The Problem with Empiricism

In line with other recent response to agnosticism, unicorns, and atheism, I’d like to raise some questions about the approach to knowledge known as empiricism. Empiricism is a tradition which teaches that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. That is, if something is not, at least in principle, able to be tasted, touched, seen, heard, or smelled, then it does not count as a potential object of knowledge. This view of knowledge, the seeing-is-believing- approach, is fairly standard in a secularizing culture and so Christians should know a thing or two about how to respond to this claim.

So first we’ll discuss the claims and difficulties of empiricism. Then, I’ll argue, contrary to the intentions of the empiricist, empiricism can be a vital ally in apologetics, because, when consistently applied, it takes the empiricist to places they do not want to go.

Help from David Hume

The best way to understand empiricism is to learn a little about one who adhered to it with near-perfect consistency.  The philosopher David Hume had a two-pronged approach to sifting through knowledge claims. Picking up what a tool of analysis from Leibniz, Hume’s “fork” (at the late Ronald Nash called it) for sifting truth claims is the “analytic/synthetic” distinction.. Analytic statements are relations of ideas, and to deny them necessarily leads to a contradiction (laws of logic, definitions such as “all bachelors are unmarried men”). These are usually what we think of as a priori truths (truths that known apart from sense experience). Hume’s (hereafter H) attack on analytic statements was that they are tautological, i.e. they add nothing new to knowledge. H believed that his rationalist philosophical counterparts (ex. continental rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) were building philosophical systems in mid-air, with nothing empirical to ground their flights of fancy.

slide_27Synthetic statements are those which can be empirically explored and verified. An example of such a statement would be “Molly’s dress is green.” How can we truly “know” that this statement is true? By checking it out, it must be subject to an empirical inquiry.

Radical Doubt

In light of H’s empiricist epistemology, he uses this fork to sort out all philosophical issues. Only synthetic statements lead to true knowledge. So, H asked of the traditional questions of philosophy, are the answers given merely in the realm of relations of ideas, i.e. analytical ? If so, then they are tautological and offer us no help. But since H only accepted as worthy of study and consideration beliefs based on verifiable experience by at least one of the five sense, he lapsed into his notorious skepticism.

Here is a list of things Hume doubted because they cannot be verified by appeals to the five senses:

  • The existence of God. God is a spirit, so this should be obvious.
  • A continuing self through time. When was the last time you experienced your “self”? Looking into a mirror won’t help, because all you see is a body, not the “self.”
  • Causation. We never actually “see” a cause. We see one event followed by another, but we cannot experience in any way the necessity of the procession of events. In philosophical terms, we “see” a succession of events-ball A moves after ball B strikes it- not causation. Remember, H is being a consistent empiricist.
  • The uniformity of nature. There is no empirical –and non question begging!- reason to believe that the future will be like the past. We have had no experience of the future, and hence cannot really be sure. An anti-toxin that cures today may poison tomorrow. Of course apart from the uniformity of nature science cannot proceed.

Of course the truth is that David Hume never said that the above mentioned things do not exist, or even that he himself didn’t believe in them. His point was to demonstrate that autonomous reason has no logical reason for believing these things. Again, his point was that empiricists cannot sufficiently ground the belief in anything in the above list given their commitment to an empiricist epistemology.

According to Hume, beliefs in the uniformity of nature and the necessary relationship between cause and effect are rather grounded in our psychological make-up, a “habit of the mind.” Thus, being that Hume rejected the rationality of belief in God, causality, a sustained “self”, etc, he attributed the belief in such things to the irrational aspect of humanity. Without, for instance, a Christian conception that God creates both the world around us and our minds to understand it (being created in His image), Hume had no assurance that the objects of our knowledge and our perceptions of them cohere.

Turning the Tables: The Apologetic Benefit of Radical Empiricism

In David Hume, many philosophers believed they were witnessing the end of philosophy. Immanuel Kant stated the it was Hume that arose him from his “dogmatic slumbers” and driving him to develop his own creative epistemology. Notwithstanding Kant’s evaluation, Hume’s radical empiricism is a great help to Christian apologetics.  Hume pushes empiricism to its logical[ly absurd, yet consistent] limits.

Though Hume thoroughly discredited epistemological empiricism hundreds of years ago, most outspoken forms of atheism (ala Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) are “religiously” empiricist. Likewise the average “man on the street” unbeliever functions on the basis of a “seeing is believing” epistemology. When we encounter unbelievers with this framework we should always ask the same questions and hold them to the same level of consistency.

First is the issue of consistency. Ask the empiricist unbeliever to be absolutely consistent with their theory of knowledge.  Politely question them on whether they believe in true and objective moral standards, justice, laws of rationality and mathematics, human dignity, beauty, and real cause-and-effect relations. Now, surely most will. Even those who see where you’re going and attempt to deny these things (by saying, for example, that they are merely social constructs) should be reminded that their everyday actions betray that they really do believe them.

Second, we need to ask revealing questions. Empiricism as a theory of knowledge and truth largely depends on materialism and naturalism (the belief that only the physical realm exists, only matter in motion coming together in strange ways). So, here are some questions to ask the empiricist:

  • Have you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen a law of logic? (hereafter i’ll substitute “tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen” with “sensed”)
  • Have you ever sensed a law of mathematics such as A2 +B2= C2?
  • Have you ever sensed a number? (and here I don’t mean a numeric inscription such as 1 or I, 2 or II, but the number itself)
  • Have you ever sensed “human dignity”?
  • Have you ever sensed caused and effect? (I don’t mean succession-I covered in the first post-I mean causation)
  • Have you ever sensed the chief empiricist principle, “all knowledge comes from sense experience”?

By asking such kinds of questions, you’re simply asking the empiricist to be consistent with their principle that all knowledge comes from the five senses. After all, the answer to all the questions above is a resounding No. The naturalist worldview denies a basis for affirming these things and hence cheats when it tried to “borrows” these concepts for it’s anti-God project. And if the empiricist approach doesn’t even provide a sound basis for it’s chief principle (the last question above), then it disqualifies itself as a serious theory of knowledge and challenge to Christianity.

Now, naturally the Christian rejects the principle of empiricism, though we do not deny the need in many cases to be empirical regarding study, research, science, etc. (cf. 1 John 1:1).

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Posted on May 2, 2016, in Knowledge, Philosophical Apologetics, Philosophy, Presuppositional apologetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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