Grant Osborne and Paul Hiebert on Critical Realism

I was working on a paper this week on theological method, and one of the issue that came up was “critical realism.” Grant Osborne, in his book The Hermeneutical Spiral, says (on p. 310) that “the basic premise of this approach (which has been borrowed from a philosophy of science perspective) is that assertions, scientific or theological, are valid representations of ‘the way things are'” (thus, ‘realism’). He continues:

This approach is also ‘critical’ because it never assumes that theological constructions are exact descriptions of revealed truth (unlike ‘naive realism’). Instead, dogma is an analogical model that approximates or re-presents truth. Thus critical realists never assume that they have achieved the ‘final’ statement of theological truth; the process of validation and improvement never ceases, for there can be no facile assumption that they have ‘arrived,’ though of course one can verify that a particular statement is an accurate depiction of the biblical norm.

Osborne lists in a footnote a 1985 essay in Theological Students Fellowship (TSF) Bulletin by Paul G. Hiebert entitled “The Missiological Implications of an Epistemological Shift,” which you can read online here.

Hiebert’s article compares various epistemologies and the way they work themselves out practically in a number of areas. He compares idealism (“reality is in the mind”), naive realism (“knowledge is totally objective”), critical realism (knowledge is about objective realities that are known by subjective knowers), and instrumentalism (so-called knowledge is a useful fiction). He helpfully compares naive realism and critical realism by saying that naive realism holds to the total objectivity of knowledge such that we can know things completely, whereas critical realism says that we can know truly but always partially.

He then shows how these epistemologies work themselves out in the following areas: how they affect the relationships between systems of knowledge, how they impact the integration of theology and science, and how they impact Christian missions. I heartily recommend his article for your edification.

I have to say that I find this presentation of critical realism to be attractive for a number of reasons. First, to understand what anything means is to what it is in relation to other things. However, we cannot know all things, therefore we cannot know what anything is exhaustively. In other words, it is always possible that we could receive new information about x that would change what we know about it. For example, I think it is fair to say that I knew my father. However, when my dad died, I met friends of his from college that shared stories with me that changed the way I thought about him. It would be wrong to say that I never knew my dad before; I really did know him. And yet I saw him in a little bit of a different light after hearing their stories about him. It is the same with all truth. Critical realism seems to be the best available option at this time to explain the fact that we can know truly without knowing omnisciently.

A second reason that critical realism appeals to me is the fact that it accounts for the fact that our knowing is situated, and to some degree subjective. I think the myth of absolutely objective knowledge is on its way out (if not already having gone the way of the dodo for the most part). It seems fairly obvious today that much of the “objective knowledge” of the past was not as objective as it was presented to be. Of course many, if not most people in our culture, having observed the problems with “naive realism” have have embraced some form of relativism. However this cure is worse than the disease, and it is only because most people live inconsistently with relativism that they are able to live with it at all. I think critical realism could provide a helpful way to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of total relativism and “naive” realism.

While I am no philosopher and I want to be careful about the hidden implications of an idea, I think critical realism might be a helpful one. As I conclude, here is a helpful section of Hiebert’s article:

Critical realists see theories and belief systems as maps or blueprints of reality. Each may give us some truth about reality. None of them shows us the whole. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the complex nature of reality, we need many blueprints which complement one another. For example, to understand a house, a simple photograph will not do. We need the blueprints of its wiring, plumbing, structural beams and foundations, most of which remain unseen. Reality is far too complex for our minds to grasp in total. We need simplified maps by which we can comprehend it.

At the heart of the integration of theories and belief systems for realists is the theory of complementarity [. . .]. Different views of reality can be accepted as complimentary so long as they do not contradict one another in the areas of their overlap. If there is disagreement, the discrepancy must be resolved or one or the other must be rejected. We may see things in different ways, but ultimately there can be only one truth within which there is no inconsistency. For instance, if the blueprints show wiring in a wall that does not exist in the structural blueprints, one of them must be wrong.

Check it out for yourself and see what you think!

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