A Symphonic Approach to Reality

“Is a scientific analysis in terms of light waves more ultimate than a human being’s perception of a red apple?… No, neither one is more ultimate. Reality has many levels, and human beings have many legitimate perspectives.”  — Dr. Vern Poythress

cover to Redeeming ScienceAs you may recall, I blogged on an excerpt from Vern Poythress’ book, Redeeming Science, a few weeks ago, in which he discussed education. I’m still working my way through the book, though I took several days off from it. This week, I’d like to share from the 15th chapter, “Debates About What Is Real”. Poythress explores some ideas that were new to me, though he has apparently discussed them elsewhere. It will probably make more sense if you are familiar with the studies of epistemology and/or ontology. (Those are sub-disciplines of philosophy, in case you were wondering.) I’m only a little familiar with them and am still trying to wrap my brain — well, actually my mind — around this stuff. But, I think I got the gist….

“The comprehensive coherence entailed by the unity of the plan of God also involves coherence among different points of view or different emphases that people may use in understanding God’s world. I have discussed this principle of coherence among viewpoints at some length in Symphonic Theology, and John Frame’s works exhibit extensive instances. For example, the four Gospels each present the person and work of Christ with different emphases. But, rightly understood, they harmonize. Christ is both the great king in the line of David (Matthew) and the revealer of the Father (John).

Consider another example of harmony. With a Christian worldview, we find harmony between different aspects of ethics. A normative perspective focuses on the norms or laws or standards for right and wrong. A personal perspective focuses on the attitudes and motives that drive behavior. A situational perspective focuses on what helps in practice in a situation, in promoting the glory of God. Because God issues the norms, governs the people, and governs the situation, all three in principle exist in harmony. But non-Christian thought, not having God as an ultimate source for all, tends to polarize and treat one pole or another as ultimate. Deontological ethics starts with norms, existential ethics with persons, and utilitarian ethics with situations.

The three perspectives on ethics show kinship with the five schools and their views of science. Realism, in its concern for real laws out there, focuses on norms (the laws) and on the situation to which the norms apply. Idealism focuses on thoughts, which connect it to the personal perspective. Empiricism focuses on sense experience, which connects it to the personal perspective. Pragmatism focuses on practice in the world, which connects it to the situational perspective. It pulls man back down to earth by observing that God created man to fill the earth and subdue it, both practical tasks; and neither task guarantees that man will ever penetrate to some ultimate ontological skeleton, if it even exists. Finally, postmodern relativism may be seen as a form of idealism that champions the diversity rather than the unity among human persons.

active_christians_in_scienceWithin a Christian worldview, all five of these ‘isms’ belong together as perspectives on the one plan of God. No one of them makes sense without the others. Human beings need to be there to do science, and to think the thoughts about scientific theory. Science without persons is a mere vapor. And human beings exist in their diversity as well as unity, as postmodernism would like to remind us. In addition science requires something that the persons will investigate: an external world both with lawful regularity (realism) and with particular data that we may organize for practical purposes (empiricism and pragmatism). One does not choose between these perspectives, but chooses all of them at once as fruitful options. At the same time, one chooses none of them in their non-Christian forms, in which they are set against one another, or in which they remain unclear as to whether man is to proceed as if he had an autonomous mind or as a creature in submission to God.”

After examining the increasingly popular idea of “critical realism” and its attractiveness, Poythress continues…

“Consider finally the atmosphere that realism may produce. Some realist writing can emanate an atmosphere of normalcy and sanity. If so, it is both a strength and a weakness. Most people, most of the time, intend to operate in the sphere of what is normal and sane. We know that an external world exists and that we have knowledge of it. Realist discussion can reassure us by showing up the fallacies and deficiencies of alternative, ‘strange’ approaches.

Yes, other approaches have their failings. But I wonder whether some realists, before turning their backs on the failings, have sufficiently appreciated why others might adopt such strange, deficient approaches. I sympathize deeply with those others, because I suspect that underneath they are discontent with the ‘normal.’ Something is radically wrong, and they feel desperation. One follows normalcy if normalcy holds promise of giving what one wants. But if the world is desperately sick, and if normalcy appears to be unaware of it — if perchance normalcy itself displays symptoms of the sickness — one casts about for alternatives. One becomes radicalized. And the more desperately sick the world is, the more desperate the alternatives. The realists are like contented bourgeois managers of factories, while the radicals are like the visionaries who plot for a bloody communist revolution. I sympathize, because I think the radicals are right to be desperate (chapter 3); but I regret that the desperation may break out in ways that make the sickness worse (the bloodshed in revolution). That is the nature of sin. Christ came to bring the true remedy for sin, through his death and resurrection.

So we have ended up affirming all five of the different schools, provided that one does not take them up unchanged but treats them as perspectives on science, or even perspectives on all of life. For example, one redefines and reshapes postmodern relativism by dropping the relativism that despairs of finding truth but continuing to affirm a God-ordained diversity in ways of expounding truth, whether that diversity is seen in the four Gospels, or in Schrodinger’s and Heisenberg’s two approaches to quantum mechanics, or in the contrast between starting with human capabilities (idealism) and starting with pointer readings on instruments (a form of empiricism)….

milky-way-face-on-edge-on-nasa-richard-powellThe acknowledgement of multiple perspectives enables us to make some sense of the diversity of ‘levels’ with which we may analyze the perception of a red apple. We may affirm the value both of ordinary human experience and of special modes of analysis that science introduces. We affirm our ordinary visual experience, and we also study scientifically the cellular and neurological processes involved in human vision. We study the physics of light, or we look at light from the standpoint of special relativity, or quantum theory, or perhaps even further theories still to be developed. These viewpoints are like different perspectives on the world. But they are not isolated from one another. Through our ordinary world we learn of science, and we expand that ordinary world as we develop a capacity to occupy more of the specialized standpoints that science offers. And those specialized standpoints, rightly understood, also lead to affirming the reality of what we experience in the ordinary world.”

Whew! Got all that? I’ve read it through a few times, now, so I think I understand and pretty much agree. Still, I think I strained a few brain cells gettin’ there. What about you?

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