Scientific creativity and human singularity
Autor: Mariano Artigas
Fecha de publicación: Geneva, 1990
The search for a bridge between science and theology is one of the main tasks of our times. It is not surprising, therefore, that a study about may include as a basic question this one: Can the notion of information build a bridge between our scientific and our theological perception of reality, unifying our vision of creation?
Such a question may be studied from different points of view. My aim is to examine it under one aspect that, in my opinion, has a particular relevance in the context of information science, namely that of creativity. Information sciences have contributed to clarify the usefulness and meaning of models in scientific research, and, in its turn, this has made it easier to understand in which sense can we speak about scientific truth. If we consider that the alleged disconnections and even oppositions between science and theology depend in a great extent from the meaning of scientific truth, we will appreciate how the present analysis may help us to advance towards a unifying perspective of knowledge in which, although science and theology are obviously seen as different approaches to reality, their mutual harmony and complementarity is also stressed.
Scientific Proofs versus Experience
Scientific proofs have been usually considered in association with experience and perception. When modern experimental science was born, the mechanistic outlook seemed to be its adequate philosophical counterpart. Mechanistic physics was, in the hands of Descartes, a result of his views about evidence, secondary qualities and perception. These views were shared also by Galileo, Newton and others; there were disagreements among them about the role of experience and the method of research, but everyone intended to justify the validity of scientific ideas comparing them with alleged sensible or intelligible evidences.
A hundred years after, Kant realized that mathematical and physical concepts must be constructed; however, his commitment to the rationalist and empiricist tradition led him to a mistaken theory of subjective forms and cathegories fixed forever. Later on, Bergson and Whitehead reacted against the mechanistic ideas and each of them intended to formulate a natural philosophy capable of reflecting the dynamical aspect of nature; these philosophies included some important insights, but they were directly founded on an alleged enlargement of experience and lacked an adequate epistemology, what explains their shortcomings.
Modern epistemology has shifted from experience to methodology. However, the majority of contemporary views, such as conjecturalism, evolutionary epistemology, hypothetical realism and instrumentalism, can be easily seen as consequences of well defined positions in relation with empiricism, apriorism, and conventionalism. The reason why certainty is usually rejected is the alleged impossibility of proving the truth of any statement by means of experience. We are told that empirical knowledge is always theory-laden and that, as a consequence, we can never have a conclusive proof of its value. In this context, dialogue between science and theology becomes meaningless.
Models, Simulation and Epistemology
The kind of refreshing ideas that information sciences put forward refers to the relevance of software, the use of models, and the concept of simulation.
Advances in information sciences are due in a great extent to advances in hardware, so that it is even difficult to have always a software adequate to the possibilities of hardware. Nevertheless, information depends basically on software, structure, programs, language, logic. Program making is a difficult task, because one must specify problems and solutions with sufficient detail and take into account how will the relevant data be received; moreover programs are rapidly modified.
We use information science as a means to study difficult problems without needing to reproduce real processes. In this respect, work on artificial intelligence is telling enaugh, because problems are usually studied through models by which one does not intend to reproduce enormously complex processes; it is possible, however, to reach the desired results by using entirely different processes. This is also the case in the field of robotics.
In this way, it is easy to see that if we want to study nature, we are not compelled to use representations that derive from perceptual or mental experiences or correspond or agree in some way with them. We are free in using theoretical constructs. And theory construction is a creative process.
Of course, all this is not a real novelty in epistemology. Newton's work was an extremely creative one. He put forth in a definitive manner what since then has been the physicist's way of studying nature or, in other words, the essential traits of scientific method. Science is built up through a dialogue with nature. But nature does not speak with human words, or with a mathematical lenguage, as Galileo thought; she only speaks with facts. And this is why we must create some codified language.
Newton built up a theoretical structure which was, as we call it now, a model. This model does not refer directly to the Sun, the Earth and the planets; its ingredients are point-masses and forces. Newton applied to them mathematical tools so that he could obtain an entire collection of theorems. The correspondance between theory and facts depends on appropriate definitions of basic magnitudes such as lenghts, times and masses, and also suposes that we are able to justify some statements such as the equivalence between the gravitational force of the Earth and that which would exist if its entire mass would concentrate in its center.
In spite of this, Newton's epistemological ideas included, as essential ingredients, induction and generalization from experience, and such an outlook, or its aprioristic kantian translation, continued to dominate during the following times. When in our century the role of creativity has been recognized, this has been usually done in contexts similar to those of empiricism, apriorism and conventionalism. This is why contemporary arguments about creativity are often misleading.
There is another reason of misinterpretations, namely that creativity does not hold only in the context of discovery, as is usually admitted, but also in the context of justification. For instance, when we consider creativity in the context of simulation, we can recognize that we are free not only with respect to theroretical constructs, but also when we design the ways to evaluate them.
What results from all this is that we can progress in our knowledge and control of nature using creativity in both directions, that of invention and that of experimental control. What remains to be clarified is that this does not imply an instrumentalist view, and that we can speak yet about scientific truth.
I have said that one merit of Kant's epistemology was to point out that theories of mathematical physics are constructs ; some shortcomings of his explanation were due to his conviction about the universality and necesity of these constructs. Popper's views may be seen as an up-to-date formulation of Kant's ideas, taking into account that we are free with respect to the construction of scientific theories, and that this freedom is only restricted by the requirement of empirical testability.
As far as we use the hypothetical-deductive method, scientific activity may be seen as the popperian method of trial and error. Nevertheless it should be added that, in spite of the fact that in this way we cannot obtain any certitude on purely logical grounds, there are some criteria which help us in evaluating our theoretical constructs; such are, for instance, explanatory and predictive power, accuracy, mutual support, and the diversity and independence of proofs. On this basis we may say that atomic theory is true, and even that it was true before we could obtain any observation about atoms. In this way, we can speak about scientific truth in a stronger sense than Kant and Popper accept.
The constructive aspect of scientific concepts does not preclude the possibility of speaking about truth, provided we notice that this truth is always contextual and partial *(1). Scientific truth does not mean that we see nature as reflected in a theoretical mirror. There is no isomorphism between nature and theory. Attaining truth means that our statements can be proved in the domain of some accepted objectivation and within definite limits *(2).
The main difficulty is that, in order to obtain any objectivation, we must accept some stipulations to define the formal aspects of the concepts, the rules for the interpretation of measurements, and which statements will be considered as axioms. Moreover, experimental control has some elasticity, so that it is also necessary to accept some stipulations about the empirical validity of laws and theories. This is why Popper asserts that scientific theories are always conjectures. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that Popper's views are too narrow in this respect, as far as they assume that certitude would be legitimate only if we could establish some logically necessary links between experience and theories.
I have referred to the perceptual problem as the cause of many troubles about scientific truth. Epistemology and natural philosophy have been largely dominated by rationalist and empiricist views about the relations between experience and theory. In order to reach an adequate account of truth it is important to realize that we construct theoretical concepts, laws, theories and models, and we try to find out to what extent they explain the available experimental data, which also involve constructions and interpretations. This means that we are active agents throughout every step, and that human creativity pervades every aspect of experimental science. Therefore science cannot be reduced in any way to some kind of authomatic method.
There is today a general agreement about this. The problem concerns the conclusion, which usually falls under some kind of open or concealed instrumentalism. Nevertheless, there is no reason why we should accept this view. Although our science is full of interpretations, we are able to obtain results which can be said to be true, in a contextual and partial but authentic sense. It is our creativity what allows us to handle theoretical constructs and experimental devices in such a way that we can grasp how nature really behaves, what are the building stones of which she is made, and what kind of structures conform her.
Forms and Information
So we come now to the topic of structures and conformations. Our previous reflections refer to the possibility of establishing a connection between theoretical constructs and reality or, what is the same, between theoretical structuresand natural conformations.
Natural philosophy of old was full of forms. In the XVIIth century, the mechanistic view preconized their abolishment, because they were considered as qualitates occultae. Later on, as mechanism seemed to be a part of the new science, which in its turn was qualified as the new natural philosophy, forms were really abolished. The situation is now very different. It has been recognized that mechanistic models represent partial views and must be completed with models that include structural views. In a structural approach holism plays an important role, and features such as qualitative levels, integration, and teleology are considered as relevant.
What this means is that, although we continue using mathematical tools that do not have any empirical meaning by themselves, they are seen as a part of a more complete way of knowing nature. There is an approach between experimental science and natural philosophy.
Nature cannot be reduced to the sum of our sensations or experiences. The aristotelian concept of nature, in its stronger meaning, refers to an inner principle of activity, and this concept is a precondition of natural science: if there were no nature in this sense, there would not be any natural law and therefore any regularity.
In this way, natural science seeks to relate the level of natural entities and that of our creative models. Both levels must be admitted to explain the possibility of experimental science such as we know it. It is not enough to admit regularity as a methodological principle, or to think about nature only when we refer to the requirement of empirical testability.
Forms play a role in natural entities and in our knowledge of them. They express the entitative consistency of nature. From the ontological point of view, the concept of form represents a surplus meaning of nature with respect to knowledge. Natural entities are, according to the classical concepts, informed matter. Nature equals essence and form, and this is why there is intelligibility at all. Knowledge implies some intentional possession of natural forms and, therefore, an information of the knower by these forms.
Scientific progress has thrown light upon the fact that this information is carried by models that are theoretical constructions, and information sciences serve to clarify further how models can be carriers of information in multiple ways. Nature transcends our abilities of knowledge, and we will never obtain a perfect, all-pervading and definitive science. Nevertheless, there is a subtle methodological logic by which we are able to progress in our knowledge of reality, and this logic is centered around creativity in constructing theories, in designing tests, and in evaluating truth.
The Quest for Intelligibility
Knowledge, in a strong sense, means intelligibility; and this, in its turn, means an ascertainment of causes. The problem of intelligibility in natural science is the problem of knowing the causes of nature.
The legacy of mechanicism and kantism suggests that in natural science there is room only for an investigation of material and efficient causes, and that these causes should be considered as dependent of our thinking. Instead of this, modern systemic approaches suggest that there is no inconvenient in using also concepts such as those of formal and final causes.
At this point, we meet again the topic of creativity. Natural science is pervaded from top to bottom by creativity, and scientific method always implies a high degree of interpretation. And this does not mean that we must fall into subjectivism; on the contrary, it is this capacity of interpretation what makes possible to reach objectivity and truth.
We are just beginning to understand natural science. For the first time, we dispose now of a historical perspective and a variety of scientific results that may help us to prevent unilateral outlooks. Anyway, a first condition for an adequate epistemology would be to recognize the central role of creativity and interpretation. And advances in information sciences help to see clearly all this.
Human Singularity and Theology
It is easy to see what this implies about the relationship between human person and natural science. Theories are constructed, evaluated and used according to methods that never are authomatic, and always imply creativity and understanding. Science is above all a human activity with a well defined general goal, namely to obtain a knowledge of nature that may be submitted to experimental control. Although it is possible to work in this line in a purely instrumentalist way, any work would be impossible at all if it were not accompanied by an interpretative and creative outlook, at least in an implicit way.
Given all this, there is no sense in saying that man is only a kind of informational machine, or a mixture of an informational machine and an informational beast. Scientific progress shows that nature has a great variety of inexhaustible real forms, that human singularity allows us to grasp those forms in the matter informed by them and also to create theoretical constructs that serve as carriers of intentional information, and to evaluate the meaning and real reference of these constructs.
Of course, besides the anthropological implications of all this, there are also other implications with respect to metaphysics and natural theology. Experimental science studies configurations that include information, and discovers structures and forms that imply rationality, intelligence and planning, because they always refer to patterns. Natural philosophy is a reflection upon a real physis that is permeated by intelligibility and, in this sense, it is a physical philosophy which is pervaded by metaphysical and theological features. In this context, human singularity and divine transcendance reflect metaphysical aspects that should be considered as the basis of scientific creativity and the precondition of any scientific progress.
The scientistic outlook, including the varieties of reductionism and naturalism, is not consistent with the realistic views implied by scientific creativity. This criticism eliminates what may be considered as the main obstacle against the unification of scientific and theological knowledge. Of course, naturalism can recognize creativity as a sheer fact; what is required is to transcend this phenomenological level searching its real explanation, and this leads to the philosophical foundations of science and epistemology. In this direction we can find a bridge which serves to communicate science, epistemology and natural theology.
- A discussion of this topics may be found in my Filosofía de la ciencia experimental, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 1989, chapters V and VI.
- I use the concept of objectivation in the same sense as Evandro Agazzi does. I have compared our views inObjectivité et fiabilité dans la science, in: E. Agazzi (editor), L'objectivité dans les différentes sciences, Editions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, Fribourg 1988, pp. 41-54.