The Move to Theoretical Understanding

Where did the universe come from? How and why did it begin? Will it come to an end, and if so, how? These are questions that are of interest to us all. But modern science has become so technical that only a small number of specialists are able to master the mathematics used to describe them. Yet the basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe can be stated without mathematics in a form that people without a scientific education can understand.1Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. From Big Bang to Black Holes, New York: Bantam Books, 1988, 6.

The implementation of empirical method will eventually dissolve the ethos distorting the meaning of ‘understand’ in the quotation above, and these everyday assumptions below.

  • A simple answer will suffice2‘Suffice,’ in the sense intended here recalls the comment in Joyce’s Ulysses: “Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof.” James Joyce, Ulysses, Penguin Books, 1986, 129. Sadly, dialogue in the academy is confined to a continuous cycle of opinion and debate over ‘initial meanings.’ ‘Initial meanings’ refers to the domination of spontaneous reflection in science and scholarship in the absence of a mediating standard model for method. to understand a complex question.3The popular assumption that complex topics can be reduced to ‘clear and easy-to-read’ ‘explanations,’ mirrors the culture of ‘haute vulgarization’ that dominates the academy: “Let us all settle for glossy misery trapped in light-weight vision.” (op. cit. Introducing Critical Thinking, 30)
  • The act of reading, on its own, will suffice to achieve understanding.4Our so-called ‘study’ can become merely a matter of gathering information and names, easily forgotten… Memory-work replaces thinking and ‘taking in’. (ibid., 29) Recall the problem of ‘conceptualism’ (‘MAC’ vs. ‘McA’) introduced in Journeyism 9.
  • Commonsense expression will suffice to communicate understanding of a scientific solution.5Inadequate communications cut across all the disciplines. Hawking’s view also reinforces our point in Journeyism 1 regarding ‘a regrettable tradition of inadequate linguistic expression.’ “We have been dealing with something very fundamental: inquiry, experiences and imagination, understanding, and expression. What differs from one period to another is not inquiry, not experience, not understanding, but the expression; and so attention to these differences in expression is relevant to the differentiation of education at different times and for different cultural levels.” op. cit. (CWL 10, 1997, 116.)
  • Common sense6See op. cit. Insight (CWL 3), 442-445. See ‘commonsense eclecticism’. will suffice to provide explanatory solutions to human problems.7We have drifted into an ineffective routine of relying on “makeshift” solutions to problems. “We are not pure. We compromise. We hope to muddle through…” (op. cit., Insight (CWL 3), 8). See footnote 22 below.

These popular assumptions expose how we have been “lost in some no man’s land between the world of theory and the world of common sense.”8Lonergan, B. (1996) “Time and Meaning” (CWL 6), Philosophical and Theological Papers, 121. Here we revisit an old problem, refreshed by an invitation to make a modest horizon shift,9We have drawn attention to the needed philosophic shift initially by introducing how philosophy (or, if you like, critical thinking), controls commonsense meaning. Now we introduce how it controls scientific (theoretical) meaning. The image at the beginning of this installment shows that intellectual growth to wise academic elderhood is bounded by three horizons represented by the image of concentric circles in the image above: “common sense”, “theoretical or scientific understanding”, method (i.e.: emergent heuristics in philosophy or critical thinking). “[I]t provides a basic heuristic structure, a determinate horizon, within which questions arise.” (Lonergan (1972), Method in Theology, 343.) How, then, might one approach the experience of any data, say a sunflower, from each  perspective? toward an elementary perspective on correctly understanding experience.10In other words, an accurate account of how human understanding works is the basis upon which data for sensible and human meanings is reached.

The shift involves discovery of how scientific or theoretical understanding works.11The following also relates to our first point above about ‘simple answers to complex questions,’ as well as our reference below to ‘stunted’ growth: “The light and drive of intelligent inquiry unfolds methodically  in mathematics and empirical science. In the human child it is a secret wonder that, once the mystery of language has been unraveled, rushes forth in a cascade of questions. Far too soon the questions get out of hand, and weary adults are driven to ever more frequent use of the blanket ‘My dear, you cannot understand that yet.’ The child would understand everything at once. It does not suspect that there is a strategy in the accumulation of insights, that answers to many questions depend on answers to still other questions, that often enough advertence to these other questions arises only from the insight that to meet interesting questions one has to begin from quite uninteresting ones. There is then common to all men the very spirit of inquiry that constitutes the scientific attitude. But in its native state it is untutored. Our intellectual careers begin to bud in the incessant What? and Why? of childhood. They flower only if we are willing, or constrained, to learn how to learn. They bring forth fruit only after the discovery that, if we really would master the answers, we somehow have to find them out for ourselves.” op. cit. (CWL 3) 196-97. Perhaps you anticipated the inevitability of this shift when we introduced our up-to-date heuristics in Journeyism 22.12“The curious thing about growing is that it is a series of solutions, of plans, of inventions. The series can show huge differences at different stages.” Op. cit. Introducting Critical Thinking, 181 ff. “A beginner should think of this series of letters mainly as a help to remember that the human is a layered reality of physical, chemical, botanical, zoological, rational and supernatural actualities.” (Journeyism 22) Note: the final layer, “supernatural,” is used in the most generic “spiritual” sense of a non-denominational “openness to presences unseen”; one may prefer to substitute “religious” or “religiosity”. So it is necessary to enrich our study further, and to do so, we make a beginning with an elementary illustration from the domain of science.13In our next installment we will draw our elementary illustration from Galileo’s discovery of the “Law of Falling Bodies” presented in Terrance Quinn in Invitation to Generalized Empirical Method in Philosophy and Science. It is a critical first step in a long climb toward affirming that plants and animals are solutions, solutions to the problem of living, where we take non-living and living to be the obvious difference between, say, sand and seagulls. Asking what living is, that is just as difficult as asking what development is. Indeed, the living things of our ordinary experience are things that grow.” Op. cit., Introducing Critical Thinking, 181. However, before we do, it bears noting that some resistance to this shift might linger, caught in the muddle of assumptions highlighted above.14“So in ever increasing measure intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living.” (CWL 3, 8) Theory is unrelated to real situations, can even be trivial, and is commonly expressed as “merely academic.”

Again, there can be acknowledged both theory and common sense, but the acknowledgement of theory is a devalued acknowledgment. It is simply through what the French call ‘haute vulgarization.’ People have great respect for the great theoretical names – Newton and Einstein, Aristotle and Aquinas, weren’t they wonderful people! – but they have no personal experience of the intellectual pattern of living, of what it is to live the way the theorist lives, to have that pure domination of the intellect as a part-time mode of one’s subjectivity. They do not know by experience what that is, they are not familiar, strictly and accurately, with any field of theoretical objects.15Lonergan, (CWL 6), Philosophical and Theological Papers, 121.

By the same token, it must be emphasized that “[r]ational choice is not between science and common sense; it is a choice of both.”16Op. cit. (CWL 3), 203. However, while commonsense description and scientific description both “deal with things as related to our senses…they do so from different viewpoints and with different ends.”17Op. cit. (CWL 3), 201. On the one hand, all commonsense thinking concerns the palpable world of description. On the other hand, theoretical understanding crosses over to the invisible world18See Journeyism 18 and 26. of explanation by way of the palpable world of description.19See op. cit., Insight (CWL 3), p. 442. Inquiry into the meaning of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions go back to the 4th Century BC when, in the first sentence of the Metaphysics, Aristotle made his famous empirical observation about wonder being a beginning. Entry into that world20See Insight (CWL 3) 2.4, “The Intellectual Pattern of Experience,” 209 ff. Lonergan notes that the attitude arises when “there is no personal experience of the intellectual pattern of living…” On the other hand, the occurrence of this oversight exists within the scientific community. We have already noted its presence in the physicist, Stephen Hawking, despite his having had a distinguished career working in the intellectual pattern. requires that we “alter [our] mentality.”21Butterfield, ibid., viii. Without growth in theoretical understanding, explanatory solutions to practical problems would be out of reach.22“[H]ow can the world’s work be done either intelligently or efficiently, if it is done by [people] of common sense that never bother their heads a minute about scientific method?”(CWL 3, 202)   All the great scientific discoveries and their practical application would just not be possible.

So why do we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in this academic ‘no man’s land’?23A zone dominated by “the general tendency to be content with the particular specialty, common sense, and to consider other specialities irrelevant or useless.”(CWL 15, 94) One way or another, institutionalized neglect of the meanings and workings of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions has virtually cut us off from growth in theoretical understanding.24Op. cit. Origins of Modern Science Herbert Butterfield attributes its currency in academic culture to “extra-scientific” opinion. “[T]he French philosophe movement, most notably the French writer, Fontenelle, as well as later writers…adopted the policy of making the intellectual work palatable and easy….” op. cit., The Origins of Modern Science.  As a result, our potential for academic growth has been stunted, or more precisely, truncated.25“The neglected subject does not know himself. The truncated subject not only does not know himself but also is unaware of his ignorance and so, in one way or another, concludes that what he does not know does not exist.” Bernard Lonergan, The Subject, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1968, 8. It is useful to trace this problem back to its origins.

Whereas “reason” had once been a thing that required to be disciplined by a long and intensive training, the very meaning of the word began to change – now any [one] could say that he had it ….“Reason,” in fact, came to signify much more what we today should call common sense.26See Insight (CWL 3) 2.4, “The Intellectual Pattern of Experience,” 209 ff.

This problem exposes frontline science and scholarship in every field of inquiry27We draw attention to specific issues dividing these communities initially in Journeyism 4. to present-day confusion in which guesswork and refined description masquerade as explanation.28See Insight (CWL 3), 199, 442-5, on “commonsense eclecticism”.

The origin and enduring effect of this ethos can be brought to light by reflecting on our classroom experience. Do you recall spontaneously asking ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions during earlier grades because you were, in fact, a desire to understand; and how that spontaneity was subtly discouraged, gradually faded, and eventually “educated out of you,” as you moved up through the grades?29“Finally, there is the growth that is special to us, which is not so manifest, the growth of understanding – in all its modes. This last growth is at root an invisible business, but identifiable in wise eyes and sound judgments. Since it is invisible, it is not overly noticed, nor deeply cherished. Indeed, our culture (whatever it says about aged-advantaged citizens) does not seem to have much regard for elders and their growth….The primitives were wiser in this regard. If we did have serious regard for elder growth, why would we not be embarrassed into an equally serious shift of perspective by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s claim: ‘less than 1% of adults grow?’” op. cit. Introducing Critical Thinking, 182.

For example, how did you respond to an elementary question in geometry such as, ‘why is a cartwheel round?’?30Ibid. See 1.2, 31-37. Were you encouraged to understand (in the MAC sense), or were you hurried on to memorize the definition or to “understand the concept” (in the McA sense)? 31Please see Journeyism 9. For the history of both the struggle with, and development of, this issue in op. cit. CWL 10, 1997, 109 ff. ‘does understanding regard phantasms or does it not?,’ 118 ff. ‘The Greek Achievement, ‘the notion of abstraction, 123 ff. How quick were you to adopt this truncated technique as a survival tactic with which to “cover the material,” in your studies?32Even more remotely, do you recall having had even a hint of exposure at any point in your post-secondary experience to what these ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions mean and/or how they work? See Ch. 2. “The Meaning of Core Invariant Patterns of Quest,” in Shaping the Future of Language Studies, 24-30 provides a brief historical background to what these questions mean and how they work. For advanced treatment, see Bernard Lonergan, (CWL 2) Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, University of Toronto Press, 1997. Chapter 1, “Verbum: Definition and Understanding,” 12-60.

Furthermore, is it not shocking to contemplate that, not only the likelihood of your teachers, but also the very institution of education itself, have long been victimized by, yet devoted to, this oversight? Does that not also drive home the point that the odds of inviting its reversal are remote?33“Discussions of human development, of you and me growing, are really not much better. Psychologists tend to be invited to focus on those among us who are evidently psychically-crippled. But there have been odd people like Abraham Maslow and Candice Pert who puzzle over the dynamics of our better growing. Still, there is no loud call for, or of, a shift up from Maslow’s gloomy statistic, “less than 1% of adults grow….I write then of growing and understanding growing, but we have no molecular grip on that reality, its problems or its hopes.” Op. cit., Futurology Express, 104. After all,

What place is there for wonder about wonder as a cultural institution?34Op. cit., Introducing Critical Thinking, 32.

This sad fact of our ‘faded wonder’ brings to mind a parallel between Marcel Proust’s search for ‘wisdom’ among the elders of his community and our point about the lack of growth in understanding “what it is to understand”.35“Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.” Op. cit., Insight (CWL 3), 22.

Proust found [instead], ‘not old folk but young people of eighteen, very much faded.’36op. cit. Futurology Express, 105. Proust’s reflections occur at the conclusion to Remembrance of Things Past.

And so, once again, we must ask,

[w]hat is adult growth and what might drive it? We are back with Aristotle as we met him [in Journeyism 5]. Adult growth is wonder let loose by an ethos of encouragement, by the cultivation of questing in all zones of human interest. As the sunlight lifts the yearning tree, so the learning child, teenager, adult, can become an astounding inner hidden oak of understanding, passing beyond themselves of last year more rapidly by the year. You find this quite incredible? Yes, we suspect: because the standard teaching tells you that it is not so.37Op. cit. Introducing Critical Thinking, 182.

Dare we hope, against all odds, that curiosity about your wonder will guide you ‘back to the future,’ to a time in history when the core meaning of adult growth will flourish.

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