THE CANONS OF EMPIRICAL METHOD OF BERNARD LONERGAN, S.J.
Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J. was a philosopher of the twentieth century, it seems so long ago. For further information see the rest of this node. In his major work entitled INSIGHT a STUDY of HUMAN UNDERSTANDING it seems he speaks authoritatively on the whole of thought. In it he covers zillions of topics such as 'objectivity', 'common sense', 'classical and statistical investigations', 'ethics', 'empiricism', 'Space and Time' and so on. He even moves onward to a many stepped procedure to affirm the 'Formally Unconditioned'.
But his main and underlying theme seems to be the transcendental method of human cognition. As I understand it, and I must confess this is a subjective account for I don't see how it is easy to surmount to a fully authoritative account of his work, cognition is made up of levels. There are four. The level of presenting data, the level of intelligent grasping of intelligibilities in the data with the production of insights, then there is the third level of reasonable affirmation in which something called the virtually unconditioned is grasped and judged to be a unity-identity-whole. There is a fourth level that I am not clear about, in which responsible evaluation, and formulations occur. But in truth this transcendental method is a recurrent method.
For example in a later work entitled Method In Theology he refers to the following definition : "A method is a normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results."
That cumulative and progressive results part is of interest. Because as one attends to one's own cognition the unreviseability of the method becomes apparent. We each of us attend to data of sense, but also data of cognition, grasp intelligibilities, affirm the virtually unconditioned, and then responsibly move on to valuations and formulations. Even if a sceptic were to deny these features of cognition he would be attending to the data, grasping, affirming, and formulating. In short even in denial he would be illustrating the features in his own thinking. The cumulative expansions following from this method then themselves become the data upon which a greater snowballing occurs until one's 'latent metaphysics' is made explicit.
Because I view Lonergan's motifs in INSIGHT, though multi-facetted, to be integrated and alive, I will follow my interest and veer off to the subject in Chapter III of the Canons of Empirical Method.
Lonergan lists six canons of empirical method:
the canon of selection
the canon of operations
the canon of parsimony
the canon of relevance
the canon of complete explanation
the canon of statistical residues
Again I am being entirely personal about explaining what I think he means. But I think this is something you can do with Lonergan because his ideas interface with yours and you wind up speaking your heart.
First of all he states clearly that some questions cannot be settled by empirical method but as he puts is 'it does not follow' that such questions cannot be settled at all, at least it does not follow immediately.
Empirical method is the method of the practical scientist and the Canons are in some way a lexicon of ways of viewing what is happening in scientific method.
In the canon of selection we see that scientists have to deal only with data of sense, sensible data, which accrue to the senses and from which sensible consequences can be derived. If I hear a low humming sound, I turn my head to discern sensible consequences and I wind up affirming that it is indeed a sound and not some vague imagining, and that it comes from a certain direction. I then may study the sensible consequences of amplifying it or projecting on an oscilloscope, or determining its cause, its frequency.
But hold on, by mentioning all those extras I am into the canon of operations, many scientists methodically going over many processes of experimentation to build up cumulative expansions of findings. How do the operations work? Well now the insights into the sensible data, lead to formulations of what Lonergan calls classical or statistical laws. And that is a subject in itself. But the laws guide activities, which I suppose are reasonable adjustments in the conditions of experiments that facilitate the cumulative expansions of knowledge about the data.
Since we have now gotten into the hypotheses, laws, systems, probability expectations, theories that are revealed by insights into the intelligibilities in the data we are led to the canon of parsimony by which is meant that a responsible scientist cannot affirm anything as verified other than what he finds in the data. He can not impose on the data any laws that are not found in the data. Further all statements that are unverified by an appeal to data are excluded by the investigator.
The canon of relevance is paired with the canon of operations as he says as obverse and reverse of the same coin. This pair of canons steers the investigator away from vain imaginings and toward the relevance of the data. What is the relevance of data proper to the empirical investigator? This is a wonderful concept of the discipline hard won by a successful researcher. Studying a cart wheel, one might find relevance in the wood and determine the relations of the wheel to the woodworker, but properly the relevance of the data is the systematizations of the laws at work in the wheel, the equality of the spokes, the features of radii and circles, the concept of roundness, and its relevance to the functions of a wheel, let's say. Supposing the investigator was interested in the wood of the wheel. Then he (or she) might test the wood in a flame, or in a chemical bath, or study it microscopically for some clues about the scientific properties or nature of the wood. Lonergan speaks of the 'question for reflection' = is it so? and the 'question for intelligence' = what is it? These are good things to remember in thinking about the canon of relevance I think.
This brings us to the canon of complete explanation. It is a bit more complicated than I am thinking. But in short it means that all of the data need to be accounted for in the explanation. The canon of operations may implement this canon of complete explanation. Methods of many scientists performing and repeating many experiments may mesh to gradually push the envelope of understanding forward to complete explanation. In one aspect this means that if a theory fails to explain a portion of the data, more theory or foot work has to be done. But on a more esoteric level Lonergan speaks of the transition from scientifically descriptive 'experiential conjugates' relating the data to us to explanatory or 'pure conjugates' which relate the data to each other. A conjugate is a very original notion with Lonergan as far as I can tell. As far as I can tell an experiential conjugate would be something like 'sight seeing seen' and an 'pure conjugate' would be 'affirmer affirming affirmed'.
The sixth and final canon of statistical residues presupposes a classical form of inquiry. Experiential conjugates are brought to light in a classical inquiry. Einstein might drop a bocci ball and a cannon ball from the same height and collate the experiences within the experiment, Galileo, his buddy may come along and arrange or geometrize the data and discern correlations and correlations of correlationsand ultimately mathematical functions that explain the data, in this case the uniformity of acceleration on all objects in a gravity field. But then certain aspects of the data may not be systematized in a classical fashion. These aspects are dealt with as the statistical residue and are treated as events and treated according to statistical laws.
Suppose an airplane jettisons 1000 marbles and they all follow the parabolae downward but they scatter a bit. The classical study led to a formula of parabolic fall. But a statistical study would identify the ideal norm of the probabilistic fall from which there is a 'non-systematic' divergence'. But here I am way over my humble head.
As I say I like to think about and write about Lonergan's approach, it seems to be interfacing with the language of everyman. A little Lonergan goes along way.
I hope any true to life Lonergan scholars will want to correct me and exhort me to improve this brief article on a very important theme.
And remember "be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable and be responsible". These are the four transcendental precepts of Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J.