Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, Seminary Apologetics: Epistemological Issues: Knowledge — Part 2/2.
What epistemology should we use?
The philosophers of this school of thought came from Europe. The three main representatives of this school are Rene Descartes, Benedict Spinoza and Leibnez. They all maintained that there are certain clear and indisputable propositions that we know apart from experience. These propositions are not doubtful or confused with other things. There is no question whether they are universally true. In terms of these clear and distinct ideas, we go on to prove everything else that we believe.
A clear and distinct idea is “I think, therefore I am.” Bertrand Russell pointed out that Descartes was begging the question. All you are saying is that you have having an experience, and in order to have to have the experience, you must assume that you exist. You haven’t proved that you exist by having the experience and assuming that you are having the experience.
Spinoza worked a system of reality from his clear and distinct ideas. His view of reality was contrary to Descartes’ view of reality. Descartes was a dualist. He believed in a mind/matter distinction. Spinoza said mind/matter are the same thing spoken of differently; Spinoza was a monist pantheist.
Leibnez was a pluralist. He believed that reality is made up of an infinite number of self-conscious energies–monads. These different monads had different levels of self-consciousness. Each monad does not have interaction with the other monads.
All rationalist schemes of epistemology says that we begin with certain indubitable propositions that no one can doubt and are universally and necessarily true. From this, we can build up our knowledge of the world.
In the case of the Continental Rationalist, everyone had clear and distinct ideas, but they built up different views of metaphysics– dualistic, monistic and pluralistic.
They said we don’t begin with any ideas in our mind, John Locke says that our mind is a blank slate. Experience is what writes upon the slate of our mind. Locke says that we have the idea, for example, of a substance. This substance has qualities that are in it that change. A substance then is that which receives the qualities and holds them together.
Berkeley said we never have an experience of physical substance. In order for us to experience something must be in the mind. If we think we have an experience of something, all we have is the sensation which exists in the mind. He says the only thing that is real is the ideas in our mind.
David Hume says we don’t know any physical or spiritual substances like God. We have no sensation of God or ourselves either. We can only know our present experience which is made of discreet sensations. I never experience the “I” that has experiences. What I am is nothing more than a bundle of perceptions. Empiricism has led to skepticism. Hume said you cannot experience any continuing identity. There are no connection of experiences on Hume’s view. He said there is no way to know if there are relationships between events. We don’t know what will happen in the future because we haven’t experienced it.
How can we know that there is a causal connection between our experiences in the world? Kant said that whenever sensation comes into our mind, the mind imposes categories into that sensation to make it intelligible. The mind makes raw data sensible to us. We always look for the cause of an effect because our mind thinks that way.
Did Kant go out and find some better clear and distinct ideas? No. Was Kant being empirical by saying that he has an observation that the empiricists overlooked? No. He said the principle of causality is the precondition of the intelligibility of his experience. This is transcendental reasoning. It argues about what must be true in order to make sense of our experience.
To say that you have convinced me of a certain controversial proposition, to make sense out the fact that you have convinced me, I have already presupposed that you and I are separate minds. Kant said the precondition for the intelligibility of human experience is the uniformity of nature. However, this is inadequate becausea according to Kant, he finds the preconditions for intelligibility in the human mind. This presupposes that our minds work the same. Kant couldn’t have known this. Kant said that the preconditions for intelligibility are found in man.
He offers a complex rationalist philosophy that attempts to make sense of the development of the human mind and history. The outworking of thinking is the outworking of history too. The grand idea is evolving dialectically in the human mind and history. One day the mind (subject of knowledge) going through the dialectic and nature (object of knowledge) will be one. There will be no subject and object distinction.
Man’s intellect is not reliable, it distorts things, and the mind of man is subject to the will and other forces. What is at the real basis of reality is assertiveness, so that the mind of man is subject to non-mental forces like our desires. All of reality is a surge of will to be. The way in which we come to know things is by mystical intuition; we must follow our heart and intuition. We must follow an intuition that destroys our individuality.
Distrusted the rationalists and said the mind distorts reality. We must feel and absorb reality.
We must be an individual who asserts himself. We must exercise our free-will and be loyal to our commitments.
Everything in the world is interpretation; nothing is real. Man cannot know any absolute truth. There are no objective values or truths. We must assert our own values.