Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue (Introduction to the 2007 Conference)

Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue (Introduction to the 2007 Conference)

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The Metanexus Institute

Metanexus is an institute, a movement, and an idea.

As a member-supported institute, our mission is to promote the constructive engagement of science, religion and the humanities in the common—and, alas today, un-common—pursuit of wisdom in order to address humanity’s most profound questions and challenges. We operate at both the local and the global levels.

We promote transdisciplinary research into profound questions of human meaning and purpose, as well as the transformation of our educational, religious, and civic institutions to bring renewed attention to the quest for wholeness. We believe that these endeavors, when pursued with passionate commitment, intellectual rigor, and a spirit of openness, collaboration, and humility, offer extraordinary opportunities to seek wisdom and to help secure a just and sustainable future.

As a movement we are an international network of scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians and other scholars in the humanities, educators, artists, and religious leaders, fostering interdisciplinary, intercultural, and inter-religious collaboration in pursuit of new insights and a better future.

And this means you! You…we all…are metanexus in this sense. All of our grantees, and members, and benefactors, and speakers, and authors—all of us are metanexus.

As an idea that drives this movement, metanexus-with-a-small-m aims at nothing less than the transformation of persons, institutions, education, and culture. Okay, perhaps this does not seem like the “humble approach.” But if you think about it a little more, metanexus as an idea is quite humble, quite modest. It doesn’t tell you how to do science. It doesn’t command from on high how to think of God or how to be religious. It doesn’t even tell you in advance how to “reconcile” science and religion. It doesn’t demand the creation of a new discipline with its own peculiar canon and methodologies. It doesn’t tell you whether to go left or go right, whether to look to the past or to the road up ahead. It doesn’t tell you in what wisdom consists. It is, in some ways, too weak for that, and maybe a bit too foolish. After all, how can all these fields of research and discovery, all these disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines, all these different religious traditions, philosophical schools, theological and methodological approaches, all these cultural differences and competing interests—how can all of this be bridged, be transcended yet respected, be integrated and universalized, yet remain diverse and particular?

But with the idea of metanexus, paradoxically, its weakness is its strength. Its foolishness is its wisdom. Metanexus the idea manifests itself in this chaordic system of bonding and bridging and transcending of which we are all a part. Metanexus the idea is about unity in diversity, synthesis in analysis, an open space for inquiry and research and collaboration, an opening for the spirit itself.

It is a kind of wisdom.

The Conference

Our conference has an intriguing title: Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue. I would like to offer as a preface to our meeting this year just a few thoughts on the elements of this title, in a somewhat jumbled order:

Let me start with what has been the articulation of our reason for being: “science and religion dialogue.” What, really, is that all about? We all know by now Ian Barbour’s famous 4 options for a relationship between science and religion: Conflict (a la Dennett, Dawkins, and variously flavored religious fundamentalisms that are so popular now); Independence (non-overlapping magisteria); Dialogue (which would seem harmless enough…); and Integration (which carries for me, I must confess, some ominous overtones). Clearly, these are all plausible models of potential relations between science (if there is any such thing) and religion (if there is any such thing). My question, though, has always been: what motivates the question of the relation in the first place? What’s going on here?

I would suspect that most of us in this room do not think there is an irresolvable conflict between scientific and religious views and practices. I would also guess that many of us would continue to recognize prudential reasons for maintaining something like independence or integrity or quasi-autonomy for the various fields of exploration and learning. Different things are different, after all. So I would further surmise that most of us would be wary of integration, at least in any quick or facile sense (although perhaps without ruling it out a priori). And I am certain of the enthusiasm for dialogue—not just between science and religion, but between disciplines, institutions, nations, cultures, religions…and just plain folk.

But where does this dialogue lead? How do we know if we are making anything like progress. Let me phrase this another way: Suppose we were to carefully study Ian Barbour’s Religion and Science, Holmes Rolston’s Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, and John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion—three representative masterworks for understanding the science and religion relationship. If you are new to these questions, you simply must read and study these books.

But suppose we studied these books and internalized them—where would this lead us? Would physics or biology change? Would religions change? Even for us? By asking these sorts of questions, I am not implying that there are no answers to be found. On the contrary! But it is my contention that it is both vitally important to learn what scholars like Barbour, Brooke, and Rolston have to teach us, and that this learning must be at the service of something even greater. What is that greater aim?

We know that the academy, the institution that still goes by the name “university,” is structured in such a way as to promote hyperspecialization and the proliferation of disciplines and sub-disciplines. We know that disciplinary thinking is extremely powerful and fruitful. We know that the separation of “religion” from “science”—or, at least institutional religion from institutional science—was something like an historical necessity if this disciplinary, analytic, modern-scientific flourishing were to take place. But we also know we paid a high price, the price of integration, of synthesis, of wholeness, of a chance for wisdom. I believe what drives the academic science and religion dialogue arises from a basic and profound dissatisfaction. What drives us is this quest for wholeness, a quest more or less conscious, more or less articulated.

I also believe that it is just this same quest that drives, not so paradoxically once you think about it, both New Ageisms and Fundamentalisms—whether they be of the modern materialistic, reductionistic, scientific-consilience flavors or of the pre-modern, pre-rationalistic religio-superstitious flavors.

Another way to put this is that the view that science and religion conflict is based on the opponents in this battle sharing a common understanding and dissatisfaction that the world has become dangerously fragmented, that wholeness is needed, and that the quickest solution to attain wholeness is to cast off a substantial element of human existence and experience. However, this by definition will not attain wholeness. At best—and this “best” is none too good—it will attain a numbed complacency in whoever is left standing. At worst…well, the worst is too horrible to contemplate….

So when we call on this community to move “beyond” the science and religion dialogue, we are not repudiating science and religion dialogue or making a claim that it is no longer necessary. Instead, we are calling for…calling forth…the “beyond” of the science and religion dialogue, that at which it aims. That at which this work aims is not some new or occult entity. It is not merely mysticism (although there may well be a mystical element to this pursuit). It is not a call for some new universalist religion, certainly not some thin lowest common denominator. We all come at this in our particularity…with our own specialties, our own histories, our own spiritual beliefs, our own political commitments, our own felt moral imperatives. Wholeness is not the negation of particularity, but—dare I say it—its apotheosis.

The unity of knowledge we are calling for…calling forth…is not to be gained by a reduction to mathematico-physical formulas. The unity of knowledge is not of the sort that can be written down and published between the covers of a book—however big or however many volumes. This unity of knowledge—something like the whole story of the whole cosmos—is not something I have (Lord knows!)…is not something one has or even could possibly have, but something we might have together, possessed by us all, possessing us all.

But let us heed St. Augustine’s advice:

Let us therefore be thus minded, so as to know that the disposition to seek the truth is more safe than that which presumes things unknown to be known. Let us therefore so seek as if we should find, and so find as if we were about to seek. For “when a man hath done, then he shall begin.”1

The unity of knowledge we are calling for…calling forth…demands that we always remain perpetual beginners, humble in our calling.

But for this future to be possible, still we must move on. As was once urged in another, very different context, “Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching […] and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again.” (Heb. VI.1).

And this moving on will require—and I am now bold enough to utter seemingly un-humble words—a revolution. A revolution in our thinking. A revolution in our practices. A revolution in our institutions.

Now, those of you who thought you knew me would not have been wrong to have taken me to be of a more conservative cast, and yet here I am, calling for revolution. So let me reassure you (or continue to disappoint you) that I have not become a wild-eyed radical. In fact, I believe in order to move forward we need to recapture something we’ve lost: an understanding of the ways of the quest for wholeness. This quest, which, animates both us revolutionaries and fundamentalists of whatever stripe, is a permanent imperative of the human person, an ideal we can never attain but for which we always strive, consciously or not.

Here’s what G.K. Chesterton wrote about this:

“…we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed. […] There must at any given moment be an abstract right and wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping things as they are, for founding a system for ever […] or for altering it every month […], it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision. This is our first requirement.”

What we have tried to do this year with the Metanexus conference is to move beyond laying the foundations for the science and religion dialogue and to open our eyes to a vision of transformations that might come about as a result of this constructive engagement between and beyond disciplinary, institutional thinking. In seeking Chesterton’s “first requirement,” we are not being nostalgic, but pursuing a permanent vision that calls forth our innovative work of exploration and investigation.

We have asked ourselves what would be the measure by which we could determine whether we are gaining new insights, insights that lead to new lines of exploration and research, or whether we’re “just talkin’ here.” We need to move on in a measured and measurable manner.

One way to think of the “beyond” of the science and religion dialogue, therefore, is to see it as an example of Transdisciplinarity.

Transdisciplinarity differs from both disciplinary and interdisciplinary work. Disciplinary research is limited to a single field, circumscribed in a generally agreed-upon manner. Participants in each discipline speak more or less the “same language.” This manner of exploration has proven itself, in its analytic methodologies, to be extremely successful in generating knowledge. Interdisciplinary work requires the collaboration of experts in a variety of discreet disciplines, the result of which is often a mutually-enriching exchange of methodologies and epistemologies. It has been the case that new disciplines or autonomous fields of study have been formed as a result of fruitful interdisciplinary work.

Transdisciplinary work operates on another level all together. As Basarab Nicolescu—here with us tonight—puts it in his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity,

as the prefix “trans” indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world , of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.2

Transdisciplinarity attempts to address the demand for relevance of academic research to the challenges of a rapidly evolving, complex, globalized society. It represents “a new form of learning and problem solving, involving co-operation among different parts of society, including universities and other educational institutions, governments, non-governmental agencies, religious institutions, and commercial interests.

In order to counterbalance a fracturing of knowledge, of culture, and of the soul produced by the various boundaries we create for ourselves and our endeavors, a transdisciplinary approach to the unity of knowledge respects the various disciplines and their methodologies, even as it looks for a means for developing a rigorous higher-order appropriation of the knowledge that comes from them. It is the synthetic or integral complement to (not a substitute for) the analytic methodologies of the various sciences. It strategically considers the natural, social, and human sciences, philosophical perspectives, and even religious insights in multi-pronged approaches to theoretical and practical problems. It takes up questions that transcend the boundaries of any given body of expertise, institutional purview, or cultural practice.

Thus, we understand ourselves to be fostering an enduring intellectual and spiritual movement that will transform our ideas about research and learning, educational institutions and disciplinarity, cultural evolution and personal growth. This transformation promotes addressing our most profound questions in a synthetic or integral approach for regaining a sense of, in the words of philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”3 And this, by the way, according to Sellars (and to me), is simply the aim of philosophy itself.

The beneficial effects of promoting what we have been calling a balanced or constructive science and religion dialogue go far beyond the important contribution the dialogue makes to research into spiritual realities such as love, purpose, creativity, intellect, thanksgiving, prayer, humility, praise, thrift, compassion, invention, truthfulness, giving, and worship—essential elements of human flourishing. This dialogue opens the door to a return to a quest for the unity of knowledge, for the integration of science with spirit in the lives of persons and communities, and for philosophical wisdom. It is a means for addressing the really big, profound questions.

And let me note that the creation and networking of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional “metanexus groups” via the Local Societies Initiative and its successor program constitute a vehicle for the reform we envision.

The point is this: the time is ripe for this effort, and in fact it is long overdue.

Billy Grassie likes to say that “we live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.” As it turns out, according to a study by Lawrence Krauss of the Case Western Reserve University and Robert Scherrer of Vanderbilt University, this is not just rhetoric—at least not if you take the word “moment” in the Sellarsian “broadest possible sense of the term.” It seems that in about 100 billion years, scientists (if there are any) will no longer be able to detect the Big Bang. As a recent story in Scientific American4 poetically put it, “the runaway expansion of the cosmos by then will have blown away all evidence of the big bang like dandelion fluff into the wind.” The universe will look to our counterparts in the future as if it were static. There will be no ability to detect expansion, no way to find the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Krauss notes that we only discovered dark energy because we live in a ‘special’ time during which its mysterious influence is neither too weak nor too strong to observe. “This is about the only time in the history of the universe when you could detect it, and that’s really weird,” Krauss says. A weirdness that results in our time as really being an “extraordinary moment.”

When the big bang finally and permanently recedes, “with it will go cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe.” And without understanding our origins, the “whole story” will be gone forever.

So maybe we need to gather our “cosmic” rosebuds—as well as our biological, ecological, philosophical, theological, mathematical, and whatever other rosebuds—while we may, for as the poet Robert Herrick counseled:

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he ‘s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he ‘s to setting.

Well, old time is a-flying, and so with the cosmos itself calling for…calling forth…our transdisciplinary explorations to attempt, in some way, in the time we have allotted to us, to get at something like the whole story of the whole cosmos in order that we mightmaybepossibly…become whole persons in whole communities, let us dedicate ourselves to this cause. Let us begin our conference. Let us seek for wisdom together.


1. Augustine, de Trinitate, IX, 1 (“Cum consummaverit homo tunc incipit” Ecclesiasticus 18:6).

2. An excerpt can be found online:

3. “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, edited by Robert Colodny (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962): 35-78. Reprinted in Science, Perception and Reality (1963).