Must We See to Believe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is famous for the following statement: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

There have always been people like Thomas who demand that they directly experience something before they believe it exists.  During the Enlightenment in Europe, the philosophical theory of empiricism came to embody this principle for the modern world.

According to Garrett DeWeese, “the Enlightenment doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge of the world is empirical,” or all knowledge comes from our sensory experience.  The philosopher David Hume took this notion so far that he denied that we could know that our selves exist.

DeWeese continues:

Today the spectacular successes of the natural sciences have enshrined empirical investigation as by far the best – and for most people, the only – way to know.  But what about things we can’t sense?  Is nonempirical knowledge possible?  The question is crucial, for a great many important things can’t be known through our senses – things such as whether we have a soul and whether God exists.

If empiricism is true, then our knowledge becomes incredibly limited, and, in fact, the Romantics and German idealists that came after Hume and Kant were repelled by empiricism and rejected it as far too limiting of human knowledge.  Is empiricism true?

No.  Notice first that the claim “All knowledge of the world is empirical” is itself not an empirical statement.  How could we know that [claim] through our senses?  The claim is self-refuting.  But beyond that, there are good reasons to think that at least some knowledge of the world is nonempirical . . . .  Beliefs that certain things exist may be inferred from empirical observations.  This is how we justify belief in such things as electrons, gravitational fields, beauty, or love.  And similarly for belief in God.

DeWeese further explains:

We can know some things without using our senses at all.  For example, we can know much about ourselves through introspection (a nonempirical process).  We can know that we have minds that think, believe, hope, fear, and so on, and that we are not identical to our bodies.  Many ethicists claim that moral knowledge is accessible through intuition or conscience or pure reason.

Here is the bottom line.  Our senses serve us well, but they are limited.  We are more than our senses, and we can know more than what we directly experience with our senses.  Our lives would, in fact, be unlivable if we could only know what our senses directly bring to us. 

Unlivable?  Look at the words of David Hume, one of the most famous empiricists of modern history, speaking of his empiricist theories:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium. . . . I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three of four hours of amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.