All the World is a Text

There is a good discussion going on over at this blog. One of the issues under discussion is the role of “facts” “evidence” and science in how we come to recognize what is “true” in a “big-picture” or ultimate way. My view is that noting some “fact” or piece of “evidence” rarely if ever changes anyone’s mind in these sorts of conversations, because most everyone is aware of many if not most of the facts and evidence. Unless the dispute is how far the sun is from the earth, noting some fact or piece of evidence is not going to move these types of discussions forward. Nor does it do to claim that one has all the “facts” and “evidence” on his side, while the other just believes by faith. The truth is that each side is considering the facts and evidence, the physical world, history, and their experience of the world. The question is why do we come to different conclusions?

Why we come to different conclusions is indeed the question and it really sums up the modern post-modern divide. Those coming from a modern perspective and those coming from a post-modern perspective usually talk past one another and even when they think they are agreeing or saying the same thing, often it turns out they are not. Both wonder why the other person cannot “see” their point or understand what they are trying get across.

Well the reason is hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation. The entire world is a text, which we “read” and interpret. The only way we can do this though is through a “narrative” or story that makes sense of all the “facts” and “evidence.” A meta-narrative is another word for “faith” or “world-view”—it is meta-physical. It is shaped from the rock-bottom core of what we really believe about life and the world. It is the TRUTH we bring to bear upon the “facts” and “evidence.” This is also true of everyone; both the theist and atheist interpret the world through world-view or faith. I believe in God by faith; the atheist believes there is no God, by faith as well. Doubt is simply belief turned in the other direction. We are all believers in something and agnostic toward the opposite.

Here is a very good essay that brings much to bear upon this whole area. What makes it especially interesting is that it’s in the area of geology. One would think the matter of rocks and plate tectonics would be quite resistant to a “narrative” understanding. The essay also touches upon the difference between the “Analytical” school of philosophy and the “Continental” school of philosophy. If anyone is really serious about conversations like the one on the blog noted above, they really need to understand these two schools and the historical context of the discussion. Here he describes the Analytic perspective:

“Early Analytic philosophers such as Russell(1914), Carnap (1937), and Reichenbach(1928, 1958) developed a powerful characterization of the scientific method.
Their conclusions may be summarized by the following three claims. First, the scientific method is objective. This means that the discovery of scientific truth can and must be separate from any personal, ethical/political, or metaphysical commitments. This is the basis of the celebrated fact/value distinction, which holds that the facts discovered by the scientist are quite distinct from whatever values he or she might hold. Personal or cultural values must not enter into the scientific reasoning process.”

“Second, the scientific method is empirical. Science is built upon a rigorous distinction between observations (which again were understood, at least ideally, as being factual and unequivocal) and theory. Facts themselves were not theory-dependent; observation was thought to be a matter of ‘‘taking a good look.’’ The distinction between statements that describe and statements that evaluate was viewed as unproblematic.”

“Third, the scientific method constitutes an epistemological monism. Science was thought to consist of an single, identifiable set of logical procedures applicable to all fields of study. This reduction of all knowledge to one kind of knowledge proceeded in two steps, summarized by the terms ‘‘scientism’’ and ‘‘reductionism.’’ Scientism is the belief that the scientific method provides us with the only reliable way to know. Reductionism is the further claim that it is possible to reduce all sciences to one science, physics.”

This describes the perspective taken by Bernard, JP, and Burk (to lesser and greater degrees).

Here he sums up the Continental perspective:

“The claims of Continental Philosophy—the other main school of contemporary philosophy—concerning science can also be summarized in two points: (1) whereas science offers us a powerful tool for the discovery of truth, science is not the only, or even necessarily the best way that humans come to know reality, and (2) the existence of ‘‘the’’ scientific method (understood as above) is a myth. Science has neither the priority in the discovery of truth, nor the unity and cohesiveness of one identifiable method, nor the distance from ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical commitments that Analytic Philosophy claims it has.”

And this would of course sum up, to some degree at least, my perspective. Anyway, I would encourage anyone interested in the conversation taking place on the other blog to read closely the essay noted.

This entry was posted in atheism, Christianity, Hermeneutics, Modernity, Postmodernity. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to All the World is a Text

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “The truth is that each side is considering the facts and evidence, the physical world, history, and their experience of the world. The question is why do we come to different conclusions?”

    Gosh, that is a very good question!

    “The only way we can do this though is through a “narrative” or story that makes sense of all the “facts” and “evidence.” A meta-narrative is another word for “faith” or “world-view”—it is meta-physical.”

    Ah- here, I think you err. Coming up with a narrative that knits together a set of disparate facts and pieces of evidence doesn't have to have anything to do with metaphysics. Frodeman's piece doesn't give priority to metaphysics, only recognizing one's personal commitments and interests as inputs to the analytical roundabout that ultimately must be tested by its product's fitness to deal with the usual scientific issues of logic and fitness to observations. Metaphysics needs to be transcended if one wants any hope of truly encountering reality. Otherwise, one is gazing at one's navel.

    That is the key point, I think. Theists appear to flee back to metaphysics when they don't find the expected psychological comforts in what we find in plain reality. Theists then seem to accept the wildest hypotheses (the universe was created by X,.. life was created by Y, .. all of reality is “supported” by Z, Z wants us to flagellate ourselves, etc.) as articles of faith (now called world-views, metaphysical doctrines, or presuppostions, or other seemingly high-minded formulation).

    It isn't post-modern, it is simply indefensible.

    Like

  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Clearly you didn't read the essay too closely. He is defending the Continental School, which is considered post-modern, and he does so decisively, so what are you talking about? He most certainly is saying that meta-physical commitments are present, always, and thus important. If you are unable to see that from the entire essay, then simply read the quotes I posted again. Wow, are we even talking about the same essay? How can we read this so differently? Hmmmm, you may be proving my point right now with your response.

    Anyway, since you hold to the Analytical School, why don't you tell us where he is wrong?

    Like

  3. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    What I said was that Frodeman characterizes metaphysics and similar biases & assumptions as inputs, not outputs. Then he goes on to privilege hermeneutic attention to evidence and coherent narrative (i.e. logic) in making the valuable product of better models of reality.

    He doesn't mention postmodernism at all, and equating the continental school going back to Hegel with postmodernism seems mistaken.

    And specifically, he goes on in his essay to undermine both tenets of Continental philosophy as he presents them. First, he makes clear that there really is a scientific method, only that it is more complicated and narrative than the Analytical school would portray it. And secondly that science (here exemplified by geology) certainly is the best way to understand such aspects of reality as geology, if only we describe its process and scope more realistically and with due deference to the uncertainties and circular continuous process that produces progress.

    Like

  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “What I said was that Frodeman characterizes metaphysics and similar biases & assumptions as inputs, not outputs.”

    Of course he does, and that is what I am saying. A metaphysical narrative is brought to bear as inputs to the “facts” and “evidence.”

    “He doesn't mention postmodernism at all, and equating the continental school going back to Hegel with postmodernism seems mistaken.”

    He doesn’t need to as it is assumed. He probably assumes readers would understand the connection, as noted here to name just a few:

    “Hermeneutics, the science of textual interpretation, also plays a role in postmodern philosophy.”
    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    “The second approach applies major themes of contemporary continental philosophy or postmodern theory to environmental practice and theory.”
    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/paper_zimmerman_what_can_continental.pdf

    “And specifically, he goes on in his essay to undermine both tenets of Continental philosophy as he presents them.”

    So, are you saying he is purposely contradicting his own points and the school of thought he is taking the side of? How so?

    “First, he makes clear that there really is a scientific method, only that it is more complicated and narrative than the Analytical school would portray it.”

    No one was saying there wasn’t a scientific method, so I don’t know where that is coming from. Yes, it is more complicated than that school or you have ever portrayed it, so you agree with him then? Good.

    “And secondly that science (here exemplified by geology) certainly is the best way to understand such aspects of reality as geology…”

    Yes, if we understand it from a continental or post-modern way as narrative, which is still science. That is what he is saying—are you missing that?

    Okay, putting that aside, according to you, Frodeman is mostly spot on. So we can agree that when he is summing up the position he disagrees with and thinks is faulty as noted here:

    “First, the scientific method is objective. This means that the discovery of scientific truth can and must be separate from any personal, ethical/political, or metaphysical commitments. This is the basis of the celebrated fact/value distinction, which holds that the facts discovered by the scientist are quite distinct from whatever values he or she might hold. Personal or cultural values must not enter into the scientific reasoning process.”

    “Second, the scientific method is empirical. Science is built upon a rigorous distinction between observations (which again were understood, at least ideally, as being factual and unequivocal) and theory. Facts themselves were not theory-dependent; observation was thought to be a matter of ‘‘taking a good look.’’ The distinction between statements that describe and statements that evaluate was viewed as unproblematic.”

    That he is right and such is the wrong way to think about science and what it is capable of or how it operates. Great, I’m glad we agree!

    Like

Comments are closed.