Question: "How should a Christian view rationalism vs. empiricism?"
Answer: Rationalism vs. empiricism is a philosophical debate about the way human beings gain knowledge. There is a wide array of theses associated with rationalism and empiricism. Empiricists look to the world outside themselves as the source of knowledge, while rationalists look to the world within themselves as the source of knowledge. The empiricist holds that we cannot truly know something without first examining the related empirical evidence—that is, what we can see, smell, hear, touch, or taste. We learn by experiencing the world around us in concrete ways. The rationalist would argue that humans have an innate knowledge that does not come from experience but simply exists within us from birth. Based on that innate knowledge, the rationalist also holds that humans can reason toward new knowledge. The debate between rationalism and empiricism focuses on the divide between using the scientific method and one’s own rationale (independent of external evidence) to arrive at “truth.”
A famous rationalist, Rene Descartes, said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, since we have thoughts and ideas that originate a priori (without prior understanding), we can know that we exist or that we are real. The empiricist, on the other hand, must grapple with whether or not he—or indeed, anything at all—has true existence. If all he has to base reality upon are the senses or his own feelings of pain or pleasure, there is no guarantee that he himself is not a hologram or a figment of someone else’s imagination. He could be living in a dream state, trapped in a coma. There’s no way for him to be sure. The rationalist says, “Nonsense, you know you’re real, and so do I, and that’s all there is to it. You don’t need extra evidence to prove your existence. You think, and therefore you are.”
When it comes to a Christian view of rationalism vs. empiricism, a believer in God should start with the same questions that any philosopher starts with: how do I know that I know what I know? When I look at the world around me, how can I be sure that my understanding of it is right? When I examine my own thoughts, how do I ensure that my thoughts—and my examination of them—are correct? The answer to these questions is not found in confidence in oneself or one’s mind, but trust in God.
The writer of Proverbs tells us to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). “But,” someone may ask, “how can I know that my perception of this knowledge from God is not subject to the same human errors that the rest of knowledge is subject to?” The answer is found in the very next verse, Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” What this means—and it is a theme echoed throughout all Scripture—is that the only Being who truly knows what He knows is God. Since we are finite, our minds are unable to be completely sure of our thoughts or knowledge, whether we are empiricists looking at the evidence, or rationalists depending on innate knowledge. Even those embroiled in the rationalism vs. empiricism debate will admit that the human experience includes both a search for empirical data and a reliance on innate knowledge. But every human being is subject to error, and neither method of knowing will give us perfect understanding. That is why we must trust God to provide the answers and the knowledge we need (James 1:5). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17).
Many people, in all stages of faith, struggle to trust God. Job, after challenging God and hearing God’s response, concluded that “surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). It is tempting, in such a humanistic era, to believe that we by our own power can rise to any height of knowledge if we simply find the correct method. But the Bible tells us that we have limited power and that we must trust God if we are ever to have peace (Isaiah 26:3).
If the issue of rationalism vs. empiricism, or any other philosophical conundrum, is causing you to worry, remember Paul’s exhortation to believers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).