A Reformational theory of objectivity?

Can Christian thinking enhance academic work?  It's our conviction, at Faith-in-Scholarship, that it can.  I believe that worshipping and following Jesus Christ as lord of creation and saviour of the world should enrich all kinds of activities - including academic work, from maths to literature.  But a lot of the time this conviction is held in faith, without easy examples to which we can point.  So I'm excited to tell you today about a paper offering a positive contribution to philosophy of science on the basis of a Christian philosophy.

It's a paper that I've written as part of a team.  Dick Stafleu is a Reformational philosopher in the Netherlands who's written especially about physics, and the main idea of the paper comes from him.  Michael Reiss is professor of science education at UCL, and his wide-ranging expertise and awareness of the scientific world at large proved invaluable.  My role was to take Dick's fascinating idea, unpack it a bit and place it in the context of wider discussions.

So what is the big idea?  It's about the concept of objectivity: essentially, we argue that objectivity has a simple definition that has been overlooked.  To set the scene: philosopher Heather Douglas has argued that objectivity in science is "irreducibly complex".  In her view, objectivity has about eight different meanings grouped in three classes: about methods, individual non-bias and agreement among scientists [1].  Meanwhile, a brilliant influential book entitled simply Objectivity [2] argues that this scientific concept arose as recently as the 19th century with the idea of letting nature depict itself, such as through photography.  But this book also explains how there was an older usage of the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' where the former referred to how something is in itself (as a subject) while the latter referred to how it appears to be (as an object of perception).  This really fascinated me because it makes sense (especially for those of us who've studied some grammar!), yet it means that the meanings of 'subjective' and 'objective' have virtually switched.  Apparently we have Immanuel Kant to thank for this - but that's another story!

Enter Dick Stafleu, and his work on the philosophical framework of Herman Dooyeweerd.  Stafleu's work (e.g. [3],[4]) shows how objectivity makes sense once we recognise that everything in creation functions in some characteristic way, but human analysis and ingenuity can often map this functioning onto a simpler level: representing something in an earlier aspect of the created order.  The ways things intrinsically function are their subjective  functioning and relationships (as in the older grammatical sense of subject), whereas projecting these functions and relationships onto a simpler level means to objectify them.  The classic case is putting numbers on something.  If you measure the height of a plant (I used to do this a lot during my PhD), you're representing the plant, in all its biological glory, with a number.  The plant is a biotic subject; its height is a numerical object.  Or if you make a diagram of a chemical reaction, you're again objectifying: this time using spatial representations for a physico-chemical subject. 

That's the gist of it, anyway.  We summarise our view by saying that objectivity is projection from the aspect that characterises a situation down to an earlier aspect.  For a fuller account, and plenty of examples, you can read the paper itself (look at the FiSch Facebook page and it may be accessible for free; otherwise email Richard 'at' faithinscholarship.org).  Here's the reference:

A general theory of objectivity: contributions from the Reformational philosophy tradition (Gunton RM, Stafleu MD & Reiss MJ, Foundations of Science, 2021, doi: 10.1007/s10699-021-09809-x)

You're probably still wondering what connection this really has to Christianity and the lordship of Christ.  I think this question can be answered at several levels.  Certainly our paper isn't a piece of apologetics or evangelism.  But the idea happens to derive from a philosophical framework that shuns reductionism and sees Christ as the one in whom all things hold together (also see this post).  More specifically, our theory of objectivity appeals to the rich, many-faceted structure of the created order (or cosmos) for its architecture.  It also offers an alternative to the idea of objectivity as unbiasedness, which has sometimes been taken to imply that followers of traditional religions are handicapped when it comes to scholarly work.  In the end, I'm happy to say that this paper came about because of the commitment to explore a Christian approach to philosophy of science by all three of its authors.  The next big question is whether other philosophers will find it helpful.  Only time will tell!


[1] Douglas, H. (2004). The irreducible complexity of objectivity. Synthese, 138, 453–473.

[2] Daston, L. J., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. Zone Books.

[3] Stafleu, M. D. (1980; 2019). Time and Again: A Systematic Analysis of the Foundations of Physics. Available at: http://www.mdstafleu.nl/421197815

[4] Stafleu, M. D. (2016). Theory and Experiment: Philosophy of Science in a Historical Context. Available at: http://www.mdstafleu.nl/420879074 (See also my review.)

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