By innate knowledge is meant that which is due to our constitution, as sentient, rational, and moral beings. It is opposed to knowledge founded on experience; to that obtained by ab extra instruction; and to that acquired by a process of research and reasoning.
It cannot be doubted that there is such knowledge, i.e., that the soul is so constituted that it sees certain things to be true immediately in their own light. They need no proof. Men need not be told or taught that the things thus perceived are true. These immediate perceptions are called intuitions, primary truths, laws of belief, innate knowledge, or ideas. Provided we understand what is meant, the designation is of minor importance. The doctrine of innate knowledge, or intuitive truths, does not imply that the child is born with knowledge in conscious exercise in the mind. As knowledge is a form or state of the intelligence, and as that is a state of consciousness, knowledge, in the sense of the act of knowing, must be a matter of consciousness; and, therefore, it is said, cannot be innate. The new-born child has no conscious conviction of the existence of God. But the word knowledge is sometimes used in a passive sense. A man knows what lies dormant in his mind. Most of our knowledge is in that state. All the facts of history stored in the memory, are out of the domain of consciousness, until the mind is turned to them. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the soul as it comes into the world may be stored with these primary truths which lie dormant in the mind, until roused by the due occasion. This, however, is not what is meant by innate knowledge. The word innate simply indicates the source of the knowledge. That source is our nature; that which is born with us. Nor does the doctrine of innate knowledge imply that the mind is born with ideas, in the sense of “patterns, phantasms, or notions,” as Locke calls them; nor that it is furnished by nature with a set of abstract principles, or general truths. All that is meant is, that the mind is so constituted that it perceives certain things to be true without proof and without instruction.
These intuitive truths belong to the several departments of the senses, the understanding, and our moral nature. In the first place, all our sense perceptions are intuitions. We apprehend their objects immediately, and have an irresistible conviction of their reality and truth. We may draw erroneous conclusions from our sensations; but our sensations, as far as they go, tell us the truth. When a man feels pain, he may refer it to the wrong place, or to a wrong cause; but he knows that it is pain. If he sees an object, he may be mistaken as to its nature; but he knows that he sees, and that what he sees is the cause of the sensation which he experiences. These are intuitions, because they are immediate perceptions of what is true. The conviction which attends our sensations is due not to instruction but to the constitution of our nature.
In the second place, there are intuitions of the intellect. That is, there are certain truths which the mind perceives to be true immediately, without proof or testimony. Such are the axioms of geometry. No man needs to have it proved to him that the part of a thing is less than the whole; or that a straight line is the shortest distance between two given points. It is an intuitive truth that “nothing” cannot be a cause; that every effect must have a cause. This conviction is not founded on experience, because experience is of necessity limited. And the conviction is not merely that every effect which we or other men have observed has had a cause; but that in the nature of things there can be no effect without an adequate cause. This conviction is said to be an innate truth, not because the child is born with it so that it is included in its infant consciousness, nor because the abstract principle is laid up in the mind, but simply because such is the nature of the mind, that it cannot but see these things to be true. As we are born with the sense of touch and sight, and take cognizance of their appropriate objects as soon as they are presented; so we are born with the intellectual faculty of perceiving these primary truths as soon as they are presented.
In the third place, there are moral truths which the mind intuitively recognizes as true. The essential distinction between right and wrong; the obligation of virtue; responsibility for character and conduct; that sin deserves punishment; are examples of this class of truths. No man needs to be taught them. No one seeks for further evidence of their being truths than that which is found in their nature.
There is another remark to be made in reference to the intuitions of the mind. The power of intuitional perception is capable of being increased. It is in fact greater in one man than in other men. The senses of some persons are far more acute than those of others. The senses of hearing and touch are greatly exalted in the case of the blind. It is the same with the intellect. What is self-evident to one man, has to be proved to another. It is said that all the propositions of the First Book of Euclid were as plain at first sight to Newton as the axioms. The same is true in our moral and religious nature. The more that nature is purified and exalted, the clearer is its vision, and the wider the scope of its intuitions. It is not easy to see, therefore, why Sir William Hamilton should make simplicity a characteristic of intuitive truths. If a proposition be capable of resolution into simpler factors, it may still to a powerful intellect be seen as self-evidently true. What is seen immediately, without the intervention of proof, to be true, is, according to the common mode of expression, said to be seen intuitively.
It is, however, only of the lower exercises of this power that we can avail ourselves in our arguments with our fellow men. Because a truth may be self-evident to one mind, it does not follow that it must be so to all other minds. But there is a class of truths so plain that they never fail to reveal themselves to the human mind, and to which the mind cannot refuse its assent. Hence the criteria of those truths which are accepted as axioms, and which are assumed in all reasoning, and the denial of which renders all faith and all knowledge impossible, are universality and necessity. What all believe, and what all men must believe, is to be assumed as undeniably true. These criteria indeed include each other. If a truth be universally admitted, it must be because no man can rationally call it to question. And if it be a matter of necessary belief, it must be accepted by all who possess the nature out of the constitution of which the necessity arises.
Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic theology (Vol. 1, pp. 191–194). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
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