Empiricism, rationalism… and bananas?

Empiricism, rationalism… and bananas?

“Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all” – Thomas Carlyle

Two years ago, I received a fir from a friend, to serve as a Christmas tree. It was a gift, and a very nice gift indeed. Tall, wide, leafy, with a sweet smell of freshly cut resin. It was actually the upper tip of a larger tree that was harvested for timber, so that gave me a moral respite for not having the tree cut just for our traditions. This however, turned up to be a nuisance – the trunk was very large.

It was almost the Christmas eve, so I had to put it up in a hurry. I went to a nearby market to buy the largest Christmas tree support that I was able to find, hoping that it will fit. It didn’t. By then it was clear that I had to chisel it. But I lacked the proper tools. I looked around the house and the only two things (barely) capable of doing the work were a (paper) cutter and a larger cooking knife.

Did you ever try to chisel a solid piece of wood with a paper cutter? It was no pleasant experience.

After 2 hours, a small cut to a finger and a lot of resin and wood-chip mess, the job was done and the tree was up in its socket. The next year, I bought a special hatchet and the deed was done in 15 minutes to a similar tree.

The lesson? No matter what we do, we, humans are dependent on tools and technology. But this is not the case only with physical tools. It is said that the mind is our greatest tool. But just like the hatchet I used to chisel the tree, the mind must be sharpened and be kept that way.

And this, Seeker, is what we are going to do today as well.

I received very positive feedback regarding my previous two chapters in our journey (and I am extremely thankful for it!) , but I also learned that concepts must be thoroughly defined and linked.

And two concepts that I feel we must talk about today are empiricism and rationalism, two of the most prominent theories of how we acquire knowledge; because only by knowing how and why we know we can truly know we know. Yes, I love word games.

The human eye. Our primary window to the world.

What is rationalism?

A previous sidekick in our journey of discovery was Rene Descartes. As we recall, he was the one emptying the basket of knowledge, only to pick up the sole concept that he was absolutely sure of, Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But he didn’t stop there. Fearing that there is no way to trust our senses (remember the story with the demon?), he decided that the sole path to knowledge can only be through the clarity of the mind. And this, fellow seeker, is rationalism – the belief that reason is the most reliable source of reason.

At the first look, it kinda seems obvious, isn’t it? We are rational beings, we have developed language, mathematics, and we are able to conceptualize phenomena even before we observe them. Just like Einstein developed general relativity before we got to observe its predictions.

But wait.

Did Einstein know the general relativity when he was 3? Obviously not. At 3 he was lacking even the mental frame capable of devising such a conceptual scheme. All that Einstein knew, he knew because he was taught. Even if he came up with general relativity by himself, all that he learned about physics, all that he knew about math, philosophy and everything that helped him develop the Theory of Relativity came through his senses – eyes, ears, even touch, smell or taste.

And this is what Locke believed too.

“Where all is but dream, reasoning and arguments are of no use, truth and knowledge nothing.” -John Locke


John Locke was a 17th century British philosopher, Oxford academic, medical researcher and brilliant government official. He made his way into the history (and philosophy) books with his vast contributions to the concepts of social contract, his appeal to the separation of State and Church (bold idea in his times), and his firm belief that critical thinking and reason are the key to combating both superstition and baseless authority. Oh, and have I mentioned he was also a revolutionary and a personal friend of Newton? Yeah, Locke was pretty badass.

But the reason why I have chosen to talk about him today is because of his Opus MagnaAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a monumental book in which he tackles human understanding (epistemology) and makes a great defense to the idea of empiricism.

But what is empiricism?

Simply, empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. Even more, in the scientific method, empiricism is the sole way of verifying a hypothesis. After all, if the theory is not validated by observation, how can we assert that it describes the world? And that is the purpose of science, knowing of the world, is it not?

You might construct theoretical frameworks, but until you falsify your assumptions with empirical observations, it is not science.

This is what Locke understood. He studied Descartes in his youth, which made for him an excellent subject of contemplation and a mouth of fresh air amidst his rigid studies at Christ Church in Oxford, and although he admired Rene, he also found points in which their views were very different. John Locke was one of the first philosophers to gaze inwards, looking in detail at the limits of human knowledge and at uncertainties that would’ve dismayed Descartes.

He considered that people are born tabula rasa (with clean minds) and that everything we come to know, from our view of the world to our morality, we do through our senses.

His Essay was published in four books:

  1. In the first book, Locke argues that we have no innate knowledge of the world. While the thesis can sound trivial if you think about how a baby is born and the learning process that follows, Locke makes use of a complicated demonstration that is out of scope to present it here.
  2. In the second book, Locke claims that ideas are what knowledge is made of, and all ideas come from experience. Here is an interesting nuance. Experience, in Locke’s perspective, is either sensation or reflection. While the first one points at direct experience, the latter implies the way our minds manipulate the concepts acquire through sensation to generate more complex ideas. Thus, even if some concepts might stem from reflection, ultimately, they are just made from our minds recombining, manipulating simpler, basic ideas that can only come from sensory experience. Let’s pause here for a bit, fellow seeker. Try to imagine an alien or some being you have never met. See it with your mind’s eye. Can you do so without recombining various parts of animals you already know? Most likely, you can’t.
  3. In book no. 3, Locke talks about language and the way it acts as a substrate to communicate ideas and its role in knowledge. Here we see that some words convey meaning to ideas about “objects” (things with empirical existence) and some words convey meanings that relate to the way we structure the empirical knowledge, such as the words for the cardinal numerals, for example, which do not have an empirical existence on their own (have you ever seen a “3” that was not made from something physical?)
  4. Finally, in his last book, he sums up all the previous ideas and explains the nature and limits of knowledge. Here, just like Descartes he touches the topic of certainty in knowledge. What can we know for sure? That we exist, to which he adds the non-empirical knowledge which we use to structure the world, such as morality, and mathematics, which exist with certainty, but only within our minds. But what about the things external to us? Animals, plants or the minerals? Here he comes with a valuable observation. We cannot know the true nature of something external, because that knowledge is mediated by our ideas of those objects, and those ideas are solely in one’s mind.

If you follow the train of thought, you see that Locke’s reasoning is solid. Any mental content that we have, even the most abstract ones, such as the metaphysical musings or mathematics, are rooted in the origins of something that we were taught or that we have experienced.

Locke also paved the way for George Berkeley, with a very interesting observation. Let’s say you are looking at a banana. The banana can be described in many ways, yet at a closer look, some of the properties that we describe can be seen as objective, independent of the observer (such as dimensions, motion, solidity, texture etc) and some are subjective (like color, smell, taste), since only through the interaction with of our senses we can perceive those qualities, and we do so subjectively, according to each own’s sensibilities. But can you perceive a banana without seeing its color?

As for what Berkeley made from this argument, this is a tale for another time.

Can you perceive only the objective qualities of a banana?

So what’s the lesson?

There is a longstanding debate on what’s the better epistemological path: rationalism or empiricism? And today, fellow seeker, I would like to weight in arguments from both sides. And I hope that by the end, I will have convinced you that empirical evidence is not just the backbone of the scientific method, but also the sole path to knowledge.

And here are the top 5 reasons why the empiricism is the superior theory of knowledge:

  1. We come up with concepts from either direct experience or by combining concepts obtained from direct experience. There is no other way. Try to imagine someone blind from birth describing the color blue. Or better, tell him or her to mentally combine the colors blue and red and ask him how the resulting color looks like.
  2. Empiricism is also simpler. In rationalism, we postulate pure knowledge, even when we don’t observe those stated concepts in reality. If we mentally invent a mythical creature, yet we never observe it, how does it help us to better understand the reality?
  3. Pure concepts are obtained through induction from empirical observations. We can come up with what a perfect sphere is by observing a lot of imperfect spheres and rationalizing which are the rules that a body must follow to be a sphere.
  4. Flawed (hidden) assumptions lead to flawed reasoning. Theoretical concepts that we might come up with are not always confirmed by observation. Au contraire, they usually aren’t. Like the aether theory of the 19th century, for example.
  5. Even among rationalists, the nature of what is “innate” differs from philosopher to philosopher. For some, it is the existence of God (Descartes), for others the idea of Forms (Plato). Too many inconsistencies, even among those who should be on the same side.

Sure, we use mental structure to operate with the things we know about the world. Math or logic are great examples of types of knowledge that do not directly reflect observable things, but rather concepts that cannot have an existence of their own. And let’s not forget that even if we have the innate capability to understand the workings of logic and math, these too are things that are taught (so they come through our senses).

 Then why are there so many rationalists out there and there is still a debate?

To answer this question, dear Seeker, we will have to make a small philosophical detour and to look at what epistemology studies.

As a field, epistemology deals with 3 main questions:

  1. What is the nature of propositional knowledge (in layman’s terms, what makes knowledge, well, knowledge)? We assume that in order to know something, we must (1) believe it, (2)to be true and… (3) something more. That “something more” is what distinguishes a lucky guess from true knowledge.
  2. How can we gain knowledge? (this is the most obvious place where the two sides contradict each other)
  3. What are the limits of our knowledge? Obviously, this part is directly influenced by the answer to question 1 and 2.

The rationalists defend their position with 3 theses:

  1. The Intuition/Deduction Thesis: Some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions. In other words, we can gain insight/knowledge through intuition and/or deduction.
  2. The Innate Knowledge Thesis: We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature. This idea, approached in different ways by various rationalists, revolves around the idea that we can have a priori knowledge of different aspects of the world as part of our nature as rational beings.
  3. The Innate Concept Thesis: We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature. The idea here is that we have a grasp of concepts that could not be easily (or at all) inferred by direct experience. And this thesis also explains why we make sense of the world using the categories which we seem to innately use.
How do we know what we know? A good question to raise a philosophical war over it.

My thoughts.

What follows here is my general critique to these theses and I hope, Seeker, that you would agree with me. Or, if perhaps I am wrong, maybe you will correct me on our Path of knowledge.

However, I am not going to tackle point number 3, which is usually the point of contention between empiricists and rationalists, but (surprisingly?) number 2.

One of the assertions used is that things have to be true to be knowledge. But the way most people define the state of truth of an event is by imagining it to be true or false regardless of the knowledge of an observer. We usually think that the statement “There is a crow on the roof right now” is either true or false, regardless of what ANY observer knows/thinks. Ummm… why? We have not yet decided that there is a world outside perception. That’s the exact reason why “Cogito, ergo sum” was the only thing Descartes was sure of.

We dropped the basket with all the knowledge, remember? And I have yet to pick up the apple saying “there is a world independent of observation”. I will analyse that apple in the upcoming chapters of our journey.

For now, the existence of a world outside consciousness is a needless leap of faith. So either anyone (or anything, as I will show later) observes the crow, or the proposition has no truth value. This may make a lot more sense at a quantum level, where you cannot state “I am not observing it right now, but there is an electron exactly in this spot”.

And since observations are always needed to confirm the truth value of a proposition, knowledge (which is defined as “things we believe in, are true and have an explanation”) cannot exist without empirical observation.

Sure, some die-hard rationalists will argue that there are also the concepts not expressing “substance” as Locke called it (real objects and beings), but dependent concepts, such as math, symbols, logic. Can’t those exist independent of observation?

Sure they do… as they are being observed inside the mind of the thinker.

I hereby argue that existence is solely the act of mentally perceiving something. Think of it as extrapolating Cogito ergo sum to all the things we can perceive:

  • If we perceive it in our sensory field, such as in our sight or sense of smell, then it exists within our consciousness as sensory input.
  • If we conceive it in our abstract thinking, such as the concepts of “3”, “happiness” or the theory of Pitagora, it still exists within our consciousness, as a mental concept.

The conclusion?

Everything our minds can contain is in the same place. Our mind. We just split them into two separate categories because we have our misunderstood reasons to believe that there is a world outside our consciousness. And there is no reason to believe that there is, as I will show you in the next chapters.

We just choose to let some things inside of the arbitrary separation of the “self” from the “world”. And we call that empirical knowledge. And this is how we know the world. And some other concepts we generate within our own private corner of the mind. And we call that deductions and intuitions.

But in the end, there is only one source of knowledge.

The mind.


"There is no wealth like knowledge, and no poverty like ignorance." - Buddha </p> Please share this article if you liked it.
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