Jürgen Mittelstraß | PAS Academician

Science in Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. An Introduction

When science looks at itself, it sees itself in its disciplinary structures, in its research strategies and in its methods. When philosophy looks at science, it takes an interest in theory structures, for example, in the structure of scientific laws and theory dynamics, that is, in the reconstruction of scientific developments. When theology (in its capacity as the academic, theoretical organ of religion) looks at science, it keeps an eye on the relation between faith and knowledge as well as on its part in the history of science. What these different perspectives – scientific, philosophical and theological – have in common is not only the awareness that they have been and still are linked with each other in many ways, but nowadays also the perception that science, with its knowledge, its projects and its institutions, is increasingly changing the world, intervening deeper and deeper in the life of people and society, solving problems and creating new problems as well.

One of the major problems created by science through its work derives from the fact that orientational knowledge is not keeping up with the dispositional (or instrumental) knowledge given by ever-growing scientific knowledge and skill. Dispositional knowledge is knowledge of causes, effects and means; orientational knowledge is knowledge of the right goals and ends. Dispositional knowledge is positive knowledge – the point is to build and enlarge scientific and technological knowledge. Orientational knowledge is regulative knowledge – the point is to orient our life in all its aspects, individual as well as collective.

Things do not look good for orientational knowledge today. Science has largely lost sight of this knowledge in its self-understanding and in its programmes; and, to a large extent, society has lost sight as well – and not only in political practice. The consequences are weakness of orientation, self-doubt and a tendency towards fundamentalism of various kinds. To put dispositional knowledge and orientational knowledge – the scientific and technological intellect – on the one hand, and ethical and political reason, on the other, in a reasonable relation to one another is therefore the essential task that modern societies face today. Or in other words: The curious will, which has found its theoretical expression in science, and the good will, which according to Kant is the ability to act according to principles of practical reason, must join forces again. There are good reasons enough. Take for example climate change, health, energy, and peace. Science, standing on its own, will not solve the problems referred to by these catchwords; and social practice, left on its own, will not solve them either. In the technical cultures, in which we live today, driven by the scientific and technological intellect, only a coalition of theoretical reason (science) and practical reason (ethics) will be able to solve our self-produced problems, problems produced by – or at least lying within the responsibility of – the successful scientific and technological intellect.

Philosophy, in the form of philosophy of science, focuses mainly on the epistemic nature of science and in practical (regulative) matters refers to general ethics; theology, on the other hand – in opposition to the idea of a limitless availability of things, the mastery of man over the world and himself – is above all concerned with pointing to a lasting conditio humana, according to which structures that are not at our disposition make up the centre of all epistemological and anthropological considerations. The concept of the unavailable stands for what homo faber, despite all the advances of modern science and technology, is incapable of achieving – and will never achieve as long as man remains true to himself as he has been so far. What exactly is meant by the unavailable is the fact that man will never be in a position to master all the conditions of his existence and his actions, that is to say, that these conditions are transformed into something available to himself.

And this includes the facticity that makes up his life, his world, his ideas, his hopes and his disappointments. The modern world, penetrated by science and technology, is the work of man and in fact determines individual as well as collective existence. But this does not mean that the unavailable melts into something available, something feasible and controllable. The general situation of man, the conditio humana, which is mirrored in the experiences of the finiteness of life – most stubborn and pitiless in the experience of approaching death – and of the contingencies and coincidences of life, has not changed. This, too, belongs to an orientational knowledge that cannot be replaced by dispositional knowledge and scientific certainties.

In other words, expressing this anthropological fact in an epistemological and ethical perspective: philosophy and theology remind science that it is not merely a theoretical (and methodological) subject, but also a moral subject. What is meant here is that science, on the one hand, stands for a particular form of knowledge, ruled by special criteria of rationality to which theories and methods are subjected. Examples are reproducibility (of scientific procedures and results) and intersubjectivity (the universality of its claims to validity and their fulfillment). On the other hand, science stands for a social organisation, that is a particular social form in which science is realized as a special kind of knowledge formation, and thus for an institution. This institution, in turn, is ruled by standards, not just epistemic but also moral standards like the standard or principle of responsibility – responsibility for the observance of its own (epistemic) standards, responsibility towards society (which is, after all, financing science) for its practice, responsibility for its impact on a world which is, in its modern forms, to a great extent the result of its (theoretical and practical) work. That again means, if this standard is observed: science, which takes on tasks of responsibility and the corresponding obligations, assumes a moral form and, thus, becomes a moral subject. This, in turn – aimed at science and all scientists and reminiscent of a Faustian dictum – can be formulated in the form of a research imperative or research commandment: Let yourself be guided by the thirst for the new and the will to know what holds the world innermost together, but remember that it is no lesser goal to hold that world together with what you do in research and development.

This research imperative (or research commandment) is an epistemic imperative, regarding principles of theory and method, as well as an ethical imperative, regarding principles of applicability and responsibility. In this respect, the research imperative includes a moral duty, without the observance of which the modern world would not maintain a human (and sustainable) course. This, once again, raises the question about the relation between science and orientation. As has been said: What is at stake is the relation between dispositional (or instrumental) knowledge, of which science is the eminent expression, and orientational knowledge, the necessary reinforcement of which is the task of all social institutions, including science as an institution. Performing this duty is, not least, the task of a philosophical and theological perspective on science.