The Christian View of Knowledge: Part 2, Empiricism

Thomas Aquinas, the father of empirical apologetics

Perhaps the most widely held philosophy today, Empiricism claims all knowledge is attained through the senses. Man, by use of his sensory organs, arrives at the truth of any given topic. Roses are supposed to be red and violets blue through visual sensations of color. Man’s mind is thought to be as a tabula rasa (a blank sheet of paper) at birth, on which experience alone can write. In a word, we learn through our experiences. In Christian circles, elaborate arguments are made for the existence of God from an observation of nature. It is supposed, in order to convince a non-believer of the Christian faith, we must start at a point of agreement and reason with them from there. The roots of many of these arguments are deeply imbedded in an empiricalistic philosophy. Perhaps the most popular argument for the existence of God from an empirical standpoint is the cosmological argument, elaborated by the influential theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The argument contains five individual arguments, each one similar in construction to the first one. Because the first argument is the most popular and because each argument is similarly constructed, we will only address the first argument. The summary of which is:

“The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion. Now, whatever is moved is moved by another, for nothing can be moved except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is moved; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e., that it should move itself. Therefore whatever is moved must be moved by another. If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must needs be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at the first mover, moved by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.”[1]

Is this argument a valid Christian argument? Many Christian scholars parade it as such. Perhaps the most glaring problem with the argument is it begs the question. It assumes the point it is supposed to be demonstrating as true, namely, an unmoved mover, or God. Towards the end of the quoted text Aquinus argues against an infinite number of movers with the reason for its impossibility being: “there would be no first mover”. Yet it is this he was intending to prove with the argument in the first place. This certainly makes it invalid.

But, even if we could validly deduce a first unmoved mover, who is to say this is the God of the Bible? Who is to say it is even a personal God at all? Or what is to keep us from deducing a multiplicity of unmoved movers? Perhaps polytheism is the answer? This makes the argument unchristian, to say the least, but also useless and absurd.

Another problem with the argument, even if it were valid, is one can never argue from an “is” to an “ought”. This is to say, I may learn through my experiences what the situation is around me (though some would argue whether I learn even that much), but I could never learn through my experience what ought to be the situation. This is a problem for any empirical argument, not just the cosmological argument. What is the justification for universals or norms? We may observe such and such is the situation, but we could never argue such and such ought to be the situation merely by observation of what is. This applies to moral norms, as well as to law, but it also applies to the logical norms without which, thinking is impossible. Certainly the Bible speaks of norms; can we then as Christians justify an epistemology failing to account for them?

To compile the evidence against this method of thinking let us ask another question many may otherwise never ask: Can we trust what our senses tell us? Is seeing really believing? Aquinus said: “It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion.” Is that which is “certain and evident to our senses” actually certain, that is, absolutely reliable? Christian philosopher Dr. Gordon H. Clark had this to say about the question posed:

“Empiricism is perhaps a common sense view. It has also been the view of many philosophers. But it faces insuperable objections. In the first place, the senses of men and animals produce conflicting data. Dogs, for example, are supposed to be color blind, but they have sensations of sound when men hear nothing. For that matter, men differ among themselves. Esoteric artists see colors in grass that no common man finds there. Which of these sensations correctly represent the color of the object seen? In some cases the senses contradict each other, as when a stick half submerged looks bent but feels straight. Then there are mirages and other optical illusions. While they last, we cannot tell that they are illusions; and we cannot tell whether our present sensations are illusions. Again, are we dreaming or not? An elementary textbook on psychology will describe many of these phenomena, with the result that it is impossible to trust what we call sensory perception.”[2]

There are often times when I hear my wife speak and she has not spoken, and more when I don’t hear her and she has spoken. There are times where my eyes have deceived me and I have found myself startled without cause, and more times hit in the head because I perceived no danger. I’m sure the reader could count a myriad of his own personal events of sensory deception. Surely God has given us our senses for a purpose, but it was not to develop an epistemological foundation.

Let the Christian who supposes he learns through seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting ask himself this: Am I begging the question? Have I opted for an unchristian epistemology? For, what is the typical response from a Christian to defend empiricism? “The Bible speaks of us seeing and hearing, etc.” This is a point we of course grant, with a reply: The Bible also speaks of God seeing and hearing. Yet we know God has no body, thus no sound waves reverberating off the eardrum, and no sound waves produced through His vocal chords. In a word, God has no sensations, yet He does see and hear. Thus, “seeing” and “hearing”, as they are in the Bible, do not require an empirical philosophy, but rather reject it.

Consider this piece of art from M. C. Escher and revel in the reliability of your perception.

Though we may have sensations, they cannot be trusted as a foundation for knowledge. Empiricism is a failure.


[1] Aquinus, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Qu. 2, Art. 3.
[2] Clark, The Trinity Review, September 1979


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