In the history of Western philosophy, two predominant and competing schools of the thought concerning the nature and discovery of truth have emerged: empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism and rationalism differ in their starting point and approach to determining truth.
In general, empiricists believe knowledge is founded upon the experience of our senses. We observe and interpret empirical data and utilize inductive reasoning to draw conclusions. Empiricists employ the “scientific method,” working from the data or particulars of the world to draw general conclusions.
In contrast, rationalists believe knowledge is founded upon reason and self-evident truths or propositions.1 They identify what they believe to be self-evident truths and draw conclusions by deducing what necessarily follows from these self-evident truths. They work from general propositions about the world to draw conclusions about the particulars of the world.
Both approaches are valid and worthwhile when self-consciously used as part of God’s created world, with the creator and sustainer of all things as the assumed determiner of all truth. But neither approach is adequate to interpret reality and determine truth apart from God as the ultimate determiner of truth.
For instance, empiricism has several serious problems when done without the assumption of God as the starting point for all truth.
First, empiricists do not agree in their interpretations of reality. Apart from God, no ultimate and absolute authority exists to whom they can appeal to settle differences of interpretation. All interpreters suffer from the same human limitations, and they all lack the objectivity of an outsider’s perspective. They are all part of the universe they are attempting to explain. Moreover, all people lack the breadth and depth of knowledge to adequately answer ultimate questions. Knowledge of everything in the universe and beyond is required to adequately answer ultimate questions regarding God, mankind, and the universe. Apart from God’s explanation of Himself and His universe, all interpretations are reduced to mere observations of the way things are, with no ultimate explanation of why they are and where they came from.
Second, no one, including scientists, interprets data as a “neutral” observer. All people interpret the things of the world according to a basic set of assumptions concerning the world. This set of assumptions, or “worldview,” is like colored glasses through which everyone views the world.2 Data will always be colored according to the assumptions of the interpreter’s worldview, while the assumptions are determined by countless factors, such as culture, personal experience, religious beliefs, education and training, TV programs viewed as a child, and so on. Of course, the greatest influence of all is one’s relationship to God. For example, the theory of evolution as the interpretation of the data of the world (theistic evolution not withstanding) is driven by the assumption that God is not the creator and sustainer of all things, itself an assumption that cannot be proven by the empirical method. The bias of the interpreter is unavoidable. Indeed, we are usually unaware of our ultimate assumptions at work when we interpret the data of the world. And, with no ultimate authority to which interpreters can appeal for an authoritative and objective interpretation, each interpreter becomes his or her own ultimate authority.
Third, any rule stating how the data should be interpreted cannot itself be verified by the empirical method. This is a self-defeating internal contradiction. All such rules as to how data should be interpreted are assumed, contrary to the principles of empiricism.
Lastly, apart from an ultimate authority for interpretation (i.e., Scripture), empiricism leads to relativism and skepticism. As all people are subject to the same human limitations, so no one person’s authority is more justified than another’s with respect to ultimate issues. All truth becomes relative, with the result that no warranted statements of truth can be made. “That’s just your opinion” becomes the law of the land, and who can say otherwise? Apart from an ultimate authority to which we can appeal for ultimate truth, we are left with as many authorities as there are opinions, and as many opinions as there are people. Six billion opinions of similarly constrained interpreters is no basis for truth.
Rationalism suffers from similar fatal problems when the ultimate authority of God is ignored.
First, to what ultimate authority does one appeal to justify “self-evident truths”? Philosophers do not agree on what constitutes a “self-evident truth.” That which is “self-evident” to one philosopher is not necessarily “self-evident” to another. To what ultimate authority does one appeal if the designer, creator, and sustainer of all things is disregarded?
Second, to what ultimate authority can one appeal to confirm with certainty that a given deduction from a “self-evident truth” necessarily follows? How does one know which deductions are true? To what ultimate authority does one appeal to validate the deductions? If the “self-evident truths” cannot be known for certain, neither can the deductions made from them be known for certain.
Lastly, in the same way that atheistic empiricism leads to relativism and the loss of truth, so atheistic rationalism leads to the loss of truth. All interpreters become speculators, with one guess or opinion as good as another. No interpreters can transcend their human limitations to glean the information necessary for a definite statement of truth concerning the ultimate nature of things. Apart from an ultimate authority for truth (i.e., Scripture), rationalism also reduces to six billion opinions of similarly constrained interpreters with the resulting loss of ultimate truth.
Therefore, in considering the historical feud between empiricism and rationalism as the proper method of interpreting reality and determining truth, at issue is not empiricism versus rationalism, as the history of Western philosophy would seem to suggest. Rather, the basic issue is whether or not empiricism and rationalism are done with a proper acknowledgement of the One who created and sustains all things, the ultimate and final authority as to the nature and meaning of all things. Apart from God as the basis of all knowledge, neither empiricism nor rationalism is adequate to account for the nature of reality as we know it. Neither is adequate to answer ultimate questions if done in ignorance of the source of all truth. Both, however, are equally valid when conducted with proper deference to God as the ultimate authority and interpreter of all things. God is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a proper interpretation of His world, and the one who determines the most basic or “self-evident” truths.3
1 For a quick and simple comparison of the two schools of thought, see Tom Morris, Philosophy for Dummies (New York: Wiley Publishing, 1999), 68-69.
2 Van Til, Why I Believe in God; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 128-9
3 Of course, “self-evident” is a bit of a misnomer with respect to God-determined truths, as we know them as true because God has revealed them to be true.