John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Religious Critical Realism

We now come to what I believe to be the most important, and unique, aspect of Hick’s thought – that of “religious critical realism.”  This concept is the key to understanding his broader ideas about how the world religions fit together.

 Hick defines critical realism as follows:

”The critical realist principle – that there are realities external to us, but that we are never aware of them as they are in themselves, but always as they appear to us with our particular cognitive machinery and conceptual resources – is thus a vital clue to understanding what is happening in the different forms of religious experience.”

Drawing on the work of Immanuel Kant, Hick begins by showing how critical realism can be understood in the natural world.

“Our awareness of the material world requires physical receptors, the five senses which enable us to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. These reveal our environment to us, but only those selected aspects of it in relation to which we have to act and react. For in selecting, our senses exclude much more than they let in. They have developed to aid our survival as organisms occupying our particular evolutionary niche, and they accordingly function as meshes through which only a certain range of signals can pass. As Brian Magee puts it, ‘If we think in terms of the metaphor of catching things in the network of experience, [the categories of thought] are the meshes of our net. Only what can be caught in them is available to us. Anything that passes through them untouched will not be picked up by us, and neither will whatever falls outside our nets altogether.’ For example, within the known electromagnetic spectrum extending from cosmic rays as short as four ten-thousand-millionths of an inch, to radio waves as long as eighteen miles, our senses only respond to those between sixteen and thirty-two millionths of an inch. We are likewise deaf to a vast range of acoustic stimuli, and insensitive to the great majority of chemical differences. We thus inhabit a humanly selected and simplified version of our environment. If the whole range of light waves affected us we would be unable to distinguish objects affecting our survival. If every sound wave registered in our consciousness, we would be so confused by the universal cacophony as to be unable to react to the sounds that we need to hear. And if, for example, instead of seeing water as the continuous shiny substance that we can drink, we perceived it as a cloud of electrons in rapid swirling motion, and the glass that holds it as a mass of brilliantly coloured crystals, themselves composed of particles in violent activity, we would soon die of thirst. We can only live in the distinctively human environment registered by our sensors, and this differs in many ways from that of other mammals, insects, birds and fishes…

...We have already noted that light waves impacting the retina of the eye are transformed, through a complex process, into our conscious experience of seeing the world as we humans perceive it. Light waves are not themselves coloured, but their impact is transformed within us into the experience of colour vision. Sound waves, which are not themselves noises, are transformed by our receptive apparatus into the experience of hearing noise. In broadcasting, the sound waves that the speaker emits in a studio are transformed into radio waves, which are then translated back by our receiver into sound waves, which we translate into heard sounds. Likewise TV waves are transformed into lines and dots on the screen, which we then transform into the experience of seeing coloured pictures. Consciousness of our environment always involves a continuous transformation of information from one mode into another. Different life forms, with their different sense organs and differently developed structures of consciousness, experience the world differently. For some (including we humans) the dominant sense, providing our normal framework of consciousness, is sight – a larger area of our brain is dedicated to processing visual than other stimuli. But for others (such as the mole) the dominant sense is smell, and for yet others (such as the bat) it is sound. Insects operate in terms of environmental features too small for large animals, such as the elephant, to be aware of them. The ant is not aware of the elephant, and the elephant is not aware of the ant, although both are part of the same vast network of life. And within this network the same virtual infinity of information is reduced in different ways by different selective mechanisms, and transformed into fields of consciousness with different structures and qualities. That the world is perceived in different ways by differently constituted observers is thus well established. To take us a little nearer to the way in which the Transcendent is experienced by some as an all-powerful cosmic Person and by others as an infinite non-personal reality, consider the difference between, say, the table that we experience as a solid, hard, brown, partly shiny, enduring three-dimensional object, and the account of it given by the physicists as mostly empty space in which infinitesimal packages of discharging energy are moving about at a great pace. None of these have any of the properties of the table that we perceive – neither colour, weight, extension, density, nor even fixed position.”

Thus, according to the principle of critical realism, we don’t experience things objectively “as they really are,” but only through the filter of our unique sensory organs and conceptual frameworks.  A bat experiences reality in a much different way than a human.  According to critical realism, we don’t have a “truer” experience of reality than a bat; we just each experience the same reality differently, according to the equipment we are endowed with.  In Hick’s example of the table, the table doesn’t have the objective, fixed attributes of “hardness,” “brownness,” or “shininess,” even though we experience it as such through our unique sensory equipment.  

 I am here reminded of Bertrand Russell’s famous “The Problems of Philosophy” in which he makes similar observations:

“To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Anyone else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected. For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they 'really' have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy--the distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question. To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.”

This idea, that we don’t experience things “as they are,” but only through our particular sensory equipment and conceptual frameworks, is the key to understanding Hick’s view of world religious experience.  According to religious critical realism, when individuals from different traditions experience “the Divine,” we may very well be encountering the same reality, but interpreting it through the lens of our traditions – our given conceptual frameworks.  

“The forms that this awareness takes are human constructions created from material within the inherited imagery of a religious tradition and from each individual’s life story and psychological make-up. If our tradition has conditioned us to think of the Transcendent in personal terms, and to practise I–Thou prayer and worship, we shall be conscious of a personal divine presence, or a divine call, claim, leading or revelation. And so Christian mystics have received visions and/or auditions, seeing and hearing the figure of Christ on the cross, or shining in heavenly glory, or of the Virgin Mary or one of the saints as mediators of God’s presence. Within the neighbouring Islamic world, mystics have their own different visions. Al-Ghazali says of a certain stage of the inner path, ‘The mystics in their waking state now behold angels and the spirits of the prophets; they hear these speaking to them and are instructed by them.’ Devout Hindus sometimes see visions of the gods. For example, one tells how, as a fourteen-year-old walking home one day from school, the lord Krishna met him coming out of a rice field, and embraced him. ‘Since then’, he says, ‘I had no other thought but to serve only Krishna, and I became a sadhu.’ But if, on the other hand, our tradition has taught us to think of the Ultimate in non-personal terms and to practise a non-I–Thou type of meditation, our religious awareness will take one of the quite different forms described in eastern mystical literature.”

Hick ends his discussion of religious critical realism by referring to the concrete example of the experience of Julian of Norwich:

 ”At this point it may be useful to clarify the distinction between non-realism, naive realism and critical realism. If we take as an example (to be described in chapter 14) Julian of Norwich’s visions of Christ and her hearing him speak of the limitless divine love, the non-realist interpretation is that the entire experience was a self-induced hallucination – not in any sense a revelation, not an expression of the ‘impact’ of the Transcendent upon her. The naive realist interpretation – which was probably her own understanding of her experiences – is that the living Christ was personally present to her, producing the visions that she saw, and uttering in Middle English the words that she heard. But the critical realist interpretation, which I believe to be correct, is that she had become so open to the transcendent, within her and beyond her, that it flooded into her consciousness in the particular form provided by her Christian faith. She was aware of the goodness –from our human point of view – of the Real as the unconditional love of a personal God, expressed in the characteristic fourteenth-century form of the bodily agonies of Jesus on the cross. Her experience was thus a genuine contact with the Transcendent, but clothed in her case in a Christian rather than a Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or other form. In different symbolic worlds, what was for Julian a divine love expressed in the voluntary sufferings of Christ is expressed in other modes. It is known, for example, in the figure of Vishnu who, in the Bhagavad Gita , is ‘as a father with his son, a friend with his friend, a lover with his beloved’.  In Buddhism the ultimate Dharmakaya, in itself beyond human conceiving, is expressed in the infinite compassion of the Buddhas. And the ninety-nine names, or attributes, of Allah in the Qur’an include love, beneficence, mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, generosity, compassion. The mystics of Islam have accordingly been intensely conscious of the divine love. ‘Love is affection without bounds,’ says Rumi. ‘Hence it is said that Love is truly God’s attribute, while it is the attribute of His servants only in a derivative sense ... Know that Love and Affection are Attributes of God.’ In these and many other ways the impact of the transcendent reality upon us receives different ‘faces’ and voices as it is processed by our different religious mentalities. Religious experience, then, occurs in many different forms, and the critical realist interpretation enables us to see how these may nevertheless be different authentic responses to the Real.”

This principle – religious critical realism – drives Hick’s broader understanding of how the world religions fit together from a religious pluralist perspective.  It allows one to respect each tradition as an “authentic experience of the Real,” and account for the variety of forms that that experience can take.