Barth and Torrance, Epistemology and Methodology

Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance are known for their scientific realist approach to theology and methodology. Here I want to subject their methodology to close scrutiny, and in doing so, I’m going to argue that, at a formal level, Barth/Torrance’s theological epistemology is implicitly built on both a kind of dualism and that Torrance’s method is a priori committed to a specific interpretation of realism that hindered his own engagement with both the sciences and the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here I want to see if the Barth/Torrance thesis can be illuminated by way of the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, and then examine Barth/Torrance’s realist methodology for doing theology by looking at Torrance’s own critical engagement with the natural sciences.

In ‘Faith, Freedom and the Spirit’, Paul Molnar spends a good deal of time on Barth and Torrance’s theological epistemology. There’s a lot of good here and I highly recommend reading the book, but Molnar’s exposition of non-conceptual knowledge (NCK from here on out) caught my eye. Molnar argues that for Barth and Torrance there was no NCK of God – that is, all of our knowledge of God is conceptual. This caught my eye because I noticed a parallel between this thesis and the McDowell-Dreyfus debate over embodied coping and conceptual knowledge – Dreyfus arguing that there is NCK and McDowell arguing that knowledge is conceptual all the way down. Molnar notes that, for Barth:

‘…non-objective or non-conceptual knowledge of God refers to any claim to know God that is not in fact grounded in the revelation of God in his Word and Spirit…any attempt to portray that specific reality without a concept of it, perhaps by claiming an unthematic or unconceptualized knowledge of it, could be considered a form of non-conceptual knowledge. For Barth we have no capacity in ourselves for God. But since we have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and no longer stand apart from God in ourselves (selves who in their attempted independence of God brought Jesus to the cross and have now been removed from the picture), we are now ready for God because of God’s readiness for us expressed in his Word and Spirit.’ (‘Faith, Freedom and the Spirit’, p. 63)

The point Molnar is making is well known but worth repeating: we know God because of God, not because of any capacity or ground in ourselves or our experience. Even if God is ‘in’ our concepts, it is because God presses our concepts into service. Torrance follows suit and adds a bit of philosophical clarity to this thesis:

‘…for Torrance scientific theology always allows the unique object of knowledge to determine the truth of what is said. Torrance this objected rather firmly to what he called, following Martin Buber, the tendency in modern theology toward a “conceptual letting go of God” as happened for instance in the thinking of Schleiermacher…that is why Torrance frequently objected to the thinking of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. In his mind both those theologians transformed scientific theology into an unscientific enterprise by allowing theological language to be dictated not by God who is in himself as the eternal Father, Son and Spirit as experienced and known in faith, but by allowing their thinking to be dictated by their existential concerns and conclusions detached from the Holy Spirit.’ (p. 67)

Torrance thus sees NCK of God as rationalistic and unscientific, since its object and controlling factor isn’t God but (as Torrance sees Bultmann and Tillich) existential concerns. Torrance sees the development of theological concepts in a firmly a posteriori manner – we derive our concepts of God after coming into contact with God’s reality:

‘Theological science must therefore generate concepts of God that are worthy of him, as the great Origen used to insist, not concepts which we devise and project out of our own religious self-understanding but concepts that are forced on our minds by the sheer nature of the divine Majesty. And that can only take place through intimate experience of God within the communion of people that God arises in the world under the impact of his revealing and redemptive acts.’ (Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 83)

Needless to say, there is a lot to agree with here, and materially, I disagree with almost nothing here. However, at a more formal level, there are some questions. If all our knowledge of God is conceptual, there are we left with a kind of cognitivism, and, dare I say, rationalism? Surely concepts are cognitive, and surely, in this context, whatever is cognitive is epistemic, which seems to reduce all knowledge of God to the cognitive – put another way, the mind and its concepts become the lynchpins for knowledge of God. This problem can hopefully be sharpned by examining in brief the McDowell-Dreyfus debate.

In a nutshell (a dangerous way to examine such detailed debates, but here we go), John McDowell argues that all knowledge is conceptual knowledge, and by extension, as Dreyfus puts it, ‘the mind is everywhere the pure Given is not’. Dreyfus argues that McDowell’s concept of rationality as situation-dependent means that there is no room for ’embodied coping'(which is a broadly Heidegerr-ian theme involving skills, being-in-the-world, etc) – thus Dreyfus argues that rationality and coping are two distinct things (which McDowell sees as dualistic). In essence, for Dreyfus, if McDowell is right, then there is no room for embodied coping, since embodied coping is not ‘rational’, and McDowell sees rationality and the mind as everywhere.

What does this have to do with a theological thesis on the knowledge of God? If all our knowledge of God is conceptual (all the way down – or up – as it were), then, despite Torrance’s insistence that such knowledge only comes within the context of ‘space-time structures of the world’, and within the worship of the community of God, it seems as though all knowledge of God boils down to cognitive exercises. Now, clearly, Barth and Torrance would deny this, but I think that this logic is what’s driving their join thesis. In essence, I think that Barth and Torrance have reduced knowledge of God, implicitly if not explicitly, to the epistemological, and by articulating their claims in terms of a posteriori and a priori (the former they accept, the latter they reject) have fallen into a kind dualism. While not explicitly stating it this way, their logic seems to end up at a cognitive/noncognitive dualism.

Torrance was very much committed to both what he called ‘scientific theology’ (and Barth as well, but since Torrance fleshed out the philosophical side, I’ll focus on on him for now), which is what allowed him to maintain that our concepts of God are controlled (as well as any object of our inquiry) are controlled by the object of our investigation – that is, in opposition to, say, Kant (or how Torrance interpreted Kant), we do not construct reality but rather reality is independent of us. Torrance thus took his method to be a kind of critical scientific realism, and he drew heavily on James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein in developing his method. Again, as above, there is much to commend here at a material level. Torrance’s engagement with these two figures, especially Maxwell, is incredibly perceptive, and he stresses the importance of a posteriori thinking – that is, thinking about reality that is grounded in empirical contact with reality. It should be clear that the invocation of a posteriori already implicitly assumes a kind of epistemic reduction as noted above, but I think there is a second and potentially more revealing assumption at work in Torrance’s realism, which can be seen by examining his interaction with the thught of Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. As Stoyan Tanev notes:

‘Torrance was a great admirer of the scientific contributions of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. This fact is quite revealing since illustrate Torrance’s preference for a relatively narrow spectrum of ideas with a modern physics. However according to John Polkinghorne although Maxwell and Einstein are among the greatest scientist ever and definitely deserve their status as scientific heroes of Torrance they are “the last of the ancients rather than the first of the moderns.” For Polkinghorne it is quite unfortunate that Torrance did not engage more seriously with the development of quantum mechanics which has  developed a more subtle sense of reality. Torrance’s appreciation of Einstein led him stay on the same front with him in the debate concerning the possibility of a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, a fact that evidently prevented Torrance from engaging in further dialogue with modern quantum physicist, especially with those who did not adhere to Einstein’s interpretation. For example, Torrance expressed multiple time his distrust of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and specifically of the epistemology of Niels Bohr. According to him there were “difficulties which we still have with quantum theory, particular that stems from Bohr, Heisenberg and Born which may be traced and part at least Kantian presuppositions.” (‘Energy and Essence in Torrance and in Orthodox Theology’, in ‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy’, p. 210)

Tanev goes on to point out just how Torrance’s commitment to the realism of Einstein and Maxwell prohibited him from fruitful engagement with Bohr:

‘Bohr made a clear distinction between the unique identity of a quantum object and the specific complementary ways of its energetic manifestation. This distinction is crucial for Bohr in emphasizing the reality of the quantum world about the same time accepting that it does not make sense to speak about it “being in a certain way” independent of the interaction with a specific experimental arrangement. Such a view does not conform to the classical understanding of realism; it adopts a more subtle way of looking at reality allowing for a self-subsisting object to manifest mutually exclusive (or complementary) types of natural properties depending on the specific circumstances of the interaction between the observer and the object.’ (p. 211)

And finally, Tanev shows just how Torrance’s commitment to realism actually kept him from embracing an even more robust realism:

‘According to Christos Yannaras, in quantum physics it became evident that the result of the observation of the micro-world is connected with the specific types of instruments, and also with a specific method of observation and description. The specific model that could be used to describe a physical system depends on the observer and the nature of the apparatus it is interacting with. Our perception of reality can change in accordance with our instruments or a method of observation; conversely, observed reality can be transformed by the fact of observing it. “What this means is that the nature of existing reality is that independent of human action if the answer nature gives us the results of the individual measurement is random the result is beyond our control which indicates an independent physical reality”.’ (p. 212)

Thus, far from leading to Kantian idealism, modern quantum physics articulates a stronger, yet more subtle realism than Torrance was committed to. And therein lies the critique: though Torrance took himself to be committed to a strictly a posteriori, scientific realism, his a priori commitments to a specific brand of realism actually led him to ignore the a posteriori findings of modern science.

Two broad critiques have been seen here: the first is that Barth and Torrance’s theological epistemology is predicated implicitly on (1) an epistemic reduction and (2) an a priori/a posteriori dualism – (2) being an indicator of (1). The second is that Torrance’s scientific realism is implicitly  a priori to the detriment of his own method. While there is much to commend at a material level in Barth/Torrance’s methodology, it is revealing just how much of their methodology operates implicitly on the logic which they explicitly rebuke. While this is a largely critical post, I suspect a way forward might be to question the relevance of the a priori/a posteriori in the context of knowledge of God, since that distinction seems to already concede a kind of dualism that Torrance and Barth laboured so hard to overcome.

2 thoughts on “Barth and Torrance, Epistemology and Methodology

  1. Anthony February 13, 2016 / 10:43 pm

    Great post, to what extent did Barth or Torrance engage with guys like Husserl or Heidegger? I’m not well versed in phenomenology, but it seems to me a lot of the ‘givenness’ of phenomenology seems to work well with what Barth/Torrance are trying to accomplish in their epistemology.


    • whitefrozen February 13, 2016 / 10:48 pm

      Torrance took a good deal from Heidegger – he was hugely sympathetic, for example, to Heidegegers idea that language is the house of being. He definitely appropriated Heidegger in a more piecemeal than systematic fashion. Husserl I’m not as sure of, or the other phenomenologists like Merlau-Ponty. I don’t recall seeing any mention of Husserl, but take that with a grain of salt.

      Liked by 1 person

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