Friday, October 19, 2007

Maritain: Empiricism

One might possibly get the idea from the passages quoted in my last post that Maritain was a rationalist. Not so.
[I]t must be the function of philosophy (the first philosophy or metaphysics) to defend against every possible objection the postulates of all the human sciences. ...

Philosophy appeals to the facts, the data of experience. To obtain the necessary materials it uses as instruments the truths provided by the evidence of the senses and the conclusions proved by the sciences. It depends on both, as a superior who cannot do his own work depends on the servants he employs. ...

But further, this purely material dependence of philosophy, though absolutely necessary in respect of the evidence of the senses, is relative and contingent in respect to the conclusions of the sciences. It is in fact from the evidence of the senses that philosophy derives the fundamental principles which - interpreted by its own light - it employs as premises in its demonstrations and as the means to prove its special truths. ... It is obvious that philosophy is absolutely unable to dispense with data of this kind, and that the data thus employed as premises must be absolutely true. Otherwise the conclusions which philosophy deduces from them would be uncertain. ...

These remarks are important. They show how the datum of experience on which philosophy is primarily based suffices for the requirements of a supreme and universal science. This datum is provided by an instrument - the evidence of the senses - earlier than scientific observation, infinitely more certain than the inductions of the sciences, and placed by nature at the disposal of every man, and consists of truths so simple that they are universally and absolutely valid, so immediate and evident that their certainty exceeds that of the best established scientific conclusions (Introduction to Philosophy, pp. 76-79 passim).
It seems that some Reformed folks object to this sort of philosophy, claiming that we cannot rely upon our senses in the way that Maritain (following Aristotle and St. Thomas) insists. But I really can't understand this objection coming from those quarters. If you can't absolutely trust sense data, then you can't absolutely trust what you extract from the Bible. To reject empiricism, it seems to me, is to completely undermine sola Scriptura. This was always a problem for me as a Protestant and presuppositionalist. I would reject the validity of evidentialist apologetics and assert that empiricism is inherently unreliable, but it bothered me - when I stopped to think about it - that these claims undermine the usefulness of the Bible as a source of truth.

To be sure, Maritain does not say that every conclusion of the sciences is necessarily valid: in fact, he asserts the opposite (and an appeal to the history of science amply justifies this assertion). But in these cases the problem is less with the data provided by the senses than it is with the use to which scientists put that data.

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