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Critical Realism in Science and Religion? | Episode 1802 | Closer To Truth

What’s real?I want to know the world
as the world really is.
Not filtered, not represented,not interpreted.Bedrock reality.Meaning and purpose,
if any, depends on it.
And it is not simple.For sure, I go to science.I’d also give
theology a shot.
Immediately though,
I have a problem.
How do I know if what I
perceive is what is real?
My common perceptions
can be distorted,
say, by optical illusions.Skepticism about
Science as well as theology
is darkly compelling.
Some claim a
brighter vision.
It’s called
critical realism.
What we think we
know we really know.
What we perceive in our brains
actually exists in the world.
Could critical realism
also apprehend God,
if there is God?Settle disputes between
science and theology.
I’ll explore critical realism
in science and theology.
I’m Robert Lawrence Kuhn,and Closer to Truth
is my journey.
What’s critical
realism in science?
What in theology?I go to the university of Notre
Dame in South Bend, Indiana,
to attend a conference
on the Quest for Consonance:
Theology in the
Natural Sciences.
The conference is in honor
of Ernan McMullin,
a former chairman of Notre
Dame’s Department of Philosophy,
and a renowned
philosopher of science
known for his
critical realism.
Ernan died in 2011.Four years prior, in 2007,
I had the privilege
of spending the day with
Ernan in Cambridge, England,
in the Sedgwick
Museum of Earth Sciences
amidst the fossils.I asked Ernan about the
relationship between
science and theology.Ernan, I was trained
as a scientist.
I have a deep desire to
know whether God exists. But many scientists say
that there is absolutely no relationship
between science and what we may hope to think
about the possibility of God. What do you think about the relationship of
science to theology? I think theology has a great
deal to learn from science. If you go back in the history of
Judeo-Christian thought, and the same would
hold for Muslims, one of the traditional
views about the creation was that it was a
sequential creation. That God thus and so, thus
and so on, thus and so on. Now, the implication of that
is that from the beginning, it needed more
adjustment, basically. That more had to be done. Now, Augustine in
the 5th Century was thinking deeply about that, and his answer was
very radical, because what he
had to say was, is that from the beginning, the possibilities of all
the kinds of things that will come later, those possibilities are
there from the beginning. There’s not a sequence. And he goes on to say, and
those kinds will appear when the conditions of
water and earth are right. Now, how about that? He realized that as far as the science of that
time was concerned, that there was no way of
substantiating that. He said the kind of
knowledge of how those possibilities
could, as it were, germinate is something that
we don’t understand. It would require a
different level of knowledge. Well, yeah. And we’ve got it. We now can see how the
possibilities of all that would come later
were contained from the evolutionary standpoint
within that first creation. The possibilities
were there. Right from the beginning,
they had the possibilities if, in fact, the
conditions were right. Of course, that
was essential for certain kinds of
things to develop. For planets to develop, for
complex elements to develop. All of that was contained
within the original. Now, from that point of
view, that insight, you see, has filled out a hole
in traditional theology, because it makes it
possible to see something that Augustine hinted at
and groped for, namely, that a creator of our
universe would in fact place within it from the
beginning, as he put it, the seeds of all that
would come later. We can spell that out
in some detail today. Now, here is a place
where in fact science has contributed to filling
a hole in traditional theology. If you just look at what
science has done in filling in the holes, some would say it’s
filled in all the holes, so, you don’t need the
religion in the first place. Well, of course. Of course that’s not the
case, because it has not and cannot fill
in why physics should have a subject
to begin with. What is the precondition
for their being a physics, and therefore for there
being a physicist, that there should be a
universe in the first place? But from that point
of view then, it asks for an answer
to the question why there should be a
universe in the first place? But once you have that, once you allow that
question to be asked and you allow the creator, a being of some
kind responsible for their being a universe, then
in fact the rest of it follows, because you ask
yourself this. Supposing you have a being
of that sort faced with the act of creation, that act of creation is
likely to bring about what the creator wishes
to bring about. Now, from that
point of view, the whole thing follows,
because the universe, will it be a long-lived one within which life will develop and all the rest of it. And from that point
of view then, what physics has done today is to fill out the notion of
what a transcendent creator would do in the
first place. And that’s something that
traditional theology couldn’t on its own do. The theologians of 1,000
years ago had to suppose a God who is limited
by having to, as it were, do it in sequence. The theologians of today, thanks to the ministrations
of the physicists, can in fact fill out a universe such that it is worthy of
a transcendent creator.Ernan argues that a deep
understanding of science
enriches theology in that
God has embedded within
creation the possibilities
of all that would come later.
Ernan’s argument is based
on his critical realism in
both science and theology.But what is
critical realism,
and how does Ernan’s
critical realism work?
That’s why at the Notre
Dame conference,
I start with Paul Allen whose
doctoral dissertation was
Ernan McMullin
and Critical Realism
in the Science-Theology Dialog.When I was doing my thesisand I came upon the writings
of Ernan McMullin,
I literally discovered,
like, a treasure trove of discussions among
philosophers of science who were dealing with
the subject of realism. So, McMullin himself has this
concept of scientific realism, and the debates
were very deep. And it struck me that
there was a contrast with contemporary theology
where debates about realism were somewhat muted, at least not as complicated or as complex as they
were in science. Define briefly the
dialog in science, and then the analog in theology. So, the realists
basically want to affirm that there are entities, other
observable or unobservable, that do exist and that
when we use language such as the word atom to
describe an entity or an object that we
know to be an atom, that it really does exist. That the word atom is not just
some kind of useful fiction. Whereas anti-realists
will say, we need to be a little
bit more hesitant and say that atom is a word that we use in English
to describe something that is going
on in reality, but it’s approximating
reality. But that atom is
generating a sense data that we sense through
our equipment and our physical senses that enable us to describe
something in that black box, but the only reality
is what we sense, and we can never be
as sure of the reality that’s generating the sense
data as we are the sense data? Right. Right. But the realists want
to say, actually, we understand something
that’s going on here, and we’re even willing to make
a judgement that atoms exist. So, in theology, realism
is about God, ultimately. God is unobservable. Well, in science, there’s
a lot of unobservables. So, there seemed to me,
at the time, to be something to learn from
the sciences about how do we affirm the existence
of unobservable entities, because God is definitely an
unobservable entity. So, Ernan McMullin
was the guy. He was the one who helped
me sort of guide me through this literature a
little bit with his own careful and historically
nuanced understanding of what a realist could hold
in the philosophy of science, but he was also
a Catholic Priest and a theologian in
his own right. He understood enough of
theology to be able to judge how to bring
insights from philosophy of science over to theology and when to leave
it at the door. So, in terms of Ernan’s
philosophy of science, as a critical realist, he would say you can really
know what’s there? Yeah. He termed it
scientific realism. More than that, he used
a more technical term known as retroduction. Okay. So, describe retroduction. Yeah. So, retroduction
is the way of saying that you can establish a causal
explanation for an entity, observed or unobserved, from the effects that
it has in the world. So, there’s an inference
from effect to cause. It’s not a proof? It’s not a proof, and what
McMullin wants to say is whatever judgements
we make today, we have to be willing to
revise them in the future. So, that doesn’t necessarily
mean we’re mistaken, it just may be
that we’re inadequately judging the entity that
we’re trying to explain. So, McMullin was cautious
about just taking realism and then saying, okay, here’s
how it can apply to theology. What would it mean
to not be cautious? So, the less than cautious
approach would be to say that in science
they use models, and in science,
they use metaphors. Oh, look at that. In theology, they
also use models and metaphors to describe God. Therefore, just as science
is critically realist, because it uses
models and metaphors, so is theology
critically realist. Ernan McMullin comes along
and says, well, hold on. In theology, you’re
talking not about some part or aspect of the
world that’s unobservable. You’re talking about the
creator of the entire universe. So, there has to be a
bit more of a disanalogy between the structure of
the discipline in the region of the sciences and the structure of the
theological discipline, which is going to
look different.Paul goes with Ernan
in appreciating
how critical realism
in the sciences,
where unobservables like
atoms are proven to exist,
can apply in theology,because God, if
there is a God,
would be an unobservable.But Paul so praises
Ernan’s caution
in not applying scientific
thinking wholesale to theology
because God, as the
creator of the universe,
would be radically different
than anything in the universe.
Critical realism grounds
Ernan’s understanding of science
and of theology and of
their interrelationship.
I should speak to a
philosopher of science
who rejects critical realism.I meet Bas van Fraassen,
Ernan’s intellectual adversary
and his good friend.Ernan’s realism
was a very nuanced, sophisticated form of realism. Scientific realism. His writing about science, he gives a big role to metaphor, to imagination,
to the resources that the model may have that
would confront its own failure. He began with this at
the end of the ’60s. That’s exactly when
philosophers of science were switching from theories
to models in their focus, and he was one of the
first ones to do this. He analyzed the Bohr
model of the atom, but exactly showing
how it’s already, although it was not right, it had the resources in
the model itself that could be exploited by
Heisenberg so as to create a totally new
picture to overcome the failings of that very model. You used a term to
explain Ernan’s position on critical realism
as retrodeduction? Retroduction. What he means by it is
the form of inference, according to Ernan,
drives science, that makes science, as he said. He begins with Aristotle. what he begins with is a problem
that he sees in Aristotle. Aristotle, in his theory
of science, had two sides. One is what science is
meant to do is give you an absolutely certain
demonstration of why things act, why they have to behave
the way they do. And in giving his
explanations, he has to, and does, refer to
unobservable things. Things to which
there are no access. But when he outlines
his epistemology, form of inference that Aristotle
has is just inference and abstraction, the kind
of generalization from the level of perception. And that would never get
you to any conclusions about the unobservable. Right. Right. This he sees
as the problem. The problem that
had to be overcome. Because for his realism, he has
to get to the unobservable. Exactly. Now, draw out from
Ernan’s point of view, what the process of science
would actually look like given his philosophical
orientation? As philosophers and
scientists over this 2,000-year history
that Ernan goes through tried
to make clear, what exactly is this inference. They don’t somehow
bridge the gap that Aristotle left us with. Deduction is
not sufficient. Induction is
not sufficient. Inference is the
best explanation. Ernan says, that’s an
easily criticized idea. So, he’s not going to
just stay with that. What he eventually arrives
at, retroduction, is still a process
of inference, but crucially, it involves the introduction
of new concepts, revolutionary changes in the conceptual
approach to the subject, and that is what allows
him to bridge the gap. So, the difference between
ordinary induction and retroduction is this
introduction of new – now, does that occur every
time you are doing science, or does that occur only
in paradigm shifts? Not just in
paradigm shifts, but also not just every day. Everyday statistical analysis is
something that is learned, that is… it
follows a recipe. But if you’re going to
try to find those unobservable entities that are the real
thing in itself, you have to be able to add the new concepts to
the induction? That’s right. Let me get to your
point of view, because now that we’ve made
a lot of sense out of this, you critique it. Yes. You have a constructive
empiricism which basically says, I think – and you’ll
correct me – that you really can never
get to that unobservable? I say that it is not
actually part of the aim of science to do so. I see the first difference
between the scientific realist and the empiricist, that they see different
criteria of success in science. The realist says, the
criteria of success is truth. And to accept the theory,
that will have to involve believing that it is true,
and that the things that it talks about are there,
including the unobservable. The empiricist says, no,
the aim of science is to construct empirically
adequate theories, and the bottom line
is empirical success so that the
construction of models that may have in the model all kinds of things that
correspond to nothing, but are models that the
phenomena can fit so that they allow us to
predict and manipulate. That is the success
that they look for. That’s, in one
sense, a lower bar. Yes. It’s a lower bar, but
from your point of view, it’s a bar that can be achieved,
and the other higher bar is – from your point of view, it’s impossible in principle,
or just impossible technologically? No, I think there’s an
impossibility in principle here. So, that’s a very
significant difference in terms of our understanding
of the whole world, even more so science. For me, it is a different
understanding of the enterprise of science. And the success exists in
the fact that we can see the phenomena having a
place in these models in such a way that we get
an overview of relations between the phenomena,
and then we can, as I say, predict
and manipulate. So, this is a way of
seeing science rather than seeing the world.Bas famously is an
meaning that things
as they really are
are just not knowable.Bas draws a sharp line between
what science actually does
and what science
actually knows.
Science models and
but science cannot
access external,
independent, deep reality.Ernan McMullin, of
course, disagreed.
He was a realist.What we see is what
is really out there.
But why?Was Ernan’s realism
related to his religion?
I speak with a philosopher
of science known more for
his intellect than for
his sensitivities,
who enjoys science-religion
controversies, Michael Ruse.
Michael was a long-time
colleague of Ernan’s.
Michael is an atheist.Certain for Ernan, I think
the whole question of realism
was very important. One thing I wish I’d
asked him more about was the extent to which realism
and being a Catholic Priest might have been linked. I mean, if I
look back at it, it seems to be obvious that if you believe
in a good God, good creator God who created
us in his own image, gave us the power of reason, then God’s not
going to be sneaky and lie to use about the world. I mean, it may be difficult
to find out about it. That’s okay. But at some level, I
would have thought realism comes with
the territory. But then we have somebody
else like Bas van Fraassen who is a top-notch
philosopher, a practicing Roman Catholic, and very iffy on the
realism question indeed. Right. But from Ernan’s
point of view, how does realism in the world and realism in
theology articulate? Well, obviously realism in
theology for Ernan was a given. I mean, for Ernan, this
is a world created by a necessarily existing
God and all of that. So, in the world of
theology, it’s… it’s as real as it’s
ever going to get. In the world of science though,
there’s long been debates and of course,
these have been, let us say exacerbated
by quantum mechanics – about the extent to which the
scientists have been, yes, this is real. I’m real. I think you’re real. But what about molecules? And as they get smaller and
smaller and odder and odder, what about these? Are they really real? Maybe it’s not real. Maybe it’s all something
made up that like you talk about the square
root of minus one. You know it’s not
real, but it works. It’s pragmatic. It’s a bit like a
sausage machine. You put your empirical
facts in at one end, you turn the machine, and out
come predictions at the other. As long as the
sausages taste okay, as long as the predictions
work, don’t ask. Don’t say what goes on. So, I think that’s
been a very influential philosophy of science
in the 20th Century. Is this a distinction
without a difference? Or is it a fundamental
– it’s a fundamental question, because it’s an
epistemological question and/or it’s an
ontological question. I wouldn’t use
the word ontology. I’d be more inclined
to say metaphysical. At some level, this is
all metaphysics, if you’d like. Of course it is. I mean, is there a world
that exists when we’re not around to look at it? I mean, these are the most
fundamental metaphysical questions you can have. Or, what the philosophers
are trying to do, making sense of what the
scientists are doing. And of course, Ernan did
quite a bit of work here. And that, at some level,
is epistemological. Do scientists take
inductive reasoning seriously? Is the notion of
simplicity important? Now, I wouldn’t
have said immediately that these are
metaphysical questions. They’re certainly
epistemological questions. Why does one, a scientist,
prefer the simpler solution? Obviously Ernan’s going to
say, well, God made the world. He made the world in
the best possible way, and there is an
elegance to simplicity. So, at some level, it is theological that
becomes metaphysical. But at the same time,
I think as far as philosophers of science
are concerned – and of course, I knew Ernan as a
philosopher of science it’s epistemology
all the way down. It’s turtles all
the way down.It’s epistemology
all the way down.
What can we know, and
how can we know it?
That’s the essence
of critical realism.
As I reflect on
science and theology,
biased perhaps by
my scientific training,
I see science
continuing to advance,
controlling progressively
more explanatory space,
and theology
continuing to retreat,
progressively less.
Then I remember
about a decade prior
that was precisely the
question I had put to Ernan.
A scientist would say,
to use a metaphor, if religion and
science are in one room, science has been painting
that room gradually and that religion has been
withdrawing more and more so that now religion is
in a tiny corner, and the only thing that
science hasn’t painted is why the universe is there
in the first place. I love that metaphor,
because in fact, you can fill out, paint
out the corner if you want, but you don’t have the room. That is, you need a
room to be painted. I mean, that metaphor
is very telling. I like that metaphor. We have a long
way to go in science, but it is making progress. It’s making
progress, yeah, and it will gradually
paint out towards the corner, and maybe even
get to the corner, and then we ask
why there’s a corner, or why there is a
surface in the first place. And that seems, to many
people traditionally, to be a legitimate question. The question is, do you rule out that
question as illegitimate, which is
what unfortunately physicists sometimes
tend to do. But it’s that a
legitimate question and not something
that you have to, as it were, push away, then in fact I think
religion has an answer.Does critical realism
really matter?
Science either can or
cannot access ultimate reality.
What’s the big deal?Just get on with our
experiments and studies.
No, the reason that
critical realism matters
is that it sets boundarieson the ultimate scope
of human knowledge,
not only in science,but also potentially
in theology.
Ernan McMullin favored
critical realism in science.
What we access and perceive
is what exists and is real.
His critical realism
recognizes subtle imitations
on our capacity to know,and his seeking
new ways of knowing,
such as metaphor,suggests richer ways to
apprehend reality.
As for critical
realism in theology,
Ernan had no doubts.What we perceive as
God really is God.
Did Ernan’s theological
believe influence his realism?
Probably.But, so what?Ernan was wise in
exercising caution
when applying science
to theology.
When dealing with the
creator of the universe,
he said, facts about
things in the universe
may not much matter.To me, critical
realism is a big deal.
Can we, human beings, with
our three-pound brains,
access ultimate reality?Can we get much
Closer to Truth?
For complete interviews
and for further information,
please visit

Jean Kelley



  1. Eddie Bear Posted on March 19, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    Delighted to see new uploads! 😊

  2. Jake Hoberg 1983 Posted on March 19, 2020 at 2:58 pm

    Omg Realism is the religion that i proposed to the world. So are people talking it seriously?

  3. Tom Rafferty Posted on March 20, 2020 at 12:57 am

    Any process that can't analyze claims through observation, experimentation, and verify its findings is not science and, thus, can't add to objective knowledge. Philosophy has its purpose in reason and logic, to include the development of the scientific method. However, philosophy has no role in understanding objective reality.