One: Human Uniqueness as an Interdisciplinary Problem?
“The I is the producer of inwardness.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 38
On August 21, 1885, Lord Gifford signed into existence his last will and testament, creating the Gifford Lectures and along with that the now famous charge to all future lecturers:
“I having been for many years deeply and firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God, . . . and the true and felt knowledge... of the relations of man and of the universe to Him, and of the true foundations of all ethics and morals—being, I say, convinced that this knowledge, when really felt and acted on, is the means of man’s highest well-being, and the security of his upward progress, I have resolved... to institute and found... lectureships or classes for the study and promotion of said subjects.” The purpose and goal of these lectureships at the four Scottish universities would be “promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term,” and the lecturers should “treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense the only science, . . . without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it to be considered just as astronomy and chemistry is.”1
Lord Gifford’s very specific demand for a generally conceived natural theology that would treat its object of study as “a strictly natural science,” and indeed in one sense as “the only science,” has of course become a completely impossible task today. The emerging interdisciplinary, and increasingly international, research field of “theology and science” clearly exemplifies a diversity of approaches, and a pluralism of opinions and methodologies that starkly reveals a rather complex intellectual journey from modernity to postmodernity and beyond. Against the background of this intellectual history, the mere idea that “true knowledge of God” might be “the means of man’s highest wellbeing, and the security of his upward progress,” and that all this could be achieved by a natural theology “in the widest sense of the term,” seems remote, even quaint, were it not for the obvious passion and sincerity that shine through the carefully worded paragraphs of Lord Gifford’s will. Every Gifford lecturer, of course, is confronted with the serious and daunting challenge of successfully embedding his or her lecture series in the long and rich tradition of the Gifford Lectures and thereby establishing a meaningful connection with in the the intellectual climate of the Edinburgh of 1885. Clearly, any Gifford lecturer should feel at least some moral and intellectual obligation to live up to the charges of Lord Gifford’s will. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre argued in his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (1988), Adam Gifford’s will is a document from a cultural milieu so significantly different from and alien to our own that it might be difficult, and really hard work, to determine what fidelity and loyalty to Lord Gifford’s intentions might mean today. This is all the more true since we are not all participants in a common culture, and therefore no longer share the philosophical and theological presuppositions of Lord Gifford and his peers.
In the introduction to his lectures, MacIntyre correctly argued that any public lecture or lecture series should demand of us an astute awareness of the radical contextuality of who the lecturer is, who the audience is, and how the problems at hand are to be defined (cf. 1990: 1). In the Gifford Lectures, I believe, this radical contextuality, embodied by a specific lecturer, a very specific audience, and a specifically defined problem, should be deepened and broadened even further to include past audiences and past lecturers, and also very specifically the dominant voice of the influential conditions of Lord Gifford’s will. This should be true in spite of the philosophical and cultural differences we face as we try to relate to Gifford’s intentions. For anyone engaged in interdisciplinary work, possibly the biggest challenge comes from the now dated and problematical modernist worldview expressed in a sentence like the following: “I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science.... I wish it to be considered just as astronomy and chemistry is” (cf. Lord Gifford’s Will, in Jaki 1986: 74).
This now famous statement clearly exudes a very specific, if not typical, modernist yearning for a lofty and universal notion of human rationality.2
Clearly the intention here is that natural theology, however conceived, be done in such a way that it would qualify for natural scientific status, so that also the discipline of theology can partake in one of the most important and defining characteristics of the natural sciences, namely, its successful history as one of clear and distinct rational progress in intellectual inquiry. Lord Gifford is thus revealed as a strong and representative figure of his own cultural time and place (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 9, 14). However, even if in a sense the history of the natural sciences could be interpreted to witness a progressive evolution of new breakthroughs and spectacular discoveries, surely theology—and even “natural theology,” conceived in whatever form—has no such history of rational problem-solving and progress to fall back on. Not only has the notion of “progress” become seriously problematical today, even in the natural sciences (cf. van Huyssteen 1989: 24-71), but the contemporary intellectual context of theological reflection has become so radically pluralist that there is little chance of any agreement on what rational progress might be conceived to be, or whether it is even something that theology should strive for.
MacIntyre was right, of course, in identifying this kind of radical intellectual pluralism not only as exemplifying the academic context of the culture(s) we live in (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 11), but also as typical of the history of the Gifford Lectures. For MacIntyre this raised the troubling question whether the history of the Gifford Lectures, instead of accomplishing some form of universal rational progress in natural theology, might represent only dissensus, or in his striking words, a kind of “museum of intellectual conflict” (10), so that delivering these lectures might in the end make one a prisoner in a world of incommensurable rationalities. In my recent work I have challenged precisely this kind of polarization, especially when trying to relate Christian theology to the sciences. We are obliged neither to commit to some form of universal rationality nor to plunge into a sea of relativism where many rationalities proliferate. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary understanding of rationality, rightly conceived, should enable us to move away from abstract, overgeneralized models or blueprints for “doing” interdisciplinary work,3
and specifically for doing theology and science. This should instead help us focus on developing, first contextually, and then transversally, the merits of each concrete interdisciplinary problem in terms of the very specific science and the very specific theology involved.
Against this background, it seems clear why it has become impossible and unrealistic even to contemplate developing a universal natural theology that would rival the empirical excellence of the natural sciences. But what does all this mean for the interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and the sciences? Pluralism in both theology and the sciences, along with a rising awareness that science and religion are vastly different cognitive domains, has of course intensified this problem. We can summarize some of the most important factors determining the complexity of the theology and science dialogue as follows:
• clear and profound differences as to the nature and identity of these very in the different reasoning strategies
• important differences in how we form and hold on to beliefs in these two very different cognitive domains
• obvious differences in how we justify holding our beliefs in disciplines as 4 radically different as theology and the sciences
Moreover, contemporary forms of postfoundationalist epistemology have convincingly shown that it has become impossible, and certainly implausible, even to talk about “theology and science” in any generic, abstract, or a-contextual sense. This increasing awareness of the radical social and historical contextuality of all our rational reflection should make it abundantly clear that in interdisciplinary dialogue the rather vague terms “theology and science” should be replaced by a focus on specific theologians who are trying to do very specific kinds of theologies and are attempting to enter into interdisciplinary dialogue with very specific scientists, working within specified sciences on clearly defined, shared problems.
In the light of the rather complex recent history of the theology and science dialogue, these questions ultimately focus on the very last issue: Would it be possible to identify, between radically diverse disciplines, something like a common issue, a shared problem, a kind of mutual concern, or even a shared, overlapping research trajectory that might benefit precisely from interdisciplinary dialogue? Is it too ambitious to hope that a multidisciplinary approach may yield interdisciplinary results, or do we, at the end of the day, remain prisoners of our incommensurable belief systems and isolated disciplines? In The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (1999), I rejected the idea that the domain of religious faith and the domain of scientific thought are in any sense exemplified by rival or opposing notions of rationality. I also argued that different, and seemingly incompatible, reasoning strategies actually share in the resources of human rationality. The question is, of course, whether this approach might help us circle back to some of Lord Gifford’s original intentions.
I hasten to add that an argument that celebrates diversity, pluralism, and contextuality, while at the same time pursuing shared resources of human rationality and interdisciplinary conversation, does not in the least imply a retrieval of modernist notions of rationality. The rationality of modernity resided in a centered human subject, functioning as an epistemological foundation from which all claims for the justification of knowledge proceeded (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 22f.). In this sense modernity not only characteristically represented a comprehensive metanarrative strategy that described the historical construction of the modern world, but it even more fundamentally represented a widespread cultural understanding. This modernist notion of universal rationality can also be described as taking for granted not only that all rational persons conceptualize data in one and the same way, but also that—because honest observers are allegedly able to put aside or rise above the prejudices of prior commitment to belief ‚ÄĒ they would report the same data, the same facts, in the same way (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 16). Closely related to this is the typically modernist development of distinct domains of knowledge and practices the disciplinary autonomies of which were ultimately institutionally recognized and protected but which, at the same time, were unified by a formal and universal notion of human rationality (cf. Rouse 1996: 49). On an epistemological level this modernist mode of inquiry was definitively dealt with first by Michael Polanyi, then by Thomas Kuhn, and post-Kuhn by various strands of postmodern science. What this move has made increasingly clear is that all our inquiry, whether scientific or theological, is highly contextual and already presupposes a particular theoretical, doctrinal, or personal stance and commitment (cf. van Huyssteen 1989: 47-71; 1999: 1-60).4
In a modernist world that confessed utmost faith in universal rationality, and that saw the history of genuine science as a history of continuous progress, it was therefore impossible to see that commitment to some particular theoretical or doctrinal standpoint may be a prerequisite for, rather than a barrier to, an ability to characterize data in a way that will enable inquiry to proceed rationally. In this world all sciences, also the human sciences, exhibited progress, and progress of all kinds—moral, scientific, technological, theological—was the central and defining subject matter. These kinds of conceptions of progress and of its inevitability were among the most unifying conceptions of this modernist worldview (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 17, 21). This gets even more interesting if we ask what scientific knowledge in theology might truly have meant to Adam Gifford and his contemporaries. In natural theology, as a “science still in the making,” specific data would function as starting points for inquiry: both the data of na the ture that supplies the starting point for natural theology, and the data provided by the Bible that supplies the starting point for a theology of revelation. For Gifford, furthermore, natural theology took over from philosophy the role of an organizing principle, the overarching view that provided the encyclopedic context for all the different sciences. This is why in his will he called natural theology “the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense the only science” (Jaki 1986: 74). What we have here, then, is a conception of universal science that comprehends both God and nature (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 22f.).
Against this background I now have to answer the question that has haunted so many recent Gifford lecturers: Are Gifford Lectures really possible today? And I too answer it with a qualified yes and no (cf. MacIntyre 1990: 24). We may not be able to go back in time to Lord Gifford’s context in Edinburgh, and we may no longer be able to accomplish natural theology, or natural theology in exactly that universalizing way. But we can go back to the central idea of Gifford’s charge and from that glean two crucially important themes. Gifford phrased it as follows:
I having been for many years deeply and firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God, . . . and the true and felt knowledge... of the relations of man and of the universe to Him, and of the true foundations of all ethics and morals—being, I say, convinced that this knowledge, when really felt and acted on, is the means of man’s highest well-being, and the security of his upward progress, I have resolved... to institute and found... lectureships or classes for the study and promotion of said subjects. (Jaki 1986: 72, 74, my italics)
The very explicit and well-known statement here is that, in knowing God, and in knowing the world, and our relationship to the world in relation to God, we may actually find and achieve something unique, i.e., humankind’s “highest well-being.” As I will now argue, implicit in this statement are two important themes that can be revisioned to reach out to us transversally across time: there is a direct challenge to a form of multidisciplinary reflection that may lead to interdisciplinary insights, and there is a clear and unambiguous relational statement on what is unique about our human species, which can be optimally understood only in terms of our broader connection to the universe and to God. Lord Gifford seems to be making a theological statement about human uniqueness, and might just as well have said that what is unique about us as humans can be found in exactly this remarkable ability we have to know God through our relationships to this God, and through the way we know the relationship of the universe to this God.
MacIntyre argued in his Gifford Lectures that even if we are obliged to reject some of the central beliefs of Gifford and his Edinburgh contemporaries so steeped in a modernist, nineteenth-century mode of rationality, we are still able to continue the tradition of his charge, and to identify with his project because of the way he held that inquiry into God and inquiry into the good are not separable (MacIntyre 1990: 25f.). I want to take this one step further and argue that the call for a comprehensive, universalizing natural theology in Gifford’s will can be transformed into an integrative and contemporary interdisciplinary challenge for theology and the sciences. This is so precisely because Gifford’s basic conviction—that there is something about being human, even uniquely human, that is constituted by the relationship of ourselves and of our world to this God—transcends the rigid modernist contours of the time. For me as a Christian theologian, this today means that we have not understood our world, or ourselves, until we have understood them in relationship to God. This profoundly links us to Gifford’s original intentions, even as we move beyond the philosophical worldview of these intentions and radically revise our knowing of God, and of ourselves, in the light of our own natural origins.
The call for a comprehensive, universalizing natural theology in Lord Gifford’s will can therefore be revisioned to reveal an integrative and interdisciplinary contemporary praxis for “theology and the sciences.” Also, precisely because of Gifford’s basic theological conviction that there is something about being human, even uniquely human, that is constituted by the relationality of ourselves and our world to God, his charge transcends the rigid modernist contours of the time. The two themes of interdisciplinarity and relationality thus merge in a powerful theological appeal: we have not understood our world, and ourselves, until we have understood ourselves and our world in relationship to God.
In this lecture series I will directly pursue these two crucial themes that reach out to us transversally from Lord Gifford’s original charge: revisioning a contemporary notion of interdisciplinary reflection, and pursuing as an interdisciplinary problem the issue of human uniqueness. I will argue that theology and the sciences find a shared research trajectory precisely in the topic of human uniqueness. The question, of course, is how reasonable it is to expect a in the theologian to enter into the formidable dangers of interdisciplinary discourse on a topic that, at first blush, seems to present itself as a common or shared concern but is certainly going to be fraught with all kinds of methodological and epistemological dangers. How reasonable is it for a theologian, after examining, for instance, the results and accomplishments of some of the sciences dealing with anthropological issues, to expect these sciences to provide a basis, or important links, or even a stage for discussion of issues on human origins, human nature, human uniqueness, and human destiny? How realistic is it for a theologian to expect scientists to take theological contributions to this central topic seriously? And when the dialogue is finally narrowed down to theology and paleoanthropology, how may paleoanthropology enrich theology, and what—if anything—may theological anthropology contribute to paleoanthropology?
In dealing with these questions, we are immediately confronted with two more difficult issues, issues that Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur have identified as serious obstacles for any interdisciplinary conversation. First, we face the prejudices of a public that easily places all its trust in science and, I would add, unabashed scientism. Second, there exists an equally serious problem with theology and philosophy, two disciplines that seem so concerned to assure their own survival and, preoccupied by immense textual heritages, also seem uninterested in recent developments in the sciences (Changeux and Ricoeur 2000: 1). For theology the challenge is even more daunting: Even if it wanted to, can a theology that has willingly abandoned all grand claims to be an inclusive, comprehensive natural theology ever be a legitimate part of a multivoiced interdisciplinary conversation? Why would the theologian try to speak publicly? And who would care to hear this voice?
In the kind of multileveled, integrative interdisciplinary conversation that I will argue for, terms like “transversality” and “contextuality” will take center stage, and will have the value of identifying shared concerns and points of agreement, and maybe more importantly, of exposing areas of disagreement and putting into perspective specific divisive issues that need to be discussed. We also need to keep in mind that in any interdisciplinary conversation, different discourses often represent radically diverse perspectives, and also different and distinct methods of investigation, which means they cannot be reduced to each other or derived from each other (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 235ff.; Changeux and Ricoeur 2000: 4). The challenge, however, is to show that it is often at the boundaries between disciplines that new and exciting discoveries take place. But a timely warning should be issued here: an interdisciplinary approach is likely to be fruitful only as long as one is scrupulously attentive to the meaning of words and the proper use of concepts (cf. Changeux and Ricoeur 2000: 25). When a concept like human uniqueness is used in theology, it may mean something entirely different than when it is used in the sciences. But these diverse uses of the same phrases may, at the same time, alert us to promising liminalities between the disciplines. Indeed, interdisciplinary discourse may begin at this very point of transversal intersection and tension. Thanks to the multiplicity, abundance, and completeness of human experience, our different discourses do continually intersect with one another at many points.
Interdisciplinary discourse, then, is an attempt to bring together disciplines or reasoning strategies that may have widely different points of reference, different epistemological foci, and different experiential resources. This “fitting together,” however, is a complex, multileveled transversal process that takes place not within the confines of any given discipline (cf. Changeux and Ricoeur 2000: 87), but within the transversal spaces between disciplines. For the theologian the achievement of this kind of shared rational space might at the same time signify the arrival of an authentic public realm in which all participants, whatever their particular differences, can meet to discuss any claim that might be rationally redeemable (cf. Tracy and Reynolds 1992: 19).
Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science
In a context where the public trust in science, and often unabashed scientism, is still so dominant, it does seem warranted to ask whether science as such has finally claimed rationality, that allegedly most unique of our human abilities, at the expense of religious faith and theological reflection. And if it has, would that mean that theology is now left without any interdisciplinary criteria to “qualify” for epistemic credibility at all? In The Shaping of Rationality I explored the complex relationship between the cultural forces of theology and science, and answered these questions with a resounding no. A more nuanced approach would be to ask whether theology exhibits a rationality that is comparable to, overlaps with, or is informed by the rationality of science (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 119). Against this background I have argued that the identities of both science and theology have been challenged by postmodern culture. This challenge has revealed the typically modernist notions of objective truth, universal rationality, and autonomous individuality as untenable. In developing my notion of a postfoundationalist rationality, I argue for the abandonment of modernist notions of rationality, typically rooted in foundationalism and in the quest for secure foundations for our various domains of knowledge. With postmodernism I have rejected all forms of foundationalism, but I have also argued against extreme forms of deconstructive postmodernism and the adoption of relativist forms of nonfoundationalism or contextualism (cf. also Stenmark 1995: 301ff.) as reactions against universalist notions of rationality. Over against the objectivism of foundationalism and the extreme relativism of most forms of nonfoundationalism, a postfoundationalist notion of rationality helps us to acknowledge contextuality, the shaping role of tradition and of interpreted experience, while at the same time enabling us to reach out beyond our own groups, communities, and cultures, in plausible forms of inter-subjective, cross-contextual, and cross-disciplinary conversations.
On this postfoundationalist view embodied persons, and not abstract beliefs, should be seen as the locus of rationality. We, as rational agents, are thus always socially and contextually embedded. Moreover, it is as embodied rational agents that we perform rationally by making informed and responsible judgments in very specific personal, communal, but also disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts. In fact, in all domains of rational behavior we make these judgments for what we perceive to be good reasons. And it is precisely in our very human ability and responsibility for informed judgments in all areas of life that we find what I have called the shared resources of human rationality (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 145ff.). On this view rationality is alive and well in all the domains of our human lives. Rationality turns out to have many faces, and human rationality, rightly interpreted in its complex, embodied form, may even ultimately define who we are as a species. This notion of human rationality presupposes the evolutionary epistemological insight that all forms of human cognition are grounded in biological evolution even as it reaches out beyond the limitations of strictly evolutionary explanations. Moreover, a postfoundationalist approach to rational reflection teaches us that rationality can never be adequately housed within only one specific reasoning strategy, and as will become clear, the very human ability for reasoning actually holds the important and only key to bridging the different domains of our lives responsibly (4ff.).
In fact, rationality is all about epistemic responsibility: the responsibility to pursue clarity, intelligibility, and optimal understanding, as ways to cope with ourselves and our world. In this dialogue the pursuit of intelligibility and optimal understanding emerges as possibly the most important epistemic goal that shapes the way we interact with others, ourselves, and our worlds on a daily basis. In my recent work I have argued that all the many faces of human rationality relate directly to this pretheoretical reasonableness, a “commonsense rationality” that informs and is present in all our everyday goal-directed actions. The origins of a rationality of interdisciplinarity, therefore, lie not in abstract theories of reason but in the everyday and ordinary means by which we make rational judgments and decisions, i.e., the performance of rationality in everyday life. From these everyday activities in ordinary time we can identify epistemic values like intelligibility, discernment, responsible judgment, and deliberation, which guide us when on an intellectual level we come to responsible theory choice and commitment (cf. 171). It is in the pursuit of these goals and ideals that we become rational persons as we learn the skills of responsible judgment and discernment, and where we articulate the best available reasons we have for making what we believe to be the right choices, those reasons we have for holding on to certain beliefs, and the strong convictions we have for acting in certain ways. For this reason we cannot talk abstractly and theoretically about the phenomenon of rationality anymore; it is only as individual human beings, living with other human beings in concrete situations, contexts, and traditions, that we can claim some form of rationality. In this sense human rationality is revealed as always person-and domain-specific, as we discover it as present and operative in and through the dynamics of our words and deeds.
Against this background I have argued for a postfoundationalist notion of rationality with significant challenges for the interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and the sciences (cf. van Huyssteen 1999). Leaving behind modernist notions of absolutist, universal reasoning, and accepting the postmodern challenge of fragmentation and pluralism in both theology and the various sciences, I have argued for important and distinct differences between reasoning strategies used by theologians and scientists. At the same time, however, I have argued that shared rational resources may actually be identified for the very different cognitive domains of our lives precisely in the pragmatic performance of rationality in different reasoning strategies. In dialogue with philosophers like Nicholas Rescher, Calvin Schrag, and Larry Laudan, I have tried to plot a course between, on the one hand, modernist, metanarrativist overstatements of universality and objectivity and, on the other hand, the extremes of postmodernist overemphases on contextuality and personal judgment. In exactly this sense, then, the move beyond modernist forms of foundationalism does not mean that we should retreat to nonfoundationalist communities of discourse that have only their own epistemologies, and their own isolated rationalities. On a postfoundationalist in the view, however, “splitting the difference between modernity and post-modernity” (Schrag 1989: 89ff.) is taken with utmost epistemological seriousness, and does not imply that either modern themes or postmodern concerns are cast aside, but that they are creatively revisioned in a move beyond these 12 extremes, precisely by constructing plausible forms of intersubjective, rational accountability.
This postfoundationalist view is certainly meant to remind those who “dance on the grave of the Enlightenment that funeral arrangements for reason are premature” (cf. Keating 2002). With Schrag I have argued against a notion of universal rationality that assumes a common mode of rationality for all domains of our cognitive lives, but I have also argued against the reduction of rationality to mere communal consensus and local contextuality. This certainly means that theology cannot formulate its own idea of reason independent of philosophy or the rationality of other reasoning strategies. A postfoundationalist approach to rationality does however allow theology to remain tied to specific communities of faith without being trapped by these communities. For this reason I have argued for a form of transversal reasoning that honors precisely the universal intent of human reason and, consequently, yields a “cognitive parity” between various and diverse fields of inquiry (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 172). This clears the way for a more “catholic” or holistic notion of rationality that enables the sciences and theology, as well as the arts and humanities, to enter into meaningful cross-disciplinary conversation. This emerging, broader view of postfoundationalist rationality is interdisciplinary (cf. also Schneider 2001: 30f.), but by definition it also yields interpersonal, and all forms of cross-cultural, dialogue, and ultimately enables us to interpret multiple aspects of our embodied experience by attuning our beliefs, convictions, and judgments to our own self-awareness, and because of that, to the overall patterns of our interpreted experience. On a postfoundationalist view of rationality, the narrative quality of one’s experience, therefore, is always going to be rationally compelling. And in this sense a postfoundationalist notion of rationality is never going to function as a superimposed, modernist metanarrative, but will always develop as an emerging pattern that unifies our experience without in any way totalizing it (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 176f.).
Crucial to a postfoundationalist theory of rationality, then, is a theory of experience that will enable us to reason adequately about the various facets of our human experience. In dialogue with Jerome Stone, Susan Haack, and others, I have understood experiential adequacy as crucial for the understanding of a postfoundationalist notion of rationality (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 202ff., 222f.). On this view human experience is always interpreted experience, our observations and perceptions are always theory-laden, and they interact with our world(s) in terms of life views to which we are already committed. A postfoundationalist notion of rationality thus yields a form of compelling knowledge (cf. Solberg 1997) that must seek to strike a balance between the way our beliefs are anchored in interpreted experience and the broader networks of beliefs in which our rationally compelling experiences are already embedded (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 232). Against this background I have agreed with Haack that our epistemologies, as well as our standards of rationality, are always contextually shaped yet not hopelessly culture-bound (cf. Haack 1995: 222). This made possible the jettisoning of universal rules of reason that would dictate the proper rational forms for all our reasoning strategies. But this also prevents us from seeing the celebration of diverse forms of rationality as a capitulation to epistemological tribalism: we do not have to eschew the free deployment of our diverse modes of rationality as we transversally cross cultural and disciplinary boundaries.
Thus an interdisciplinary rationality is revealed that supports the claims, by at least some in our epistemic community, for a public voice for theology in our complex, contemporary culture. On this view theologians, and also scientists of various stripes, should be empowered to protect the rational integrity of their own disciplines, while at the same time identifying overlapping issues, shared problems, and even parallel research trajectories as we cross disciplinary lines in multidisciplinary research. This should be a challenging answer to one of modernity’s most powerful demands, namely, that theological reflection, as well as the many forms of contemporary scientific reflection, ultimately requires universal epistemological guarantees to qualify as “real science.” In fact, postfoundationalist theology, like science, relies on a community, a community that converses with itself but also seeks to engage in dialogue across the disciplines because of the rational resources we share. And as Larry Laudan has argued, one of the most important shared resources between diverse disciplines is surely problem solving as the central activity of research traditions (cf. Laudan 1977: 190ff.; van Huyssteen 1989: 172-89; 1999: 164ff.). Also, the very diverse reasoning strategies of theology and the sciences overlap in their respective quests for intelligible problem solving, whether empirical, experiential, or conceptual.
Philosophically Lord Gifford’s charge can now be liberated from its modernist intentions and revisioned to express its implicit and powerful interdisciplinary challenge precisely in terms of what I have called a postfoundationalist notion of rationality. Within the context of this model of thought, we do not have to succumb to the modernist view that somehow in the there exists a necessary, universal rule of reason that dictates the proper rational forms for all humans and all disciplines, nor do we have to capitulate to the relativism of epistemological tribalism. A postfoundationalist notion of rationality reveals the way we live and reflect on our lives as deeply embedded in historical, cultural, and conceptual contexts, but also shows, at the same time, that we are free to employ our rather unique modes of rationality across contextual, cultural, and disciplinary barriers. For this reason it would be in interdisciplinary dialogue, correctly conceived, that we rediscover the public voice of religion and theology. Here theology is neither transformed, modernistically, into natural science nor rejected as nonscience. It emerges as a reasoning strategy on par with the intellectual integrity and legitimacy of the natural, human, and social sciences, even as it defines its own powerful domain of thought that in so many ways is also distinct from that of the sciences. On this view the theologian may join forces with the critical scientist in drawing clear boundaries vis-á-vis all forms of scientism, but also has a moral obligation to resist all forms of theological imperialism: two ideologies that have the power to destroy interdisciplinary dialogue.
As an important step beyond any universalist and generic notions of rationality, I have argued for developing a postfoundationalist notion of rationality where as rational agents situated in the rich, narrative texture of our social practices and traditions, our self-awareness and our self-conceptions are not only intrinsically embedded in our own rationality, but are indispensable starting points for any account of the values that shape human rationality. But if rationality and personal convictions go together so closely, and the experiential bases of our rational decisions and actions are acknowledged, then, from an epistemological point of view at least, conscious self-awareness indeed lies at the heart of human rationality, and at the heart of what it might mean to be uniquely human. What follows from this is that the patterns of our ongoing interpreted experiences naturally emerge as integral to the way we rationally cope with our world. And precisely because rationality is so person-relative and thus requires that we attune our beliefs, decisions, and actions to our self-awareness, rationality will also require that we attune our beliefs, decisions, and actions to the overall pattern of our experience. It is in this sense that a postfoundationalist notion of rationality acknowledges the fact that one’s embodied experience is always going to be rationally compelling, even as we reach out beyond personal awareness and conviction to interpersonal (and interdisciplinary) dialogue. The need for this kind of experiential accountability seems to lie at the heart of our human self-awareness, and deeply influences our actions.
The need for accountability to our experience also reveals another important epistemological overlap between theological and scientific modes of inquiry. Because we relate to our world epistemically only through the mediation of interpreted experience, it may be said that our diverse theologies, and also the sciences, offer alternative interpretations of our experience (cf. Rolston 1987: 1-8). Alternative, however, not in the sense of competing or conflicting interpretations, but of complementary interpretations of the manifold dimensions of our experience. I have therefore argued that all religious language, and certainly all theological language, invariably reflects the structure of our interpreted experience (cf. van Huyssteen 1997: 40f.). In science, too, our concepts and theories can be seen as products of an interaction in which both nature and we ourselves play a formative role. In exactly this sense scientific knowledge of our world is also always epistemically mediated through interpreted experience. Empirical scientific observation is theoretically selected and interpreted, and functions only within the network of presupposed theories that constitute a specific reasoning strategy.
In a modernist world, the “objective” natural sciences were carefully demarcated from those disciplines that study human beings, their artifacts, and their institutions, i.e., the human and social sciences. In a world challenged by postmodernism and pluralism, stereotypical distinctions between the natural and human sciences fall away, especially when hermeneutics surfaces in the heart of the sciences and we discover that even in the natural sciences we study nature as theoretically interpreted. Thus we discover that, because of the shared resources of rationality, we use similar kinds of interpretive and evaluative procedures to understand nature and other humans, as well as the social, historical, and religious aspects of our lives. Consequently, the world as we encounter it is already interpreted, and our theories play an important role in our received interpretations (cf. Rouse 1987: 9). If in this way we relate to the manifold dimensions of our world(s) epistemically only through the filter of interpreted experience, then our attempts to locate theology in the ongoing and evolving interdisciplinary discussion acquire new depth and meaning. It also brings us a few steps closer to reconstituting theology as a rational form of inquiry in its own right.
Moreover, if it is possible to identify important epistemological overlaps and similarities between diverse reasoning strategies (like a shared quest for intelligibility, the shaping role of personal judgment, an ongoing process of problem solving, and experiential accountability), then it is also important to highlight differences between these strategies. These differences are revealed as differences in the very specific epistemological focus, the experiential resources, in the and the heuristic structures of different disciplines (cf. Stoeger 1988: 232ff.). What this means for theology and the sciences is that the differences between these reasoning strategies are far more complex and refined than just differences in objects of study, language, or methodology. These differences in foci, experiential resources, and heuristic structures obviously give rise to different disciplinary languages, contexts, and the methodologies of diverse reasoning strategies, and as such make meaningful interdisciplinary communication and understanding very difficult. But this difficult and demanding process of entering interdisciplinary dialogue in a complex, pluralist situation, with our strong personal convictions intact, is just what a postfoundationalist model of rationality hopes to facilitate. As members of specific epistemic communities who would like to plausibly claim some form of expertise in our various fields of inquiry, we hope to discover in disciplines other than our own and often in the hazy interfaces between disciplines—clues, indications, or some form of persuasive evidence that will help us push the limits of our own disciplines (cf. 232). At the heart of interdisciplinary reflection lies precisely this kind of challenge: standing within specific research traditions, we often realize that a particular tradition may generate questions that cannot be resolved by its own resources alone. Exactly this kind of interdisciplinary awareness may lead us to reach out for rational support to other disciplines.
For theology a postfoundationalist model of rationality should include an interpretation of religious experience that not only facilitates an evaluation of the problem-solving effectiveness of religious and theological traditions, but also transcends pitfalls like the kind of dualist approach that sets up a false dilemma between the “natural” and the “supernatural” and then demands a reductionist choice between the two (something that was clearly evident also in the text of Lord Gifford’s will). Surely in theological reflection our choices can no longer be restricted to either seeing the divine as interrupting or intruding on the natural, or the reductionist option of only a naturalist interpretation of religious experience (cf. Gill 1981: 117ff.). This postfoundationalist choice for an interactionist, interpretive dimension in religious experience should have important consequences for any Gifford lecturer who feels challenged to revision Gifford’s idea of natural theology. This approach opens up the possibility of interpreting religiously the way in which some of us believe God comes to us, in and through our manifold experiences of nature, persons, ideas, emotions, places, things, and events. And because of what appears to be a typical human quest for ultimate meaning, various dimensions of our experience may reveal an element of mystery, a religious disposition that, when responded to, may be plausibly said to contain, within specific interpretative contexts, the potential for divine disclosure. With this we have also arrived at possibly the most crucial and telling difference between theology and the sciences. The focus on this kind of ultimacy or mystery is unique to the experiential resources and epistemic focus of theology, and definitively sets it apart from the very focused empirical scope of the natural sciences. It is also the response to the element of mystery in all religious reflection that has often led to modernist claims that theology and the sciences, even if not conflictual, should at least be seen as incommensurably different paradigms from one another.
Would this element of mystery, when followed by the typical faith of a religious commitment, again force theology out of the shared domain of interdisciplinary discussion? This confronts us with the serious question whether deep and personal religious convictions are radically opposed to and different from other forms of knowledge, and whether this again implies a radical difference between scientific and theological rationality. The postfoundationalist notion of rationality for which I have been arguing above claims the exact opposite: because of the multidimensional nature of human rationality, we should be able to enter the pluralist, interdisciplinary conversation with our full personal convictions intact, and at the same time be theoretically empowered to step beyond the limitations and boundaries of our contexts or traditions in critical self-reflection.
In The Shaping of Rationality (1999) I argued against theology’s epistemic isolation in a pluralist, postmodern world, and for a postfoundationalist notion of rationality that reveals the interdisciplinary, public nature of all theological reflection. In an earlier work, Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World (1998), I also argued that some forms of contemporary evolutionary epistemology may hold the key to understanding not only the propensity for but also the naturalness of religious awareness. I will return to this argument in chapter 2, and show why evolutionary epistemology, by revealing the biological origins and roots of human rationality, may facilitate a more comprehensive and integrative approach to human knowledge. In Duet or Duel? I also argued that evolutionary epistemology may facilitate the kind of postfoundationalist notion of rationality that could take us beyond the confines of traditional disciplinary boundaries and modernist cultural domains. This interdisciplinary notion of rationality allows us to revision human rationality along the following lines.
Firstly, it acknowledges contextuality and the embeddedness of all our reflection in human culture, and therefore in specific scientific and confessional traditions, and thus acknowledges that also our theological presupposition the tions are already influenced by the scientific culture of our times.
Secondly, it takes seriously the epistemically crucial role of interpreted experience or experiential understanding, and the way that tradition shapes both the epistemic and nonepistemic values that inform our reflection, our thoughts about God and (what some of us believe to be) God’s presence in the world.
Thirdly, it allows us to explore freely and critically the experiential and interpretive roots of our beliefs from within our deep commitments, and to discover patterns in our lives and thought that might be consonant with what we regard as the canon(s) of our respective religious/theological traditions (cf. Brown 1994: 55ff.). The persuasiveness of these patterns should be taken up in critical theological reflection, where their problem-solving ability should then be evaluated and judged in an interpersonal and cross-contextual conversation.
Fourthly, rationality itself can now be seen as a skill that enables us to gather and bind together the patterns of our interpreted experience through rhetoric, articulation, and discernment. It is on this point that the important postfoundationalist notion of transversality replaces modernist, static notions of universality in a distinct move to see human reason as dynamic and practical in the way we use it to converse with one another through interpretative critique, narration, and rhetoric. In The Shaping of Rationality I argued for the “transversal performance” of rationality precisely when referring to this dynamic and multileveled interaction of our discourses with one another (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 135-39, 247-50). The notion of transversality is hugely helpful for highlighting the human dynamics of consciousness that enables us to move between domains of intelligence with a high degree of cognitive fluidity, and as such it is at the heart of my notion of interdisciplinary reflection (cf. also Mithen 1996: 70ff., 136ff.).
In the dialogue between theology and other disciplines, transversal reasoning facilitates different but equally legitimate ways of viewing, or interpreting, issues, problems, traditions, or disciplines. On this view interdisciplinary dialogue can therefore be seen as multidimensional and thus on convergent paths moving toward an imagined vanishing point: a transversal space where different voices are not in contradiction, nor in danger of assimilating one another, but are dynamically interactive with one another (cf. Capps 1999: 332ff.). In this multidisciplinary use of the concept of transversality there emerge distinct characteristics or features: the dynamics of consciousness, the interweaving of many voices, the interplay of social practices are all expressed in a metaphor that points to a sense of transition, a lying across, extending over, intersecting, meeting, and conveying without becoming identical. Transversality thus provides a philosophical window to the wider world of communication through thought and action. It also represents a strong reaction against rationalist/modernist impulses to unify all faculties of knowledge into a seamless unity, or the positivistic impulse to claim science as a superior form of knowing. It clearly also represents a protest against the imperialism of all kinds of ideological thought. In this sense it is a vibrant and constructive post-modernist move to integrate all our ways of knowing without again totalizing them in any modernist sense.
Philosophically, transversality implies the distinct move away from the unity and domination of reason, to the pluralization of human rationality (cf. Welsch 1996: 432ff.). In his important contribution to the notion of tranversality, Wolfgang Welsch sees transversal reasoning as a move away from static notions of rationality: the axis of reason is rotated from verticality to horizontality, and human reason itself now becomes a dynamic faculty of performative transitions that interconnects the various forms of human rationality (Welsch n.d.: 31f., 46f.). But on this view the plural nature of human reason does not imply that different rationalities now exist independent of one another as incommensurable intellectual domains. In fact, different domains of human rationality, and therefore also different disciplines, while having their own integrity and specific identities, are in many ways connected and intertwined with one another precisely by the dynamic performative faculty of reason (cf. Novakovic 2004: 159ff.). This plurality is nonhierarchical and irreducible (cf. Welsch 1996: 555ff., 603f.), and highlights important differences between various domains of rationality, and between disciplines, even as it opens up the exploration of transversal spaces that allow for the connection of different domains of rationality. This also allows for the emergence of paradigmatic interdisciplinary networks and opens up the possibility that different disciplines in dialogue, although never fully integrated, can learn from one another and actually benefit by taking over insights presented in interdisciplinary dialogue.
On this view transversal rationality facilitates a multiperspectival approach to dialogue, where rationality exists in the intersecting connections and transitions between disciplines. In interdisciplinary dialogue, it is precisely these shared domains of rationality, these intersecting, overlapping concerns, that have to be carefully identified. This interwovenness of many different disciplinary voices opens up spaces for the performance of human cognitive fluidity at work, reveals the interdisciplinary conversation as transitional and interrelational, and the performance of human rationality as in the transversal. Welsch puts this quite succinctly: transversal rationality is rationality in movement, it is an ability, a skill, and as such is dynamically realized in these interactive processes (cf. Welsch 1996: 764). In his use of the metaphor of transversality, Calvin Schrag takes his cue from mathematicians, who take up the vocabulary of transversality when speaking of a line as it intersects a system of other lines or surfaces, but also from physicists and physiologists. In the interdisciplinary and varied use of this concept a shared meaning emerges indicating a sense of extending over, lying across, and intersecting with one another (cf. Schrag 1994: 64). All these images enrich and enlighten what happens in concrete, contextual situations where we start down the risky and precarious road of interpersonal and interdisciplinary conversation. The use of the concept of transversality has important roots in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theory of consciousness. In a critical move away from Husserl’s transcendental ego, Sartre found the unity of human consciousness in the performative act of human consciousness. In Sartre’s own striking words: “The I is the producer of inwardness.... Consciousness is defined by intentionality. By intentionality consciousness transcends itself. It unifies itself by escaping from itself.... It is consciousness which unifies itself, concretely, by a play of ‘transversal’ intentionalities which are concrete and real retentions of past consciousnesses” (Sartre 1960: 38, 39).
This was Sartre’s way of anchoring subjectivity in performative intentionality, by weaving different strands of past experiences into a concrete pattern of subjective intentionality. On this view consciousness is from the bottom up intentional and emerges in the transversal continuity of the self-referential subject (cf. Shirin 2005: 195). Schrag has connected deeply with Sartre’s notion of a unifying play of transversal intentionalities, but relocates it within a rich and multidimensional notion of transversal rationality, or what I have called a postfoundationalist notion of rationality. Transversal rationality is now fused with consciousness and self-awareness, and this consciousness is then unified by an experience of self-presence, emerging over time from a remembering self-awareness/consciousness in which diverse past experiences are transversally integrated as we reach out to others. In appropriating the notion of transversal rationality in this truly rich and creative way, Schrag eventually wants to justify and urge an acknowledgment of multiple patterns of interpretation as one reaches out in interpersonal dialogue, and as one moves across the borders and boundaries of the different disciplinary matrices (cf. Schrag 1994: 65). Influenced by Guattari, Deleuze, and Foucault, Schrag ultimately aggressively moves beyond the restrictions of Sartre’s subject-centered consciousness to transversality as an achievement of communicative praxis (cf. Schrag 1992: 153ff.). Talk about the human subject is now revisioned by resituating the human subject in the space of communicative praxis. Thus the notion of transversal rationality opens up the possibility of focusing on patterns of discourse and action as they happen in our communicative practices, rather than focusing on only the structure of the self, ego, or subject. On this view it is clear that transversal rationality is not just a “passage of consciousness” across a wide spectrum of experiences held together by our memory. It is, rather, a lying across, extending over, and intersecting of various forms of discourse, modes of thought, and action. Transversal rationality thus emerges as a performative praxis where our multiple beliefs and practices, our habits of thought and attitudes, our prejudices and assessments, converge.
In interdisciplinary conversation the degree of transversality achieved depends on the effectiveness of our dialogue across different domains of meaning. But the important thing in this notion of a transversal rationality is discovering the shared resources of reason precisely in our very pluralist beliefs or practices, and then locating the claims of reason in the transversal connection of rationality between groups, discourses, or reasoning strategies. The implications of the notion of transversal rationality, however, go even further than this. Schrag also distinguishes between discursive (the performance of articulation in language and conversation) and nondiscursive practices, the latter comprising, specifically, the performance of embodied rationality beyond the realm of language and the spoken word. Thus, “as there is a time and space for discourse, so there is a time and space of action, mood, desire, bodily and institutional inscriptions—a vast arena of nondiscursive dispositions and practices that also exhibit an articulatory function” (83). Transversal rationality thus emerges as a deeply embodied rationality, and our actions, desires, emotions are all ways of also understanding and articulating ourselves and our world(s). And in this sense, what Schrag calls the “event or articulation” lies transversally across both our discursive and our nondiscursive actions in time and space. Thus our experiences as “events of interpretation” are always situated temporally and spatially (cf. 83).
Exactly at this point Schrag helpfully appropriates Russian philosopher and historian Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, or value-imbued space-time, as the marker of the intrinsic connectedness of time and space as concrete dwellings for our varied discourses. The notion of the chronotope expresses for Bakhtin the inseparability of space and time, the place where time thickens, takes on flesh, becomes visible (cf. Bakhtin 1981: 84). For Schrag transversal rationality concretely exists in what Bakhtin has called the chronotopical moment, in our embodied existence in valued space and time, in the the performative here and now where time and space are intrinsically connected (cf. also Shirin 2005: 187). Epistemically this way of thinking is always concrete, local, and contextual, but at the same time it points beyond local context to transcontextual and cross-disciplinary conversation. Its initial perspectives are highly contextual, but its performances transcend the local and the concrete and ultimately facilitate interdisciplinarity. In this transversal, performative sense, then, rationality happens. And in this concrete sense time and space become vitalized and vibrant as existential dwellings rather than dead frames of reference. Most importantly, when we take seriously the radical situatedness of our existence, a multiplicity of language games and cultural domains comes into play as we attempt to articulate our situatedness in historical time and historical space. In this sense one could say that the texts of our discourses always remain embedded in the contexts—scientific, moral, legal, economic, aesthetic, and religious—from which they emerge (cf. Schrag 1992: 84).
In this way, finally, a postfoundationalist notion of rationality enables us to retain the language of epistemology by fusing it with hermeneutics. Our different genres of discourse can now certainly be identified by our making of scientific claims, moral statements, aesthetic evaluations, religious judgments, theological assessments, or by our participation in the praxis of prayer. This determination of whether a certain discourse should be recognized as scientific, ethical, political, aesthetical, or religious unfolds against the background of a wide spectrum of social practices and linguistic usages (cf. 86).
This discussion has given new depth to the important notion of transversal rationality. The modern epistemological paradigm was typified by claims for universality. The postmodern challenge typically calls into question any search for such universals; instead of a “God’s-eye view,” a perspective from the other side of history, we are offered only a fragmented vision from this side of history that typically leaves us with a complete relativization of all forms of thought and all contents of culture. Schrag’s response to this has been the pursuit of a third option, i.e., the “splitting of the difference” between modernity and postmodernity. In this move the postmodern problematization of modern claims for universality is embraced, but then postmodernism is used against itself by showing how transversal reason can more productively address the issues at hand. On this view, therefore, transversality ultimately replaces universality (cf. Schrag 1994: 75). By rediscovering the resources of reason in transversal rationality, modernist epistemology finally has to make room for a fusion of a refigured epistemology and hermeneutics in postfoundationalist rationality.
A postfoundationalist notion of rationality thus creates a safe space where our different discourses and actions are seen at times to link up with one another and at other times to contrast or conflict with one another. It is precisely in the hard struggle for interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication that the many faces of human rationality are revealed. On this view interdisciplinary assessments are still possible, and indeed required, thanks to the transversal play of our social practices, our webs of belief, and our societal engagements that demand from us an ongoing response to that which is said and done. It is this “performance of the fitting response” (76), the practice of responsible judgment, that is at the heart of a postfoundationalist notion of rationality, and that enables us to reach fragile and provisional forms of coherence in our interpersonal and interdisciplinary conversations.
In revisioning interdisciplinary dialogue as a form of transversal reasoning, human rationality is not seen anymore as a universal and austere form of reasoning, but as a practical skill that enables us to gather and bind together the patterns of all our daily experiences and make sense of them through communal, interactive dialogue. The notion of transversality also enables us to honor the nonhierarchical asymmetry between various disciplines, and specifically between the sciences and theology, and to see human reason as dynamic and practical as we use it to converse with one another through critical interpretation, through dialogue and rhetoric. The notion of transversality opens up interdisciplinary dialogue in a new and challenging way, and identifies the voices of science, theology, religions, and art as different but equally legitimate ways of looking at the world. Most importantly, though, a postfoundationalist notion of rationality claims to point beyond the boundaries of any local community, group, tradition, or culture, toward a plausible form of interdisciplinary conversation. Also in theology, as we will see, true interdisciplinary reflection will be achieved when the conversation proceeds not in terms of imposed “universal” rules, nor purely ad hoc rules, but in terms of the intersubjective agreements we reach through persuasive rhetoric and responsible judgments, and where both the strong personal convictions so typical of Christian commitment and the public voice of theology are acknowledged in cross-disciplinary conversation.
Tradition and Communicative Understanding
Postfoundationalism in interdisciplinary reflection thus claims to be a viable third epistemological option beyond the extremes of absolutism and the relativism of extreme forms of pluralism. In these lectures I want to show concretely that, in developing this notion, the “fabric” of my postfoundationalist notion of rationality can be woven together by demonstrating what this kind of interdisciplinary conversation would look like if one literally goes into a multilayered conversation with a whole array of important voices in philosophy, theology, and the sciences. As we just saw, as rational agents situated in the rich, narrative texture of our social practices and traditions, our self-awareness and our self-conceptions are indispensable starting points for any account of the values that shape human rationality. But if rationality and personal convictions go together so closely, then, from an epistemological point of view at least, the patterns of our ongoing experience naturally emerge as integral to the way we rationally cope with our world. And precisely because we are embedded in the rich narrative texture of our social practices and traditions, the overall patterns of our experience also transversally reach back to experiential patterns, contexts, and traditions of the past. In this sense a theory of traditions not only is necessarily implied in a postfoundationalist notion of rationality, but should in fact shape the way we approach interdisciplinary dialogue.
It is precisely in theoretical issues like our embeddedness as rational agents in our social practices and traditions, the fact that human rationality and personal convictions go together so closely, that we reach out to our world(s) as interpretive agents, that as situated agents we function within the complexity of multiple traditions, which have been made intelligible by the postfoundationalist turn in philosophy. In an enlightening recent article that deals directly with the impact of postfoundationalist thought on politics, democracy, and theories of governance, Mark Bevir also analyzed the epistemic importance of thinking of social context in terms of traditions (Bevir 2004).5
On this view the concept of tradition evokes a social context into which individuals are born and which then acts as the necessary background to their beliefs and actions even while, in the course of time, they might modify, develop, or even reject much of this inheritance. What this means in real life is that our embeddedness in cultural and other traditions is in a sense unavoidable. But a specific tradition is unavoidable only as a starting point, not as a final destination, i.e., not as something that determines or defines later performances. In this sense the traditions (and I would add, disciplinary research traditions) we live by have a distinct initial influence on our thoughts and actions, but are in no sense an inevitable presence within all our beliefs and actions. Although traditions are unavoidable only as starting points and not as final destinations, and most traditions do not possess fixed contents, they certainly may have identifiable core ideas that may persist over time (cf. Bevir 2004: 618).
In this sense tradition is a helpful explanatory concept in that it allows properly for situated agency and thus even provides a means for analyzing social change. Bevir’s description of the malleability and plurivocity of tradition as it passes through different individuals and groups clearly echoes the sentiments of theologian Delwin Brown (1994), pointing not only to the inevitable role of culture in tradition, but also to the unavoidable role of tradition(s) in other cultural and intellectual processes (cf. Gideon 2005: 24). This unambiguously points to the fact that whether in the sciences, theology, or politics, traditions change to accommodate dilemmas that challenge previously held beliefs.
This helps us to understand even better how a postfoundationalist approach illuminates what happens when actual interdisciplinary dialogue takes place. Because of our irrevocable contextuality and the embeddedness of all belief and action in networks of social and cultural traditions, beliefs, meaning, and action arise out of our embedded lifeworlds. A postfoundationalist approach helps us realize, however, that we are not the intellectual prisoners of our contexts or traditions, but that we are epistemically empowered to cross contextual, cultural, and disciplinary borders to explore critically the theories, meanings, and beliefs through which we and others construct our worlds. This leads directly to what Bevir has called a postfoundationalist sympathy for bottom-up forms of inquiry (cf. Bevir 2004: 709). I want to expand this to mean a direct rejection of all foundationalist approaches to reason or experience, and the acknowledgment that people in the same social-historical situation could in fact hold very different beliefs, and for a variety of reasons. This is true because experiences within even the very same context or situation could be laden with very different prior theories, and therefore often interpreted in radically different ways. This focus on bottom-up inquiry acknowledges the complex interaction between traditions and culture, and the ways in which our beliefs and practices are created and sustained but also transformed through the (contextual and intercontextual) interplay and contest of beliefs and meanings embedded in human activity (cf. 709).
Given the embeddedness of all our knowledge in tradition(s), it seems clear that if we want to reflect critically on the nature of a specific interdisciplinary problem like human uniqueness in science and theology, we will have to be ready and willing to reflect critically on exactly those traditions that underlie our knowledge claims. And if we want to avoid what Schrag calls the “twilight zone of abstraction” (cf. Schrag 1989: 90), we need to realize that a crucial notion like human uniqueness, which may be at the heart of some of our most important traditions in science and theology, can no longer be discussed within the generalized terminology of a metanarrative that ignores the sociohistorical context of the scientist(s) or theologian(s) who are entering this very specific interdisciplinary space (cf. van Huyssteen 1998: 26). For theology this will imply that its embeddedness in specific traditions will first of all mean theology should be done locally and contextually. But the awareness of this contextuality and locality does not imply the choice for some notion of tribal rationality, or for a kind of rampant relativism or easy pluralism. Precisely the open acknowledgment of this kind of contextuality, and of epistemic and hermeneutical preferences, can facilitate, rather than obstruct, trans-contextual and interdisciplinary dialogue.
Therefore, in theology we are not only called to acknowledge and articulate the way our belief in God is embedded and shaped by our personal and ecclesial commitments. We are also obliged to return critically to exactly these beliefs and traditions, acknowledge their flexible and fluid nature as they are shaped by the ongoing process of history, and then rethink and reconstruct them in interdisciplinary conversation. An important suggestion for such a theory of traditions, which also significantly dovetails with my proposal for a postfoundationalist notion of rationality, has been made by Delwin Brown (1994). Brown argues persuasively that traditions exhibit both change and continuity, and that at its heart the behavior of a tradition—whether in changing or in staying the same—is fundamentally pragmatic, and as such is indeed concerned with survival, power, and legitimation (cf. 26ff.). The identity and integrity of a tradition are preserved by what we may call its heart, or canon, which functions as an authoritative narrative and conceptual framework that shapes and molds continuity and change in traditions as lived realities. The relationship between a tradition and its canon(s) is always dialectical; the creation of identity and continuity, but also of discontinuity and novelty, occurs both as a rearrangement within its canon and as a rearrangement of the place of canon in tradition.
In theology as well as in the sciences, our traditions, paradigms, and worldviews, like all other traditions, are historical creatures. As such they are created and articulated within a particular intellectual milieu, and like all other historical institutions, they wax and wane. If in all theological reflection, as in other modes of knowledge, we relate to our worlds epistemically through the medium of interpreted experience, then this interpretation of experience always takes place within the comprehensive context of living and evolving traditions. These traditions are epistemically constituted by broader paradigms or research traditions. Because of their historical nature, research traditions in all modes of human knowledge can change and evolve, and they do this either through the internal modification of some specific theories or through a change of some of their most basic core elements. Larry Laudan has correctly pointed out that Kuhn’s famous notion of a “conversion” or paradigmatic revolution from one paradigm to another can most probably be better described as a natural, creative evolution within and between research traditions. Traditions, however, not only imply ongoing change and evolution, but also exhibit continuity. In this sense it would be right to claim that in any adequate theory of traditions, continuity and change would be primary categories (cf. Laudan 1977: 77ff.).
To understand what continuity and change might mean in the dynamic of evolving traditions, Laudan, like Imre Lakatos (1970), suggests that certain elements of a research tradition are sacrosanct and can therefore not be rejected without repudiation of the tradition itself. Unlike Lakatos, however, Laudan insists that what is normally seen as sacrosanct in traditions can actually change with time. He thinks Lakatos and Kuhn were right in thinking that a research tradition or paradigm always has certain nonrejectable, canonical elements associated with it, but were mistaken in failing to see that the elements constituting this core can shift through time. From this he concluded that by relativizing the “essence” of research tradition with respect to place and time we come closer to capturing the way scientists and historians of science utilize the concept of tradition (cf. Laudan 1977: 99f.).
This reveals again not only the radical historical nature of all traditions, but also that intellectual revolutions do not necessarily take place through complete shifts but often occur through the ongoing integration and grafting on of (research) traditions. From this we can now glean the following characteristics of research traditions, which will all apply to our imminent analysis of human uniqueness in science and theology (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 257f.; Brown 1994: 26f.).
First, because we are deeply embedded in history, traditions are constitutive of the present and finally explain why we relate to our world epistemically only through the mediation of interpreted experience. In this sense we may argue that the world we live in is always a conceptualized reality (cf. Herrmann 1998: 109).
Second, research traditions—like all traditions—cannot be reduced to in the the activities of individuals and groups within them, but they also have no reality outside of specific (epistemic) communities.
Third, (research) traditions are dynamic, evolving phenomena that live precisely in the dialectic of continuity and change.
Fourth, (research) traditions are never isolated from one another, because the borders separating traditions from their milieus and from other traditions are usually, if not always, exceedingly porous (cf. Brown 1994: 26f.).
Fifth, all traditions have sacrosanct elements that, even if they shift or change over time, form the canons of traditions and define their identity. These canons serve as the source of creativity as well as the principle of identity of traditions.
These characteristics of research traditions have important consequences for theological reflection, and clearly show why any uncritical retreat, or fideist commitment to a specific tradition or its canon(s), would seriously jeopardize the epistemic status of theological reflection as a credible partner in a pluralist, interdisciplinary conversation. Within a fideist context all commitment and religious faith seem to be irrevocably arbitrary. But the most serious limitation to any fideist epistemology would be its complete inability to explain why we choose certain viewpoints, certain networks of belief, certain traditions over others. Surely there is more to using religious language than understanding and adopting the internal workings of some specialized linguistic system that is not answerable to anything or anybody outside itself. There also should be more to the making of commitments than just being embedded in traditions that can never be questioned. Theology’s critical relation to tradition thus shows us that all religious and theological language is indeed human convention, the result of creative intellectual construction, which—along with the commitments to the canon or canons it serves to express—should be examined and critiqued as well.
Canons, or the sacrosanct elements of traditions, not only define the integrity of traditions but also form the boundaries that often function to protect traditions, and as such are often strongly resistant to change. At the same time, the boundaries that separate tradition from its milieu are always exceedingly porous (cf. Brown 1994: 26f.), although as theologians we often notoriously invent protective strategies that mask the necessary fluidity of traditions. Important changes in a tradition, though often provoked from outside, are ultimately accomplished by the recovery and re-formation of internal elements crucial to a specific tradition. In this sense continuity and change continually exemplify the dynamics of traditions. Furthermore, novelty or change in theological traditions can emerge unintentionally, when a tradition is swept along in political-social changes, but also intentionally, when change or novelty becomes the result of a conscious human choice.
What this really means is that we cannot be separated from our past, whether in our religious practices, our ecclesial, theological, cultural, scientific, or art traditions. However much freedom we have, we still are constrained by the traditions and rituals of our recent and distant ancestors, and we use this past to negotiate our way through contemporary culture. But in a postfoundationalist approach to theology, there would be no recourse to foundationalist certitude by bestowing on our canon(s) objective truth or indubitable knowledge. For a theology that is open to interdisciplinary standards of rationality and public debate, the canonical structures of its core traditions will be less structured and fixed than in foundationalist conceptions of tradition(s).
Against this background Brown has helpfully suggested that the complexity of a canon and its function in a tradition are analogous to a kind of galaxy, a galaxy of meaning (cf. Brown 1994: 76f.). Just as a galaxy is composed of a vast and varying multiplicity of elements, a canon too, as the sacrosanct core of a tradition, is dynamic and pluriform. But a galaxy has enough unity and structure to be one thing rather than another; in the same sense a canon has a rough and practical unity that can be differently construed from different perspectives. A canon, as a complex but identifiable core identity of a tradition, as a galaxy of meanings, thus has gravitational force, or a gravitational pull that is the result of the way its own internal structure relates to, and is construed in the history of, its interpretative relations. Through the dynamic interaction of construction and constraint in the historical evolution of our traditions, these galaxies of meanings creatively give way to interpretive constellations of meaning that we construct in direct interaction with the different challenges presented to theology by contemporary culture (cf. 77). It is exactly this point that will prove to be of primary importance as we find our way into the origins and history of the notion of human uniqueness in science and theology. In this sense both our theological and scientific traditions on human uniqueness will emerge as cultural negotiations, shaped by what we see as the continuing gravitational pull of the specific canon(s) of specific traditions in science and theology.
For the Christian theologian it would be impossible to think or act except through an experiential understanding of, and engagement with, very specific traditions. Our task, however, is also to stand in a critical relation to in the our respective traditions. In this imaginative and critical task of reconstructing tradition(s), the theologian in fact becomes, in Brown’s striking phrase, the caregiver of his or her tradition(s) (cf. 82, 119ff., 138). This also implies a conscious critical step beyond the confines of particular traditions, and is warranted by a revisioned postfoundationalist notion of rationality, where the task and identity of theology are revealed as definitively shaped by its location in the living context of not only tradition but also interdisciplinary reflection. The fact that we lack a clear and “objective” criterion for judging the adequacy or problem-solving ability of one tradition over another should not however leave us with a radical relativism, or even with an easy pluralism. Because we can make rational judgments and share them with various and different epistemic communities means we should also be able to communicate with one another meaningfully through conversation, deliberation, and evaluation in an ongoing process of collective assessment. Sharing our views and judgments with those inside and outside our epistemic communities can therefore lead to conversation, which we should enter not just to persuade but also to learn from. Such a style of inquiry can provide ways of thinking about rationality that respect authentic pluralism—it does not force us all to agree or to even share the same assumptions, but it finds ways we can talk with one another and criticize our own traditions while continuing to stand in them.
On this view, in an open, postfoundationalist conversation, Christian theology should be able to claim a “democratic presence” in interdisciplinary conversation. Theology would share in interdisciplinary standards of rationality that, although always contextually and socially shaped, would not be hopelessly culture-and context-bound. And theology could become an equal partner in a democratic, interdisciplinary conversation with the sciences, where an authentic Christian voice might actually be heard in a postmodern, pluralist situation. This kind of theology will share in interdisciplinary standards of rationality, even as we respect our widely divergent personal, religious, or disciplinary viewpoints, and the integrity of our widely diverse disciplines.
In my most recent work I have argued for a revisioning of theology’s public voice—for the clearing of an interdisciplinary space where not only very diverse and pluralist forms of theological reflection but also science and other disciplines might explore shared concerns and discover possible overlapping epistemological patterns in an ongoing interdisciplinary conversation. A postfoundationalist notion of rationality thus enables us to communicate across boundaries, and to move transversally from context to context, from one tradition to another, from one discipline to another. The tentative and shared mutual understanding that we achieve through this I have named, following various other scholars, a wide reflective equilibrium
This wide reflective equilibrium points to the optimal but fragile communal understanding we are capable of in any given moment. It never implies complete consensus, but it does exemplify the fragile accomplishments of our interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication, a sense of mutual agreement and of “not being puzzled anymore” (Herrmann 1998: 104). As such it also establishes the necessity of a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in our ongoing processes of mutual assessment.
In this wide reflective equilibrium we finally find the safe but fragile public space we have been searching for, a space for shuttling back and forth between deep personal convictions and the principles that finally result from responsible interpersonal judgments. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza has eloquently captured this postfoundationalist strategy by stating that, through a back-andforth movement, the communicative strategy of reflective equilibrium seeks to bring into balance or equilibrium the principles reconstructed from practice with the ongoing practice itself (cf. 1984: 301f.). On this view our already agreed-upon principles and background theories provide a critical, independent constraint that prevents these principles from being mere generalizations of our contextual judgments and practices, while at the same time allowing them to be critically questioned too. Aiming for a wide reflective equilibrium as an epistemic goal of interdisciplinary dialogue is, finally, truly postfoundationalist and nonhierarchical because no one disciplinary voice, and no one set of judgments, practices, or principles, will be able to claim absolute priority over, or be foundational for, any other. On the contrary, on this view interdisciplinarity is achieved when different disciplinary voices successfully manage to identify mutual concerns in shared transversal spaces, and use these moments of intersection between theology and other disciplines as the key to interdisciplinary conversation.
The dynamics of a postfoundationalist rationality is thus finally revealed in this fragile process where, through responsible judgment, we strive to attain the most coherent and most consistent sets of beliefs in the interdisciplinary conversation between theology and the sciences. In a postfoundationalist notion of rationality this kind of evaluative judgment plays a crucial role, and is resituated within the dynamics of our sociohistorical contexts. And as we strive for optimal understanding, and in interdisciplinary dialogue for a wide reflective equilibrium, critical evaluation becomes a truly communicative project (cf. Schrag 1989: 88). The judgments we make of the possibilities or impossibilities of interdisciplinary dialogue are therefore inseparable from the social practices of our various communities of investigators, as we attempt to understand and explain that the various domains of our personal and public lives are inexplicably connected to the contextuality and social practices of the species—ourselves—that we are trying to understand. As I will show later, it is exactly this point that has proven to be true for disciplines as diverse as theology and paleoanthropology.
In a modernist context the demands for a universal mode of rationality and judgment were construed as a quest for certainty, and finally fused into the impossible epistemological requirement of unimpeachable foundations for certain knowledge. Within a postfoundationalist notion of rationality, however, critical and responsible judgment pursues neither the modernist desire for true foundations nor its hope for certainty (cf. Schrag 1989: 89). In a postfoundationalist sense, interpersonal and interdisciplinary judgment is content to discern and evaluate our beliefs, our convictions, and our practices against the background of ever-changing and historically conditioned patterns of meaning, and to discover significant connections between them. The wide scope of a postfoundationalist notion of rationality also encompasses the separated cultural domains of modernity (science, morality, art, religion), but it is the dynamics of this process of intercontextual and cross-disciplinary reflection that enables one to move across discourses, effecting an integration of sorts that ultimately could yield the wide reflective equilibrium of interdisciplinary understanding in reasoning strategies as diverse as theology and the sciences. Whether this can be true for the elusive issue of human uniqueness in disciplines as vastly different as theology and paleoanthropology is exactly the challenge of this lecture series.
What should already be clear, however, is that on this view genuine religious, theological, and scientific pluralism emerges as normal and natural, and ought to allow for conversations between people from different traditions or cultural domains who may enter the conversation for very different reasons, and who may in fact disagree about many issues. This pluralism also allows for a legitimate diversity; the fact that different people represent divergent experiential situations because they come from different traditions, and in addition commit themselves to different research traditions, makes it normal, natural, and rational that they should proceed differently in cognitive, evaluative, and practical matters. Consequently, we must accept that also, and maybe especially, in theology, complete cognitive agreement or consensus is unattainable. What Nicholas Rescher (1993: 3f.) called dissensus tolerance will provetobea positive and constructive part of pluralism in the theology and science dialogue. It is at this point that we reach beyond our specific traditions in cross-contextual conversation to a shared wide reflective equilibrium where the diversity of our traditions will yield the diversity of our experiences, the diversity of our epistemic situations, the diversities of our values and methodologies. In the theology and science dialogue, the most sensible posture is therefore to accept the reality of cognitive pluralism within a shared public realm of discourse, to accept the unavailability of complete consensus, and to work at creating an optimally coherent, communal framework or wide reflective equilibrium of thought and action. This is what true coherence is about—a coherence where dissensus and a variety of opinion provide for creative enhancement rather than impoverishment of our intellectual culture.
This also means that even if we lack the universal rules for rationality that were so much a part of the intellectual culture of Lord Gifford and nineteenth-century Edinburgh, and even if we can never again judge the reasonableness of statements and beliefs in isolation from their cultural or disciplinary contexts, we are not the prisoners of our contexts or disciplines. We can retain the “universalizing intent” (cf. Rescher 1992: 11) of Gifford’s charge while, at the same time, letting go of the universalism of modernist rationality. For this reason we can still meaningfully engage in cross-contextual evaluation and conversation and give the best available cognitive, evaluative, or pragmatic reasons for the responsible choices we hope to make in interdisciplinary conversation. True interdisciplinarity in theology and science, therefore, will be achieved only when our conversations proceed not in terms of imposed “universal” rules nor in terms of purely ad hoc rules, but when we identify this interdisciplinary space where both strong religious convictions and the public voice of theology are fused in public conversation. A postfoundationalist acknowledgment of the pluralist character of such an ongoing process of collective assessment should open our eyes to how our various traditions, our various discourses, our communities, our sciences and practices make up our social and intellectual domains and shape our behavior and our different modes of understanding. Each of our domains of understanding may have its own logic of behavior, as well as an understanding unique to the particular domain, but in each the rich resources of interdisciplinary rationality remain.
Against this background I have argued for a theology that would be acutely aware of its deeply interdisciplinary nature, and of the epistemological obligations implied with this status. The overall thesis of this project is that a constructive appropriation of some of the epistemological issues raised by the postfoundationalist challenge to theology and the sciences will make it possible (1) to collapse rigid, modernist disciplinary distinctions and create more comprehensive interdisciplinary spaces where (2) traditional epistemic boundaries and disciplinary distinctions are blurred precisely because the same kinds of interpretative procedures are at work in all our various reasoning strategies and (3) through a creative fusion of hermeneutics and epistemology, reasoning strategies as distinctive and different as theology and the sciences may be revealed to share the rich resources of human rationality.
Interdisciplinarity and Human Uniqueness
The final question before us today is the following: Could this kind of transversal, interdisciplinary dialogue be an adequate vehicle for a concrete case study like the one before us—human uniqueness in science and theology? I believe that only in a carefully developed interdisciplinary discourse would we be able to discern whether a theological perspective on human origins and uniqueness even remotely relates to what scientists of various stripes may mean when they talk about human origins and human uniqueness. Developing a postfoundationalist approach to interdisciplinary dialogue in this first chapter is therefore my response to the first of the two themes so strongly implicit in Lord Gifford’s original charge, namely, the possibility of an integrative and interdisciplinary praxis for “theology and the sciences.” Developing this model for interdisciplinarity has now cleared the way, so to speak, for approaching his important second theme: the basic theological conviction that there is something about being human, even uniquely human, that is constituted by the relationship of ourselves, and of our world, to God. It will now be my task to take up and evaluate various scientific, philosophical, and theological claims for human distinctiveness, and to see whether a multidisciplinary research program can yield interdisciplinary results.
As has now become abundantly clear, to develop a very specific multidisciplinary discourse on a very specific problem we need to identify the various disciplinary voices that are going to be part of this conversation. And maybe more importantly, we need also to identify the very specific problem and historical/contextual environment of the discipline(s) in which it is embedded. For true multidisciplinary research to achieve any interdisciplinary insights, we have to move out of the kind of “twilight zone of abstraction” where the issue at hand is decontextualized from the space of beliefs and social practices that provided its original habitat (cf. Schrag 1989: 90). A postfoundationalist notion of rationality should alert us to the kind of flawed methodology by which many of us often overgeneralize broadly when discussing specific issues in specific fields of research. This kind of a-contextual thinking, from which stems the belief that broad conclusions can be drawn regardless of agent and context, almost always reveals a preference for under-specifying an event or an issue, and invariably, therefore, for overgeneralizing. This will turn out to be the biggest challenge in pursuing a theme like human uniqueness in theology and science, since the central concept of “human uniqueness” can be used so abstractly that it is rendered almost useless (cf. Kagan 1998: 2f.).
Ambitious overgeneralizing quickly transforms itself into an epistemological problem when we ignore subtle shifts in meaning as we cross disciplinary boundaries. In a multidisciplinary approach to a problem like human uniqueness, recognition of the significance of specific local contexts in specific different disciplines will eventually help us bridge the gap between disciplines. In pursuing the problem of human uniqueness in theology and the sciences, then, we will have to be very specific, aware of the ramifications of the question of human uniqueness within the very different contexts of different disciplines and also aware of the historical background and the history of ideas behind such contexts.
Scientists who treat the issue of human uniqueness as if it were only a biological or anthropological event, and theologians who treat it as only a spiritual or religious issue, want the book of human nature to be written in only one language. No one disciplinary language, however, can ever completely capture every aspect of the complex issue we are trying to understand here, and this will become an important argument against those disciplinary purists who are made uneasy by the messiness of multiple vocabularies in interdisciplinary research (cf. 45f.). I will argue that the problem of human uniqueness, correctly defined, not only benefits from but also needs many disciplinary voices, and also benefits from and needs the presence of the theological voice. In fact, this kind of multidisciplinary holism is not only epistemologically sound and plausible, it will also finally enable us to align this postfoundationalist argument with Lord Gifford’s original comprehensive, interdisciplinary charge.
The phenomenon of “species uniqueness,” as well as the more specific issue of human uniqueness, is certainly alive and well in our commonsense understanding of ourselves and our world. Various animals, and certainly Homo sapiens, do seem to possess at least a small number of unique qualities that are not present in others: snakes shed their skin, dogs do not; bears hibernate, cats do not; monkeys form dominance hierarchies, mice do not. Humans experience guilt, shame, and pride; anticipate events far in the future; invent metaphors, speak a language with a grammar, and reason about hypothetical circumstances. No other species, including the great apes, apparently possesses this set of talents (cf. 9). Certainly, because a great deal of important, informative research is performed on animals, scientists may feel considerable social pressure to generalize and transfer conclusions based on evidence from animals to the human condition. Jerome Kagan has warned, however, that equally confident generalizations are not possible for all human qualities: only humans seem to engage in symbolic rituals when they bury kin, draw on cave walls, hold beliefs about the self and the origin of the world, and worry about their loyalty to family members (cf. 9). Here again is an argument for contextual reasoning, and in this case for replacing overgeneralizations with species specificity.
What is already clear, and will become increasingly so, is that our species’ remarkable intellectual capacity for the kind of fluid, cross-disciplinary reflection that I have been arguing for will be properly understood only if we listen to what science is telling us today about how the human mind works. And when, as theologians, philosophers, or scientists, we try to understand how the human mind works, we must inevitably inquire about its origins and evolution. So in a sense we are back at the problem of human uniqueness, and the unavoidable question seems to be: How special are we as a species? Are we created in the image of God, as Christian theology has traditionally maintained, or should we rather follow the classic philosophical route and think of ourselves as rational animals? My argument will be that framing this important question in this way already presents us with a false dilemma, a choice we do not have to make. A careful look at the origins and prehistory of the human mind will show that we can transcend the limitations of both these polarizing perspectives and embrace a third option that will include a scientifically informed, complementary view of the nature of human uniqueness. In these lectures I want to look at some of the evidence gleaned from the transversal dialogue between Christian theology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary epistemology, paleoanthropology, and archeology, and at what these disciplines tell us today about the evolution of a creature called Homo sapiens, who is, of course, none other than us. As we will see, sometime in our past our ancestors were part of a remarkable emergence: an emergence into self-awareness, with an increasing capacity for consciousness, the possibility for moral responsibility, and the yearning and capacity for aesthetic and religious fulfillment. This fact alone offers fascinating challenges to traditional Christian theology, since it is no longer possible to claim some past paradise in which humans possessed moral perfection, a state from which our species has somehow “fallen” into perpetual decline.
The unavoidable question seems to be: How special are we really? Normally, when we refer to ourselves as rational animals, what we mean is that humans have evolved within nature in such a way that much of what we think and do proceeds under the formative guide of intelligence. Human intelligence should indeed be seen as the product of a long and complex process of biological evolution. Our possession and use of intelligence should, therefore, first be understood in evolutionary terms, or in Nicholas Rescher’s apt words, as our very “useful inheritance,” our survival mechanism par excellence (cf. Rescher 1990: 1). Our possession of intelligence and our capacity for rationality are easily understood within evolutionary principles: these peculiar human resources are clearly a means to adaptive efficiency, enabling us to adjust our environment to our needs, rather than the reverse. The ability of our brains to make intelligent judgments and appropriate decisions is the survival instrument of our species, in much the same way that other creatures ensure their survival by being prolific, tough, or well sheltered. In Rescher’s words, intelligence is our functional substitute for the numerousness of termites, the ferocity of lions, or the toughness of microorganisms (2f.). And because of this basic fact, our need for information and proper cognitive orientation in our environment is as important as the need for food and sex, and in a sense even more insatiable. The imperative to understand, therefore, is something altogether basic for us as humans, and we cannot thrive without reliable information regarding what goes on around us. Our inherited, basic intelligence thus demands of us a cognitive commitment to intelligibility, an abiding need for a comprehensive and coherent account of things. Rescher has pointed out that the rationale for our cognitive resources, therefore, is indeed fundamentally Darwinian, and that the conception of knowledge as a tool for survival, as I will argue in the second lecture, is as old as biological Darwinism itself (cf. 5; also Darwin 1985: 443f.; and especially Darwin 1981: 137, 404f.).
Intelligence can therefore be seen to constitute our particular competitive advantage, but while biological evolution accounts for the possession of intelligence, explaining the way we actually use this intelligence requires a different and broader approach. What this means is that the process of selection does not function only on a biological level, but seems also to operate—albeit in a limited way—on an aphysical or cultural level, and serves to favor survival of those cultural forms that prove to be the most advantageous. On the one hand, then, we deal with the biological transmission of physical traits by biological inheritance across generations, and on the other with the social propagation of cultural traits by way of generation-transcending influence. But the fundamental structure of the process is the same on either side. Both involve the conservation of structures over time (cf. Rescher 1990: 6).
With this it becomes clear that, for cognitive matters, the biological evolution of our capacity for rational thought is not the only issue we have to consider seriously. Not only do our various capacities for intelligent reflection and action have an evolutionary basis, so does the way we go about using them, even if on a cultural level it is more about rational selection than natural selection (cf. 6). Most importantly, cognitive evolution will challenge us by raising the question of how rational selection is superimposed on natural selection. Against the background of all the millions of species that have come and gone over the millennia, it still is a fact that a complex transmissible culture has developed in only one of them. In this one it developed explosively with radical innovations. There is indeed only one line that leads to persons, to self-awareness and consciousness, and in that line the steady growth of cranial capacity makes it difficult to think that intelligence was not being selected for. And at exactly this point, evolution by natural selection passed into something else as nature transcended itself into culture (cf. Rolston 1996: 69). The historical emergence of our thought mechanisms, therefore, is doubtless biological (Darwinian), but the development of our thought methods is governed by the complicated social process of cultural evolution. In Rescher’s words, thinking people are by and large just as interested in the fate of their ideas as in the fate of their descendants: the survival of their values is no less significant for them than the survival of their genes (cf. 1990: 12).
As will become increasingly clear in these lectures, with human consciousness and culture, radically new elements like conscious experiences have emerged, and along with thoughts have also come values and purposes and ultimately a propensity for rational knowledge (cf. van Huyssteen 1998: 38). It is precisely in an attempt to understand our ability to cope intelligently with an increasingly intelligible world through knowledge that the impact of the theory of evolution is felt far beyond the boundaries of biology. So we can now say that an individual’s heritage comes from two main sources: a biological heritage derived from parents and a cultural heritage derived from society. Given this perspective, then, evolution does lead to emergent qualities that can actually radically transcend their biological origins. Rescher’s views on this topic resonate well with Arthur Peacocke’s well-known description of the emergence of complexity (cf. Peacocke 1993: 61-83), and with important work now being done by complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman, in addition to other scientists like Ian Stewart and Simon Conway Morris. These scientists, however diverse in their fields and research, all share the view that the emergence of new modes and levels of operation, function, self-organization, and behavior that transcend the narrow capabilities of their causal origin should in fact be seen as characteristic of evolutionary processes as well.
In this first chapter I have argued that in an intellectual culture shaped by postmodernity and increasing pluralism, it has become virtually impossible to follow Lord Gifford’s demands for a universalizing natural theology that would treat its object of study as a “strictly natural science.” I do believe it is possible, however, to revision the central idea of Gifford’s charge and glean from it two crucially important contemporary themes. As famously stated in his will, Gifford argued that in the “true knowledge of God,” and in our knowing the world, and our relationship to the world in relation to God, and in acting on this knowledge, we may actually find and achieve something unique, i.e., humankind’s “highest well-being” and the security of our “upward progress” (cf. Jaki 1986: 71f.). I have now argued that implicit in this rather modernist statement are two themes that can be reconstructed to reach out to us transversally across time: a direct challenge to a contemporary form of multidisciplinary reflection that may actually yield interdisciplinary results, and a clear and unambiguous statement that as a species we humans can be optimally understood only in terms of our broader connection to the universe and to God. Against this background it was possible to argue that the call for a universalizing natural theology in Gifford’s will can be revisioned more specifically to reveal, first, the challenge for an integrative and interdisciplinary contemporary praxis for theology and the sciences, and second, the challenge to pursue as an interdisciplinary problem the issue of “human uniqueness.” I will argue, furthermore, that precisely in the topic of human uniqueness do theology and the sciences today find a shared research trajectory.
More specifically I have argued that:
1. Contemporary forms of postfoundationalist epistemology have convincingly shown that it has become implausible today even to talk about “theology and science” in any generic, abstract sense. In fact, the radical social and historical contextuality of all our rational reflection reveals that in interdisciplinary dialogue the rather a-contextual terms “theology” and “science” should be replaced by a focus on specific theologians, engaging in specific kinds of theologies, who are attempting to enter the interdisciplinary dialogue with very specific scientists, working within specific sciences on clearly defined, shared problems.
2. The idea that the domain of religious faith and the domain of scientific thought in any sense exemplify rival or opposing notions of rationality should be rejected outright. In fact, different and seemingly incompatible reasoning strategies share what I have called “the resources of human rationality.” For this reason a postfoundationalist notion of rationality, rightly conceived, should enable us to leave behind abstract, overgeneralized “blueprints” for engaging in interdisciplinary research and help us to focus on developing, first contextually and then transversally, the merits of specific interdisciplinary problems. It is in this sense that a multidisciplinary approach to specific problems may yield interdisciplinary results.
3. A postfoundationalist notion of rationality thus reveals not only a more holistic, embodied way to think about human rationality, but also arguments for the public voice of theology in our rather complex contemporary culture. On this view theologians, but also scientists of all stripes, should be empowered to argue for the rational integrity of their specific disciplines, while at the same time being free to pursue overlapping concerns and identify shared problems, and even parallel research trajectories, as they cross disciplinary lines in multidisciplinary research. Here theology is neither transformed modernistically into natural science nor rejected as nonscience. On this interdisciplinary mode theological reflection emerges as a reasoning strategy on par with the intellectual integrity and legitimacy of the natural, social, and human sciences, even as it delineates its own domain of thought that in so many ways is also distinct from that of the sciences. At the heart of this kind of interdisciplinary reflection, therefore, we find a new opportunity: as we find ourselves deeply embedded in specific research traditions, we may now realize that a particular disciplinary tradition may generate questions that cannot be resolved by its own resources alone. It is exactly this kind of interdisciplinary awareness that may lead us to cross disciplinary boundaries and reach out to other disciplines for intellectual support.
4. Because of the multidimensional, transversal nature of human rationality, we are enabled to enter the pluralist, interdisciplinary conversation with our full personal convictions intact; at the same time, we are theoretically empowered to step beyond the limitations and boundaries of our contexts, traditions, and disciplines. It is in this sense that in the dialogue between theology and other disciplines transversal reasoning facilitates different but equally legitimate ways of evaluating issues, problems, traditions, or even disciplines themselves. Transversal rationality thus emerges as a performative praxis where our multiple beliefs and practices, our habits of thought and attitudes, our prejudices and judgments, converge. In this way a postfoundationalist notion of rationality enables us to retain the language of epistemology by fusing it with hermeneutical concerns. Our different genres of discourse can now be performatively integrated by our making of scientific claims, moral statements, aesthetic evaluations, religious judgments, and theological assessments. Precisely in revisioning interdisciplinary dialogue as a form of transversal reasoning, human rationality does not have to be identified with isolated and austere forms of reasoning anymore; it is a practical skill that enables us to gather and bind together the patterns of our daily experiences, and then make sense of them through communal, interactive dialogue.
5. On this view Christian theology should be able to claim a public or “democratic” presence in interdisciplinary dialogue. Here theology will share in interdisciplinary standards of rationality, which, although always contextually and socially shaped, will not be hopelessly culture-and context-bound. This will enable our theological reflection to aim for the reasoned coherence of a wide reflective equilibrium as the optimal epistemic goal of interdisciplinary dialogue. This postfoundationalist approach to interdisciplinarity also revealed interdisciplinary reflection as nonhierarchical because no one disciplinary voice, and no one set of judgments, practices, or principles, will be able to claim absolute priority over, or be foundational for, any other.
In this specific research project I will now combine the two themes gleaned from Lord Gifford’s original charge and pursue an interdisciplinary conversation quite specifically between theology and paleoanthropology on the shared problem of “human uniqueness.” However, does my focus on a transversal approach to interdisciplinarity mean that we are already focusing on the evolution of human cognitive capacities as an answer to the question, how special are we really? Moreover, will theology be able to learn from the insights science is providing about the evolution of human uniqueness and the emergence of complexity, and how will these insights affect the already complex dialogue between these very diverse reasoning strategies? I have argued that there is indeed no clear philosophical blueprint or timeless recipe for relating the bewildering complexity of contemporary theologies to the increasingly complex spectrum of contemporary sciences (cf. van Huyssteen 1999: 235-86). This does not mean, however, that we cannot develop focused dialogues between theology and the sciences on issues that are quite specific and that resonate with both partners in this dialogue. I do believe that the evolution of “human uniqueness,” brought to the fore by especially paleoanthropology and evolutionary biology, presents us with an outstanding and exciting case study for precisely this kind of interdisciplinary dialogue.
Christian theology has traditionally assumed a radical split between human beings (as created “in the image of God”) and the rest of creation. This split has mostly been justified by reference to cognitive traits like human rationality or intelligence, which in the dominant part of the history of Christian thought served to define what exactly was meant by “human uniqueness.” However, current research in animal cognition, and on protolanguage, protomorality, ritual, and levels of consciousness, has shown that we may not be as unique as we think we are (cf. Peterson 1999: 283ff.). But even if we were to agree that various levels of consciousness extend over, and deeply connect, the animal and human world (as is argued by Damasio 1999: 195-233), it will become unambiguously clear that our emerging conception of “human uniqueness” should be broadened to account for crucial cultural issues like the emergence of art, of technology, of religion, and eventually of science.
As will become clear during this series of lectures, science, art, and religion, as direct products of cultural evolution in Homo sapiens, are all deeply embedded in the advanced consciousness and cognitive fluidity (cf. Mithen 1996: 70f., 136f.) of the human mind. As such, these cultural accomplishments rely on psychological processes that originally evolved in specialized cognitive domains and emerged only when these processes could actually work together. Cognitive fluidity, and the symbolic mind that goes hand in hand with this unique human mental ability, also enabled the development of a technology that could catalogue problems and store information. Of perhaps even greater significance, it allowed for the possibility of powerful metaphors and analogy, without which science, religion, and art could not exist. What is eminently clear, as we will see in the work of various scientists, is that the potential arose in the human mind to undertake science, create art, and discover the need and ability for religious belief, even if there were no specific selection pressures for such abstract abilities during our past.
A positive theological appropriation of the results of these sciences should at the very least inspire the theologian to carefully trace and rethink the complex evolution of the doctrine of the imago Dei. Interpretations of the imago Dei have varied dramatically throughout the long history of Christianity. In much of contemporary theology, the notion is seen as grounding personhood, and theologians are now challenged to rethink what human uniqueness might mean for the human person, a being that has emerged biologically as a center of self-awareness, identity, and moral responsibility. What does human distinctiveness mean in terms of the evolution of imagination, of symbolic propensities, of cognitive and linguistic abilities, and of moral awareness, and should we review our theological notions of the imago Dei so that it does not imply a value superiority over animals? I will eventually argue for a revisioning of the notion of the imago Dei that acknowledges our close ties to the animal world and its uniqueness, while at the same time focusing on what our symbolic and cognitively fluid minds might tell us about the emergence of embodied human uniqueness, consciousness, personhood, and the propensity for religious awareness and experience.
Finally, it is precisely in the transversal spaces between the porous boundaries between theology and the science of paleoanthropology that we will find the key for a creative rethinking of the notion of the imago Dei in Christian theology. However, we should take care not to mistake any convergence or resonance we might identify between scientific facts and Christian theology’s deepest convictions as being some kind of “proof” for God’s purpose or design in the universe. The emergence of this kind of complexity may however resonate with theology’s deepest convictions about human uniqueness, and may give us an argument for the plausibility and comprehensive nature of a theological explanation of a phenomenon—the emergence of the human mind—that has now become so fascinating for the sciences. Human nature does seem to be imperfectly understood if we do not take into account the emergence of religion, and the plausibility of religious and theological explanations. After all, our ability to respond religiously to ultimate questions in worship and prayer may be deeply embedded in the history of our species’ symbolic and imaginative behavior, as well as the cognitively fluid minds that make such behavior possible.