Epistemology Series - Rationalism

By Josh Hickok

     Rationalism, strictly defined, is the belief that all knowledge comes from pure reason, or the mind.  This is not to be confused with idealism, which states that the external world is the product of the mind, but rather that only our mind provides sure knowledge.  The traditional means for rationalists to acquire knowledge is through mathematics, logic and other various abstract philosophy branches.  Some of the big names belonging to this group are Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Benedict Spinoza (1632-77).  These three make up the famous Continental rationalist triumvirate.  All three showed a great distaste for the scholasticism of the Church during the Middle Ages, and made the starting point of knowledge our self rather than logic or God.

     The most famous case of this is the philosophy of Descartes, who, in a search for the first principle, declared “Eureka!” (or, I’ve found it!) upon realizing that thought should be our starting point for a quest for knowledge.  In short, his findings went like this—Dubito (I doubt), ergo Cogito (therefore I think), ergo Sum (therefore I am).  Starting with this, he made it his point to prove nearly everything, including God, by merely thinking.  This is a typical rationalist approach—start with the mind or thought, and end with the explanation for everything in logical format.

     What does rationalism mean for Christians? And does it have any weak points?

     There are some very alarming conclusions to draw by denying the validity of knowledge through our senses.  One is that our Bible becomes useless—how can I know that what I'm reading actually happened?  This is where we believe that rationalists go too far.  True enough, our senses fail us from time to time, but generally our past experiences our pretty good indicators of the future.  We don’t mean to say that experience as compared to abstract thinking is the only way to go—indeed, the two can and must go hand in hand for the Christian.

     So what points of rationalism can we accept?  For one, rationalists seem to agree with us that the physical world is ruled by logic—in other words, if the material world ever contradicts logic, then we know our senses have failed us.  For one example of this, you need to look to further than those who posit a universe exploding out of nothing.  The laws of causality, which have their basis in logic, dictate that nothing produces only nothing.  This is why many feel that theories like the big bang will eventually be left in favor of those more logical (and, I might add with a bit of hope, Biblical).

     Another point we approve is that abstract thought is valuable insofar as it is combined with our senses to produce knowledge.  What I mean is this—arguments such as the cosmological argument are pretty much worthless without mathematical or philosophical backing.  All you could do is take yourself back to the scientific beginning, but no further to the beginner.  But math or philosophy cannot by itself prove in the Kalam cosmological argument that things are caused in our universe—we use our sense perception to tell us that.  This is why most Christian apologists (with the exception of a few) will use both in their defense of Christianity—a tactic most advisable by us.


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