Ontology is Far Too Removed from Epistemology

by Max Andrews

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties.  This is the adequation of the intellect to reality (adequation intellectus ad rem).  The main premise to adequation intellectus ad rem is that there is an onto-relationship between our cognitive or intellectual faculties and reality that enables us to know something about the world, God, and ourselves.[1]  This immanent rationality inherent to reality is not God, but it does cry aloud for God if only because the immanent rationality in nature does not provide us with any explanation of itself.[2]

In reality all entities are ontologically connected or interrelated in the field in which they are found.  If this is true then the relation is the most significant thing to know regarding an object.  Thus, to know entities as they actually are is to know what they are in their relation “webs”.  Thomas Torrance termed this as onto-relations, which points more to the entity or reality, as it is what it is as a result of its constitutive relations.[3]

The methodology of the epistemological realist concerns propositions of which are a posteriori, or “thinking after,” the objective disclosure of reality.  Thus, epistemology follows from ontology.  False thinking or methodology (particularly in scientific knowledge) has brought about a failure to recognize the intelligibility actually present in nature and the kinship in the human knowing capacity to the objective rationality to be known.[4]

Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) developed the interrogative (interrogatio) rather than the problematic (quaestio) form of inquiry.  Valla’s mode of inquiry was one in which questions yield results that are entirely new, giving rise to knowledge that cannot be derived by an inferential process from what was already known.  This method was similar to the works of Stoic lawyers and educators like Cicero and Quintilian; that is, questioning witnesses, investigating documents and states of affairs without any prior conception of what the truth might be.  Valla transitioned from not only using this method for historical knowledge but also applied it as “logic for scientific discovery.”[5]

Valla’s logic for discovery was the art of finding out things rather than merely the art of drawing distinctions and connecting them together.  He called for an active inquiry (activa inquisitio).  John Calvin (1509-1564) applied this method to the interpretation of Scripture and thus became the father of modern biblical exegesis and interpretation.[6]  Francis Bacon (1561-1626) applied it to the interpretation of the books of nature, as well as to the books of God, and became the father of modern empirical science.[7]

This methodology created a split between subject and object, knowing and being, and gave rise to phenomenalism.  Newton claimed that he invented no hypotheses but deduced them from observations produced by rationalistic positivism, which engulfed contemporary European thought.  This split’s gulf was widened by David Hume’s (1711-1776) criticism of causality and inference, depriving knowledge of any valid foundation in necessary connections obtaining between actual events and of leaving it with nothing more reliable than habits of mind rooted in association.[8]  Hume weighed heavy in Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) philosophical development.  Given the Newtonian understanding of space and time, Kant transferred absolute space and time from the divine sensorium to the mind of man (the transfer of the inertial system), thus intellect does not draw its laws out of nature but imposes its laws upon nature.  According to Kant one cannot know the Ding an Sich (thing itself) by pure reason; one is therefore limited to the sensual and shaping mental categories of the mind.  That which comes through sensation, the intuitions, are shaped by the mind’s a priori categories.  It is in this sense that Kant played an essential part in the development of the idea that man is himself the creator of the scientific world.

Throughout Albert Einstein’s work, the mechanistic universe proved unsatisfactory.  This was made evident after the discovery of the electromagnetic field and the failure of Newtonian physics to account for it in mechanistic concepts.  Then came the discovery of four-dimensional geometry and with it the realization that the geometrical structures of Newtonian physics could not be detached from changes in space and time with which field theory operated.  Einstein stepped back into stride with Newton and his cognitive instrument of free invention.  It was free in the sense that conclusions were not reached under logical control from fixed premises, and it was invented under the pressure of the nature of the universe upon the intuitive apprehension of it.  Einstein used Newton and Maxwell’s partial differential equations in field theory to develop a mode of rationality called mathematical invariance.  Mathematical invariance established a genuine ontology in which the subject grips with objective structures and intrinsic intelligibility of the universe.[9]

This also meant a rejection of Kant’s synthetic a priori whereby knowledge of the phenomenal world is said to be reduced to an “order” without actual penetration into the Ding an Sich.[10]  Einstein’s categories are not some form of Kantian a priori but conceptions that are freely invented and are to be judged by their usefulness, their ability to advance the intelligibility of the world, which is dependent on the observer.  As he sees it, the difference between his own thinking and Kant’s is on just this point:  Einstein understands the categories as free inventions rather than as unalterable (conditioned by the nature of the understanding).[11]  It is by this method that one can penetrate the inner rationality of the reality by discovery, imagination, and insight in order to construct forms of thought and knowledge through which the rationality of the object may be discerned.[12]  Einstein’s free invention is quite synonymous with discovery in the sense that the consequent conclusion (knowledge) is not inferred or entailed from a fixed categorical antecedent (i.e. Kant).

Principles of method are closely related to empirical observations.  As Einstein put it, “the scientist has to worm these general principles out of nature by perceiving in comprehensive complexes of empirical facts certain general features which permit of precise formulation.”[13]  These principles, not “isolated general laws abstracted from experience” or “separate results from empirical research,” provide the basis of deductive reasoning.[14]

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 269.

[2] John Morrison, Knowledge of the Self-Revealing God in the Thought of Thomas Forsyth Torrance (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 106. Thomas Torrance, God and Rationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 93-94.

[3] Morrison, 106.

[4] Thomas Torrance, Theological Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 76-80.

[5] Thomas Torrance, “Einstein and Scientific Theology,” Religious Studies 8 no. 3 (1972): 236-237.

[6] Valla served in conjunction with Andrea Alciati (1492-1550) as Calvin’s primary influence for his biblical interpretation.

[7] Torrance, “Einstein,” 237.

[8] Ibid., 240.

[9] Ibid., 241-242.

[10] Morrison, 90.

[11] Donna Teevan, “Albert Einstein and Bernard Lonergan on Empirical Method,” Zygon 37 no. 4 (2002): 875-876.

[12] Morrison, 105.

[13] Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Trans. and rev. Sonja Bargmann (New York: Three Rivers, 1982), 221.

[14] Teevan, 877.

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