Epistemology Series - Empiricism

By Josh Hickok

     Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge is supplied through our senses and the sensations they receive.  This is usually placed opposite rationalism, though an argument could be made that they are not completely contradictory.  I may add at this point that not all empiricists are the same - some would say that all our knowledge is supplied by sensations shaped by our a priori devices (Kant), while some say that empiricism, though undeniable, ends in complete skepticism (Hume).  However, this skepticism is not usually normative in scientific circles.  In spite of the criticism of its many tenets from nearly every possible corner, empiricism, disguised as naturalism, has taken thinking circles over by storm since the Enlightenment.

     Empiricism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries took on an anti-metaphysical stance known as logical positivism.  As this is a somewhat widely circulated belief, we will look at its main pillar, verificationism.  Though it has been somewhat abandoned, it is still possible to run across this bias every once and a while.  Its creator was A.J. Ayer, and circulated by him throughout the famous Vienna Circle.  In short, it states that all statements or propositions must either be empirical or tautalogous (that is, true by definition).  This carries a huge implication for theists - how can we say anything about God if it is not either empirical or true by definition?  The theory was demolished, in no small part by a fellow Viennese philosopher, Karl Popper.  It pulls its own rug out from underneath itself by not being able to verify itself using its own methods!  Most theists do not see this as a threat to Christianity.

     Since then, verificationism has been replaced by what has been termed “falsifiability.”  This says that all statements that have meaning must have a way to falsify it.  For example, if one said there was an invisible, undetectable fairy living on their shoulder, how would one falsify this belief?  You could not.  Therefore, it has no meaning.  Some have taken this to mean that since there exists no empirical evidence that could falsify god, let alone the Christian God, it becomes meaningless to say that he would exist.  This is quite the drastic critique, if sound.  Unfortunately for the skeptic, it does not hold water.  Like the above principle, it destroys itself internally.  What possible empirical evidence could one find that could falsify it?  Some Christian apologists have granted falsification, and said there are ways to falsify God.  All it would take is one of his attributes to be contradictory with another (such as an all-loving God and the presence of sin).  I think, along the lines of Etienne Gilson, that there is no reason to do either of these options.  I think that falsification remains a wonderful test when applied correctly.  What I mean is, let the principles of science judge itself and not make the jump to metaphysical truths.

     We have gone through a number of tools that empiricists have used, but have not gone much into detail as to what empiricism used properly means for Christians.  As adherents to a revealed religion, we must accept that our senses are reliable and there are proper methods of judging the external world. Indeed, if our senses consistently lie to us, what use is reading the Bible?  Some have gone so far as to say that empiricism needs Christianity.  This takes us to a critique of atheistic empiricism.

     Atheistic empiricism may just as well be called naturalism for all intents and purposes.  Of course there are many, many varieties of naturalism (deists, pantheists), but in my estimation every atheist is a naturalist - just not the other way around.  Their epistemic method is nearly always that of empiricism- that is, the only thing that exists is the material, and only physical forces work in this interlocking system.  There are two related criticisms that can be leveled at naturalism and therefore, atheism: the argument from reason and the reliability of empirical methods.

The Argument from Reason

     If naturalism is true, then the entire universe is a large interacting whole.  There is no reason to be found, only non-rational forces at work.  But if there is nothing but non-rational forces at work, then there is nothing rational about believing this very theory.  That, very shortly and crudely, is what C.S. Lewis proposed in his famous chapter 3 of Miracles.  Basically, it comes down to this: if naturalism is true, then there is no way to know it.  If there is no way to know it, then there is no way to argue for it.  If there is no way to know it, then they are accepting it on a gut instinct, by faith, or because they don’t like the alternatives.  None of those are good reasons for accepting it therefore we must not. 

Methodological Problems of Atheistic Empiricism

     The next criticism of naturalistic empiricism is its inability to provide reasons for placing optimism in its assumptions - that of inference and causal atomism (note: Hume didn’t actually believe that events were disconnected, but his criticism nearly amounts to it).  First we have inference - that we can imply thru past events the effects of future events.  In a naturalistic setting, this faith is simply irrational.  On what empirical grounds should one accept that the past repeats itself? In an ordered system by a rational Creator this problem disappears but the it remains for the naturalist.  Next we have the problems of cause and effect in a naturalistic setting.  This is closely related to the fore-mentioned Argument from Reason.  Is it rational to believe that we can decipher which cause should be paired with which effect?  Even if the two appear to have a constant conjunction, what right have we to place any faith into it being correct?  As Thomas Reid pointed out many years ago, if causality is the same as constant conjunction, then day causes night and night causes day.  But we know this not to be true.  Admittedly, this is a problem for ALL scientists, but less for one who believes in an ordered universe.

     In closing, we hold that scientific inquiry, if done honestly,[1] will uphold the truth of the Bible and poses no specific threat to Christianity.  Empiricism in and of itself is not a dangerous method for uncovering truths about God’s universe.  But it is also one of the most mishandled and misapplied techniques in our current world.  Used properly, it becomes a great tool, “for since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” –Romans 1:20

[1] By this we refer to scientific research which is properly interpreted through the filter of God’s Word.  Scientists, both atheistic and Christian, deal with the same facts.  We have the same fossils, trees, rocks, world, solar system, etc.  The difference is how we interpret the data.  We are not trying to claim that naturalistic and/or atheistic scientists are not honest.


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