How objective is our understanding of reality?

A while ago I blogged through the first book of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology trilogy. I started reading this series looking for some longer thoughts (ahem) on the relationship between science and theology. I decided to pick that up again, trying to do at least one post a week on the second volume of the trilogy, Reality. (You should not understand my decision to blog through the book as an endorsement of it though because, hey, I haven’t read it yet!)

The preface of Reality gives us some idea of why the author thought this book was necessary. The Enlightenment project, he says, has failed. That is to say, it is difficult for us to continue believing that we can come to a study of nature purely objectively. Rather, the traditions we come from as people, our place within history, etc., actually are important in our “process of knowing”.

The Enlightenment proposed an ‘objectivity’ of both judgement and knowledge which overlooked the role of both history and culture in their shaping and transmission.

However, he also rejects the sort of opposite, post-modern idea that our understanding of the world is nothing but a series of social constructs, social constructs which we may create without limit or restriction. No no, there is still most certainly a real objective world out there. In fact, a quick look at science tells us that there is no contradiction between the concepts of objectivity and social construction. He says,

Far from legitimating the Englightenment’s emphasis on pure ‘objectivity’, the natural sciences propose a spectrum of modes of interplay between ‘objectivity’ and ‘social construction’.

Physics, he says, is an example of a natural science with a “low coefficient of social construction”, whereas psychology uses this “heuristic device” regularly. Maybe most importantly, he says that social constructs are not arbitrary but do come from (and are limited by) observations.

The legitimate use of social constructions does not entail anti-realism, even in its weak instrumentalist version. Thus to recognize that “intelligence” is a social construct does not mean that there is no such thing as “intelligence”; it means that it is to be understood as a specific means of understanding a body of observational data which has a claim to reality by virtue of its explanatory and predictive fecundity, whose status is anticipated as being finally confirmed through the accumulation of additional data and interpretive devices.

His preferred solution, something that takes into account both the objectivity of reality and the social location of the observer, is known as “critical realism”. I don’t have much more to say about that right now, but I gather that it will be one of the major themes of the book.


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