Monday, August 10, 2015

More on Critical Realism and Christian Realism

I've been using my academia page to great effect - getting feedback from other scholars on my recent critical realism paper.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Critical Realism and Christian Realism: How to Move From Science to Theology

Below is a copy of the handout for my upcoming presentation  at the Univ. of Notre Dame on critical realism in science and religion. It is one of a number of papers at the New Conversations in Science and Religion: What Difference Might Critical Realist Philosophy Make? conference.

You can follow the thread of my exposition from the quotations below perhaps. From them, you will surmise that I am defending critical realism as a generalized cognitionally based epistemology that can describe how science and theology operate in a way in which they resemble one another. McMullin's theory of retroduction, which I described in my doctoral dissertation, is complemented by Lonergan's understanding of judgment. In both cases, against empiricist and idealist accounts of knowledge, judgment occurs as the result of two distinct processes. There is both a creative, imaginative and constructive process producing hypotheses and also a verification of these hypotheses through experimentation. Or, in the case of theology, there are insights that come from recognizing divine revelation at work in scripture and religious experience. The verification of these insights comes in the formulation of doctrines and the process of their evaluation in new linguistic and cultural contexts.
New Conversations in Science and Religion: What Difference Might Critical Realist Philosophy Make? University of Notre Dame. July 30-31, 2015

1. “Science must not impose any philosophy any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.” G.K. Chesterton

2. “What happens in philosophy of science reflects at the second level what happens in science itself. That is, it is empirically discovered in scientific practice that certain kinds of evaluative procedures or of epistemic demands… are effective in bringing about the broadly-stated goals of science.  Then a theory of a broadly philosophical sort is brought about to account for this.” Ernan McMullin, “The Goals of Natural Science” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association Vol. 58, No. 1 (Sep., 1984), pp. 37-64, 57.

3. “referring successfully to an entity, say an electron, can be achieved by affirming that one is referring to that which causes (say) this cloud chamber track to take such and such a path. And this can be achieved without knowing what electrons are ‘in themselves’. Given the parallel between the use of models and metaphors in scientific and theological language, it seems to me to be equally legitimate to affirm that God can be ‘that which causes this particular experience now (or in the past) in me (or others)” Arthur Peacocke, “Intimations of Reality: Critical realism in science and religion” in Religion and Intellectual Life 2 (4) Summer 1985, 7-26, 22

4. If there is such a thing as orthodoxy in the religion-and-science field, critical realism is one of its dogmas. This privileged position is undeserved. Critical realism suffers from at least two fundamental defects. First, its presupposed cognitive psychology entails that the cognitive value of both religious and scientific discourse is strictly indeterminable. Second, critical realism’s presupposed psychology forecloses future cognitive scientific inquiry in the name of a preconceived idea about the nature of human cognition.” Wesley Robbins, “Pragmatism, Critical Realism and the Cognitive Value of Religion and Science” Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion vol. 34, no. 4 (December 1999) 655-666, 656.

5. “Peirce was the first to say straightforwardly that to deduction and induction, we must add a third (which he variously named abduction, hypothesis, retroduction) if we are to categorize properly what it is that makes science. Abduction is the move from evidence to hypothesis; it is ‘the provisional adoption of a [testable] hypothesis’…(85) As a process of inference, it is not rule-governed as deduction is, nor regulated by technique as induction is. Its criteria, like coherence, empirical adequacy, fertility are more of an oblique sort. They leave room for disagreement, sometimes long-lasting disagreement. Yet they also allow controversies to be adjudicated and eventually resolved. (92) Let us agree to call the entire process retroduction. [It] is a continuing process that begins with the first regularity to be explained or anomaly to be explained away…The product of retroduction is theory or causal explanation. It is distinct from empirical law, the product of the simpler procedure of induction. (93) Ernan McMullin, The Inference that Makes Science (Marquette Univ. Press, 1992).

6. “Doctrines express judgments of fact and judgments of value. They are concerned, then, with the affirmations and negations not only of dogmatic theology but also of moral, ascetical, mystical, pastoral, and any similar branch. Such doctrines stand within the horizon of foundations. They have their precise definition from dialectic, their positive wealth of clarification and development from history, their grounds in the interpretation of the data proper to theology.” Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2003, 1971), 132

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reading Francis

Here is the last paragraph from a short analysis piece from veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben concerning Laudato Si, Pope Francis' blockbuster encyclical that was released today:

My own sense, after spending the day reading this remarkable document, was of great relief. I’ve been working on climate change for a quarter century, and for much of that time it felt like enduring one of those nightmarish dreams where no one can hear your warnings. In recent years a broad-based movement has arisen to take up the challenge, but this marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.
Endorsements like this one. Just wow.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stephen Barr Reviews Gingerich

In this fine review of Owen Gingerich's new book, God's Planet, Stephen Barr ends with a rather tantalizing summary of the state of science. Contrary to the science-knows-no-limits crowd that populates the neurosciences in particular, Barr ends with this interesting aside:

we seem to be entering a new era. Many of the most interesting and fundamental questions that science has stimulated are ­unlikely to be decidable by new data: Was there something before the Big Bang? Did the universe have a beginning? Do we live in a multiverse? Is the universe infinitely large? Are the laws of nature fine-tuned for life? Are there other intelligent species in the universe? How did the “transition to the spiritual” occur? Increasingly, one finds science lapping over its seawalls. Indeed, in some areas, the boundary between science and speculation has been entirely washed away. Science began with philosophical speculation twenty-five centuries ago, and it seems likely that it will end in the same place.
I see good reason to support this general assessment of science and its limits. In biology, my hope is that very soon, the speculative efforts of Jeremy English and Simon Conway Morris will begin to poke through the exceedingly tiresome and now boring evolution vs. God debates. Their speculations will, I think, confirm Darwinism as well as the other physical laws that contain and contextualize Darwinian mechanisms that (as we already know) favour species' survival and reproduction. However, I'd be willing to bet that when it comes to the specifics of genomic science (for instance), we will see amazing discoveries that provide us with evidence that further empirical discoveries will continue to be made and are important as such. More discipline-specific discoveries in science. More interdisciplinary insights into the limits of science. Both and...

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Professors at Work

This article in the NYT today makes an essential point about what we professors do, or at least what we are supposed to be doing. I think mentorship is the elephant in the room, the necessary thing - in addition to teaching and research - that is being ignored at our own peril, as well as the students' peril.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Colossian Forum Conference

This past weekend, I was at Garrett Theological Seminary on the beautiful grounds of Northwestern University in Chicago.

The occasion was a conference titled "Re-Imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall," hosted by the Colossian Forum. Big name speakers at the conference included Jamie Smith, Bill Cavanaugh, Aaron Riches, J. Richard Middleton and Celia Deane-Drummond, as well as Peter Harrison, former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. It was good to catch up / meet each of these colleagues whose work I value greatly for one reason or another.  

My paper was titled " Reforming Natural Theology: Christocentrism and Evolutionary Theological Anthropology" and the abstract is as follows:
The christocentric turn in contemporary theology should be more coherent with the historical enterprise of natural theology. However, natural theology needs to be further developed in order to take sin into an account of human nature so that the means of our salvation and the paradoxical, created order constitute a seamless theological narrative. I argue that Augustine’s account of the sinful consequences of natural human predispositions can be correlated with contemporary research on the evolutionary reasons for a large range of human behaviour. Natural theology ought to reflect on the soteriological question that is built into the paradox of being human. Augustine better judges this task than Karl Barth owing to the latter's rejection of natural theology. Complementary to a theology of atonement, natural theology anticipates the sinful conditions that necessitate salvation by not only describing sin but also partly explaining its natural origins.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Grant Events - Much Ado About Evolution

I've been traversing Canada in winter this past week, being present for two conferences organized under the auspices of my research grant, the first of which is available on youtube already here.

The second event, which had a different focus and (a very large student) audience, was held at King's University in Edmonton, Alberta. The programme for that event is here and it was a a lot of fun to host Tom Oord and Tim O'Connor who were the main speakers for that event.A big thanks goes out to Matte Downey, Ph.D. student at Concordia for her efforts at getting these events off the ground.

More follow-up information coming in the coming months.

Notre Dame in July

I will be a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference organized by Prof. Christian Smith at the Univ. of Notre Dame this upcoming July on the theme "New Conversations in Science and Religion: What Difference Might Critical Realist Philosophy Make?" The conference topic is described here with a sidebar link to the speakers here.This conference will mark the first time I am back at Notre Dame since meeting up with Ernan McMullin in 1999 when I interviewed him in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, which was published in 2006 by Ashgate.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Saved from Sin (and hurt)

Several years ago (already) I taught a graduate course on the topic of original sin. In the course, we covered a fairly wide swath of material from biblical understandings of sin (there are several distinct aspects of sin present in various biblical books), the thought of several key historical figures - notably Augustine - and contemporary theological perspectives on sin.

One of the characteristics of contemporary theology (at least in some quarters) is the attempt to separate out the dynamics of salvation from that of sin. That is: salvation is thought to pertain to human brokenness or something like human frailty. What such an association establishes is not quite clear. At least, it is not clear in comparison to the historical tradition which laid the blame for our condition solely on our propensity to sin. Our fallenness dictated the terms of our woe and not the other way around. And from that Augustinian perspective, all manner of soteriological accounts of Christ's work on the cross flowed. Think Anselm especially, but also Luther, Calvin etc.

Many contemporary theologians have tried to orient salvation around the problem of human limitation rather than sin. Phrases that become associated with this way of presupposing salvation's object include "the human condition", "human finitude" and a host of other equivalents.

However, while some theologians intentionally propose linking salvation to such general categories for the express purpose of leaving out an account of human sinfulness (this is how one might read, for instance, Philip Hefner), it is not necessary to suppose that salvation is a concept that pertains to only one or the other. It is perfectly valid to think of salvation as God's offer of reconciliation in response to the human condition and its limitations, the latter of which is understood in the light of sin.

Now, this is merely a conceptual discussion, and  there is much more to say about how and why it pertains to a host of issues in theological method, doctrine, biblical exegesis, ethics and so on. It was raised for me recently by reading this blog entry from Ben Myers, one of the internet's more colourful and insightful theological bloggers and who kindly provided a blurb for my Theological Method book.

The reason it resonated with me was specifically because of a fall I took at the beginning of this past week on some very thick and unforgiving sidewalk ice. (Montreal experienced a wicked ice storm and flash freeze Sunday night.) So, as someone who thinks of himself (proudly, it should be admitted) as spry and uncommonly healthy, this tumble was a bit of a wake up call. To my own finitude, and thence to the gift of life and my limits in shaping and controlling it.

Something Ben writes near the end of his report on his bike accident was especially interesting I thought. He writes:
Then slowly, as if waking after long sleep, my life’s deep hurts came creeping back into my mind. Memory laid its bitterness upon my heart, so that when I waked I cried to sleep again.

These words (besides evoking Augustine on at least two counts... at first I thought it was a direct quote...maybe it is...) seem somehow to establish the link between our physical, 'existential' finitude and "hurt", the emotional (non-physical) kind that takes hold of us and keeps us enchained to our past, to our mistakes, to our false needs, to vice and much else. Hurt, after all, is an effect of sin.

In short, experiences of finitude demonstrate a tangible link to sin, even if that link is indirect or prompted only on the heels of our reflection upon finitude. In other words, our hope for salvation is not predicated on either sin (exclusively) or finitude (exclusively) but on both of these things, which tend to come as a package in human living. Phyical or emotional pain/suffering seem to be particularly poignant occasions for thinking about salvation, its scope and power.

Indeed, Ben continues - immediately after speaking of his bitter regrets - to quote Augustine on memory. So, analogously, when we lose ourselves, we find God (or the transcendent shards of God's promises alluded to in American fiction and Bob Dylan) - according to Ben. I think that's what he is saying. It's comforting for those who lose their sense of themselves and their purpose in life. It is also a reminder that the best theology emerges from amidst great pain and inner turmoil as all the great spiritual writings attest.   

Friday, January 2, 2015

The pre-encyclical debate begins

Pope Francis is set to issue an encyclical in a few weeks or months that will focus attention on the ecological crisis. The debates about the meaning of this document have already begun, even though we have yet to see the text! While the tone of this article is a bit defensive, I appreciate the general point being made here that Popes Benedict and Francis, not to mention John Paul II, are of one mind when it comes to ecology.

Footnote (Jan. 8): There has been a small tsunami of content analyzing an encyclical that does not exist yet(!) So far, this piece by Michael S. Winters does the best job of analyzing the shortcomings of the Pope's critics.