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The Autonomy of the Sciences and Freedom of Research


The freedom of research, from any influence or control external to science itself, is among the factors which have greatly favored scientific progress. This freedom allows science to deepen the knowledge of its own object, without giving in to the pressures or impositions of tradition, custom or culture. The history of science has highlighted many times the "break" or "revolution" operated by a certain discovery or new theory and their import on mainstream beliefs. The importance of the freedom of research is reflected in the autonomy of the Universities, as their chief characteristic which, from their very beginning, protected the work and the service they offered to society. Beyond the debate that science could have had with the legislative and administrative powers of the States, and, more generally, with the public opinion and culture, the freedom of research has been frequently confronted with religion as well. Nowadays, science is involved in public social debates about issues such as the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the risks of technology, the problem of public welfare or the problem of ecology. Apart from some historical instances discussed elsewhere, in the article on Magisterium of the Church, the freedom of science has come into debate with religious thought, especially in those issues concerning bioethics, because of the deep link it has to existential matters that have a huge moral bearing, like life and death, as shown by contemporary bioethics. The necessity of a code to regulate scientific research, and therefore of a correct understanding of the autonomy of science in accordance with the respect for fundamental philosophical values and principles, is witnessed today by the search for, and the development of, an ethics apt to indicate a path to follow in the context of a pluralist society.

When compared with the beliefs of religious faith --we refer here mainly to the Christian faith-- the problem of the freedom of research must be seen in continuity with insights that philosophy and ethics would suggest on that same issue. Were it not so, Christian faith would result as opposed to human rationality, disclaiming the harmony that Christianity affirms to exist between theology and philosophy, faith and reason, and ultimately between Christology and anthropology, a relationship that Christianity places at the core of its faith and service to mankind (cf. Gaudium et spes, 22; Redemptor hominis, 13-18). Since many of the positions taken by the Church's Magisterium on issues regarding ethics or the progress of scientific research have been discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia, here we will limit ourselves to a few general considerations. To emphasize the sensitivity of the matter at hand, it is worth noting that not a few believing scientists still envisage a conflict between freedom of research and the beliefs of their religious faith, tending to put the first before the last in their order of priorities (cf. Ardigò and Garelli, 1989).

A reflection on freedom of research should always be based on a correct understanding of the relationship between freedom and truth. Freedom of research is not "freedom of science," but rather, "freedom of the subject doing science." Thus, such a freedom participates in those characteristics that reveal the meaning of any personal freedom as a self-determination of the acting subject, which, is fully accomplished in the choice for the true and the good: the freedom of science is not a regulative freedom, but a freedom regulated by a nature and a truth that must be found in the order of things and not posited a priori by the subject (see above, I.2). Like any other freedom, the freedom of research is bound to the perception of a corresponding responsibility. As individual freedom is not freedom for being what one is not but that of becoming what one is called to be, so freedom of research cannot be understood as having the liberty of doing whatever science and technology allow us to do. On the contrary, this freedom is that of leading science towards its own end. A new, deeper sense of the "autonomy" of science is implied by the fact that this télos should never be considered as "heteronymous," that is, imposed from the outside. However, it ought to be discernible from within scientific activity, with the help of personal and philosophical reflection, because the scientist is able to recognize that the ultimate end of any scientific activity has to rest in the link that science has to the truth and the service to humankind.

On the issue of autonomy and heteronomy of scientific research, and within the frame of an ample reflection on the humanistic dimension of the scientist's work, John Paul II, here referring to the role of human reason and not to any religious doctrine, noticed the following. Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he observed that discussions of humanism in a scientific context "could even lead some people to fear that a kind of "humanistic control of science" is being envisaged, almost as though, on the assumption that there is a dialectical tension between these two spheres of knowledge, it was the task of the humanistic disciplines to guide and orientate in an external way the aspirations and the results of the natural sciences, directed as they are towards the planning of ever new research and extending its practical application" (Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 13, 2000, n. 2, in Papal Addresses, Vatican City State 2003, p. 386). Scientists possess enough instruments to recognize truths which would become a source of norms for their scientific work, as for instance, the uniqueness of the human being among the other living beings, and that every human person transcends the rest of the created order. In the same discourse, John Paul II clarifies that, "for this reason, the ethical and moral responsibilities connected to scientific research can be perceived as a requirement within science, because it is a fully human activity, but not as control, or worse, as an imposition which comes from outside. The man of science knows perfectly, from the point of view of his knowledge, that truth cannot be subject to negotiation, cannot be obscured or abandoned to free conventions or agreements between groups of power, societies, or States. Therefore, because of the ideal of service to truth, he feels a special responsibility in relation to the advancement of mankind, not understood in generic or ideal terms, but as the advancement of the whole man and of everything that is authentically human" (ibidem, n. 3, p. 387).

If science renounced its relationship with truth by considering truth as something provisional or too idealistic to attain, and accepted a merely instrumental and functional vision of its own activity, it would lose its autonomy by letting economy, politics, and the play of public consensus decide its goals (cf. John Paul II, Meeting with Scientists and Students in the Cologne Cathedral, November 15,1980, n. 3). It must also be added that, in the work of scientists, the search for truth -to which freedom of research ultimately leads, and for which it defends its autonomy- does not simply follow all of the routes available to science, while being blind to the implications that these could have in other sectors. It is not the craving for experimentation and "novelty" at any cost, that necessarily reveals nature's innermost secrets. The existence of a system of moral criteria, that can suggest or discourage the choice of specific paths to follow in one's research, is not something utterly foreign to scientists, since scientific studies already comply with a number of limiting norms --i.e. the availability of material or human resources, the environmental or natural factors related to the occurrence of the phenomena under study, the specific legislation ruling the field of one's activity, etc. Without being perceived as coercions, all these factors inevitably bear consequences on the modality of the scientist's work.

This combination of a legitimate freedom of research, with an ethical and moral dimension present in the activity of science, should not be read merely in terms of an "ethics of the limit," which would put to the index a set of scientific experiments, applications and procedures. Although on a pragmatic and legislative level the ethics of the limit becomes necessary and, also, the first available path to follow, as it presents the limits of its own. Once understood as participation in the freedom of the individual, freedom of research is called to show forth the virtues that illuminate the exercise of personal freedom. Virtue does not move nor does it develop "within the boundaries set by a limit," either externally imposed or recognized within the activity of the scientist. Scientific investigation moves toward the good in an unlimited, and therefore, free manner. It chooses its routes with the criterion of virtuous growth and not that of limit. We can therefore talk of scientific research as, not impeded by the recognition of ethical criteria that lead its exercise: "Seen from this point of view, science shines forth in all its value as a good capable of motivating an existence, as a great experience of freedom for truth, as a fundamental work of service. Through it, each researcher feels that he is able himself to grow, and to help others to grow, in humanity" (Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 13, 2000, n. 3, in Papal Addresses, 2003, p. 387). It is the exercise of virtue, not the accordance on a limit, that leads to this growth in humanity.

Christian Revelation finds itself in continuity with the perception of an ethical and person-centered  dimension present in scientific activity. This highlights that the tending towards the truth of the service to the human being on the part of the freedom of research is grounded in the transcendent dignity of the human creature as God's image. Science and philosophy ultimately refer to this supernatural dignity, when the former acknowledges the emergence of the human being over nature, and when the latter points out the moral rule that each human person must always be treated as an end and never as a means. All this may help us to remember what consists of the true autonomy of nature and the true autonomy of human freedom. The negligence of these principles has engendered dangerous consequences, especially obvious in contemporary society. Examples bearing witness to this are: the loss of the understanding of science as a quest for truth, reducing scientific activity to a role of a mere pragmatic instrument, employed by subjects, other than scientists, in a functional and utilitarian way, as a means for economic gain; the theoretical planning and the practical production and use of the planet's resources following modalities that do not answer to the rightful demands of material and spiritual progress of peoples; and especially, the legitimization of arbitrary interventions on human life, particularly in the phase of its conception, which eloquently indicates an understanding of human autonomy and freedom as separated from the truth of the human person. From Christian thought, grounded on the Biblical message, the contemporary culture could still draw important inspirations to overcome the conflict between ethics and technology. Useful elements would be provided to rediscover how to give back to all created things, and firstly to human beings, the meaning they have in the divine plan; this would restore them with the knowledge of the truth about their own being, and therefore, with their own autonomy.

G. Tanzella-Nitti, "Autonomy", in Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, edited by G. Tanzella-Nitti, I. Colagé and A. Strumia, ch. V.,