Can Anyone Know Reality Itself? More about Truth
In my immediately preceding essay here I talked about the demise of what Francis Schaeffer called “True truth”—not subjective truth, not “my truth,” but universal truth, truth that is true for everyone. I affirm that kind of truth, but that raises many questions and some interlocutors here raised some of them.
First, let me say that I assume, contrary to some forms of philosophical (especially German) idealism a difference between the orders of knowing and being. Reality does not depend on its being known. Reality was, is, is yet to be…independently of any mind. I do not agree with idealists such as George Berkeley (pronounced “Barclay”) who said “To be is to be perceived.” Nor do I agree with G. W. F. Hegel and other idealists who assumed an inextricable connection between knowing and being. Nor do I agree with Immanuel Kant that reality in and of itself is beyond knowing.
Many people “slip” into confusing the orders of knowing and being. When I argue that truth is reality they ask about how we know reality. That is a second question. The one I dealt with (in my preceding post essay) was “truth” as being reality. The “how we know reality” question is secondary to that and separate from it—even though it always arises when I (and I assume anyone) avers that reality exists outside the mind and that “truth” is correspondence between our thoughts and claims and reality itself.
Second, “correspondence with reality” does not necessarily require exact correspondence; there are surely degrees of correspondence between our best thoughts, ideas, and truth claims and reality itself.
Third, I work out of a philosophy sometimes called “critical realism.” Now, “critical realism” has different meanings in different fields of research and study. Here I am not using the term or phrase as it is used in the social sciences but as it is often used in philosophy of science and in theology.
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To put it most simply, “critical realism” is any idea that reality exists outside the mind and awaits our discovery and that our discovery of it is always partial, biased by perspective, imperfect, and capable of improvement. From a theistic religious point of view, only God knows reality perfectly. Only God has the “view from nowhere” that is impossible for finite creatures such as we are.
Still, and nevertheless, we can approximate correspondence between our thoughts and reality in itself through careful observation and deduction—including (for those of us who are Christians) observation and interpretation of divine revelation.
Critical realism has been promoted and embraced by a wide variety of philosophers and theologians including Michael Polanyi, Imri Lakatos, Nancey Murphy, and N. T. Wright.
Critical realism requires a degree of humility with regard to truth claims, but it allows truth claims to be valid. And when someone claims to have truth, he or she is claiming some correspondence, however imperfect, between the claim and reality.
Critical realism is not really an epistemology; it is a meta-epistemology. Once critical realism is embraced questions of how we validate truth claims arise. But those questions, within critical realism, assume that the search for “True truth” is a valid enterprise.
Today, in much of Western culture, when people utter “truth,” I cannot be sure what they mean. I have to inquire whether they are talking about True truth—reality and knowing it (however incompletely and imperfectly—or subjective and relative truth (for example “my truth” that does not need to be “your truth”).
In my immediately preceding blog essay I recounted the incident in which a colleague, a professor of history, confronted me by saying that “reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine but not for you.” I was left unknowing what he meant by “truth,” but on the surface, anyway, it seemed that he was not talking about “True truth” but about subjective truth which left me not knowing whether he was even talking about reincarnation itself or only about feelings and personal beliefs disconnected from reality itself.
This is an example of where and why communication is breaking down in postmodern Western culture. “Truth itself” is debatable—as to what the word or concept even means. One can no longer even know what a truth claim is without somewhat extensive discussion about the meaning of “truth.”
I am discovering, in my years-long research project about modern liberal theology, that many liberal theologians have given up on True truth—in theology—and are dealing with feelings, dispositions, attitudes evoked by religious symbols that then give rise to proper or improper conduct. Whether the incarnation really happened—in reality—is not at issue for many liberal theologians. What matters is the symbol of the incarnation and its power to evoke certain feelings, dispositions, attitudes and ways of living. I suspect that this is not recognized by many “people in the pews” but can nevertheless reduce the gospel, for them, to a message about the right way of living as a Christian devoid of connection to special acts of God in history, especially acts that would traditionally be categorized as “special providence”—God’s interventions in history to alter reality. All traditional Christianity has always believed and taught that such interventions occurred and their occurrence is necessary for our salvation. It seems that for many liberal theologians those “mighty, saving acts of God” are symbolic, images, rather than extra-mental realities. “Truth,” then, becomes the power of “mythopoeic images” to evoke certain dispositions and actions. In that case, then, theology takes on a whole new meaning that it has traditionally had. It no longer explains anything but only expresses the effects symbols might and perhaps should have in the spiritual lives of individuals and groups.
The question hovering over my research project is whether this theology is still Christian theology or whether the “cord of continuity” has then been cut such that this theology is no longer Christian even though it uses Christian language (or some of it).
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