No Room for Innate Ideas

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

  • Genesis 2:7

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

  • John 20:21-23

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17

“The claim that man’s knowledge cannot go beyond his experience ay therefore seem inappropriate, or at least an exaggeration, when attributed to Locke.  However, Locke does argue at some length, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, against the theory proposed by the rationalists to explain how knowledge could be accessed without experience.  This is the theory of innate ideas.
“The concept that human beings are born with innate ideas, and that these can give us knowledge about the nature of the world around us, independently of anything we may experience, dates back to the dawn of philosophy.  Plato had developed a concept, according to which all genuine knowledge is essentially located within us, but that when we die our souls are reincarnated into new bodies and the shock of birth causes us to forget it all.  Education is therefore not about learning new facts, but about ‘unforgetting’, and the educator is not a teacher but a midwife.
“However, many later thinkers countered Plato’s theory, proposing that all knowledge cannot be innate ad that only a limited number of concepts can be.  These include the concept of God and also that of a perfect geometric structure, such as an equilateral triangle.  This type of knowledge, in their view, can be gained without any direct sensory experience, in the way that it is possible to devise a mathematical formula by using nothing more than the powers of reason and logic.
“Locke was against the idea that human beings possess any kind of innate knowledge.  He takes the view that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa – a blank tablet or a new sheet of paper upon which experience writes, in the same way that light can create images on photographic film.  According to Locke, we bring nothing to the process except the basic human ability to apply reason to the information that we gather through our senses.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

John Locke (1632-1704) is credited for providing much of the key phrases in the founding documents of the United States of America.  One of his statements was that we had inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property, changed to “pursuit of happiness” by the founding fathers.

My question is this: If these are inalienable rights, where did they come from?  If we learn them by experience, can they truly be inalienable?  One person’s experience is different than another’s and thus our conclusions may go in different directions.

John Locke, for what we can gather, was a devout Christian.  I am sure he read the Scriptures above.  He certainly quoted Scriptures in his writings.  How can the writers of the Bible write God-breathed words without “experiencing” them?  Of course, much of the Bible is recorded by eyewitness reports.  Even when experiencing a vision that may not physically be happening, it is still experience.  But there is a certain element, from the birth of Adam in that mankind have certain concepts breathed within us by God.

We do not have them from a reincarnated soul within ours that suddenly unforgets.  No, God gave us a certain moral sense, that tells us that when something is wrong, it is wrong.  Some of us are very good at ignoring that ‘voice”, but we all have that in our make-up.

The later philosophers in the Empiricist style (the Philosophy of Experience) felt that Locke had many contradictions within his philosophy.  Locke became so sidetracked in his ideas of a pure democracy that the bits and pieces of his philosophy that did not fit seemed minor to him.

Yet, in returning to his Christian roots, he could have seen the source for “some innate ideas.”  At least for one that includes the existence of God, another one of those things that people are born with yet learn to forget.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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