Descartes, Pascal, and Reformed Epistemology: Re-evaluating epistemology

When Pilate uttered the question, “Quid est veritas” he asked a question that many have attempted to answer, three of which – Descartes, Pascal, and Reformed Epistemologists – have given answers that have shaped modern thought. From the time of Emperor Constantine’s establishment of a sacral system to the beginning of the Enlightenment, epistemology was almost taken for granted. For the philosopher, one merely relied upon tradition, scripture, and papal decrees to know what was true about the universe; the layman merely accept what the scholastic philosopher or bishop said. After the Reformation, it was savvy to question the established way of thinking. On this scene came Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, who taught the philosopher to question everything and doubt all preconceived notions. He elevated man’s reasoning in the hopes of finding a unified system to discover truth. In response to Descartes was Pascal’s approach of recognizing the fallen nature of reason without quantification to its importance. In between the two is Reformed Epistemology, teaching that man is both significant, reasonable, and capable of knowing truth, while paradoxically insignificant, unreasonable, and incapable of living truth. Thus, Pilate’s question, “Quid est veritas,” is one that has been asked for quite some time.

Descartes’ Unified Epistemology and How Man Can Know Truth

Descartes taught that no one could claim to know truth without first doubting one’s presuppositions and approaches to truth – that is, before one can come up with a method to knowing truth, one must first deconstruct one’s worldview and rebuild it from the ground up.[1] Descartes believed that all knowledge of truth was gained a posteriori and subsequently could be faulty. He observed that people who lived differently from him were not necessarily savages, but that, “…many of them use their reason either as much as or even more than we do…Thus our own convictions result from custom and example very much more than from any knowledge that is certain.[2]” Descartes believed in deconstructing his knowledge primarily because he felt culture influenced one’s epistemology and understanding of truth. Man did not know things because there was an innate sense of truth within him – which had been the epistemological stance via Platonism – but instead, man understood “truth” through his own experiences, and often these understandings of “truth” were more cultural than rational. Therefore, for a person to know truth, according to Descartes, he would have to eliminate all that he had learned in order to rebuild a true system.

Removing everything, however, could prove a problem for any knowledge, as certain presuppositions are needed. Descartes answered this problem by stating mathematics and natural science (physics) were the two criteria that could be left unquestioned. In fact, as Tom Sorell has stated, Descartes taught that for a philosopher to begin any system for understanding truth, he would have to begin with mathematics and physics[3]. For Descartes, the only unquestionable absolutes in the world that simply could not be deconstructed came from mathematics and physics. He did not, however, allow for this to lead into any form of complexity. Descartes wholly accepted Ockham’s Razor and attempted to make all systems of epistemology simple – in this belief, he taught that the natural order of things (physics) was the simplest way to know “absolute truth.”[4]

By stating that absolutes can be summed up in mathematics and physics, Descartes essentially made sense integration and use of the five senses as the only epistemological test for truth claims. If one culture states that cupcakes are healthy, but a different culture believes cupcakes are unhealthy, a person need not use speculative reasoning to discover an answer. According to Descartes model, one would merely need to observe and test the healthiness of the cupcake to determine which culture was correct. If there is no evidence either way and only speculative reasoning can be applied – that is, reasoning without physical or mathematical evidence – then neither culture can really claim truth, but can only embrace their opinion.

Believing in a simple approach to epistemology, Descartes ultimately had no choice except to support a split between reason and faith, eventually paving the way for Deism. As a believer in Ockham’s Razor, Descartes had to accept the simplest yet most absolute explanation for any situation. In Descartes system this was accomplished by mathematics, physics, and the deconstruction of a posteriori knowledge. Though Descartes argued his system could still prove God existed, this belief would still have to be very minimalistic. When applied to religion, the only thing that can be known about God must come through verifiable evidence – all things must have a beginning, we can verify that all things have a beginning, thus nothing can truly be eternal, thus all things must have a creator, and thus God exists. Though this provides grounds for theism, it does not explain if God is a jealous God, a loving God, a God of justice, and so on. The attributes of God simply do not fall into Descartes’ epistemological method for truth, thus they cannot properly be applied. Though Descartes was attempting to provide a new outlook to epistemology and strengthen the weakened religious view of the seventeenth century, he aided in the split between faith and reason.

As Francis Schaeffer has pointed out, modern (Enlightenment) epistemology led to an “upper story” and a “lower story” in thinking[5]. The upper story is characterized as being the way people live, but with no absolutes. The upper story is a non-absolute area where judgments are based on tastes and personal experiences, not on objective and propositional truth claims that are to dictate life. The lower story is full of absolutes – that which can be proven via Descartes’ reasoning with mathematics and physics – but is often cold and contradictory to the experience of life. Descartes unwittingly placed faith in the upper story while placing nature in the lower story. Nature, in Descartes’ world, replaced God as an absolute. Though Descartes argued that God could be proven from nature, this still made God contingent upon nature and the knowledge of God very basic; most of the faith was still placed in the upper story. Ultimately, because of the divide, faith could not be considered reasonable.

One of the major consequences of Descartes’ philosophy is that it gave an unhealthy elevation to man’s ability to reason. Descartes gave the philosophical world the famous phrase cognito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). By stating this, Descartes elevated human reasoning to a position of almost infallibility – man’s ability to think was the starting point for belief in man’s existence. The problem in elevating the intellect is that it opened the door for worshiping the mind, or intellectualism. Man’s rationality is so much like God’s that many extremists, such as Spinoza, claim that God is actually participating in every thought[6]. Though Descartes would have a problem with such a mentality, he would not be able to honestly argue against such thinking, as he elevated the human intellect to the point of quasi-infallibility. Descartes’ view ignores the mind’s inability to grasp certain truths and elevates it beyond a justifiable point in a post-Fall world; reasoning was viewed as almost untouched by the Fall.

The second problem with Descartes’ epistemological view in understanding truth is his willingness to deconstruct prior beliefs. Unfortunately, by allowing people to question everything, Descartes opens Pandora’s Box. Who is to say that Descartes did not take the concept of “de omnibus dubitandum” far enough? What if Nietzsche is correct that most philosophers do not go far enough in their doubt[7]? In fact, Nietzsche is correct – if Descartes’ epistemological method is to be accepted – in that doubting is not taken far enough. In the modern (chronologically) day, Derrida has taken Descartes’ system of doubt and applied it to everything. As John Caputo has observed, “For Derrida, philosophical questioning, proceeding from the basis of a technical specialty, tends to shade off into the larger space of a general deconstructive thinking which, taken in its broadest sense, means the unfettered freedom to think, the right to ask any question.[8]” Though this seems innocent, when applied to deconstruction, one is no longer allowed to answer with a positive response. Thus, though the question, “Does God love us?” is a legitimate question, under the intellectually honest conclusions of Descartes’ epistemology, one cannot answer the question with “yes,” but can merely say, “God does not hate.” Under such questioning, one can only say what is not (negation) and not what is (positivism). By opening everything to question, and forbidding presuppositions, Descartes merely left people with the ability to question, but not to answer.

The Response of Blaise Pascal

Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, took the opposite view of Descartes and chose to limit the human will and ability to reason. While Descartes relied upon a solid human capacity to reason, Pascal believed there was no reason to elevate man’s capacity to reason as man was fallen and therefore incapable of a unified system of thought[9]. In man’s fallibility, truth was elusive and difficult to grasp. In fact, man’s ability to recognize truth was in a form of limbo for Pascal, as Albert Wells states, “The human mind is incapable either of certain knowledge or of absolute ignorance. The mind too is in this median position, unable to penetrate it by its own power beyond the ‘appearance of the middle of things.’ We search for stability and find to impossible to obtain[10].” Though under this view faith did not contradict reason, it hardly complimented it either[11]. The mind, therefore, was fallen and though it could grasp some concepts of truth, it could not overcome its fallen nature[12].

Ultimately, Pascal developed two different views of truth – one was truth that came from God and was unknown to man and the other was how man understood truth[13]. The first view is truth as God understands it, in all comprehensiveness, as that truth flows from Him. This truth can only be glimpsed at by man, but cannot be understood. The second type is how man understands truth. In this, the Fall ruins man’s ability to see and understand truth, thus he takes small portions and attempts to make an absolute out of an unknown. Pascal does, however, teach that man can seek after the first truth, but he will only find it partially[14].

Truth, for Pascal, was something that could not ultimately be reduced to propositions or a unified form of thought. While Descartes attempted to establish a method for understanding truth (as previously discussed), Pascal believed that truth was something passionately sought after with no method[15]. The only way to find truth is to love it – without this love there can be no recognition[16]. This speaks directly against Descartes’ system of epistemology. While Descartes taught the importance of mathematics and physics in discovering truth, Pascal was teaching that truth flowed from God and was confirmed in the believer’s experience of that truth. Only those that loved truth and truly sought after it could possibly find it – it was not available to philosophers that wanted to play games, but instead was available to paupers and princes, anyone who loved truth and was willing to seek after it. It was not a proposition to be discovered, but a lover to be found.

The inherent problem with Pascal is there is no quantification to what man can and cannot know. Though his ideas are highly romanticized and do counteract Descartes’ over emphasis on reason, he fails to describe how much the Fall affected man’s status in knowing truth and, more importantly, how truth is imparted onto man in the modern day. Pascal seems to say that when reason ends, faith begins, but this begs the question of where such a transition occurs. Does faith begin when one believes there is a God, or does it begin when one believes he holds the capacity to reason? Descartes was at least strong on what could and could not be known; Pascal offers no such luxury.

The bigger problem is that Pascal still accepts Descartes’ presupposition that reasoning is a tool of man. Pascal puts a limited ability on man’s ability to reason toward the truth because, ultimately, he views reasoning as something men do, not something imparted onto men by God. This is where Descartes began his beliefs and why he believed in a need to question everything brought to him, this is also why Pascal must accept some form of a leap of faith and must devalue reason – reason is placed below Revelation because reasoning is viewed as secular while Revelation is viewed as supernatural. Reasoning is manmade while Revelation is God given.

The Reformed Solution

There is one view that began during the Reformation, but has been revived and popularized in the modern day which can possibly solve the problems raised by Pascal and Descartes. Reformed epistemology teaches that knowledge and the ability to reason toward truth is an innate concept placed within man by God. While Descartes taught that man’s reasoning would ultimately lead to an understanding of absolutes and Pascal taught man’s reasoning was fallen, Reformed epistemology teaches that, though fallen, man’s ability to reason is not totally lost and can lead to an understanding of truth.

Alvin Plantinga, the modern day proponent of Reformed epistemology, has stated that the cornerstone for such thinking is that the belief in God is basic in all humans, which drives the way they view the world[17]. Since all men are created in the image of God, and since all men have an innate desire to know God, it can therefore be concluded that God placed a way to know Him (truth) within all men. Reasoning, under Reformed epistemology, no longer becomes a tool used and invented by man, but instead becomes a tool that God uses to help man communicate with Him that man sometimes fails to use properly. Views that deny the one true God are not rational, but are ultimately irrational. The more rational a person is, in Reformed Epistemology, the closer to God he is[18]. Since man has the innate desire to know God, man has the innate ability to reason.

Reformed epistemology accepts two types of knowledge, much as Pascal did, but with certain reservations: the natural and the supernatural. As Brian Follis writes, “Calvin speaks of a double knowledge: the ‘simple and primitive knowledge to which the mere course of nature would have conducted us, had Adam stood upright’ and the saving knowledge revealed through Scripture that focuses upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty due to us, by which ‘salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness’[19].” According to Calvin, the natural view is what man was to be guided by from the beginning, but this view was tarnished by the Fall. God must then reveal Himself in creation in order to enlighten man to the natural view that was apparent from the beginning. Therefore, man can know the physical world through the natural sciences, but he can also understand the supernatural world through his ability to reason and also to interpret the signs within the natural universe.

Some would object and say that Calvin believed in the total depravity of man and was thus incapable of supporting any form of rationality, but this objection is wrong. Though Calvin taught that man was fallen, he taught that only in a spiritual sense – his relationship to God – was man totally fallen; man’s ability to reason was damaged, but still remained intact and useful[20]. Though Pascal taught man’s reasoning was fallen, Calvin taught man’s ability to understand true reasoning was damaged, but still useful, even to the point of salvation[21]. Man was, therefore, not only able to know truth, but has truth instilled in him from his birth. Calvin taught that man’s understanding of this truth would be incomplete, but it would still exist.

Finally, Reformed epistemology teaches a concept that both Descartes and Pascal missed – all truth, knowledge, and reasoning extends from God and not from within man. Descartes taught that man could know truth under his own power and Pascal taught man could only look at truth blindly. Reformed epistemology teaches that all truth comes from God and is naturally revealed within man due to God’s grace[22]. Reformed epistemologists tend to take John 14:6 quite seriously in teaching that all truth comes from Christ, thus truth can be known experientially and propositionally. Most importantly, however, is that subjectivity within truth is eliminated within Reformed epistemology. Descartes taught that man could only know things absolutely that could be defined physically or mathematically. Reformed epistemology teaches that man can know anything through his ability to reason, which was given to him by God. Pascal taught that man could not reason properly due to the Fall, thus what might be sinful to one person could be permissible to another. Reformed epistemology teaches that there is a way to know what a sin (an offense to God) is and what is merely unwise for a person (a non-sin). Overall, reformed epistemology acknowledges that God is sovereign over all things, including truth, and placed this truth within man.


One should ultimately conclude and side with the Reformed epistemologist when discussing Pascal and Descartes. Descartes system eliminates any attempt at knowing God in a personal manner, or at least knowing Him propositionally. Pascal, alternatively, teaches an experiential view of truth that can, unfortunately, often be more subjective than Pascal probably attempted. The solution is the Reformed epistemology, which teaches there is a natural knowledge that aids in knowing truth, but this was placed on man by God. God created man, a rational creature – it only makes sense that even after the fall, God would allow man to be rational and know truth. After all, as the Gospel of John states Jesus is the truth – if the truth cannot be known or is obscure, then one must conclude that Jesus cannot be known and is likewise obscure. Only the Reformed viewpoint can avoid this and allow the believer to know the truth propositionally and experientially.

[1] Descartes, Renè, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, trans. Desmond Clarke (London: Penguin, 1999), 13.

[2] Ibid. 14-15

[3] Tom Sorell, Descartes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schaeffer, Francis, The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilology: The Three Essential Books in One Volume, ed. Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1968), 234.

[6] Benedict de Spinoza, The Philosophy of the Body: Rejections of Cartesian Dualism, ed. Stuart F. Spicker (Chicago: Stuart F. Spicker, 1970), 28.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Marion Faber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6.

[8] John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 56.

[9] Albert Wells, Pascal’s Recovery of Man’s Wholeness (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965), 51.

[10] Ibid. 86

[11] Pascal, Blaise, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained, ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 23.

[12] Ibid. 98

[13] Nicholas Hammond, Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal’s Pensées (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 209.

[14] Kreeft, Christianity For Modern Pagans, 210

[15] Ibid. 212

[16] Ibid. 216

[17] J.P. and Craig Moreland, William Lane, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 162.

[18] This is not based on intellectualism or rationalism as the term is much different than in those two beliefs. Instead, what is being implied is that true rationality comes from God and is not from man. Thus, any claim that is made outside of what God has revealed is ultimately irrational, no matter how rational man might make it attempt to appear.

[19] Brian Follis, Truth With Love: Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 22.

[20] Ibid. 20

[21] Calvin did not teach that one could rationalize oneself to salvation – this would have gone against his soteriological viewpoint. He did teach, however, that God can use the mind in order to break down presuppositions and bring a person to truth.

[22] Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: WMB. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 56.


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