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Critical Realism and a Life of Faith

So if I want to be a critical realist about faith, what then does that entail? If critical Realism, as defined by N T Wright, is appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”). (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35), what does that slightly intimidating idea look like in practice?

In my last, I talked about (well, gestured vaguely towards) Polanyi’s theory of how science works – specifically I talked about how the authority of the scientific community actually operates, such that it is more like an organic process rather than a centralised authority (there is no “pope” of science, no central clearing house that approves or disapproves of new scientific theories, or decides what to pursue and what to ignore), and  how the way scientists “believe with universal intent” – that is, to believe that theory x is currently the best available, but always being open to a theory which better explains the data”, which means that the scientific enterprise does not ossify into a body of approved knowledge that does not admit of any further development.

Assuming that is an adequate idea of how science works, well then, so what? What on earth has this got to do with the life of faith? Science is all about verifiable (or, better, following Popper, falsifiable) claims about the material universe. The (very simplified) archetype of this is that a scientist has a hypothesis. She sets up an experiment which would disprove the hypothesis – that is, she works out what would have to be true to make her hypothesis false. If the experiment is successful, and her hypothesis remains un-disproved, then she considers it true – and is now a theory. As I say, in practice it is obviously more complex than this in practice – we are dealing with archetypes here.

This is all very good and interesting, but if followed exactly would be a very superficial response. If I were to, for instance, pray for a Xbox 360 for my birthday (yes, I know – I’m a grown up and should just buy it for myself, but bear with me here), and I didn’t get it, would that be equivalent to our scientist’s experiment? At one level it reads pretty closely into it: I have a hypothesis (that God answers prayers), I devise a test (I pray for something), and a result (I don’t get my Xbox). Of course, we might decide that this sort of thing is best addressed statistically – if I pray for a hundred things, then perhaps that might help me decide? But let’s say that about half “work” (i.e. whatever I have prayed about comes to pass), and about half don’t. Where does that leave me?

I don’t know about you, but what it would suggests to me if someone came to me with that story, I would suggest to them that, as a Critical Realist, I didn’t think that they were using the correct apparatus to investigate this claimed reality. You can’t set prayers up as a sort of experiment, making God a sort of supernatural Santa Claus (though, given that Santa is supposed to put presents down chimneys all over the world in a single night, he’s already pretty supernatural.) A brief glance at the tradition shows that, at the least, things are more complex than this experiment appears to realize. What, for instance, are we to make of Jesus’ saying that prayers are conditional on “asking in my name”? And what are we to make of Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane being disappointed? Clearly, any experiments we might want to try here are going to have to be more sophisticated than that.

But there does seem to be a truth to the idea that Christianity’s truth or otherwise can only really be validated through experience. But what sort of experience? That’s the question. Whatever it is, it seems to me to be the sort of thing that requires an entire life – both in the sense of an entire life-time, and all the levels and facets of a life actually lived, to determine its truth.

This is a very counter-cultural position. We yearn for a safe answer that can be arrived at without risk. We, in effect, want to know the result of the experiment without the tedious business of actually doing the experiment. The irony here, as Polanyi argues, is that even in science, knowledge requires personal commitment. To pursue a hypothesis means not to pursue all the other hypotheses one could be pursuing – and what if it turns out to be a dead end? All the time, energy, money, prestige – everything that you have invested, could be wasted. All knowledge, he argues, is personal knowledge: knowledge known by a person. There is no objective position outside all actual people’s knowledge that can be adopted.

Of course, in the scientific enterprise, pains are taken to ensure that a failed hypothesis is a worthwhile thing, but the difficulty involved in paradigm shifts points to the level of investment people have in their theories.

So, given that there is no safe knowledge, and that, given that there is no safe, objective knowledge – only knowledge held by actual people, and thus no position is neutral, what then?

Ultimately, you have to choose – and even not to choose is itself a choice: the choice of just taking whatever your cultural group feels is commonsense.

Coming back to the opening idea that the tools we use for our investigation are determined by the sorts of things we are trying to investigate, what are the levels on which Christianity would have to operate, to be “true”, in order to constitute an adequate way of life? At a minimum it would need to engage at these levels:

  • Intellectual – it needs to be, at minimum, an intellectually credible choice.
  • Moral – It is notoriously hard to choose between ethical systems, but some sort of choice needs to be made.
  • Transformative – it is claimed that faith changes you. What sort of person does it change you into? As Nietzsche said: “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.”
  • Emotional – is it both emotionally real and satisfying?
  • Spiritual – everyone has a spirituality, however unformed. What does a life of faith do with this?
  • Aesthetic – we are story telling, picture painting, ritual inventing creatures. What is the role of the aesthetic in faith?

As we have seen, Polanyi argues that all knowledge is not just personal, but communal as well. Science is not so much something that scientists do in isolation, locked into their labs, but the activity of a community of scientists – to the extent that he thinks it can only really handed down from master to apprentice – which, it seems to me, is how we see it actually operating in the progression of a student from undergraduate to doctoral student to post-doc, and so on. It’s an interesting argument around the nature of tacit knowledge, and seems to me to be relevant to this. If I want to dig into this whole-of-person, whole-of-life investigation into what it ultimately means to be a person, which will be at least as hard as the scientific endeavour, then I need to plug into the community that is attempting to do this. And that, for better or worse, seems to me to mean the church.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

3 replies on “Critical Realism and a Life of Faith”

As you may probably know, the “Collective unconscious” is a term of analytical psychology that comes from Carl Jung’s work – a part of the unconscious mind, expressed in humanity and shared by society, a people, or all of humankind even.
Scientist work for money and like most pursuits, the biggest impact to the economy get the most money – so, it seems that most quantum physicists are not greatly interested in finding consciousness… a few work diligently – the number grows – the knowledge is shared – the findings are verified or not – life goes on and I still find myself always still wondering. How does spirit come into us and how come it matters what I think about and how I act? How am I supposed to overcome the physiological needs that are so base to ever accomplish being enlightened and all glowing shinny spiritual?
I came upon your blog while looking for something else – this happens lots to me that I endlessly find interesting new people and ideas.
So, rather than just click like and follow – wanted to say – Hi.
I’m looking.
For whatever its worth – It seems to me that truth can only really be validated through experience.
I think that debate even perplexed Bohr and Einstein – slowed Einstein and inspired Bohr. Einstein got caught up on the debate points and Bohr moved on (to put it in short).
My blog is a bit eclectic. You probably will like something in it.
Off for now to the other many open web pages.
Blessings, I pray reign upon us – dwelling within us all.
~ Eric

Hi Eric

Nice to meet you. I agree – truth needs to be validated through experience: but, then again, what evidence “counts” in validating truth is itself subject to theory – our preconceptions, the worldview we inhabit. Which is why I’m keen on the the idea of “believing with universal intent”, because it seems like a way to make progess in that situation which can otherwise feel like a trap.



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