Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Everything you perceive is unreliable

A brief, critical response to the Scripturalist claim that sense perception is unreliable, and/or does not produce knowledge. This article refutes Vincent Cheung’s argument that John 12:27–30 constitutes “an inspired example against empiricism.” It does not deal with the question of epistemic justification; merely with the biblical view of sense experience, and the problems inherent in Vincent’s own position.

In the past, I’ve been known for outspokenly supporting a view commonly known as Scripturalism. This is the view, put simply, that the Bible is the only source of human knowledge. It’s largely attributable to the late Gordon Clark, and was marketed by the late John Robbins. A version of it is also held by Vincent Cheung. The somewhat dated view I elucidated in The Wisdom of God is more attenuated than typical Scripturalism, but still fundamentally similar.

As a reflection of my view’s ongoing attenuation, I’d like to take a stand against one aspect of Scripturalism—namely, its low view of sense experience. Witness Cheung’s latest:

To illustrate, in John 12:27-30, a noise sounded from heaven. That was the event. Some of those in the crowd thought it had thundered, while others said that an angel had spoken. Perhaps this was so beyond the expectation of some of the people that they could not believe it. The confusion demonstrates that sensations are unreliable, and serves as an inspired example against empiricism. Nevertheless, some of them thought that they heard words, that an angel had spoken.1

Following some discussion, he adds,

For this reason, it is no exaggeration to say that, logically speaking, one cannot be an empiricist and a believer at the same time. This is because the empiricist cannot know anything, and he cannot believe anything. This includes those who claim to hold revelation as the first principle of their worldview, but then insist that the reliability of sensation is the precondition for any access to revelation in the first place. In reality, then, the reliability of sensation is their first principle. Despite their pretensions, they are nothing more than empiricists, because if they make empiricism their starting point, then they can never be anything other than empiricists. Logically, they cannot be Christians, although we can take the route of charity and assume that these people are inconsistent with their own philosophy. Nevertheless, since they seem to insist that they are intellectually competent and thus alert to the implications of their epistemology, this route is chosen by force out of a reluctance to condemn them.

Empiricism is the view that knowledge is mostly, or even exclusively, derived through the senses.2 It’s unclear that Cheung is aware of this, however, since he appears to use the term “empiricist” as a catch-all for anyone who holds to the mere reliability of the senses. This is indirectly corroborated by the fact that there are far more obvious passages of Scripture which disprove empiricism as it is typically conceived—namely Romans 2:15 or Jeremiah 31:33, which state plainly that some knowledge is intrinsic to all people, and that some other knowledge is directly communicated to some people by God, apart from empirical means. It therefore seems safe to assume that Cheung is using the term “empiricism” in a rather more expansive way than is strictly accurate, to refer to anyone who upholds the view that our senses typically yield true beliefs about reality, or even more generally to refer to anyone who upholds the view that our senses are the producers or mediators of beliefs at all.

It will be noted by long time readers that I have no difficulty with labeling certain ostensibly Christian positions as actually non-Christian. But it strikes me as an immense stretch to (I) label John 12:27–30 an “inspired example against empiricism” (bearing in mind how Cheung is using that term), and (II) on that basis, to label anyone as non-Christian who takes the reliability of sense experience as a precondition to knowing God’s public revelation. Let me briefly comment on these two points.

I. What does the passage actually say?

As regards Cheung’s exegesis, there are three plain and insurmountable defects:

a. The conclusion doesn’t follow

Firstly, John does not record enough information to derive Vincent’s conclusion by good and necessary consequence. As he himself admits of the event, “perhaps this was so far beyond the expectation of some of the people that they could not believe it.” But if the cause of their error was plausibly located in their false expectations and presuppositions, so that they just could not believe what their senses were conveying to them, then nothing at all can be conclusively proved about the accuracy of those senses themselves. Perhaps they were entirely reliable, and the people all perceived the event accurately. Or perhaps they weren’t, and the people’s error was caused by faulty perception and/or a faulty interpretation of that perception. But Cheung’s case requires the unreliability of the people’s senses. If there is even a possibility that their senses were reliable, yet that they still misinterpreted the event, then the unreliability of sense perception is not proven. And Cheung himself admits that this is possible—even plausible.

Now, he may argue that whether it is the senses themselves, or people’s interpretation of them, something about sense perception is unreliable. But this would just be back-pedaling. He has claimed this passage as a divinely inspired example against empiricism. Remembering how he uses this word, he’s essentially saying that this passage disproves the view that the senses are in some way producers or mediators of typically true beliefs. It isn’t a question of whether people, having had the initial true belief conveyed to them via their senses, reinterpret that belief to conform to their presuppositions. After all, were that the case Cheung would also have to deny the possibility of a priori knowledge such as that mentioned in Romans 2:15, since people take their true, God-given inherent beliefs and twist them into false ones (see, for example, Romans 1:18ff).

b. Even if the conclusion does follow, it can’t prove Cheung’s point

Secondly, John 12:27–30 is a particular instance of some particular people drawing false conclusions about an extraordinary event. Let’s grant, without justification, that the reason for their error was their faulty senses rather than their faulty presuppositions. How is Cheung going to prove, from the fact that these few people’s senses did not produce or mediate true beliefs about an extraordinary event, that all people’s senses do not produce or mediate true beliefs about ordinary events? To draw that inference, Cheung must reason inductively. That is, he must infer a universal principle from a particular datum. As Cheung himself loves to remind people, “induction is always a formal fallacy”, and “on the basis of induction, one can never establish any proposition, let alone a universal proposition“.3

Thus, even granting Cheung’s unjustified assumption about what the passage is teaching regarding sense perception, there is simply no way for him to take this specific case and form a general principle out of it. He cannot say that since the Bible teaches the unreliability of some people’s senses in this particular case, it therefore teaches that other people’s senses are always or often or sometimes unreliable in other cases.

c. If it can prove Cheung’s point, then it refutes him

Thirdly, if for some reason we are very silly and grant Cheung’s entire case, then it simply destroys itself. How did he come to know what John 12:27–30 says? Was it not by reading the Bible? Yes it certainly was. Is reading an activity which requires the reliability of our perception? Yes it certainly is. Does it entail that the senses produce or mediate true beliefs? Yes it certainly does. It makes not the slightest difference if Cheung holds to some form of occasionalism, where the action of the senses are merely events on the occasion of which God directly communicates knowledge to the mind. The fact remains that there is a direct correlation between what we perceive and what we believe. Cheung, when he perceives the inked glyphs on the page of his Bible, believes that he is perceiving certain letters forming certain words with certain meanings, and not other letters forming other words with other meanings. Since the formation of these beliefs is directly correlated to his senses, it makes not the least amount of difference what precise mechanism of knowledge-formation is under way, since if his senses are in fact consistently unreliable, or inconsistently reliable, or if they do not produce or mediate true beliefs, then he will either be forming consistently unreliable or inconsistently reliable beliefs about what Scripture teaches, or he will not be forming any beliefs at all. In whatever case, he has no reason to think that Scripture says what he thinks it says.

II. Empiricism and Christianity

Cheung claims that holding to the reliability of the senses precludes one holding to the first principle that the Bible is the word of God. He claims that by holding this “empiricist” belief, one is committing oneself to holding it as a first principle. This is plainly absurd. I don’t have to take the reliability of my senses as my foundational presupposition in order to have good reasons for believing it. For example, if my first principle is that the Bible is the word of God, then it follows necessarily that our senses are mediators or producers of consistently (though not necessarily invariably) true beliefs. If they were not, I could not know anything about the Bible, since it is given in a format which requires the reliability of sense perception. Thus, I could not know that the Bible is the word of God, and my first-principle would self-destruct.

Therefore, if it is true that the Bible is the word of God, then our senses are reliable mediators of true beliefs. Conversely, if our senses are not reliable mediators of true beliefs, then it cannot be known that the Bible is the word of God, and so this proposition is self-refuting as a first principle. We require our senses to become aware of the Bible’s contents. This doesn’t commit us to believing, necessarily, that knowledge of its contents is caused by our senses in some way—it doesn’t commit us to any metaphysical theory of knowledge-acquisition. It simply commits us to affirming that the beliefs we form on the occasion of sense experiences are typically accurate. It’s either that, or claim that we all receive special revelation entirely apart from our reading the Bible. But in that case one wonders what the purpose of senses are at all. One wonders, in fact, if the physical world even exists under Cheung’s view.

Thus, despite to Cheung’s assertion, it is plainly moronic4 to view any doctrine affirming the reliability of our senses as un-Christian or anti-Christian. It is irrational and absurd to refer to anyone who upholds that knowledge is gained through perception, and that this is a generally reliable process, as un-Christian. On the contrary, it is those who deny the reliability of the senses who are the ones affirming idiotic,5 un-Christian doctrines.

That said, since Scripture nowhere claims that one’s view of empiricism is vital to faith or salvation, the very notion that, “logically”, such people “cannot be Christians” is pure nonsense. The whole question is moot, and a poor reflection on the one making such a patently legalistic claim. Let Vincent produce his deductions from Scripture before he publicly deplores what are manifestly biblical, rational beliefs.

  1. Vincent Cheung, ‘Light and Darkness’ (http://www.vincentcheung.com/2009/05/12/light-and-darkness/). Similar sorts of statements appear in Scripturalist Sean Gerety’s latest post, ‘Vantilian Shadow Boxing – Round Three’ (http://godshammer.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/vantilian-shadow-boxing-round-three/), but in charity I am picking on the most erudite, well-educated, and philosophically trained Scripturalist I know, rather than the worst. Gerety has already been soundly refuted at Triablogue—see Steve Hays, ‘Shadowboxing with a lepresean’ (http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/05/shadowboxing-with-lepresean.html) for the most recent article as of this posting, or refer to the ‘scripturalism’ tag for a complete listing of articles in the exchange.
  2. See http://www.answers.com/empiricism for a number of good overviews.
  3. Vincent Cheung, Ultimate Questions (http://www.vincentcheung.com/books/ultimate2004.pdf [PDF]); p 21 (emphasis mine).
  4. That is, unbiblical and stupid. This is a favorite word of Cheung’s, deriving from the Greek word moros, so I trust he will not mind me using it in this way. See Cheung, ‘Professional Morons’ (http://www.vincentcheung.com/other/promorons.pdf) and ‘A Moron By Any Other Name’ (http://www.vincentcheung.com/other/morbyname.pdf).
  5. “A moron by any other name is still an idiot” (‘A Moron By Any Other Name’, p 7).

4 comments

  1. James

    Kudos Bro, you certainly have come a long way…

  2. VanBerean

    Hi Bnonn,

    Really good article.
    Don’t think I would use the closing pejoratives (though Hays does it so well).
    I know, answer a fool according to his folly and all that- but I don’t consider Cheung a fool.
    I might answer him as his scripturalism demands. That scripture regards the senses as somewhat reliable mediators (John 3:2, 11:42 etc.).
    That the senses were mediating true/saving beliefs even before scripture was written.
    That we ought to praise God for these mediating senses that He has given us during the fulfillment of scripture.
    That we shall enjoy these mediating senses with Him even after all of scripture is fulfilled.

    Looking forward to enjoying more of your stuff,

    Ron

  3. Damian

    OK, so there is no appropriate place to tell you this but it’s been bugging me for many months now: your ‘righteous bright path’ code at the top of each page will only ever return the value ‘1’ instead of an ever-increasing value as I suspect you intended. This is because you define $brightness as 0 each time you call the brighter() function. Also, you need to precede all function definitions with the word ‘function’.

    Kind regards,
    Damian Peterson “debugging those who seek to develop the mind of Christ in PHP”

    ;)

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Haha, thanks Damian. I’ve been meaning to redesign the site for a while now—I was never sure about that code. It’s kind of gimmicky; not to mention confusing to the average reader. I’ve just been too busy with other things.

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