Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Danger of Empiricism

I recently finished teaching a course entitled, Epistemology and Worldview. My nerdiness is emphasized in that I was excited to teach it and loved every moment of it (well, except the grading).

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. In this course, we addressed three ways of knowing: revelation (basically God speaking to us directly), reason (using logic to know), and empiricism (looking at hard facts).

So much of society today is driven by empiricism. Church structures want to know how to prove what works in gaining people. Numbers mean that growth has occurred. Christians want to prove God and his ways beyond any shadow of a doubt. Psychological interventions are increasingly driven to provide hardcore evidence that change has occurred.

The benefit of empiricism is that it's hard to argue with it. We know the sky is blue. To argue otherwise indicates problems with perception. This model works well (in many cases, but not all) in a traditional medical setting. Was the heart surgery effective? Well, is the heart beating? Is the patient alive?

Empiricism becomes further entrenched in society with the increasingly litigiousness of our culture. Someone sues you, and you each need to prove your case. Revelation does not stand up because there is an element of subjectivity. But does that mean it's untrue? In a court of law, it's essentially inadmissible. But something you can touch and measure is perfect.

So we increasingly try to measure and objectively describe all aspects of life. But it doesn't work in all aspects. Truly measuring one's spiritual life is impossible in my estimation. There are things we can point to, but it's like measuring and proving how much your spouse loves you. Even if you could measure it, it takes the life and essence out of the object.

The same thing is true in mental health. Using my primary patient population, I can measure how often the teen self-injures. But is the presence or absence of self-injury a true marker of health or illness? Few would argue that its presence marks health, but its absence also does not mean health.

This is the problem and danger of empiricism. When we try to focus on symptoms and measuring, we miss the true goal: Human flourishing as we put on the character of Christ.

Empiricism has its place, but we need to not overemphasize it or put it higher than other epistemologies. All are useful and important in gaining a full, holistic picture of life.

1 comment:

  1. That's quite true, not all things can be measured easily. Many people want to prove there is a God for instance, but for some people, the measures of proving it doesn't matter as much because they already had an experience with God, and that's what matters most. :-)



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