The Nature And Limits Of Human Understanding: The 2001 Gifford lectures at the University of Glasgow
Posted: 27 Feb 2007 @ 00:00
Book title: The Nature And Limits Of Human Understanding: The 2001 Gifford lectures at the University of Glasgow
Author: A. J. Sanford, editor
Publisher: T & T Clark
Church Times Bookshop £45 & £18 respectively
SOMEONE once turned up to Alan Ecclestone’s parish meeting with the query, “Is this the place where they like arguments?” This book will appeal to people who like arguments, at least, in the more philosophical sense of that word.
For the 2001 Gifford lectures, five different lecturers gave two lectures each on the topic of human understanding. Half-way through, a round-table discussion was held, of which, unfortunately, this book contains no record.
The contributions are extremely diverse, and only one is from a theologian. The other contributors include three very diverse philosophers, and a psychologist. The latter, P. N. Johnson-Laird, entertainingly sets out many logical puzzles to illustrate the limitations of our understanding which, he argues, centre on our inability to construct correct models of causal relations.
George Lakoff argues that neuroscience has transformed our understanding of all the age-long philosophical puzzles. His argument for fully embodied mind is absolutely congenial to anyone who believes in incarnation, though it sets puzzles for the doctrine of God (something theologians have realised at least since Origen). Non-specialists like myself are bound to treat with scepticism the claim that one or two philosophers have discovered the key to everything.
Michael Ruse argues for an altruistic version of social Darwinism, arguing that evolution equips us for social co-operation. This means, I suppose, that the architects of the Washington consensus are atavisms, something I have suspected for some time.
Lynne Rudder Baker, the only philosophical theologian among this group, argues for the priority of first-person knowledge, which means, among other things, that the knowledge claims of natural science are incomplete. She offers a sophisticated justification for taking reasons of the heart seriously.
I have to confess that I turned to Brian Hebblethwaite with a sense of relief, even though his two chapters read rather like a literature review. He is generous and eirenic, but cumulatively makes a powerful case for the contribution of theology to human understanding, above all by the persistent exploration of difficult questions, which is how the late Herbert McCabe understood Aquinas’s Five Ways.
The book would have been stronger if Hebblethwaite, a defender of theology as “Queen of the sciences”, had tried to respond to the four previous lecturers. As it is, it will appeal to interested enquirers, happy to have the problem of understanding discussed from a variety of angles.
The Revd Dr Tim Gorringe is Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter
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