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Critical Realism and Objectivity

Roger Olson, theologian and author has some timely and trenchant words on objectivity, critical realism, and the world we live in.  Here are a few quotes from his blog piece:

"Unlike many of my contemporaries, whether religious or irreligious, I always assume a very real distinction between what is objectively real and true and what is merely subjectively felt and perceived. I do not claim that the line between them is clearly visible; it often is not. And the “objectively real and true” is often inaccessible to me and to everyone. I admit that there is no “view from nowhere”—a basic axiom of postmodernity. I am a perspectivalist; we all, without exception, observe and interpret reality through a “blik” or “worldview lens.” However, that does not mean there is no objective reality “out there” and that we have no access to it and cannot talk about it.

Let’s take an example from Christian theology: atonement doctrine. I don’t have a dogma about the atonement, but when I think and talk about atonement I always assume Christ’s death on the cross “fixed a problem” outside of me—alienation from God. And I always assume that alienation is more than a feeling of being alienated. A very real situation existed between God and humanity (me) that Christ’s death “fixed.” That’s called “objective atonement” in classical theology. I find that most modern/contemporary Christians, even evangelicals, tend to think of atonement as affecting my inner states, not an objective situation “in the cosmos,” so to speak, between me and God.

I am increasingly coming to the belief that there are two incommensurable modes of consciousness: subjectivism and objectivism. Both have many varieties and adaptations. One does not have to be a sheer Platonist, for example, to be an objectivist. Nor does one have to be a nihilist or sheer anti-realist to operate mostly out of a subjectivist mode of consciousness.

I often wonder about “failures to communicate” between equally bright and educated people. They often use the same words but mean entirely different things by them (as in the example above of “guilt”). The two modes of consciousness described above might be the two most basic “bliks,” perspectives on reality, separating modern/contemporary people from each other. People who come to my blog ought to know, need to know, that I operate out of an objectivist “blik.” Namely, I always assume that many words point to objective realities that exist outside of any human mind—such as truth, beauty and goodness. To be sure, as a critical realist, I deny that any human mind has direct, unmediated and perfect access to these realities. And I am not a language essentialist. But these realities are not just concepts but are “out there” (not spatially but dimensionally), independent of our minds and inner states (whether individually or collectively). And I think that attempting to “do Christian theology” without objectivism of that kind (including critical realism) makes it something else than Christian theology. Christian theology in any classical sense requires realism, objectivism, even if tempered with a degree of perspectivalism (as in critical realism)."


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