Tag Archives: Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation

What Comes First? Epistemology or Metaphysics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Actually the answer is neither, but we’ll get to that soon enough.  Why ask this question in the first place?  Because philosophy is a discipline that builds one layer upon another (just like many other disciplines), and since philosophy provides a foundation for all of the sciences, it is extremely important to understand where to start.

To examine this issue of the order of philosophical disciplines, we will refer to Tom Howe’s helpful notes on the subject (some of which are captured in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation).  So what comes first?  Howe’s answer may surprise you, but the answer is . . . reality.  What is reality?

Simply put, reality is that which is. Notice that the characterization of reality is not, “what is.” To characterize reality as “what” implies that reality is basically some identity, or essence. When one asks, “What is it?” one is inquiring about the identity or essence of the entity in question. But, there are many identities in reality. That is to say, reality consists of many essences, or “whats.” But all essences have at least one thing in common, namely, that they exist. Therefore, reality at its most basic level is not a particular essence, or a group of essences. Reality is that which exists, or, as we have phrased it, “That which is.”

So the first thing we look at is that which exists, or reality.  Any philosophy that skips this step will go off the rails quickly.  The next question that must be answered after we’ve looked at that which exists is, “What is that which is?”  This is the discipline of metaphysics.  According to Howe, in metaphysics we are “inquiring into the nature of reality.”

After we examine the nature of that which exists, we may then move on to the next question in philosophy: “How do we know that which is?”  Howe writes, “Epistemology is the discipline that addresses [that] question . . .”  He continues:

Epistemology does not begin with itself and attempt to justify the existence of the extra-mental. Rather, epistemology must begin with the assumption that knowledge is a fact. If knowledge is not a fact of existence, then no one would be able to investigate its possibility, because any investigation necessarily assumes the fact of knowledge. Knowledge is a fact to be investigated, not a mere possibility to be actualized. If knowledge was not a fact to be investigated, then there would be no possibility of knowing this.

So there is our answer.  The order of disciplines in philosophy is 1) reality (that which is), 2) metaphysics (what is that which is?), and 3) epistemology (how do we know that which is?).  Virtually all of the confusion in modern philosophy is due to the fact that it has started with epistemology instead of reality and metaphysics.

Descartes got the ball rolling when he started his philosophical investigations by asking how he could know anything instead of first looking at that which exists.  Modern philosophy, following Descartes, never has answered the question of what the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge are, and they never will.  Why?  Because knowledge depends on reality, not vice versa.  A philosophy that starts with epistemology and that skips reality and metaphysics is doomed to ask questions that can never be answered.

How Do We Know Truth Is Absolute, Unified, and Objective?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Tom Howe, in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, makes the case that there is unity, objectivity, and absoluteness in truth.  To start his explanation, he quotes Mortimer Adler from his book Truth and Religion:

1. The human race is a single biological species, renewed generation after generation by the reproductive determinations of a single gene pool. Hence, man is one in nature— that is, in specific nature. All individual members of the species have the same species-specific properties or characteristics.

2. The human race being one, the human mind is also one. The human mind is a species-specific property found in every individual member of the species, the same in all, being subject to variations in degree. This precludes the notion that there is, within the human species, a primitive mind that is characteristically different from a civilized one, or an Oriental mind that differs in kind from an Occidental one, or even a child mind that differs in kind, not just degree, from an adult mind.

Howe observes that

These two theses, along with a third, are propounded by Adler for the purpose of attempting to identify the necessary basis for a world community in the face of cultural diversity. That basis, as Adler articulates it, is the unity of truth.

Adler explains that

To affirm the unity of truth is to deny that there can be two separate and irreconcilable truths which, while contradicting of one another and thought to be irreconcilably so, avoid the principle of noncontradiction by claiming to belong to logic-tight compartments.

From here, Howe continues by claiming

the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth demonstrate that there was not a “Hebrew” mind or a “Greek” mind or an “ancient” mind such that truth among those cultures at those periods of time were somehow different than truth today. On the contrary, truth is the same for all ages and among all peoples. The issues relating to men and God were the same issues with which we struggle today, because man is one race and one mind. The differences, then, between these ancient cultures and our modern culture is not the nature of man, or of truth, but are the social and cultural expressions of the same truths.

Given the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth, is it possible to deny that truth is absolute or that truth is objective?  Howe thinks not:

For someone to claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth is to assert that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. All such relativistic assertions are self-defeating and false. Likewise, for someone to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity is to count on the objective meaning of this very claim, which is likewise self-defeating and false. Truth is unavoidable. Likewise, objectivity is unavoidable.

To deny absolute truth or objective truth is self-defeating, for the very person who denies the absoluteness and objectivity of truth believes that their statement about truth is absolutely and objectively true.

What Is Objectivity? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we looked at contemporary notions of objectivity, as reported by philosopher Tom Howe.   In part 2 we continue to flesh out the concept of objectivity.

Tom Howe quotes philosopher Mary Hawkesworth:

In the context of philosophical and scientific investigations, an objective account implies a grasp of the actual qualities and relations of objects as they exist independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them. In the spheres of ethics, law, and administration, objectivity suggests impersonal and impartial standards and decision procedures that produce disinterested and equitable judgments. Objectivity, then, promises to free us from distortion, bias, and error in intellectual inquiry and from arbitrariness, self-interest, and caprice in ethical, legal, and administrative decisions.

We see the idea of existence “independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them.”  The moral fact, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it is true independent of the inquirer’s thoughts.  Whether a person believes this statement is true or not is irrelevant to its truth.

In addition, Hawkesworth introduces the concept of “impersonal and impartial standards.”  The statement, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it can be judged by a standard which is impersonal and impartial.

Howe finishes his survey of contemporary views on objectivity with the following summary:

First, there is a recurring theme . . . that in some sense objectivity involves the notion of a neutral judgment that strives to be free from all biases, prejudices, presuppositions, preconceived ideas, preunderstandings, or other factors that might distort one’s understanding or conclusions.

Objectivity is almost universally equated with what Richard Bernstein calls “objectivism,” which he defines as “a basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness.”

Objectivity, then, is about judgment without the undue influence of bias or prejudice.  The worldview of the judge is taken out of the judgment as much as possible.  The judge is to tell it like it is.

In a second, and arguably more important sense, objectivity is, as Richard Bernstein states, a “permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal” to on issues of morality, truth, and knowledge.  Any person that denies that this ahistorical and permanent framework exists is thus denying that objectivity exists.  Ironically, the person who claims that ahistorical objectivity does not exist believes this to be true for all time.  To deny objectivity is to affirm it.

What Is Objectivity? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

We’ve recently featured several blog posts centered around the idea of moral objectivity.  Objectivity is also a concept that can be applied to truth, knowledge, interpretation, and even beauty.  Although we’ve tried to carefully define objectivity versus subjectivity, it might be worth revisiting this concept to see what contemporary thinkers have to say about it.

Philosopher Tom Howe provides a brief, but insightful survey of several contemporary views on objectivity in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation. Howe starts things off with a quote from the famous agnostic Bertrand Russell:

Subjectively, every philosopher appears to himself to be engaged in the pursuit of something which may be called ‘truth.’ Philosophers may differ as to the definition of ‘truth,’ but at any rate it is something objective, something which, in some sense, everybody ought to accept.

We start with the idea that something is objective if it is something that everybody ought to accept.  If we take the clear moral truth, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” this statement would be objectively true if it is a statement that everyone ought to accept.

Howe then describes Paul Helm’s “ontological” objectivity.  According to Howe, “This is basically the question of whether the extra-mental reality exists apart from human perception or is the construct of the human mind.  As Helm puts it, ‘Does the character of the world change with the very fact that we are interpreting it?'”

Here we see another important aspect of objectivity.  Something is objective if it exists “apart from human perception.”  Taking our example again, the moral truth,  “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” would be objective if the statement was true regardless of whether any human being perceived it to be true.  In other words, if all human beings went extinct tomorrow, it would still be objectively true that torturing a child for fun is wrong.

Here is an interesting thought experiment.  If an intelligent alien race came to earth and began torturing human children, would we react with moral outrage and accuse them of atrocious immoral acts, or would we say to ourselves, “That’s a shame they are torturing kids, but they obviously just have a different moral code than we do.  It must be morally acceptable, under their moral system, for them to torture human children.”

I think that we would obviously be morally outraged.  In fact, this very situation, or something like it, is portrayed in dozens of science fiction movies where intelligent aliens attack and/or torture humans.  The humans in these movies are almost always portrayed as holding the aliens morally culpable, but if moral facts only exist in human perception, then it would be truly bizarre to hold aliens morally accountable.

They might have their own moral facts, or they may perceive no moral facts at all.  Why is it, at least in the movies, humans always assume that hostile aliens have the same moral sensibilities we do?  I submit that it is because the writers of these movie scripts, just like the rest of us, assume moral facts exist apart from human perception.

Attacking aliens aside, this aspect of objectivity seems to confuse many atheists, because they fail to see how something like a moral fact could exist without human minds perceiving it to be true.  For theists, of course, truth also exists in the mind of God, so we have no problem with moral facts being objective in this sense.  If you are a non-theist, you could posit that moral truths exist as brute, fundamental facts of the universe, but this answer merely leads inevitably to the question of why the universe would come furnished with moral facts.

In our next post, we will continue to look at the notion of objectivity.

Are All Interpretations Equally Valid?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Relativism is a constant and ever-present danger these days.  Today I’m speaking, in particular, about the interpretation of biblical texts.  When we open the Bible and read, what happens if we interpret the text differently from those around us?

There are scholars today who claim that nobody has the correct interpretation of a text, because there is no single correct interpretation.   In his book, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, Philosopher Tom Howe quotes writer James K. A. Smith as an example of this position:

To privilege one reading as normative (the one correct interpretation) would be to privilege one contingent situationality or tradition over another— a move that would be impossible to justify precisely because of the locatedness of any such justification. There is not a reading that is the reading of the world or a text.

Smith is saying that the tradition and situation in which a reader resides colors his interpretation.  Since each of us lives in a different situation and tradition, then each of our interpretations of a text are different, and none of them can claim to be the one correct interpretation.

Is this true?  Howe strongly disagrees:

According to this approach, conflicts are generated because of the differing “situationality” and “traditionality” that indicate the impossibility of a “privileged reading” or of the very existence of “the one correct interpretation.” . . .  Is there no such thing as the correct or the right interpretation of a text? If there is no “right” or “correct” interpretation, then the problem of conflicting interpretations seems to lose its meaning.

Conflicting interpretations create a problem only if there is an interpretation that is the right one. The fact of conflicting interpretations seems to create difficulty only if one attempts to judge between them in order to arrive at the meaning of the text. In fact, everyone who comments on this question believes that his own interpretation of the problem is the correct one. Even those who claim that differing historical, cultural, and linguistic situations render the notion of a privileged or normative or correct interpretation impossible believe that they have correctly interpreted the state of affairs.

They confidently declare that their interpretation of the problem of interpretation is the correct one, namely, that no one can claim to have “the one correct interpretation.” Those who claim that it is impossible “to privilege one reading as normative” privilege their own reading as normative. When, in the above quote, Smith declares, “There is not a reading that is the reading of the world or a text,” he presents his own reading of the world as the reading of the world.

Smith’s view ultimately self-destructs and, therefore, cannot be true.  Smith wants us to believe that his interpretation is the correct one, all the while arguing that no interpretation can be the correct one.  This is illustrative of the inner rot of any relativistic theory.  By denying objectivity, by denying that absolutes exist, the relativist always wants an exemption for their position.  They seem to be saying, “Every view out there is relative, except mine.  I am the only who has a privileged and absolute position.”

Interpretation of the Bible can be difficult, and there are cultural, linguistic, and historical barriers to overcome, but to throw in the towel and say that no interpretation is correct is simply self-defeating.  The correct interpretation is there, but we have to work for it.