Rationalism vs. empiricism – What is a Christian view?

The philosophical views of rationalism and empiricism were developed during the Enlightenment. Many people get their first (and usually only) exposure to the history of philosophy by parsing through these different ways of studying human knowledge (e.g. epistemology). Although it seems like a relic of the past, the question of rationalism versus empiricism is still relevant in certain respects. The fundamental premises of these competing schools of thought are present in many contemporary discussions concerning matters of religious significance. While there are elements in both schools of thought that are compatible with a Christian worldview, each has distinct problems.

Rationalism generally holds that at least some things are knowable without sense experience. This view further maintains that other things are knowable via argumentation from propositions/ideas not obtained via sense experience or other means. Rationalism in its purest form is associated with early Enlightenment thinkers like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. The core idea of rationalism is that reality is constituted in such a way that any relevant aspect of it may be understood using logical and mathematical reasoning. The human mind has an innate rational structure, which allows us to grasp certain truths intuitively. While sense experience is not necessarily eschewed in all cases, any knowledge gained by encountering the physical world is typically thought of as inferior.

Against rationalism, empiricism holds that knowledge is obtained via sense experience. On this view, the only way we can know something is based on experience, not from any innate ideas or intuition. Inductive reasoning, such as that used in the scientific method, is pre-eminent in empiricist thought. Famous empiricist thinkers of the past include Francis Bacon, John Locke, and David Hume. Locke famously postulated the human mind as a "tabula rasa" (blank slate) upon which our experience and interactions with the world leave their mark.

Rationalists and Empiricists have dueled through the ensuing centuries. And there seems to be some merit on both sides. For example, it is difficult to deny that the human mind has something of an innate rational structure. And it is equally difficult to deny that our experience of the world yields genuine knowledge. But the issues are much more complex than this; the implications of each view make the gap between them progressively widen. The rationalist has difficulty defending innate knowledge and concepts. A rational structure of the mind is one thing, but "intuition" is notoriously difficult to coherently explicate in terms of knowledge. This leads to a disparity in conceptual knowledge and knowledge of things in the world. On the other side, when followed to its logical conclusion, empiricism seems to inevitably result in skepticism (pace Hume) or logical positivism (pace Carnap). Each of these positions resulting from empiricism are self-defeating.

Christians can see evidence of both rationalist and empiricist views in everyday conversations. For instance, skeptics often ask for Christianity to be proven. And by this they typically mean proven by the scientific method or similar means. A strong empiricism underlies this request; knowledge based on the physical world impinging upon the senses in a testable/repeatable way is implicit. On the other side, rationalism comes into play whenever certain truth propositions seem indemonstrable based on concepts alone. Thus, some people dismiss Christianity because it is not reducible to geometric axioms. The underlying belief is that, if Christianity were true, it would be logically demonstrable in the "clear and distinct way" of mathematical truths. The reasoning here holds that we should be able to know such important truths prior to experience, or by connecting various foundational/intuitive propositions.

It is important to note that both rationalism and empiricism have the same starting point. Each of these views begin from ideas or perceptions. Such a view might seem to make sense at first glance, but this is an artificially imposed and unnecessary presupposition. The rationalist and empiricist, as well as the myriad later philosophical traditions following in their footsteps, starts in basically the following way: "Given that I have an idea of something (I exist, a blue coffee cup appears to me, etc.), how do I know it?" From this point, it is easy to see how either rationalism or empiricism is inescapable. There is no way to truly apprehend reality if one starts by questioning knowledge. This is because ideas of things are not things, and in the final analysis there is no way to connect the idea with the thing.

The focus on beginning inquiry with ideas or perceptions, rather than things themselves, is what ultimately leads to contemporary atheistic gambits like "street epistemology," courtesy of Peter Boghossian. In this rouse, the skeptic tries to get the believer to question how they know their beliefs are true, thereby targeting justification or warrant for holding certain beliefs. Christians can avoid this farce altogether by simply rejecting the premise of inquiry. The rational person is under no obligation to split themselves (and reality) in half and then try to develop a latticework for piecing it back together.

The Bible does not present an either/or proposition between reality and knowledge. God’s Word tells us plainly that man grasps reality itself. Redeemed man relates directly to God Himself, not merely an idea of God. Any other view would cast doubt on revelation. When God created man, He created a unity of the material and immaterial, and thus both the mind (rational) and body (empirical) are necessary (Genesis 2:7). The Bible further teaches that man is single substance until death, after which his soul/spirit subsists (albeit in a suboptimal state) until bodily resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:1–9; Revelation 20:4–15). Thinking of man as a combination of two distinct substances, or simply one versus the other (material vs. immaterial) results in intractable problems, many of which are manifest in rationalism and empiricism. Empiricism would have us deny non-physical truths or non-physically demonstrable propositions, while rationalism leaves us with no way to trust what sense perception delivers. The Bible teaches that God created man with the rational capacity to relate to Him and other things, as well as to have dominion over the earth and work in it (Genesis 1:28; 2:15; Isaiah 1:18). It is for at least these reasons that we can see the faults in rationalism and empiricism, while considering some of the fair point each position makes.

Related Truth:

What is a Christian view of the intellect?

What does it mean that humanity is created in the image of God?

How can I come to really know God?

Christian worldview - What is it?

What was the effect of the fall on humanity? How did the fall affect our world?

Return to:
Truth about Worldview and Apologetics

Compelling Truth HOME