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A Critique of Empiricism

A Critique of Empiricism
cortezrex
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Posted Jan 15, 2004 - 8:23 PM:

Empiricists like Locke hold that we gain all knowledge through what he refers to as ‘experience‘. Though ‘experience’ is vaguely defined, I drew that it requires an interaction with the environment. His reliance on ‘experience’ is his ultimate downfall. He gives some credit to the mind by saying that ‘ideas’ are the basic building block of knowledge (4, 93). In turn, these ‘ideas’--of sensation and reflection--can be formed into ‘complex ideas’ using the mind to ‘compound,’ ‘relate,’ or ‘abstract’ the ‘simple ideas’ (4, 93-94). Ironically, the process happens entirely in the mind in his view and does not give credit to outside influences to these ‘ideas.’ He does not consider that ‘compounding,’ ‘relating,’ and ‘abstraction’ are shaped by other individuals, culture and society. Consider that the concept of God is not shaped in the way Locke described, but by our families and schools. No where does the mind act alone in making decisions early on using only sense data. Nor does he make evident anywhere that the empirical data gathered is limited to the culture and society in which the individual lives in. In his day, Locke was aware of the discoveries made by Newton and considered them empirical. How would he respond if he knew that the empirical data Newton worked so hard to prove was replaced by Einstein’s theory of Relativity and in our day by Quantum theory? It is evident that knowledge is in part limited to the culture and society we live in. Because we live in a society where science experiments are common, we take for granted that other societies do not experiment with their knowledge and often hold these beliefs to be self evident because of theological reasons.

Empiricists make constant use of the term ‘experience’ to symbolize the source in which knowledge is gained, but they do not go deep into the concept of ‘experience‘. Consider that I have never watched or engaged in freezing water, but I know from books that water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I did not gain that knowledge from experimentation, but by reading. Now, someone, somewhere, performed this experiment countless times to verify the data in the books. The data is considered A posteriori to the scientist and other people who have openly experimented with these results, but not to me. According to my definitions above, I know these facts about water and its freezing point A priori. This is not the only instance. Students in History classes learn facts about societies that no longer exist for their senses to ‘experience.’ What I am seeing is a distinction between ‘experiences’ based on the level of involvement or interaction of the subject. I interacted with the world by reading in order to gain the knowledge of the freezing point of water and also to learn in a History class. Interaction with media allows me to know that driving without a seat belt could lead to injuries, that jumping off a two story building could kill me, that eating poison is not healthy, etc. But I could also learn these facts by experimenting with them as scientists do. It is not recommended, but it requires a different level of involvement in the interaction. Where does this leave us? It leaves us with two distinct terms:
Indirect A posteriori Knowledge: That is knowledge gained from interactions with the world, but not from direct experimentation.
Direct A posteriori Knowledge: That is knowledge gained from interactions that experiment with facts about the world. Empirical data.
The knowledge I gain from the classroom theory is Indirect A posteriori knowledge while the knowledge I gain from experimenting with things like drugs and science are Direct A posteriori knowledge.

What is experience?

Experience: Knowledge derived from one’s own action, practice, perception, enjoyment, or suffering; experimental knowledge; especially, the state of such knowledge in an individual as an index of wisdom. 2. The act of living through an event or events; personal involvement in or observation of events as they occur.

Interaction: action on each other; reciprocal action or effect.
Interact: To act on one another; act reciprocally.


Both A priori and A posteriori knowledge deal with that variable called ‘experience‘. What I pointed out is that there are varying degrees to what Epistemologists call ‘experience’ and that it is too vague a term to use when considering knowledge. So above I give the dictionary definition of ‘experience’ followed by the definition of ‘interaction,’ which I feel is a better substitute for ‘experience.’ I feel ‘interaction’ serves better for the source of knowledge gained from the sense organs because it not only denotes an ‘experience‘, but a level of involvement in the event from which the knowledge was gained. That is why I used ‘interaction’ in the definitions of Indirect and Direct A posteriori knowledge instead of ‘experience.’ By substituting ‘experience’ with ‘interaction,’ I seemingly cancel out A priori knowledge altogether, but this is not the case. When analyzing the definition of A priori, it seems clear that philosophers meant to distinguish it from knowledge gained by experimentation. They hold that mathematical truths are A priori. I show in the Rationalism section that mathematical truths also require the subject to engage in some kind of interaction with the world, namely that of solving abstract problems with the help of visual aids like pencils, chalk boards, paper, etc. Even for the simpler problems of arithmetic, a subject still has to communicate these results to another subject for confirmation of truth. If mathematical truths were solely the fruit of the rational mind to be enjoyed by the mind alone, then there would be no need for further proof by other mathematicians. That is hardly the case, however, when a ‘discovery’ is made. So interaction with the world is necessary for A priori knowledge, but only to a certain degree. To say that knowledge is possible before interaction with the world is almost absurd. At all points of human existence, even in the womb, the subject interacts with the world.

So it would seem that knowledge can be both A priori and A posteriori depending on the subject in question. In my example with freezing water, that knowledge of the temperature at which water begins to freeze is both A priori and A posteriori according to the subject in question. To say that both fit under the banner of ‘experience’ is rash and cuts out an important aspect of how we gain knowledge: involvement. A certain level of involvement is required for the scientist to experiment with the water and it is different from the level of involvement that I require to get the same knowledge from reading a book.

What about the Tabula Rasa?

Aristotle saw objects fall to the ground and said that they did so because it was in their nature to go back to where they came from (1, 329). According to Empiricism, the mind is a Tabula Rasa, or blank slate, that is imprinted with knowledge from ‘experience‘ (4, 50). Logic to the Empiricist is irrelevant. However, consider that Sir Isaac Newton also observed objects falling and came to a different conclusion, that of gravity. If the mind were a blank slate, then the ‘experience’ of falling objects would have left Newton with a similar knowledge of why it happened. The obvious difference was that although they observed similar occurrences, their minds rationalized the information of their senses in different ways. My conclusion is apparent when considering that most scientific knowledge, empirical knowledge, changes according to our observation technology but the way in which we come to conclusions about the observations made by machines is still the same as it was in the time of Plato and Aristotle. Even from the very first day of life, the child must make sense of the information its senses gather. The information does not randomly imprint itself into bits of knowledge in the newborn mind.
Jay
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Posted Jan 16, 2004 - 3:31 PM:

If you say that all knowledge, even mathematical theorys and other abstracts thoughts are based on experience, then A priori knowledge is impossible. Perhaps you need to coin a new term, but A priori implies that which is not based on experience.
cortezrex
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Posted Jan 16, 2004 - 10:24 PM:

no no no, that is an empirical claim that all knowledge is based on experience. I agree with Kant that it requires both reason and interactions with the world for knowledge to happen. It is not the case that empiricism and rationalism work alone. As for a priori knowledge, i have argued against it, it is not my word at all. it is a philosophical term.
Lemurian
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Posted Mar 17, 2004 - 6:17 PM:

Roy Bhaskar is also a critic of empiricism, rationalism, and relativism. See his books "A realist theory of science" and "Possibility of Naturalism."
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