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Reliability of Sense Perception

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
March 10, 2023 12:01 am

Reliability of Sense Perception

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 10, 2023 12:01 am

Although our physical senses are imperfect, they remain the only link between our minds and the world around us. Today, R.C. Sproul defends the basic reliability of sense perception.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

My senses cannot give me a comprehensive view of reality, but the only link I have from the interior chamber of my mind, my thinking, to the external world is through my senses.

My body is the bridge from my mind to the world. That's why it's axiomatic in modern science and in biblical studies to operate with the assumption that our basic equipment that we have, the faculties of knowing that God has given us, are at least reliable enough for us to act upon. Again, when I see the light turn red, I can speculate that maybe a demon caused it or it's a malfunction and that's a possibility, but I trust it enough to put my foot on the brick. The greatest skeptic in the room can try and deny the reality of objective truth and even the trustworthiness of their senses, but in reality, if the world was like that, they wouldn't even survive for 30 seconds. Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. The Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 1.16 says, "'For we did not follow cleverly devised myths, but we were eyewitnesses.'" This week, Dr. Sproul has been taking us through his series, Defending Your Faith, helping us give a defense of the hope that is within us, and today Dr. Sproul is going to help us respond to those who are skeptics who might not trust eyewitnesses. We continue once again now with our study in Christian apologetics, and we're in the middle now of looking at those elements of knowledge of the science of epistemology that are essential to coming to a sound defense of the truth of theism. And we've looked, first of all, at the law of non-contradiction, and in our last session we looked at the issue of the law of cause and effect, or the law of causality, and we were careful to show that the proper definition is important to this whole discussion, that the law of causality is defined in this way, that for every effect there must be an antecedent cause. Now, today I said that we would look more carefully at the critical analysis of causality that was offered by the 18th century Scots philosopher David Hume.

David Hume, in his inquiry into these matters of causality, made some observations about cause and effect that are very important. Under his analysis, he said this, that what we observe when we see things happening around us are what he calls relationships that are customary, customary relationships, or another term that he uses was relationships of contiguity. You know that if you have a house and you have a property line that the house next door may be said to be contiguous to your property because it abuts right up next to it.

So that which is next to something else would be contiguous to it. So what David Hume is saying here is that we see events transpire or take place in the external world that one thing follows another, and we assume that the one thing causes that which follows it because they follow in sequence on a regular basis. We see, for example, on a regular basis that it rains, and when it rains, the grass gets wet so that there is a customary relationship between raining and wet grass. And this happens in such regular sequences or intervals that we come to the conclusion that the cause of the grasses becoming wet is the raining that precedes it. Now you look at me and you say, somebody really is raising a question of whether the rain is causing the wet grass. Everybody knows that the rain is that which causes the effect of wet grass. Well, in ordinary experience, that's the way we think because that's the way it certainly seems to us under the naked vision that we have in our observations and because we are accustomed to thinking in this way. But how do we know that in between the falling of the rain and the dampening of the grass, some invisible cause other than the rain is interceding and is the real cause for the grasses becoming wet?

Now, again, that may seem like utter stupid assumptions. That's like speculating about men made of green cheese on the backside of the moon and so on. But from a philosophical perspective, particularly in light of the 17th and 18th century when philosophers were doing a penetrating analysis of understanding external reality and the forces that are in effect making happen what makes happen with the school of Descartes, with his theory of interactionism, and with other philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz in the rational school who postulated invisible causes that were not seen for that which you can observe empirically. And so there was a big controversy in science and in philosophy about actual causes.

See if I can make something of an illustration right now. What is it that makes us sick from time to time? Keep in view that now when we are ill or something, we might go in and get blood tests done or throat cultures, and these cultures are placed under microscopes, and we begin to discover that organisms or antibodies are at work infecting our well-being that are invisible to the naked eye and that without the discovery of microscopes and that sort of thing, we never would have imagined that the causes for our diseases are what they are presumed to be now. And it wasn't that long ago where people talked about animal spirits invading our bodies and going up and down our arms and so on before the use of the microscope. So again, what the microscope has done is opened up a whole new world of realities that are truly there and are making an impact on our lives, and they're flying around in this room right now that we can't even see. We say, well, we picked up a bug or a germ or so on.

I had the flu last week, and somebody told me the second day of the flu that it was a 24-hour bug, and I said, well, my 24-hour bug needs a new wristwatch then because he's still here. But we talk about bugs, and we talk about these things that infect us. But what Hume was doing from a scientific analysis was there's all kinds of things going on that we don't perceive. We don't ever really see, and we make assumptions that because one thing follows another, it is therefore the cause. Now causal thinking, ladies and gentlemen, is at the heart of the scientific inquiry. It's at the heart of medicine. When we're ill and we go to the doctor and we ask the doctor for a diagnosis, we're asking him to determine and isolate the cause for our illness, and we want him to be able to determine the cause so that he can come up with a treatment that will cure the disease. But if we can't determine what's wrong and don't have a proper diagnosis, it's very difficult to find the proper remedy. And not only that, but in biology, in chemistry, in physics, in astronomy, the principle of causality is assumed constantly. To say it another way, causal thinking is at the heart of natural science.

Now, you can imagine the crisis that came about in the 18th century when this very learned scholar in Scotland raised questions about scientific ability to determine and isolate causes. Now, in his analysis of this, David Hume used a famous illustration, and the illustration was what we call the pool ball illustration. If you could imagine a pool table, and there's a pocket at the end of the table, and in the middle of the table you have the cue ball, and then you have the object ball—we'll call it the eight ball—and the object here is the pool player wants to sink the eight ball in the corner pocket. And so he picks up the cue stick, puts some chalk on the end of the stick, and he aims the cue stick at the cue ball, okay? And then, using the motion of his arm, he swings the cue stick and moves the cue stick. The cue stick strikes the cue ball, imparting force, presumably, to the cue ball, setting the cue ball in motion. And the cue ball moves across the table until it hits or collides with the object ball, in this case the eight ball, and then immediately following that, the eight ball begins to move, and if our aim and striking were correct and proper, ultimately the object ball is deposited in the corner pocket.

But you see all kinds of physical actions involved in that. I pick up the cue stick, I aim the cue stick, I swing my arm, and since my arm is connected to the cue stick, the cue stick moves. When I move the cue stick, I hit the cue ball with the cue stick, and then the cue ball hits the object ball, and so we make the assumption that there is a causal relationship and sequence all along here. But does anybody actually perceive invisible force transferred from the end of the cue stick to the cue ball? Does anybody see the transfer of force from the cue ball to the object ball?

No. What you see is one thing following another, and that is what's called a customary relationship or a contiguous relationship. And what Hume is saying is you don't see causality.

You see several actions taking place in sequence, and you're assuming a causal nexus or a causal relationship from those distinct actions. You know, the old story of the farmer who was awakened every morning before he wanted to wake up because at the crack of dawn, the rooster crow. And he said, you know, every time that rooster mine crows, the sun comes up, and it gets in my eyes coming in this window, and it wakes me up. And so if I want to stop the sun from coming up, I'm just going to strangle that rooster because he thought, you know, I can kill the rooster, I can stop the sun because every day the rooster crowed, then the sun came up, and he assumed that it was the rooster causing the sun to come up. And that's an example of a fallacy that we learn, an informal fallacy in the science of logic called the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy, which being translated means the fallacy of after this, therefore because of this. That just because something happens after something else does not mean that the previous thing had anything to do with that which came afterwards. And you can't just assume because one thing follows another that they are connected causally. Now that's a brief overview of David Hume's analysis of the problems of causality. Now what happened was you have all kinds of people who have assumed that there's kind of a causal leap with their minds who have assumed that what Hume did with this analysis was demolish the law of causality, which he did not do. I mean, he actually himself came to the conclusion, since we can't know what is causing a particular effect, we might come to the conclusion that anything can produce anything else.

That's fine if he wants to talk like that. However, what he doesn't show is that nothing is causing the movement of the pool ball. It's one thing to say there are forces engaged here that I don't perceive, that I can't see. It's one thing to say I don't know what's causing the motion, and it's a huge movement from that to say nothing is causing the motion. Again, when we apply the law of causality to the external world, we have to face the limitations of sense perception that David Hume sets forth, but we don't have to therefore jettison the principle of the law of cause and effect because it still remains a fact that if something is in effect, it was indeed caused by something other than itself.

That has to be true no matter how many experiments you take because, again, I remind you that is a formal argument. Now remember that the third principle that I talked about was the principle of the basic reliability of sense perception, and I labored the point that we admit that our senses do not have perfect perception of reality. That's why we have machines to heighten our ability to perceive things like telescopes and microscopes as I mentioned before. And remember I mentioned the illustration of Augustine's bent oar in the water and somebody's head being the size of my thumbnail because I can cover their head from a distance with my thumbnail, and understanding principles of depth perception, and that we understand there are limits to our powers of perception. Now what David Hume does here is shows those limits that we never can penetrate to the invisible realm where perhaps all kinds of unseen forces are at work, not the least of which is the power of God. Again, the New Testament tells us that in God we live and move and have our being.

I'll just take that second part of that, in God we move. And one of the principle assumptions of Christian truth is that nothing can move in this world apart from the power of God. And I can say I have the power to drop this piece of chalk and make it move, but at best I'm a secondary cause because I can't even open my finger apart from the power of God.

And the power of God is invisible. So the other side of the coin is this is an argument that is compatible with Christian theism that says there can be no power without God and that God is the power supply of all motion and because He's invisible, no amount of empirical research will get to the heart of the matter, to get to the heart of matter, to get to the heart of the motion of matter. And so in that regard, I have no complaint with David Hume's analysis where he shows the limits of human sense perception. Unfortunately, he took it to this place where he tried to reduce all science that depends upon sense perception to skepticism. In fact, it is said of Hume that he represents the graveyard of British empiricism. Immanuel Kant, who came after Hume, said it was Hume's skeptical analysis of being able to perceive causal forces that awakened Kant from what he called his dogmatic slumbers and Kant set about his whole rest of his career to rescue science from pure skepticism.

Because if you demolish causal thinking, it's not just Christian theism that goes, it's science that goes. And so Kant sought to resurrect the validity of causality and the basic reliability of sense perception. Again, my senses cannot give me a comprehensive view of reality, but the only link I have from the interior chamber of my mind, my thinking, to the external world, the only transition I have from the mind to you is through my senses. My body is the bridge from my mind to the world. What is mind?

Dr. Gerstner used to answer that question. What is mind? No matter. What is matter then?

Never mind. What he was getting at with his cute little game was that there is a fundamental distinction between materiality, corporeality, and that which is non-physical. And an idea, a thought in the mind may be linked to a physical cause of chemical simulations and synapses and so on in the physical surface of the brain. But it's one thing to say the physical brain gives rise to thinking. It's another thing to say that thinking itself is physical, and we don't want to do that. Okay, so I'm saying is that my thinking, my conscious awareness of things is non-physical, but I cannot have any thoughts about you or about the world or anything outside of my mind except through my senses. So as imperfect as my senses may be, that's the only avenue I have to reality, physical reality outside of myself. I can retreat into my own mind and make all kinds of deductions about what may or may not be out there, but I have no actual contact with the world out there except through my senses. That's why it's axiomatic in modern science and in biblical studies to operate with the assumption that our basic equipment that we have, the faculties of knowing that God has given us, such as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and so on, are at least reliable enough for us to act upon.

Again, when I see the light turn red, I can speculate that maybe a demon caused it or it's a malfunction and that's a possibility, but I trust it enough to put my foot on the brake. And this is the way the Bible speaks when it talks about, as I mentioned earlier, Peter saying, we don't believe in cleverly devised myths or fables, but we believe in what we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears. The basic reliability of sense perception and even the assumption that we can see causal relationships in this world is assumed throughout Scripture. And so these three principles are non-negotiable to Christian apologetics. Again, the law of non-contradiction, B, the law of causality, and three, now, the basic reliability of sense perception. Such helpful principles, foundational principles for us as we seek to be faithful witnesses in this fallen world.

That was a message from R.C. Sproul, his series Defending Your Faith. It's the last message we'll be sharing with you this week, but there is so much more to study in this series, including does the Bible contain contradictions?

Is it possible to make a case for the existence of God? This series is actually 32 messages across 11 DVDs. So I'd encourage you to respond today with a donation of any amount, and we'll make this available for you. Not only the DVD set, but once we process your gift, we'll give you digital access to this series so that you can stream at any time inside the Ligonier app or at We'll also provide for you a digital study guide if you want to walk through this series, perhaps with your family or your homeschool or with friends. So make your gift today at or by calling us at 800-435-4343. The name of the series again is Defending Your Faith by R.C. Sproul, and that web address is Next week, we'll begin another series with Dr. Sproul. Not only will he help us understand what was going on in the Protestant Reformation, he'll help us see that one word can be the difference between eternal life and eternal death. So join us Monday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-10 03:42:05 / 2023-03-10 03:50:12 / 8

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