Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework for Going Beyond the Science-Religion Debate

The war of definitions

How transdisciplinarity was born

Transdisciplinarity is a relatively young approach: it emerged seven centuries later than disciplinarity, due to the Swiss philosopher and psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

The word itself first appeared in France, in 1970, in the talks of Jean Piaget, Erich Jantsch and André Lichnerowicz, at the international workshop “Interdisciplinarity –Teaching and Research Problems in Universities”, organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in collaboration with the French Ministry of National Education and University of Nice1.

In his contribution, Piaget gives the following description of transdisciplinarity: "Finally, we hope to see succeeding to the stage of interdisciplinary relations a superior stage, which should be "transdisciplinary", i.e. which will not be limited to recognize the interactions and or reciprocities between the specialized researches, but which will locate these links inside a total system without stable boundaries between the disciplines"2. This description is vague, but has the merit of pointing to a new space of knowledge “without stable boundaries between the disciplines”. However, the idea of a “total system” opens the trap of transforming transdisciplinarity in a super- or hyperdiscipline, a kind of “science of sciences”. In other words the description of Piaget leads to a closed system, in contradiction with his own requirement of the instability of boundaries between disciplines. The key-point here is the fact that Piaget retained only the meanings “across” and “between” of the Latin prefix trans, eliminating the meaning “beyond”. In such a way, transdisciplinarity is just a new, but “superior” stage, of interdisciplinarity. I think that Piaget was fully conscious of this alteration of transdisciplinarity, but the intellectual climate was not yet prepared for receiving the shock of contemplating the possibility of a space of knowledge beyond the disciplines. The proof is that, in his introduction to the Proceedings of the workshop, Pierre Duguet honestly recognizes that some experts wanted, in preliminary meetings, to see the word “transdisciplinarity” in the title of the workshop, but authorities of the OECD refused to do so, because they were afraid to confuse some representatives of the member countries3.

In his contributions, Erich Jantsch, an Austrian thinker living in California, falls in the trap of defining transdisciplinarity as a hyperdiscipline. He writes that transdisciplinarity is “the coordination of all disciplines and interdisciplines of the teaching system and the innovation on the basis of a general axiomatic approach”4. He clearly situates transdisciplinarity in the disciplinary framework. However, the historical merit of Jantsch was to underline the necessity of inventing an axiomatic approach for transdisciplinarity and also of introducing values in this field of knowledge.

Finally, the approach of André Lichnerowicz, a known French mathematician, is radically mathematical. He sees transdisciplinarity as a transversal play, in order to describe “the homogeneity of the theoretical activity in different sciences and techniques, independently of the field where this activity is effectuated”5. And, of course, this theoretical activity can be formulated, he thinks, only in mathematical language. Lichnerowicz writes: “The Being is put between parentheses and it is precisely this non-ontological character which confers to mathematics its power, its fidelity and its polyvalence.”6 The interest of Lichnerowicz for transdisciplinarity was accidental, but his remark about the non-ontological character of mathematics has to be remembered.

I described in some detail the three different positions of Piaget, Jantsch and Lichnerowicz concerning transdisciplinarity, because they can be found again, a quarter of a century later, in what I call “the war of definitions”.

Beyond disciplines

I proposed the inclusion of the meaning “beyond disciplines” in 19857 and I developed this idea over the years in my articles and books and also in different official international documents. Many other researchers over the world contributed to this development of transdisciplinarity. A key-date in this development is 1994, when the Charter of Transdisciplinarity8 was adopted by the participants at the First World Congress of Transdisciplinarity (Convento da Arrábida, Portugal).

This idea did come from my long practice of quantum physics. For an outsider, it might seem paradoxical that it is from the very core of exact sciences that we arrive at the idea of limits of disciplinary knowledge. But from inside, it provides evidence of the fact that, after a very long period, disciplinary knowledge has reached its own limitations with far reaching consequences not only for science, but also for culture and social life.

The crucial point here is the status of the Subject.

Modern science was born through a violent break with the ancient vision of the world. It was founded on the idea — surprising and revolutionary for that era — of a total separation between the knowing subject and Reality, which was assumed to be completely independent from the subject who observed it. This break allowed science to develop independently of theology, philosophy and culture. It was a positive act of freedom. But today, the extreme consequences of this break, incarnated by the ideology of scientism, become a potential danger of self-destruction of our species.

On the spiritual level, the consequences of scientism have been considerable: the only knowledge worthy of its name must therefore be scientific, objective; the only reality worthy of this name must be, of course, objective reality, ruled by objective laws. All knowledge other than scientific knowledge is thus cast into the inferno of subjectivity, tolerated at most as a meaningless embellishment or rejected with contempt as a fantasy, an illusion, a regression, or a product of the imagination. Even the word “spirituality” has become suspect and its use has been practically abandoned.

Objectivity, set up as the supreme criterion of Truth, has one inevitable consequence: the transformation of the Subject into an Object. The death of the Subject is the price we pay for objective knowledge. The human being became an object — an object of the exploitation of man by man, an object of the experiments of ideologies which are proclaimed scientific, an object of scientific studies to be dissected, formalized, and manipulated. The Man–God has become a Man–Object, of which the only result can be self-destruction. The two world massacres of this century, not to mention local wars and terrorism — are only the prelude to self-destruction on a global scale.

In fact, with very few exceptions – Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer or Cassirer – modern and post-modern thinkers gradually transformed the Subject in a grammatical subject. The Subject is today just a word in a phrase9.

The quantum revolution radically changed this situation. The new scientific and philosophical notions it introduced – the principle of superposition of quantum “yes” and “no” states, discontinuity, non-separability, global causality, quantum indeterminism – necessarily led the founders of quantum mechanics to rethink the problem of the complete Object / Subject separation. For example, Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize of Physics, thought that one must suppress any rigid distinction between the Subject and Object, between objective reality and subjective reality. “The concept of “objective” and “subjective” – writes Heisenberg – designate […] two different aspects of one reality; however we would make a very crude simplification if we want to divide the world in one objective reality and one subjective reality. Many rigidities of the philosophy of the last centuries are born by this black and white view of the world.”10 He also asserts that we have to renounce the privileged reference to the exteriority of the material world. “The too strong insistence on the difference between scientific knowledge and artistic knowledge – writes Heisenberg – comes from the wrong idea that concepts describe perfectly the “real things” […] All true philosophy is situated on the threshold between science and poetry.”11

My line of thinking is in perfect agreement with that of Heisenberg. For me, “beyond disciplines” precisely signifies the Subject-Object interaction. The transcendence, inherent in transdisciplinarity, is the transcendence of the Subject. The Subject can not be captured in a disciplinary camp.

The meaning “beyond disciplines” leads us to an immense space of new knowledge. The main outcome was the formulation of the methodology of transdisciplinarity, which I will analyze in the next section. It allows us also to clearly distinguish between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.

Multidisciplinarity concerns itself with studying a research topic in not just one discipline only, but in several at the same time. Any topic in question will ultimately be enriched by incorporating the perspectives of several disciplines. Multidisciplinarity brings a plus to the discipline in question, but this “plus” is always in the exclusive service of the home discipline. In other words, the multidisciplinary approach overflows disciplinary boundaries while its goal remains limited to the framework of disciplinary research.

Interdisciplinarity has a different goal than multidisciplinarity. It concerns the transfer of methods from one discipline to another. Like multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity overflows the disciplines, but its goal still remains within the framework of disciplinary research. Interdisciplinarity has even the capacity of generating new disciplines, like quantum cosmology and chaos theory.

Transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge12.

As one can see, there is no opposition between disciplinarity (including multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity) and transdisciplinarity, but a fertile complementarity. In fact, there is no transdisciplinarity without disciplinarity. In spite of this fact, the above considerations provoked, around 1990, a more a less violent war of definitions. This war is not yet finished.

The challenge of the war of definitions: the Subject/Object interaction

There is a specific different approach of transdisciplinarity, characterized by the refusal of formulating any methodology and by its exclusive concentration on joint problem-solving of problems pertaining to the science-technology-society triad. This approach is represented by figures like Michael Gibbons13 and Helga Nowotny14. The point of view of this transdisciplinary current was largely expressed at the Zürich Congress, held in the year 200015.

This version of transdisciplinarity does not exclude the meaning “beyond disciplines” but reduces it to the interaction of disciplines with social constraints. The social field necessarily introduces a dimension “beyond disciplines”, but the individual human being is conceived of as part of a social system only.

It is difficult for us to understand why "joint problem solving" must be the unique aim of transdisciplinarity. It is certainly one of the aims but not the only aim. The use of singular seems to us dangerous, as allowing unnecessary wars and unproductive dogmatism. Is transdisciplinarity concerning only society, as a uniform whole, or, in the first place, the human being which is (or has to be) in the center of any civilized society? Are we allowed to identify knowledge with production of knowledge? Why the potential of transdisciplinarity has to be reduced to produce "better science"? Why transdisciplinarity has to be reduced to "hard science"? In other words, the Subject - Object interaction seems to us to be at the very core of transdisciplinarity and not the Object alone.

I think that the unconscious barrier to a true dialogue comes from the inability of certain transdisciplinary researchers to think the discontinuity. I will give an image in order to express what I have in mind. For them, the boundaries between disciplines are like boundaries between countries, continents and oceans on the surface of the Earth. These boundaries are fluctuating in time but a fact remains unchanged: the continuity between territories. We have a different approach of the boundaries between disciplines. For us, they are like the separation between galaxies, solar systems, stars and planets. It is the movement itself which generates the fluctuation of boundaries. This does not mean that a galaxy intersects another galaxy. When we cross the boundaries we meet the interplanetary and intergalactic vacuum. This vacuum is far from being empty: it is full of invisible matter and energy. It introduces a clear discontinuity between territories of galaxies, solar systems, stars and planets. Without the interplanetary and intergalactic vacuum there is no Universe.

It is my deep conviction that our formulation of transdisciplinarity is both unified (in the sense of unification of different transdisciplinary approaches) and diverse: unity in diversity and diversity through unity is inherent to transdisciplinarity.

Much confusion arises by not recognizing that there are a theoretical transdisciplinarity, a phenomenological transdisciplinarity and an experimental transdisciplinarity.

The word theory implies a general definition of transdisciplinarity and a well-defined methodology (which has to be distinguished from "methods": a single methodology corresponds to a great number of different methods). The word phenomenology implies building models connecting the theoretical principles with the already observed experimental data, in order to predict further results. The word experimental implies performing experiments following a well-defined procedure allowing any researcher to get the same results when performing the same experiments.

I classify the work done by Michael Gibbons and Helga Nowotny as phenomenological transdisciplinarity, while my own work17, as theoretical transdisciplinarity. In its turn, experimental transdisciplinarity concerns a big number of experimental data already collected not only in the framework of knowledge production but also in many fields like education, psychoanalysis, the treatment of pain in terminal diseases, drug addiction, art, literature, history of religions, etc. The reduction of transdisciplinarity to only one of its aspects is very dangerous because it will transform transdisciplinarity into a temporary fashion, which I predict will disappear soon as many other fashions in the field of culture and knowledge have indeed vanished. The huge potential of transdisciplinarity will never be accomplished if we do not accept the simultaneous and rigorous consideration of the three aspects of transdisciplinarity. This simultaneous consideration of theoretical, phenomenological and experimental transdisciplinarity will allow both a unified and non-dogmatic treatment of the transdisciplinary theory and practice, coexisting with a plurality of transdisciplinary models.

Formulation of the methodology of transdisciplinarity

The axiomatic character of the methodology of transdisciplinarity

The most important achievement of transdisciplinarity in present times is, of course, the formulation of the methodology of transdisciplinarity, accepted and applied by an important number of researchers in many countries of the world. Transdisciplinarity, in the absence of a methodology, would be just an empty discourse and therefore a short-term living fashion.

The axiomatic character of the methodology of transdisciplinarity is an important aspect. This means that he have to limit the number of axioms (or principles or pillars) to a minimum number. Any axiom which can be derived from the already postulated ones, have to be rejected.

This fact is not new. It already happened when disciplinary knowledge acquired its scientific character, due the three axioms formulated by Galileo Galilei in Dialogue on the Great World Systems18:

1. There are universal laws, of a mathematical character.

2. These laws can be discovered by scientific experiment.

3. Such experiments can be perfectly replicated.

It should be obvious that if we try to build a mathematical bridge between science and ontology, we will necessarily fail. Galileo himself makes the distinction between human mathematics and divine mathematics19. Human mathematics constitutes, he says (through Salvati), the common language of human beings and God, while divine mathematics is connected with the direct perception of the totality of all existing laws and phenomena. Transdisciplinarity tries to seriously take this distinction into account. A bridge can be built between science and ontology only by taking into account the totality of human knowledge. This requires a symbolic language, different from mathematical language and enriched by specific new notions. Mathematics is able to describe repetition of facts due to scientific laws, but transdisciplinarity is about the singularity of the human being and human life. The key-point here is, once again, the irreducible presence of the Subject, which explains why transdisciplinarity can not be described by a mathematical formalism. The dream of the mathematical formalization of transdisciplinarity is just a phantasm, the phantasm induced by centuries of disciplinary knowledge.

After many years of research, I arrived20 at the following three axioms of the methodology of transdisciplinarity:

i. The ontological axiom: There are different levels of Reality of the Object and, correspondingly, different levels of Reality of the Subject.

ii. The logical axiom: The passage from one level of Reality to another is insured by the logic of the included middle.

iii. The epistemological axiom: The structure of the totality of levels of Reality is a complex structure: every level is what it is because all the levels exist at the same time.

The first two get their experimental evidence from quantum physics, but they go well beyond exact sciences. The last one has its source not only in quantum physics but also in a variety of other exact and human sciences. All three are in agreement with traditional thinking, present on the earth from the beginning of historical times.

Axioms can not be demonstrated: they are not theorems. They have their roots in experimental data and theoretical approaches and their validity is judged by the results of their applications. If the results are in contradiction with experimental facts, they have to be modified or replaced.

Let me note that, in spite of an almost infinite diversity of methods, theories, and models which run throughout the history of different scientific disciplines, the three methodological postulates of modern science have remained unchanged from Galileo until our day.

Let me also note that only one science has entirely and integrally satisfied the three Galilean postulates: physics. The other scientific disciplines only partially satisfy the three methodological postulates of modern science. However, the absence of rigorous mathematical formulation in psychology, psychoanalysis, history of religions, theology, law theory and a multitude of other disciplines did not lead to the elimination of these disciplines from the field of science. At least for the moment, not even an exact science like molecular biology can claim a mathematical formulation as rigorous as that of physics. In other words, there are degrees which can respectively take into account more or less completely the three methodological postulates of modern science. Likewise, the process of more or less taking completely into account the three methodological pillars of transdisciplinary research will generate different degrees of transdisciplinarity. Large avenues are open for a rich and diverse transdisciplinary research.

The above three axioms give a precise and rigorous definition of transdisciplinarity.

Let me now describe the essentials of these three transdisciplinary axioms.

The ontological axiom: levels of Reality of the Object and levels of Reality of the Subject

The key concept of the transdisciplinarity is the concept of levels of Reality.

Here the meaning we give to the word “Reality” is pragmatic and ontological at the same time.

By “Reality” we intend first of all to designate that which resists our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, or even mathematical formulations.

In so far as Nature participates in the being of the world, one has to assign also an ontological dimension to the concept of Reality. Reality is not merely a social construction, the consensus of a collectivity, or some inter-subjective agreement. It also has a trans-subjective dimension: for example, experimental data can ruin the most beautiful scientific theory.

Of course, one has to distinguish the words “Real” and “Reality”. Real designates that which is, while Reality is connected to resistance in our human experience. The “Real” is, by definition, veiled for ever, while “Reality” is accessible to our knowledge.

By “level of Reality”, I designate a set of systems which are invariant under certain laws: for example, quantum entities are subordinate to quantum laws, which depart radically from the laws of the macrophysical world. That is to say that two levels of Reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the applicable laws and a break in fundamental concepts (like, for example, causality). Therefore there is a discontinuity in the structure of levels of Reality, similar to the discontinuity reigning over the quantum world.

Every level of Reality has its associated space-time, different from one level to the other. For example, the classical realism is associated with the 4-dimensional space-time (three dimensions of space and one dimension of time), while the quantum realism is associated with a space-time whose number of dimensions is bigger than four. The introduction of the levels of Reality induces a multidimensional and multi-referential structure of Reality.

A new Principle of Relativity21 emerges from the coexistence between complex plurality and open unity in our approach: no level of Reality constitutes a privileged place from which one is able to understand all the other levels of Reality. A level of Reality is what it is because all the other levels exist at the same time. This Principle of Relativity is what originates a new perspective on religion, politics, art, education, and social life. And when our perspective on the world changes, the world changes.

In other words, our approach is not hierarchical. There is no fundamental level. But its absence does not mean an anarchical dynamics, but a coherent one, of all levels of Reality, already discovered or which will be discovered in the future.

Every level is characterized by its incompleteness: the laws governing this level are just a part of the totality of laws governing all levels. And even the totality of laws does not exhaust the entire Reality: we have also to consider the Subject and its interaction with the Object.

The zone between two different levels and beyond all levels is a zone of non-resistance to our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, and mathematical formulations. Quite simply, the transparence of this zone is due to the limitations of our bodies and of our sense organs — limitations which apply regardless of what measuring tools are used to extend these sense organs. We therefore have to conclude that the topological distance between levels is finite. However this finite distance does not mean a finite knowledge. Take, as an image, a segment of a straight line – it contains an infinite number of points. In a similar manner, a finite topological distance could contain an infinite number of levels of Reality.

This open structure of the unity of levels of Reality is in accord with one of the most important scientific results of the twentieth century concerning arithmetic, the theorem of Kurt Gödel22, which states that a sufficiently rich system of axioms inevitably leads to results which are either undecidable or contradictory. The implications of Gödel’s theorem have considerable importance for all modern theories of knowledge, primarily because it concerns not just the field of arithmetic, but all of mathematics which include arithmetic. The Gödelian structure of levels of Reality implies the impossibility of a self-enclosed complete theory. Knowledge is forever open.

The zone of non-resistance corresponds to the sacred — to that which does not submit to any rationalization. Proclaiming that there is a single level of Reality eliminates the sacred, and self-destruction is generated.

The unity of levels of Reality and its complementary zone of non-resistance constitutes what we call the transdisciplinary Object.

Inspired by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl23, I assert that the different levels of Reality are accessible to our knowledge thanks to the different levels of perception which are potentially present in our being. These levels of perception permit an increasingly general, unifying, encompassing vision of Reality, without ever entirely exhausting it.

As in the case of levels of Reality of the Object, the coherence of levels of perception presupposes a zone of non-resistance to perception.

The unity of levels of perception and this complementary zone of non-resistance constitutes what we call the transdisciplinary Subject.

In a rigorous way, we see that “levels of perception” are, in fact, levels of Reality of the Subject, while “levels of Reality” are, in fact, levels of Reality of the Object. Both types of levels imply resistance.

The two zones of non-resistance of transdisciplinary Object and Subject must be identical for the transdisciplinary Subject to communicate with the transdisciplinary Object. A flow of consciousness that coherently cuts across different levels of perception must correspond to the flow of information coherently cutting across different levels of Reality. The two flows are interrelated because they share the same zone of non-resistance.

Knowledge is neither exterior nor interior: it is simultaneously exterior and interior. The studies of the universe and of the human being sustain one another.

The zone of non-resistance plays the role of a third between the Subject and the Object, an Interaction term which allows the unification of the transdisciplinary Subject and the transdisciplinary Object while preserving their difference. In the following I will call this Interaction term the Hidden Third.

Our ternary partition { Subject, Object, Hidden Third } is, of course, different from the binary partition{ Subject vs. Object } of classical realism.

The emergence of at least three different levels of Reality of the Object in the study of natural systems - the macrophysical level, the microphysical level and cyber-space-time (to which one might add a fourth level - that of superstrings, unifying all physical interactions) - is a major event in the history of knowledge.

Based upon our definition of levels of Reality, we can identify other levels than the ones in natural systems. For example, in social systems, we can speak about the individual level, the geographical and historical community level (family, nation), the cyber-space-time community level and the planetary level.

Levels of Reality of the Object are radically different from levels of organization as these have been defined in systemic approaches24. Levels of organization do not presuppose a discontinuity in the fundamental concepts: several levels of organization can appear at one and the same level of Reality. The levels of organization correspond to different structures of the same fundamental laws.

The levels of Reality and the levels of organization offer the possibility of a new taxonomy of the more than 8000 academic disciplines existing today. Many disciplines coexist at one and the same level of Reality even if they correspond to different levels of organization. For example, Marxist economy and classical physics belong to one level of Reality, while quantum physics and psychoanalysis belong to another level of Reality.

The existence of different levels of Reality has been affirmed by different traditions and civilizations, but this affirmation was founded on the exploration of the interior universe only.

The transdisciplinary Object and its levels, the transdisciplinary Subject and its levels and the Hidden Third define the transdisciplinary Reality (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Based on this ternary structure of Reality, we can deduce other ternaries of levels which are extremely useful in the analysis of concr

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