Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Critical realism


Critical Realism, according to Alister McGrath in The Science of God:

"I have found the form of critical realism associated with Roy Bhaskar to be a particularly congenial dialogue partner in formulating a scientific theology. ... I had long been dissatisfied with certain realist accounts of pure 'objectivity' which seemed to fail to take account of either the observer's involvement in the process of knowing, or the observer's location within history and hence at least partial conditioning by the contingencies and particularities of that location. ... A perfectly reasonable objection to the theological use of Bhaskar's ideas might be stated like this: Does not the use of philosophical notions such as these run the risk of making theology dependent upon such a philosophy? Is not what is being proposed tantamount to the enslavement of theology to a philosophy -- a development that Karl Barth and others so vigorously opposed? I respond with three points.

1. Bhaskar's critical realism is not being adopted as an a priori foundation for theology, which would be to determin its foundation and norms in advance.
2. Bhaskar's critical realism is being used in an ancillary, not a foundational role.
3. Bhaskar's critical realism is grounded a posteriori, in that its central ideas rest on a sustained engagement with the social and natural structures of the world, rather than a dogmatic a priori determination of what those structures should be, and consequently how they should be investigated.
... Bhaskar sets out the 'basic principle of a realist philosophy of science' as the belief 'that perception gives us access to things and experimental activity access to structures to exist independently of us.' ... A helpful way of beginning to clarify the concept of critical realism is to compare it with two alternative approaches, as follows:

Naive Realism: Reality impacts directly upon the human mind, without any reflection on the part of the human knower. The resulting knowledge is directly determined by an objective reality within the world.

Critical realism: Reality is apprehended by the human mind, which attempts to express and accommodate that reality as best it can with the tools at its disposal -- such as mathematical formulae or mental models.

Postmodern anti-realism: The human mind freely constructs its ideas without any reference to an alleged external world.

... Against postmodernism, critical realism affirms that there is a reality, which may be known, and which we are under a moral and intellectual obligation to investigate and represent as best we can. Against certain types of modernism, critical realism affirms that the human knower is involved in the process of knowing, thus raising immediately the possibility of the use of 'constructions' -- such as analogies, models, and more specifically social constructs -- as suitably adapted means for representing what is encountered.

... N. T. Wright ... describes critical realism as: a way of describing the process of 'knowing' that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence 'realism'), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence 'critical'). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into 'reality', so that our assertions about 'reality' acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower."

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I could go on, but this lenghty quotation is enough to show that this is very interesting and may prove helpful for religious epistemology in coming discussions with our culture. A growing number of scholars in academia recognizes the bankruptcy of postmodernism, but there is nothing coming around popularly to replace it. I think this could be it.

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