcendence. Hence, we agree with Siegwalt when he holds that we must develop an approach that strives to locate the various degrees of (relative) transcendence and that seeks as much as possible to pinpoint the frontier above which transcendence truly acquires the absolute status. If psychic activity remains invisible in relation to the physical and biological realms, and if psychic depths (subconscient) remain most of the time invisible in relation to surface consciousness, they still are part of the visible domain and must not be falsely identified with the properly invisible parapsychical and paraphysical dimensions. However, these dimensions must not be confused, by lack of discernment, with Godly transcendence. They are the invisible dimensions of the visible dimension. In other words, one must not confuse what in symbolic language is termed the heaven of angels with the heaven of God; one is relative to visible creation (in the sense of the polarity), the other is Absolute.


We have tried to show briefly here that the age-old mythical structure of reality can be actualized in the context of a dialogue with philosophy and the natural sciences when reason is open to the different levels and dimensions of itself in the elucidation of the notions of causality and finality. Such a perspective corresponds to what Siegwalt identifies as the sapiential method. This method gives special attention to the various interstices, cracks or discontinuities that define the limits of the image of the world put forth by positive or functional reason; discontinuities between matter and mind; the physical, the biological and the psychological levels; the visible and the invisible realms...

The mythical structure put forth by the symbolical vision reassembles in a unified representation what the objectifying and dualist apprehension dissociates. Such a structure translates the fact of the fundamental interrelatedness that binds cosmos and anthropos. Metaphorically, we could say that the recognition of the interrelational character of reality marks the coming to consciousness of the link that binds the macrocosm and the microcosm, that is, the recognition of the fact that the knowledge of the macrocosm by the microcosm, of exteriority by interiority, is finally nothing else than a reflection of the cosmos on itself.

Since the philosophy of nature developed by Siegwalt strives at overcoming dualism with a unitary vision, the mythical structure of understanding that lives within it cannot be operative if the exterior world is straightforwardly objectified under the modality of ontological otherness. Besides, we have said that the existence of transcendent powers should not be evacuated from our thinking on the account that they are only projections of a subjective origin. In the case of such symbolical (archetypal) representations as angels and daemons, the naïve differentiation between objectivity and subjectivity does not hold.

The dimensions of mystery and transcendence, of Spirit, appear at the level of scientific knowledge itself, but become really palpable when reason opens itself to the other types of apprehension. This conversion, from a strictly functional reason, to one that is inclusive of philosophical and mythical reason, does not signify that science must reconsider its method. It simply signifies that besides the scientific apprehension exist other modes of knowing.

“Thought never progresses more steadily than through the alternating and combining of different modes of representation. Between pure abstraction that leads to dryness and disenchantment and an unbridled imagination that is the enemy of knowledge, there exists a large intermediate zone of interferences and convergences…” (J. Wunenberger, 2003, p. 47)7

Rather than the primacy of a certain type of knowledge under which all others should be subsumed, be it materialism, metaphysics, epistemology, even mystical experience, there is a need for an equilibrating conjunction of the different modes of knowing. Such a conjunction (one could see it as a conjunctio opositorum) implies not only objective experimentation, but also our daily experience of the different levels and dimensions of reality, in other words mythic, philosophic and scientific (functional) reason. It opens onto a more global and universal understanding of nature and of man as creature, calling for theological answers regarding Creation and the Creator.

BRAGUE, R., La sagesse du monde. Histoire de l’expérience humaine de l’univers. (L’esprit de la cité), Paris, Fayard, 1999, 333 p.

BÜHLER, P., DUBIED, P.-L., KARAKASH, C., SCHÄFER-GUIGNER, O., THEISSEN, G., Science et foi font système. Une approche herméneutique. (Lieux théologiques), Genève, Fides, 1992, 215 p.

CHALMERS, D., “Consciousness and its Place in Nature”, The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind, edited by Stephen Stich and Fritz Warfield, Blackwell, 2003;

GISEL, P., La création. Essai sur la liberté et la nécessité, l’histoire et la loi, le mal et Dieu. (Lieux théologiques), Genève, Labor et Fides, 1987 (1980), 315 p.

PANNENBERG, W., Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, pp. X-166.

SIEGWALT, G., Dogmatique pour la catholicité évangélique. Système mystagogique de la foi chrétienne. Tome IV : L'affirmation de la foi. Vol. 1 : Anthropologie théologique : Problématique scientifique et philosophique. Paris/Genève, Cerf/ Labor et Fides, 2004, 224 p.

--------, Dogmatique pour la catholicité évangélique. Système mystagogique de la foi chrétienne. Tome III : L’affirmation de la foi. Vol. 2 : Cosmologie théologique : Théologie de la création, Paris/Genève, Cerf/Labor et Fides, 2000, 511 p.

--------, Dogmatique pour la catholicité évangélique.Système mystagogique de la foi chrétienne. Tome III : L’affirmation de la foi. Vol. 1 : Cosmologie théologique : Sciences et philosophie de la nature, Paris/Genève, Cerf/Labor et Fides, 1996, 298 p.

--------, « La justesse fonctionnelle de la science et la question de la vérité. » Dans Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 74 (3/1994) 249-263.

TRESMONTANT, C., Comment se pose aujourd’hui le problème de l’existence de Dieu. (Livre de vie), Paris, Seuil, 2001 (1996), 427 p.

WUNENBERGER, J.-J., « Imaginaire et rationalité, une tension créatrice. » Dans Mythe & Science. A. Dettwiler, C. Karakash (Éd.), Actes du colloque «Mythe & Science», Lausanne, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2003, pp. 33-48.


1 SIEGWALT, G., Dogmatique pour la catholicité évangélique. Système mystagogique de la foi chrétienne. Paris/Genève, Cerf/Labor et Fides, 1986-2005. Tome I. Les fondements de la foi. Vol. 1. La quête des fondements. Vol. 2. Réalité et révélation. Tome II. La réalisation de la foi. Vol. 1. L’Église chrétienne dans la société humaine. Vol. 2. Les médiations : L’Église et les moyens de grâce. Tome III. L’affirmation de la foi. Vol. 1. Cosmologie théologique : Sciences et philosophie de la nature. Vol. 2. Cosmologie théologique : Théologie de la création. Tome IV. L’affirmation de la foi. Vol. 1. Anthropologie théologique : Problématique scientifique et philosophique. Vol 2. Anthropologie théologique : La réalité humaine devant Dieu. Tome V. L’affirmation de la foi. Vol. 1. Théologie théologique : De la transcendance au Dieu vivant. Vol. 2. Théologie théologique : L’œuvre continue du Dieu vivant (To be published in autumn 2007).

2 Born in 1932, Siegwalt was a professor of systematic theology at the Faculty of theology of the University of Strasbourg from 1968 to 1998. Through out the years, he has been a member of a number of Church commissions (theological, ecumenical, environmental, liturgical) and others (Association Paul Tillich, Section française de la Conférence mondiale des Religions pour la Paix, Conseil d'administration de l'Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint-Denys à Paris, Confrérie évangélique Saint Michaël, etc.). Siegwalt has also been involved in various interdisciplinary committees, especially with natural scientists, economists, philosophers and theologians. In 2005, he was the keynote speaker at the Templeton Research Lectures annual colloquium held at the Université de Montréal.

3 Note that all the passages from the Dogmatique pour la catholicité évangélique found in the present article have been freely translated from the original French.

4 Free translation from the original French.

5 Besides the cosmogonies being evoked here, one could also invoke shamanism: in Greece, the Ionians, Heraclites, Pythagoras, Orphism, Plato’s Timeus, Aristotle’s astral theology and later Hellenistic thought, in particular Stoicism and the doctrine of the anima mundi; in Alexandria, the Corpus Hermeticum. Or again, one could think of the diverse forms taken by Neo-Platonism (Plotinus, Augustine, the Pseudo-Denis), magic (Cornelius Agrippa), alchemy’s Opus Magnus, up to 19th century German naturphilosophy (Schelling, Goethe, etc.).

6 For the following see the interesting project of: BÜHLER, P., DUBIED, P.-L., KARAKASH, C., SCHÄFER-GUIGNER, O., THEISSEN, G., Science et foi font système. Une approche herméneutique. (Lieux théologiques), Genève, Fides, 1992, 215 p.

7 Freely translated from the original French.

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