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Revisiting human rationality

The Territories of Human Reason: Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities by Alister E. McGrath, Oxford University Press, US $34.95, Pp 280, March 2019, ISBN 978-0198813101

The way we define human rationality changes with the passage of time. In the last 100 years or so, scholars have been placing a growing emphasis on multiple rationalities, each tailored to the needs of communities of practice. Although we often use multiple methods to investigate and represent this world, we normally think of the world as an ontological unity. In his 1989 study of the subject, Philip Clayton argued that the school of logical positivism, dominant in the early 1930s and still influential in the 1960s, left no conceptual space for rational discussion of beliefs about God, generally taking the view that religious language could not be cognitively meaningful. Yet major transformation in the philosophy of science began to take place during the 1950s, as positivist accounts of reality were gradually displaced by contextualist or coherence-based theories of scientific rationality, opening up new possibilities of dialog between theology and the philosophy of science.

In The Territories of Human Reason, Alister E. McGrath expands this discussion in the light of new knowledge and debate about human rationality — including but extending beyond the philosophy or science, since the publication of Clayton’s landmark book — a move away from the notion of a single universal rationality towards a plurality of cultural and domain-specific methodologies and nationalities. He explores the intellectual legitimacy of the interdisciplinary dialogue in this age of multiple situated rationalities. He focuses on the interaction of the natural sciences and Christian theology as a single case study with the potential to illuminate other such discussions. Alister E. McGrath offers a tentative mapping of human rationality, surveying the forms of reasoning and criteria of rationality that have characterized the production of knowledge across culture and history, and within specific disciplines. Alister E. McGrath argues that the failings of certain approaches which emerged during the Enlightenment – specifically, a family of phenomenological views that saw human reason as historically and culturally invariant, or ideological views that took the approaches to reason developed by Western European ‘illuminati’ of the eighteenth century as normative – are now seen to depend on unreliable mappings of the multiple territories of human reason. There is no universal ‘republic of reason’ – rather, we have to contend with an array of distinct, yet occasionally overlapping and competing, epistemic territories and communities. This has led to a growing interest in transdisciplinary – the quest for ‘articulated conceptual frameworks’ that transcend the narrow scope of disciplinary worldviews, and thus offer an enriched and deepened understanding of our world.

Alister E. McGrath argues that it is important to think not only in terms of the remapping of the domain of ‘science and religion’ but also of reconsidering the cultural mapping of the individual domains of both science and religion in their own right. In both cases, there are questions that need to be asked about popular perceptions and academic habits that clearly need careful and informed reconsideration. Some speak of the natural sciences’ unique and characteristic use of the ‘Scientific Method’ lies behind much popular literature advocating a scientific outlook, such as the writings of the Oxford physical chemist Peter Atkins, who argues that the distinctive ‘Scientific Method’ is capable of illuminating ‘every and any concept ‘ in a uniquely reliable  manner. This entertaining and simplistic account fails to take account of the distinct characteristics and objectives of individual sciences, in effect reducing them all to a single ‘mono-science’ which overlooks their distinct identities, histories, and objects of inquiry.

The Territories of Human Reason is a very timely and important addition to the literature on the study of rationality. In this provocative study of multiple rationalities, he tries to understand and explain the links between natural sciences and Christian theology. He also redefines ‘rationality’ in the light of new knowledge and explains the differences between multiple rationalities and the notion of a single universal rationality. The Territories of Human Reason will have very profound social as well as scientific implications for the interpretation of rationality and change the debate on the links between rationality and Christian theology. It is comprehensive, judicious and insightful. It is a very well-researched work that makes a complex subject readable for lay readers.

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