If the title of this post is confusing for you then I encourage you to read further. For as we see (!) in the following insight from Herman Bavinck, we need to be encouraged to understand before we see and then understand that there is more to life than what we see.
Having discussed the foundations or starting point of theology, Bavinck goes on to critique the various non-Christian alternatives to the theory of knowledge (epistemology). After dealing with rationalism (in which “the objective world lets itself be directed in whole or in part in accordance with the human mind” Volume 1, page 219) he summarizes the empirical approach to knowledge. He states:
empiricism totally subjects the human consciousness to the world outside of us. In the pursuit of knowledge, human beings bring with them nothing but the faculty of perception… Innate ideas do not exist… From the temple of truth which he aspires to construct in his mind, he must remove all idols… The human mind, therefore, is and must be a tabula rasa on which nothing has as yet been written, an entity completely devoid of presuppositions… No science of the supersensible (noumena) and the supernatural is therefore possible… our knowledge is limited to the that and the how; the what and the why remain hidden Volume 1, page 219).
In this view of life or worldview, humans don’t or shouldn’t bring anything to the table of knowledge. There is nothing we already know that is either not, 1) taken from the world around us or 2) knowledge falsely called because we assume its truth, without being able to verify it. Defining something (“the what”) or truly understanding something (“the why”), therefore, is unachievable for humans. This theory of knowledge is associated with agnosticism (we cannot know if God exists) and materialism (the physical or material world is all there is and ever will be).
In the world today, we often hear and see this as the scientific paradigm or the ‘science is only what can be verified according to tested results’. We are told, then, that creation science and even intelligent design is not true science because it rests on ‘religious’ or unverifiable methods and presuppositions (such as the existence of a personal, divine creator).
There are a number of things that we could say about this approach (I have addressed them in another blog post) but I will ‘let’ Bavinck speak to this issue. He notes that “in its intellectual activity the human mind is never totally passive or even receptive but also always more or less active” (page 220). So instead of being a tabula rasa (blank slate), Bavinck argues that the mind presupposes or assumes consciousness. We believe that we are alive; we believe that we are awake; we believe that we are properly able to discern, by our senses, what is real and what is not real; what is false and what is true. That is, we must readily admit, that our senses deceive us (e.g. mirages, UFO sightings, hallucinations etc.).
More fundamentally, as Bavinck notes, we also believe or assume in the laws of logic and mathematics. No one knows anywhere in the world (in the sky above or the earth beneath) where one can find the truth that ‘a’ cannot be ‘a’ and ‘not a’ at the same time (the law of non-contradiction) or that 2+2 = 4. It is true, experience or our senses teach us that if a cat looks like a cat and walks like a cat and smells (!) like a cat, it is a cat and not ‘not a cat. That is, words must mean something and not mean something else for our world to make sense. But that is still different than coming to that conclusion solely based on experience. For what is at stake here is not simply verifying that the ‘seen’ and ‘smelt’ being is a cat but that it is also ‘not a cat’ at the same because we have assumed that this law of non-contradiction is universally true even if not sensed and thus able to be verified by some scientific test.
And yes experience also teaches us that 2+2 = 4 makes sense when we already have two apples and add two more to the group. But that is still different than coming to that conclusion solely based on experience. For what if sometimes we come to a different conclusion? Say, 2+2 = 5, for example. We have to assume that some universal standard of mathematics is ‘in play’ (even when we do it time and time again) in order to verify the conclusion. When we do it right we are only verifying what we already know to be true without being able to actually sense that it is true.
After all “[a] building cannot stand in the air, and a given argumentation can rest only on a foundation that is established by being self-evident and not by proof” (Volume 1, page 221). This is the dilemma for all men (empiricist or not): how do we know what we know is true? Only if we are standing on something else, even something we cannot see, can we begin to understand. The folly of the human mind is that it tries to stand on itself, or upon man in general. But this is destined for failure. The only alternative is to start with God (as we noted in our last post).
Let us then say humbly with the Psalmist:
I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.