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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).

The Problem with Atheism

Here’s a tough bit of apologetic truth: Often times we give atheism too much credit. Too often we’ve allowed atheists to determine and dictate what is “rational.”

The problem of atheist rationality. Christians should not grant atheism a “get out of jail free” card. Atheism itself is not a rational position. The conversation is open and shut, in principle, if we allow (whether explicitly or implicitly) the atheist to determine rationality. Here’s a simple point, but one that’s worth noting: Atheists, when consistent, define rationality in accord with atheism. It’s all people interpret data (evidence, etc) in light of prior philosophical/religious commitments. So, what is “rational” for an atheist is determined by non-belief.

New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris may claim that rationality evolved. But at the end of the day their argumentation won’t fly. As others have argued, a justification for rationality that undermines trust in rationality is not rationality at all. According to the argument from reason, if Darwinian evolution is true, then most, if not all, of what we do and believe is directed toward survival, not truth. But if this is true— if we can be confident that that’s what driving our thinking— then what certainty do we have that we can trust our thinking? And if we have no rational for trusting our beliefs, then we don’t have any certainty that our thinking about anything is true, including our thinking about evolution.  On an evolutionary account, our cognitive equipment is merely geared toward survival and procreation.

What I’m not saying. Now for clarification, lest I be misunderstood. This isn’t to say that all atheists are irrational. A great many atheists are brilliant and far more educated than Christians. Though this is exactly what we should expect if we read our Bibles (Cf. 1 Cor. 1-2, James 2). God chose the things that are reckoned low and of disrepute in order to ultimately demonstrate that “finding” him isn’t about our gifts, strengths, or achievements. Again, 1 Cor. 1 says that God structured his plan to save sinners in a such a way that “the world through its wisdom would not know Him.” So, if this is true (and it is), we shouldn’t expect thinking based on strictly atheistic assumptions to be the kind of thinking that recognizes the evidence for God in this world (at least not explicitly, cf. Rom. 1).

The apologetic point I’m making is not whether atheists are sane and healthy-minded people. The point I’m making is that so many of them are, and are so in spite of their worldview. Informing of this very worldview-disconnect is what I mean by not granting them more than atheism deserves. When modern naturalistic atheists acts as if their reason is trustworthy, then are thinking like a Christian, not an atheist.

Why? We all live our lives on the functional assumption that logic is real and objective. But what accounts for it? A Christian would say that at its root, the existence of the infinite-personal God of the Bible is the One that provides the preconditions to make the existence of objective logic standards intelligible. And unless someone can provide a workable philosophical account of the ontological existence of objective logical standards, they are the ones those philosophies disappear in a puff of smoke.

Worldview cohesion.  We all have an ultimate commitment, or “centering belief,” that guides and directs the flow of our beliefs, desires, and hopes. Only when we find worldview harmony with our centering beliefs can we righted be called rational.

So, what about Christians? By the standard I’ve proposed, are we rational? Christians believe God is the creator of the universe and the ultimate reason why we can trust our sense perception of the outside world. God created both the world around me and my faculties of perception in such a fashion to be generally reliable. Our general trust in human rationality is grounded in our commitment to Christianity (just as our suspicions of human rationality are also rooted in our Christian doctrine of the noetic effects of sin).

Any view that denies this, while it may seem perfectly “rational” to the atheist, is completely foreign from my way of thinking and will be considered irrational to me. Am I being unnecessarily narrow? I don’t think so, after all, most atheists clearly believe that Christian belief is irrational when they characterize it as a fairy tale for adults.

Naturalism, Worldviews, and Epistemology

As I’ve argued before, the rise of modern science came about from the conviction of the Bible’s presentation of metaphysical realism teaches that the external world was really there, not merely a projection of our minds, and detailed study of it could lead to a true understanding of the world rather than merely biographical insights (opposed to eastern influenced worldviews that teach reality as maya, illusion.). This is grounded in the Biblical notion of a Creator/creature distinction.

Naturally, this may lead to an objection: What of those who practiced a kind of science before the rise of modern science? What about Lucretius? What about Democritus? Didn’t they say the same kinds of things?

Well, let’s ask a couple of question. Did Lucretius believe in a Creator/creature distinction? Great! Wait…no? Did he believe that the external world was really there? Great! My point isn’t that non-Christians don’t believe in an external world. The nub of the issue is whether their worldview provides a basis for believing those things. The issue is worldview. The rise of modern science is owed to Christian theism.

It’s not enough that someone, somewhere (ex: Lucretius) agreed with a single point that Christians later held. Rather is was a collection of beliefs that made modern science possible. Even Alfred North Whitehead, not exactly a friend to historical Christianity, said in Science and the Modern World:

Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

The point? Even those who reject Christianity acknowledge its role in the development of modern science.

Let’s think of some other problems for naturalism. Epistemologists for centuries have noted what I’ve called the problem of the knower. That is, how do we know that our measuring, thoughts, etc. match up to the external world? Our measuring, observations, etc may work (they may provide pragmatic usefulness), but how do we know that they lead to truth? Personally, I can understand how on a materialistic worldview they lead to the first (pragmatic usefulness), but not how they can secure the second (truth).

You see, this is also called the subject/object problem. But, one of the reasons for the problem (and the issue here, again, is how does one justify, integrate, harmonize, provide the philosophical preconditions for these assumptions. I’m not doubting that the assumptions (i.e. that our measurements reflect the external world, etc.) are valid, I’m questioning naturalism’s philosophical foundation for such beliefs. Naturalists have failed to provided an epistemological norm or standard for these foundational beliefs. For Christians the standard is the Bible. Lots of work has been done to unpack the philosophical implications for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc from the teachings of the Bible, like John Frame’s  Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R Publishing), and Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford). This “norm” serves as a presupposition in the sense that it acts as the filter, lens (insert analogy here) through which evidence will be understood. This norm isn’t easily refuted or correct by a simply appeal to “the facts” either, because it’s the standard by which evidence is interpreted. So the battle between naturalism and Christianity is a clash of worldviews. This clash was made explicit in the now infamous book review by Richard Lewontin:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, IN SPITE OF its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, IN SPITE OF  the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a A PRIORI adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

– Richard Lewontin,”Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 4, 1997, 31. Emphasis in original, though they were italicized, not caps

This speaks volumes, and I’m convinced that this worldview clash is what dictates so many of the arguments against, for example, the intelligent Design movement. It’s a commitment to methodological naturalism, and as Lewontin notes, and a priori commitment at that.

Conclusion. What’s the Christian response to the philosophical issues noted above? In a nutshell, it’s found in biblical doctrines of creation and anthropology. Since the same God created both me and the world around me, there’ s a correlation between the two. God has created the world with a rational structure and likewise has modeled our thinking to match this rational structure (not perfectly, but truly).

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.”