Critical Realism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Critical realism is a philosophical view of knowledge. On the one hand it holds that it is possible to acquire knowledge about the external world as it really is, independently of the human mind or subjectivity. That is why it is called realism. On the other hand it rejects the view of naïve realism that the external world is as it is perceived. Recognizing that perception is a function of, and thus fundamentally marked by, the human mind, it holds that one can only acquire knowledge of the external world by critical reflection on perception and its world. That is why it is called critical.
Critical realism arose in German philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a reaction to idealistic and phenomenalist types of philosophy. German critical realists took account of Immanuel Kant's (1724804) view of the subjectivity of knowledge but denied that this precludes access to "things-in-itself." In American philosophy, critical realism designates a movement initiated by Roy Wood Sellars (1880973) in 1916. It purported to integrate insights of both idealism and new realism, which was a naïve realist reaction to idealism. Through the work of Wilfrid Sellars (1912989), Roy Wood Sellars's son, critical realism influenced scientific realism, which arose in the 1950s in opposition to positivistic phenomenalism. Scientific realism basically claims that mature scientific theories are approximately true (in the sense of corresponding to the external world) and that their postulated central entities really exist.
The term critical realism was introduced into the dialogue between science and theology in 1966 by Ian Barbour. Barbour used the term to cover both scientific realism and a theological realism that takes seriously the cognitive claims of religion, that is, religion's claims to convey knowledge of a mind-independent divine reality. Subsequently Barbour pointed to the cognitive role of metaphors, models, and paradigms in scientific as well as religious language. His ideas were later assimilated and elaborated by Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, and others. Actually, critical realism has been the dominant epistemology in the dialogue between science and theology for several decades. However, since the 1990s the transfer of critical realism from science to theology has increasingly been disputed, mainly on the ground that it does not, or does not sufficiently, do justice to the specific nature of theology.
On closer inspection, critical realism as a view of scientific and theological knowledge comprises three theses:
- Metaphysical realism, which holds that there exists a mind-independent reality. In scientific realism this reality is the material world; in theological realism this reality is the material world and also, primarily, God.
- Semantic realism, which holds that science and theology contain propositions, that is statements capable of being true or false in the sense of correspondence to the reality to which they refer. In scientific realism the focus is on propositions about unobservable entities; in theological realism the focus is on propositions about God.
- Epistemic realism, which holds that it is possible to put forward propositions that are approximately true, that some propositions actually are approximately true, and that belief in their approximate truth can be justified. In scientific realism this applies primarily to theories and theoretical propositions about unobservable entities; in theology it applies to propositions and theories about God.
The first thesis distinguishes critical realism from idealism and positivism, but also from Hilary Putnam's (b. 1926) "internal realism," which defines reality as a function of human conceptualization of the world. The second thesis distinguishes scientific realism from an instrumentalism that regards statements about unobservable entities as useful fictions without propositional content. Similarly, it distinguishes theological critical realism from the Wittgenstein-inspired view of religious language as mere expression or recommendation of a way of life. The third thesis distinguishes critical realism from a skepticism that affirms the first and second theses but denies that it is possible to acquire justified approximate knowledge of a mind-independent reality. On the other hand, the qualification "approximate" entails a dissociation from the naïve realist claim that reality is as it is perceived.
The main arguments in favour of scientific realism are:
- The fact that observation and experiments again and again compel scientists to change their prior ideas points to a substantive external input into science.
- The predictive success of mature theories can only (or at least best) be explained by the view that the processes, structures, and entities postulated by those theories approximate reality.
- The effectiveness of science-based technology can only (best) be explained by the view that mature scientific theories match nature to a substantive degree.
The main arguments against scientific realism are:
- Scientific theories are underdetermined by the empirical data; that is, the same data permit different theories that explain them. Therefore, empirical success is not a sufficient reason to assume that a theory is true.
- The history of science abounds with once empirically succesful theories that are now abandoned (e.g., a whole cluster of nineteenth-century theories assuming the existence of ether as a central entity). Therefore, empirical success is not a sufficient reason to assume that a theory is true.
- Scientific realism claims that those theories that offer the best explanation of the data are (approximately) true. This claim is thought to be supported by the argument that realism is the best explanation of the predictive success of science. However, this argument is viciously circular because it employs the kind of reasoning the validity of which it has to vindicate.
The main arguments in favour of transferring critical realism from science to theology are:
- Like science, theology makes cognitive claims.
- Science seeks to explain sense-experience with reference to the natural world, just as theology seeks, or should seek, to explain religious experience with reference to a divine reality.
- Both science and theology employ metaphors and models as approximative descriptions of an external reality.
The main arguments against transferring critical realism from science to theology are:
- Religious language has an expressive or recommending function, rather than a cognitive one. Therefore, theology should not be concerned with an external divine reality.
- Theology concerns itself with God, who is wholly different from the natural world, which is the subject matter of science.
- Theology cannot refer to a similar predictive success as science. Therefore, theology lacks a counterpart of the principal reason for a realistic view of science.
In evaluating a critical realist view of science and theology it may be useful to realize that the discussion of scientific realism has focused on scientific theories, especially on unobservable theoretical entities. One should not forget, however, that science is more than theories. It comprises also a wealth of observation statements and statements of primary relations, such as the statement that the specific gravity of lead is approximately 11.4. Although such statements are not theory-free, they will often have a realist plausibility that will even be acknowledged by most instrumentalists. As a consequence, a realist understanding of large parts of science seems to be a plausible option. However, scientific realism can hardly be a global view of science. Realistic plausibility has in principle to be established for each proposition and theory in particular. It would seem that this specification lessens the force of those arguments against scientific realism that aim at a global view.
As for the plausibility of transferring critical realism from science to theology, it should be realized that there are great differences between theology and science. As a reflection on religion, theology is primarily concerned with the question of the meaning of life, which implies that theology, unlike science, has an existential dimension. This does not, however, alter the fact that theological statements, insofar as they are propositions about God, make cognitive claims. Hence, critical realism is at least a logically possible view of theological propositions. But since God is not accessible to sense experience and experimental control, critical realism can hardly have the same rational plausibility for theology as for science. It would seem that a critical realist view of theology, or rather of particular theological propositions about God, is only a viable option within the context of faith.
See also COHERENTISM; EPISTEMOLOGY; KANT, IMMANUEL; REALISM
Barbour, Ian G. Issues in Science and Religion (1966). New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Barbour, Ian G. Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Leplin, Jarrett, ed. Scientific Realism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984
McMullin, Ernan. "Enlarging the Known World." In Physics and Our View of the World, ed. Jan Hilgevoord. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Peacocke, Arthur. Intimations of Reality: Critical Realism in Science and Religion. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Polkinghorne, John. One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. London: SPCK, 1986
Psillos, Stathis. Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks the Truth. London: Routledge, 1999
van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. Theology and the Justification of Faith: Constructing Theories in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989
van Kooten Niekerk, Kees. "A Critical Realist Perspective on the Dialogue Between Theology and Science." In Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue, eds. Niels Henrik Gregersen and J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.
KEES VAN KOOTEN NIEKERK