Thought Bomb # 3 – Rationalism & Empiricism

The fuses had now been lit. The 17th century saw a number of philosophers build on the dissenting medieval philosophers to produce what is considered the lead-up to the ‘Enlightenment’. These philosophers can really be divided into two groups – rationalists and empiricists.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the leading rationalist, whose thinking probably made the break from medieval thinking. Descartes despaired of ever knowing anything with certainty except in one area – mathematics. It was the kind of certainty found in the pure logic and reason of mathematics that led Descartes to teach that we should ‘accept nothing as true which is not presented to the mind so clearly and distinctly that there is no reason to doubt it’. In such a rigid search for certainty, Descartes found that the only thing that was certain was his own existence due to his reasoning faculty: “I think, therefore, I am.” Thinking – reason – was man’s only hope for enlightenment. Descartes’ skepticism was to have lasting effects. Beliefs are easy to undermine but impossible to restore.

Along with Descartes was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza continued the rigid skepticism of rationalism and questioned everything from the inspiration of the bible, to the question of moral freedom, to the very personality of God. Gottfried Leibniz was the third major rationalist of this time.

On the other end of the scale were the empiricists. Whereas rationalists taught that pure reason is the way to certainty, empiricists taught that sensory experience is the way to any kind of understanding. Empiricists teach that knowledge does not come from innate ideas, but from experience. Probably the father of modern empiricism is John Locke (1632-1704). Locke rejected rationalism, and taught the human beings are born with minds like blank tablets (tabula rasa). Our sensory experiences begins to write our ideas about the world upon these tablets, and these ideas form our understanding of reality.

Building on Locke was David Hume (1711-1776). He took matters further to say that reason really has no place in our beliefs, or even in our inferences about the world. Hume took skepticism to a new level.

If you step back and view the carnage of these bombs, it looks something like this: the average man no longer trusted faith, revelation or even the traditions of the past. Uncertainty about reality was spreading, and the only hope for understanding lay in human brainpower and sense impressions. Even with these, it might not be the ‘truth’ you were knowing, just some ideas being filtered through your mind. In fact, to the average man, it was beginning to look like truth does not exist.

You can see the soil where “Modern Science” will grow being heartily plowed up. The seeds of a worldview are being sown: Man is a product of his environment. The only things worth knowing are the things we have ‘proved’ (by sense experience). Man’s salvation lies in the continued application of his brainpower towards solving problems. Matters of faith are personal, private, unknowable – and a little foolish.

Sound familiar?


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