Sensation and Knowledge

Today, I came across this article on  Is Scripturalism Unscriptural?  This is a good example of a typical first reaction to scripturalism and to the study of philosophy in general.  Throughout history, philosophers have discussed the question of how we can know things.  Two major questions are presented:  What is knowledge? and What types of things can be known?  One line of argument says that knowledge consists in sensation or perceiving the facts.  One of the challenges that this faces is in extracting propositions from sensation.  How can a mass of sensations:  reds, greens, softs, hards, sweets, sours, highs, and lows, be turned into propositions?  If this task can be so performed, how can one verify the reliability of these propositions?  The empiricists usually admit that hallucinations and dreams are unreliable.  Secular philosophers have addressed these questions extensively and some Christian philosophers have addressed them as well, but the Classical Apologists, Evidentialists, and the Van Tillians usually prefer to simply mock the question and sometimes use poor exegesis to justify their mockery.

The article referenced above says:

“One function of the celestial luminaries is to enable humans to keep track of time: “And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years (Gen 1:14).”

If, however, you deny the general reliability of the senses, then how can the celestial luminaries perform their divinely-assigned function?”

Of course, this assumes the point at issue.  It does nothing to explain how disjointed sensations can act as signs for seasons.  It just assumes they do.  Secondly, it is hard to see why God making the stars for signs implies that man’s senses are reliable.  Could not God have made signs and also cursed man at some point so that he sometimes misinterprets them?  Indeed this is closer to the biblical teaching.  Maybe this is why the weasel word “general” is used in the quotation above.

Moreover, don’t the Scriptures provide many examples where people were deceived by their perceptions?

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. (Matt 14:26)


Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20:15)

To my knowledge, the Bible nowhere affirms that things are always as we perceive them and we need not affirm such a counterintuitive conclusion.  We must always allow for the possibility that we have not perceived things correctly and take all thought, including our precious perceptions, captive to the Scriptures.  Moreover, Calvin comes down on the Scripturalists side of the issue.  Bodily sensations are innacurate, weak, and sometimes misleading:

The eye, accustomed to seeing nothing but black, judges that to be very white which is but whitish or perhaps brown…. If at noonday we look either on the ground, or at any surrounding objects, we conclude our vision to be very strong and piercing; when we raise our eyes to the Sun, they are at once dazzled and confounded…and we are constrained to confess that our sight…is dimness itself [I,i, 2].

The powers of the soul are far from being limited to functions subservient to the body. For what concern has the body in measuring the heavens, counting the number of the stars, computing their several magnitudes, and acquiring a knowledge of their respective distances…. In these profound researches relating to the celestial orbs, there is no corporeal cooperation, but that the soul has its functions distinct from the body [I, v, 5].

It is not that we Scripturalists want to be difficult; trying to cast doubt on everybody’s perceptions.  We simply refuse to ignore the problems with erecting a worldview on the external foundation of sensation.  If some would like to maintain that the Bible teaches sensationism, they should do better exegesis and answer the problems which come with it.  But before getting back to exegesis, Gordon Clark puts the problems which need to be faced in clear terms:

There is more. A paragraph or two ago, the theory that perception is an inference from sensation was found wanting. But if one tries to escape this inference theory, he faces a harder difficulty. It is this. 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. Note that no one ever sees a dog or a tree. A dog is not just black; he is also soft, fuzzy, and perhaps has an odor. But before one perceives a dog, he must choose black, fuzzy, and 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 also has at the same time. Why does he not select the fuzzy, the sound B-flat, and the taste of Bacardi rum, all of which he senses at the same moment, and combine them into the perceived object? Is there anything in a person’s fifty or more sensations that compels the selection of these few rather than another few? Usually people say that they combine the sensations emanating from the same place. Well, aside from the difficulty of locating the particular spot from which an odor, or sound, emanates, this answer presupposes a knowledge of space in general. Where, then, did the knowledge of space come from? Has anyone seen, smelled, or touched it? Kant tried to defend a knowledge of space against Hume; but he could not remain an empiricist to do so. He had to have a priori forms of the mind.

The next difficulty, and with this one we may need no more to rid ourselves of empiricism, is the formation of concepts. The theory is that perceptions produce images which remain after the perception ceases. By a process of abstraction, concepts are formed or extracted out of these images. There are two impossibilities here. First, the theory assumes that all people have such images. Did not Russell say that only a madman could deny it? So did Hume. Once again Brand Blanshard not only shows the futility of images for people who have them, but also brings before us a group of scientists and literary men, all well educated, who have no images whatever. Further, the present writer’s investigations over a long span of years completely confirm the point. But second, the process by which concepts are allegedly abstracted from images is unintelligible. Aristotle simply gives an analogy. It is like an army in rout: One soldier makes a stand, then a second, and so on, until the army is in order again. This analogy is worse than most. It is unintelligibility raised to an unimaginable power.

Christianity, however, must have what most people call “abstract” concepts. Empiricism with its Nominalism cannot produce concepts, such as justification, federal headship, or Trinity. Nor can it produce the concept of the general conic, of vertebrate animal, or of tennis. To speak more precisely: There are no such things as abstract concepts. Abstraction is impossible. This leads to another point. When a Christian uses the word justification, Trinity, or theology, he is using a name to designate a series of propositions. A student does not know botany: He knows that asparagus and the star of Bethlehem are members of the liliaceae. To know theology is to know that “ Adam was the fedAlbino Croweral head of the race,” and that “the elect sinner is justified by means of faith alone.” Propositions, not concepts, are the objects of knowledge because only propositions can be true. Theological propositions are usually universal propositions, and for that reason cannot be empirical. Empiricism is ruled out, not merely because these propositions are matters of revelation, undiscoverable by an unaided human mind, but because they are universal. “All who are justified are justified by faith alone” is a universal proposition. But induction never arrives at universals. And induction is all that empiricism has. By induction a young ornithologist may observe a thousand black crows – not to repeat all the difficulties of seeing even one black crow – and on the basis of these thousand observations he is likely to assert “All crows are black.” Then the thousand and first crow is an albino. Induction never arrives at a universal. If so used, it is always a logical fallacy. Empiricism, therefore, is in a sad state, so that not much can be said in favor of a language theory or a theology based on it. (Language and Theology. Kindle Locations 2635-2645)

To put the Triablogue article in a better light, the great theologian Robert Reymond objected that the Bible teaches that sensory experience plays a role in knowledge acquisition:

There are scores of Biblical passages which teach by inference, if not directly, that sensory experience plays a role in knowledge acquisition (e.g., Matt. 12:3, 19:4, 21:16, 22:32; Mark 12:10; Rom. 10:14). It seems to me, before he will convince many Christians of his position, that Clark must explain satisfactorily (in another way than is virtually universally taken) literally hundreds of passages of Scripture which employ the words “see” “hear,” “read,” “listen,” etc. At this time I am not convinced that he [Gordon Clark, LM] is in accord with Scripture when he denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition and would hope that he would take the Greek skeptics less seriously and the implications in many of the “subsidiary axioms” of Scripture more seriously than he does.( The Justification of Knowledge, 1976, 114.)

This is a better statement of the objection that I think the Triablogue article is getting at.  Clark responds thus:

Two pages earlier he [Reymond, LM] cites 1 John 1:1-3, which is perhaps more pointed than the others, for it says, “That which…we have heard…seen with our eyes,…our hands have handled…that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you.” Do not these words guarantee that Christianity is a form of empiricism, a system based on experience?

Now, I am willing to exegete such verses, and I shall do so, briefly here and more at length in a commentary on 1 John that should appear shortly [It has now appeared, LM]. But first there are one or two minor phrases in Reymond’s paragraph that call for notice. His words “denies to the senses a role in knowledge acquisition” are vague, for they do not specify what role. Animals have more acute sensations than human beings; but they know no mathematics, construct no syllogisms, nor do they write narratives. Sensation does not help them in these matters. Sleeping and eating play a role in knowledge acquisition in this life, for without them we would not remain in this life. But their role contributes nothing to the content of knowledge. Nutrition plays a role, but it is not true that “Der Mensch ist was er ißt.” Philosophers who insist on giving a role to sensation in the acquisition of knowledge should first define sensation, then show how sensation can become perception, and presumably how memory images can produce universal concepts by abstraction. If this is not their scheme, and it might not be, then they should describe in detail what their scheme is. It is not enough to speak vaguely about some role or other. Plato gave the senses the role of stimulating reminiscence. Presumably this role would not satisfy Reymond. Augustine, though he altered his views as he grew older, gave a different role to sensation; without too much distortion one might call it a stimulus to intellectual intuition. Would that satisfy Reymond? It is hard to say because Reymond himself does not give any role to sensation. No doubt he believes that there is some such role, but I must have missed the page on which he tells what that role is. Now, it is not necessary for a critic to explain his own view in order to reject the view he is criticizing. But if one writes on The Justification of Knowledge, the readers expect a specific explanation.

This ties in with the second defect in the paragraph quoted. He thinks that I take the Greek skeptics too seriously. Of course, it is not the Greek skeptics alone that I take seriously. There are also Montaigne, Descartes, Bayle, Hume, and the contemporary experiments in psychology. It would be my desire that Reymond, with his considerable ability, might take all skepticism more seriously. Responsibility to the task of apologetics demands it. Unfortunately several conservative apologists, with whose theological views I am in substantial agreement, seem to me to have evaded this basic problem. It has been stated clearly in this monograph, and I cannot believe that it should not be taken seriously. Just one more minor point: Dr. Reymond’s disagreement with my reply to Dr. Nash (112-113) omits one essential fact: The fact that Nash does not correctly report my view. He asserts that I hold, “Man cannot know the contents of the Bible save through the senses.” If I am right in assuming that Reymond and Nash both reject the view that a sensation can be no more than a stimulus to recollection or intellectual intuition, then Nash does not correctly state my view, and hence his deductions from this statement are inapplicable to me.

However, we must get closer to exegesis. Before examining First John 1:1-3, it may be well to note that the word sensation (aisthesis) occurs only once in the New Testament: Philippians 1:9. Neither the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, nor the New International Version translate it sensation. It does not mean sensation. Hebrews 5:14 has ta aistheteria (the faculties of sensation). Some translators have “senses”; but clearly the word does not means senses in the sense used in discussions on sensation. Dr. Reymond’s book does not explain a theory of language, and I would be the last to assign to him a view of language he does not hold. I only surmise that he rejects the theory of ordinary language, by which meanings are fixed by usage, for he seems to use the words see, hear, sense without considering how they are used in ordinary and Scriptural language.

What did the Apostle John mean when he spoke of seeing with the eyes and handling with the hands? Did he mean aisthesis, proper sensibles, common sensibles, sensation per accidens, or what?

In Greek the first word of 1 John designates the Word of Life, who in verse 4 is identified as Jesus Christ. Since the Epistle and the Gospel have the same author, it is permissible to connect this Word of Life with the Word of John 1:1. And no one should object if we equate this Word with him whom Paul calls “the Power of God” and “the Wisdom of God.” This second person of the Trinity is the subject of John’s declaration. Can this eternal Wisdom be heard with the ears, seen with the eyes, and handled with the hands? Is the second person of the Trinity an object of sense? The word hearing comes first; seeing comes second. This discussion will take them in turn.

As for hearing, one should note that no one can ever hear a piece of music or a line of poetry. Our opponents, who insist on sensation as the origin of knowledge, cannot well object to an instance taken from experience. Augustine pointed out that to “hear” music or poetry, one must at least “perceive” the rhythm. But there is no rhythm in a single sensation. Even beyond perception it is necessary to have memory before a line of poetry can be recognized as poetry. A single sound has no rhythm or meter. The first sounds of a line must be remembered until the last sound occurs; note also that the first sound no longer exists when the last sound sounds. Therefore no one ever senses music or poetry. This Augustinian remark should satisfy any empiricist; but it is not exegesis.

As the noun aisthesis in Scripture does not mean sensation, so, too, the verb to hear does not do so, either. Exodus 15:14 says, “The people shall hear and be afraid.” The meaning is that the enemies of Israel will understand the danger of being defeated in battle. In Numbers 9:8 someone might want to insist that God spoke in audible words; but in any case an understanding of the directions is not found in the vibrations of the air or eardrums. Deuteronomy 1:43 indicates that Moses spoke audible words. Of course, the people heard. But the verse says they did not hear. What is meant is that the Israelites did not obey. Second Kings 14:11 says that “ Amaziah would not hear.” Job 27:9, “Will not God hear his cry?” Other references also, such as Psalm 3:4, speak of God’s hearing prayers. Obviously the verb hear does not designate a sensation, for God has no eardrums to be affected by air vibrations. No sensation is possible in this case. The verse in Job means, of course, that God will not favor the hypocrite by granting his petition. Psalm 4:1, with its two instances of the verb hear, has nothing to do with sensation. The language is figurative.

Deuteronomy 29:4 allows a transition from hearing to seeing. The verse refers to “eyes to see and ears to hear”; but does it refer to the sense of sight? The phrase is similar to that in 1 John, “seen with our eyes…and our hands have handled.” The verse in Deuteronomy says that God did not give the Israelites eyes to see and ears to hear. Does this mean that the Israelites had no eyeballs, retinas, and appendages on the sides of their heads? It does not mean even that the Israelites could not literally perceive: “the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive.” The language is figurative and means, perhaps that they did not understand what God meant, or, more likely, that they understood but refused to obey. Hence, the language of 1 John does not necessarily, nor plausibly, refer to sensation and empiricism.

Genesis 3:5 is not a reference to eyeballs and retinas. Genesis 16:4 does not mean eyesight. Even though Psalm 13:3 refers to death, the word eyes is not literal. Similarly, Psalm 119:18. This instance cannot possibly refer to sensation, for what is to be “seen” is completely invisible. Then, most ridiculous of all, “the eyeballs of the Lord, on little feet, run to and fro throughout the whole Earth” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

A most interesting event occurs in Daniel 5:5, which says, “In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote [Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin]…and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.” Was this a sensation or an hallucination? Would it have been valid for Belshazzar to infer that he saw a physical hand? The astrologers saw the writing; but was this “seeing” a sensation? Did the writing remain visible on the wall until the Medes broke in and killed Belshazzar? This last question cannot be answered from the text; but it should be clear that Belshazzar’s “seeing” was not what modern common opinion nor certainly modern philosophic opinion calls sensation.

Next consider a few verses from the New Testament. Acts 2:27, 31 say, “Neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption…his soul was not left in Hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.” This can hardly be taken as a denial of some color sensation. Acts 28:26-27 repeat in Greek the Hebrew phrases of seeing and not perceiving; closing their eyes lest they should see with their eyes. How can this refer to sensations of color, since all visual sensations must be sensations of color and nothing else? In 1 Corinthians 1:26 the seeing cannot possibly be a sensation.

Further Scripture references may be added: Job 19:26, “I shall see God” cannot be understood as sensation, for God is not a colored body; Jeremiah 1: 11, 13, though visions are not the sense of sight. Genesis 2:9, 11:5, and 31:50 are not about sensations. Since Moses’ body lay buried on the east side of the Jordan, did Peter see Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration? And as for Peter, allow this paraphrase of Matthew 16:13-17: Whom do men say that I am?…and Jesus said,…Peter, you never arrived at that conclusion through any empirical investigation: It was revealed to your mind by my Father. Clearly the verb to see does not always, perhaps not even usually, refer to sensation.

This must suffice for the hundreds of verses to which Dr. Reymond alludes. I hesitantly suggest that his exegesis is defective because of the imposition of an untenable epistemology. But now 1 John. As in the Gospel of John 12:40, here, too, there is no reference to empirical sensations. The object, namely, the Word of Life, the Reason and Wisdom of God, is not a physical object and cannot be literally seen and handled. He does not have a color, nor any degree of hardness, wetness, or any quality of touch. Explicitly in 1 John the object is the truth or proposition, “God is light.” This proposition cannot be seen in any literal sense. Therefore, since words are arbitrary signs, whose meaning is fixed by ordinary language, the hundreds of Scriptural verbs to which empirical apologists refer do not support the role of sensation which presumably – though they are never clear on what this role is – those apologists desire to give it. (Language and Theology, Kindle Locations 2901-2907)

Aside from being philosophically untenable, Clark demonstrates that the objection reads empiricism into the Scriptural passages where the Bible actually precludes them.  Clark’s counter-exegesis is conclusive.  In the paragraphs of Language and Theology after those quoted, Clark goes on to construct a biblical theory of knowledge in accordance with the Scriptural teaching.  If you are cheap, or have no time for reading, you may prefer to listen to Clark’s explanation in his lectures while you are driving in the car:

A Christian Construction Part 1 and A Christian Construction Part 2

Oddly, some people approach this issue as though those philosophers who discuss the role of sensation in knowledge acquisition are either stupid or lack common sense.  This is not the case.  The search for truth and for a cogent Christian apologetic forces us to examine, and not ignore or mock, the arguments of other philosophers in other ages in different cultures.  While these issues may not at first seem relevant to this culture or to the arguments of Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye the Science Guy [1. These two men, and other adherents of scientism, appear not to realize that observational science always functions within a worldview; a philosophical system.  This system is what they should defend, not science in general.  Observational science proceeds on many assumptions.  These men seem not to realize that the empiricism of John Locke has been very well refuted by the philosophers following the 18th century (such as Kant) and that the old logical positivism which is characterized by their assertions has been disposed of by Quine, Popper, and others who are no friends of Christianity. Yet these men seem to proceed in blissful ignorance of all this.], they are intensely relevant to the history of philosophy which has produced critical giants such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and others.  Basing our worldview off of sensation may help us to “sometimes be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have…” but we are called to “always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have…”.  This calls for the Christian construction of a system of apologetics which, among other things, relies on revelation alone, provides answers to the arguments put forward by the great philosophers, and correctly places the role of sensation in knowledge acquisition.  I’ve quoted too much of Language and Theology already here so I guess you’ll have to read the book to determine that role.

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  • Ryan
    • I responded thus:

      A few thoughts.

      On the first sentences:
      I did not claim that your reaction was your first reaction. I meant to identify it with the first reaction which many people have. I am aware that you have been at this a long time. No offense was meant.

      You gave 3 couterexamples to my statement: “One line of argument says that knowledge consists in sensation or perceiving the facts. One of the challenges that this faces is in extracting propositions from sensation. How can a mass of sensations: reds, greens, softs, hards, sweets, sours, highs, and lows, be turned into propositions?”

      All 3 examples fail to meet the challenge because they do not start with simple sensations (reds, greens, softs, …). What “appears to be a red rose” is not a sensation, hearing “a siren” is not a sensation, and seeing a “flock of crows” is not a sensation. I think you see this but possibly have no desire to interact on this issue.

      You gave 4 arguments against my statement: “Secondly, it is hard to see why God making the stars for signs implies that man’s senses are reliable. Could not God have made signs and also cursed man at some point so that he sometimes misinterprets them? Indeed this is closer to the biblical teaching.”

      The first example assumes that one must know when the Sabbath is in order to keep it. Why must this be so? If it is my strong opinion that today is the Sabbath and I keep it, as long as today actually is the Sabbath, then I have kept the Sabbath without knowing it was the Sabbath. The same logic applies to the other examples. But #4 seems to assert that the logical fallacy of induction can serve as a justification for true belief. I would like to ask what other fallacies you would accept.

      I presented 2 biblical examples to show that what people think they perceive isn’t always what is there. The criticism of my use misunderstood my point. I did not say that their senses deceived them. The point of the Scriptures were that, whatever they thought they saw actually wasn’t there. If Mary and the disciples can make that error, why can’t we? This is all that is needed to justify the biblical teaching that things aren’t always as people perceive them. We need something more solid to base our beliefs on. We need revelation from God.

  • Mr Falkland

    I may be misunderstanding Clark here, but I think he has missed Reymond’s point.

    Reymond is saying that the Bible takes it as axiomatic that our senses have cognitive value. People see, hear, touch, taste, smell things such that they can form the propositions, “This looks like that,” or “This tastes like honey,” or “You have beautiful teeth,” of whatever.

    But Clark seems to miss this basic fact by insisting that “There is no coherent theory of empiricism.” Fine. There’s no coherent theory. But the Bible does not present us with a philosophical theory of empiricism, or even a scientific theory of how our sense works. It just takes their reliability for granted. Even the exceptions of halucinations or whatever, depend upon their general reliability.

    The Bible may not present us with a theory of empiricism, but it takes it as axiomatic that our senses have a God-ordained cognitive function. Maybe that is how Scripturalism can save the senses?

    • Luke Miner

      I don’t see why you think Clark has missed Reymond’s point. He shows that Reymond’s exegesis of the terms “see,” and “hear,” is faulty in the verses that he cites and points out that he is vague when he attributes to sensation “a role” in knowledge acquisition. Clark admits “a role.” The question is what role? The question is whether or not knowledge can be based on sensation. I wonder the same vagueness has crept in to your statement “that our senses have a God-ordained cognitive function.” Nobody really denies that. If you’d like to get specific about what that function is, and what you mean by “sensation,” then we’ll have something interesting to talk about.