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Rationalism vs. Empiricism (stanford.edu)
66 points by lainon 124 days ago | hide | past | web | 55 comments | favorite



It's always astonishing to me how many well-educated people actually conflate "Reason" (rationalism at its extreme) and empirical/experimental investigation (empiricism at its extreme.) At humanist meetings I attended - and in their writings - nothing was more common than to declare the importance of "reason" when pointing instead to empirical methods (that contradict the elaborate reasoned arguments of Medieval Monks or intelligent design proponents.) The ancient Roman Church didn't shy away from reason, they adored it.

Reason and empiricism would best be described as ancient enemies, not as the same thing.


That's only part of the story -- the theoretically pure version, but not how it plays in practice.

The real lowdown is that Empiricism itself is nothing at all without Reason.

There are no "pure observations". There are only observations as understood and analyzed by reason.

Without a conceptual framework (which requires reason/logic etc) there are just a bunch of things happening one after another or simultaneously in 4D space.

Empiricism is not the "ancient enemy" of Reason, but it's complimentary.

That's why from Physics to anthropology, and all kind of hard sciences, use both observations AND math, logic and conceptual frameworks to discover, evaluate and express their findings.


Yes, there's an extensive bibliography that follows - which only makes me more confounded that most educated people haven't even begun the journey (or have skipped the first distinction.)

While reason could be complementary, that's NOT what Rationalism is, and it's not what the humanists I keep encountering say or write, either - it may be the position they would retreat to if pressed, but it's absolutely not what they say.

Reason has so often been the refuge of the enemies of empiricism. That it shouldn't be this way is true, but careful you don't fall into a "No true Scotsman argument," here; since the complementary view is not an accurate look either at history or of much of academia now, in my experience.

Too-quickly assuming complentarity (as de facto true or worse logically true) is precisely how many people fall into the trap of conflating the two very distinct things.


>Reason has so often been the refuge of the enemies of empiricism. That it shouldn't be this way is true, but careful you don't fall into a "No true Scotsman argument," here; since the complementary view is not an accurate look either at history or of much of academia now, in my experience. Too-quickly assuming complentarity (as de facto true or worse logically true) is precisely how many people fall into the trap of conflating the two very distinct things.

The thing is, what academia or those people you mention say about Reason and/or Empiricism doesn't matter that much.

It's what people (e.g. actual scientists doing research) do that matters. And what they do is clearly using them complementary.

Just because there are theories that posit that it's either all A or all B, and people ascribe to them, it doesn't mean that it's indeed all A or all B. Or that a pure A/pure B even exists.


Please read up on the last century of history of science - in particular the Copenhagen Interpretation and for more recent history, Lee Smolin's "The Trouble with Physics." The history of science is replete with examples of reason being mistaken for empirical fact, and this seems to be becoming more common, not less.


It seems like observation must exist before reason because many forms of life (including plants) implement a basic observe-decide-act loop.

Reason and the rationalization that preceded it aren't necessary for a single organism to make decisions. It's only when communicating that persuasion and justification come into play.

Logic and math can be thought of as a particularly rigorous form of rationalization that's intended to be universally useful and persuasive, by stripping away unnecessary dependencies on time, place, and community. But local decision-making doesn't need this; it can and usually does cheat using unjustifiable heuristics.


> There are no "pure observations". There are only observations as understood and analyzed by reason.

There is no measure of the accuracy of knowledge about what correct "reasoning" is without empirical observation of minds and their physical makeup (e.g. psychology, neuroscience). How do you know you or the whole of humanity isn't mentally "color-blind," so to speak, without empiricism? You can't.

Rationalism pits reason against empiricism. Empiricism says that observation is necessary to build a firm foundation of reason.


>How do you know you or the whole of humanity isn't mentally "color-blind," so to speak, without empiricism? You can't.

How do you know colors aren't an illusion, and that empirical observation reflects the true nature of reality? Through accepting several rational arguments.


Even more, both positions view a self as single entity making logical deductions.

All the theories of divided self, all the theories of divided behavior as automatic and/or conditioned responses, all the theories of humans as inherently irrational, etc lie outside of both of these approaches.

Essentially, these are approaches that hew closely to the mainline of Western Philosophy. They may see each other as "ancient enemies" but that's because they only imagine slight variations on their positions.


And to take that even further the framework or the frame of reference can make dragons a rational explanation. All it requires is that you buy into the premise of some initial claim. Its not just that they need each other its that they can be used by each other to bukld all sorts of worlds.


The funny thing is that empiricists (Locke, Hume, Francis Bacon "the father of the scientific method", etc) didn't accomplish much in science, even though they were clearly smart and tried hard. While deeply religious rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz) pretty much created science and were successful at everything they touched. It's utterly unreasonable to believe that the world is built on harmony that can be understood by the individual human mind. But that unreasonable belief is very helpful for discovering things, even at the highest levels, while having beliefs like "all knowledge is social" is like slashing your own tires.


Empiricism's contribution is the emphasis on testing hypotheses. Provando e reprovando (test and test again) as Galileo said. That approach was brought to it's finest pitch with Popper's Falsificationism. But hypotheses need to come from somewhere. You're right to point to religious rationalists; I'd mention Newton too. Einstein's "god doesn't play dice", or the commonplace platonism of mathematicians is the same thing - an empirically unsupported metaphysical assertion.


As I remember, Newton originally thought comets didn't have orbits and were directly influenced by God, so he seems to have been a sincere believer.

I too would like to see more emphasis on "where hypotheses come from," in science education. It matters, since many hypotheses that are obvious in retrospect were overlooked for long periods of time. We know that scientists with broad interests (even outside science) tend to be much more productive than those who are more focused, for example.

For good and ill Einstein followed his nose and instincts about what organizing principles in nature (such as Galileo's principle of relativity) were supremely important, and might point the way to discoveries.

What's so interesting to me about his anti-dice (entanglement) paper is that Einstein-the-intuitive-guy shows the carefully reasoned implications of the theories and math of the rationalistic Copenhagen Interpretation guys (Bohr et al) that they weren't able to see themselves. Our minds our associative; we can't actually become fully rational actors or machines, mixing in some intuition let's more of our grey matter participate in finding solutions.


"god doesn't play dice" was a layman's phrasing of a complex subject, not a metaphysical assertion.


The demarcation problem of falsifiability has applications for sciences (specifically, differentiating science from pseudoscience)


Not that absolute applications though. See Feyerabend for a counter-argument.


All knowledge is social, because it exists in the heads of humans. The processes by which we communicate it to one another are unavoidably social. And this can change both the meaning and (especially) the choice of which knowledge is considered important.

This tends to cause problems with referer-refereant confusion. And people are not very good at spotting intrinsic or assumed knowledge. I learnt quite a lot about this from a guy who was trying to apply computational linguistics to chemistry papers; it turns out that even in this highly artificial environment the reader needs to infer things about chemicals mentioned from their pre-existing (socially constructed) knowledge.


Boyle didn't spend a lot of time writing philosophy, his close friend Locke undertook that; it was a very productive division of labor. Hume is often regarded as the founder of Psychology as a science.

Descartes was willing to please the authorities with rationalist-religious smoke, and very proud of smoking them, too - until he too had to flee to Holland when his empiricism was no longer tolerated. So no, he was not "deeply religious." His codification of empirical methodology (which uses the word analysis in the title) was important to science and the philosophy of science but doesn't promote rationalism, quite the contrary. He did make key contributions to empirical science and mathematics.

Leibnitz didn't create science or do experimental science per se, he was curious about binary numbers and created better notation for calculus (but these are tools not scientific discoveries). His contributions to science are vaguer - he sowed about as much confusion as light. I haven't looked at his biography in a long time, but I have lectured about him at a conference at Harvard.

I certainly agree that scientists tend to be poor philosophers - it's not the same task. Heisenberg's book is just one recent example of that. Descartes and Galileo are exceptions, particularly with regard to codifying what the scientific method was.


Do you think Descartes pretended to be religious?


My professors absolutely did. Pascal was sincerely (but as a heretic) religious, and contributed to science. Descartes liked to stay alive, and was under pressure by the likes of Martin Schoock to show he wasn't an atheist and so should be tolerated. The church wasn't persuaded by Descartes and his books were ultimately banned.

Pretending to be in some way religious is necessary when the Church is in charge.

Egypt, today, holds a death penalty in store for those convicted of atheism; strong motivation for a little harmless pretence.


His whole line of argument in the medications would collapse if God didn't exist. He may well have been a heretic, but that is very different from not believing in God.

The alleged reasons for thinking Descartes was an atheist basically amount to the observation that if he had have been an atheist he probably wouldn't have said that he was an atheist. That is true, but that is no reason to think that he actually was an atheist. By the same token, if he had liked eating babies for breakfast, he probably wouldn't have mentioned it in his work, but that is no reason to think that he in fact did.


He couldn't say nothing, so he offered some rationalizations for the church. Atheism carried a death penalty, and he was already accused - we only really know that he liked to be alive.


I think the issue here is that there is a huge distance between merely believing in God and being an orthodox Christian. It's easy to see why the Church didn't like Descartes' work, because it upended the scholastic metaphysics that much church doctrine rested on. But there is really no evidence that Descartes did not believe God existed. This is especially so given that one of his arguments for God's existence is original. If he was just trotting out some arguments to keep up appearances, why would he bother coming up with a new argument?


Schook's accusations were more profound, Descartes never attacked specific Catholic doctrines to my knowledge. Nor did the Church ban the writings of every person they knew to be Protestant or non-Catholic, as they banned Descartes' works.


>Schook's accusations were more profound,

Who is Schook?

>Descartes never attacked specific Catholic doctrines to my knowledge

https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/52485/why-w...

>Nor did the Church ban the writings of every person they knew to be Protestant or non-Catholic, as they banned Descartes' works.

I'm sure they didn't ban everything, but a book's being at variance with Catholic doctrine was certainly considered a sufficient reason to ban it.


It's pretty commonly believed in the field, though my impression was that there's no definitive evidence.


Is it really? I can't find any evidence of that. Could you link to an article or something that makes the case for his being an atheist?


Hmm, maybe I overstepped by saying it's commonly believed, but there were attacks in his own time, and there have been persistent questions. Perhaps it's all just rumor--I heard about the question from one of my professors who was a Descartes specialist, but I can't recall how seriously he took it.

One point has been that the appeals to God in Descartes philosophy have seemed rather tacked on to many readers (the way they might be for an atheist writer operating in a very theistic environment). Mersenne argued that Descartes' system gave no reason to think our knowledge of mathematics depended on God, for instance.

Edit: this is something I haven't thought about since a course a dozen years ago, so I wouldn't put much weight on my recollection (positive or negative).


>One point has been that the appeals to God in Descartes philosophy have seemed rather tacked on to many readers

I don't see that at all. His entire argument in the Meditations collapses if God isn't there to provide a guarantee that he is not being deceived.


you cannot really compare mathematical accomplishments to continental philosophy . They are different domains. But Bacon is credited with creating the scientific method.


Part of the confusion is how 'rational' has two definitions: the strictly philosophical one and the more common colloquial one


This strikes me as not even pedantic, just misguided. Outside of high church epistemology, the opposite of reason isn't empiricism, but unreason, irrationality, or superstition. Empiricists and scientists offer reasoned arguments for their positions.


Their "reasoned" arguments come from their own sensory experience directly and they are aware of that.

Do you think a deaf, blind person, with no feeling, and no awareness of their own body would grow up to be able to make reasoned arguments? Of course not. Why not? Because they had no sense experience.

Good empiricists go further and acknowledge that their reasoning is only as good as their sensory organs, including and especially their brain with all of its cognitive quirks.

A good empiricist will acknowledge, for example, that "healthy" "normal" human minds are terrible at solving certain moral problems while "unhealthy" "psychopathic" minds are demonstrably better. This flies in the face of the rationalist argument that healthy humans are fundamentally rational creatures.


You've missed the point, and seem to think I'm arguing for Rationalism. I'm doing no such thing, which makes your arguments for Empiricism irrelevant.


Logical opposition is not a concept I'm discussing - conflict between groups and thoughts, is.


Why would they be mutually exclusive?


I don't know why you're being downvoted, as your response is typically true of any A v. B discussion in philosophy, there's always grey lines. Rationalists can still claim categories of knowledge coming primarily, or even only, from sense experience, while also claiming other categories of knowledge that come from rationality alone.

Fwiw I subscribe to the anthropological view that human consciousness/ culture as we know it "turned on" about 70,000 years ago (this was introduced in my first anthropology textbook in college and is also the topic of the very popular "Sapiens"), and we've had a unique, if not structuralist, system of reflection and developing knowledge ever since; if I had to pick one, without doubt on the rationalist side.


On what grounds do trust your reason, senses, or understanding?

Whether I axiomatically start with Rationalism, Empiricism, or some combination of the two I always end with, at the very best, Solipsism (via the Simulation argument), and more so these days just pure philosophical Skepticism. "I think therefore I am" is only true if "I think" is true, and to say that "I think" is to take as a given that I exist, which is begging the question. We might be able to say that "thought exists" (and therefore a thinker must exist, etc) but this is premised on "truth exists", since "thought exists" is meaningless without veracity, and to say "truth exists" is to continues to beg the question in two possible ways: First truth requires a mind in order to be known which is what we're trying to get at in the first place. Or, if that set of reasoning is too shaky for you then: "truth exists" requires truth in order to be true.

I do not think it is useful to stay there, so when I approach the world I have a sort of base understanding that I'm taking certain things which may not be true (my own reason) as true for expediency because the alternative is to cease thinking. But just as arithmetic (the basis of nearly all of mathematics) isn't logically proved unless you assume the Zermelo-Frankel continuum I do the same with my understanding of existence.


Well, I don't assume the Cartesian cogito or the rational, centered world of Logos. I just assume that consciousness is this thing that flipped on about 70,000 years ago, which brings its own rules or structures that impinges on any sense of reality, and we've basically been immersed in it since, with the fortunate even accidental side effect of being able to understand things in a way we might call 'rational.' I'm much more on the side of "It thinks, then I register it" than "I think". So I guess, similarly, I too approach the world with a sort of distance towards things, while taking certain things sincerely for the sake of utility and happiness, but while also seeing that our "self" (in the form it is) and consciousness are rooted in Real capital-R structures produced by nature, so it's not a post-modernist, everything is endlessly decentered/ no substantial basis, etc... there really is something there governing in specific ways... enough to build a principled world with its own, I guess, absurd form of 'centeredness'... it just requires a weird sort of dynamic stance towards things, chalk it up to the fundamental condition of being a homo sapiens in-consciousness.


Because "Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience."

Either there is knowledge absent sense experience or their is not. This is where the philosophies differ and where mutual exclusion arises.


I'm not sure why you're excluding the possibility of both. Math is largely based on reason, and I think most empiricists believe that mathematicians have knowledge not based on sense experience.


>most empiricists believe that mathematicians have knowledge not based on sense experience.

Even the knowledge that 1+1=2 comes from sensing objects in the world. If you'd never seen more than 1 thing ever you would have no sense experience to base your conceptual framework of addition on.

All knowledge -mathematical or otherwise- can be traced back to sense experience. Your ability to reason mathematically comes from your experience of the world and from your experience of your own thoughts. Intuition is fundamentally a sensory experience.


that is what Kant argued regarding the synthetic priori . You cannot know the thing-in-itself.


Either it is possible to know certain things from rational consideration alone without reference to the evidence of our senses, or it isn't.


Similarly, either it is possible to know certain things from observation of sensory input alone without reference to a ration framework of consideration, or it isn't.

And seem both cases seem unlikely, it seems that empiricism and rationalism are more complimentary (AND) than XOR.


Rather, they are in tension.


Both lose out to pragmatism in my opinion.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatism


Something of an Achilles heel to pragmatism is that it can lead those that follow the principle concretely to never seek to take the long jumps in innovation or product design... those pragmatists are doomed to incrementalism. Now incrementalism is not bad in itself; on the contrary it is more often useful than other approaches. However, sometimes you cannot increment and climb your way to the next great invention, company, or just reaching success. Sometimes it takes faith... and risk to reach those high places. Pragmatism doesn't forbid risks or leaps, but it's doctrine is to look at your feet, take small steps, and measure success of each incremental step.

I say the best executive combos are one person who is idealistic rationalist (the Visionary), one experienced pragmatist (the Voice of reason), and a grounded traditionalist empiricist (the Sergeant). The Visionary pulls the Voice to take direction leaps as needed, and the Voice develops reasonable as-incremental-as-possible steps to get there. The Sergeant is meticulous in the day-to-day work, doesn't care much of the future, and deals with the active problems that need to be addressed. The Voice relies on data from the Sergeant to judge how well things are progressing.

The trick is embodying all three characters. There are times to be a dreamer to know your future. There are times to just work and not think about tomorrow, and times to reflect over the past and determine the next small steps forward.


>Something of an Achilles heel to pragmatism is that it can lead those that follow the principle concretely to never seek to take the long jumps in innovation or product design... those pragmatists are doomed to incrementalism.

That's why I'm in favor of real-world-ism.

In the real world and actual practice we are Rational, Empiricist and Pragmatist in various degrees, not one or the other. We can also be totally irrational or visionary or whatever.


You are conflating the colloquial sense of pragmatism with the technical philosophical sense of pragmatism.


We need all three. Pragmatism for the incremental progress and reason for the disruptive changes. Empiricism being used in both.

"There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter."

Academician Prokhor Zakharov, "Address to the Faculty"


My director of studies, Eddie Craig [1], used to assert that there are sound pragmatic reasons for rejecting pragmatism. I think he was only half joking...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Craig_(philosopher)


Empiricism is the rational choice!


I'm skeptical.


C'mon, be reasonable!




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