Category Archives: Knowledge

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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All Knowledge of God is Covenant Knowledge

In the following quotation Van Til makes clear that all knowledge of God is covenantal. Either we know God “in Adam”, according to the rebellion of our hearts, or we know God “in Christ,” according to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit:

God has never left himself without a witness to men. He witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God. He exists in the relationship of covenant interaction. He is a covenant being. To not know God man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent his being confronted “with him with whom we have to do.” Whenever he sees himself, he sees himself confronted with God.

Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God. Sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God. Even sin as a process of ever-increasing alienation from God presupposes for its background this knowledge of God.

This knowledge is that which all men have in common. For the race of men is made of one blood. It stood as a unity before God in Adam. This confrontation of all men with God in Adam by supernatural revelation presupposes and is correlative to the confrontation of mankind with God by virtue of creation. If then the believer presents to the unbeliever the Bible and its system of truth as God speaking to men, he may rest assured that there is a response in the heart of every man to whom he thus speaks. This response may be, and often is, unfavorable. Men will reject the claims of God but, none the less, they will own them as legitimate. That is, they will in their hearts, when they cannot suppress them, own these claims. There are no atheists, least of all in the hereafter. Metaphysically speaking then, both parties, believers and unbelievers, have all things in common; they have God in common, they have every fact in the universe in common. And they know they have them in common. All men know God, the true God, the only God. They have not merely a capacity for knowing him but actually do know him.

Thus there is not and can never be an absolute separation between God and man. Man is always accessible to God.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 176-177. Emphasis added.

What Sinners Ought to Know from Natural Revelation

A foundational text undergirding the presuppositional approach to apologetic is Romans chapter 1, specifically verses 18-32. There Paul teaches that all people have an implanted knowledge of God. They don’t merely know that God exists, but they personally know God (as enemy and opponent). God has revealed himself to them in what he has made. Likewise, they not only know God they also know something of his moral demands and that their violation of such demands warrants death (v. 32). Is there anything more to this knowledge? In this often neglected passage, Cornelius Van Til teases how some of what sinful man ought to know about God based on general revelation:

In the first place, he ought to think of God as the creator of this world. In the second place, he ought to believe in the providence of God. In third place, you have to think of the presence of a certain non-saving grace of God. At this last point is true follows for the fact that it is logically involved in the creation idea. If God is the creator of the world, he existed in complete self-sufficiency before the world was. There could be no evil in God; evil would have destroyed God’s self-sufficiency. Accordingly, evil must have come in by the hand of man. [Fourth] Thus logic should have driven men to see the truth of the tradition of the original perfection and the fall of man, and the tradition should have corroborated the logic. To quote Calvin in this connection, “Paul, accordingly, after reminding the Athenians that they ‘might feel after God and find him,’ immediately adds, that ‘he is not far from every one of us’ (Acts 17:27) everyman having within himself undoubted evidence of the heavenly grace by which he lives and moves and has his being” (Institutes 1.5.3).

In the fifth place, we believe men should even have concluded that somewhere in this world they had to be a manifestation of God’s special grace. Non-saving grace could not function without saving grace: “common” grace is not in end in itself, but only a means by which a field may be prepared for the operation of special grace. It is not a valid argument against this contention to say that no one could in advance of this coming argue for the necessity of a gift of grace, since grace is a free gift. We do not say that men ought to have been able to argue in advance that grace should come. We say rather that the world as a matter of fact exist in the way it did by virtue of grace alone as soon as it fell into sin. Moreover, mankind as a whole was brought face to face with the fact of special grace at the time of Cain, and again at time of Noah. Men ought to have seen that a sinful world cannot exist except by the presence of grace in it. Finally, in the sixth place, we may say that men ought to have concluded that the outcome of his failure to recognize the God whom he should serve would be his condemnation in eternal punishment. If they ought to know God as their Creator and ought to know him as the one from whom they had revolted, they ought also to conclude that this creator would put sinners out of his presence forever.

-Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena to the Doctrine of Revelation, Scripture, and God (2nd. Ed), 145-146.

Review: Longing to Know

Back in 2003, Brazos (an imprint of Baker Book House) released Esther Meek’s Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People. I read it a while back, took some summary notes, and then apparently forgot about them. Just recently I ran across them and thought they might be helpful to those who are curious about what’s called epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), but turned off by dry academic tomes.

Preliminary Concerns. According to Meek, the history of western philosophy can be described as the path from skepticism to certainty back to skepticism. As a result those who seek knowledge that does not change (and indeed cannot change) have purposed several criteria for what qualifies as ”certainty” in the field of epistemology.

One important qualification for certainty is that theobject of our knowledge must be impervious to doubt beyond question (or indubitable). But there’s a crucial problem with this model of certainty, namely that it does not fulfill it’s own requirements. This proposition for certainty (”Genuine objects of knowledge must be impervious to doubt and beyond question”) is itself subject to doubt, yet, in light of this we still claim knowledge of many things as is abundantly demonstrated by our everyday experience as “knowing” agents. Thus, this foundational pillar of epistemology must be reexamined, and quite possibly redefined.

Another problem that nags epistemological endeavors is that if we are to formulate a true-to-life epistemology we are facedwith examining an action that we perform almost every moment of our life. While tacitly we perform these actions, putting them into carefully formulated propositions is quite tricky. We’re are so “close” that stepping back and reflecting on our “epistemic activity” is often like trying to look, without the help of a mirror, at the nose on our face.

What is Knowing? One thing that Meek stresses in the book is the body-soul unity of human beings. She doesn’t use this language in the book, yet repeatedly Meek calls us away from the modernist model of epistemology that sees the knowing enterprise as something hampered by human subjectivity in search of a sterile ”objective” mode of knowing.

In order to appreciate the richness of the human knowing process we must see that every instance of knowing involves 3 perspectives. Meek calls these perspectives ”the rules, the self, and the world.” John Frame refers to them in his Doctrine of the Knowledge God as the ”normative, situational, and existential perspectives.” Each of these serve as a way of viewing the whole of the knowing endeavor.

Meek defines knowledge this way:

Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality.

The major sections of her book are organized according to this definition, unpacking it phrase by phrase.

Knowing is the process of integration, by which we focus on a pattern by and through the means of various clues, called subsidiaries, in the world, our body-sense, and in our standards for thinking. Much of the pattern-making process is inarticulatable, and this more-than-words aspect of epistemic acts cannot be ignored, for it is crucial in our common, everyday process of knowing.

Through the integration process the clues now take on greater significance. No longer are they viewed as seemingly disconnected occurrences, but rather meaningful portions that make up a greater reality (ex: a magic eye puzzle). Yet, in a very real sense the pattern or integration, once achieved, retroactively throws light on the subsidiaries that made it up. The particulars retain their meaningfulness, but one that is enhanced; transformed.

These patterns now shape us, because, ideally, they connect us with a reality independent of ourselves. We come to see the fullness of the pattern when it’s truth is lived in, habited, thus extending ourselves out into the world by means of it.

What About Doubt? In light of this, Meek discusses doubt. Doubt can occur by one of two ways. Doubt creeps in when we either we stop using the clues as clues, which can lead us to believe that the clues are all they are (rather than as pieces of a puzzle), or when we see only the focus and lose sight of how this conclusion or intergration was achieved by the use of subsidiaries, or clues. This can lead one to believe that simply a dogmatic answer is asserted without proper substantiation, thus the answer (i.e. the focus, the conclusion to a series of complex epistemic acts) seems pat.

Conclusion. So, Meek contributes to developing a sound Christian apologetic for handling the existential crisis that haunts many when they realize that they have doubts. She even applies this to the story of John the Baptist when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one they were looking for (the Messiah) in Luke 7. She has some very rich pastoral applications.

I would recommend this book to any person interested in delving deeper into the area of epistemology. John Frame, in his review of the book says, “All in all, this is the best book on epistemology (let alone Christian epistemology) to come along in many, many years.  It is a must for any serious student of the discipline and, indeed, for ordinary people who are trying to get clear on how to know God.”

Human Knowledge: Created, Corrupt, Constructed

As a number of Christian thinkers have observed, we need to keep in mind 2 thing when reflecting on questions like What is knowledge?  They are usually paired together by the familiar alliteration, finitude and fallenness. I myself have employed this way of summarizing then biblical way of thinking this through. But I’ve created my own alliteration which I think gets at the same points, while expanding it so as to include something frequently overlooked in Christian circles.

Here’s my triad on human knowledge:

Human knowledge is 1) created, 2) corrupt, and 3) constructed.

Human knowledge is created. Our knowledge isn’t the knowledge of the world God has. He knows things as the Lord of creation, it’s Master and Creator. We know things as creatures of God. God’s knowledge is full, complete, and universal. Our knowledge is partial, incomplete, fallible. Our knowledge can be wrong, God’s knowledge cannot. Even apart from sin (which we’ll look at in a second), we can still, and often do, make “honest” mistakes. We have to grow in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Bit-by-bit we accumulate facts and learn more. God doesn’t have to do this as Creator. His knowledge dictates what is fact.

Human knowledge is corrupt. Since the Fall (Gen. 3), human knowledge is often employed to subject others in an exercise power. One of the clearest examples of this is Nazi scientific experimentation.  In an attempt to document how quickly human bones heal, some of these scientists, it is said, actually broke the bones of children…then broke them again once they healed! Evil indeed. Closer to home, we use our knowledge to get out from under God’s authority, making excuses for our lack of obedience, our manipulation of others, and our lies to ourselves (Cf. Rom. 1:18-32).

Human knowledge is constructed. Many postmodern theorists have noted that human knowledge is a social construct. That is to say, so much of what we call “knowledge” is really just the process of living at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain culture, etc., etc. The problem with so many postmodern explanations of the constructed nature of knowledge is that often knowledge is “explained away,’ stripping us of moral and social responsibility, whether before man or God.

Who we are, the particularities of our lives (our opinions, thoughts, hopes, fears, etc.) are largely shaped by the time, place, and culture in which we live. This is a “postmodern” insight that Christians should welcome. God has ordained it that way, designing us to be exactly the people He wanted us to be for His purposes. I believe the things I do because I was raised by my parents, and not others. I like the movies I do because of a number of influences that are unique to my surroundings (family, friends, etc.). Now, this should never be understood to mean that knowledge is reduced to mere group preferences. But, what it does mean is that our access to many aspects of our knowledge,  that we often take for granted (like the chemical makeup of the water molecule), is mediated via the channels of time, culture, etc. While truth is true regardless of whether we know it or not, being at certain places (at certain time, etc, etc.) helps put us (or, as postmoderns would say it, “situates us”) in the best position to learn such truths (again, like the water molecule).

This is the importance of being steeped in the Scriptures, and rooted in a living and thriving community of faith (i.e. a good church). How we interpret the world, how we filter competing truth claims, knowledge claims, etc., is impacted by our interpretative community. God has designed the church as the haven for Christian growth in wisdom, knowledge, and character. God has purposed the church (and the robust fellowship that it implies) to edify us.

And lest we forget, the word edify means the same as to “build up,” or construct.

For more on this last point, see:

A Natural Knowledge of God

In a recent online discussion an objection was raised to my belief in creation. I was simply stating that, as a Christian, I believe what Scripture teaches. So, what was the problem? Was it because I’ve come to believe this from the testimony of Scripture? But if I didn’t come to believe through reading, I’d rely on the testimony of others (like my parents), a means of learning and knowing God has ordained for the passing on truth.

We should recall the fact that sociological reasons for our coming to know certain things do not undermine their metaphysical truth. We’ve pretty much all come to know that the earth was round by the word of teachers, scientists, 2 dimensional photos, etc., but simply because this is how we came to know this doesn’t mean that we should doubt whether or not the earth really is round…or a sphere if you will. Was my objector implying that if I didn’t have written Scripture I would instead be religious pagan (i.e. a nature worshipper, or some such)? If so, he may have been right in one sense. In Romans chapter 1, verses 21-23 the apostle Paul says:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

So, you see that I might have been a nature worshipper of some sort. But according to Paul, I’d be committing the morally responsible exchange of the worship of God for the worship of those things that God has made. And that’s idolatry.

A careful reading of this passage makes it pretty clear that the reason God’s “wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” is because people rebel against God with clear knowledge of His will and requirements. Therefore-and I realize that this is not a popular teaching- there is no such things as the poor tribal leader who, because he has never heard the gospel of Jesus, is in proper standing before God. As Paul taught in Romans 1: 19-20,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Note that Paul does not say that pagans merely know about God (those that surely is true), but that they actually know God himself, speaking of some sort of personal relationship.

So, if I were someone living in a community who had never been presented with the gospel of Jesus Christ, yes, I might have been a pagan, but I’d be doing it in an act of rebellion to my creator.

Thankfully, God has shown mercy…