By Joel Settecase / 9-minute read.
Reason, science and intuition are invaluable truth-seeking faculties, but each one is insufficient on its own. We need a unifying principle tying them all together and giving us epistemological warrant for using all three. Moreover, we need a basis for trusting them in the first place. Scripture provides that unity and basis.
The question, “What is true?” is one of the seven questions we have identified as being essential to every worldview. This question is best addressed in two parts. I’ve already discussed the nature of truth here, so this article will focus exclusively on knowledge.
The Study of Knowledge
The study of knowing, or the theory of knowledge, is called epistemology. Epistemology deals with the questions above. While we take the fact that we know things for granted, we really should not. After all, why should we think that we can know anything? Why should we think that we can have knowledge? Come to think of it, what is knowledge?
Knowledge is classically defined as “justified, true belief.” The word “justified” has led to much debate, and in recent years philosopher Alvin Plantinga has offered the definition “warranted, true belief.” We may say that Bob has knowledge when he believes a true proposition to be true, and his truth-seeking faculties (his mind, his reason, his five senses, etc.) are functioning properly and in a favorable environment. In this case there is alignment between the truth of the proposition, the belief that Bob has, and the warrant that Bob has for believing it.
Three Views of How We Come to Know Things
So how do we arrive at knowledge? How do we come to know? And how do we know that we know?
Philosophers (and others who spend their days pondering such questions) have developed many epistemologies, but these can be roughly divided into three categories.
Empiricism: knowledge is based on the five senses. True knowledge begins with the scientific process of collecting data from the world, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions based on those observations. Man’s reason can be deceived, but cold, hard facts don’t lie. Example: William Clifford said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
Rationalism: knowledge is based on certain principles, which we know apart from what we experience through our senses. These rules govern our thinking. Laws of logic are examples of these rules. When we know these rules, we can reason our way to all true knowledge. This view places high value in human reasoning and distrusts sense data, because after all, our eyes may deceive us! Example: René Descartes started with the maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” and developed a system of knowledge from there.
Subjectivism: knowledge of any absolute truth is impossible. All we can know is what is true “for ourselves.” We come to know these truths through processes that are completely internal and not necessarily verifiable by reason or science. Reason can be muddled, and our senses can deceive us, but there are some things, perhaps the most important things, that we “just know.” Example: Walt Whitman said, “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” Intuition relies heavily on experience. One example of intuition is when we assume that the future will be like the past. This is not a conclusion based on reason (there’s no logical requirement that the future be like the past) nor sense experience (we have no sense data of the future!), but it “makes sense to us” to believe it.
Philosopher and theologian John Frame has pointed out that no one has really been able to consistently hold completely to any of these three perspectives. Instead, the very best philosophers and thinkers have rather tried to combine these three approaches. This is because, at the end of the day, it is obvious that each one has merit.
As Christians we can affirm aspects of all three. We agree with the Empiricists that science is a valid way of gaining knowledge (in fact the first scientists were all Christians!). We further affirm with the Rationalists the importance of logic and sound reasoning. And we join with the Subjectivists in saying that, by golly, there are some facts that we just know to be true, even if we can’t verify them scientifically or account for them logically (though they do not contradict science or reason.
Each of these three epistemologies focuses on its preferred truth-seeking faculty to the (unsuccessful) exclusion of the other two. While each one fails on its own, if there were a way of unifying them, we could approach a holistic view of how we really arrive at knowledge. As it turns out, God’s revelation is the key to that unification. In fact, as believers we can look at all three of these epistemologies as perspectives on the truth.
The Role of Revelation in Epistemology
The world does not interpret itself. God, the Creator of the world and everything in it, is the Creator who speaks. He has spoken to us in an authoritative way, and by that speech he has revealed to us the truth about himself, the cosmos, and ourselves. He has not given us exhaustive knowledge, but the knowledge he has given us is true. True knowledge begins with a proper attitude toward God and a willingness to hear what he has to say. As Scripture says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).
God reveals himself in two ways: by his works and by his word. We call the former “General Revelation” and the latter “Special Revelation.”
General Revelation is accessible to all men, through observing the “outer world” of the cosmos and analyzing the “inner world” of the self (Romans 1:18-20). For example, both the law of gravity governing the movement of physical objects, as well as the laws of logic governing our thoughts, point to the existence of God.
Special Revelation is God’s supernaturally revealing truth to us, which today is recorded in Scripture, the Bible. The Bible is “breathed out by God,” and was written by men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).
The Bible provides the basis for certain knowledge, and validates the three ways of knowing we referenced earlier. When we think biblically, we see that Rationalism is a false view, but the use of reason is good (Isaiah 1:18; 1 Peter 3:15). Empiricism is false, but empirical science (based on sense data analysis) is good (Psalm 111:2; Isaiah 40:26; Psalm 94:9). Subjectivism is also false, but God has given us intuition, and truth is very personal (Job 38:36; Romans 2:14-15).
When unified by God’s revelation, the core truth-seeking faculties of each of the three epistemologies are not in conflict but work together. We have a basis for using all three—reason, senses and intuition. This article examined three perspectives on knowledge, but it would equally apply to any others that could hypothetically be brought up. So we have seen that knowledge is possible and uniquely accessible to those who hold to the biblical worldview, because of our faith in the Bible, which unifies our truth-seeking faculties and provides the basis for trusting them as reliable, when used appropriately.
Of course, the same Bible that validates these three methods of gaining knowledge also warns us about the effects of sin on our ability to know. We will discuss this in a future article, when we talk about the nature of man.
Francis Schaeffer poses the question, “How do we know that we know?” and discusses its implications in Chapter 3 of his book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1972), 37-60.
For the three approaches to epistemology I’m drawing heavily on the work on John Frame and specifically from his article, “Epistemological Perspectives and Evangelical Apologetics,” Frame-Poythress.org, May 17, 2012, Accessed June 12, 2019, https://frame-poythress.org/epistemological-perspectives-and-evangelical-apologetics/. In this article he also points out that no one has been able to hold consistently to any one of the three epistemological positions discussed here, i.e. Rationalism, Empiricism and Subjectivism.
John Frame has written extensively about “Triperspectivalism,” the concept that three ideas seemingly in conflict are actually perspectives on the same reality. For more see, Frame, John, “John Frame on the Trinity,” Frame-Poythress.org, November 21, 2016, Accessed June 14, 2019, https://frame-poythress.org/john-frame-on-the-trinity/.
To the point that God has given us true—yet not exhaustive—knowledge, James Sire describes Francis Schaeffer as having made this point. Cf. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Wheaton: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 130.
I credit Dr. Jason Lisle with the insight that intuition relies on experience. He makes this point in The Physics of Einstein: Black holes, time travel, distant starlight, E=mc² (Aledo, TX: Biblical Science Institute, 2018), 61-62.