Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. Describe what empiricists believe about knowledge
  2. Identify the major philosophical proponents of empiricism
  3. Explain what empiricists think about experience
  4. Reveal how empiricism has fared in contemporary philosophy


The simplest definition of “empiricism” is that it is the epistemological perspective that we derive knowledge from experience.

By experience, empiricists appeal to investigation of the natural world by human observers. Empiricists reject several ideas held by rationalists.

  1. First, empiricists reject the idea that we are born with innate knowledge.
  2. Second, empiricists deny that deductive arguments are more powerful than inductive arguments.While deductive arguments tell us something we might consider certain, it does not give us access to the real world or the world outside ourselves. It only tells us what we already know. Inductive arguments, on the other hand, provide as much evidence from the sensible world as possible before we construct general theories.
  3. Third, empiricists resist the urge to focus on creating a unified, rational system of belief, but instead allow data—even when it presents an anomaly for one’s assumptions about the world—to be taken seriously.

The most famous empiricists were all from the British Isles and include:

  1. John Locke(1632-1704), whose political philosophy was also influential for America’s founding fathers
  2. George Berkeley(1685-1753), who was a bishop in the Church of England
  3. David Hume(1711-1776), who Christians may know as the thinker who wrote against the legitimacy of historical evidence for miracles.

Empiricists share the belief that, at birth, a human mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa, or as John Locke put it “White paper, void of all characters”. That is, they deny that we are born with innate ideas, and instead start to fill this metaphorical paper with information gathered through experiences, observations, senses, and experiments.

  1. Because of the technological achievements of experimental science which typically employs an empiricist perspective, empiricism has tended to be the dominant epistemological position in the West. We will see forms of it again in schools called Logical Positivism, the Vienna Circle and Analytic Philosophy. But most importantly, we see it in the general way the scientific method is taught in American schools.

Why I think Christians should emphasize empirical knowledge:

  1. We are embodied beings
  2. God is known through Jesus, a particular human, not an abstract rational concept
  3. Christians rely on history, specifically the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus to provide an explanation for their belief that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is not, for historic Christianity, a mythological way of speaking.
  4. Consider the Gospel according to Luke’s introductory remarks for yourself… he may be lying, he may be mistaken, he may be mad. But he is attempting to present a concrete historical account.
  5. We will ask in a future lecture whether history is a type of empirical discipline; for now, just note that I believe it is.

All of this said, there are a few points of caution for Christians to consider

  1. Speaking in broad terms many consider empiricism to be a fundamentally materialistic enterprise.
  2. It is true many scientists take their methodological atheism (which is arguably legitimate) for a metaphysical atheism (as if the limits of a particular discipline or way of knowing could possibly limit reality itself)

Covered in this lecture

  1. Empiricist epistemology emphasizes the importance of gaining knowledge through observation of the world.
  2. The major philosophical proponents of empiricism are John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.
  3. Empiricists believe that we are not born with innate ideas, but instead gather knowledge through experience.
  4. And that, because of the success of experimental science, which depends upon empirical research, empiricism has fared well, and tends to dominate Western philosophy today.


  1. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  2. David Hume, On Miracles
  3. George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge