Chapter 7: Rationalism and Empiricism

Many challenges in the area of knowledge and God stem from problems in general epistemology. In other words, there are issues regarding how human beings can know anything, and these issues apply when it comes to knowing propositional truth about God. At the risk of oversimplification, empiricism claims that all knowledge comes from sense experience, while rationalism claims that some human knowledge does not arise from sense experience. Some philosophers have argued that no knowledge arises from sense experience, but this is done only by defining knowledge in an extremely narrow way. Rationalists do not need to deny that some knowledge arises from sense experience, but empiricists need to argue that no human knowledge can arise from any other source. Sense experience cannot tell us about logically necessary connections. My senses can tell me the color of an object, but they cannot tell me that it is logically impossible for the object to be completely the same color and a different color at the same time and in the same way.

Rationalists believe that the mind is not a blank slate at birth; on the contrary, people are born with certain innate ideas. Plato taught that human knowledge contains an element of the universal which must be known before sense experience. He also taught that sense perception cannot reveal the necessary and universal component that is present in all knowledge, so reason is superior to sensory experience. Plato argued that our sensory experience can only be intelligible on the basis of a priori knowledge that we have of universal standards. He maintained that empirical investigation can never bring us to universal norms. For example, we never find a perfect circle or two perfectly equal sticks, but we have a concept of equality. Rationalists do not believe that this innate knowledge has to be consciously understood — Descartes argued that we have innate ideas, but he meant that these innate ideas are possible objects of conscious thought, not necessarily actual ones.