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Does God exist? Why empiricism must take a back seat to reason and intuition17 min read

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FAITH: Authority as Primary Method

When trying to prove or find the truth, most of us are used to the idea that the scientific method of experimentation and observation is the best way to prove or disprove claims. But while such measurable, testable science (empirical) is very good for testing current conditions, it is less useful for testing past conditions.

Historical sciences are forensic, in that they are piecing together evidence for events that are not repeatable. But if we cannot directly observe the past or create experiments to see it, what methods do we use?

The good news is, in order to discover what is true, we are not limited to empirical methods, nor even to forensic logic or reasoning. And when it comes to non-material realities like morals and the existence of God, empiricism will have to admit its limitations and allow the other methods to take precedence.

We have four epistemological tools – empiricism, reason, intuition, and authority.1

1. Epistemological Methods in Various Disciplines

While all four methods are used across all disciplines of inquiry, the particular subject matter may lead us to prioritize one specific epistemological method, using the others as secondary. Let’s examine some fields of inquiry into the truth of our reality, and how they employ these four methods.

1.1 Epistemology in Empirical Science

SCIENCE: Empiricism as Primary Method

Modern science is built on empiricism, especially the scientific method, a process of proposing a hypothesis and then gathering observational or experimental data to prove the hypothesis, as well as to examine the conditions that might falsify it. Empirical science is wonderful for gathering data on processes that can be directly measured and observed, in part because others can repeat an experiment nearly exactly to confirm or deny the original results.

But limiting our epistemology to empirical data is typically called scientism, or more accurately, positivistic epistemology. It presumes that only “facts” derived from the scientific method can make legitimate knowledge claims.

1.2 Epistemology in Historical Science

HISTORY: Reason as Primary Method

Events that have happened in the past, however, can not be observed. In this case, we cannot rely primarily on direct empirical observations, but must prioritize archaeologically or other historical, that is, forensic evidence, using reason to piece history together.

Since the data is typically both incomplete and the interpretation of the data subject to reasoned assumptions about past conditions and processes, reason is rightly prioritized as our method.

However, some sciences, such as murder investigations or evolution, span both empirical and historic evidence. Even though, for instance, we may not have witnessed a murder, the biological breakdown of the victim’s stomach contents and body do continue, and we can observe the current state and extrapolate backwards based on what we know of these processes. In this case, though reason applied to the evidence may be our primary method, empirical methods can still be applied, though perhaps secondarily.

In evolution’s case, we are assuming that the model explains the historical facts such as the fossil record, and we can use assumptions like “similar morphology means relatedness” to interpret the data. This method was used in the past, but as genetic sequencing information has come along, it has shown that this assumption was largely incorrect, and species that appeared with similarities were often unrelated.

Like in our murder case, we also presume that the past processes are still in play, so we can empirically examine the proposed mechanisms of evolution and whether or not they can produce the functional complexity of life that we see. To this point, science has not shown this to be true (see the excellent book Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution by Michael Behe), but we again see that empirical methods can support, but not replace reason in historical inquiry. 2

1.3 Epistemology in Philosophy

PHILOSOPHY: Reason as Primary Method

What happens when we are not exploring the material world, but the immaterial world of objective morals or God’s existence, and especially if we do NOT want to begin with authoritative scriptures? That is how philosophy works – it focuses on reason. Authorities of the past, both revelation and religious tradition must be rejected as our primary method. In this case, we must prioritize reason., as we did with historical science.

1.3.1 Inference in Philosophy

One of the main logical tools of philosophy in evaluating truths for which limited or no empirical data is available (such as piecing together historical events or evaluating the probability that God exists) is inference to the best possible answer.

For example, when looking at the probability that the resurrection of Jesus really happened, Christian philosophers Licona and Habermas have argued that if we try to explain the five major universally accepted historical facts surrounding the resurrection, the required multiple unlikely natural explanations become so unlikely that the single supernatural claim that Jesus actually rose from the dead is inferred as the best answer (thank you Occam).3

A second example is inferring the likelihood that God exists on balance of what we observe. The cosmological, moral, and teleological arguments all observe reality and infer that God must exist because

  1. The universe had a beginning and there must therefore be a first cause or prime mover, especially in light of the illogic of an infinite temporal regress (cosmological argument)
  2. If objective morals exist, the only way we could affirm that is if there was an external referent with the purity, authority, and knowledge to declare them as such (moral argument)
  3. The obvious design of the universe, as shown at the macro level in the fine tuning of our universe and physical constants, and at the micro level in the intelligent information content of DNA show that a powerful and intelligent being must be behind our universe (teleological argument)

Even evolutionary explanations are largely in this category of inferences from the data, since it cannot be observed and the proposed mechanisms that we can observe empirically don’t show the ability of evolution to produce the diversity we see.

1.3.2 Pragmatics

Pragmatic epistemology rests on the assumption that

an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected. 4

That is, what “works” in the real world can defined as good, and therefore true.

There are some scriptural inferences in this same vein:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-18)

Wisdom is justified of all her children. (Luke 7:35 ESV)

The truth will set you free. (John 8:32b)

To some extent, this is operationalism – giving us an indirect but functional way to measure and test ideas when direct measures may not be available.

Of course, proper use of pragmatic epistemology depends heavily on how you define “works” and “good.” Without going into the deep discussions, with respect to moral and spiritual truths, the most common definition is something like

Whatever leads to life and health is good and true, that which does not is evil and false. (my definition)

I include all life, not just human life, but of course, in the Biblical hierarchy of value, humans are of more value than other forms of life, though all life is precious.

Therefore, a pragmatic epistemological evaluation of ideas would conclude that ideas that lead away from human and environmental flourishing are false, and those that lead towards them are true. There are, of course, further discussions to be had about long term vs. short term good, ambiguous results, and projections v. real data.

1.3.3 Confirmation Holism (Integration)

Even more contentious than pragmatics are integrational tests for truth. This evaluation is based upon how an idea integrates with other disciplines of knowledge.

Atheist philosopher W.V. Quine defined it this way:

Our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body…. total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections. 5

More simply, I define it this way:

If an idea is true, it will integrate with other established disciplines of knowledge. If it integrates poorly, or integrates with ideas that have negative outcomes in real life, it is most likely untrue.

There are two concepts here that are important. The first is that it depends on accepting pragmatism, discussed above – true ideas lead to health and life, bad ideas lead away.

The second important concept of integrational epistemology is that if there is only one reality (singular reality), then all true ideas must integrate into a single comprehensive and logical system.

As an example, we can see that social Darwinism leads almost logically to the extermination of imperfect or “unfit” humans like the physically or mentally ill, or the elderly. By a pragmatic definition, we would reject social Darwinism as evil because it leads away from life (although it argues for a long term health for society), and is morally objectionable and  an illegitimate means to a perhaps valuable end. In history, we also see that it easily if not always morphs from eugenics to racism and genocide.

But now lets turn to Darwinism itself. If it so easily integrates with this and other mistaken ideas such as junk DNA and vestigial organs, applying our principles of integration, perhaps it too is untrue.

This is not definitive, but it demonstrates how integrational epistemology can add to our evaluation of ideas.

1.4 Epistemology in Faith

FAITH: Authority as Primary Method

In the case of most faith systems, including Protestant Christianity, typically the authority of the primary holy text of the faith is in the top position of final authority, and the other methods serve to clarify and verify our understanding of the truths presented.

In Catholicism, tradition takes the top spot over scripture, which is one reason Protestants took up the motto Sola Biblia! Interestingly, John Wesley created a similar quadrangle to the one above in order to rebuff both the Catholic view of authority, as well as the reformers insistence on only the Bible, the latter of which seemed to dismiss the other epistemological methods. This quadrangle formed the basis of that presented in this article. 6

Many atheists blanche at this approach, for some decent reasons. First, we all recognize that an appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy – “the Bible says so” or “the IPCC says so” is not only circular (it assumes authority is correct), it avoids making the argument.

Second, and importantly, atheism and scientism often rely exclusively on empiricism, denying the value of the other methods. So when they see Christians prioritizing Authority, they may think that Christians are excluding the other methods just like atheists. This, however, is untrue.

1.4.1 Epistemology in Salvation

REGENERATION: Intuition as Primary Method

Although Christian faith includes placing Scripture as the primary spiritual authority in one’s life, becoming a Christian is not merely a submission to the authority of scripture. Neither are they merely convinced by the reasonable arguments or apologetic efforts of preachers, although these may open the door to faith.

When we hear the gospel message that Christ died and rose again for our forgiveness, and that God invites us into relationship with Him, we are convinced, that is, convicted in our conscience that we are guilty and in our intuition that the message is true. The message can touch our hearts even if our minds contain reasoning contrary to the message, even though we don’t know the Bible, and even though we have few empirical reasons to believe. This is how the Christian life always start, and then the other epistemological methods can come in. In fact, my favorite aphorism regarding this process goes like this:

Before faith comes, reason is king
After faith comes, reason is servant.

This is actually a riff on the famous Latin phrase from Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), a monk, theologian, and Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Proslogium: 7

fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding

This is often even more offensive to empiricists than appealing to the authority of scripture, since it is recommending reliance  upon the subjective feelings of intuition and conscience, which seems extraordinarily unwise, leaving us open to persuasive charlatans or self-deception

This concern is not unwarranted either – how many people have become Christians through threats of hellfire or other guilt manipulations, often later to leave the faith? How many ignore the “fact” of evolution only to “illogically” embrace Creationism? (NOTE: I am a young earth creationist sympathizer, someone with a BS degree in the Biochemistry of genetics, so I in fact don’t think that evolution is a fact.)

But empiricists and atheists who ignore or pretend to ignore the other epistemological methods do so at their own peril.

2. The Problem with Atheism – Empiricism Only

Empiricism works for material reality, but not very well for the realities of morality and faith in an immaterial God. Therefore, while it can be used to help evaluate some religious claims, esp. with respect to historical data and processes. However, the other methods must take priority since they may have much more to contribute.

If we refuse to use these other methods (as atheists often do), then we must remain agnostic on the reality of God or objective morals. In fact, the limited power of empiricism to explore all of reality, rather than just physical reality, is nicely illustrated in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters. as shown to the right.

How then can those narrowly limiting themselves to empiricism employ these other methods? First, they can admit that they also use reason and reasoned assumptions apart from empirical data to interpret historical data and other ideas.

Second, the classic arguments for God (cosmological, ontological, axiological, and teleological) as well as the natural theology concepts of understanding God as creator and maximally great being are securely in the realm of reason, and not authority.

The empricist may reject these ideas because they are not empirical, but the thoughtful atheist will seriously consider these arguments from reason, in part because they realize that empiricism can not directly assess these. Otherwise they must merely remain ignorant and agnostic, admitting they have nothing to contribute in this arena.

Summary and Conclusion

There are four major epistemological methods

  • Authority
  • Empiricism
  • Reason
  • Intuition

These may be used in all disciplines of knowledge, but different disciplines prioritize different methods, but must not limit themselves to just one method:

  • Science: Empiricism
  • History: Reason
  • Philosophy: Reason
  • Faith: Authority
  • Salvation: Intuition

Within the epistemology of reason, there are important sub-methods, including:

  • Inference
  • Pragmatism
  • Integration

In conclusion, I criticize atheists and scientism for disingenuously excluding other methods, and demand that if they limit epistemology to empiricism, they must claim ignorance with regard to morality and the reality of God.

  1. Epistemology ([]
  2. Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution – Behe explains why evolution can only select for the current generation of animals and cannot forsee planned changes across time, selects mostly for beneficial losses of function, losing functionality over time, and is self limiting, being unable to make any changes beyond the taxonomic level of Family, and barely that.[]
  3. Can you prove Jesus rose from the dead? ([]
  4. Pragmatism ([]
  5. Quine, W.V. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” From From a Logical Point of View, pp 20-46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.[]
  6. SERIES: The Wesleyan Quadrangle ([]
  7. What does the motto “faith seeking understanding” mean? ([]