The Nature of Scientific Growth

There is an issue within philosophy of science that became the trigger of my interest in this discipline about two years ago. It refers to the question of the nature of the scientific growth. For centuries it was generally acknowledged and approved that the advance in scientific knowledge has a cumulative character. New data were thought to be simply added to already existent and classified knowledge in a linear and somehow predictable growth and development of various scientific disciplines. Such was the  opinion of both methodologists of classical science (e.g. Herschel or Whewell), and more contemporary proponents of logical positivism, verificationism, and empiricism.

khunThis idea of science as a rational and critical inquiry bringing a continuous and steady growth of a publicly verifiable knowledge was radically challenged by Thomas Kuhn, a professor of philosophy of science at the University of Berkeley, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a “must-read” for every apprentice in the field of philosophy of science. Nothing further from the truth – says Kuhn – than the belief in a cumulative growth of science. He sees it rather as a cycle consistent of several crucial stages. It is true that the larger pParadigmChange_KuhnCycleart of scientific activity, which he calls “normal science,” is essentially puzzle-solving activity within a certain paradigm (a bunch of basic assumptions, rules, laws, their applications, and experimental instrumentation). But there are puzzles that keep emerging on the way that may lead to a growing confusion and a situation in which the old paradigm looses its ability  to solve them. This brings a scientific revolution, which institutes a new paradigm which is able to solve further puzzles. Kuhn is pretty radical in his claims. For him each scientific revolution makes scientists not only to reformulate their theories, but to change the very language they use. Scientific paradigms are radically different and incommensurable. They are like Gestalt switches.

Gestalt switch

Just like you cannot see a rabbit and a duck at the same time, a scientist cannot work simultaneously within two different paradigms. Therefore, according to him, there is no linear progress or cumulative growth of scientific knowledge. The whole debate started by Kuhn raises the issues of historical and sociological aspects of science. We have to acknowledge that, being a fruit of human activity, it is not as certain and objective, as it is commonly thought.

Karl-Popper-Quotes-1Kuhn’s radical ideas where widely debated. Karl Popper and his followers were not satisfied with the idea of the radical disconnection between scientific paradigms. Popper focused himself on the method of falsification, that is continuous challenging and testing of scientific hypotheses. He claimed it to be a way of approaching truth in science, in opposition to simple verification, which seems to be a never-ending quest, for each new experiment may challenge a scientific truth or law that is regarded as a valid and holding. Importantly, according to Popper, falsification needs not to assume Kuhn’s radical incommensurability of paradigms.

lakatosImre Lakatos proposed yet another theory which assumes that every scientific  paradigm consists of a “hard core” made of laws, theories, and experimental methodologies, and a “protective belt” of auxiliary hypotheses. The latter are subject of changes, development, and reformulation, while the former is protected from any manipulations. Lakatos claims that his theory better describes the practice of science and allows for the scientific growth on the way of developing and embracing  new scientific paradigms. Stability of the “hard core” provides a ground of communication between them.


It all shows the complexity of scientific endeavors, and the need of philosophical reflection concerning methodology of science. The reason I am describing all this is that I want to share a very interesting view on the nature of scientific growth proposed by Gerald Holton, and improved by William Wallace OP. Their description shows that the development of scientific theories and laws has no less than four basic dimensions that cannot be neglected.

4 dimensions of science

The x-axis symbolizes the most basic, experimental or empirical component of natural sciences – a domain of an experimentalist.

The y-axis stands for the mathematical or analytical component, which is indispensable to gather, organize, and interpret scientific data – a domain of a theoretician.

The z-axis refers – according to Holton – to the thematic components of scientific discourse – a domain of a philosopher of science. This is a dimension of fundamental presuppositions, methodological judgments and decisions, philosophical convictions, ideological and even theological views. None of these – says Holton – is derived from, or resolvable into empirical observation (x-dimension), or formal analysis (y-dimension). And yet they are present and important in scientific analyses. Holton gives an example of the gravitation attraction and force. The latter is based on the principle of active potency that stands behind the whole sequence of concepts such as energeia, anima, vis, Kraft. It is from these concepts that the idea of force has developed – the idea that had taken on very different meanings for Newton, Leibniz, Herschel, Mach, and others. It shows the importance of philosophical convictions and presuppositions in science.

The t-axis – added by Wallace – refers to the development of scientific concepts in time – a domain of a historian of science.

I find the model presented by Holton and Wallace a very helpful supplement to the whole debate on the nature of scientific growth developed in the 20th century. It is a shame that the extremely high level of specialization of various scientific disciplines prevents the majority of scientists from this kind of analysis and reflection.

We are all metaphysicians…

Yesterday at the dinner table I had a conversation with the brothers about science and metaphysics. We were trying to answer the question whether a scientist can remain completely not engaged in any kind of metaphysical issues and questions. Can he do his job without asking the question why??? Why do the things and organisms he is researching exist and are what they are? Why all the laws of nature that he is trying to name and describe using mathematical language hold? Of course, he can – or even should – stay away from this kind of questions as a scientist, but can he ignore them as a human being? If he cannot, then is it appropriate and good for him to live his life in this kind of dualism? Ultimately, the question concerns science itself. Does it have merely a descriptive role, or maybe it is supposed to be explanatory as well?

Today, while continuing my study on the history of causation in scientific explanation I came across a nice quote from Norman Robert Campbell, a distinguished English physicist from the first half of the 20th century. He opposed phenomenalism of Mach, who claimed that science should be concerned with phenomena only, with no questions of causality and explanation – in order to attain “ecconomy of thought” (Mach was one of the founders of the logical positivism). Against him and Poincaré, who claimed that scientific theories are only conventions (conventionalism) and their value is just utility and furnishing an aesthetic picture of the universe – against both of them Campbell says:

“… we are all metaphysicians, physicists included. We are all interested in problems which the metaphysician attempts to solve… The world is not divided into those who do and those who do not hold metaphysical doctrines, but rather into those who hold them for some reason and those who hold them for none.” (Foundations of Science, 12)

Ian G. Barbour 1923-2013 in memoriam


In Memory of Ian G. Barbour

On the 24th of December, at the age of 90, Ian Barbour passed away in Northfield, Minnesota. He was the first one to inspire a fruitful debate on science and religion, back in 1960s when the entire environment of the academia, both natural sciences and philosophy, were rather skeptical, if not hostile towards theology. In the citation nominating Barbour for the 1999 Templeton Prize, John B. Cobb rightly said that “No contemporary has made a more original, deep and lasting contribution toward the needed integration of scientific and religious knowledge and values than Ian Barbour. With respect to the breadth of topics and fields brought into this integration, Barbour has no equal.”

Education and Career

Barbour was born in Beijing, China. His mother was an American Episcopalian, and his father a Scottish Presbyterian. He grew up in China, the US, and England. After he received his PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1950, he studied theology. He got his B.Div. in 1956 from Yale University’s Divinity School, and taught at Carleton College beginning in 1955. He published his Issues in Science and Religion in 1966, Myths, Models and Paradigms in 1974. He became well known after his Gifford lectures from 1989 – 1991 at the University of Aberdeen. These lectures led to the book Religion in an Age of Science (reedited and republished in a more extended version as Religion and Science. Historical and Contemporary Issues in 1997), which is probably the best summary of his position. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1999 in recognition of his efforts to create a dialogue between the worlds of science and religion. Barbour was married to Deane Kern from 1947 until her death in 2011. They had four children.

Barbour’s Contribution to Science and Theology Dialogue

It is hard to overestimate the value of Barbour’s contribution to the science/theology debate. In fact, he may be regarded as its initiator. His project was extremely ambitious, difficult, and fragile – taking on account the fact that one of the partners of the debate was rather unconvinced that the whole conversation had any sense. Barbour begins with a preliminary attempt of specifying possible ways of relating science and religion (conflict, independence, dialogue, integration). He also tries to compare methodology of science and theology, and the role of scientific and theological models and paradigms. He shapes this conversation around the latest ideas developed in philosophy of science by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos. He strives to name similarities and differences between science and theology in order to prove that a dialogue is possible and might be fruitful. Setting up the stage, Barbour develops a historical overview of the science/theology relationship in the Western tradition, which then helps him to offer an analysis of contemporary issues, including: quantum theory, relativity, order and complexity, cosmology, design, chance and necessity, evolutionary theory, and hierarchy of levels in biology. As a conclusion of his project Barbour proposes a philosophical and theological reflection that suggests a major revision of the theological understanding of the nature of God and divine action.

I may disagree with many of Barbour’s propositions – which will become clear in the second part of this entry – but this does not change the fact that I remain deeply indebted to Ian Barbour and to what he did to promote the dialogue between theology and natural science. His example inspired a variety of scholars such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert John Russell, Sallie McFague, Philip Clayton, and many other prominent representatives of the theology/science debate. Sitting in my room and writing this post, I am looking at my bookshelf knowing that the entire section on science and religion, including books published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, John Hopkins University Press, University of California Press, and Continuum, would have probably never come into existence if not Ian Barbour and his work. May he rest in peace of God, of whom I believe he now knows more than any one of us.

Critical Evaluation of Barbour’s Project

In terms of philosophy, already in his first book Issues in Science and Religion Barbour argues in favor of ‘critical realism’ which, as he suggests, should be applied in both science and theology. He claims that scientific truth should be assessed in terms of its: 1) agreement with data, 2) internal coherence, 3) applicability in relevant variables, and 4) possible applicability in future research programs. He concludes that in accordance with these rules, we have to agree that scientific truth is a subject of continual revision, that is, that our access to reality (realism) is never ideal and needs to be corrected (critical realism). When saying this Barbour wants to distance himself from so-called naïve realism (a conviction that our access to reality is always and fully accurate), instrumentalism (scientific truths are only instruments to predict and control the reality with no aspiration of revealing the truth about the world), and idealism (which would dismiss empirical science claiming that the truth is discovered in a mental analysis and description). In his definition of ‘critical realism’ Barbour is of course influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He suggests that this methodological tool can be applied in theology as well, opening a dialogue between the two disciplines.

Although I agree with the main thesis of ‘critical realism’ I am rather “critical” with regard to some important nuances of Barbour’s position. What is at stake, or rather in danger in ‘critical realism’ is ‘realism.’ There is a very thin line between the claim that science constantly needs to revise its truths and statements about reality, and a claim that we actually do not have an access to the reality as it is in itself. I have an impression that Barbour sometimes crosses this line. In Religion and Science he says explicitly at one point that “reality is inaccessible to us” (p. 110). When debating over the nature of models in science he emphasizes that they are merely “abstract symbol systems, which inadequately and selectively represent particular aspects of the world for specific purposes” (ibid., 117) They are just “imaginative human constructs.” I am pretty sure that it was not his intention to go this way, but it sounds like a cognitive skepticism. Moreover, I assume that Barbour, when speaking about ‘classical realism,’ refers to Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is usually associated with this term and is accused of naïve and uncritical realism. A famous French mediavist Étienne Gilson answers to those accusations saying that “[Classical] realism does not reject the idea of a critique of the different kinds of knowledge. It accepts it; it calls for it. But it does reject all a priori critique of knowledge as such. Instead of prescribing limits to reason a priori, which soon become limits to reality itself, realism accepts reality in toto and measures our knowledge by the rule of reality. Nothing that is validly known would be so if its object did not first exist – to which we can add that there is nothing to prevent us from seeking to define, within this real order, the relations between the thinker and the thing thought about.” That is why Gilson suggests to replace ‘critical realism’ with ‘methodical realism,’ and famous Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) with res sunt, ergo cogito (things are, therefore I think). (Gilson, Methodical Realism. A Handbook for Beginning Realists, 87)

Another issue at stake in Barbour’s project is his use of ‘critical realism’ in theology. Comparing theology to science he says that theological data consist of religious experience, stories, and rituals. As a Catholic I cannot agree with such a proposition. It sounds too much like the liberal Protestantism of Schleiermacher. We cannot forget that the primary source of theology and religion is Revelation. Although we know it through ‘experience’ and we have to ‘interpret’ it, we still assume that the truth consists not only in our experience/interpretation, but in God’s intentional revealing Himself. We believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit/faith we can know God’s truth, independent of our experience, even if we know it as a way of darkness. Thus, Revelation has a kind of objectivity that is not present in scientific truths (or is different from the objectivity of science). It has its source in God’s authority which in Catholic Tradition finds its special expression in the teaching of the Magisterium. Barbour seems to value more tradition transmitted through stories and rituals, which he opposes to “abstract concepts and doctrinal beliefs” (Religion and Science, 113-14).

That is why, although I am all in favor of Barbour’s approval of Kuhn’s emphasis on historical and sociological aspects of science and his suggestion that it develops through scientific revolutions, rather than through a linear accumulation of data, I remain skeptical about his application of these ideas in theology. Naturally faith has both sociological and historical aspects, but it differs significantly form scientific knowledge. In case of scientific models we are making references to truths about nature that we may hope to come to know entirely, whereas in theology we are dealing with God who will always remain unknown (transcendent). What would be the way of verification/falsification of theological models? From the Catholic point of view we cannot relay merely on ‘religious experience,’ treated as an equivalent of empirical testing in science. For what would be the criteria of such an analysis? Does an experience of God’s withdrawal and of spiritual desert mean that I should change my religious paradigm? It also seems that many theological paradigms which are based on the same data (e.g. Platonic Augustianism and Aristotelian Thomism) are able to coexist, which is rather unlike in the case of scientific paradigms, which – according to Kuhn – are radically different, if not totally exclusive, and remain incommensurable when it comes to languages they use. Although this position has been softened by Lakatos’ proposition of an unchangeable ‘hard core’ of a scientific paradigm and peripheral auxiliary hypotheses which are subject to change, the problem of verification of theological truths still remains.

There are many other philosophical issues in Barbour’s project that need to be addressed, but that would require a more serious form of publication. I am pretty sure that next months will bring many possibilities of a fruitful debate on his work. Turning to theology I would like to mention only one issue, that is Barbour’s acceptance and development of the process theism of Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb and Griffin. It is very significant for somebody coming from the Thomist tradition, for subscribing to process theism Barbour supports and develops a criticism of the classical theology. He thus follows the entire movement in contemporary theology, suggesting a need of a substantial revision of the understanding of the nature of God and his divine action. The whole issue opens another debate, which I hope to comment and develop on my blog in future entries.

I will stop here leaving the door open for further conversation…


Ian G. Barbour 1923-2013


To begin with…

Few days ago I decided to start my second blog. On the first one, which I write in Polish (zapiski amerykańskie), I share the experience of my spiritual journey, my life in the united States among my Dominican brothers, and my friends. It is addressed to all those whom I left for some time back in Poland. However, I know that some of my American friends use Google translator and read it as well.

This second blog will be dedicated entirely to my studies and all my scientific, philosophical and theological interests. I decided that the time has come for me to share some of my discoveries. I’m excited and I have a hope that my blog will find its audience. I begin from scratch, everything will develop in time.

I am aware of the fact, that some of you who found me here, do not know me yet. That is why, my first post will be about myself, my studies and interests.

So, to begin with…

I am a Polish Dominican brother, ordained to the priesthood back in 2008 in Cracow, Poland. After I had spent three years working in a Polish Dominican Publishing House in Poznan, specifically in a monthly magazine “W drodze” (On the Way), and in the campus ministry, I moved to Berkeley, California, where I started my PhD studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

I am interested in the dialogue between science and theology. I believe more and more that philosophy of science, philosophy of nature, and metaphysics, provide a bridge where to meet these two supposedly opposite disciplines of human knowledge. In my studies I am concentrated on metaphysical aspects of the theory of emergence and complexity in biology, and possible use of these theories in the theology of divine action. As a Dominican I am supporting Aristotelian metaphysics and Aquinas’s theological position. However, I want to bring them into a conversation with the entire historical tradition and contemporary thinkers. For this reason, my research goes to topics such as: causation in the history of philosophy, causation in the scientific explanation, philosophy of science, and analytic tradition, philosophy of chance, and various problems in philosophy of biology. I have made a research on the major contemporary themes in the theology of divine action, based on: determinism, quantum indeterminacy, chaos theory, emergence, evolution and intelligent design. I try to bring these positions into a conversation with the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic stance. I have also spent some time on the contemporary versions of philosophical and theological panentheism and process philosophy and theology. I have lots of ideas in my mind, a whole list of books to be read, and never enough time for all that. 🙂

My advisor is professor Michael Dodds, O.P. who is a faculty member of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and of the GTU in Berkeley, CA. I am also a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, CA. I work with professors Robert John Russel, and Ted Peters. I also stay in touch with professor Terrence Deacon from the UC Berkeley, who is the author of the new and original version of the concept of emergence in biology. My contact with professor Deacon is based on my little background in natural sciences (I studied biotechnology, but never earned a degree in it). I have MA degree in theology from the University of St. John Paul II in Cracow, and the STL in dogmatic theology from the University of Poznan, Poland.

Because of my studies, my pastoral ministry is limited to the minimum. I help in the Dominican parishes in Benicia, CA, and in San Francisco. I do ministry in English and in Spanish.

I love God, and the Catholic Church. I’m trying to work on my spiritual life, and grow more mature in my Dominican vocation among my brothers. I live in St. Albert’s priory in Oakland, CA. I commute to Berkeley on my bicycle. Biking, swimming, classical concerts, music in general (classical, alternative, trip-hop, and many other genera), sea food, and long walks – they all bring some rest when I feel tired with my studies.

I have a loving family back in Poland (my parents, and my sister Joanna, who is engaged with David), and in Dublin, Ireland (my brother Arthur, with his wife Barbara and two daughters: Sophia and Emily).

Like I said, I want to share my discoveries and my scientific, philosophical, and theological interests, and I plan to do it here on my new blog!!! Let’s search for Truth together!!! 🙂