Detectability = “Reality”

 Nothingness Theory: “… physical, objective reality is constructed from human detection . . . .”


            To many, this assertion is shocking and threatening.  It strikes fear into the hearts of those whose basic reaction is: “Then reality is subjective: everything is relative and there are no absolutes.”  This is an emotional response on the part of those for whom reality is purely “objective,” that which we can rely on, not subject to the vagaries and errors of the human mind.  Besides, they continue, we are not God.  We limited mortals don’t decide on what’s real or not.

             One of the major philosophical enterprises of Bernard Lonergan was to address this mentality of equating reality with the “already out-there-now real” and that knowing is just a matter of “taking a look at it.”

- Find out more about the Philosopher/Theologian Bernard Lonergan at (C. Kaup 6/19/04) -

 The simple formula based on Lonergan’s analysis is: “reality is verified intelligibility.”  What we look at is part of our sensory experience, which presents us not with reality, but the data for our inquiry. We are then stimulated to keep asking questions until the tension is resolved by an insight into the data revealing a pattern or form that answers such questions as: “What is it?’ or “Why is it ?”   This, however, is still not reality, but rather a bright idea.  We have to ask further: “Is it true?”  The answer to this question comes from verification, the process of ascertaining the adequacy of the evidence and proof.  Only then can we reach a judgment allowing us to say: “This is so.” or ‘This is not the case.” or even a tentative “This may be so.”  Reality, thus, is what is affirmed in judgment, not merely what is understood in concepts.

 Making judgments is not the same as being judgmental.  It does mean, however, that you invest yourself in each judgment you make.  Your character is at stake here.  If you keep deferring the process, you are not cooperating in the search for reality, but only putting your interlocutors off with unsubstantiated opinions.  If you do not do what is necessary to reach valid conclusions, you are irresponsible.  And keep in mind that “I don’t know” can be a valid conclusion.

             Objectivity, paradoxically, is what is achieved by authentic subjectivity. 

To embrace this notion requires an intellectual conversion. Lonergan invites the interlocutor to examine his/her processes of coming to know.  Discover for yourself whether or not the analysis is as valid, say, as the explanation of the human circulatory system.  If it is, then human authenticity requires that you incorporate this way of thinking. 

             Lonergan describes the above explanation as cognitional theory: “What are you doing when you are knowing?”  The second question falls under epistemology: “Why is doing that called knowing?”  Then comes the question of metaphysics: “What do you know when you are doing it?”

             So many of our disputes and debates stem from conflicting notions about what is truth and what is reality.  Unless we agree on a method of arriving at the “real,” we will continue to shout across the table at each other, instead of collaborating in the arduous task of attentive experience, intelligent understanding, and reasonable judgment. Human knowing, therefore, is not a single act, but a self-correcting, interrelated series of operations. The truth that reveals reality is not a static pie waiting for me to cut a piece and distribute it in a neat formula.  It is rather the result of my taking the ingredients and following a dynamic recipe that will provide the meal that satisfies our intellectual hunger. As Lonergan proposes: Don’t believe me; check it out for yourself.

             Unfortunately, many of us suffer from inadequate educational experiences. We were required to memorize the insights and conclusions achieved by others without being encouraged to engage in responsible inquiry ourselves.  Hence, we are beguiled into thinking that truth is a matter of coming up with the correct answers to questions that have not been generated by us.  No, the pursuit of truth is as exciting, engaging, and creative as the creation of beauty in art and music.

            As for the desire to achieve rock-solid certainty in all of our knowledge, realize that not every judgment permits us to go that far.  The best we can do in some cases is to decide what is so “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The system, however, is self-correcting. New evidence, for example, starts a process that can reveal the inadequacy of the previous decision.  Or, a bit of honesty will show where we have been biased in our perceptions or hasty conclusions.

             To address the charge of human hubris in the opening paragraph: humans do not create reality; we use our God-given conscious subjectivity to discover it. 

 Finally, don’t be afraid about not possessing absolute knowledge.  We humans may know everything about something and something about everything: only God has absolute knowledge, which is knowing everything about everything. 


                             Msgr. Walter Niebrzydowski      6-14-04


 Addendum: Kaup’s Cognition

            As if in a laboratory, let’s observe the cognitional processes of Corey Kaup, the author of Nothingness Theory.  What you are reading on this website is a work in progress on the part of an original thinker, who is engaged in cosmology, not epistemology or cognitional theory.  Yet, we can see how his mind is working as he is spinning out his theory.  Notice that his exposition is a theory, so he is working mainly on the second level of intelligibility: what pattern or form answers adequately the questions of “what?”, “why?”, “how?”   The exposition is being constantly revised and updated as a result of his activity on the first level: attentiveness to the data.  As he revisits the empirical evidence, he revises and refines his theory. (For example, he started out talking about a cork and a spoon in a refrigerator.  In this latest revision he introduced a consideration of tornadoes.)

            Now for the third level: affirmation of truth.  Of course he is making judgments about reality, but he knows that at this stage they are tentative.  In his estimation the theory is probably true.  He has not completed the process of verification.  That’s why he is inviting comments, especially from experts in the field.  He is prepared to conclude that his theory is just that: a theory, and not yet a justifiable explanation of the phenomena.  If, however, after all the relevant data has been examined, all the pertinent questions asked and all the appropriate objections answered, the theory is recognized by all participants in the discussion as a principle of reality.  This is how science works.

            For example, General Relativity was first proposed as a theory.  On page 21 Kaup refers to it as “Albert Einstein’s principles of General Relativity.”  Einstein’s theory has been verified: it is recognized now as a principle. 

            If and when Nothingness Theory becomes the Nothingness Principle, then we have arrived at the realm of judgments of truth about the nature of reality. We come back full circle to what Lonergan means by “reality is verified intelligibility.”

            It’s too much for one person: Corey Kaup needs your input.  Hence the reason for this website.  You are invited to collaborate in this communal effort to explore the workings of the world, which continues to astonish us with its wonders.

                                  Msgr. Walter Niebrzydowski       6-14-04