A Transdisciplinary Approach to Science Education as the Foundation for a Contemporary Philosophy of Nature
That we have lost a shared cultural foundation in the unity of knowledge is by now a commonplace observation. As knowledge and information grow exponentially, this knowledge becomes further and further fractionated and dispersed, leaving us with a sense of less coherence and greater isolation. In addition, many would say that our increasingly detailed knowledge, bounded within narrow confines of disciplinary specialization has left us with a dearth of wisdom. The cures proposed for this condition span a wide spectrum of differing approaches. In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman regarded the natural sciences as rather unimportant to a liberal education (although perhaps important vocationally) and instead extolled the virtues of classical literature as the basis for both clear thinking and a shared common culture,1. In the early to middle twentieth century, positivism and reductionism held sway and provided an excellent source for a rigorous methodology to achieve the unity of knowledge2. Unfortunately, part of this program to achieve unity of knowledge consisted of defining those things that don’t fit into the program (like “wisdom”) as unimportant or even nonexistent. Furthermore, as the limitations of positivism and reductionism became more apparent even within a purely scientific context, the viability of this approach withered. A much broader and more integrative way of organizing our knowledge came to the fore as positivism declined, namely General Systems Theory3. In this approach, concepts like information, relationship, feedback, purpose, and open systems became central. Although offering many important insights and fostering a variety of novel ways to think about man and nature, systems theory never really became the dominant new paradigm that its founders and enthusiasts envisioned. Meanwhile, another educational response to the piecemeal disciplinary course requirements that had replaced Cardinal Newman’s idea of the liberal arts was the Great Books curriculum, in which our shared cultural heritage is inculcated by a close reading of some limited set of literary and philosophical works representing its highest achievements. Regardless of the virtues and drawbacks of this movement (one drawback being that the natural sciences are seldom communicated effectively in this way), very few institutions have adopted it. Moreover, both the Western canon and positivist reductionism have come under attack more recently by the interrelated movements of multiculturalism and postmodernism, wherein neither a shared culture nor unity of knowledge are necessarily desirable or possible4.
Against this intellectual backdrop, the conversation about the science/religion relationship plays out. If there is no unified core within the discourse of either the sciences or the humanities, how can we begin to explore the relationships between the natural sciences and the many religious/spiritual traditions found throughout the world? In this paper, I will discuss a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning the natural sciences, looking not for a rigid systematization of knowledge but rather for a flexible and wide-ranging way to understand nature. I will argue that an understanding of the sciences at this level provides a foundation upon which we can begin to create a genuine philosophy of nature, something that has been lacking in the reigning cultural paradigms of the last four centuries. Following the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, I will further argue that a philosophy of nature is the necessary intermediate level that relates the natural sciences to the realm of metaphysics and hence religion56. The philosophy of nature that I envision here, however, is rather more broadly construed than that of Maritain, and I will explore these differences in order to make more clear what I mean by the term.
My interest in a transdisciplinary approach to science education evolved from my work in general science education at the college level for students who do not intend to study further in the sciences. My goal in this type of education is not merely to have the students know a set of “facts” or even to master a set of “skills” but rather my goal is to have the students achieve a genuine comprehension of how one understands nature from a scientific standpoint; the facts and skills are learned as an inevitable by-product of this process if it succeeds. Although the degree of success we can attain is clearly limited in the context of a single course for students with little background, even this limited success is significant compared to the alternatives. More importantly, I maintain that the same approach, implemented at a more sophisticated level, is just what is needed to realize the high-level comprehension required for a philosophy of nature to develop. Indeed, I would argue that this kind of comprehension of the sciences, at all levels of sophistication, is what is needed to make sense of the science/religion dialogue in any form it takes (though I will focus here on the philosophy of nature in particular).
Looking in more detail at what this transdisciplinary approach entails7, we might identify four distinct categories: historical treatments taken from a variety of sciences demonstrating both the commonalities and diversity of tactics, styles, and contingencies in scientific work, especially the process of scientific discovery; overarching unifying concepts that transcend the disciplinary boundaries of particular fields; certain distinctively scientific ways of thinking about the world and its behavior; and the larger contexts (cultural, intellectual, and social) in which science is performed and with which it is interrelated. The historical accounts of how discoveries are made include the apprehension of patterns (e.g. the periodic table and plate tectonics), the use of new instrumentation (e.g. superconductivity and microorganisms), the effect of finding discrepancies (e.g. discoveries of the planet Neptune and of the gas argon), dreamlike inspiration (e.g. the benzene ring), and of course the famous hypothetico-deductive method (e.g. the discovery of smallpox vaccine). Among the overarching unifying concepts in the sciences we might include symmetry, linear dependence, order and disorder, exponential dependence, scaling laws, feedback, and homeostasis. Symmetry concepts, for example, are found in chemical bonds, flower petals, crystallography, electromagnetism and other field theories, snail shells and beehives, fundamental conservation laws, and balancing automobile tires. As a second example, exponential dependence is found in such diverse systems as cooling objects, population growth, and radioactive decay (to name a few). Examples such as these can be given for each of the unifying concepts on our list. Moving on to some of the distinctively scientific ways of thinking about the world, we can identify several including the construction of models, the use of logical reasoning in conjunction with empirical evidence, and the use of quantitative numerical reasoning. The creation of simplified approximate models to employ in the exploration of complicated natural phenomena is an excellent example of the kind of distinctive mental tactics characteristic of the sciences but virtually unknown to many of those looking at science from the outside. The use of reason and evidence is not restricted to the sciences, but its integral role in the sciences doesn’t always seem to be appreciated by those discussing topics such as evolution and brain scanning results. Quantitative and numerical reasoning are even more characteristic of much scientific thought, especially order-of-magnitude estimates and the idea of measurement uncertainty. Finally, considering the larger contextual milieu of the sciences, we can include such issues as science and society, pseudoscience, the values and ethical dimensions of science, controversial science (e.g. cold fusion), the philosophy of science, cultural critiques of science, and of course science/religion issues. Hence, the meaning of “transdisciplinary” here is double; in one sense, internal (across the sciences, but referring only to the sciences themselves), but also extending to the relationships between the sciences and broader areas of intellectual discourse.
Having developed some sense of how this transdisciplinary approach to the sciences offers us a greater depth of understanding and a more coherent (if not entirely unified) view of our knowledge about nature, let’s look more closely at the second part of the argument concerning the philosophy of nature. Maritain maintains that the philosophy of nature serves as a necessary link between the natural sciences (which he refers to as empiriological sciences) and a true metaphysics. His reasoning is based on the need for a philosophy of nature to have its roots in the sensible real, like the sciences but unlike metaphysics, while yet transcending the limits of science by moving toward the ontological essences of phenomena. “Without a philosophy of nature which is surordinate [sic] to the natural sciences and subordinate to metaphysics and which preserves the contact between philosophical thought and the universe of the sciences, metaphysics has no contact with things and can only fall futilely back upon the knowing or willing mind itself8.” I believe that Maritain’s insight concerning the central role that a philosophy of nature plays in forging a link between science and metaphysics is both important and correct. My view of the philosophy of nature, however, is less constrained by the Aristotelian and Thomist tradition of Maritain. Whereas Maritain limits the philosophy of nature to a rather specific (if powerful) methodological regime and underestimates the ability of science to yield important insights about the nature, I would argue that a philosophy of nature can build on these genuine scientific insights by expanding on their implications in ways that are philosophically rigorous yet are not restricted to the empirically testable claims of science. My argument does not limit the boundaries of philosophical rigor to a neo-Thomist horizon as Maritain does, but I agree with Maritain that a philosophy of nature has the potential to offer something that science cannot: wisdom.
Our next task, then, is to briefly indicate what a contemporary philosophy of nature might look like. I have already stated my contention that such a philosophy of nature should be both constrained by the results of modern science and inspired by these results; to ignore modern science and the insights it offers must surely lead a philosophy of nature down a blind alley. But I’ve also stated another contention, namely that we are not bounded within the limits imposed by science (and its attendant philosophical interpretations) in our development of a broader nature philosophy. For example, the attribution of mind to nature has been an important part of many cultures’ conceptualization of the world, as exemplified by the comment that “naturalistic philosophies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attributed to nature reason and sense, pleasure and pain, and found in these faculties and passions the causes of natural process9.” This conceptualization sounds primitive and perhaps even foolish in light of modern thinking, but a detailed examination of particular scientific understandings of particular phenomena might well reveal both contradictions with modern theory (which we are then justified in rejecting) and contentions that modern theory has nothing to say about. Are we justified in rejecting these also, because they don’t fit well with the overall worldview in which the modern theory is constructed? My claim is that we not so justified, and that the real question is whether adopting such extra-scientific conceptualizations has any added value in our discourse. I will suggest some general categories of possible valid conceptualizations of nature that go beyond these limits, and argue for the added value they offer. First, however, let me illustrate these abstractions with a more concrete case.
The Gaia hypothesis is a scientific idea stating “that the temperature and composition of the earth’s atmosphere are actively regulated by the sum of life on the planet—the biota.”10 In other words, a complex set of interrelated feedback mechanisms between the global ecosystem and the inorganic environment serve to homeostatically stabilize the parameters of this environment in a range that maintains conditions favorable for the life forms comprising this ecosystem. In one sense, this is a purely scientific idea and can be treated as such. In another sense, however, the global ecosystem as envisioned here can be looked upon as a kind of organism acting purposively on its surroundings, of which it is an integral part. This analogical view does not add or detract anything from the purely scientific aspects of the hypothesis, but I would argue that it does nevertheless significantly alter how we understand the world. The fertility of this procedure, and at the same time its danger, is that we can extend the analogy further: if life on earth can thought of as a purposive organism, then we can invest this organism with mind, with spirit, or with both. The resulting quasi-pantheistic thinking would surely be firmly rejected by almost all of the scientific backers and originators of the Gaia hypothesis (despite its evocative name). To claim that there is a scientific warrant for personifying the global ecosystem as a goddess is extraordinarily bad logic. On the other hand, to prohibit any metaphorical extrapolations of the implications of the scientific idea is tantamount to a rejection of the possibility of any kind of nature philosophy at all.
The foregoing will serve as the first of several examples illustrating possible elements of a contemporary nature philosophy: nature as a manifestation of mind (or at least purpose). The attempts of many thinkers to exorcise this idea (with natural selection being perhaps the most prominent case) are quite salutary in keeping the discourse intellectually honest and rigorous. But the idea hasn’t gone away. Highly innovative scientific work during the last several decades on self-organization in complex open systems far from equilibrium is quite suggestive of the operation of mind in nature, and the idea has been both metaphorically extended and philosophically analyzed in this regard.11 Earlier work in cybernetics and systems theory12 had already reintroduced the concept of purpose into scientific discourse and made it respectable. Even in classical mechanics, the bastion of deterministic thinking, it has long been known that one can use either a causal language (Newton’s Laws) or a teleological language (least action minimization principles) that are both consistent with the mathematical formalism. All of these cases (and more) open up a conceptual space for the attribution of purpose in nature, and this in turn opens up the possibility of attributing mind to nature. What we mean by this, and what the limitations and potentialities of the idea might be, make up part of the content of a contemporary philosophy of nature.
These questions of mind and purpose in nature are really only particular instances of a more general issue, namely the discernment of any sort of symbolic meaning in nature. Our scientific understanding of nature is now considerably more supple and creative than it was allowed to be during the heyday of logical positivism, but any legitimate philosophy of science radically constrains the truth-claims that we can make based upon any scientific results. Consider, for example, the deep and important role of symmetry in the mathematical equations governing the behavior of matter and the many observable results of this symmetry in the phenomena of nature, such as the structure of crystals (or, more abstractly, the fundamental conservation laws)7. This reflects a yet more general prevalence of order and harmony in nature, found at many different levels. Are we able to conclude from this order and harmony anything important about the essence of nature; does this outward order and harmony mirror some sort of inner symbolic significance in the construction and even the meaning of nature? These are philosophical questions, not empirical questions, and yet the empirical facts goad us into asking the questions and offer clues to how we might answer. Let me offer a second example with more existential import. From our scientific investigations we have discovered that sexual reproduction has allowed the development of multicellular organisms but that in order for this system to operate the organisms as individuals must undergo death. While a certain amount of interpretation of empirical facts has already been loaded into this description, I don’t think it exceeds the allowable bounds of scientific discourse. But sex and death carry heavy symbolic meanings that clearly go beyond scientific discourse, and these facts invite the treatment of a more complete nature philosophy to elucidate such meanings. Even a sober scientific expert might be moved to poetic conclusions: “Does death have any meaning? Well, yes, it does. Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the eukaryotic creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love.”13
The introduction of symbolic meaning into our understanding of nature then also allows for the preservation of a mythic dimension to our interpretations alongside the scientific dimension. I would contend that such a mythic dimension is unavoidable, especially concerning issues like the origin of the cosmos, the origin of humankind, ethical choices, and existential questions of the sort just discussed. Scientific theories such as big bang cosmology and biological evolution can’t, given their subject matter, merely serve as neutral vehicles for the coherent synthesis of empirical data. These theories imply a narrative that inherently transcends their purely scientific function, and they operate on multiple levels in this respect regardless of anyone’s intentions. The confusion of these multiple levels, accompanied in some cases by the denial that they even exist, has caused considerable mischief in the discourse over modernism and its implications. Leaving unanalyzed the mythic/scientific status of any inquiry into the creation/origins narratives that automatically accompanies our theories doesn’t make the issues go away; instead, these issues are allowed to fester in the intellectual darkness until they erupt into social upheavals. The proper place for this necessary analysis is a philosophy of nature that accepts the fundamental validity of a mythic and symbolic dimension to our understanding of nature yet can critically examine the power and limits of this validity while also examining how it dovetails with the scientific aspects of the problem.
My emphasis so far has been on the potential creative input from the sciences into a philosophy of nature, and on this point I disagree with those (for example in the scholastic tradition) who believe that science has nothing of importance to offer. “The specific results of science do not contribute to the philosophy of nature because those results are obtained by methods which already presuppose the starting-points for the philosophy of nature. Consequently, the results of science do not throw any new light on these starting-points.”14 While this may be true if we define philosophy of nature in terms restricted to the methodology of Aristotle and St. Thomas, I am here arguing for a broader definition. That said, let me emphasize the great value of that methodology both in providing tools for a rigorous critical analysis of the creative input from the sciences and in offering an independent pathway toward insights that the sciences can’t give us. These insights fall into the category that Maritain termed ontological. “…in the first degree of abstraction we find two differing forms of understanding, one of an ontological order, the philosophy of nature, one of an empiriological order, the experimental sciences…, which share out among themselves the sensible and mobile universe.”15 The ontological form of understanding, wherein we attempt to penetrate into the intelligible essence of the sensible world, cannot result from the work of scientific investigation and only becomes available by employing the methods pioneered by Aristotle and St.Thomas, methods which are outlined and nicely explicated by scholastic writers like Maritain. The argument that science (or empiriological science, to use Maritain’s term) can’t provide this sort of ontological intelligibility, and that both the methods and the goals of these two forms of inquiry are disjunct, is a persuasive argument.
However, I don’t entirely agree with the limits that Maritain and the neo-Thomists propose for what science is able to offer. In making the distinction between entia rationis (beings of reason) and entia realia (real beings), there is an underestimate of the importance of relationship and a misunderstanding of the ties between mathematical abstractions, the sensible world, and intelligibility. I have argued elsewhere16 that many of the entia rationis employed by modern science have an extraordinarily compelling reality of their own, and that contemporary scholastics will miss this point if they apply outdated medieval categorizations of science and mathematics to modern thought. Some sort of ontological order of intelligibility in nature is implied by these stunning (and often surprising) successes in the mathematical understanding the sensory real, and at the risk of being labeled a neo-Pythagorean I would insist that such a striking happenstance needs to be included in our philosophy of nature. Maritain’s distinction between essence and detail is crucially important, but I am suggesting that perhaps a mass of details taken in toto can contribute at least something to our apprehension of essences. Lastly, the insistence of the scholastics on the distinction between science and philosophy of nature, and on the importance of the latter, are both salutary, but I would argue that a considerably broader conception of the philosophy of nature than theirs is now needed.
The final topic that I will discuss as a potential candidate for inclusion in a contemporary philosophy of nature is the role of human beings in the natural world. This topic may be the most controversial and contentious of those we’ve considered, because many ideological positions are at stake and the issues become far more complex. Once again I believe that any scientific knowledge we may have from areas such as neuroscience, animal behavior, genetics, and anthropology should serve as valuable input and should be properly accounted for. In practice, however, in our present cultural milieu this knowledge is presented in fragmentary and disjointed pieces that are often interpreted in uncritical, unsophisticated, and potentially destructive ways. The philosophical framework in which our scientific results concerning humans-as-natural are conventionally interpreted is extremely narrow and divorced from any other sources of intellectual input. This is the antithesis of the sort of philosophy of nature advocated here. A broad and expansive view of nature, which makes room for creativity and intelligibility, can serve as an appropriate setting for the exploration of the role of humans within nature. And the connection with a variety of intellectual currents and philosophical traditions can enrich the perspective that emerges from this exploration. Three issues in particular warrant careful analysis: What are the interconnections between the place humans occupy in nature and our moral/ethical judgments? In what ways can our conceptualizations of nature incorporate its role as the backdrop of the existential concerns of humans? How does our view of nature, ourselves, and our relationship to nature impact our choices in how we treat the rest of the natural world (e.g. environmental issues and so on)? Crucial issues such as these require a coherent philosophy of nature in order to be addressed meaningfully.
I have so far sketched roughly the outlines of some elements that should be a part of a contemporary philosophy of nature. A number of other potential pieces have been left out. For example, the phenomenological tradition in philosophy (e.g. Merleau-Ponty17) clearly has a lot to offer the kind of project advocated here. Likewise, the process thinking approach of Whitehead has made major contributions in this regard.18 The romantic approach to nature, though often considered antithetical to a scientific worldview, is instead a rich source of insights when considered critically and carefully, and this approach can clearly contribute to a more comprehensive philosophy of nature.19 It is beyond the scope of the present article to delve more deeply into all of these modes of inquiry, much less attempt to reconcile the various contradictions and disagreements among them and the others I have discussed. Many of these contradictions and disagreements are genuine, and a substantial effort to seriously analyze them in order to formulate a coherent way of thinking is needed. In addition, there are many significant epistemological issues involved in the formation of the sort of nature philosophy contemplated here.
Although it is also beyond our scope here to address in detail all of these epistemological issues, I would like to briefly recount the valuable role that complementarity can play in such a project. Complementarity, to put simply, is a framework for the logical analysis of ideas in which a binary either/or logic is rejected for some categories20. Instead, some seemingly contradictory ideas can both be correct under the appropriate sets of conditions, as long as these conditions themselves are mutually exclusive (both/and instead of either/or). A trivial example might be a piece of music. We may say “this piece of music is that set of markings on that paper” or else we might say that “this piece of music is the sound I am presently listening to.” These two statements are apparently contradictory (in a strictly logical sense) but are clearly both correct. Although the example is trivial, the methodology is powerful and profound, entailing many of the deep epistemological questions germane here. Niels Bohr famously developed a complementarity framework to address the paradoxical results that emerged from the theory of quantum mechanics, and he applied this framework to a variety of other scientific fields.21 I have worked extensively to generalize the logic of Bohr’s approach so as to develop a version of complementarity that can be used to address issues outside the purely empirical realm22. This complementarity approach, I contend, would be very useful to solve the kinds of problems inherent in the construction of a nature philosophy as envisioned here.
Now that we have explored in more detail the question of what a contemporary nature philosophy might look like, let’s return to the idea of a transdisciplinary approach to the sciences and explore why this is a good foundation for such a nature philosophy. To begin with, this transdisciplinary way of thinking promotes a higher level understanding of science itself, not just the individual detailed contents of some particular science (though these are also of the utmost importance) but a broader understanding of the goals, accomplishments, potentialities, and limitations of science qua science as a means of engaging nature. This level of understanding is crucially important in order to see how scientific results can properly contribute to the sort of nature philosophy outlined here. It’s important to note that merely knowing the philosophy of science, as it is generally practiced today, is no substitute for the transdisciplinary view of the sciences I’m promoting here; standard philosophy of science is only one of the disciplines that contribute to this view. In addition, although deep mastery of at least one science is required, a good working knowledge of many different scientific disciplines is also needed, along with knowledge of the historical roots of these sciences and how that history intersects with the history of ideas more generally. Facility with this wide range of transdisciplinary ideas is necessary because this entire range is just what serves as the input to the philosophy of nature. We can’t even begin to work out the potential ethical implications of some broader view of the human/nature relationship, for example, without first having a basic comprehension of the contact between science and ethics that operates at a more limited and conventional level. It seems fairly clear that a strong transdisciplinary understanding of science is a prerequisite for any attempt to build a contemporary philosophy of nature, and science education along such transdisciplinary lines appears to me to be a good start.
But why should we want to build a contemporary philosophy of nature anyway? Of what importance or significance would such an accomplishment be? To answer these questions, let’s return to Maritain’s point regarding the relationships between science, philosophy of nature, and metaphysics. In his view, science and philosophy of nature share a grounding in the sensible real, while philosophy of nature and metaphysics share an inquiry into being itself, so that the philosophy of nature serves as a necessary bridge between the sensible real and the essence of being. As we have seen, I take a somewhat different view concerning several details of these interrelationships, but the central insight that philosophy of nature is needed as a bridge between the sciences and the transcendent strikes me as highly important. The sciences, no matter how broadly construed, cannot proceed beyond fairly strict limits, and hence cannot make any direct contact with spiritual orders of reality that don’t reside in the realm that science studies. As Maritain puts it, “The immense and powerful mass of scientific activities, the human mind’s marvelous endeavor to conquer nature experimentally and mathematically, is left without any direction or light higher than that of empirical and quantitative law, and is wholly cut off from the order of wisdom.”23 If we wish to discuss in more detail how to relate the natural sciences to broad questions of religion and spirituality, then we need the philosophy of nature as an intermediary that has legitimate interests in both realms. This is one reason why I believe that it’s important to strengthen the links between science and nature philosophy as I have done here. We have not explored in much detail how a broadly conceived linkage between nature philosophy and the spiritual might be envisioned, but I hope the brief descriptions given are at least suggestive of how to approach that project. In the end, I believe that a well-wrought philosophy of nature will be capable of finding in nature both an object of scientific understanding and a sacred locus for ourselves and the rest of material existence. In the process, perhaps we will finally acquire some wisdom to accompany our power and knowledge.
21 Folse, Henry J., The Philosophy of Niels Bohr, North-Holland Physics Publishing (Elsevier Science Publishers), Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1985; Faye, Jan, Niels Bohr: his Heritage and Legacy, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1991