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Progress, Scientific and Human


I. Meanings and Uses of the Term – II. Progress as a General, Historical, and Philosophical Term 1. The Problem in Antiquity 2. The Modern Age: Progress and History 3. The Modern Age: Progress and Science 4. The Contemporary Epoch: The Irreversible Decline of the Idea of Progress – III. The Epistemological Debate of the 20th Century 1. Scientific Progress as an Epistemological Problem 2. 1960-1970: The Comparison between Fundamentalism and Skepticism 3. 1980-1990: The Semantic Views beyond Fundamentalism and Skepticism – IV. Three Centuries of Debate about Progress: Reflections and Observations – V. The Concept of “Progress” According to the Documents of the Roman Catholic Church – VI. Scientific Progress and the Relationship between Science and Faith.

I. Meanings and Uses of the Term

To begin with, I would like to highlight only certain meanings and uses of the term. The concept of progress will then be defined in more detail throughout the article. The word “progress” is frequently used in cultural discussions, and it is also used in common language. Its “general” historic meaning has been debated throughout modern times. Its “specific” meaning in science has been studied in depth through epistemology and the history of science from the middle of the 19th century through the 20th century. Since the understanding of its general meaning facilitates the understanding of its more specific one, let us begin with the first meaning and then proceed to focus on its specific meaning in science. Etymologically, “progress” (Lat. pro-gredi) indicates a way forward, a movement in a given direction, and particularly an “advancement” or gradual development and passage to something more or better. In this sense, it can be applied to everything: conscience, ideas, methods, objects, devices, work, social relations, traditions, lifestyles, etc. Within the concept of progress, the ideas of “improvement” and “perfection” can be understood in a general or specific sense. Their opposite is “regression” or going backward, decadence, and a return to a primitive or less advanced state. The notion of “evolution,” which generally refers to natural and biological facts, can be considered a synonym of all the previous meanings.

Above all, progress deals with that which is specifically “human;” that is, it deals with intelligence and will, and any capability or work that flows from them. In a general sense, it refers to universal human history (understood as continual advancement in one direction), the homogeneous accumulation of knowledge, and the unlimited improvement of moral and material conditions. Specifically, it refers in particular to the modern experimental sciences and their consequences: the homogenous and cumulative development of knowledge in the different disciplines; the intellectual and moral growth gained through scientific “truths”; and human happiness understood in terms of material well-being, etc. This vision of progress reached its peak from the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries, becoming the “second conscience of the European man” (cf. Sasso, 1980, p. 636) and the “faith” of intellectuals and the ruling classes. As such, it was inculcated in the masses and applied to every field: culture, history, civilization, institutions, sciences, technology, the mass media, etc. It eventually entered the political, social, theological, and ecclesiastical worlds (where terms such as “progressives,” “conservatives,” and “reactionaries” began to be used). The expanded use of the term caused the concept of progress to decline; this decline was hastened by the indiscriminate, polemical, and ideological use of the concept which rendered it increasingly vague, ambiguous, and meaningless.

II. Progress as a General, Historical, and Philosophical Term

1. The Problem in Antiquity. A philosophical and historical analysis of the concept highlights complex problems and contrasting outlooks. It is not easy to place these outlooks in a historical or logical order. In antiquity, the idea of progress was not completely unfamiliar, but it remained unexpressed due to the predominance of mythical language. In the 5th century B.C., arising from their success in mathematics and medicine, the Greeks began to connect science and progress. On the other hand, wars (e.g., the Peloponnesian War) gave rise to pessimism. In any case, in reflecting upon the world and human events, the predominant ideas were those of the decline and decay of the world and humanity, the perennial cycle of events (e.g., the myth of the “eternal return”), and the inexorability of fate and of blind chance. For the Stoics and Neoplatonics, the term indicated personal, moral, and ascetic improvement. Biblical and Christian revelation introduced some ideas that became fundamental to the concept of progress: a unitarian vision of humanity; salvation as universal history; history guided by Providence toward a positive end; a linear conception of time ; the succession of historical events; and the urgency of moral and spiritual improvement, etc. Christian optimism and hope about the ultimate future of humanity are to this day considered the primary semantic nucleus of the idea of progress.

The concrete and specific content of these ideas, however, would have to wait to be explicated and affirmed in cultural historical conditions that were very different from ancient times. Therefore, in the first centuries of the Christian era, various alternate attitudes and evaluations regarding human, moral, and historical progress and decline began to emerge. St. Augustine (354-430), considering the role of human beings in time and history in De civitate Dei, emphasized the polyvalence and ambiguity of human discoveries regarding man’s final destiny, and he distinguished those discoveries that are necessary and useful from those that are detrimental and dangerous. He therefore valued investigative human intelligence and human industry. His ideas, which are so important in Western culture, are considered useful for scientific thought. They influenced all of the Middle Ages during which time the idea of progress was taken up as a personal duty; the focus was on improving not only one’s knowledge and understanding but particularly one’s moral, religious, and spiritual behavior. According to St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), “it seems natural to human reason to advance gradually from the imperfect to the perfect” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 97, a. 1).

2. The Modern Age: Progress and History. The context changed radically in modern times as the “historical progress” of man and humanity was debated philosophically, combining and juxtaposing negative and positive interpretations. During the time of Renaissance humanism, European thought concentrated on aspects of earthly life. Experimental scientific thought emerged in the 17th century, and it was considered to be a kind of ideal and perfect knowledge. Its most enthusiastic supporters were precursors to the development of progress as an ideology. F. Bacon (1561-1626) considered experimental knowledge to be cumulative and capable of useful employment. For his work On Method (1637), Descartes (1596-1650) originally wanted a more significant and pretentious title: The Plan of a Universal Science to Raise Our Nature to the Highest Level of Perfection. Identifying nature with the cumulative character of knowledge became the basis of the theory of human progress. The French Enlightenment promoted an ideological, unquestioning, very utopian, and abstract belief in progress. Progress was viewed as the driving force in history and the destiny of humanity. In the second half of the 18th century, the golden age of the Enlightenment, faith in progress permeated every field.

This faith in progress was spread in France by Turgot (1727-1781) and Condorcet (1743-1794) and in Germany by Lessing (1729-1781), Herder (1744-1803), and Kant (1724-1804). It provoked much interest and enthusiasm. Voltaire (1694-1778), Diderot (1713-1784), Turgot, and Condorcet promoted a positive progress guaranteed by “the power of reason,” the light of the human spirit. Only a few thinkers recognized the alternating cycle of progress and decadence (i.e., a fluctuating view). For the majority of the authors, progress was continuous, homogenous, and cumulative (i.e., a linear view). In the 17th century, the religious wars caused religion to appear as the major obstacle to human progress (e.g., according to Voltaire). From the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century, these ideas conditioned the relationship between science and progress, although other, less publicized ideas did exist. Bossuet (1627-1704), for example, in Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681), proposed the Augustinian concept of progress as Providence. Others viewed it as spiritual, moral, and cognitive growth. These last ideas, with differing nuances and emphasis, even reached Kant and Hegel, though they were not particularly developed by them. Collapses in rational and positivist optimism, tragic events, and sudden developments and threats in the 19th and 20th centuries, along with the suffering and desperation that resulted from them, were necessary to makes these ideas relevant again.

In modern times, nevertheless, Condorcet’s line of thinking, which theorized an experimental science of progress (without, however, carrying it out), prevailed. Kant developed a theory of human progress and a law for human civilizations in which cognitive progress facilitates overcoming the limits and shortcomings of the present and brings humanity toward its ultimate end. According to him, the task of practical-theoretical knowledge is to predict and orient destiny, while philosophy strengthens scientific thought and technical capabilities, which human beings can use to dominate nature and fulfill their freedom. History, therefore, is a continuous progression toward greater human freedom, while practical-political reason facilitates advancement toward necessary progress (cf. Ch. Wild, “Die Funktion des Geschichtsbegriff im politischen Denken Kants,” in Philosophische Jahrbuch 77 [1970], pp. 260-275). In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1837), Hegel (1770-1831) emphasized the value of the historical conscience, indicated its direction and meaning, and legitimized the progress of humankind through the natural sciences, technology, and juridical institutions. These spheres of progress are the same ones indicated by many of the French philosophers, from Turgot to Comte.

3. The Modern Age: Progress and Science. Excessive optimism over progress and its dominion over history and natural forces provoked significant critical reactions. The idea that progress calls for a scientific criticism of philosophical reason was opposed by the view that progress requires a philosophical criticism of scientific rationality (cf. Oeing-Hanhoff, 1973-74). The latter view became increasingly popular, so much so that in the second half of the 19th century philosophical and historical criticism concentrated on the tasks, limits, methods, and conditions of the exercise of scientific rationality. It brought to light the ambiguous and problematic nature of the concept of progress, whether understood in a general and global sense in reference to human history or in a more specific sense regarding science and technology. In order to explore the relationship between progress and science, the thoughts, attitudes, and judgments of the founders of modern science were revisited. Prior historical studies had attributed to the founders of modern science precisely the ideas that were now criticized: the existence of a cumulative, linear progress; scientific reason oriented toward defeating superstitions, religions, theology, and various threats and evils; the unstoppable and irreversible progress of the sciences as the necessary law of history; the temporary and surmountable character of all obstacles; the idea that nature can be completely dominated; the idea of the unlimited creative capacity of man; science as the central value of universal history; and science and the scientific method as universal models of progress, etc.

New historical studies showed, in turn, that such ideological ideas and approaches were not sustainable. However, they are not found in the works of greater scientists such as Kepler, Galilei, and Newton, or philosophers such as F. Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz. They are found, rather, in the ideological and political-social thought of the 19th century and in the positivist and idealist thinkers who, although they disagreed about everything else, were in agreement regarding the “worship of progress.” Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Proudhon (1809-1865), and Comte (1798-1857), the fathers of sociological thought, were particularly opposed to religion and preferred to substitute the Christian faith in Providence with an unquestioning secular faith in progress. They applied the most rigid, naturalistic determinism to technological-scientific progress and social progress and supported methodological objectivism, i.e., the systematic exclusion of subjectivity and rigorous specialization. A little less than a century later, all these hypotheses would receive the most severe criticism from epistemology and from the history of science. In the meantime, the scientific culture promoted the myth of unlimited progress and a utopia where all evil, pain, injustice, and negativity would be definitively defeated.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the idea of technological and scientific progress drove the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution led to the creation of artificial and superfluous “needs,” the fulfillment of which came to be considered part of human “progress.” Time was necessary to discover that many of these needs, being inexhaustible, irrational, and enslaving, would increasingly waste resources, energy, and time. Put at the service of commerce and industry, technological and scientific progress demonstrated its radical ambiguity. On the one hand, the standard of living improved and certain illnesses, epidemics, diseases, and other limitations were overcome. On the other hand, the quality of life decreased in other respects due to the emergence of air, water, and ground pollution, new forms of illness and death arising from “civilization,” the wasting of resources, and factors that brought about the possible destruction of the world and humanity. Oversight and a reorientation were therefore necessary. Modern industrial societies had other inequalities and injustices as well. In order to eliminate them, Karl Marx (1818-1883) theorized the law of a necessary and unstoppable progress that is intrinsic to the historical material development of the world. To help bring about this law in history, Marxism proclaimed itself the sole holder of the scientific conscience and of its political and economic realization.

4. The Contemporary Epoch: The Irreversible Decline of the Idea of Progress. Darwinian evolution radically changed the idea of progress, which had been understood as the advancement of history and humanity toward a desired direction. Darwinian evolution reduced progress to a causal, blind, unceasing event, devoid of worldly significance and historical meaning. In this way, it nullified the idea of the rationality of the world and of history that had inspired modern science. It jeopardized the original plan of “discovering the truth in order to improve the future of humanity” (cf. Crombie, 1976, p. 35). As a consequence, through “social Darwinism,” Spencer (1820-1903) tried to recover the old sense of progress as the unlimited improvement of humanity. From 1858 onward, making the most fantastic extrapolations, he applied progressive rules to all human and social phenomena (cf. Rossi, 1976, pp. 83-85). F. Engels (1820-1895) tried to integrate this scientific evolutionism with Marxist ideas and human history (understood as purely “natural” history). These intensely publicized ideological hybrids became popular and supported the superficial image of a 19th century standard bearer of progressivism. In this way, the end of the idea of progress began. In the philosophical realm, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) denounced progress as an illusion or, worse still, as the fruit of an irrationality that could produce catastrophe and evil for the entire planet.

In his work On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874), F. Nietzsche (1844-1900) radically criticized the progressive mentality, from the Enlightenment to positivism. His anthropological ideas were then taken up by the school of Frankfurt. The anthropological and ethnographic sciences refuted all optimism, progress, and evolutionism. The criticisms of researchers, epistemologists, philosophers, and historians of science became ever more acute and rigorous against the prejudice which identified science with progress. Philosophers such as Windelband, Rickert, Dilthey, Bergson, Husserl, Mounier, and Heidegger, physicists and mathematicians such as Mach, Avenarius, Poincaré, Duhem, Einstein, Planck, Bohr, and Born, and sociologists such as Weber, all denounced the scientistic dogmas such as absolute objectivity, neutrality, materiality, inevitable laws, mechanism, determinism, etc. The intellectual sciences came to consider themselves unique and distanced themselves from the natural sciences, refuting their presumed objectivity. The old Kantian faith in a constant and inevitable progress of the world and history faded in everyday life as well as in philosophical, historical, cultural, scientific, and social debates.

III. The Epistemological Debate of the 20th Century

In the 20th century, numerous factors destroyed what remained of the former naïve faith in progress: disturbing developments in the physical sciences; grave reflections upon the “useless massacres” of the world and national wars; the Jewish and nuclear holocausts; the occurrence of devastating economic crises; the emergence of cruel and tyrannical dictators; and, finally, the Cold War. The general debate about progress ended. Intellectuals concentrated their attention on the progress of and progress within the sciences, historical conditions, and socio-cultural contexts that were very different from the previous era. The world appeared afflicted by uncontrollable events that inspired dismay and pessimism. Scientific, technical, economic, and industrial rationality were criticized and accused of oppressing people, violating nature, and imposing the tyranny of machines. Themes of alienation, marginalization, restriction, the suppression of freedom, and the loss of values, purpose, and meaning replaced the theme of progress. Modernity was accused of bringing about a “new barbarism.” The old positivist-rationalist identification of science with progress survived, however, in the media, as well as in academia and, partially, in common language. Criticisms of technological and scientific activities increased, which were judged detrimental to the planet and “regressive” for the human species.

The relationship between scientific progress and the human condition focused on the question of whether science could be called progress in and of itself or, rather, only with respect to general human progress. Faced with a scientific knowledge that was greater, further reaching, and more rigorous than that of the past, it became natural to ask what progress consisted of and how to evaluate it. The debate moved from a general and hypothetical progress of science to a more concrete and specific progress in science. This interesting and complex discussion is still fully developing today and will be examined in the following sections. The change in mentality, ideas, topics, and problems, due to more than a century and a half of debate about progress, can be elucidated by examining two significant affirmations. The first one comes from the Enlightenment philosopher M.J. de Condorcet in his work Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’espirit humain (1792-1793): “The time on earth will come when the sun will shine only on free men who do not recognize anything above them except for reason, since tyrants and slaves, priests and their obtuse and hypocritical methods will only exist in history books or in the scenes of a play.” The second one comes from the contemporary physicist M. Born, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1954), according to whom “the natural sciences have destroyed, perhaps forever, the ethical foundations of civilization” (“Erinnerung und Gedanken eines Physikers,” Universitas 23 [1968], p. 273). Both speak for themselves.

1. Scientific Progress as an Epistemological Problem. The second of the two preceding citations expresses the spirit that animated the debate about scientific progress in the second half of the 20th century. Once the great visions of the historical future of humanity were set aside, the concrete epistemological and juridical aspects of scientific activity became the issues to focus on. The semantic components of the idea of progress were also specified: “advancement,” “change,” and “improvement.” Advancement does not necessarily mean changing for the better or improving. For example, diseases advance but they worsen one’s health in what is clearly regression. Similarly, change does not mean advancement. For example, progress, regression and alternate decline are found everywhere, even in science. The terms “improvement” and “better” imply a value judgment that is not necessarily ethical in nature. That being said, one notes that progress cannot presume or postulate but requires epistemological proofs and evaluations that are not “mathematical measurements.” In this way, dogmatisms about the “linear and cumulative progress” of science declined, including the one about the substantial union between the “truth of facts” (the empirical component) and “explanations” (the theoretical component), as well as those regarding the irrefutability of scientific truths and the linear and homogenous progress of knowledge. The new formulations required, above all, new methods and criteria to evaluate “internal progress.” This research, in its time, raised new problems about the foundation of science and its conceptual outlooks, truth value, and methodological validity. These problems, although they do directly deal with content, data, explanations, or cognitive value, nevertheless strongly influence them.

The growing complexity of knowledge calls for a greater awareness of the trustworthiness and logical and methodological value of data, concepts, and principles, etc. The criteria to verify these internal aspects, however, cannot be developed at an “internal” level, but rather must happen on a “metatheoretical” one, where the demand for meaning makes it increasingly difficult to evaluate progress. This difficulty becomes greater, in the end, on a metaphysical level, where different explanations of the facts are put together through a few fundamental concepts. This was the case of those, for example, who wanted to explain every physical process through matter and movement. Mach and Einstein demonstrated, however, that this was a metaphysical prejudice (cf. Agazzi, 1976, pp. 93-96). The need for internal metatheoretical and metaphysical criteria, therefore, makes the evaluation of an internal cognitive science of science or in science uncertain. Evaluating the progress of science in relation to other fields (ethical, social, practical, political, etc.), however, requires a different dialogue among different activities, taken both individually and all together. In such a case, the criteria to evaluate an activity according to the perspective of global human progress must be concerned with the authentic good of persons, society, and culture. It has already been noted that the modern debate demonstrated that historical progress of a continuous, global nature in all sectors does not exist. That which according to the criteria of a specific sector or science may appear as progress for that sector or discipline could be either regression for other specific fields (ethics, society, culture, politics, etc.) or regression for the whole.

The connection of the internal criteria of a subsystem to that of other subsystems or to an entire system is never spontaneous or automatic but problematic, requiring acute critical discernment. The shift from values and cognitive criteria to deontological values requires new and adequate modes of expression. The progress and the regression of science, therefore, are evaluated based on the requirements and general values of the global system. Specific requirements of other subsystems, in the order of their importance and significance for the effective good of the people, society, and culture, are also taken into account. All this is indispensable and decisive in order to completely evaluate every progress. The experience of history, epistemological criticism, and philosophical reflections confirm that, in globally evaluating progress, no legitimate criterion (internal, meta-theoretical, metaphysical, external, deontological, or social) can be eliminated. Evaluation involves various steps.

The first step is to consider internal progress in science. This progress distinguishes each discipline from the other fields, without separating them and while evaluating their reciprocal relations.  Every science has the right to evaluate its own progress based on cognitive criteria, determining the cognitive value of its criterion of progress. This is what the encyclical Gaudium et spes recognizes as the development of knowledge according to the legitimate autonomy of science (cf. n. 36; cf. also Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31.10.1992, n. 13). This does not, however, signify that science has the right to determine absolute values, values that are supreme and superior to all other values. It is also not accurate to identify (or confuse) progress in science with the progress of science. In the second step, the scale of values relative to people, society, and culture must be established. Science cannot determine this scale and must respect it. In the third step, scientific activity and its results must be placed in the context of a global system of values that judges them and evaluates them (determining progress or regression). The deontological scales seem the most appropriate to contextualize values, harmonizing their “optimal” configurations. In this systemic context, optimal means the maximum realization of the most important values, through the maximum realization of subordinate values.  Metaphysical principles do not hinder such a realization or the internal logic of the scientific dialogue, nor do they initially exclude some category or image of the world. The defining characteristic of metaphysics, its search for truth, is in fact the ceaseless and profound critical examination of all principles, of every field, in light of basic principles that have the ultimate end and values as their starting point.

2. 1960-1970: The Comparison between Fundamentalism and Skepticism. Until the 1960s and 70s, these ideas had to fight against the dogmatisms of a linear, homogeneous, and cumulative scientific progress. Before Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) presented science as a rather shaky structure and a riddle with little coherence among the different parts (cf. Kuhn, 1964), the undisputed and dominant idea of science was that of a harmonious structure with solid and irreplaceable foundations that went in constant and ordered development from one truth to another. The theoretical systems appeared to be the result of fundamental data, according to specific categories and stable norms of rational evaluation. Moreover, some philosophers established criteria to evaluate scientific progress: the cognitive dignity of a theory (Ayer’s principle of verifiability); a measure of its power of explanation (Hempel’s systemic capability of science); and the measure of its level of confirmation (Carnap’s logical analysis). Nevertheless, attempts to apply them failed, pushing historians of science to define them as a caricature of the real development of science (cf. Cohen, 1976, p. 108), as ideas and images that did not hold up any more. The question involved all the problems of the “uniqueness” and “constant advancement” of scientific progress. Positivist and scientistic “fundamentalisms” had oversimplified the problems of comparing different scientific theories and the problems of scientific rationality. The reaction against this oversimplification was so strong that it ended up denying any possibility of comparison. Kuhn denied the possibility of any comparison between them because of their differences in standards and objectives. Feyerabend (1924-1994) denied it based on the incompatibility of their languages. This, however, opened the way for skepticism.

Yet a deeper reflection demonstrated that at base both fundamentalists and skeptics shared the same prejudice of considering scientific problems not easily influenced by historical circumstances or cultural changes. Popper (1902-1994) recognized the importance of these factors for progress in science but in overly generic terms. Not applying limits to the provisional character of accumulated knowledge in his “World 3,” and renouncing any requirement of coherence, Popper ended up by admitting contradictory conjectures. In this way, there were no criteria to systematize the generality and uniformity of rational principles with the particularity and mutability of problems, criteria, and scientific data. To overcome this situation, Toulmin (b. 1922) hypothesized a “Darwinian” idea of progress, which immediately revealed itself as generic and inconsistent. Lakatos (1922-1974) claimed that the search for criteria to distinguish scientific hypotheses from those that are not scientific (criterion of demarcation) was inseparable from the search to distinguish the best and worst hypotheses (criterion of preference). He scolded Popper for addressing only singular hypotheses instead of addressing their ensembles or sequences. Ultimately, he defined progress as “an ever deeper understanding” about an area of nature, rather than “ever more precise information” gained at the same level.

He forgot, however, that the theme of scientific progress has to do with values, not facts. In addition, historians of science demonstrated that many real sequences did not conform to Lakatos’ framework, due to which scientific progress could not be evaluated. At the other extreme, mathematicians and physicists wanted to “measure it.” As they did not find a direct way of doing so, they proposed departing from the redundancy of empirical data in order to progressively eliminate redundancy through codes. They admitted, however, that quantitative evaluation contains a hypothetical and complex itinerary, whose duration is difficult to predict, as its path is full of obstacles and difficulties. Others admitted they did not even know where to start and could only hope to accomplish it one day. The doubts and contradictions raised in the 1960s and 70s about the possibility of confronting different scientific theories came up again in the 1980s and 90s when they tried to focus on the problem of “commensurability” and examine it according to some new views.

3. 1980-1990: The Semantic Views beyond Fundamentalism and Skepticism. Two of these views will be examined. The first one begins with the idea that the only criterion to verify the truth of a scientific theory is its “applicability” or “technical ability to be reproducible.” The link between theoretical mediation (concepts) and the technical ability to be reproducible (technical and instrumental apparatuses) reveals the hermeneutic dimension of science, thus making it possible to distinguish the latter from other knowledge and preventing it from being diluted in an indistinct universal hermeneutics of knowledge. Epistemology cannot determine if these theories are, “by law,” incompatible or not. It can only assert that in a given moment of scientific development, it is not yet able to: a) make conceptual, instrumental, or technical correlations among theories; b) choose between incompatible hypotheses, not being able to translate their conceptual mediations into a technical and operative method. With respect to the proposals debated among Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and Toulmin, etc., this formulation means: a) accepting scientific theories as descriptions of aspects and real levels of the real world; b) rejecting the “fallibility” that deems all the old theories false. These theories remain true even if they are replaced by others having a greater depth, thus avoiding incompatibility which leads to epistemological relativism and simply replacing concepts, theories, and instruments, rather than making progress. In this way a merely cumulative progress is avoided, that is, a progress lacking conceptual links among subsequent acquired results.

This vision of the progress of scientific theories can be summarized in this way: a) the variations of meaning and reference remain closely connected to each other and to the technical apparatuses (instruments) that guarantee the reproducibility of the experimental results; b) such variations show progress only if they induce greater semantic and referential determination in the passage from one theory to another; c) such greater determination must be closely connected to the possibility of working technically on reality. The hermeneutic conception of progress shows that scientific knowledge is a kind of “spiral” where old applications (of terms, concepts, theories, methodological principles, etc.) are essential to understanding new applications, which reinterpret the preceding applications and understandings with their views and perspectives. This “hermeneutic spiral” facilitates understanding scientific progress as long as it allows for judging the scientific theory that is able to unite the others into a coherent compilation and connect them in an intelligible historical perspective. It must explain in a new way not only nature but also the preceding way of understanding it (cf. MacIntyre, 1980, pp 69-73). The “technical reproducibility” distinguishes the empirical sciences from the history of science. When comparisons between theories is possible, the better theory is that which creates a better synthesis, both in the history of science and in technical applications (cf. Buzzoni, 1995, pp. 92, 207, 220-227).

The second view is somewhat similar to the previous one, but it poses the problem in different terms. It does not pretend to be definitive but tries to link the qualitative philosophical and epistemological dimension to profound cultural and existential needs. I will present these differences following Giovanni Boniolo’s model (Metodo e rappresentazioni del mondo [Method and representations of the world], 1999). Such a view considers every theory that becomes coherent and satisfying in the moment in which it is formulated as sufficient (cf. Ibid., pp. 6-11). Science is, in fact, (as is every human expression) only understandable if it is connected to everyday life (Lebenswelt). Having started by saying that regressive and progressive philosophical thought cannot be discussed in a global sense but only in a local one, the author considers logic indispensable but insufficient. Deductive reasoning is only valid for “scientific theories,” not for the “scientific dynamic” which requires the argumentative form. According to Boniolo, these premises should avoid the dead-end alleys of the previous disputes between Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and the others (cf. Ibid., pp. 23, 39, 59-60). The problem of scientific progress is resolved, then, through the notions of “semantizing area,” “intentional network,” and “real network.” The semantizing area is the sum of the rules synthesized by the concept and is sufficient to capture its meaning. The broader this area, the more it allows for the profound understanding of the concept’s meanings. Nevertheless, this area, with respect to the enormous complexity of concepts, always remains a reduced portion of the properties that pertain to the various cognitive levels of the subject. Therefore, it can only be grasped within a cognitive network.

For this reason, the different concepts of “network” must be introduced. The “intentional network” is the interlacing of the intentional properties, whose nodes are represented by the intentional entities; the “real network” is the interlacing of real properties, in which nodes are the real entities (cf. Ibid., pp. 337-339). In order to get to know an object, therefore, a concept is necessary with which to define it and a semantizing area is necessary in which to place it. This is sufficient for intentional entities. For real entities, on the other hand, experimental procedures are also required. To know the intentional entity, therefore, means to build the same relations existing among the elements of the conceptual level into the elements of the intentional level. To know what is real implies imposing on what is real a subcategory of intentional relations, among intentional entities, so that real relations are constructed among real entities. Every theory, therefore, is a portion of a conceptual network or a part of an interdependent realm. As a result, the construction of a new scientific theory (a new portion) never totally replaces the old theory, nor  does it require its fading away. As we do not know single facts, but only their structural wholeness in a given way, we must always start from the structures in which they are represented. If such structures are not sufficient, we must reorder them, in order to adapt them to the complete empirical situation (cf. Ibid., pp. 341-347). There is only true “advancement” of empirical knowledge when an effective change in the set of the concepts of “property” brings an effective change in the set of the concepts of “entity.”

This means that some concepts which were previously present are no longer, while others that were absent before are now present. Representations revealed to be totally inadequate to represent reality will be remembered only on the historical level. When it comes to reality, every theory elaborates some aspects or unravels some “knots” that other theories cannot develop in the same way. This approach to the problem no longer looks at theories and scientific representations like simple formulations to group and order together known empirical results, but it looks at them like “cognitive meanings to show, semantically and inter-subjectively, determinate aspects of reality” (ibidem, pp. 375-377). This explains the distinction between the epistemological aspect and the gnoseological one. Entities and physical objects are not a reality in themselves. Under the epistemological aspect they are models and thus not real. On the other hand, under the gnoseological aspect they are clusters of real properties representing aspects of reality, which observation makes meaningful. Epistemologically speaking, theories exist in order to make the aspects of irregular reality (treated by rules) regular; whereas, gnoseologically speaking, they are used to render a part of reality significant. Theories that propose entities as “non-observable in principle” are criticized. Those that propose entities as “non-observable due to technological reasons” will either remain forever uncertain or become verifiable, directly or indirectly (through effects) (cf. Ibid., pp. 380-384). As future developments of the present terms of the debate cannot predicted, and as conflicting views of the past terms of the debate have endured, continuing in-depth studies and reflections must be carried out.

IV. Three Centuries of Debate about Progress: Reflections and Observations

The elements that emerge in the long discussion about progress, understood in either a general or specific sense, help us highlight the more important aspects of the relationship between science and faith. First of all, it is clear that there are many prejudices in the general idea of progress. Among them are the following: the secular conception of history according to which religions are superstitions and the sciences and technology are the only factors capable of improving humanity (Encyclopédie); the idea of the absolute superiority of European civilization (late Enlightenment); the view that the general progress of humanity grows in accordance with specific progress in any field (Condorcet); the development of the human spirit from religion to philosophy, and then to science (Turgot, Comte); and evolution seen as the greatest expression of progress (Spencer). Such concessions and ideas produced a vision of progress as universal, unilateral, cumulative, and unlimited improvement, which extended to all the intellectual, moral, cultural, social, and material conditions of humankind and its history. In the 18th century, such a view was still flexible and balanced, whereas in the first half of the 19th century it was taken as a rigid law which would lead human evolution toward maximum well-being and happiness. From the middle of the 19th century onward, this dogmatic rigidity was the object of increasingly severe criticism that contributed to its eventual abandonment.

In addition the debate about progress, in conjunction with the development of science, greatly affected the image and understanding of the latter. General problems regarding human history, and specific problems regarding science (its foundation, presuppositions, and the rigor and value of the accuracy of its data, concepts, theories, and methods, etc.) overlapped. With respect to epistemological reflection and historical research in science, however, they represented the internal and specific problems relevant for a better understanding of progress. They either had to be tackled before the general problems, or they had to be clearly distinguished from them. A serious discussion on questions such as the truthfulness of scientific knowledge, the canons for its verification, its character of being public and democratic knowledge, the reliability of science as rational dominion over the world and the conquest of nature should have been developed. In this way, pseudo-problems such as the superiority of the modern over the old, the specific diversity of every historical epoch, the question of the general destiny of humanity—all of which are extraneous to the debate about science—would have been avoided or reframed. Moreover, it is clear that until the middle of the 19th century the critical debate about science was extremely limited and guided by inadequate philosophies. Only the decline of the Enlightenment and the fading of rationalist and positivist beliefs made it possible to see the inconsistency of the idea of a continuous and homogeneous progress of the whole of humanity. The loss of interest in the problem of the “general approach” allowed critical epistemology and the history of science, which had matured, to posit the specific problem of progress within science.

Today the number of scientists and philosophers who are competent in epistemological problems seems to have grown. In physics, for example, there is a greater awareness of the difficulty of reaching definitive results and global, unified theories. In all fields, many maintain that uncertainties will never be lacking and that progress consists above all in debating previous certainties anew. It has happened in all branches of science that when it was thought a certain point had been reached, it was then discovered that the reality of the matter was different. As a result, definitive answers should not be expected as science appears to be a continuous process, certainly capable of detecting certain immutable aspects of reality, but always ready for further exploration and less sure of that which it considered absolute certainties. Regarding the progress of scientific theories, it is noted that the criteria of a good theory—its simplicity, elegance, ability to be verified, and unifying power—are almost never satisfied all together and remain purely regulatory ideals. In cosmology , it is recognized that we cannot obtain information about the earliest moments of the cosmos, and that cosmologies that postulate the existence of many universes, whose distances overcome the light-time journey that corresponds to the age of our universe, belong more to the realm of speculations than science.

Regarding the relationship between scientific activity and personal, cultural, and social progress, there is still the need for a satisfactory gnoseological, heuristic, and ethical reflection. If such a reflection is adequately developed, the result will be very different from that which was found during modernity and which I have examined in brief. It would constitute a fundamental task for this new century and millennium. At the deepest level of these problems, Christian faith and reason have many useful things to offer. I will explain them shortly, after some historical and theoretical clarifications.

V. The Concept of “Progress” According to the Documents of the Roman Catholic Church

First, we must distinguish the meanings of the notion of “progress” with respect to ecclesiastical documents (progress taken in a general way in terms of history or in a specific way in terms of science). Furthermore, we must place various documents in their exact cultural context. In the documents prior to the Second Vatican Council, the term “progress” does not frequently appear. Among these documents, it was above all clause n. 80 of the Syllabus (Pius IX, 8.12.1864) that was interpreted by some as the “opposition of Catholicism to progress” (cf. Angelini, 1982, p. 1222). Actually, this clause affirms: “The Roman Pontiff can and must be reconciled and agree with progress, liberalism and modern culture” (DH 2980). Therefore, the clause has to do with “progress in the general sense,” as it was understood by liberalism and the contemporary culture of the time (a general notion of progress which, however, had in those years already begun to be criticized and refuted by some authors). Regarding “progress in the specific sense,” that is, scientific progress, in a letter to the archbishop of Munich, titled Tuas libenter (21.12.1863), Pius IX rejected the accusation that the Apostolic See was opposed to science (DH 2875). A similar idea in the Syllabus (cf. DH 2912, 2913) recognized the value of science and of its progress. Criticisms by the catholic magisterium were directed against the idea of a generalized progress that was ambiguous, and which, in those years, many renowned thinkers had begun to discuss and criticize, as I have shown in the previous sections.

In the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius, Vatican Council I (1870) rejected the idea that dogmas must change according to scientific progress (cf. DH 3043). In so doing it wished to emphasize that Catholic doctrine always refutes the possibility of an objective conflict between faith and reason (cf. DH 3004-3005). This also applies to the decree Lamentabili (3.7.1907) in which Pius X rejected the idea of having to adjust Christian doctrine concerning God, creation, Revelation, the Word Incarnate, and redemption according to the progress of science (cf. DH 3463-3465). What these texts primarily refuted was the error of concordism and the “confusion of realms” between the discourses of faith and those of science. If read correctly, they anticipate in some way the view of contemporary epistemology that considers scientific acquisitions partial, provisory, and revisable. They did not dispute scientific progress but they questioned undue interpretations of it, interpretations which would come to be rejected a century later by secular thinkers themselves. In various documents, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) extensively examined the themes related to progress. The term appears in many places. (See, for instance, the documents Ad Gentes, n12; Apostolicam Actuositatem, nn. 1, 4, 7; Gravissimum Educationis, nn. 1, 3, 8, 11, 12; Inter Mirifica, nn. 2, 5, 12, 13; Nostra Aetate, n. 2; Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn. 17, 19; Gaudium et Spes, nn. 4-7, 9; 20, 23, 35, 37, 39, 56-57, 62, 64, 73; Lumen Gentium, n. 65)

The text of Gaudium et Spes examines the various aspects of progress with greater depth. After considering the gap between temporal organization and spiritual progress (n. 4) and between the technical-scientific mentality and the various ways of thinking about human culture (n. 5), it proposes that economic progress alone does not improve people or their relationships. Progress does not, therefore, directly bring about justice and fraternity, but it can give them a material base (nn. 6, 35). The denial of God and religion can be encouraged by certain technical and scientific progresses, but it above all comes from certain philosophies and ideologies (nn. 7, 20). Human history testifies not only to progress but also to regression (n. 9). Human progress, therefore, if it favors relations, fraternal dialogue, spiritual dignity, and community life, is valuable to mankind and can facilitate human happiness (n. 37). It remains, however, subject to the temptations of power and influence, vanity, malice, and egotism. Therefore, progress cannot be confused with the advent of the Kingdom of God, even though it might promote the good of society. The relationship between progress, culture, science, and technology is especially considered in nn. 56-57 of the same document. Technological and scientific progress signifies something other than knowing the “intimate notions of things.” They are not the same, and the former cannot lead to the latter. Scientific and technological progress, however, offers important positive values for scientific culture such as interest in science, rigorous fidelity to the truth, the need to collaborate with other scientists, international solidarity, awareness of one’s own responsibilities, and the improvement of human living conditions. Scientific progress is also fundamental for economic development oriented to the service of man (n. 64) and for social and cultural development raised to the common good (n. 73). In the texts that have been cited up till now the term “progress” is indicated explicitly, while in many other texts its contents and descriptions are not expressed. The most significant description presents it as “the labor to better the circumstances of human life through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort” (n. 34). This definition is valid for any form of progress, no matter how it is understood: as historical and human, or scientific, in a global and general sense, or in a specific or particular sense, due to contributions of a general kind or to the specific contributions of science and technology. This is indeed far from the excesses and exaggerations which were found in the 18th and 19th centuries, as it allows for realistic and positive further examination. The view of progress found in this document is consistent with that positive approach already expressed by the great social encyclicals, from Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 15.5.1891) to Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1.5.1991), which confronted the problems of economic and social progress in constructive ways.

Regarding progress in science and technology, the most recent documents by John Paul II have emphasized the great richness that this constitutes for the entire modern world while nevertheless noting that science and technology alone cannot explain the transcendental origin and the ultimate end of human existence. They must, therefore, keep in mind the metaphysical and moral questions that have been rendered ever-more alive and urgent by them. In fact, certain scientific knowledge needs to be compared with the whole truth of the human person. In such cases, it is necessary to avoid contradictions between scientific observation and the “complete” truth about human nature , overcoming the temptation to consider scientific explanations exhaustive and all-encompassing. The “myth” of progress must not lead us to think that all research or all application are, as such, morally good, without properly weighing the authentic good that these discoveries bring to both the physical and spiritual dimensions of the human person (cf. Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Science, October 28, 1994, nn. 2-3, 5). The scientific community must be committed to maintaining the right ranking of values, situating the scientific aspects within an integral humanism that takes into account all the dimensions (metaphysical, ethical, social, and juridical) that are perceived by human conscience. When dealing with the human person, the problems go beyond the field of science: Science cannot explain human transcendence, nor can it determine moral laws, which are based on the recognition of the centrality and dignity of the human person in the universe. It is up to the entire human community to promote a humanistic and anthropologic integrated view (cf. ibidem, nn. 5-6, 9).

VI. Scientific Progress and the Relationship between Science and Faith

These clarifications are essential in order to thoroughly examine the problem of progress in terms of the relationship between science and faith. We have seen that the cultural climate was cleared up once the secular way of thinking recognized the inconsistency and impossibility of a general, continuous, and constant progress of history, humanity, and science. The charges against the Church and the Christian faith of hindering progress, and the consequent sense of guilt and inferiority felt by some believers, proved to be unfounded. The criticisms and resistance given by Christianity in seeking a deeper understanding of what progress really meant were legitimate. Perhaps the criticisms had to be vigorous so they could guide the debate about progress in and of science in the right direction and toward more realistic forms of thought. Presently, two of these forms appear more valid and important. The first is the invitation extended to epistemology, philosophy, and the history of science to always focus their attention on the specific and internal elements of scientific activity. The object and scope of this attention is the comparison of hypotheses, theories, methods, logic, and models, in order to evaluate those that are preferable, and the reasons for this preference. These are problems “internal” to science. For the purely scientific aspects they involve specialized scientists, while for the metaphysical aspects, they involve epistemology, philosophy, and the history of science.

In various fields, the problems have not been completely resolved. As a result, there are, and perhaps there will always be, different and conflicting positions.  While the old idealist, positivist, and neo-positivist ideas have been surpassed, the conventionalist and instrumentalist conceptions of science and progress still remain alive in the interdisciplinary debate. These conceptions should be corrected, integrated, and replaced. In fact, the greatest risk is that they might bring about forms of relativism and skepticism, which are shared and spread by postmodern thought. There is also another more general aspect of the problem: The value of truth and the meaning of scientific “knowledge” (a problem which is juridical, hermeneutic, and gnoseological), as well as the ethical and moral value of scientific “activity” (as an ethical and social problem). These problems are no longer purely internal to science, as they involve ethical, cultural, and social dimensions and implications. Their solution, therefore, cannot be solely attributed to scientists, epistemologists, and historians of science because it requires an explanation far too extensive and articulated that calls for philosophers, moralists, and theologians. Christian thought and Church documents offer useful guidelines in this regard. Christian thinkers are more and more interested in the problem of the truth of many discoveries and applications (biology, biogenetics, etc.) which are directly related to the human person, freedom, thought, and action. These discoveries and applications shed light on the need to respect everything involving the human sphere to facilitate a more harmonious development of societies and cultures. Thus, Roman Catholic documents usually demand that the theories mentioned as the basis of the new problems must respond to the standards of scientific reliability. In other words, they must have dependable and solid grounds. It is also critical to discern what, in a determined field or in a given stage of science, can be considered established, still affected by probability, or even imprudent and unreasonable, and therefore worthy of being rejected (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 31, 1992, n. 13).

With regard to human development, John Paul II highlighted two aspects. The first one concerns the “horizontality” of human beings and creation (culture, research, technology, etc.). The second one has to do with “verticalness,” or rather with that which is higher in depth and gives meaning to our existence and actions. It concerns what is between our origin and our end, that which transcends us and draws us to the Creator. These two dimensions are not always uniform, straight, or harmonious. Nevertheless, both are necessary to us and should be handled carefully. Research and discoveries in science, and also technological inventions and innovations, do not show the world as chaos but rather as a cosmos. A reality that is ordered and lawful, which it is possible to learn from and understand. This goes back to that “transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things” (cf. Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 31, 1992, in Papal Addresses, p. 343). This way of thinking gives full meaning to a discussion of “human” progress, if it regards the good that can serve true human happiness and points out the evil that threatens humankind, when pursuing power, vanity and malice” (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 37). A profound anthropological, ethical, and moral reflection is thus necessary. When it regards great hope, but also emphasizes the numerous, difficult to solve antinomies which I have analyzed in the previous sections, the discussion about “cultural” progress becomes more meaningful.

Above all, there is the danger that human beings, placing their faith and confidence solely in science and technology, may think they are sufficient unto themselves and no longer seek the higher things (cf. Ibid., nn. 56-57). Finally, great meaning is given to the discussion about “scientific” progress if it regards research that truly conforms to all the juridical and moral demands I have indicated above. In conditions such as this, there would never be a conflict among the demands of progress made by human society, our quest for truth, and the demand of religious faith (cf. Ibid., n. 36). Some passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church point out the present state of the problem (cf. nn. 2293-2294).  They also serve as a deeper reflection on the authentic progress of science, technology, and culture.

The first of the two points says: “Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man's dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress. Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits” (CCC 2293). The second point adds: “It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God” (CCC 2294). These points sum up well the meaning of authentic progress that respects, without confusion, the exigencies of faith, science, humanity, and culture.


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