Posted by: gcarkner | November 10, 2014

Two Ways of Seeing Reality

Two Different Philosophical Paradigms

For a deeper understanding/grasp of the relationship between reason and faith, it is helpful to understand the impact of two distinct ways of engaging the world intellectually and philosophically: epistemological and hermeneutical. They constitute two different set of glasses as shown by philosopher Charles Taylor. These two perspectives emerged as a helpful talking point in a recent lecture on Middle European History at St. John’s College, UBC. A Rice University professor of Polish descent had a vastly different perspective to those who favored the German or British way of seeing this post-World War 2 history. They had two radically different ways of seeing the issues related to the emergence of Middle Europe after the Cold War.

  1. Epistemological Approach (Descartes, Locke, Hume). The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS). Its assumptions include the following:
  • Knowledge of self and its status comes before knowledge of the world (things) and others.
  • Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before we (the self) attribute value to it.
  • Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence (which is thereby problematized, doubted or repressed). This approach tends to write transcendence out of the equation.

 Within the Epistemological View, the individual is primary and certainty is within the mind. The self is an independent, disengaged subject reflexively controlling its own thought processes, self-responsibly. The oft-presumed neutrality of this view is in question. The way of seeing is in fact a heavily value-laden approach or posture. It offers a whole construction of identity and society with its own distinctive priorities and values.

Materialism, in point of fact, is an aesthetic construction (not arising from science), a story many of us tell ourselves as late moderns, over and over again, about the entire cosmos and our place within it, our value, identity, trajectory and purpose. Humans have always had a way of placing themselves in the context of the cosmos and time; it is not actually possible to do without such perspectival reflections. But it depends on a certain naturalistic metaphysics or worldview, which was not always as common historically as it is today. But is it rigorously plausible? Taylor’s contention is that the power of materialism today comes not from scientific “facts”, but has rather to be explained in terms of the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we call “atheistic humanism” or exclusive humanism. (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 569) It works off an ontological thesis of materialism: everything which is, is based on “matter”, without explaining why this is taken as true.

Even though rooted in the epistemological success of science, Taylor questions whether we are to logically conclude that everything is nothing but matter and that we should try to define our entire human and natural situation in terms of matter alone. Enlightenment of this sort is a kind of excarnation or out-of-body thinking. The self is radically abstracted from its socio-cultural embodiment and its historical narrative and retreats to the mind.

This approach employs a designative use of language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) which traps the pursuit of wisdom within language and confines it to immanence, where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing. Language here primarily designates objects in the world. The object is observed, held at arms length, but not participated in.  One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject dependent. This tradition also contributes to a mechanistic outlook on the universe. It is committed to the primacy of empirical epistemology (evidence and justified belief). It is not oriented to, but skeptical of, universals or essences.

What about ethics? Once upon a time, human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to see that these higher authorities were their own fictions, and they realized they had to establish their norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story as it figures in the science-driven argument for materialism. The dramatic claim to establish our own standards comes down to the thought that we no longer receive those norms from an authority outside us, but rather from our own scientific investigations. (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 580) We answer to no one; we are morally self-authorized.

Part of this Master Narrative is that for proponents of the death of God, they want to see God-absence as a property of the universe which science lays bare. Taylor notes:

It is only within some understanding of agency, in which disengaged scientific inquiry is woven into a story of courageous adulthood, to be attained through a renunciation of the more ‘childish’ comforts in meaning and beatitude, that the death of God story appears obvious. (Ibid. p. 565)

Of course, he questions this narrative, this specific secularization thesis that he calls secularism 2, and holds it up for deeper scrutiny. The claim is that religious belief is a childish temptation and a beautiful world (think Peter Pan), lacking the courage to face reality and grow up into a more complex, harsh world. Maturing into adulthood implies leaving faith in God behind. But loss of faith in adulthood is not an obvious fact of observable reality, but a construction of human identity and our place in the world (Ibid. p. 565). Just because it is common does not make it correct. Taylor questions whether it contains hermeneutical adequacy and weight (Ibid. p. 567). He is not at all convinced that the arguments from natural science to atheism are strong; they seem to include bad reason, inconclusive arguments, and are based on faulty unreflective assumptions.

2. Hermeneutical Approach (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer). The presuppositions of this approach are:

  • Self is not the first priority: the world, society and the game of life come first. We only have knowledge as agents coping with the world, and it makes no sense to doubt that world.
  • There is no priority of a neutral grasp of things over and above their value.
  • Our primordial identity is as a new player inducted into an old game.
  • Transcendence or the divine horizon is a possible larger context of this game (radical skepticism is not as strong). There is a smaller likelihood of a closed world system (CWS) view in the hermeneutical approach to the world. In a sense it is a more humble and nuanced view of the location of late moderns.

Within this Hermeneutical View, therefore, one is not so boxed in or restricted regarding parameters of thinking. Within this open immanent frame, certain hard features of the first approach to reality can be deconstructed and the weaknesses of such features exposed. Enlightenment could and does mean an engaging belief in God for billions of people around the world in late modernity. In fact, it seems that ideologically atheistic/materialistic China is soon set to host the largest Christian population of any country in the world. Hermeneutics is about the exploration and interpretation of meaning and meaningful actions of people.

The first view is definitely a more myopic possibility for making sense of the world. Philosopher Thomas Nagel (2012) in Mind & Cosmos questions materialistic naturalism’s explanatory capacity in making sense of consciousness, purpose or teleology and moral value and commitments. He is joined by David Bentley Hart (2013) and Alvin Plantinga (Where the Conflict Really Lies, 2012). We may well ask: Is it actually, at the end of the day, a progressive, heuristic environment for thought worthy of academia? How does one avoid closed-minded and dogmatic rationalism? Hard rationalism has a way of closing down the investigation and the dialogue and replacing it with a monologue.

We propose that one gets more purchase from the hermeneutical approach, especially as one moves beyond the necessarily restrictive purview of science itself. As Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar says, science the self-limiting methodology was never meant to be turned into an ontology or metaphysics (reductive materialism), never meant to be the final word on noble questions to be explored. When science morphs into the ideology of scientism, it leads to nihilism, the loss of meaning. Science was never meant to constitute a worldview; it does not contain the intellectual equipment for such. David Bentley Hart (2013) in his most recent book, The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss, offers an amazing follow through from this discussion and helps citizens of late modern culture avoid implosion into dogmatic rationalism, nihilism and cynicism.

Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address the being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendent truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification…. Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. (D.B. Hart, 2013, p. 77)

Another dimension of our current dilemma is the subjectivizing of morality. This also leads to relativism and nihilism: no shared code or normativity for the common good, no social glue or basis for resolving conflict. According to Notre Dame scholar Brad Gregory’s brilliant insight into our historical context,

A transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theories, practices, laws, and institutions…. This rights morality relied on substantive, shared beliefs about human goods but unwittingly fashioned an institutional framework for their subversion. (B. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 2012, 184-5)

The discourse on rights began in a context of a perception of the common good; it was allied to the virtues within an overall transcendent horizon. But eventually it deteriorated to private interest, choice and entitlement. Initially, “properly to exercise one’s rights was to exercise one’s freedom and to pursue one’s individual good with an eye toward the common good” (Ibid. p. 197). Today one’s individual good seems to be in tension with the common good—rights discourse is accompanied by an expansive list of wishes, preferences and entitlements guaranteed by the state.

Furthermore, modern Western moral philosophy has failed to discover or create a convincing secular foundation for ethics, and thus for shared moral community independent of inherited Christian or other religious beliefs. It has failed in providing answers to our Big Life Questions based on secular reason alone. Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

Modern moral philosophy has miscarried its central objective. Not only has it failed to stem the subjectivization of morality…; it has augmented it in a secular, rationalist register. This failure has quite properly marginalized professional moral philosophy, at least as currently institutionalized, as a realistic resource for resolving any ethical disagreements, because it has no indication of being able to do anything but perpetuate them.” (quoted by B. Gregory, Ibid. p. 220)

Gregory concludes that we are left with a major dilemma. The language of rights has broken down philosophically within the closed immanent frame of materialistic naturalism.

The commitments to metaphysical naturalism and ideological scientism that govern “public reason” dictate a conception of reality that prevents the grounding of any morality at all…. If metaphysical naturalism is true then human rights are not and cannot be real, natural or discovered. They are at most constructed conventions or useful fictions, but intellectually they are unwarranted remnants from a rejected conception of reality. (B. Gregory, 2012, p. 224-5)

Gregory raises questions about “The blithe and incoherent denial of the category of truth in the domain of human morality, values, and meaning among many academics. It is frequently alleged that all human meaning, morality and values can be nothing more than whatever human beings of different times and cultures subjectively and contingently construct for themselves” (Ibid. p. 18). This gives us some things to work on in future discussions: i.e., how we can ground truth claims about morality and values amid swarms of incompatible, shifting assertions about them. This remains a genuine and pressing problem. Gregory ponders, “What sort of public life or common culture is possible in societies whose members share even fewer substantive beliefs, norms and values save for a nearly universal embrace of consumerist acquisitiveness” (Ibid. p. 20). This he refers to as the current state of hyperpluralism. Perhaps this dilemma has led to the divisive tribalism of truncated values that is infecting groups and political parties in the West at the moment.

 ~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

Gregory, B. (2012). The Unintended Reformation: how a religious revolution secularized society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hart, D.B. (2013). The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

See also the essay on this blog “Gnosticism versus the Incarnation” under GCU Study Updates.

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