The Table Video

Keith Ward

Empiricism, Modern Science, Idealism, and God

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward develops his view that empiricism is incompatible with modern materialistic sciences but is compatible with idealism and theism.


A lot of people think that somehow empiricism is more scientific than other philosophical views, or even that it’s linked in some way to a materialistic view in science and that is almost the opposite of the truth. It’s true that the logical positivist in Vienna, the early 20th century, thought that empiricism would be the basis of science, but in fact, empiricism makes modern science almost impossible, because empiricism is the view that all human knowledge begins with perceptions, with sights and sounds, what Ayer called sense data. And, that all your knowledge must be built up from this.

And of course, scientific knowledge which says there are atoms and electrons and quarks, and multi dimensional realities, maybe even many universes is as far from that view as you could get. And you say, scientific view now of the world, if you say what is quantum reality really like, won’t be anything anybody can ever ordinarily experience.

So empiricism is more like a common sense view really, although it’s not quite common sense, but it uses the word experience in terms of having perceptual or sensory information and starting from there. Now, an empiricist doesn’t have to be a theist role, A.J. Ayer certainly wasn’t. You could say there are just sensory experiences, in fact, Ayer, himself said that, “you don’t ever have experiences of God.” So it’s, God isn’t a sense experience. So if you limited your basis of knowledge to sense it brings, you wouldn’t get to God, that’s true. So you don’t have to be a theist.

But you’ll be stuck with sense experiences. Of course, A.J. Ayer also said, “there isn’t such a thing as a mind, “which has experiences, that are just experiences.” That’s a very weird view. But anyway, it is a view he held, that are just experiences with no mind. So on those two things, an idealist might differ from an empiricist. Now, idealist would say minds exist and they have experiences, and God is the super mind, experiences everything.

And you don’t have to say that. But still, I would say empiricism is nearer to idealism than it is to scientific materialism because at least in idealism, you’re dealing with, even with God, something like perceptual knowledge, it’s not gonna be perceptual of course, but it’s not a million miles away. [soft instrumental music] Its knowledge of some things that exist and can be perceived.

Whereas in modern science, you’re dealing with quarks, which can never even be separated from each other, and so cannot be possibly individually observed. And that’s a very long way from ordinary perceptual experience. You might get there by a lot of arguments, but it’ll be very abstract theoretical arguments. So, I think from empiricism to materialism is a long abstract road. From empiricism to God is a pretty direct road. But one you’re not forced to take. Anyway, the upshot is, you cannot be an empiricist and a materialist. [slow instrumental music]

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