I am an evidentialist. Having said that, I can sense that I am about to be surrounded by a host of theologians who will gladly lower their heavenly weapons at me. But before you classify me with David Hume and Bertrand Russell, let me explain what I mean. I believe that all humans apprehend truth in part through evidence (what some would call “hard evidence”). Dr. Bauder’s articles on Subjectivity and Objectivity have aroused my interest to write on the same subject. This is not meant as a contradiction of what he has said. I hope, likewise not to take anything away from what he is planning to write. Dr. Bauder was my faculty advisor, and pushed me to develop intellectually in ways I had not anticipated. I owe him a great deal for instructing me how to better tackle theology. So consider this as part of a conversation he started. I simply am entering the conversation with a different perspective.
I am an evidentialist by the definition I have given for two reasons (I would say “common sense” is one, but I know that would create more arguments than it is worth). Here are the reasons:
1. God created us to apprehend reality and thus arrive at truth (while not all truth) through the senses.
We are fascinated by scientific measuring devices and their ability to bring us knowledge: say a thermometer or a compass. Scientific measuring devices are basically (often crude) imitations of measuring apparatuses in humans, animals and plants. In humans, these measuring devices make up part of our sensory organs. For example, the rods and cones (over 100 million of them) in the retina of the eye are photoreceptors. Each registers the smallest particle of light, a photon, when it comes in the visual pathway. The incredibly high sensitivity of the retina is the reason you should not look directly at the sun.
Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the statement, “All men naturally desire knowledge. An indication of this is our esteem for the senses; for apart from their use we esteem them for their own sake, and most of all the sense of sight…. The reason of this is that of all the senses sight best helps us to know things.” Through the senses we perceive reality quite correctly, and, combined with our current knowledge, arrive at new truth.
David’s actively measuring retinas helped him perceive the glistening reality of the night sky. Sensory experience combined with David’s knowledge of God as creator, plus the aid of the Holy Spirit caused him to produce a profound sacred statement: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). David knew about God’s visitations to humans recorded in salvation history. It was David’s sensory experience that got him thinking and filled him with wonder at God’s condescension.
The ancient philosophers debated about what was real (or more real): sensible things or the ideal. Plato and Pythagoras believed it was the ideal. What we see in the world is the apparent, not the ultimate reality. Aristotle does a credible job of debunking their arguments, saying that they were really talking about another universe than the one we know (Metaphysics 14.3.1-4). But this debate is alien to the Bible. The Bible presents every sense as being necessary at some time to know reality and even spiritual truth: hearing (Rev. 1:10-15), smelling (Exod. 30:34-38), touching (1 John 1:1) and tasting (John 2:7-10).
Pascal said, “The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their turn: it takes revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions. They both compete in lies and deception.” (Pensees, 83). His evaluation needs no defense. But the senses—which function through highly sophisticated, God-ordained measuring devices in the body—do not primarily get in the way of truth. They get us at the truth. Even subjective functions of the sense organs together with the brain are necessary to get us at truth. In Revelation 1:10, John says that he heard the voice (of Christ) behind him. Hearing direction demands a subjective function of the brain, as a sound passes to the brain at slightly different times through two different pathways (directly at the ear drum and angularly via the ear lobe). The senses are indispensable for comprehending God’s truth because their employment is necessary to read or hear God’s word. We exercise enormous trust in our senses. Anyone who is reading this page, whether in agreement or disagreement, places a trust in his sight reaching near infallibility.
2. The second reason I am an evidentialist is because the Bible expects us, even exhorts us, to be such.
Elijah told the people of Israel, “the God who answers by fire, he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). When the fire came down from heaven and burned up Elijah’s drenched sacrifice—an event involving the senses of sight, sound, and smell for the observers—the Israelites not only worshiped and confessed that Yahweh, not Baal is God, they formed a second judgment in their hearts and killed the false prophets in obedience to the Law of Moses. If Immanuel Kant had been in the audience on that day, the prophets of Baal no doubt would have pled for an hour’s instruction on perception, reality and critical faculty before anyone did something rash. Unfortunately for the false prophets, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was written more than two millennia too late. But the biblical perspective (the God who answered by fire was the true God) remains internally without contradiction, and Elijah the evidentialist remains a man of faith.
The senses are involved in faith, as Jesus pointed out time and again, saying that His miracles were a “witness” to who He was. The Messiah was to be known by His signs. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus said to His disciples, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11).
As a corollary to this point, the Bible condemns those who, though they perceive reality and are confronted by the truth through the senses, reject the truth (Rom. 1:18-20). Note that sinful man’s problem is not one of never recognizing truth, but of suppressing truth. When he observes creation, his critical faculties tell him the logical conclusion is “an almighty creator has done this.” It is this judgment in his own mind that he rejects and suppresses. Because of his sinful heart, unregenerate man (and even a regenerate theologian or two) denies what he knows most certainly to be true. He then looks for alternative explanations. And just to make God’s condemnation that much more just, plenty of unregenerate people have formed the right conclusion that the order of creation demands an intelligent creator (see, for example Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods, II)
In his Paradise Lost, John Milton presents the newly created Adam as a brilliant but uninformed thinker. Thirsting after knowledge, he humbly asks the angel Rafael questions about God, heaven, virtue, angels good and evil, the forces of nature and creation (and for the 21st Century reader, to some extent the story line breaks down when Rafael takes a pass on explaining celestial mechanics). Adam’s is a blissful world where one only has to obey, think and explore to find life continually fulfilling on an ever higher plain.
What a tragic disfigurement sin has produced in man and his world! His senses are imperfect, his mind is darkened, his environment is hostile. But above all sin corrupted his heart. The heart deceives its own owner (Jer. 17:9). Since it is the heart which is the source of our thoughts, desires and motivations (Prov. 4:23), it is the heart which gets in the way of truth and causes our perceptions and judgments to be all askew. This is the point that a philosophy of Pythagoras, Descartes, Hume or Kant never really comprehends. Of these Jesus would say, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.”
So if you want to experience reality and get at truth, take a walk in the woods, the fields, or on the beach. Humble your heart before God; trust His Spirit and give thanks to your Creator for your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, fingers, and toes.
(In the second part of this contribution to the conversation, I want to take up Kant, Augustine, Science and Christianity)