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 up-to-date verifiable heuristics2We 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. Also, see op. cit. “Dialectic: The Problem,” 247 ff.) How, then, might one approach the experience of any data, say a sunflower, from each  perspective? in the natural and human sciences will eventually dissolve the ethos that distorts the core meaning of ‘understand’ in the quotation above, and everyday assumptions such as these below.

  • A simple answer will suffice3‘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 communicate understanding of a complex problem.4The 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, in itself, will suffice to reach understanding.5Our 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 scientific understanding.6Inadequate 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 sense7See op. cit. Insight (CWL 3), 442-445. See ‘commonsense eclecticism’. will suffice to solve practical human problems.8There is “the general tendency to be content with the particular specialty, common sense, and to consider other specialities irrelevant or useless.”(CWL 15, 94) We 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.

Such popular assumptions expose how the academy has been “lost in some no man’s land between the world of theory and the world of common sense.”9Lonergan, B. (1996) “Time and Meaning” (CWL 6), Philosophical and Theological Papers, 121. Why?

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.10Lonergan, (CWL 6), Philosophical and Theological Papers, 121.

Here we begin working toward the solution to this deep-rooted problem by inviting a horizon shift as it relates to our core desire to correctly understand experience.11In 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.12The following also relates to our first point above about ‘simple answers to complex problems,’ as well as our reference below to ‘truncated’ 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. In Journeyism 25 we provide an elementary illustration from the early days of modern physics.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. You might have anticipated the necessity of this shift upon the introduction of an up-to-date heuristics in Journeyism 22.14“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 religious actualities.” (For the meaning of “religious,” see Journeyism 22, footnote 11.)

The issue is not whether common sense and theory are mutually exclusive approaches to human practicality.

“Rational choice is not between science and common sense; it is a choice of both.”15Op. 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.16Op. cit. (CWL 3), 201.

The horizon of common sense operates within the palpable world of description. The horizon of theoretical understanding includes17See Journeyism 18 and 26. the invisible world of explanation.18See 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 the explanatory world19See 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, who, despite his having had a distinguished career working in the intellectual pattern, claims that one can ‘understand’ ‘basic ideas’ in physics without a scientific education. requires that we “alter [our] mentality.”20Butterfield, ibid., viii. Without growth in theoretical understanding, explanatory solutions to practical problems would be out of reach.21“[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)

And yet these mistaken assumptions linger “[s]o in ever increasing measure intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living.”22Insight (CWL 3), 8 Theory is unrelated to real situations, can even be trivial, its meaning and value commonly reduced to that of “merely academic.” So, one way or another, neglect of, and confusion over, the meaning and value of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions has virtually cut us off from growth in theoretical understanding in how the natural and human sciences are to be approached. Consequently, our potential for academic growth has been truncated.23“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 necessary to trace this problem back to its origins. Herbert Butterfield attributes its currency in academic culture to “extra-scientific” opinion, a result of “making the intellectual work palatable and easy.”24“[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.

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.25See Insight (CWL 3) 2.4, “The Intellectual Pattern of Experience,” 209 ff.

Without theoretical understanding, many areas of frontline science and scholarship suffer from the practice of conceptualism,26“To a great extent natural science escapes this trap. It limits itself to questions that can be settled through an appeal to observation and experiment. It draws its theoretical models from mathematics. … Still these advantages do not give complete immunity. … In the human sciences the problems are far more acute. Reductionists extend the methods of natural science to the study of man. Their results, accordingly, are valid only in so far as a man resembles a robot or a rat and, while such resemblance does exist, exclusive attention to it give a grossly mutilated and distorted view. … Both in the natural and in the human sciences, then, there obtrude issues that are not to be solved by empirical methods. These issues can be skirted or evaded with greater success in the natural sciences and less in the human sciences. (Method, ibid., 248-9). and its offspring, readily disposed flights of fanciful speculation, imaginary modelling and refined description.27See Journeyism 9. Initially, we drew attention to specific issues dividing scientific communities in Journeyism 4. It concerns the distinction between classical method and genetic method. “The heuristic assumption of genetic method lies in the notion of development … when one mounts to the higher integrations of the organism, the psyche, and intelligence. … The extraordinary success of the physical sciences naturally enough led investigators of the organism, the psyche, and intelligence to a servile rather than an intelligent adoption of the successful procedures. … One has to follow the lead of the successful scientists, the physicists and chemists, but one has to imitate them not slavishly but intelligently. They employ insights … of the mathematician … the student of development also must employ insight, but he must not restrict himself to the particular types relevant to physics and chemistry. On the contrary, he has to work out his own structures of accumulating insights, and indeed different structures for the study of the organism, the psyche, and intelligence itself.” See Insight (CWL 3), 488 ff. In addition, see Insight (CWL 3), 199, 442-5, on the topic of “commonsense eclecticism.”

The origin and enduring effect of conceptualism can be brought to light by reflecting on our early classroom experience. Do you recall spontaneously asking ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions because you embodied the desire to understand, but your desire was subtly discouraged, gradually faded, and eventually “educated out of you,” as you moved up through the grades?28“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, you may have memories of struggling to solve an elementary question in geometry such as, ‘why is a circle round?’?29Ibid. See 1.2, 31-37. Were you patiently encouraged to understand (in the MAC sense), or were you typically hurried on to memorize the definition or to “understand the concept” (in the McA sense) in order to succeed on tests and exams? 30Please 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. Would you not then have felt pressured to resort to memorize material that faded within days, and what’s worse, permanently adopt that approach as the correct technique for “learning”?31“You can learn techniques that allow you to bypass thinking and understanding. … [T]hink of that … technique we have of memorizing and talking in terms of nominal definitions: ‘a circle is the locus of co-planar points that are equidistant from a fixed point.’ There need be no What-answer to back up that noise!” (op. cit., Introducing Critical Thinking, 106). “[T]here is a difference between nominal and explanatory definitions. Nominal definitions merely tell us about the correct usage of names.” (op. cit. Insight (CWL 3), 35). Even more remotely, do you recall having had even a hint of exposure at any time in your post-secondary experience to what your ‘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 discouraging to contemplate that, not only the likelihood of most teachers, but also the very institution of education, have long been victimized by, yet devoted to, this truncated approach? Does that not also drive home the point that the odds of inviting its reversal are remote?32“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?33Op. 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”.34“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.’35op. cit. Futurology Express, 105. Proust’s reflections occur at the conclusion to Remembrance of Things Past.

So, once again, we 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.36op. cit. Introducing Critical Thinking, 132.

Dare we hope 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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