Gordon Clark on the Problems of Empiricism
by Douglas J. Douma
June 25, 2015
Empiricism has been, and is, a prominent epistemology among both secular and Christian philosophers. It is often accepted as the “common sense” epistemology, but certainly hasn’t been without its detractors in the history of philosophy. Many ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Plotinus among them, critiqued empiricism as untenable. Early Christian thought, as exemplified by St. Augustine, also largely opposed empiricism.
It was largely this Augustinian tradition which Gordon Clark followed. Arguments against empiricism constitute a significant portion of Clark’s works. The reason for this emphasis is clear: various forms of empiricism, all of which Clark considered demonstrably false, dominated the philosophical landscape during his day (and continue to do so in the present). Clark knew that the ancient Greek’s arguments against empiricism had not been refuted, but simply ignored.
Defining empiricism Clark wrote: “Empiricism, strictly speaking, is the theory of epistemology that bases all knowledge on experience or sensation alone.”1 On the theory of empiricism, (1) at birth the mind is blank and (2) sensations are basic. One then(3) infers perceptions from sensations. These perceptions are then stored in the mind as (4) memory images from which are abstracted (5) ideas or concepts.
Clark critiqued empiricism not only at one of these points, but at each one down the line.
1. A mind that is blank has no capacity to process sensations.
In fact, a blank mind is no mind at all. The process of empiricism cannot even begin.
2. The senses are not trustworthy.
The first step in an empirical theory of knowledge is the acquisition of raw data through the senses. For this process to succeed the senses must be trustworthy. But, Clark held, the senses often deceive, and only a single deception of the senses is sufficient to produce doubt in them. Clark said, “If a witness in a criminal case is shown to have perjured himself, how much credence do you give to the other statements he made. If your eyes deceive you once you can’t believe any of it.”2
3. (a) It is Impossible to Distinguish a Valid Perception from an Invalid Perception.
Clark wrote, “At any one time a person has impressions of red, smooth, sweet, and dozens of others. To perceive a thing, these ‘sensations’ must be combined. Not that no one even sees a dog or a tree. A dog is not just black; he is also soft, fuzzy, and perhaps has an odor, combine them, and only then has he the perception of his pet. Yet there is nothing in the single qualities that forces him to select these particular ones and discard the dozens of others he has at the same time. Why does he not select the fuzzy, the sound of B flat, and the taste of Bacardi rum, all of which he senses at the same moment, and combine them into the perceived object?”3
3. (b) Empiricism cannot determine individuals.
“This massive mountain (Mt. Blanca) stands at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo range. Is it then really a thing, an individual, a primary reality? If the entire range is the primary reality, then Mt. Blanca is not a real thing. What is worse, if we go still further, the Sangre de Cristo range may not be a thing, but only a part of the entire Rocky Mountain chain, perhaps including the Andes as well. Which then is the individual: rock, mountain, or range? The question is embarrassing for the identification of individuals cannot be made on the empirical basis Aristotle adopts.”4
4. Not everyone has memory images.
5. Empiricism Cannot Produce Universal Propositions
The method that empiricists employ to generate universal propositions is to make generalizations based on a limited number of individual sensory experiences. This is the method of induction. Universal propositions are those that attribute a common characteristic to all items of a kind such as “All men are mortal.” Induction, however, commits the logical fallacy known as “Affirming the Consequent.” This fallacy is the attempt to reason in the following form:
If A, then B
It can be clearly seen with an example that this is fallacious reasoning.
If I am in Athens, then I am in Greece
I am in Greece
Therefore, I am in Athens
This is false as my presence in Greece may be at Sparta or Thessalonica or any non-Athenian area of the country. Likewise, it is of the same fallacious form on which induction from sense experience concludes universal propositions. On the basis of induction a scientist may claim, “all emus are flightless.” Here A = all emus are flightless, and B = all observed emus are flightless.
If all emus are flightless, then all observed emus are flightless.
All observed emus are flightless.
Therefore, all emus are flightless.
Suppose I see one flightless emu, can I thus rightly say, “All emus are flightless”? Or perhaps I see two flightless emus or three, or a million. At what number of experiences is the conclusion “All emus are flightless” justified? Just as it is false to affirm a universal proposition from a single experience so is it false to affirm a universal proposition from any finite number of experiences. It is with a finite number of observations that physicists claim all neutrons weigh 1 atomic mass unit and chemists claim two particular substances mixed always produce the same reaction. Every claim of science uses induction and in every case it is a fallacy.
Clark, in far fewer words, writes, “…Empiricism can neither produce nor justify any universal proposition. The explanation is obvious: Experience is never universal.”5
In addition to these problems along empiricism’s path from sensations to ideas, Clark held that there are other general issues besetting empiricism.
A. Empiricism Cannot Establish the Law of Contradiction.
Clark wrote, “The validity of syllogistic reasoning can never be based on experience. … Empiricism therefore is conclusively shown to be skeptical because the law of contradiction cannot be abstracted or obtained from temporally conditioned particulars.”6
B. Normative Conclusions Cannot be Deduced from Descriptive Premises and thus Empiricism Provides no Ethics
Clark held that empiricism fails to support any ethical position because it fails to surmount the Is-Ought Problem. This is the problem that an “ought” cannot be determined from an “is.” In other words, from descriptive premises one cannot form normative conclusions. From what is observed in the world, one cannot conclude how we ought to act.
Not only can empiricism not support an ethical theory, but it similarly fails to produce any theory of aesthetics, any theory of what is good or what is beautiful.
These limitations make empiricism an inferior philosophy to those which can produce theories of ethics and aesthetics. Clark held that the is-ought problem is surmounted in Biblical ethics. He wrote, “Independent of descriptive empiricism, theistic ethics begins with normative propositions and escapes the fallacy of introducing terms into its conclusions that were not present in the premises.”7
C. Empiricism Results in Solipsism Which Makes Communication Impossible.
Clark wrote, “No two of us can ever have the same thought because every thought is a purely personal experience. This makes communication impossible. In technical language, empiricism results in Solipsism.”8
D. Empiricism is Self-refuting
Lastly, the claim that “knowledge comes only from sensory experience” cannot itself come from sensory experience. On its own merits empiricism should be rejected.
One final argument Clark made will not be of much interest to non-Christians, but there are many Christian empiricists who should take heed: empiricism is incompatible with the Bible. Clark wrote, “The Scriptures do not discuss empiricism as such, but the doctrine of the image of God in man, the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles, and the transmission of original sin all indicate an innate, non-empirical inheritance, which precludes this philosophy.”9 Further, he wrote, “But surely the most conclusive argument from Genesis centers in the word ‘image.’ If Adam was the image of God he could not have a blank mind for the simple reason that God’s mind is not a blank. The account in Genesis so clearly refutes empiricism that nothing further is logically needed. But the Bible provides additional details. What is implied in Genesis is expanded in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10. These two passages, in explaining regeneration as a sort of new creation, teach that man was originally created in knowledge and in righteousness.”10
Gordon Clark on the Problems of Empiricism