A modest epistemology

A modest epistemology

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        I am delighted that the organizers of the “Future Visions” Conference chose to include a session on “Complementary Ways Of Knowing.” and I was honored to be part of it.  I think that the epistemological issues are not only critical to the science/religion dialogue, but also to the resolution of the postmodern predicament and the general welfare of our culture.

        The whole postmodern movement can be viewed as a methodo-logical deconstruction of the rational and scientific epistemology of the Enlightenment. Granted, there is much in postmodern thought that is epistemologically unsound and intellectually irresponsible, but to rail at those excesses is to overlook a great deal of genuinely valuable epistemo-logical work that is going on all across the disciplinary spectrum.

I have in mind, in particular, the work of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, W. V. Quine, Alistair MacIntyre, Richard Bernstein, Mark Johnson and others, who are exploring the middle ground between naïve objectivism and radical relativity. Second, I am thinking also of valuable contributions to the understanding of scientific epistemology coming from historians and philosophers of science, not just the problematic work of Thomas Kuhn, but more recent penetrating analyses of scientific creativity. Third, I also have in mind imaginative research in the Social Sciences, in particular, the work of Social Constructionists, like Kenneth Gergen at Swarthmore, who are exploring the implications of relational ontology and relational epistemology.  Fourth, we mustn’t overlook the significant contributions that the feminist critique has to offer.  Fifth, I am thinking of the work in neuroscience, in particular Antonio Damascio’s explorations of the constructive role of the emotions in the rational decision-making process. Sixth, I am reminded of the work in psychology on the differentiation of a variety of human intelligences. Seventh, I have in mind the kind of epistemological insights that come to us from Artificial Intelligence, in particular the work of Anne Foerst. And there are numerable other examples I could cite.

        Granted there are some in our culture who pick up these developments in epistemology and use them to discredit and demonize science and technology. But, when the scientific community over reacts to these extreme views and engages in epistemological polemic, I fear that we lose the opportunity to engage in constructive epistemological dialogue across disciplines.

        For instance, a few years ago The Academy of Science in New York held a conference attended by 300 scientists that attacked the epistemological extremists who espouse radical relativity. They attacked left-wing academics in the social sciences and New Age odd-balls, claiming that they are triggering a whole scale rebellion against reason in our culture and threatening the rational foundations of democratic society.

        The engagement of the scientific community in such polemicmerely accentuates the epistemological extremes of objectivism and relativism and we lose sight of the constructive work going on in the vast middle ground. I have in mind the hoax that Alan Sokal pulled off a couple of years ago. Sokol, a physicist at New York University, wrote a parody of postmodern epistemology that he managed to get published in an academic journal called Social Text. The purpose of his hoax, he declared, was to reveal the fraudulence of much postmodern thought. Sokol also co-authored a book entitled, Fashionable Nonsense, which makes a philosophical case against postmodern relativism: The notion that physical reality is nothing but a social construct and that science is just another meta-narrative that merely expresses the dominant ideology of its culture.

        The problem with Sokol’s book is not his critique of the epistemological extremes of postmodernism, but rather the naïve realism that he espouses on behalf of the scientific community. He characterizes the objectivist extreme in the epistemological spectrum as naively as his opponents espouse the relativist extreme. As a result the opportunity for constructive engagement is lost.

        Unfortunately, the same sort of polemical warfare is tearing apart other segments of our society right now.  In our churches, for instance, the debate about homosexuality is dividing denominations into the same  epistemological camps. The conservatives, who attribute absolute authority to the scripture, are the ‘naïve objectivists’ of the religious communities. They rail against the liberal relativists whom they accuse of denying all religious authority and espousing epistemological pluralism instead.  So the Church also has become epistemologically polarized. We need desperately to seek and secure some firm middle ground in our epistemological debates.

        Recently, I became aware of a modest epistemological proposal that I would like to share with you.  The proposal was made by the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, David Scott, in a newly published book called Education as Transformation: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality, and a New Vision for Higher Education (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, New York, 2000) that I heartily recommend. Several participants in the “Future Visions” Conference have essays in that volume. David Scott, a chemist and a Christian, maintains that “we need a new epistemology which will be more integrative across all areas of knowledge, including religion and spirituality.” He argues that the Enlightenment epistemology produced an “enormous fragmentation of knowledge with a concomitant loss of a coherent integrative perspective.” Scott views the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as a “transitory phase” and argues that we are “on a journey to a trans-modern philosophy which will construct a new world view (through) the unification of scientific, ethical, aesthetic, and religious intuitions.”  “The times have never been more propitious,” he maintains, “for such transdisciplinary thinking.”  The University of old – the University of Faith – evolved into the University of Reason. Now, he claims, “we must foster the University of Communication… which will integrate different approaches to knowledge.” He calls this “University of the future, the Integrative University for an Integrative Age.” Furthermore, David Scott is a university president who has the courage of his convictions. He is proposing to create a Center for the Integration of Academic Disciplines at the University of Massachusetts. And he still has his job!!

        I am not suggesting that David Scott has all the answers to our epistemological dilemma. But I am suggesting that the time has come for constructive epistemological engagement across disciplinary lines. Not only will the science/religion dialogue benefit, but the general health of the whole culture could be vastly improved.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Burnham
Trinity Institute
74 Trinity Place
New York, NY 10006