Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bavinck and sensate "knowledge"

It could therefore almost be called a fresh discovery when Francis Bacon returned to sense perception as the only source of knowledge. Only it was not a new discovery, but a necessary rejuvenation of science, for science always has to go back to the sources. Truth must not be drawn from books but from the real world. [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1: 226]

Empiricism, however, is compelled to deny the name of "science" to all sciences except the exact sciences. But this restriction is impossible for two reasons. First, because aside from the purely formal sciences (logic, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, chemistry), and then only in a certain sense, there can be no science without a philosophical element. In every science, inventiveness, intuition, imagination, in a word, genius ... play a most important role. And second, because then the name of "science" can finally be reserved only for a few subsidiary disciplines, and precisely the knowledge that is most important to human beings and that in their research is their primary interest is banished from the domain of science. ...

In addition to this, the world of nonmaterial things, the world of values, of good and evil, law and custom, religion and morality, or all that inspires love and hatred in our hearts, lifts us up and comforts us or crushes and grieves us, that whole magnificent invisible world is as much a reality to us as the "real world" that we perceive with our senses. Its impact on our lives and on the history of humankind is still much greater than that of the visible things about us. ... [Bavinck, 1:221]

The Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck promotes the uses of the sense for the gaining of knowledge. He critiqued empiricism, in the sense that it excludes philosophical elements from knowledge. Besides that criticism however, his epistemology focuses on empirical data which are grasped and organized by the intellect philosophically.

Bavinck's critique of empiricism however is strange. He claims that empiricism should be rejected because (1) aside from the "purely formal sciences," all sciences require philosophical elements, (2) things such as "inventiveness, intuition, imagination," "genius" play a most important role in science, (3) if empiricism were true, only a few subsidiary disciplines would qualify as sciences, while the most important disciplines would not qualify as science, and (4) the impact of nonmaterial things are much great than that of the visible things to us. But all this sounds really self-serving, as in "if empiricism is true, my discipline would be worthless" means that therefore I must reject empiricism because "my discipline" cannot be seen as worthless.

With regards to reason number 3, the counter can be made that yes, all other "disciplines" are in fact not most or even more important disciplines but only the empirical sciences are in fact the only sciences. After all, the empiricist does not accept the fact that these disciplines are in fact important at all. Thus with regards to reason number 1, the empirical sciences do not require philosophical elements in their normal operations. Reason number 2 is irrelevant because the entire focus of the scientific method is that all subjectivity be rendered irrelevant for the truth claims of the empirical sciences. Yes, we do know now about the influence of paradigms upon the empirical sciences, but the notion of paradigms is a second-order claim about the nature of science, not a first-order claim with regards to the use of "genius." In response to reason number 4, that itself is disputed by empirical naturalists. The existence of nonmaterial things can be said to be an artefact of material realities, emerging from them.

Bavinck's arguments against Empiricism are singularly unconvincing. When Bavinck claims that "sense perception" is to be the main reservoir for our knowledge (not foundation), there is simply no reason why anyone taking Bavinck's position on the senses should reject Empiricism. For if the senses are the reservoir for knowledge, then Empiricism AND only the empirical sciences are knowledge. That is the position of much of the modern world with its trumpeting of the triumphs of science over "superstition." And if one concedes that the senses are to be our reservoir, our source for knowledge, how exactly does one observe God? That is why "religious studies" today are basically studies of myths and mythopoetry, for that is what "religion" is seen to be in an empirical scientific paradigm!

Bavinck's version of Realism therefore cannot hold. Those who talk so much about the "senses" and sensate knowledge cannot hope to escape the problems of empiricism. For if the senses are the reservoir for knowledge, then there cannot be a God, for God is not perceived by or revealed through the senses but only through the Holy Spirit. Yes, they might claim that philosophical elements are necessary for the use and interpretation of sense data, but the emergentist view explains the emergence of philosophical elements rather well.

Now, some might appeal to the sensus divinitatis, or "sense of the divine." But that there is such a sense is itself disputed. More importantly, the biblical view is that the sensus divinitatis is part of God's General Revelation to Man, and therefore it is to be considered revelation, not "sense." Furthermore, it cannot be a "sense" as we understand "sense" because it does not receive data in external stimuli for us to interpret, but rather it is something placed in humans as revelation from God. It is a fixed deposit, not something that grows in opinions and knowledge. And for those who may claim otherwise, the counter-examples can be easily seen in people like me who do not feel it as a "sense" but rather as a fixed deposit of revelation. Surely the sensus divinitatis not only operates in all men, but especially in Christians who acknowledge its existence, so therefore it should not be possible for those who acknowledge it to deny it as a true "sense" if it were in fact one! Also, what are the new opinions and knowledge we are constantly learning using this "sense," if it were in fact a "sense"?

In conclusion, sensate knowledge is not much different from empiricism. For one to hold on to the former while denying the latter is the unstable position of Bavinck's Realism. and it seems to me all other forms of common-sense type realisms. Far better to start with revelation as not just the foundation for knowing God, but also the foundation and reservoir for gaining any knowledge at all.

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