Over at Peter Enn’s blog, Karl Gibberson contributes a guest post wherein he discusses an encounter with what he calls a “strong Postmodernist” and sketches his support for Critical Realism, giving this nice, short positive description:
Critical realists believe that the world is known through a spiraling discovery process where we continually circle the phenomena we are trying to understand, getting closer and closer as we understand it better, but never reaching absolute certainty. A gap always exists between the thing we want to understand and our very best theory of how that thing works. The gap can be small or large, but it never entirely vanishes.
Most Christian critical realists in the United States are or are influenced by scientists who have either turned to or dabbled in theology and Gibberson is no exception. The three key elements his Gibberson’s sketch of critical realism are
- science is a spiraling discovery process
- Historically we get closer and closer to understanding the phenomena (the so-called “best theory of how a thing works”)
- We never reach absolute certainty (there is always a gap)
Confidence in the above and it’s (un?)warranted transference to other fields of study, such as literary and historical criticism, provide Christians living in the current age with confidence, like a great pillar of fire in the sky, in their “fideist assumptions about the Bible, truth, and theology,” as Jones puts it. It enables us to build our own little foundationalist castles and ignore all doubt and the tough questions that come along with it. Not realizing we’ve built upon sand, we create for ourselves great danger when phenomena arise that are difficult to explain.
Some Questions for Critical Realists
- How do you respond to the history of successive incompatible paradigms the history of science as detailed by Thomas Kuhn (this attacks the first element)?
- The greatest evidence for an upcoming paradigm shift in physics is the great disconnect between the vocabulary we’ve created to govern science on the grand scale and the micro scale, that is, the incompatibility between General Relativity and Quantum Physics.
- Upon what, given #3, do we base our faith upon #1 and #2? If we don’t achieve absolute certainty in any of our endeavors, then how can we know that we are approaching or receding from a correspondence between what we think is going on and what is actually going on? Don’t tell me that scientific critical realists are actually coherentist pragmatists! (Are you all? If so, let’s talk… actually, let’s talk anyway.)
The Move to History and Closing Thoughts
The first three questions dealt primarily with the philosophy of science angle, but there is also the lingering question of how we can transfer our confidence that we’ve built in Mathematics to Physics and from Physics to other fields of study, such as historical criticism.
I’d feel much better with dropping the realism and admit to myself and to my community that we have no guarantee of correspondence of our view of the world with the world itself, which does not speak. I fully believe that my story-of-it-all is the best story-of-it-all, though I could be wrong and am employing all sorts of tools to constantly refine that story. I’m a critical fideist and I’m ok with that (and you probably are too).