Empiricism and the Church
By Greg Goodrich
“When a man desires to know the truth…He can stare at the phenomena, but in the absence of imagination they will not connect themselves together in any rational way.”– Charles Sanders Peirce
Empiricism in General
Charles Sanders Peirce is remembered as a major historical figure in the history of pragmatism1, but he was also an empiricist. A broken clock may be right twice a day, and an empiricist may observe reality by rubbing against it with his elbow. Such seems to be the case here in Peirce’s words. Whether the phenomena before us are experienced internally (as intuitions) or externally (as corporeal sensations), these are not an immediate representation of reality. Although mysticism and scientism disagree about whether intuition or physical sensations are most authoritative, these both stand in mutual opposition to reason by accepting them as immediate representations of the real. Mysticism takes the internal intuitive connection between emotive signs to be an immediate testimony of reality. Scientism undergirded by empiricism takes the external senses to provide an exclusive and immediate data-driven testimony of reality. Neither recognize the role of interpretation.
The task of coming to understand reality requires interpretation. To fail to recognize that interpretation has occurred in forming one’s belief is a lack of integrity; it is to neglect to give a rational account of a cognitive claim which was formed non-rationally. Personal and societal inexcusability increases when these beliefs are brought into the public square without a reasonable account. The result is collective self-deception and self-justification.
While many may resist the metaphysical claims of scientism, the unjustified nakedness of empiricism has yet to be seen by the society and the church. It seems the church itself may be naked in the public square, unclear in her understanding about the light of reason which is in all humankind and to which the church ought to give witness (John 1:4-5).
In this way, the Church is not unlike the Pharisees who in their literalism condemned Christ. Empiricism, in conflating reality as it is to reality as it appears to me, is the parent of literalism. It does not recognize the fullness of cognitive meaning in the concept intended by a term or word. One may hold to one’s position with conviction and sincerity, even vehemence, and yet this is not understanding held in the integrity of one’s heart. For this nakedness, the church is itself without any excuse.
Empiricism in Our First Parents
As it is accounted of Eve, she was attracted to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the absence of her husband’s love of the good. Genesis 3:6 states, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” The autonomy or our first parents became manifest in their eating of the fruit. Eating the fruit showed that their autonomy was due to neglect of their rational nature, and that in its place they had put an emphasis on the empirical, in hope of receiving their own self-determined good apart from understanding. They did not examine the presuppositions in the interpretation behind the perceptual data they were taking in, or the lie itself which promised they could become their own creator. Instead, they buttressed the lie that they could determine their own perceived good to be their true good and not inherit the consequence: spiritual death2.
A question of great consequence for ourselves and our culture is like the temptation given to Adam and Eve. It may occur explicitly in one’s thinking, or may simply function at an implicit unconscious level. In either case, it is a foundational question requiring an answer prior to all other human choices and actions. The question is this: “What is a human?” Depending on how we answer it, it provides us with endless opportunity to pursue our own self-determined view of the good. It does not provide us with opportunity without consequence. In the moment we deny our own human responsibility to pursue meaning and understanding, we inherit the darkness of mind which inherently comes with not seeking. Harm of self and others all flows from this neglect of understanding one’s nature as a human, and the need for meaning and understanding obtained through making rational inferences.
There is also a societal consequence. Human equality, dignity and rights all depend on how a society answers this question, “What is a human?” The development of culture, its understanding, and its laws will all depend upon whether one can give a rational account of human nature and essential equality among all humans, or not. One might stop with this sentence and ask, “Can I give rational justification for an answer to the question, ‘What is a human?’” Anything less than rational justification will yield, over time or generations, to skepticism and eventually to nihilism. Eventually, for those who neglect to give attention to this question, there will be hardening into prejudice and division, or a melting into uncertainty.
With this question in mind, and the propensity of humankind toward empiricism, consider the Genesis account again. As humankind persists in the rejection of reason, what theory of human origins would be most suitable to accommodate the emphasis on the visible? It seems that metaphysical naturalism would be a reasonable candidate. Two reasons to be considered are: 1) evolution does not ground an ontological distinction between kinds of being, but only degrees; and 2) evolution does not call for rational inference, but for intuitional relations between data which are taken to be immediately perceived or felt. As a consequence of the first reason, humankind has no distinct and fixed nature. There is no created nature and so each one is left to determine their own good, constrained only by how he or she will interpret the degree of their unique ontological proximity to any vague model of human nature. As a consequence of the second, rational inference is conflated with intuitional states and appearance. It does not recognize the presuppositions which lie underneath the interpretation of data.
Although metaphysical naturalism as a theory moves from appearance to then make inferences, these inferences must be shown to be rational inferences by going beyond mere appearance. It must be argued that its interpretation of the relevant data is more suitable than competing alternatives. Upon examination, naturalism does not do this. It does not dismiss antithetical notions by showing their logical impossibility; it is rather an ad hoc correlation of appearances. Darwinian and neo-Darwinian metaphysical interpretations are therefore due to empiricism. One who holds to the theistic account of special creation, and understands the human propensity to be intellectually content with narratives based on appearance, shouldn’t be surprised by Darwinian beliefs; from the beginning, this view of human origins was inevitable as a consequence of original sin as empiricism. Why, then, has the Church not answered this view by dealing with the epistemological root?
Empiricism in the Church
On a biblical account, the first parents and all the faithful of history were to use rational inference, moving from what is seen to what is unseen, from the observable creation to know the creator, in order that one might come to the highest good as the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:20, Heb. 11:1-3). If the Church has not understood the need to use reason to make good and necessary inferences, then it will not be able to expect any more from others. If she has not enjoyed knowing God in his eternal power and divine nature through what has been made, then she will not enjoy him. She will enjoy something else. She will not go on to maturity, and she will not make disciples. Her members will not be one, and the world will not believe.
The Need for Repentance
Darwinian naturalism has given the Church another occasion to consider the fruitlessness of her own epistemology. Lack of fruit and division is reason enough to consider whether the nature of sin has been carefully examined at the epistemological level. As mentioned above, there is a strong connection between empiricism and literalism. This sin, in the hearts of teachers, was what led them to crucify Christ.
Teachers of the Church, although regenerate, could be like Nicodemus. In the third chapter of the book of John, Jesus said to Nicodemus, who was a teacher of Israel, that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was astonished, asking, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be reborn?” He could not grasp the meaning of what Jesus was saying because his epistemology exempted him from the need to make good and necessary inferences and that same epistemology offered him no category by which to understand non-literal (or non-empirical) claims. Nicodemus had obeyed all the law, but none of it; he kept the literal words of the 10 commandments down to the letter, but did not understand how his epistemology contradicted the moral law.
Like Nicodemus, many teachers of our day have repented of sin, but there is need to go further in asking whether this connects to conviction that the Kingdom of God is at hand3. It is one thing to repent for worshiping the sun, and another to show why one was without excuse for worshiping the sun4. When the latter rational engagement with competing beliefs occurs, one is made ready to advance one’s own understanding through one’s work in the earth and among humankind. Perhaps the Church itself has not been salt and light because it has only heard with the hearing of the ear (fideistic, mediated belief), but has not seen the source of the light itself5.
If the Church continues to hold on to empiricism, conceiving of the invisible God in light of visible man, or the earth filled with the knowledge of God as an otherworldly heaven inherited apart from the means of dominion, then believers will continue to enable the belief that humankind can be its own creator and determiner of meaning. She will not be able to give witness to what she has not seen for herself. She will not be one and the world will not believe. May the proper fear of God bring a proper repentance, to turn from the fruitless works of false epistemologies.
1 – Pragmatism is the belief that truth is nothing more than utility. If a proposition applied in the world works, then it is true. It can be applied to the individual’s psychological state, or to the collective progress of a society.
2 – ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?”’ [Gen. 3:1] and “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [Gen. 3:4])
3 – Both John the baptist and Jesus called for repentance in this way. In the words, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” the Lord’s prayer anticipates the New City of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. This is connected to and not apart from the repentance of humankind, understanding and applying the moral law written in human nature.
4 – Worship of the sun is recurrent throughout the nations of the world in history. This is only an example of the level of repentance needed here.
5 – Job’s repentance is a cosmic model for the human failure to see what is clear about God and find lasting joy in that understanding.
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