Empiricism and Rationalism

The great philosopher and arbitrator of empiricism and rationalism, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) tried to bridge the gap between the empiricists and the rationalists. This entire discussion, that of the argument between empiricism and rationalism is wholly contained within epistemology: the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge. I am no philosopher, though I believe that the two go hand in hand. rationalism provides theory and empiricism provides the proof. In some cases, such as complex mathematical formulas, the entire proof is rational, so there are exceptions. Ultimately, I believe the two work hand-in-hand, they are complimentary, two sides of the same coin. To understand and appreciate the nature of knowledge is to begin to understand the nature of the universe. For what are we if not the made up of the elements found in the universe, a part of the universe, and in essence, the universe trying to understand itself?

It is ultimately a probe into the beginnings of our consciousness, and if we have a good grasp of the nature of our ability to know, then we will better grasp what may be knowable. Rationalists hold that knowledge can be gained a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently in the mind, independent of sense experience or observation. That deductive reasoning from intuition is a form of a priori knowledge; this idea comes from the rationalistic Intuition/Deduction Thesis. In modern times, this has been referred to as "Rationalistic Empiricism," or Pragmatism (research Charles Sanders Peirce and William James for more information on this.) Charles Peirce was very influential in laying the foundation for what is now referred to as the scientific method. Rationalism unchecked can get carried away with itself. In mathematics, one can intuit that 3 is greater than 2 and then by deductive reasoning can show that 3 is greater than 2, without any empirical experience. However, this process can also be used to intuit metaphysical notions things such as, we all have free will or that god exists, so, the more ephemeral the intuition and controversial the deduction, the more radical the rationalism (and the less grounded in reality it becomes).

In Justice, some use a near total Rationalistic ideal: to ask a jury to come to a verdict "beyond a reasonable doubt" is to set the bar of deduction high enough (but not so high) that the intuited proposition (that Mr. X committed the murder) can be satisfied by a certain specific amount deduction. Empiricists believe that knowledge is acquired a posteriori, that is through experience (sense perception) alone. They reject the idea that we have any innate knowledge at all, that the mind is what John Locke called a tabula rasa, a "white paper", or what we'd call a blank slate. Sense experience is our only source of ideas and knowledge. It is important to note that even John Locke (a staunch empiricist) adopted the rationalist notion of intuition/deduction thesis with respect to knowledge of god's existence (how amusing, though I personally wonder if this was a way to accommodate centuries of social conditioning about the truth of the existence of god.) Rationalists maintained that such experiential knowledge is open to Cartesian doubt (a form of philosophical skepticism whose purpose is to use doubt as a route to certain knowledge by finding those things which could not be doubted [1]) and that reason alone provides us with knowledge. Kant argues, however, that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to illusions, while experience will be purely subjective without first being subsumed under pure reason. Immanuel Kant is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of modern Europe and of the late Enlightenment, an age which had profound influence over our Founding Fathers. Kant created a new widespread perspective in philosophy which influenced philosophy through to the 21st Century.

He also published important works of epistemology (the study of knowledge, a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature, scope and limitations of knowledge), as well as works relevant to religion, law, and history. One of his most prominent works is the Critique of Pure Reason, an investigation into the limitations and structure of reason itself. It encompasses an attack on traditional metaphysics and epistemology, and highlights Kant's own contribution to these areas. The other main works of his maturity are the Critique of Practical Reason, which concentrates on ethics, and the Critique of Judgment, which investigates aesthetics and teleology. Teleology is a school of thought that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists. For more on teleology, see Wikipedia. Pursuing metaphysics involves asking questions about the ultimate nature of reality. Kant suggested that metaphysics can be reformed through epistemology. He suggested that by understanding the sources and limits of human knowledge we can ask fruitful metaphysical questions. He asked if an object can be known to have certain properties prior to the experience of that object and concluded that all objects about which the mind can think must conform to its manner of thought. Therefore if the mind can think only in terms of causality – which he concluded that it does – then we can know prior to experiencing them that all objects we experience must either be a cause or an effect. However, it follows from this that it is possible that there are objects of such nature which the mind cannot think, and so the principle of causality, for instance, cannot be applied outside of experience: hence we cannot know, for example, whether the world always existed or if it had a cause. And so the grand questions of speculative metaphysics cannot be answered by the human mind, but the sciences are firmly grounded in laws of the mind.

I will not attempt to cover Immanuel Kant's philosophy here, the purpose is a general introduction to some concepts influential to many great thinkers, as well as other concepts such as empiricism and rationalism. It's just to entertain thoughts of the nature of reality and what is knowable, as the beginning of the process to discuss some of life's very big questions. It is important to note that Ayn Rand had criticized Kant's philosophy, proposing Objectivist Epistemology, explaining that only by the method of reason can man gain knowledge (identification of the facts of reality). Objectivism also rejects faith and "feeling" as means of attaining knowledge. She defined "reason" as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses." Although Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion in humans, she maintained that emotion was a consequence of the conscious or subconscious ideas one already holds, not a means of achieving awareness of reality. Rand held that there is no "causeless knowledge," and on this basis argued against any form of mysticism, which she defined as "the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one's senses and reason." She continues, "Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'" According to Rand, to reach "knowledge" beyond what is given in sense-perception requires both volitional effort and adherence to a specific methodology of observation, concept-formation, and both inductive and deductive logic. A belief in "dragons" or "elves," however sincere, does not oblige reality to contain "dragons" or "elves," and a process of "proof" establishing the basis in reality of any claimed item of knowledge (if it cannot be directly observed) is a prerequisite to establishing its truth. On similar grounds, Rand rejected the arguments traditionally made by epistemological skeptics who argue against the possibility of knowledge "undistorted" by the form or the means of perception. Rand maintained that,

The attack on man's consciousness and particularly on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality, since it is "processed knowledge... . [But] All knowledge is processed knowledge — whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An "unprocessed" knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition.

Kant's arguments to the contrary, according to Rand, amount to saying: "man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others; therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind because he has eyes––deaf because he has ears––deluded because he has a mind––and the things he perceives do not exist because he perceives them." For Rand, consciousness, like anything that exists, must possess identity, and its operation requires a causal means of adhering to reality, such as logic. Unlike logic, mystical revelation, Tarot Cards, or any other equivalent of a Ouija board, simply bypass the requirement of demonstrating how it connects its results to reality, and such "methods," according to Rand are not a "short-cut" to knowledge at all, but a "short-circuit" destroying knowledge. By the same token, that consciousness has an identity, far from disqualifying its product, only grounds it in reality, and the skeptics' claim would invalidate the operation of any consciousness, whatever the means and form it utilized. To defend and explain her position on reason, she developed a theory of sense-perception that distinguishes between the form and the object of perception, holding that the form in which an organism perceives is determined by its physiological means of perception but that in whatever form it perceives, what it perceives —the object of its perception— is reality. She rejected the Kantian dichotomy between "things as we perceive them" and "things as they are in themselves." The validity of the senses, she held, is axiomatic: sense-perception, being physiologically determined, cannot make "mistakes" or err in responding to the facts of reality. Apparent errors, such as in "optical illusions", she regarded as errors in the conceptual identification of what is seen, not in the seeing itself.

What I think would be interesting to both Rand and Kant is recent research at the quantum level. Two groups of physicists, working independently, have demonstrated that nature is indeed real when unobserved. When no one is peeking, however, it acts in a really odd way. Reality in some circumstances does indeed act and look different when we are not observing it, and in what appears to be fact, is that the act of observation may indeed affect the observed. Indeed quantum mechanics is very much about how reality changes (from waves to particles) when either observed or unobserved. Perhaps I am the intellectual hack for trying to looking at these possibilities and borrowing so heavily from external sources, but for me, mixing, considering and blending these possibilities and enjoying the process is a life-affirming process. If all this does is create a state of introspection and curiosity for further investigation, then I have succeeded in bringing us all closer to an appreciation of the existence in which we find ourselves, even at the high price of heavily leveraged borrowing.

[Sources: Wikipedia, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]

Emmanuel L. Goldstein (yes, that Emmanuel Goldstein!)