How do we know, what we know to be true? Critical realism as a guide to the real || By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

My reality includes an interconnected universe, full of potentialities and one where my efforts matter.

How do I justify these claims of knowledge of what I believe to be true about reality?

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” Physicist Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize Winner

I am deeply suspicious of any worldview or world picture that claims to be THE absolute truth. However, there are not enough hours in the day and years in my life to understand everything well enough before I can make a decision as to what IS truth and subsequently, how to live my life.

However, about 25 years ago I did venture forth on that quest in typical quixotic zealousness. I was sitting at my desk in Peshawar, Pakistan, planning how we were going to feed the thousands of Afghan refugees returning to a war-pocked Afghan countryside (this is pre-Taliban and post-USSR days), and I was looking for an absolute value.

The Green Revolution had come to Afghanistan. We were increasing crop production through the use of modified seeds which required substantial increases in pesticides and fertilizers, and our European donors wanted agricultural projects that reduced or prevented groundwater pollution.  At the time, we couldn’t see a win/win solution.

Greening fields, Istalif, Afghanistan; near Kabul

Looking back on it, I now know it isn’t either/or, but and/both. At the time my Afghan colleagues and I chaffed at this clash of values between East and West, this “colonial imperialism”. We came around of course, as polluted water supplies aren’t supportive of a healthy population (think Flint, Michigan), but I soon hit the moral philosophy books, looking for an apex ethic that would guide my actions. In my naivety, I wanted something that would ALWAYS be right, in ALL situations.

Only to find out that there really isn’t any.

But what I DID discover rocked my world.

The As-If Function: Critical Realism Opens Us Up to Further Discovery

How we think the world IS determines our actions in this world. For example, ancient cultures supposed the earth was flat. Based on that reality, drifting off in your fishing boat from the coastal area was a scary undertaking. Not having Google Earth, these cultures depended upon their regional experts for exploration guidance.

What is your mode of truth seeking, your theory of knowledge, in other words – your epistemology? Table 1 lists three categories (1):

Table 1: Three Broad Epistemological Theories

EpistemologyIts Path to Reliable KnowledgeUltimate Authority
Religious RevelationRevelation: either through direct experience (mysticism) OR in a received tradition (scripture & culture)Divine reality
Scientific MaterialismThe scientific method tells us what is; matter is the fundamental reality of the universeScience
Postmodern RelativismThere is none. Truth is a process of social construction; cultural power determines truth & thus behavior. Scientific rationalism is under suspect as it is seen as another form of social domination.There is none. Postmodernism speaks against all grand theories and metanarratives. Truth is just the dominant cultural pattern.

I use all three, and all three tempered with critical realism (see Table 2) —but more of that further into this blog.

Physicist/theologian Ian Barbour says the meaning of truth is correspondence with reality (2, 3), but reality is inaccessible to us. Example: We still don’t know what the inside of an atom looks like (4). But if the scientific community had waited until we knew with absolute certainty how an atom’s quark functioned, we’d still be using rotary phones.

Therefore, we have a form of realism, in that some aspects of the physical world are accessible to us, but it is a critical realism because our scientific—and spiritual—constructs are also reflections of the imagination and intuition of our human minds; they are extrapolations.

John Polkinghorne speaks similarly, saying critical realism is a means to bridge the gap between what we CAN know about entities to WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE and regardless, requires a metaphysical choice (5).

This is living with—and loving—mystery. Only a tiny fraction of the physical universe can humankind understand, let alone explain.

The same is true of my spiritual universe; I have limited intimations and experiential glimpses of its vastness and potentialities.

However, if I waited until I could live this life with absolute certainty—what I set out to do when I left my desk in Peshawar—I’d be living a life uncommitted to anything. I’d want absolute certainty of the goodness or rightness of any system, set of rules, or ideology. I’d be paralyzed with immobility.

By committing myself to the world picture outlined in my opening sentence, I also open myself up to further discovery. Scientists commit themselves to models and then allow their imaginations and intuition to carry on their creative and scientific endeavors in order to discover other connections.

Therefore, I elect to live my life based on critical realism’s as-if function: I live my life as if the world is interconnected, as if it’s full of potentialities, and as if my efforts matter (see Table 2). This does not translate into a shifting reality based on last night’s pizza.

I, too, rely on experts to help me navigate my world, but I choose carefully those whom I tentatively follow. Hallmarks of worthy guides are those with humility and acceptance of mystery. These guides dwell among the mystics and poets, spiritual organizations such as People House, and the scientific community.

Spiritual concepts emerging from the world revealed to us through quantum mechanics are foundational to my as-if realities. Pay attention through mindfulness practices (6) to what YOUR reality looks like!

Table 2: An Epistemology of Critical Realism

EpistemologyIts Path to Reliable KnowledgeUltimate Authority
Critical realismThe “as if” function; a leap of faith, bridging the gap between what we can know about entities vs. what they actually are.None, but courage & humility to take a chance with limited knowledge, knowing we may be completely wrong.

Find Mary Coday Edwards’ new book on Amazon!

Notes & Sources:

1- Grassie, Billy. “Quaker Epistemology: Towards a Friends Philosophy. Presentation to the Friends Association for Higher Education” at Haverford College, June 24, 1995. Also, keep in mind these are broad philosophical sweeps which obscure many differences and distinctions of knowing, such as psychological, moral, spiritual, biophysical, and aesthetic.
2- Barbour, Ian. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997:110
3- Two strains of critical realism (CR) have emerged since the 1960s. Ian Barbour, who has been widely recognized as creating the contemporary field of natural science and religion, used the term first in his 1966 book, Issues in Science and Religion. He explored the tensions and antagonisms existing at the time between the two disciplines. Roy Bhaskar began using the term in the late 1970s in service of his philosophical studies in the social sciences. My eureka moment came through Barbour’s scientific-theologian strain. His clicked with me—perhaps because of my background in both; Bhaskar’s has not. Therefore, I will focus on Barbour’s development of critical realism. For the more curious among you, see resources and/or Google Bhaskar and critical realism. (Social science as a field of study is separate from the natural sciences, which cover topics such as physics, biology, and chemistry. Social science examines the relationships between individuals and societies, as well as the development and operation of societies, rather than studying the physical world.)
4- The atoms subatomic construct cannot be directly observed, but based on theories we’ve developed amazing technology, such as this computer I’m typing on, my cell phone, and information available at my fingertips due to the internet.
5- Polkinghorne, J.C. Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 1998:53
6- Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, where she focused on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels. In addition to working in refugee repatriation, she was an editor for international, English print, daily newspapers in Indonesia and Mexico.