Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ratzinger-Torrance-Newman: "Objectivity - An Absurd Abstraction"

Joseph Ratzinger on “Objectivity [as] An Absurd Abstraction”[1]

Joseph Ratzinger: “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis:”[2]

“(A)t the heart of the historical-critical method lies the effort to establish in the field of history a level of methodological precision that would yield conclusions of the same certainty as in the natural sciences. But what one exegete takes as definite can only be called into question by other exegetes. This is a practical rule that is presupposed as plainly and self-evidently valid. Now, if the natural science model is to be followed without hesitation, then the importance of the Heisenberg principle should be applied to the historical-critical method as well. Heisenberg has shown that the outcome of a given experiment is heavily influenced by the point of view of the observer. So much so that both the observer’s questions and the observations continue to change in the natural course of events. When applied to the witness of history, this means that interpretation can never by just a simple reproduction of history’s being, ‘as it was.’ The word interpretation gives us a clue to the question itself: every exegesis requires an ‘inter’ – an entering in and being ‘inter,’ or between things; this is the involvement of the interpreter himself. Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.”

Introduction to Christianity:[3] “The intellectual approach of modern physics may offer us more help here than the Aristotelian philosophy was able to give. Physicists know today that one can only talk about the structure of matter in approximations starting from various different angles. They know that the position of the beholder at any one time affects the result of his questioning of nature. Why should we not be able to understand afresh, on this basis, that in the question of God we must not look, in the Aristotelian fashion, for an ultimate concept encompassing the whole, but must be prepared to find a multitude of aspects which depend on the position of the observer and which we can no longer survey as a whole but only accept alongside each other, without being able to make any statement about the ultimate truth? We meet here the hidden interplay of faith and modern thought. That present-day physicists are stepping outside the structure of Aristotelian logic and thinking in this way is surely an effect already of the new dimension which Christian theology has opened up, of its need to think in ‘complementarities.

“In this connection I should like to mention briefly two other aids to thought provided by physics. E. Schrödinger has defined the structure of matter as ‘parcels of waves’ and thereby fallen upon the idea of a being that has no substance but is purely actual, whose apparent ‘substantiality’ really results only from the pattern of movement of superimposed waves. In the realm of matter such a suggestion may well be physically, and in any case philosophically, highly contestable. But it remains an exciting simile for the actualitas divina, for the absolute ‘being-act’ of God, and for the idea that the densest being – Go can subsist only in a multitude of relations, which are not substances but simply ‘waves,’ and therein form a perfect unity and also the fullness of being. We shall have to consider this idea more fully later on; it is already formulated to all intents and purposes in St. Augustine, when he develops the idea of the pure act-existence (the ‘parcel of waves’).

“But first let me mention the second aid to understanding provided by science. We know today that in a physical experiment the observer himself enters into the experiment and only by doing so can arrive at a physical experience. This means that there is no such thing as pure objectivity even in physics, that even here the result of the experiment, nature’s answer depends on the question put to it. In the answer there is always a bit of the question and a bit of the questioner himself; it gives back something of man, of our individuality, a bit the human subject. This too, mutatis mutandis, is true of the question of God. There is not such thing as a mere observer. There is not such thing as pure objectivity. One can even say that the higher an object stands in human terms, the more it penetrates the center of individuality, and the more it engages the beholder’s individuality, then the smaller the possibility of the mere distancing involved in pure objectivity. Thus, wherever an answer is presented as unemotionally objective, as a statement that finally goes beyond the prejudices of the pious and provides purely factual, scientific information, then it has to be said that the speaker has hewer fallen a victim to self-deception. This kind of objectivity is quite simply denied to man. He cannot ask and exist as a mere observer. He who tries to be a mere observer experiences nothing. Even the reality ‘God’ can only impinge on the vision of him who enters into the experiment with God – the experiment that we call faith. Only bye entering does one experience; only by co-operating in the experiment does one ask at all, and only he who asks receives an answer.”

Thomas F. Torrance, “Theological Science[4] [The only way to be truly objective is to experience the subject]

“There has taken place a critical reassessment of the place of subjectivity in knowledge. Of course throughout the whole history of modern science since the end of the sixteenth century there has been a stady critique of subjectivity, and an insistence as we have seen, upon the primacy of objectivity. Scientific thinking involves a methodological abstraction from all subjective factors in its concern for strict impartiality and disinterestedness. However, when this rigorous scientific method came to be applied beyond the realms of mathematics and physics, e.g. to history by Dilthey, it soon became evident that there si no such thing as impartial science (vorausetzungslose Wissenschaft) although methodological imparitiality retained tis place. The really great change has come about in our own day through the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, when it became efficient that the development of classical science had reached the point when there had to take place a considerable change in the whole structure of scientific consciousness. Einstein had to wrestle for some twenty years with Newtonian and Kantian conceptions of space and time before the theory of relativity could be formulated, whereas the advances in nuclear physics through the work of Maxwell and Rutherford forced physicists like Bohr to carry through a change in the whole structure of knowledge as it lay embedded in classical physics and mechanics. These changes revealed that modern science, far more than it ever realized, had been operating uncritically with a subjective structure of the understanding which had inevitably limited the range of its observation and discovery. All this meant that real advances in knowledge involve fundamental changes in the structure of the mind and profound changes in the meaning of basic concepts. These facts are still having seismic effects in various branches of knowledge.

“One of the interesting things about this critical reorientation of modern thought is that it entails a double critique of subjectivity and objectivity. That knowledge proceeds by the conformity of the reason to the nature of the object has been re-established on a much wider, and in some respects, a deeper basis, for the fundamental modes of rationality, the basic states of consciousness, and even the primary concepts of science, are on the move and in need of constant modification and alteration. On the other hand, abstract subjectivism comes under severe criticism, for it conceals a static subjectivity in the uncritical acceptance of fundamental categories of the understanding, which is all the more powerful in its influence upon the course of scientific development just because it is concealed. Thus, for example, A. Eddington, M. Polanyi, and von Weizsacker in their different ways, have successfully shown how the personal factor inevitably enters into scientific knowledge for the very fact of our knowing explicitly enters into what we know. It is therefore unscientific to pretend that the subjective element is eliminated when it cannot be. Scientific thinking must operate with a severely self-critical and controlled subjectivity, for we can only advance to new knowledge by rigorous re-interpretation , and sometimes only by renunciation of precious modes of knowing.

“This has different applications in natural science and in theology. In neither does it mean that the subject can project himself into what he knows or allow his own nature to distort the nature of the object, nor does it mean in any way that we can know something if we subdue to the forms of our own subjectivity. Ion natural science, however, it does mean that the very nature of our inquiry, by which we created certain conditions within which we force nature to disclose itself to us according to our will, affects the content of our knowledge, and give it an unavoidable ambiguity. It bears the impress of our questions and analysis. Therefore as von Weizsacker has expressed it, ‘two basic functions of consciousness enter into every proposition in the description of nature: knowledge and volition.”

-What immediately occurs to me writing this is the observation of John Henry Newman that we do not sense causality through the external senses. As Hume observed, we sense associations, but not causes. That is, we have no “experience” of causality through our senses. We experience causality in our subjectivity. Newman wrote:

“The assent which we give to the proposition, as a first principle, that nothing happens without a cause, is derived, in the first instance, from what we know of ourselves; and we argue analogically from what is within us to what is external to us. One of the first experiences of an infant is that of his willing and doing; and, as time goes on, one of the first temptations of the boy is to bring home to himself the fact of his sovereign arbitrary power, though it be a t the price of waywardness, mischievousness, and disobedience. And when his parents, as antagonists of this willfulness, begin to restrain him, and to bring his mind and conduct into shape, then he has a second series of experiences of cause and effect, and that upon a principle or rule. Thus the notion of causation is one of the first lessons which he learns from experience, that experience limiting it to agents possessed of intelligence and will. Physical phenomena, as such, are without sense; and experience teaches us nothing about physical phenomena as causes.”[5]

[1] “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, Thornton and Varenne, Harper San Francisco (2007) 247.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J.. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” Ignatius (1990) 124-125.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, “Theological Science,” Oxford University Press (1969) 92-93.

[5] J.H. Newman, “A Grammar of Assent,” UNDP 1992) 70.

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