4.2 Quest for Truth

There are several approaches that humans have used in the pursuit of ultimate reality. They can be classified as rationalism, empiricism, and rational empiricism (1).

4.2.1 Rationalism. Rationalism is based on the Greek view of the existence of eternal ideas. These ideas pervade the universe, and the human being is an outward expression of them. Therefore, the human is rational and can perceive the mysteries of the universe by using reasoning power. Through rational preconceptions, the human can comprehend all observations [236] in nature. Reason, then, becomes the final authority for truth. Any phenomena or theories that are unreasonable are thus untrue.

Rationalism seems to have a monistic overtone. It stresses the reasoning faculty at the expense of experience. The rationalist analyzes truth by deduction, sets up an a priori conception of reality from innate reasoning power, and proceeds to interpret specific events or observations. The medieval conflict between the church and its dissidents over the heliocentric issue (the sun is the center of universe) exemplified the fallacies of rationalism.

The medieval scholastic rationalist stipulated that the existence of God is connected with a long chain of natural events from the heavenly motions down to the most trivial terrestrial phenomena that appear to be governed by laws reasonable to humans. Anything that is not consistent with the dominant rationalistic view is thus heretic and false.

According to the popular naive interpretation of the Scriptures at the time, the earth was believed to be at the center of the universe. During the sixteenth century Copernicus enunciated his revolutionary heliocentric view of the solar system that clashed directly with the dominant rationalistic view. He and his followers were immediately labeled heretics and subjected to excommunication and chastisement by the church and state.

Many contemporary scientists have cited this incident as the classic example of the obscurant attitudes of the Christian church. In actuality, it is not the church that upheld obscurantism, but it was the rationalistic outlook the church had adopted at the time that hindered the scientific pursuit of truth.

4.2.2 Empiricism. Copernicus paved the way for the onset of empiricism. In the seventeenth century, Copernicus's followers Galileo and Kepler took up the task of promoting acceptance of the heliocentric "heresy." They were among the earliest empiricists who believed, together with the rationalists, that the universe is governed by a supreme “reason.” However, they differed from the rationalists in their convictions that the supreme reason manifests itself also through observable events and phenomena in nature.

Galileo and Kepler stressed the importance of empirical observation as a valid avenue in the quest of truth. The results of their observations of the heavenly bodies led them to conclude that the sun instead of the earth was the center of the solar system.

In the eighteenth century David Hume and Immanuel Kant systematically developed the empiricist position by emphasizing the importance of experience in deciphering reality. To an empiricist, truth can come about [237] only by interpreting what is observed or experienced through common senses. The empiricist arrives at a conclusion by induction through repeated observations of similar or identical events that either support or refute a presupposition.

The empiricists' emphasis on experience and induction gave birth to modern science. However, it also provided impetus for the followers of skepticism. The skeptics believe there is no absolute knowledge or true reality because knowledge and reality are only products of the senses. Therefore, total rejection of objective facts by the skeptics hindered the progress of modern science.

4.2.3 Rational Empiricism. Many Evangelicals believe that the Bible teaches a form of rational empiricism. The scriptural account provides for a rational Creator who created a rational universe. Humans are made in God's image (Gen. 1:27) and, through their God-given rational faculties, they can seek to understand the Creator through understanding the nature of God's creative order (Rom. 1:20). Therefore through the observations of nature (experience) coupled with deductive and inductive reasoning, humans can approach truth and reality systematically. This is essentially the major assumption of modern science. Scientists construct a hypothesis from what is known and then they seek to document, refute, or modify it by experimentation. Therefore, rational empiricism becomes the foundation of modern science.

Reference 4.2

1. Hooykaas, R. Religion and the rise of modern science. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1972.