Chapter 1 of Shawn Ritenour’s Foundations of Economics differs greatly from the opening chapter of nearly every other economic text I’ve ever seen, not just because it approaches the discipline from an explicitly Christian perspective, but also because it’s devoted to the epistemological and methodological foundations of the discipline. In the Mises University lecture I discussed in an earlier post, Guido Hülsmann pointed out that a shortcoming of mainstream economics is its unwillingness to confront these issues. For example, mainstream economists often insist on a strict empirical approach to the examination of economic phenomena while overlooking the obvious problem that human choices, the basis of all economic activity, cannot be apprehended by the senses.
Ritenour confronts the epistemological question directly by discussing four different theories of knowledge:
- Skepticism: knowledge is impossible
- Relativism: different people/groups/cultures have different truths, all of which are true
- Empiricism: knowledge comes only through the senses
- (Biblical) apriorism: divine revelation as found in the Bible provides the basis of knowledge
After pointing out problems with each of the first three theories (the first two can easily end up in self-contradiction, whereas the third makes a universal claim without sufficient data), Ritenour argues that Biblical apriorism is the only theory of knowledge that avoids these pitfalls while also forging a necessary connection between the real world and the mental categories which the human mind uses to think.
As I was reading through this section, I kept on thinking, “This discussion could be a lot more nuanced.” After finishing the chapter, though, I finally remembered that this text is intended for college freshmen studying economics, not a philosophy text. I finally decided that this chapter would be a decent way to address the issue of epistemology the first week of class to give students a reason for accepting the truth of economic laws that would come later in the semester.
An acceptance of Biblical apriorism gives us the following ideas:
- God is rational.
- God is omniscient.
- God acts purposefully.
- Human beings are made in God’s image.
- Thus, human beings can be rational, know things, and act purposefully.
The last proposition above is essential for the study of economics. Also, the Biblical doctrine of God as an orderly being implies the orderliness of creation, and for economics to work we must have confidence that we can in fact discover natural and social regularities.
No doubt, non-Christians won’t be persuaded by any of this. But in this situation, as with Anselm, faith is seeking understanding, not the other way around.