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.

Epistemology and Being

I thought fairly long and hard about the previous post I put up – Hart made a persuasive case for ‘practical idealism’. But is it true? I’ll expound a little on the realism to which I hold (which is very heavily influenced by Torrance) and see if they can fit together.

In knowing, we come into contact with a distinct reality that discloses itself to us – it discloses its own ‘truth of being’. This disclosure is controlling, in that it forces the a priori concepts/categories we have to conform with the nature/activity if whatever reality is at hand. Basically, we think ‘after’ the nature of things as they reveal themselves in their activity/operations (there are similarities here with Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarian theology).

This disclosure of nature by activity doesn’t mean that the nature is something we know comprehensively – since nature is related to being, and the intelligibility of being is inexhaustible, even though we can know the nature as revealed, we cannot comprehend the nature. While our active intellect is formal cause of our knowledge, our concepts, significations, categories, etc, can never exhaust even the simplest reality – its very act of existing is, in a way, infinite in being.

Now, our active intellect is, as just stated, a formal cause, in that it organizes our knowledge of the intelligible being of the reality at hand into meaningful ‘structures of knowledge’. These structures are what is extracted, as Hart said, from everyday experience and formalized into meaningful categories of understanding. The key difference is that the active intellect is, for lack of a better term, subordinate to the reality it apprehends, in that its categories are always open to revision or outright discontinuation in light of the reality at hand disclosing itself to us anew, or as we experience it anew. The most simple reality, with which we are in contact with and acquainted with everyday as a matter of mundane life, has an intelligibility of being which is infinite and incomprehensible, because even the most simple reality simply exists. 

John Searle on External-World Realism

‘At a much deeper level, here is what I think is going on: external realism is not a theory. It is not an opinion I hold that there is a world out there. It is rather the framework that is necessary for it to be possible to hold opinions or theories about such things as planetary movements. When you debate the merits of a theory, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, you have to take it for granted that there is a way that things really are. Otherwise, the debate can’t get started. Its very terms are unintelligible. But that assumption, that there is a way that things are, independent of our representations of how they are, is external realism. External realism is not a claim about the existence of this or that object, but rather a presupposition of the way we understand such claims. This is why the “debates” always look inconclusive. You can more or less conclusively settle the issue about Darwinian evolutionary theory, but you can’t in that way settle the issue about the existence of the real world, because any such settling presupposes the existence of the real world. This does not mean that realism is an unprovable theory; rather, it means that realism is not a theory at all but the framework within which it is possible to ave theories.’ (John R. Searle, ‘Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, p. 32)

Note on Perception, the Mind, Metaphysics, and Objects

I look at something, say, the table my feet rest on. I perceive the table. Is this purely a mental event (idealism)? Or is my perception that of a mind-independent object (realism)? If it were the latter, there would still be mental activity, obviously, even though the object itself is not mental. However, is the mind predisposed to reality or a blank slate of sorts? Chomsky did some interesting work in the linguistic arena that suggested that there is a universal sort of grammar hardwired into us. Perhaps this carries over into general perception? Perhaps we have (a la Kant) categories with which we impose order on the world of experience.

But suppose I were to suggest that it’s the world that imposes it’s categories onto us. T.F. Torrance goes into great detail on this subject, generally in relation to theology, but it applies to metaphysics as well. God is a reality independent of our thought or perception of Him, and based on His self-revelation we ‘generate’ concepts that are worthy of Him. We have to ‘unlearn’ (apophaticism) our preconceived ideas and allow the force of His reality to impress His own categories and concepts on our mind.

Could this apply to our knowledge of the external world as well? That as we come into relation to the being of objects, reality itself impressions its own concepts upon us? The worlds being forces itself on us as we attempt to penetrate into the nature of reality, forcing us to abandon our categories as we inquire more deeply.

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of all that without conceding that the mind is predisposed to reality (the fit of the intellect to reality, to use the medieval phrase. This isn’t to say that our mental operations create the reality we perceive (et esse percepti, I think is the phrase) but rather that our mental categories make sense of the world of sensory experience. Perhaps our categories can be abandoned or reshaped in the light of true being.

Random Study Notes

Current cosmology: focused on information, holographic principle and black hole event horizons. Lots of conjecture but not as much empirical evidence in favour of one over the other. Importance of mathematics cannot be overestimated in current physics, but seems very easy to mistake the mathematical formulas describing phenomena for the phenomena itself. See Bertrand Russell on the mathematical skeleton of reality.

Idealism: in its classical form a powerful metaphysic, in theology, seems to border on heretical (ie Edwards, Berkeley). Similar to pantheism and emanation and poor distinction between thought, being and reality. Having a mental picture of an object is not grounds to assert that all reality is mental even though the mental plays an obviously key role in our perception of reality.

Hegel: powerful thinker whos ideas, to paraphrase That Individual, would have been brilliant had they been posited as an elaborate theory, but Hegel’s assertion that his philosophy was reality turns his ideas from interesting to absurd and even mad. Chilling ideas on the state, freedom and morality which laid the groundwork for a very bloody 20th century. Thoughts on the nature of reality similar to Heraclitus IE all is flux. History, the Real, Absolute Spirit all powerful ideas that need to be taken seriously as a system of thought.

Critical realism: primary viewpoint of Christianity – God exists independently of our thought or perception of Him. Stratification of truth (T.F. Torrance) distinguishes between kinds of truth IE truth of being, truth of relation, truth of statement. Operation of the human mind naturally realist – the words we employ point to the reality for which they stand rather than themselves. Our mind does not create reality but rather accepts the reality forced upon it, either in natural science or theology.

Epistemological thoughts

A small argument for a relational epistemology: things have the ability to be known – if things didn’t have the ability to be known, we couldn’t know about them. We have the ability to know – without this, we couldn’t know. But one of these without the results in no knowledge – each must exist in relation with the other for there to be true knowledge. By coming into a relation with the object, we come to know the object directly – we know the thing in itself.

Call it relational realism. We know the thing in itself, have direct access to the object of our knowing, by being in a relation to/with it.

This is far from complete – but I think there is some potential here.

Max Planck on Realism



‘Let us consider the facts of reality. Theoretical physics is based on the assumption that there exist real events not depending upon our senses. This assumption must in all circumstances be maintained; and even physicists of positivist leanings make use of it. Even if this school maintains that the priority of the sense data is the sole foundation of physics, it is yet compelled, in order to escape an irrational solipsism, to assume that there are such things as individual deceptions and hallucinations; and these can be eliminated only on the assumption that physical observations can be reproduced at will. This, however, implies what is not evident a priori, namely, that the functional relations between sense data contain certain elements not depending upon the observer’s personality nor upon the time and place of observation. It is precisely these elements which we describe as the real part of the physical event and of which we attempt to discover the laws.

Whenever we observe an event taking place in nature we must assume that something is happening independently of the observer, and conversely we must endeavor to eliminate as far as possible the defects of our senses and of our methods of measurement in order to grasp the details of the event with greater perfection. There is a kind of opposition between these two abstractions: while the real external world is the object, the ideal spirit which contemplates it is the subject. Neither can be logically demonstrated and hence no reductio ad absurdum is possible if their existence is denied. The history of physics bears witness, however, that they have played a decisive part throughout its development. The choicest and most original minds, men like Kepler, Newton, Leibniz, and Faraday, were inspired by the belief in the reality of the external world and in the rule of a higher reason in and beyond it.’ (Max Planck, ‘Physics and World Philosophy’ in ‘The Philosophy of Physics’, chapter 1)