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.