Are my senses as authoritative as Scripture?

All knowledge comes to us via the senses (let’s leave aside direct revelations from God at the moment). So, when I observe the natural world, I use my senses, and when I read a book I use my senses. The problem for the “scripture is my axiom” folks, as I often point out, is that if you completely distrust the senses as a source of knowledge (an epistemology)… if you can’t trust any knowledge you get from your senses, then you can’t trust the Bible either, since it comes to you via the senses.

But does that put our senses on par with scripture? Do you mean, my senses are as authoritative as scripture? A friend claimed this is what I was saying: “Since we can trust our senses to read scripture we can trust them for observations on the natural world, and the conclusions that come from it.”

Observations are not the conclusions that come from them. To conclude anything from what you observe takes judgments, reasoning… thinking. Nothing I have said implies that our judgments, our reasoning –our ability to come to right conclusions about what we observe– is infallible or even highly trustworthy. When I say our senses are reliable, I am not saying the conclusions we draw from our senses are reliable.

There is a big difference between reading words and observing animals, rocks, and stars. Let’s call the former “reading” even though hearing speech or reading by braille works too. And let’s call the latter “scientific observations.” The written word already carries propositions (truth claims), but we have to form propositions from our scientific observations. There are far fewer steps between reading and knowledge than there are between a scientific observation and knowledge. Let’s try an example.

Let’s say I want to know the general law governing Electromagnetic induction. I could figure it out by carefully experimenting with magnets and electric fields, or I could talk to Michael Faraday. The first option has lots and lots of places for me to err. Maybe I won’t think of some variable in my experiments, maybe I will forget to account for earth’s magnetic field. Maybe I’ll get tempted by my pride and take a short cut. Maybe I’ll give up do to laziness. The far more certain, the far more reliable, the far more authoritative way for me to know the law of induction is to talk to Michael Faraday. All I have to do is understand English and listen.

Notice, in both methods I am using my senses. So both methods rely on my senses to get Faraday’s law in my head, but one of them relies on my abilities, my will, my reasoning ability, my discipline, etc. and the other relies on Michael Faraday’s authority.

Our senses are fallible. They are reliable enough to correct past mistakes, but they certainly can make mistakes. Here’s another example. Let’s say I misread Romans 1 because my eyes failed to see a word (my contacts were out of focus, let’s say). Later, I can read it again, see the word that I missed, and correct my knowledge of Romans 1. The nice thing about the written word, is that it’s stable. If my eyes only worked 20% of the time, I could still read the scripture and know what it says, it just might take 5 times as long to read it. Imagine reading this on a monitor that blinked off and on, and only stayed on 20% of the time. You would still be able to read it, even though your monitor is not “reliable” in one sense, but “reliable enough” in another sense. And “reliable enough” is all I claim for our eyes and ears. “Reliable enough” senses is all we need to get God’s infallible word into our heads.

So, the claim that my view of epistemology gives our senses on the same authority as scripture, your conclusion doesn’t follow. The conclusions we draw from scientific observations are nowhere near as authoritative as the conclusions we draw when reading the Bible, for several reasons. One, language carries propositions to our mind directly, whereas with scientific observation, I have to form propositions with my own faculties of judgment, which are fallible. Two, my senses themselves are fallible, but reliable enough to eventually read the stable written word. Three, having determined that the Bible is God’s word (however we come to that conclusion), I know that whatever it communicates to me is true, unlike other authorities. Four, knowing that the Bible is God’s word, I know that it has an omniscient perspective on reality. My senses may be “reliable enough” but they are only a tiny, limited perspective. The written word gives my eyes a window through which I can see an omniscient perspective.

The fact remains that all our knowledge, even our knowledge of scripture, comes to us via our senses. We still look through that omniscient-view window with our eyes. To trust the Bible we need to have some trust in our ability to sense. But this is a much more humble claim than you might think.

But, doesn’t this view have a high view of the self?

This is like saying you have a high view of the English language because you can only know the scripture by reading it in English. Do you think the English language is more authoritative than the Bible? Or, do you have a high view of your own mind, since you can only know the scripture in your own mind?

If you say rightly, that English is merely the language instrument by which God communicates to me, I would say, likewise, your eyes and ears are merely the sensory instruments by which God communicates to you. That does not mean that eyes and ears are an authority themselves. It is not as if their reliability somehow insults Sola Scriptura. Your eyes and ears are not an authority, they are the instruments of authorities. Scripture is an authority, Neil deGrasse Tyson is an authority, Michael Faraday, etc. In the case of your own scientific observations, your eyes and ears are not the authority, either. In this case, you are the authority because you are making judgments and drawing conclusions from the data. In all of these, your senses are merely instruments, like grammar, logic, and the English language.

But the will, the intellect, and nature were all marred by sin. Scripture itself is useless without the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

Yes, and a classical empiricist epistemology doesn’t say anything against the need for the Holy Spirit. Remember all those obstacles to finding the law of induction the hard way? My will to continue the investigation, my pride, my sloth, my ability to make sound judgments and reason logically? Sin affects the will and the intellect*. Sin affects our senses, too! Without sin, our eyes might be closer to 100% reliable (but remember, they have to be “reliable enough” to at least allow us to recognize and read scripture). We need God’s grace by the Holy Spirit to overcome any of these impediments.

But we even need the Spirit to overcome the impediments to our understanding of scripture. Even though the steps between reading and knowledge are few, there are still some. And to truly understand God’s word requires us to interpret it. Interpreting the Bible, especially “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10), requires careful judgments and reasoning. Our laziness, gluttony, lust, and especially our pride get in the way of interpreting scripture, because nothing humbles us more than the true interpretation of God’s word.

My claim is that all knowledge comes to us via our senses, and our senses are reliable enough to know some things about reality. Certainly, our senses are reliable enough for us to read. But senses just give us the information. Understanding the information requires judgment and reasoning. Our will and intellect intermingle and interact to attempt to reach that understanding. Both our will and intellect, our ability to form judgments and reason, are affected by sin. Even the sinner can arrive at basic knowledge like, “I have a body, and there is a world outside my body.” But we desperately need God’s grace by His Holy Spirit if we ever hope to arrive at an understanding of our need for a savior, let alone the deep things of scripture.

I point out to other Christians that a good apologetic requires a good epistemology, and that if we’re going to rationally defend the Bible as God’s word, we should do so by admitting our knowledge comes to us via the senses. But the instrument is not the authority, it is the tool of the authority. When I defend the senses, I say nothing about the conclusions we draw from the senses, nor do I say anything about our inherent ability to attain truth without the grace of God.


*(I know I’ve cautioned against over emphasizing the latter, but my quibble is only over emphasis)

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