• Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    Is empiricism, the crown jewel of English-language philosophy a thing that happened, dead?

    How many schools of philosophy, how many individual philosophers have a colorable claim either to have killed empiricism or fixed it? Kant, classical pragmatism, logical positivism, Quine and logical empiricism, then Sellars the sellarsian, and all the other modern pragmatisms and pragmatism hybrids right through to Rorty, and even the unrepentant Chomsky.

    How many times must empiricism be killed? Why won't it stay dead?

    It's the Chuck Norris of philosophies! You can't kill that.

    Must your slate be blank to be an empiricist? Can you darwin in a little, maybe some "pattern detecting" and still call yourself an empiricist? What about the representational realism so beloved today? Is that empiricism reborn or another attempted murder?

    So come one! Come all! Attack empiricism or defend it! She either needs saving or needs killing again! Submit your entry to the Great Empiricism Bake-off!


    EDIT: changed my perfectly charming intro so @Olivier5 will stop one-upping me in my own damn thread.
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    Rejecting empiricism means effectively rejecting criticism, because if there is no common experience against which to judge things, we cannot rationally resolve differences of opinion, leaving us with just fideism (if we nevertheless promote some opinions over others) or else nihilism (if we don't). Either of which leaves us unable from the start to make any progress in sorting out truth from falsehood... which would leave us unable to tell whether empiricism was true or false. If we are in such a state of not knowing, we nevertheless cannot help but act as though we think one way or the other, by either trying to figure out what is true or false by appeal to our common experiences, or not trying. If we don't try, then of course we will fail to ever succeed. If we do try, we still might never succeed, but we might at least have a chance.

    It thus follows from the skepticism of empiricism that one ought to proceed nevertheless under the assumption that empiricism is true, for to do otherwise is merely to give up on the pursuit of truth.
  • Olivier5
    338
    the crown jewel of English-language philosophySrap Tasmaner
    I find the idea of an ‘English language philosophy’ amusing, as if philosophical ideas were chauvinistic, or unfit for translation.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    It's an inelegant phrase, guilty as charged.

    Historically? I might stand by it.

    And take a side! Empiricism: are you for it or agin it?
  • Olivier5
    338
    Historically, English-speaking philosophers have borrowed heavily from Latin, Greek, Arabic, German and French writers. And that’s a fact. Vice versa, English speaking philosophers have influenced what the Brits call, comically as well, ‘continental philosophy’. I like how it sounds like a type of breakfast...

    And yes, I am all for empiricism. When combined with rationalism, it makes for good science.
  • Pantagruel
    1k
    It seems like you are asking if empiricism is eliminable, which it obviously isn't. And that you may also be conflating two sense of the word empiricism. The general sense in which observations are empirical, and the strict epistemological usage which claims knowledge is exclusively of this type.

    Lots of aspects of reality as we know it conform to empirical descriptions and respond to empirical methods. Which explains its persistence. So the ubiquity of the former, general sense possibly explains the persistence of the strict epistemological dogma.
  • Coben
    1.6k
    Rejecting empiricism means effectively rejecting criticism,Pfhorrest
    Rejecting empiricism completely would do this (at least I think so) but if empiricism means, for example, one can only get knoweldge via experience, say, then one could reject that point without losing the ability to criticize. I think. Also we need to specify, I think, which empiricism.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    you may also be conflating two sense of the word empiricismPantagruel

    Not at all. My intention was to conflate all senses of the word "empiricism".

    Remember empiricism? That theory that had two remaining dogmas Quine took himself to have demolished? (And then Davidson found another worth demolishing.)

    Empiricism? The theory Sellars took himself to have shown subscribed to the insidious Myth of the Given?

    Verificationist theories of meaning? I recently spent an afternoon watching old Bryan Magee interviews, and there's a lovely one with Ayer where he explains what a bust that was.

    What's left of empiricism? Just some vague notion that knowledge "comes from" experience? Is there any actual theory anyone's willing to defend here?

    And I'm curious how people think cognitive science fits into this story. Quine was already happy to have lots of learning mechanisms wired in where classical empiricists only had "association" and that sort of thing. What does modern cognitive science say about concepts? Are any of them hard-wired? Are time and space? Is causality? Induction? Do we just point at Darwin and move on? Is there a concept-forming "organ" in the brain like Chomsky's language-learning thing?

    (I'm deliberately making a hash of all this to take in as broad a swath as possible.)
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    I didn't define "empiricism" so everyone could put their own spin on it. I can't tell what your spin is.

    And yes, I am all for empiricism. When combined with rationalism, it makes for good science.Olivier5

    That sounds to me like you have something to say that for reasons I can't fathom you've chosen not to say.
  • Yodaondoda
    11
    I would wonder if anyone could say that empiricism is "dead" in the sense that it's no longer a viable epistemic position. Since Locke (as one of the first people who spoke of empiricism in the way we recognize it now at least) it seems quite unlikely that I'm not having sense experiences. Unless I take the Cartesian route and say that there is no external world. It's a logically viable position I suppose, but is it a probable one? I'd be hard put to answer that question. So I guess, if you're wondering if the empiricist position that sense experience is the fount of all knowledge is wrong or unjust -- I mean how do I deny that I'm typing these words out on my laptop sitting in my room? I am certainly. What I'm typing it out on, or whether these words have any reality in the sense of corresponding to some objectively real state of affairs, those are questions that you can pose. But do these questions (about the nature of the things I'm using to type out these words or the words themselves) really bring into question that I AM interacting with something outside of myself? I do understand to some degree that there is an interaction taking place, the specifics of such a state of affairs might be beyond me-- but I can't really call into question that there is an interaction taking place right? That is at least a piece of knowledge that I can't seem to wrap my head around unless, of course, I take up a position like Descartes.
  • batsushi7
    45
    Lot of philosophers with degrees, get very cringe after mentioning empirical philosophy, and they think it shouldn't even be part of the philosophy at all.
  • ssu
    3.2k
    How many times must empiricism be killed? Why won't it stay dead?

    It's the Chuck Norris of philosophies! You can't kill that.
    Srap Tasmaner
    It's not the traditional philosophy of empiricism that prevails, it's more like the actual use of empiricism that survives. And good so. But of course, everything that has good effects has it's drawbacks too.

    Bret Weinstein put it remarkably well: in science and STEM fields in general, empiricism has, perhaps unintentionally, acquired a dominant position because that's what is the easy thing to do: scientist do scientific tests. Theorizing, making theories, thinking of the bigger picture which is the more difficult thing to do has taken a sideline. Far more easy to do science with testing something and looking if anything interesting shows up. And this strategy leads, unintentionally perhaps, to empiricism being in the end the dominant philosophy of science left standing on the field.
  • flaco
    15
    If empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience, then I think it still has legs. It seems to me that millennia of (dare i call it?) pre-empiricist philosophy produced only a complicated spirograph going in circles. Now with a vast trove of empirical data in areas such as cognitive science and evolution, there is a possibility of making some progress (or at least a larger spirograph).
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    There is some link between empiricism, a philosophical theory, and empirical science. What is that link?

    Let's define an empiricism -- not the empiricism, but one of many: human beings use concepts, but they are born with no conceptual apparatus at all; therefore, a human being must be able to construct a conceptual apparatus out of the only material she has, her individual sense experience; some of this may occur naturally, through "association", say, and some of this construction is done by the use of reason, which may be inborn but only provides the tools to construct a conceptual framework, not the framework itself.

    A conceptual framework is necessary to do science, but Weinstein suggests that many scientists don't do the work of building their own conceptual apparatus; instead they "borrow" an existing one. In some sense, then, they are in the position of the conceptual apparatus just being given, as if they were born with it; it is not something they have to construct. (In modern parlance, they are perhaps "externalists".)

    So that's the opposite of my sample empiricism, isn't it?

    But we're going to call it an "empiricism" because people working within an entirely given conceptual framework do something empirical in it.

    Given the sorts of things people keep saying to me -- and what prompted this thread* -- maybe I should have just asked if

      making observations = doing science = being an empiricist

    * in part
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    I didn't define "empiricism" so everyone could put their own spin on it. I can't tell what your spin is.Srap Tasmaner

    Possibly because my “spin” in much broader than any of the others you’ve mentioned, e.g. Quine pointing out that observations are theory-laden seemed kinda pointless to me, because of course they are, that doesn’t make empiricism false; etc.

    I would define empiricism as the view that the correct way of adjudicating differences of opinion about what is or isn’t real is comparison to our empirical experiences.

    That is equivalent to the rejection of both the view that our empirical experiences can’t tell us anything about reality because they’re all dubious, and the view that there are ways of learning about reality that do not depend at all on empirical experiences.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    I would define empiricism as the view that the correct way of adjudicating differences of opinion about what is or isn’t real is comparison to our empirical experiences.Pfhorrest

    Excellent! Thanks for actually claiming a version of empiricism you would defend.

    One question -- only disputes about what is real? Or do we look to experience to settle disputes in general?

    (Or would you prefer to leave it as you wrote it but with a translation manual so that all disputes are about whether something is real?)
  • Olivier5
    338
    And yes, I am all for empiricism. When combined with rationalism, it makes for good science.
    — Olivier5

    That sounds to me like you have something to say that for reasons I can't fathom you've chosen not to say.
    Srap Tasmaner
    My reasons are that empirical observation springs from reason, is framed by reason, and comes back to reason when analysed. So when blended with a fair dose of rationalism, empiricism makes sense. When it doesn’t make sense is when it claims to be the sole fount of knowledge, as others have pointed at.
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    I hold only disputes about reality to be settled by EMPIRICAL experience specifically, but disputes about morality to still be settled by experience, just a different facet of experience: hedonic experience.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    So do you see an individual, even if she's not aware of it, as essentially doing science all the time? That is, as having a working theory that produces predictions and directs the acquisition of new data via sense experience? Is that the force of "springs from"?



    Makes sense, not a distinction I had in mind when I asked. So how do you see the theory-ladenness of observation playing out when settling an empirical dispute?



    See anything so far that sounds right or wrong to you?
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    So how do you see the theory-ladenness of observation playing out when settling an empirical dispute?Srap Tasmaner

    I’m basically a falsificationist, so if an observation implies one thing in the context of one theory, but is also consistent with some other theoretical framework entirely, then both of those theoretical options remain live possibilities.

    We never ever pin down exactly one theory that is definitely the one truth according with observation, we only ever narrow down the range of remaining possibilities still consistent with observations thus far.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    That implies that the competing theoretical frameworks overlap, right?
  • Olivier5
    338
    So do you see an individual, even if she's not aware of it, as essentially doing science all the time? That is, as having a working theory that produces predictions and directs the acquisition of new data via sense experience? Is that the force of "springs from"?Srap Tasmaner

    Indeed.
  • flaco
    15
    Let's define an empiricism -- not the empiricism, but one of many: human beings use concepts, but they are born with no conceptual apparatus at all; therefore, a human being must be able to construct a conceptual apparatus out of the only material she has, her individual sense experience; some of this may occur naturally, through "association", say, and some of this construction is done by the use of reason, which may be inborn but only provides the tools to construct a conceptual framework, not the framework itself.Srap Tasmaner

    This seems awful close to a "blank slate" theory of mind which I think has been fatally wounded in the last few decades. If this is the empiricism that we are talking about, then I think I will have to throw in with the people who think it is on its way out.

    So do you see an individual, even if she's not aware of it, as essentially doing science all the time? That is, as having a working theory that produces predictions and directs the acquisition of new data via sense experience?Srap Tasmaner

    Yes! As I interpret Kahneman and Haidt, most of our thinking is done subconsciously and we only roll out the rational part of our minds when we need to justify decisions that we make. The idea that we are doing science all the time, even if subconsciously, is very appealing.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k


    Two for two!

    Yes, the sample empiricism is deliberately old school.

    And in the second quote I'm thinking of those types of models. But "System 1 is a machine for jumping to conclusions." That's a funny kind of science, isn't it?
  • flaco
    15
    And in the second quote I'm thinking of those types of models. But "System 1 is a machine for jumping to conclusions." That's a funny kind of science, isn't it?Srap Tasmaner

    But isn't that the way we often do science? First we jump to a conclusion (an intuitive leap). Then we start doing the analysis to see if the data will support or falsify it.

    Plus, we don't really know what's going on in that subconscious mind. I suspect that what we perceive as an instantaneous jump to a conclusion may have extensive experience and analysis underlying it.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    we don't really know what's going on in that subconscious mind. I suspect that what we perceive as an instantaneous jump to a conclusion may have extensive experience and analysis underlying it.flaco

    But that lack of transparency doesn't sound much like science either. Remember a couple years ago when Donald Hoffman was pushing that "desktop" metaphor? He was arguing that this subconscious is systematically lying, because evolution would have selected for rapid threat identification and against accurate perception. Whatever the merits of his position, people can tell different stories about what's going on in the black box, and different evolutionary psychology stories about why. Do we need a way to assess these stories? What would that be?

    Now what about the part we're aware of? Is it conceivable there is something like an old school blank slate empiricist agent that we experience consciously as feeding us a complete conceptual framework, already assembled, such that we might as well have been born with it?

    (Your first paragraph I want to hold off on.)
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    That implies that the competing theoretical frameworks overlap, right?Srap Tasmaner

    I'm not sure what you mean by that.

    What I mean is that, assuming some common background theory, an observation might imply that such-and-such is the case. But of course we could always instead change the background theory so that the observation does not imply that such-and-such is the case. As Quine points out, we're always testing the combination of whatever thing we're explicitly trying to test with an observation, plus all of the background theory that's we're not explicitly trying to test. And that's a totally unsurprising thing to me; of course we're always testing the combination of all of our beliefs.

    Like, a medieval astronomer noting the retrograde motion of planets could conclude from that observation that the true motion of planets cannot be simple circles, and that we must conclude that they follow epicycles around intermediary points that in turn circle the Earth as we previously supposed the planets to.

    Or, Copernicus might point out to them, we could instead modify our background assumption that planets circle the Earth at all, and instead suppose they and the Earth circle the sun, and the relative motion of the Earth and (other) planets would account for the observation of retrograde motion in the sky.

    Except, that still doesn't perfectly fit the observations, so the critics might retort that we do in fact need to conclude that epicycles are real anyway, whether or not the planets circle the sun.

    Unless, Kepler might point out to them all, we instead modify out background assumption that everything in the sky moves in circles at all, and allow for the possibility that their motion is elliptical.

    So the observation of retrograde motion either proves that epicycles are real, or else disproves the assumption that planets move in circles*. Either way, we're still adapting our theory to account for the observations, and so still doing empiricism.

    *(Or... any of an infinite number of other possible explanations that would still fit that observation).
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    I'm not sure what you mean by that.Pfhorrest

    I was thinking we have competing theories. Turns out you're talking about one theory and competing hypotheses, and the whole Quine-Duhem holism underdetermination thing. All good.

    I want to see what everyone else is up to, and then maybe we can talk about that some more. I also find a lot to like there.

    Where are all the forum's Kantians, do you suppose?
  • flaco
    15
    But that lack of transparency doesn't sound much like science either. Remember a couple years ago when Donald Hoffman was pushing that "desktop" metaphor? He was arguing that this subconscious is systematically lying, because evolution would have selected for rapid threat identification and against accurate perception. Whatever the merits of his position, people can tell different stories about what's going on in the black box, and different evolutionary psychology stories about why. Do we need a way to assess these stories? What would that be?Srap Tasmaner

    OK. I will start off with the confession that my exposure to Hoffman's idea is a 20 minute TED talk. But from that talk, I think he has gone a bridge too far. I agree that our perception of reality seems to be warped by evolution. But maybe not always. Figuring the trajectory of a spear on a windy day might have less warping than deciding if the snap of a twig is a hungry lion hiding in the undergrowth. But, I agree that we can't depend on the output of the black box to be a reliable representation of reality. So, yes, we do need a way to assess these stories. For me, that would be science. Formulating models. Doing experiments. And then arguing about the results with lots of people with different black boxes. Hoping for transcendence.

    Now what about the part we're aware of? Is it conceivable there is something like an old school blank slate empiricist agent that we experience consciously as feeding us a complete conceptual framework, already assembled, such that we might as well have been born with it?Srap Tasmaner

    If a part of my mind is a blank slate, it would be the conscious part. But I don't know about an innate empiricist agent or an innate conceptual framework. How will we figure that out?
  • Srap Tasmaner
    2.4k
    20 minute TED talkflaco

    I didn't even watch the talk. I don't care about Hoffman -- just an example. I brought him up because there's a lot of "Bayesian brain" talk these days.-- in other words, don't worry about it, your brain is doing math for you that you wouldn't even understand, it's got this covered. Oh, and Darwin, QED.

    For me, that would be science. Formulating models. Doing experiments. And then arguing about the results with lots of people with different black boxes. Hoping for transcendence.flaco

    Yeah that's not bad at all. And you and @Pfhorrest both end up talking about resolving disputes, though Quine's model on its own has that classic me-alone-figuring-out-the-world feel. Hence radical translation and all that.

    The last part you quote -- I'm just trying to see if we can tie it back to old school empiricism. We've tabled, you'll recall, the issue of where concepts and theories come from. I was just wondering if we could imagine an arrangement that feels to us like we just have this conceptual framework, but underneath it is being generated along empiricist lines. We have these two levels; the classic empiricists didn't. We've also been considering the opposite arrangement!
  • Pfhorrest
    3.1k
    And you and Pfhorrest both end up talking about resolving disputes, though Quine's model on its own has that classic me-alone-figuring-out-the-world feel.Srap Tasmaner

    On my model, the disputes can be internal to one person. There are multiple options and you're not sure which to believe: how do you choose? It's the same exact problem as different people with different opinions trying to decide which if either is correct.
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