Critical realism

Critical realism is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. It is an ‘epistemological theory’; in other words, a theory about knowledge, about how we actually know anything. Everyone has an epistemological theory, it’s just that most of them aren’t very well worked through! They tend to be: I know what I can see, feel, etc. That’s fine for everyday stuff, but does have its limits (as The Matrix showed if you’re a fan of sci-fi films!).

Critical realism argues that there is an objective, knowable world which is independent of human observation, but also acknowledges that our knowledge is provisional, approximate and influenced by social factors. The most important of these social factors is that all observations made are made in the context of a worldview. This is where postmodernism starts arguing that, because everyone already has an understanding of the world (a worldview) we can never know the truth (and perhaps there isn’t an external ‘truth’ to know anyway). But, critical realism argues that this worldview is capable of being challenged through observers’ reflections on the reality that they encounter (as Neo discovered in The Matrix).

Lots of scientists basically hold a critical realist position, often without realising it. It’s also becoming increasingly common amongst theologians. It’s often defended by scientist-theologians, such as Polkinghorne. It is also used as a foundational part of his methodology (for textual analysis) by Tom Wright ( in The New Testament and the People of God, which I’ve blogged about elsewhere) in his highly regarded series on Christian Origins and the Question of God. In his excellent three volume A Scientific Theology, McGrath develops and defends critical realism at some length.

Dimensions of knowledge
McGrath particularly draws on the work of Bhaskar, although he does over-simplify him. Bhaskar divided knowledge into transitive and intransitive dimensions. The transitive dimension of knowledge is composed of the theories and discourses which concern the objects of study from the intransitive dimension of knowledge.

The intransitive dimension of knowledge is the objects of study themselves, whether these are physical processes, social phenomena, or the divine. Bhaskar then divides the intransitive dimension into three: the real, the actual, and the empirical.

The real refers to those objects, structures, and powers which exist;
the actual refers to the activated powers of the real;
the empirical refers to that which is experienced and consequently is contingent upon the real and the actual.

This approach of stratifying reality enables Bhaskar to defend the reality of the objects of study, whilst also explaining how different theories can reach different conclusions. The two crucial insights of critical realism are that what we think we know is separate from what actually exists; and what actually exists is stratified, so that what we experience isn’t the whole story. This allows an understanding of emergent properties, different levels of reality, and so on, which neither modernism nor post-modernism are very good at explaining. This approach also points to the provisional nature of any theoretical formulation (including theological concepts).

Stratified reality
McGrath argues that critical realism’s understanding of the stratified nature of reality can serve as an encouragement for theology to engage with the world at different levels, including the experiential and revelatory, as each can be seen as important without precluding the examination of any one level. This understanding also serves as a counter-argument to reductionism, as critical realism defends the appropriateness of examining objects at different levels of reality using appropriate methods, and argues against the reductionist privileging of any one level of reality against another. This is particularly the case as an important implication of the understanding of the stratified nature of reality is the consequent stress on emergent properties and irreducible complexity. In other words, features at different levels cannot simply be explained using the terms or methods applicable elsewhere: biology has explanatory power which cannot be subsumed by the undoubted explanatory power of chemistry or physics.

Barth as a critical realist
Other theologians who have utilised critical realism in their work include, so McKenzie and Myers (in the journal Science and Christian Belief vol. 20, 2008) argue, Barth, whose theological methodology was critical realist in nature, due to his insistence that humanity’s knowledge about God was due to God’s self-revelation. Consequently, Barth saw the object of theological inquiry as independent from human ideas, meaning that these ideas were capable of being challenged and corrected by their encounter with God.

McKenzie and Myers argue that Barth derived his understanding of critical realism independently of scientific accounts of critical realism, and see it as an a posterioi development based on his response to God’s self-revelation through Christ. This is part of a wider re-evaluation of Barth’s relationship with natural theology that is currently taking place.

Counter arguments
However, critical realism is by no means universally accepted amongst theologians. Murphy (in her books and in an article from Zygon 28(3), 1993) has been a long-standing critic of the applicability of critical realism as a suitable epistemology for theological investigation. Instead, Murphy argues in favour of “conceptual pragmatism”, which evaluates concepts for their utility and coherence with the pre-existing body of knowledge. She criticises critical realism for its reliance on a correspondence theory of truth, which she argues relies on epistemological foundationalism (there are certain foundational truth statements from which everything else is derived; the problem being, how do you know that those foundations are true?).

However, McGrath has shown that it is possible to both reject foundationalism and also retain a realist, correspondence view of the world, through the use of a posteriori conclusions drawn from empirical examination of the world. The general charge of foundationalism also fails to explain shifts in scientific understanding, and in particular it fails to engage with what Polkinghorne calls the “stubborn facticity of nature”. This is adequately explained by critical realism, but not by a correspondence theory of truth, which cannot adequately account for shifts in theoretical understanding. Moreover, the specific charge of critical realism as epistemological foundationalism can also be shown to be false, given its recent development and implicit acceptance by many scientists, showing that it is an a posteriori conclusion drawn from reflection on the nature of the world as discerned by scientists. Given these problems, I would argue that the most approach which is most conceptually useful and should therefore be pragmatically adopted would be the critical realism paradigm!


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