Sunday, October 02, 2005

Book Review: A Scientific Theology (Vol 2): Reality

Volume 2 of Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology: Reality lives up to the brilliance of his first volume which I reviewed here. In this second volume, McGrath mounts an argument in favour of critical realism as 'the most satisfying and resilient account of the outcome of the human engagement with the natural world, despite the rhetoric of scorn directed against it by postmodern thinkers and others.' (p. 197) After presenting a case for 'asserting that there exists a real world, independent of the human mind, which that mind is capable of grasping and representing' (p. 195), McGrath surveys three broad options for understanding the relationship of the 'knower' in understanding that reality -- naive realism, critical realism, and postmodern anti-realism. The author provides telling critiques of both naive realism and postmodern anti-realism and demonstrates how the most appropriate approach to inquiry is critical realism. McGrath's argument is appropriately nuanced, recognising that there are a variety of critial realisms. He describes and critiques each of these major forms before developing his own definition which takes into account a host of philosophical issues. Drawing on Roy Bhaskar's writing on critical realism, McGrath articulates the idea of a stratified reality which enables a critical realist approach to deal with all forms of human inquiry. At its heart, the critical realist approach recognises that methods of inquiry must be suited to the nature of the reality being inquired into. It is able to deal with all stratas of reality including social, philosophical, and theological inquiry. McGrath cites N T Wright's account of the general position of critical realism:

... a way of describing the process of 'knowing' that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence 'realism'), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence 'critical'). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into 'reality', so that our assertions about 'reality' acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower. (p. 196)

This is not a book for everyone. It is very meaty, although McGrath writes with incredible clarity. I particularly enjoyed his critique of the intellectually impoverished views of Don Cupitt, an atheist Anglican priest(!) who argues that God is merely a construction of human wishful thinking which has certain positive social and psychological benefits. McGrath shows how Cupitt's views actually depend on the realist position he rejects! McGrath's trilogy is packed with an incredible amount of 'background' information on all sorts of issues. Some people have criticised him for this and his tendency to repetition and redundancy. In fact, I think this is good because it gives those of us who are not experts in the area a significant understanding of issues related to the topic -- which is, I think, the purpose of McGrath writing all this material. In fact, in the introduction (I think) of the second volume, he directs the reader to Chapter 10 of his book stating that this chapter contains the essence of this volume regarding critical realism. A careful reader would notice this and take the advice! McGrath is a Christian who has a scientific and theological background. He is an immensely important thinker and, as I have said before, anyone who is concerned about the interface between faith and science must read this trilogy. I am yet to read the third volume and will let you know what I think when the time comes. Related Links

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