Philosophical Battles Empiricism Rationalism

Philosophical Battles: Empiricism versus
Questions for reflection (300 words minimum):
To what extent do you agree with the perspective of empiricism?
To what extent do you agree with the perspective of rationalism?
Which of these two perspectives do you agree with more?
The history of philosophy has seen many warring camps fighting battles over some major issue
or other. One of the major battles historically has been over the foundations of all our
knowledge. What is most basic in any human set of beliefs? What are our ultimate starting points
for any world view? Where does human knowledge ultimately come from?
Empiricists have always claimed that sense experience is the ultimate starting point for all our
knowledge. The senses, they maintain, give us all our raw data about the world, and without this
raw material, there would be no knowledge at all. Perception starts a process, and from this
process come all our beliefs. In its purest form, empiricism holds that sense experience alone
gives birth to all our beliefs and all our knowledge. A classic example of an empiricist is the
British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).
It's easy to see how empiricism has been able to win over many converts. Think about it for a
second. It's interestingly difficult to identify a single belief that you have that didn't come your
way by means of some sense experience — sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste. It's natural,
then, to come to believe that the senses are the sole source and ultimate grounding of belief.
But not all philosophers have been convinced that the senses fly solo when it comes to producing
belief. We seem to have some beliefs that cannot be read off sense experience, or proved from
any perception that we might be able to have. Because of this, there historically has been a
warring camp of philosophers who give a different answer to the question of where our beliefs
ultimately do, or should, come from.
Rationalists have claimed that the ultimate starting point for all knowledge is not the senses but
reason. They maintain that without prior categories and principles supplied by reason, we
couldn't organize and interpret our sense experience in any way. We would be faced with just
one huge, undifferentiated, kaleidoscopic whirl of sensation, signifying nothing. Rationalism in
its purest form goes so far as to hold that all our rational beliefs, and the entirety of human
knowledge, consists in first principles and innate concepts (concepts that we are just born
having) that are somehow generated and certified by reason, along with anything logically
deducible from these first principles.
How can reason supply any mental category or first principle at all? Some rationalists have
claimed that we are born with several fundamental concepts or categories in our minds ready for
use. These give us what the rationalists call "innate knowledge." Examples might be certain
categories of space, of time, and of cause and effect.
We naturally think in terms of cause and effect. And this helps organize our experience of the
world. We think of ourselves as seeing some things cause other things to happen, but in terms of
our raw sense experience, we just see certain things happen before other things, and remember
having seen such before-and-after sequences at earlier times. For example, a rock hits a window,
and then the window breaks. We don't see a third thing called causation. But we believe it has
happened. The rock hitting the window caused it to break. But this is not experienced like the
flight of the rock or the shattering of the glass. Experience does not seem to force the concept of
causation on us. We just use it to interpret what we experience. Cause and effect are categories
that could never be read out of our experience and must therefore be brought to that experience
by our prior mental disposition to attribute such a connection. This is the rationalist perspective.
Rationalist philosophers have claimed that at the foundations of our knowledge are propositions
that are self-evident, or self-evidently true. A self-evident proposition has the strange property of
being such that, on merely understanding what it says, and without any further checking or
special evidence of any kind, we can just intellectually "see" that it is true. Examples might be
such propositions as:
Any surface that is red is colored.
If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.
The claim is that, once these statements are understood, it takes no further sense experience
whatsoever to see that they are true.
Descartes was a thinker who used skeptical doubt as a prelude to constructing a rationalist
philosophy. He was convinced that all our beliefs that are founded on the experience of the
external senses could be called into doubt, but that with certain self-evident beliefs, like "I am
thinking," there is no room for creating and sustaining a reasonable doubt. Descartes then tried to
find enough other first principles utterly immune to rational doubt that he could provide an
indubitable, rational basis for all other legitimate beliefs.
Philosophers do not believe that Descartes succeeded. But it was worth a try. Rationalism has
remained a seductive idea for individuals attracted to mathematics and to the beauties of unified
theory, but it has never been made to work as a practical matter.
THE EMPIRICISTS: Empiricists share the view that there is no such thing as innate
knowledge, and that instead knowledge is derived from experience (either sensed via the
five senses or reasoned via the brain or mind). Locke, Berkeley, and Hume are
empiricists (though they have verydifferent views about metaphysics).
THE RATIONALISTS: Rationalists share the view that there is innate knowledge;
they differ in that they choose different objects of innate knowledge. Plato is a
rationalist because he thinks that we have innate knowledge of the Forms [mathematical
objects and concepts (triangles, equality, largeness), moral concepts (goodness, beauty,
virtue, piety), and possibly color – he doesn’t ever explicitly state that there are Forms of
colors]; Descartes thinks that the idea of God, or perfection and infinity, and knowledge
of my own existence is innate; G.W. Leibniz thinks that logical principles are innate; and
Noam Chomsky thinks that the ability to use language (e.g., language rules) is innate.
1. Empiricism is Simpler: Compared to Empiricism, Rationalism has one more
entity that exists: Innate knowledge. According to the Empiricist, the innate
knowledge is unobservable and inefficacious; that is, it does
not do anything. The knowledge may sit there, never being
used. Using Ockham’s Razor (= when deciding between competing theories
that explain the same phenomena, the simpler theory is better),1 Empiricism is
the better theory.
2. Colors: How would you know what the color blue looks like if you were born
blind? The only way to come to have the idea of blue is to experience it with
your senses. (This objection only works possibly against Plato; see the
introduction above again to see why this objection would not faze Descartes,
Leibniz, or Chomsky.)
3. Imagination and Experience: How can we get the idea of perfect
triangularity? We can extrapolate from our experience with crooked, sensible
triangles and use our imagination to straighten out what is crooked and see what
perfect triangularity is.
4. Rationalists have been Wrong about Their “Innate Knowledge”: Some
medieval rationalists claimed that the notion of a vacuum was rationally absurd
and hence it was impossible for one to exist. However, we have shown that it is
possible.2 Reason is not the only way to discover the truth about a matter.
5. The Advance of Science: Much of science is founded on empiricist principles,
and would not have advanced without it. If we base our conclusions about the
world on empiricism, we can change our theories and improve upon them and see
our mistakes. A rationalist seems to have to say that we’ve discovered innate
knowledge and then be embarrassed if he or she is ever wrong (see examples
such as the vacuum, above).
6. All Rationalists do Not Agree about Innate Knowledge: Rationalists claim
that there is innate knowledge that gives us fundamental truths about reality, but
even among rationalists (e.g., Plato, who believes in reincarnation and Forms and
Descartes, who does not believe in either butdoes believe in a soul), there is
disagreement about the nature of reality, the self, etc. How can this be, if there is
innate knowledge of these things?
1. Math and Logic are Innate: Doesn’t it seem that mathematical and logical
truths are true not because of our five senses, but because of reason’s ability to
connect ideas?
2. Morality is Innate: How do we get a sense of what right and wrong are with our
five senses? Since we cannot experience things like justice, human rights, moral
duties, moral good and evil with our five senses, what can the empiricist’s ethical
theory like? Hume (an empiricist) says morality is based solely on emotions;
Locke says experience can provide us with data to show what is morally right and
wrong, but does it seem that way to you?
3. Verifying Empiricism: Locke (an empiricist) says that our experiences tell us
about the nature of reality, but how can we ever check our experience with what
reality really is, in order to know that? Rationalists do not think we can, so we
have to rely on reason.
4. Poverty of Stimulus Problem: Three year olds use language in ways that they
are not explicitly taught. For example, they form original sentences from words
that they haven’t heard put together in precisely that way before. Also, they start
to understand grammatical rules before they even know what a noun or a verb
is. If we can only say what we’ve heard said by others, how can three year olds
speak as well as they do? This is known as the poverty of stimulus problem. You
may think that Rationalism is strange, but it does a better job of explaining this
problem than Empiricism. One way of choosing which of two theories is better
(in addition to or instead of Ockham’s Razor – see Empiricism point #1 above) is
asking, “Which theory explains the phenomena better?”1
5. Empiricism Undermines Creativity? According to Empiricism, you can
combine things, separate them, and nothing else. With Rationalism, we come to
experience with ready-made tools for creativity. E.g., Plato would say that we’re
in touch with abstract, immutable realities, which provide lots of material with
which to create.
6. Controllable Humans? According to Empiricism, human beings can be
controlled and manipulated exceptionally easily. If we are nothing other than
what we experience, then we should be able to be made to do whatever we’re
taught. Rationalism has it that there is an invariable core (call it “human nature”)
that refuses to be manipulated, which is what makes us unique.