T.F. Torrance on Kant and Theoretic Structures

‘There is certainly a profound element of truth here, the fact that in all our knowing there is a real interplay between what we know and out knowing of it. Man himself is a part of nature and is so intimately related to nature that he plays a formative, and nature a productive, role in scientific inquiry, discovery and interpretation. This is everywhere apparent in the magnificent achievements of empirical and theoretic science, but the way in which Kant himself combined the theoretical and empirical components of the epistemic process has grave consequences.

It is certainly to be granted that we do not apprehend things apart from a theoretic structure, but if the theoretic structure actually determines what we apprehend, then what we apprehend provides no control over our understanding. The one way out of that impasse requires a theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come to view in the process of inquiry. But this is ruled out by the Kantian thesis that the theoretic structure is aprioristically independent of what we apprehend and that there is no possible knowledge of things in their own inner determinations or relations.

While Kant was certainly concerned to show the limits of the pure reason, his theory of knowledge served to reinforce the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous reason (e.g. in its Lockean and Cartesian forms alike) and even to exalt it into a position beyond what had hitherto been claimed, where through prescriptive legislation it subdued nature to the forms of its own rational necessities. As F.C.S. Northrop expressed it: ‘For neither Locke nor Hume was the human person as a knower a positively acting creating being. With Kant the position is entirely changed. Apart from the knowing person, which Kant termed “the ego”, the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of the understanding which this ego brings to the contingent data of sense, there would be no single space-time world whatever, with its public, material objects and knowers. In this fashion Kant transforms modern man’s conception of himself from a merely passive into a systematically active and creative being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, p. 42, reformatted for ease of reading)

Notes on Reconiliation and Redemption in Torrance

– Torrance defines reconciliation as having to do with the repaired or remade relation between God and man/creation, a relation of peace, love and unity. This is effected by God acting in Christ, so while God is the ultimate subject of reconciliation, Christ is the immediate subject.

– Reconciliation is cosmic and reaches out to all things – all things are reconciled, both to God and to each other. Christ is made the head of all things and in Christ all things are reconciled to God. Christ = reconciliation, and those ‘in Him’ live out this reconciliation.

– Redemption is a bit different – redemption here is seen as the destruction of the enslaving powers of sin and liberation from the bondage of sin and death, so that those liberated can become a kingdom of priests in their inheritance. This is clearly eschatalogical.

– There is a very obvious now/not yet dialectic. The ‘now’ = breaking in of God’s kingdom and freedom from sin, and our beginning to live out our vocations as priests in the kingdom. The ‘not yet’ = final state of consummation and final fulfillment of our redemption.

– The whole world is involved in redemption as it is involved in reconciliation. Torrance grounds both of these in God becoming a creature in space and time.

– Creation is under sin/curse, God’s act of redemption frees creation, and now creation waits and ‘groans’ in anticipation of the final eschatalogical redemption.

– Rough summaries: reconciliation is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God thru the removal of enmity between God and man the the establishment of a unity of peace and live. Redemption is the breaking of and removal from the powers of sin and death – man is both redeemed and redeemed into his inheritance and creation freed from bondage.

Rational Reality and Inherent Intelligbility

One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.

Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.

T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.

Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.

Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.

This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.

Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.

Notes on the Analogy of Being, Barth and Torrance

– T.F. Torrance bases most of his theology on the fact that the Word can’t be divorced from God’s act or being. Torrance also very forcefully rejects any system of theology or philosophy that purports to arrive at God based on study of nature. Torrance rejects it on the grounds that such a system would be independent of any actual knowledge of God as revealed in the Incarnation. However, if the Word became flesh, and it was through the Word that the world came into being, and the intelligibility of creation comes through the Word, couldn’t it be argued that a study of nature is, in a way, a study of God through the Word? Maybe. Maybe not.

– Torrance and Barth both tend to see the goal of natural theology as arriving at God – once you accept the arguments, or the arguments convince you, that’s it – you’re there. But a study of the history of natural theology reveals two things: that God, whether in Scholasticism, Patristic thought, Reformed thought, etc, is never something that can be simply arrived at but something we are continually striving to. Second, natural theology is less about reaching God than it is about exploring the reality of God. Perhaps this is an oversimplification but I see this as an accurate diagnosis of the pathos behind these views.

– A mistake that I see Torrance and Barth making is taking apophatic theology to be a positive statement of what can be ascribed to God (‘nothing’) when apophatic theology is in fact a limitation of what can be positively ascribed to God. It also recognizes humility in theology – the limitations of the human mind. However, as Pelikan notes, this same limitation is also a freedom – it frees the mind to explore the reality of God within the boundaries of apophatic theology. The analogy of being, as well, serves as a boundary:

‘And to this extent, it bears an analogy to the kind of natural theology that Barth rejected. Again, however, anticipating our response to Barth in the final section, the ultimate point of the analogia entis is precisely to humble all natural (and even all supernatural) knowledge of God, to deconstruct every closed system (whether philosophical or theological), in short, to break to pieces every conceptual idol, and to insist that all our knowledge of God, no matter how exalted by grace, is ‘patchwork’ (cf. 1Cor 13:12)—a knowledge in ‘images and likenesses’ that break and fail and thereby point to a God who is beyond comparison, indeed, ‘beyond all analogy’.

– What Barth and Torrance both acutely realize is the effect of mans fallen condition in knowing God – the heart is turned inwards upon itself (as well as the mind) and so any natural revelation can be darkened in a flash, and turned into an idol. This is all too often what happens.

Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)


Reading Notes 8/31/2014

John Grisham’s ‘The Summons’ has been a great read – fun, mysterious, page-turning, etc. It’s the first of his I’ve ever read, and I can see now why he’s pretty much at the top of the modern canon of fiction. I actually don’t know the last time I read a book that kept me up late to read it.

I stopped reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ – maybe I just don’t get it but honestly, that was one boring book. Now that I think about it, there is no maybe – I just didn’t get it. I try and read one fiction book at a time, so putting this book down was the reason I picked up ‘The Summons’

.Brian Greene’s explanation of string theory and its unification of both general relativity and quantum mechanics in ‘The Elegant Universe’ is so far some of the best writing on the subject I’ve been able to find. A short segment on the nature of physical laws caused me to break out Feynman’s ‘Six Not-So-Easy Pieces’ where he talks about the symmetry of physical laws. The nature of physical law is a fascinating thing to reflect on – especially the ontological status of said laws.

Torrance’s essay on Polanyi in ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’ is a brilliant essay – his exposition of some fairly complex ideas is outstanding. The whole book is great, but the Polanyi essay is probably one of the stronger essays in the book.  Torrance’s concept of stratified levels of intelligibility in reality is definitely something I’ll be thinking further on.

Epistemology and Being II

Some time ago I posted on the subject of epistemology and being within the context of David Bentley Hart’s ‘practical idealism’ and T.F. Torrance’s scientific theological realism. I’m going to try and flesh out a few more points on that subject. (Pretty much all of this is a riff on Torrance’s first chapter in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’)

A key point in Torrance’s thought is the rejection of the ‘image in the middle’ as the object of the intellect or as the object of knowledge. He identifies this as a product of Aristotelian metaphysics, in which the intellect abstracts its object of knowledge directly from sensory experience (‘there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses’). Instead of abstractive processes which produce an ‘image in the middle’ in the mind which is the object of knowledge, Torrance holds that ‘being’ is the primary object of the intellect – knowledge of being is brought about by an immediate and direct intuition of reality. Here he sides with Scotus against Aquinas.

Torrance sees a danger in the famous ‘fit of the intellect to reality’ formula developed by the medievals: it’s very easy to slide unnoticed from that to ‘knowledge has to conform to the understanding’ and from there to various forms of idealism. But that formula seems to make a good amount of sense, so how can the slide to idealism be avoided?

Torrance grants that the agent is active in the process of ‘knowing’ – but instead of imposing its a priori categories onto the raw data of experience (which Torrance argues imposes a necessariatinism and determinism on the world and forces the world into static categories) the concepts and categories of the mind ‘hook onto’ the structures of reality. These structures are controlling, in that our concepts and categories have to be revised, reformulated or discarded as the reality which we inquire into discloses itself and its own inner ‘rationality’ to our questions and investigation.

What the mind does do is act as a formal cause – not of the shape of reality, a la Kant – of patterns which emerge by virtue of the inherent intelligibility of the universe. While these patterns, like our hooking concepts, are open to revision, these patterns are what shape our experience of reality. While my sympathies lie with Hart, I suspect Torrance is closer to the mark – the neccesary/determinism criticisms that Torrance levels against Kantian idealism and transcendental categories are pretty powerful.

Barth, Torrance, and Knowledge of God

Barth and Torrance put a lot of effort into attacking a priori knowledge of God and establishing knowledge of God grounded in Christian experience as the dominant form of knowing God – basically, kataphatic instead of apophatic, positive over negative. Apophatic theology is seen as a form of knowledge of God grounded not in God’s self-revelation but in our conceptual schemes – we cannot say what God is, only what He is not. Torrance and Barth didn’t like this (Barth sides with Barlaam in the ‘Dogmatics’).

A big motivation here was the (in)famous point of contact – which Barth and Torrance denied quite vehemently. True knowledge of God doesn’t arise out of our own abstract speculations about God apart from His revelation – it only comes about as a result of His revelation. God not only gives knowledge of Himself out of Himself, He creates the condition necessary for knowledge of Himself.

That the heart is turned inward upon itself was and is a key point in the theology of the Reformation, and one with which I find myself in full agreement. The Truth must come from outside of man as well as the necessary condition for receiving and continuing on in the knowledge of the truth, and this means that the Teacher must also be a Healer.

The inward turning of the heart means that there is no ‘natural’ point of contact in man then. Apart from the healing which comes from without, the darkening of man’s heart by sin distorts the light of natural revelation (which is seen, distorted though it may be, in things such as broad shared moral principles common to all cultures) and leads to death.

The basic point that Barth and Torrance made, without going into the very dense language used by both of them, is that knowledge of God can only come from God in his own self-communication and self-revelation in Jesus Christ – there is no abstract knowledge of God apart from his self-revelation in Christ.

Torrance on Natural Laws

‘…if we work with the assumption that the laws of nature must be timelessly and necessarily true, we cut out any notion of contingence from our understanding of the universe and its rational order; or if we work with a deterministic and mechanistic conception of the universe as a closed continuum of cause and effect, we rule out of scientific explanation right away all the higher intangible levels of human experience and even put forward a completely impersonal view of science from which the human mind is excluded.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Evangelical Theology’, p. 55)

Thought on Realism

Mankind is not something that exists in addition to nature – mankind is a part of nature. Mankind is part of the world. Mankind is part of reality. Does it make sense, then, to talk about a reality which exists independent of ourselves or our perception of it? I suspect this is a conceptual confusion. Perhaps it can be restated – reality would exist even if mankind was not there. That sounds a bit better to me. Mankind is a part of reality, but not a necessary part. Few people would dispute that fact.

Torrance (as well as Gilson, and a lot of others) stressed the idea of mankind as a personal agent, who act within the world, and achieves a kind of unity with the world. Gilson said that the intellect apprehends existence, apprehends being, forms a unity with being in act. One is not simply a thinking thing in the world. One is a part of the world, and in the act of knowing is tied into an intimate union with being, with existence.

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature. Hence a recovery of the concept of the human being as personal agent, actively related to the world of things and persons around him, erases the radical dualism upon which the old model of thought depended (i.e. the model built up from the concept of man as a detached observer over against intert, determinate being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)