Epistemology – Empiricism Essay
Epistemology – Empiricism
An abstraction, by definition, is an idea created by the mind to refer to all objects which, possessing certain characteristics in common, are thought of in the same class. The number of objects in the class can range from two to infinity. We can refer to all men, all hurricanes, all books, all energy-forms—all everything. While abstraction-building is an inescapable mental process—in fact it is the first step in the organization of our knowledge of objects/events—a serious problem is inherent in the process.
Similarly, the football prediction does not tell us the actual outcome of the game. Experience of the world is required to know these things. The second kind of knowledge is a posteriori knowledge, or knowledge that is based on (or posterior to) experience. Similarly, the adjective empirical refers to anything that is based on experience. Any claims based on experience purport to add new information to the subject. Hence, “Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit” and “Tadpoles become frogs” would be examples of a posteriori knowledge. We know the freezing point of water and the life cycle of tadpoles through experience.
Thus far, most philosophers would agree on these points. The difficult question now arises: Is there any a priori knowledge that does give us knowledge about the real world? What would that be like? It would be knowledge expressible in a statement such that (a) its truth is not determined solely by the meaning of its terms and (b) it does provide information about the way the world is. Furthermore, since it is a priori, it would be knowledge that we could justify through reason, independently of experience. The question, then, is whether or not reason alone can tell us about the ultimate nature of reality. 1.
Is it possible to have knowledge at all? 2. Does reason provide us with knowledge of the world independently of experience? 3. Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Rationalism claims that reason or the intellect is the primary source of our fundamental knowledge about reality. Nonrationalists agree that we can use reason to draw conclusions from the information provided by sense experience. However, what distinguishes the rationalists is that they claim that reason can give us knowledge apart from experience.
Only through experience does that empty mind become filled with content. Various empiricists give different explanations of the nature of logical and mathematical truths. They are all agreed, however, that these truths are not already latent in the mind before we discover them and that there is no genuine a priori knowledge about the nature of reality. The empiricists would respond “No! ” to the second epistemological question. With respect to question 3, both the rationalists and the empiricists think that our knowledge does represent reality as it really is.
Constructivism is used in this discussion to refer to the claim that knowledge is neither already in the mind nor passively received from experience, but that the mind constructs knowledge out of the materials of experience. Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher, introduced this view. He was influenced by both the rationalists and the empiricists and attempted to reach a compromise between them. While Kant did not agree with the rationalists on everything, he did believe we can have a priori knowledge of the world as we experience it.
The story of Ludwig, the brain in the vat who experienced a false virtual reality, would be an example of this strategy. Another strategy is to suppose that there is an inherent flaw in human psychology such that our beliefs never correspond to reality. I call these possible scenarios universal belief falsifiers. The characteristics of a universal belief falsifier are (1) it is a theoretically possible state of affairs, (2) we have no way of knowing if this state of affairs is actual or not, and (3) if this state of affairs is actual, we would never be able to distinguish beliefs that are true from beliefs that seem to be true but are actually false. Note that the skeptic does not need to prove that these possibilities are actual.
theorists maintain) that his death was faked and that he lived a long life in South America after the war. The theme of the skeptic is that certainty is necessary for there to be knowledge, and if doubt is possible, then we do not have certainty. We now have the considerations in place that the skeptic uses to make his or her case. There are many varieties of skeptical arguments, each one exploiting some possible flaw in either human cognition or the alleged evidence we use to justify our beliefs. Instead of presenting various specific arguments, we can consider a “generic skeptical argument. ”
Generic Skeptical Argument 1. We can find reasons for doubting any one of our beliefs. 2. It follows that we can doubt all our beliefs. 3. If we can doubt all our beliefs, then we cannot be certain of any of them. 4. If we do not have certainty about any of our beliefs, then we do not have knowledge. 5. Therefore, we do not have knowledge. Pyrrho of Elis (360–270 B. C. ), a philosopher in ancient Greece, inspired a skeptical movement that bore his name (Pyrrhonian skepticism).
You can say, “The honey appears to me to be sweet” but not, “The honey is sweet. ” The best approach, according to these skeptics, was to suspend judgment whenever possible and make no assumptions at all. They believed that skeptical detachment would lead to serenity. “Don’t worry about what you cannot know,” they advised. Some skeptics distilled these arguments down into two simple theses. First, nothing is self-evident, for any axiom we start with can be doubted. Second, nothing can be proven, for either we will have an infinite regress of reasons that support our previous reasons or we will end up assuming what we are trying to prove.
Lacking any grounds for certainty, the skeptics claim we cannot have knowledge about the real world. Thus, the skeptics think that Descartes’s arguments for skepticism are stronger than his proposed answers. Such a philosopher was David Hume, whom we will encounter later when we examine empir EXAMINING THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF SKEPTICISM Positive Evaluation 1. Weeding a garden is not sufficient to make flowers grow, but it does do something valuable. In what way could the skeptics be viewed as providing a “philosophical weeding service” by undercutting beliefs that are naively taken for granted?
2. The skeptics are unsettling because they force us to reexamine our most fundamental beliefs. Is it better to live in naive innocence, never questioning anything, or is it sometimes worthwhile to have your beliefs challenged? Negative Evaluation 1. The skeptics make the following claim: “Knowledge is impossible. ” But isn’t this claim itself a knowledge claim that they declare is true? Is the skeptic being inconsistent? 2. The skeptics use the argument from illusion to show that we cannot trust our senses.
Reason Is the Primary or Most Superior Source of Knowledge about Reality According to the rationalist, it is through reason that we truly understand the fundamental truths about reality. For example, most rationalists would say the truths in the following lists are some very basic truths about the world that will never change. Although our experience certainly does illustrate most of these beliefs, our experiences always consist of par-ticular, concrete events. Hence, no experiences of seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, or touching specific objects can tell us that these statements will always be true for every future event we encounter.
The area of a triangle will always be one-half the length of the base times its height. If X is larger than Y and Y is larger than Z, then X is larger than Z. METAPHYSICAL TRUTHS Every event has a cause. An object with contradictory properties cannot exist. (No matter how long we search, we will never find a round square. ) ETHICAL PRINCIPLES Some basic moral obligations are not optional. It is morally wrong to maliciously torture someone for the fun of it. Sense Experience Is an Unreliable and Inadequate Route to Knowledge Rationalists typically emphasize the fact that sense experience is relative, changing, and often illusory.
An object will look one way in artificial light and will look different in sunlight. Our eyes seem to see water on the road on a hot day, but the image is merely an optical illusion. The rationalist claims that we need our reason to sort out what is appearance from what is reality. Although it is obvious that a rationalist could not get through life without some reliance on sense experience, the rationalist denies that sense experience is the only source of knowledge about reality. Furthermore, experience can tell us only about particular things in the world.
They are ideas or principles that the mind already contains prior to experience. The notion of innate ideas is commonly found in rationalistic philosophies, but it is rejected by the empiricists. The theory of innate ideas views the mind like a computer that comes from the factory with numerous programs already loaded on its disk, waiting to be activated. Hence, rationalists say that such ideas as the laws of logic, the concept of justice, or the idea of God are already contained deep within the mind and only need to be brought to the level of conscious awareness. Innate ideas should not be confused with instinct.
Instinct is a noncognitive set of mechanical behaviors, such as blinking the eyes when an object approaches them. The theory of innate ideas is one account of how we can have a priori knowledge. Other rationalists believe that if the mind does not already contain these ideas, they are, at least, either self-evident or natural to the mind and the mind has a natural predisposition to recognize them. For example, Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), a German rationalist, compared the mind to a block of marble that contains veins or natural splitting points that allow only one sort of shape to be formed within it.
Thus, the mind, like the marble, has an innate structure that results in “inclinations, dispositions, habits, or natural capacities” to think in certain ways. In contrast to this view, John Locke (a British empiricist) said: “There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. ” In response, Leibniz tagged the following rationalistic qualification at the end of Locke’s formula, “except for the intellect itself. ” Obviously, in saying that the mind contains rational ideas or dispositions, the rationalists do not believe a baby is thinking about the theorems of geometry.
Others simply claim that these principles or ideas naturally accompany rational minds such as ours. THE RATIONALISTS’ ANSWERS TO THE THREE EPISTEMOLOGICAL QUESTIONS Section 2. 0 contained three questions concerning knowledge: (1) Is knowledge possible? (2) Does reason provide us with knowledge of the world independently of experience? and (3) Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? While differing on the details, all the rationalists give the same answers to these three questions. First, they all believe that knowledge is possible. Generally, we are able to discern that some opinions are better than others.
For example, in the discipline of mathematics some answers are true and some are false. We could not know this fact if obtaining knowledge was impossible. Second, the rationalists agree that only through reason can we find an adequate basis for knowledge.
Thus, Plato would argue, these truths are objective and independent of our minds. But if they are independent of our minds, then they must refer to something that exists in reality. Although the number seven, for example, has objective properties that we discover, these properties are not physical. We do not learn the truths about numbers by seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, or touching them. From this concept, Plato concludes that the world of mathematics consists of a set of objective, mindindependent truths and a domain of nonphysical reality that we know only through reason. What about justice?
What color is it? How tall is it? How much does it weigh? Clearly, these questions can apply to physical things, but it is meaningless to describe justice in terms of observable properties. Furthermore, no society is perfectly just. Hence, we have never seen an example of perfect justice in human history, only frail, human attempts to approximate it. Because reason can contemplate Justice Itself,* we can evaluate the deficient, limited degrees of justice found in particular societies.
He says that in the world of sense experience we find that particulars fall into a number of stable, universal categories. Without these categories, we could not identify anything or talk about particulars at all. For example, Tom, Andre, Maria, and Lakatria are all distinct individuals, yet we can use the universal term human being to refer to each of them. In spite of their differences, something about them is the same. Corresponding to each common name (such as “human,” “dog,” “justice”) is a Universal that consists of the essential, common properties of anything within that category.
Circular objects (coins, rings, wreathes, planetary orbits) all have the Universal of Circularity in common. Particular objects that are beautiful (roses, seashells, persons, sunsets, paintings) all share the Universal of Beauty. Particulars come into being, change, and pass away but Universals reside in an eternal, unchanging world. The rose grows from a bud, becomes a beautiful flower, and then turns brown and ugly and fades away. Yet the Universal of Beauty (or Beauty Itself ) remains eternally the same.
Unless he could find something external to his mind that would guarantee that the contents of his mind represented reality, there was little hope for having any knowledge other than that of his own existence. Descartes sought this guarantee in an all-powerful, good God. Hence, Descartes says, “As soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver. For if I do not know this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else. ”12 If Descartes could prove that such a God exists, then he could know that knowledge is possible.
But notice how limited are the materials Descartes has at his disposal for proving God’s existence. He cannot employ an empirical argument based on the nature of the external world, for that is an issue that is still in doubt. So, he must construct a rationalistic argument that reasons only from the contents of his own mind. STOP AND THINK Descartes on the Role of Reason In the following passage from Meditation III, Descartes says the “natural light of reason” shows him that (1) something cannot arise from nothing and (2) there must be at least as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect.
• What examples does he use to illustrate each of these principles? • How does he apply these two principles to the existence of his own ideas? The argument that Descartes has given us in the previous passages can be summarized in this way: 1. Something cannot be derived from nothing. (In other words, all effects, including ideas, are caused by something. ) 2. There must be at least as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect. 3. I have an idea of God (as an infinite and perfect being). 4. The idea of God in my mind is an effect that was caused by something.
5. I am finite and imperfect, and thus I could not be the cause of the idea of an infinite and perfect God. 6. Only an infinite and perfect being could be the cause of such an idea. 7. Therefore, God (an infinite and perfect being) exists. THE THREE ANCHOR POINTS OF EMPIRICISM The Only Source of Genuine Knowledge Is Sense Experience The empiricists compare the mind to a blank tablet upon which experience makes its marks. Without experience, they claim, we would lack not only knowledge of the specific features of the world, but also the ability even to con.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 5 November 2016
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