Thursday, November 19, 2009

Torrance and the Problem of Dualism, pt 2

In our last post we noted that dualism is the division of reality into two incompatible domains. Cosmological dualism, whether of the ancient Greeks or of the Newtonian-Deism of the Enlightenment, posits a separation (dualism) between God and the world, rendering the incarnation of Jesus Christ problematic if not impossible.

In today's post we will consider the dualism associated with the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. This is an epistemological dualism; thus, it has to do with human "knowing." Kantian dualism precludes meaningful knowledge of God. According to the Kantian thought, "We 'kan't' know God."

Stick with me on this one and we will see how Kantian epistemological dualism has had damaging effects on Christian knowledge of God in the modern era.

Epistemological Dualism

In addition to the cosmological dualism in its ancient and modern forms, Torrance rejects the 'epistemological' dualism associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724‒1804), who posited a disjunction (dualism) between the human knower and the reality the human subject seeks to know. According to Kant, since human knowing is always influenced by language, culture, and the structures of the human mind operative in the activity of knowing, we cannot know objective reality, that is, "the thing in itself" (Das Ding an sich), but only how it 'appears' to us through our "cognitive grid," that is, as 'interpreted' by the categories and mental structures of the mind (Colyer, 2001a:58, 329, 330). In positing an "unbridgeable gulf" between the mind of the knower and the object of knowledge, epistemological dualism asserts that our knowledge is in reality an imposition of the mind's own thought patterns in order to bring an artificial order to the undifferentiated chaos of sensory experience (Achtemeier, 2001b:273).

Comment: The essential point is that we can't know "objective" reality, that is, "the thing in itself"; what we "know," rather, is a combination of empirical data and a whole bunch of mental constructs that we impose upon it. The bottom line is that we can't really "know" God as an objective reality because of the vast amount of mental "stuff" we bring to the table. God is as much a "subjective" phenomenon of our own minds as he is an "objective" reality "out there."

For Kant, man can know only the phenomenal world (the world of "appearances"), for the mind requires empirical evidence before it can be capable of knowledge. Following the Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711‒1776), Kant argued that concepts such as space, time, causality, quantity, substance, and relation are not empirically verifiable realities; rather, they are a priori interpretive principles that the mind 'imposes' upon nature to bring order to an otherwise chaotic and overwhelming manifold of experience.

Comment: Kant claimed that Hume awoke him from "slumber." According to Hume, we cannot assert that the 8-ball caused the 9-ball to fly to the corner pocket like a marten to the gourd. All we really see is the "phenomenal" world, in this case, two balls in motion. To say that one "caused" the other to move is to introduce a mental construct that we "impose" upon what we have observed. In short, "causality" is one of many mental constructs or a priori interpretive principles that we bring to the table in order to make sense of the game. Said another way, "causality" is inside our heads, not "out there."

These a priori concepts are not read out of experience but read into it. In other words, Kant argues that instead of reading the laws of nature from nature, man ultimately reads them into nature through the processes of the human mind. Hence, the "order" that man perceives in the world is not a characteristic of nature but of the human mind. Contrary to the assumptions of everyday experience, the human mind can never experience what is "out there," apart from the mind, as a clear and undistorted "objective" reality. "Reality," rather, is a 'construction' of the human mind imposed upon the world. In relation to scientific theology, since objective knowledge can only be derived from empirical evidence, metaphysics (knowledge of God) is beyond the powers of human reasoning (Tarnas, 1991:341-347).

Comment: In short, the world is not really orderly ("order" is one of those interpretive principles we bring to the table, something inside our heads rather than "out there."). We merely impose an "artificial" order onto reality so that we can make some sense of the chaotic manifold of data that confronts us. The point is: What we call "reality" is not something "out there," that exists independently of the human mind; rather, "reality" is a "construction" or fabrication of the human mind imposed upon the phenomena of the universe in order to enable us to make some kind of sense of the world. Stay tuned; this is important!

According to Torrance (1984:38ff), there was a major epistemological shift from Newton to Kant. With the former, knowledge is derived through discovery of the inherent intelligibility of the world; for the latter, intelligibility and the theoretical components of knowledge are shifted to the human mind, wherein the raw data of sensory experience is organized to make it intelligible. This constitutes an "inversion of the knowing relation" away from the intrinsic intelligibility of nature or reality (as in Newton) to the cognitive processes of the human mind (as in Kant). This results in a "constructivist mentality" in which the mind imposes order and form upon experience. Thus, from Newton to Kant epistemology shifted from the 'discovery' of form to the 'imposition' of form in everyday experience and scientific inquiry, that is, from the inherent intelligibility of the universe to the synthesizing and constructive power of the human mind, wherein rational structure is read into nature. With this major change in epistemology, the idea of the inherent intelligibility of the universe began to fade away in accordance with Kant's assertion that the human mind is the origin of the laws and perceived uniformity of nature (cf. Colyer, 2001a:330, 331).

Comment: From Newton to Kant we have a big-time "epistemological shift." For Newton the world was an orderly, albeit closed, system of cause and effect. We could investigate the cosmic time clock and eventually come to understand it as it really is. Thus, knowledge was derived by the investigation of the empirical phenomena of the universe. By the time we get to Kant, the source of knowledge has shifted from the empirical events of the world around us to what is inside our own heads. We no longer discover reality (as in Newton); we impose an artificial (mentally constructed) reality onto nature. With this epistemological shift, w began to lose sight of the intelligibility of the universe as woven into it by its Creator; instead, we begin to see an artificial "intelligibility" imposed upon reality by the cognitive structures of our minds. In other words, it's all in your head, Bubba!!

So the bottom line on Kant's epistemological dualism is this: We kan't know "the thing in itself" (Das Ding an Sich) because we impose all our mental "stuff" onto it. Thus, what we "know" is really a construction of our own minds. Apply this to God and I think you'll see the problem.

Adverse Effects of Kantian Dualism on Christian Knowledge

OK. Here's why it matters. Pay attention!

From early in his career, Torrance has noted the many adverse effects of Kantian dualism on Christian thought and speech. As Torrance (1976:269) argues:

The damaging effect [of Newtonian-Kantian dualism] nowhere appears more sharply than in the wide gap that opens up between an inert God who cannot be known in himself and the world of phenomena conceived as a closed continuum of cause and effect. . . . [Dualism is] also the source of the wide-spread doubt and difficulties about providence, prayer and worship, for it means that even Christian forms of thought and speech about God are uprooted from any objective ground in the being of God himself and float loose in the vague mists of modern man's vaunted self-understanding. (Underline added)

In positing a bifurcation between unknowable "things in themselves," which must be treated as nothing more than hypothetical entities, and what is scientifically knowable, Kant created a "damaging dualism" that has had profound effects upon theological inquiry, the faith of the believer, and biblical interpretation. By limiting scientific knowledge to what is empirically observable, Kant severed the connection between science and faith, thereby "depriving faith of any objective or ontological reference and emptying it of any real cognitive content." In practical terms, this means that it is impossible for us to have real knowledge of Jesus Christ as he is in himself, for our understanding of Jesus is limited to how he 'appeared' to his followers and to the impression he made on the structures of their consciousness, by which they made him the 'object' of their faith and knowledge. Thus, the biblical scholar, using the methods of historical criticism, is faced with the task of stripping away the theoretical (i.e., theological) accretions that accrued over time to the Jesus narrative in order to bring into view, as far as possible, the actual impression he made as he appeared to his contemporaries. It was in this troubling context that Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and their followers struggled to find some meaningful place in human culture for the message of the gospel. As nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology demonstrate, as long as one operates with "an axiomatic disjunction" [dualism] between a "noumenal" realm of ideas [what's "up there"] and a "phenomenal" realm of events [what's "down here"], nothing more than a moral, symbolic, or mythological meaning can be given to the biblical account of God's saving interaction with the world of space and time, particularly the Christian message of Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection (Torrance, 1980:28-43).

Comment: Let's face it: What else can you do if you decide that God (and everything else) cannot be known objectively? What happens when you decide that what we call "God" is as much an imposition of human thoughts forms onto the heavens as it is any sort of objective reality "out there"? So if we kan't know God (epistemological dualism) and if God cannot enter time and space (cosmological dualism), what are we going to do with the gospel message, particularly as revealed in the New Testament? We have no choice but to interpret it in moral, symbolic, or mythological terms, whereby we reduce Jesus to a nice Jewish boy who told really good stories and set a fine moral example for us all.

As Achtemeier (2001b:274) observes, epistemological dualism manifests itself in theological science in a tendency, especially pervasive since the Enlightenment, to reduce theology to anthropology or psychology. In the place of God's objective self-disclosure within the concrete structures of time and space [the incarnation], the 'subjective' religious experience of the believer becomes the object of theological inquiry. This distortion in theological science also manifests in a "constructivist" (i.e., "subjective") approach to theology, which assumes that the task of the theologian, like that of the modern artist who attempts to portray his subjective experience on canvas, is to construct "symbol systems" which serve to project the idea of god onto the cosmos in order to serve the religious needs and aspirations of "believers."

Comment: The idea is that we create God inside our own heads then project him onto the vast movie screen above. As a significant part of the movie script, we create "symbol systems' (religion) to give meaning to our otherwise hopeless lives. So theology is really anthropology. It's not really about God (theology), because he is merely a projection of human imagination; it's about us (anthropology) and our need to create religion to provide us solace and meaning.

In addition, the Kantian restriction of knowledge to what is observable, or to what may be deduced from observation, creates a divide between objective, ontological realities [God] and the human knower, thereby reducing human understanding to a form of existentialism such that knowledge is nothing more than an expression of one's attitude toward reality. [Read that again! I know you didn't get it the first time!] Within a dualist framework, whether of the cosmological or epistemological kind, theological statements necessarily lose their connection to any objective, ontological reality. [Here comes the "why it matters" part.] Consider the following biblical statements: "The Word was made flesh"; "God is love"; "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." If the objective reality to which the biblical writers clearly refer is cut off by a "deistic disjunction" between God and the world, biblical statements must be interpreted merely in terms of the subjective, anthropocentric consciousness of the writers. That is, theological statements are diverted from their reference in the objective reality of God to subjective statements about ourselves as dependent on God [It's all in our heads]. Thus, the objective realities to which theological statements refer become merely a "mythological" way of expressing man's feeling of dependence on God [as in Schleiermacher] and the understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Theological statements about Jesus, for example, are turned around toward us and reduced merely to the meaning he has for us in terms of how we order our lives. This reductionist way of handling theological statements shows what happens when we follow, for example, Bultmann, who rejects any conception of "the intelligibility of reality." Theological statements are stripped of any reference to an objective, transcendent reality so that they become nothing more than autobiographical statements about ourselves, with the result that theology is reduced to a poor form of anthropology. As Torrance rightly argues, it is the "anachronistic" persistence of these "damaging dualisms" that give rise to the "pseudo-theologies" that remain common today (Torrance, 1980:27, 34-36).

In our next post, we'll take a look at Torrance's "critical realist epistemology." I know you Kan't wait.


Achtemeier, P.M. 2001. Natural Science and Christian Faith in the Thought of T. F. Torrance. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 11.

Colyer, E.M. 2001a. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.

Kelly, D.F. 2007. The Realist Epistemology of Thomas F. Torrance. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark. Ch. 4.

Tarnas, R. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine. 544pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1976. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. (Preface to new edition by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1981. Divine and Contingent Order. (Preface to new edition, 1998). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 162pp.

Torrance, T. F. 1984. Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 353pp.


  1. Hey, excellingly put together information for us. Blows me away to delve into our thinking, as this does, and how this brings us to see the blankets wrapped around the lamps of our minds preventing us seeing this beautiful truth you are unwrapping. It's getting better.

  2. Martin,

    I was directed to your blog by someone named Doug who was responding to one of my comments over at Baxter's Ongoing Thoughts. I'm in the process of working through Baxter's material and also J.B. and T.F. Torrance material.

    Per Doug's suggestion, I'm going to begin working my through your blog from the beginning, so if I ask questions from time to time on one of your early posts and you've already answered these questions in subsequent posts, please feel free to just direct me to these specific posts.



  3. Thank you for taking the time to share these posts, Martin. I feel like I'm in a college theology class and I'm really enjoying it!

  4. Thanks – I found your presentation of Torrance’s thought very helpful, concise and accessible. I have just recently started to read Torrance and come from a conservative Calvinist background. I find Torrance very stimulating – especially on the rejection of dualism and the nature and implications of the incarnation. I am fairly new to such theological perspectives and am interested in developing a dialogue involving neo-orthodox [is that the right term?] and more traditional [again is that the right term?] Reformed Christians. I have just started a blog at called ‘Sparring with Calvin, TF Torrance and the Church Fathers’ – with the aim of stimulating dialogue. I have only posted an introductory comment but would, as further thoughts evolve, value any help from the better informed!

  5. Thanks for these very helpful intros to TF "difficult" Torrance! Is part 3 on the way?
    Max Wright

  6. Just discovered this. I was totally unaware of Torrance till I read the chapter on him in Letham's Trinity book. So I found ten lectures on "Ground and Grammar of Theology" I'm listening too...blowing my mind! But I didn't know exactly what his "dualism" referred thank you for these posts!


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