Empiricism as the Default Position

In the comments on the previous post Brandon says

You seem to be assuming that we all start from the empiricist side, and then the question is just: why should we go farther, into rationalist territory? But, of course, most rationalists won’t concede that empiricism is, or even can be, the default position

I was thinking about my response and then I happend to read this review of a new book on Quine. The review portrays the book as an attempt to show that Quine was a systematic philosopher who was trying to give a completely naturalistic account of the world (what the author call naturalism, I would call empiricism but that is probably just terminological).

According to Quine, the fact that the naturalistic outlook of science is the best option at our disposal is itself discovered empirically by means of scientific criteria of evaluation: in fact science has given us the most comprehensive, systematic, successful and intelligible account of the world.

I absolutely agree with this interpretation of Quine and also with the claim that the questionable parts of Quine’s philosophy (like the behavorism) are Quine demonstrating that we could in principle give naturalistic accounts of phenomena that the rationalist claimed only they could do. We have better accounts now, but the Devitt’s adbduction is very much in the spirit of this interpretation of Quine.

Empiricism works, in principle, just as well as rationalism. Anything that can be accounted for by rationalism can be accounted for by the empiricist. The empiricist appeals to entities and processes that are (fairly) well-understood. The rationalist appeals to entities and processes that are completely mysterious. No one has ever even attempted to seriously give an account of what we know and how on a rationalist conception. On top of this empiricism has itself been tested by its own standard and passed. If there were some compelling reason to think that only rationalism could account for some phenomena then I agree that would be good reason to opt for it but when there is an empiricist alternative it should be preferred.

 

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20 thoughts on “Empiricism as the Default Position

  1. It seems to me like all you’ve said above is “Empiricism is the default position” at greater length. When you say, “Anything that can be accounted for by rationalism can be accounted for by the empiricist,” what you mean is that empiricists are cconfident that anything that can be accounted for by rationalism can be accounted for by the empiricist — rationalists would deny it, and empiricists have certainly not addressed every rationalist argument on this question. I don’t even consider myself a rationalist, and I think it would be absurd to say that empiricists have shown that they can solve even the challenges that were put forward against empiricism in the early modern period (the few attempts that have even been made, at least as far as I have seen, have the same flaws Malebranche pointed out in the seventeenth century when he ripped up those versions of empiricism). Rationalists appeal to entities and like that are mysterious on empiricist principles; rationalists would simply point out that however different they may be from things we sense, they really aren’t so mysterious at all: we know lots and lots about them. (To give a version of an old rationalist joke, only empiricists think triangles and the set of natural numbers are completely mysterious, and perhaps then so much the worse for empiricists.) I don’t even know what you can mean when you say, “No one has ever even attempted to seriously give an account of what we know and how on a rationalist conception,” since surely you can’t mean that rationalists don’t give accounts of things we know and how we know them. And rationalists have often denied that empiricism can be formulated in purely empiricist terms, and, apparently, just as often been ignored. All that I think you’ve done is reiterate why, if you already accept empiricism, you’d take empiricism to be the default position. What you would need to show is that rationalists themselves are committed to taking empiricism as the default position.

  2. I claim that wen two theories are capable of explaining the same phenomena then the simplest, and best understood theory is to be preferred. Do you dispute that claim?

    I then clam that empiricism is simpler and better understood than rationalism and so should be preffered. In fact I think something stronger, that rationalism is so outlandish that even the possibility of an empiricist account of some phenomenon is to be preferred to rationalism. This is something that you disagree with, since you say,

    ” rationalists would simply point out that however different they may be from things we sense, they really aren’t so mysterious at all: we know lots and lots about them.”

    Know lots about what? Math? Sure, but what do we know about these non-physical objects? What are their identoty conditions, how do we get in touch with them, etc. No one has ever given a serious, predictive, theory of anything remotely like what the ratrionalists posit.

    In short, if the rationalist is to be taken seriously, they must offer us an actual serious account of what they are talking about. I mean one that is at least as well worked out as the scientific method and the correspondence theory of truth. You can’t simply say ‘well look at all the mat and logic truths” since we can explain those things from an empiricist (i.e. the simpler better understood) point of view. so the old rationalist joke isn’t really a joke at the expense of the empiricist, since they don’t think numbers and triangle are totally mysterious; they think the non-physical objecvts that rationalists call numbers and triangles are totally mystrerious. There is posited to be a simple naturalist account of what numbers are which is discovered via the scientific method.

    But as for the specific challeneges to empiricism from tthe rationalist, I am all for hearing them and giving them their due!

  3. I then clam that empiricism is simpler and better understood than rationalism and so should be preffered.

    No doubt; this is also precisely what the rationalist disputes. He will say that empiricism is not simpler: its epicycles in order to explain things like the coherence of talk about infinites in mathematics get so complicated as to be absurd. He will claim that it is not better understood than rationalism: the empiricist has plenty of mysteries, which is why we get, to name just one example, all these interminable disputes about the qualia of sense-consciousness. He will go farther and claim that the empiricist helps himself illicitly to rationalist moves when it suits him, e.g., to avoid the specter of Humean skepticism about objective causation, or to allow in mathematics as consistent with empiricism. And rationalists have given arguments for such points; to reiterate just one example that I’ve already mentioned, Nagel’s _The Last Word_ is precisely a statement of traditional rationalist views on the inadequacies of empiricism.

    I have no idea what you mean by a “predictive theory” of mathematical objects. What are you demanding? That the rationalist predict that all triangles on a Euclidean plane will have angles adding to the sum of two right angles, and that imperfect triangles on relatively flat surfaces will approximate this to the degree allowed by the imperfection of the plane and the lines? Done. What other prediction is required, that does not assume that the rationalist must pass some test that already presupposes that the empiricist is the default position?

    My claim is not that the rationalists are right in any of this. My claim is that your argument that empiricism is the default position just appears to assume that empiricists are right. As I said, I’m inclined to think that the state of the argument is both sides giving themselves an A+ by assuming that they’re right, and giving the other side an F for exactly the same reason.

  4. Brandon, I’m really sympathetic to your claim. But I wonder given constructivism and so forth if the empiricists haven’t answered a lot of the rationalist charges about mystery. I confess I don’t know many 20th century Rationalists so it’s hard to know what how that conversation would go. It seems odd though to put 17th – 19th century Rationalists in conversation with 20th century Empiricists given how much the context has changed.

    I’m really interested in what you see as the remaining mysteries.

  5. To add if it wasn’t clear, I’m not disputing that there appears no starting point to say one or the other is the ‘default’ position. It just seems that the empiricist can appeal to theories about objects earlier taken as immaterial (i.e. platonic objects) and that their answers appear to explain math as we develop it quite well. Arguably better than I think rationalists or platonists can. I’m not saying they are right. But, to return to mathematics, there’s something appealing about a philosophy that also deals with how we construct proofs.

  6. Brandon, maybe we are using ‘simpler’ and ‘better understood’ in different ways. So, when I say that empiricism is simpler and better understood you respond by saying.

    “No doubt; this is also precisely what the rationalist disputes. He will say that empiricism is not simpler: its epicycles in order to explain things like the coherence of talk about infinites in mathematics get so complicated as to be absurd.”

    But my point was that the epiricist theory of how we know is itself simpler, not that the completed empiricist account of any given phenomenon is simpler. The empiricists says that the belief that p is true in virtue of the worldly fact that p or in virtue of conceptual connections between beliefs which are true in virtue of worldly facts. This is the thing which is simpler and better understood. What does the rattionalist say? There are some beliefs that are true in virtue of…of what? Non-natural properties? What does that mean? No one has every given a serious theory of non-physical objects. In fact how one could do that is itself entirely mysterious.

    So when you say,

    “[the rationalist] will claim that it is not better understood than rationalism: the empiricist has plenty of mysteries, which is why we get, to name just one example, all these interminable disputes about the qualia of sense-consciousness.”

    you again change the subject. The point Iwas trying to make was that empiricism is itself, in the rough and ready form I just gave, better understood than any rationalist alternative. We have some idea how it could be the case that the worldly fact that p coould make my belief that p true. Not only do we understand what this means, but with this theory we are able to do a lot, and give theories of varying degrees if success if everything out there. What does the rationalist have? Intuitions which can be explained away, and vauge analogies with sense experience…what else is there? Math and logic can’t be examples since we can explain all of that on an empiricist theory.

    So while it is true that there are those who think that we cannot give a naturalistic account of consciousness, they don’t have a leg to stand on. Their arguments are completely based on intuition and introspection, both of which can be empirically shown to be unreliable. And we do have candidates for natuarlistic accounts. I do not think that any are obviously correct, but none of them are obviously false. So, when we have the prospects of developing a theory that aloows us to explain a phenomenon and fit it in with a broad, elegant and well understood theory of everything else we should prefer this to a theory that makes it mysterious and less well understood and at odds with everything else. What reason, other than intuition, is there for non-natural properties?

    But I do agree with you that some empiricists have tried to sneak rationalism back in to deal with Humean skepticism and mathematics. But an empiricist need not do this, and they shouldn’t do it. I don’t think we can much better than Hume given empiricism. Though I do like Armstrong’s argument to the effect that may as well posit a law (in the form of a universally quantified statement (x) (Fx → Gx)) as opposed to the regularity.

    All of those predictions are made by empiricist theories of mathematics as well. What I mean is that no one has given a theory of non-physical objects that does any work. Every succsesful theory we have so far devised has not had to posit non-natural properties. This has been an enormous success. The theories that posit non-natural properties have not had nearly as much succsess. So, I am not trying to say that empiricism is right because empiricisusm is right, which is what you seem to be taking me as saying. I am merely trying to point out that one is well undedstood and successful, the other poorly understood and unsuccsessful. The choice seems obvious.

    And as I argued inthe other post the rationalist is in trouble of his own, since it is a priori conceivable that rationalism is false.

    Clark, thanks for the comments.

    Constructivist theories are just one example of empiricist approaches to mathematics that are very appealing. Thanks for the example.

  7. Clark,

    Constructivism et al. don’t actually provide an adequate response to rationalism, because the empiricist needs to show not merely that empiricist approaches can often or even for the most part approximate rationalist approaches (which is something that has usually been held by rationalists too) but that the rationalist approach is incoherent (which it must be if empiricism is right). So, for instance, it is not enough to show that you can do finitistic mathematics; the empiricist must show that you can’t do infinitistic mathematics (or show that there is a purely empirical way to admit genuine infinities) , otherwise he is leaving open a ground only the rationalist can cover.

    Richard,

    You say that by simplicity you mean “that the epiricist theory of how we know is itself simpler, not that the completed empiricist account of any given phenomenon is simpler.” But then it clearly cannot do the function that you intend for it to do. The reason for the importance of simplicity, remember, was that “when two theories are capable of explaining the same phenomena then the simplest, and best understood theory is to be preferred”; thus the simplicity has to attach to the explanation, not to some point upstream. That is, to be preferable, the value of simplicity can only be that it gives simple explanations, not merely that it has some simplicity somewhere in the theory (which is useless for telling us whether it is better).

    But for the rest you’re clearly just using the empiricist approach to decide whether empiricism or rationalism is the default position. For instance, you say,

    The empiricists says that the belief that p is true in virtue of the worldly fact that p or in virtue of conceptual connections between beliefs which are true in virtue of worldly facts.

    So indeed does the rationalist; after all, if it’s not a worldly fact that 1 + 1 = 2, what is? Even the empiricist will usually admit it. And thus the empiricist cannot deny that the rationalist is talking about worldly facts unless he arbitrarily confines ‘wordly fact’ to ’empiricist interpretation’ of what virtually everyone agrees to be wordly facts. And so with the rest, as far as I can see.

    It is in no way a problem for the rationalist that it is a priori conceivable that rationalism is false; obviously it would be so, because in a world without rational creatures, which is a priori conceivable, rationalism would apply to no cognitive agents at all. The rationalist doesn’t need rationalism to be necessary, but to be true.

  8. Ah. That makes sense. Thanks Brandon. So would you say the issue of infinities is a big problem with most empiricist claims of empiricism?

  9. I think it is actually; it is one that empiricists have traditionally had extreme difficulties with. I think one can argue that the early modern empiricists never found a way to solve it. To handle it Berkeley flirts with the idea that the Pythagorean theorem, while useful, is false (in his notebooks — he doesn’t seem to have done more than flirt with it), and Hume develops an extremely elaborate account of geometry, sprawling over Book 2 of the Treatise, and concluding in part that geometry is an inexact science (he also seems to be committed to the claim that the Pythagorean theorem is false). Malebranche considers a number of possible empiricist responses and shows that the empiricist can not show that any of them actually work unless they implicitly appeal to an idea of the infinite not derived empirically. I don’t think it has been very much on the radar of a lot of empiricists in the past century or so; I’ve never come across an answer that wasn’t just a version of one of the ones Malebranche noted. And certainly there are rationalists still proposing it as a problem — I mentioned Nagel before.

    I wouldn’t want to rule out there being some adequate empiricist response, somewhere, but I don’t think most empiricists have the resources, and am inclined to think that the rationalists are right about at least one thing: empiricists may be thorough empiricists in principle, but in practice they’ll slip into rationalist modes of thought and speech whenever it’s easier to do so.

  10. “The reason for the importance of simplicity, remember, was that “when two theories are capable of explaining the same phenomena then the simplest, and best understood theory is to be preferred”; thus the simplicity has to attach to the explanation, not to some point upstream. That is, to be preferable, the value of simplicity can only be that it gives simple explanations, not merely that it has some simplicity somewhere in the theory (which is useless for telling us whether it is better).”

    I agree. But the point is that we are trying to give an explanation of human knowledge. The simplest, best understood theory of knowledge is to be preffered. That is the point I am trying to make. So, when you say that the rationalist can appeal to worldly facts just like the empiricist that is right and wrong. You are right that they can say that it is a worldly fact that 2+2=4, but they mean by ‘worldly fact’ something which is mysterious. When the empiricist says ‘worldly fact’ they are at least committed to naturalism since they are committed to our having to causally interact with our environment in order to know about it. The question is, which theory of knowledge should be prefferred? I am atguing that the one that is less mysterious should be preffered. Once we put things this way it seems obvious that empiticism should be the default position. we have some grasp of what they mean by ‘worldly fact’ as it is a natural thing that we can test for an study etc. The rationalist posits a different kind of thing all together. Nobody has a clue what these things are or how we are able to ‘get in touch with them’. All we have ever got are analogies to the empirical way of knowing. Given this empiricism should be preffered and that means that the mere possibility of a naturalistic/materialistic account of some phenomena should be enough to give empiricism the upper hand.

    What I meant about conceiving that rationalism was false was that it is conceivable that any any given candidate for a necessary fact is conceivably not neccessary. Worse, it is conceivable that numbers exist in some possible worlds and not others.

  11. You are right that they can say that it is a worldly fact that 2+2=4, but they mean by ‘worldly fact’ something which is mysterious.

    As you might guess, I don’t think the rationalist has to concede this; all they have to concede is that what they mean by ‘worldly fact’ is something that is mysterious to someone trying to fit it into an empiricist interpretation. I’m a little unclear about your response, though; while here you put the emphasis on the rationalist interpretation of ‘worldly fact’ (i.e., what the rationalist takes the things we know to be); but then you go on to talk not about this but about causal interaction, which is one way in which empiricists have tried to characterize the act of knowing (we are acted on by the environment), and talk as if this is where the mysteriousness of rationalism is. Is it the (interpretation of) the worldly fact, i.e., the thing known, or the manner in which it is known that is supposed to be mysterious?

    (I say that causal interaction with the environment is ‘one way’ in which empiricists have characterized the act of knowing because, as you note somewhere above, some empiricists are constructivists. But constructivists are distinguished by the fact that they hold that at least some things that we know are not known in this way at all, but by constructing them. The point is actually an interesting one, because there is nothing about constructivism as such that requires empiricism; you could just as easily be a constructivist rationalist, and most rationalists have held that some knowledge is constructed.)

    Rationalists tend to hold that causation is not a primitive: i.e., they tend to think it has an explanation in terms of something like structural constitution. E.g., my fist is the cause of the imprint in the dough because the collection of properties in my hand are united to the collection of properties in the dough, both being at least in principle capable of rigorous mathematical description, and the fist’s causing the dough to take on an imprint is in principle describable as an instance of a mathematical function. Thus causation is simply what you get when you have a system structurally constituted in a certain way, and the only reason for thinking causation relevant to knowledge is that we can at least rough out how the information is distributed across the unified system. (Thus, as a side note, most rationalists hold that causal systems are only well-understood if understood in rationalist terms.) If we take this route, though, then it isn’t so clear why only this particular type of structurally constituted system can allow for knowledge; why, for instance, couldn’t it be the case that a different interaction of systems in the brain is so structured that it yields a necessary and certain answer, even though that answer is not wholly derived by information coming in from the environment.

    On the conceivability issue, I think it is simply open to the rationalist to deny the claim that it’s a priori conceivable that any given candidate for a necessary fact is conceivably not necessary; and if even one remains, the rationalist has identified a truth only the rationalist can prove (at least as the rationalist is inclined to think).

  12. Hi Richard,

    You mention empirical method, but one can point to two things:
    1)Not always the theories are result just of wild guesses. For example Einstein’s theories of relativity can be seen not as wild guesses on base of empirical data, but as are a priori conclusions based on that empirical data – that is- a)the constancy of speed of light and b)the invariance of laws relatively to the movement of the observer. So, the a priori thinking there, which goes beyond math and logic, is part of the sciences.
    2)Big part of empirical sciences are being able to give novel predictions, but those predictions again can’t be just the empirical data we already have. They are instead supposed to again follow a priori from the theory. In that too a priori thinking is part of empirical sciences.

    So, if rationalism is limited to the claim that we are able to figure out certain truths through a priori thought, it seems as a significant part of science hinges on possibility of a priori thought already.

    Of course, one can be rationalist about this truth ,but not about that truth. One can be rationalist about math, but not about general relativity. Or be rationalist about GR, but not about quantum mechanics. So, I think if we talk about empiricism vs. rationalism we need to be more precise. Not many will be rationalists about the truth of ‘there is a beer in the fridge’.

  13. “Is it the (interpretation of) the worldly fact, i.e., the thing known, or the manner in which it is known that is supposed to be mysterious?”

    It’s both.

    As for the causal stuff. How is the mathematical constituitional story you allude to above a distinctively rationalist account? Everything that you said is compatible with empiricism. Unless you are assuming something about mathematics, but then you need an argument for that.

    I agree that a rationalist could object in the way that you suggest, but the point is that in order to do so they would need a well worked out theory of what necessary truths are and how we know them and what the non-physical objects they are supposed to represent are like, what laws govern them, how they interact with us, etc. Or in other words what these things are like and how we could find that out. This is exactly what we don’t have. The structual isomorphism that you talk about is not an account of how we could know non-physical eternal and necessary facts. You ask “why, for instance, couldn’t it be the case that a different interaction of systems in the brain is so structured that it yields a necessary and certain answer, even though that answer is not wholly derived by information coming in from the environment.” That’s a good question! Do you mean that it does so by chance? Perhaps it does, but so what? How could we ever tell? Or do you mean that it is actually tracking a necessary and certain non-physical fact? How is it doing that? How can something be structuarlly isomorphic to something with a structure (or is it that numbers have structure, if so how do you tell?)…and so on and so on. Is there any way to answer these questions one way as opposed to another?

    Hi Tanasije,

    Re 1: it depends on how you are using ‘a priori’ there. The way you describe it sounds fine to me. We set some assumptions and then, using some conventional system, deduce consequences. But you haven’t suggested anything that is seriosuly a priori; that is, anything that is necessary and universal and which is knowable completely independantly of experience.

    Re 2: True, they follow from the theory. But the point is that the theory follows from the scientific method. The way you use ‘a priori’ it seems to mean only ‘we deduce it from a theory’ but that is not something that is at odds with empiricism unless you add that the theory is obtained independantly of experience.

    A rationalist is someone who thinks that there are necessary and universal facts that are known only by reason…but that is not what you have been talking about. That is, unless you add to it the claim that the rules of inference are necessary and that mathematics is necessary and are knowable only by reason, but again, your examples don’t show that.

  14. I’m using a priori in the sense – able to figure out something through though alone, without need of checking the world. Theory of relativity starts from some empirical knowledge, and through thought alone figures out further truths about the world. Are you OK with such possibility? Not sure what you mean by “using some conventional system, deduce consequences”. I mean what does “conventional” do there? When is a mathematical theorem, or metaphysical view “conventional”, and why is it important? You say “you haven’t suggested anything that is seriosuly a priori”. Well, if you don’t think that the conclusion is seriously a priori because the premisses are empirical, than I can just point to the alternative – “given that those assumptions (constant speed of light and invariance of laws vs. movement) are fact, those claims will also be true” as a priori.

    Anyway, it seems to me you are asking too much from rationalists. Surely the central claim of rationalism is that lot of what we know and what we figure out is based on thought, and not on empirical research. And I am pointing that there is rationalism within the science itself. Not just that it uses mathematical theorems which were developed “by thought alone”, and which didn’t have any “practical” meaning until some physicist figured out he could use them in a theory, but also logical thinking is used on every step in the forming the theory (and to big extent in some cases like in Einstein), and also in generating predictions.

    Depending on what kind of “knowledge” we are talking about, I guess rationalist can be OK with people knowing the truths which are necessary from experience too. I mean, even I think that 1+1=2 is necessary truth, I can believe that someone knows this because he has justified belief that 1+1=2 (e.g. the teacher told him). So, I would drop “only by reason” part, if we are talking about such knowledge. If we talk about knowledge “with understanding”, then sure, rationalist can claim that there is some truths that we can understand only through reason. But, then can we understand anything without reason? It seems almost tautological claim from the side of the rationalists.

    I guess, it seems to me that the whole dichotomy is somewhat problematic. It seems more proper to me to talk about this – What can we figure out given that we already know X, or already have concept of Y, without checking the world. Some would be rationalists about math, saying that we figure out theorems without checking the world. Some will be rationalists about physics, saying that we can figure out the laws of the world without checking the world (though by having necessary concepts), and so on…

  15. Tanasije, no one ever denied that reason plays an important role in our theorizing about the world. The question is what reason does. What role it plays. The rationalists have typically claimed that reason ‘intuits’ necessary facts about reality, usually by way of detecing what is contradictory. That something entails a contradiction is something that can only be known by reason, so these necessary facts are only knowable by reason. You say that the truths of logic are a priori and that they play a role in the sciences, so science depends of rationalism. But that is not right. The logical truths do, as you say, play a role in the sciences, and so I allow that they may have played the role that you suggest. So, in your sense that knowledge would count as a priori. But the way you are using the word there doesn’t get at what I am interested in. This is because, as you say, you think that the logical truths themselves are known to be true independently of experience and through reason alone. I claim that these logical truths are known from experience, that they are in Mill’s term ’empirical generalizations’. The empirical generalizations that are now accepted are the basic cannons of mathematics and logic. So the fact that logic is used in science is not evidence ofr rationalism.

    As for your claim that some people could learn that 1+1=2 from experience, I never denied that. The rationalist says that the justification for belief that 1+1=2 does not come from experience. Sure someone can tell it to you, but that is not the reason that you know it. You know it because you ‘understand’ it, or ‘apprehend’ its truth, or ‘grasp’ it, or some other metaphor that no one has ever worked out in any detail. But the point is clear. It is that we somehow see that the thing is necessarily true. That is not something that you can learn from experience (according to these guys). So, the thing that I am questioning is the claim that we know that the truths of math and logic are necessary facts about reality. That they are facts about our world is not in dispute. The question is about what is possible and what reason has access to and can do.

    So, all you have said is ‘given some definitions, some assumptions and some formally defined rules we can use the rules to infer things from the asumptions and definitions. And as I have said, I agree that we can do this, and that we are very good at doing it. But it doesn’t show us anything about rationalism in the sense that I am using the word (which is the Kantian sense).

  16. As for the causal stuff. How is the mathematical constituitional story you allude to above a distinctively rationalist account? Everything that you said is compatible with empiricism. Unless you are assuming something about mathematics, but then you need an argument for that.

    I don’t see that it matters one way or another; the charge was that rationalists leave the way of knowing mysterious. They don’t; you’ve just conceded that the sort of explanation the rationalists can give of it is the same type of explanation the empiricists can give. Nobody claims that the two can’t overlap at any point (in fact, everyone is committed to the claim that there will be lots of overlap).

    I agree that a rationalist could object in the way that you suggest, but the point is that in order to do so they would need a well worked out theory of what necessary truths are and how we know them and what the non-physical objects they are supposed to represent are like, what laws govern them, how they interact with us, etc.

    In the same sense, perhaps, that the empiricist has to have a well-worked out theory of what consciousness is, and how we know it, and how it represents things in the world, and what the fundamental nature of the things it represents are like, and what laws govern them, and how they interact with us, etc. That is to say, in other words, not really at all. The empiricist, to be an empiricist, doesn’t have to have a rigorously adequate explanation of sensation; he just has to sense, and go from there, and answer the rationalist’s objections, and provide reasons for his own position.

    Besides, you’re assuming too much in assuming that rationalists are committed to non-physical objects. Certainly some rationalists are; but what would you say to a rationalist who assumed that every empiricist must be committed to idealism?

  17. Also, where you say:

    As for the causal stuff. How is the mathematical constituitional story you allude to above a distinctively rationalist account? Everything that you said is compatible with empiricism. Unless you are assuming something about mathematics, but then you need an argument for that.

    But rationalists do give arguments for this; it’s a rationalist commonplace, in fact. So even if the form of explanation did not overlap, it would seem that your claim, which seems key to your argument, that empiricists can explain knowing, depends on the assumption that rationalists are wrong about the limitations of empiricism. If that’s so, it would prove my point that your argument for empiricism as the default presupposes that empiricism is right and rationalism is wrong.

  18. Hey Brandon,

    I lost the previous comment I was working on…**sigh** but here is a recreation…

    1. I didn’t admit that the “same” theory could be given by the rationalist and empiricst; what I said was that they theory that you sketched is not distinctly rationalist without further unargued for assumptions.

    2. The empiricist does have theories of sensation and consciousness. That is the whole point! They are not ‘rigorous’ and nno where near complete, but the claim is even in teh form that we have them now they are light years ahead of anything that the rationalist has come up with. The generally accepted picture emerging for cognitive science that talks about neurons firing and encoding information about the environment as an account of sensation is surely correct in broad strokes. We also have accounts of consciousness, that though sketchy and incomplete, do a far better job than any rationalist account. The reason being, as I have been arguing all along, that they appeal to physical theories and the scientific method, which are fairly well understood. The rationalist doesn’t have anything like this because the objects/properties/way we get in contact with those objects/properties are totally mysterious. No one has ever even come close to saying anything remotely like something that resembles a systematic account of this stuff. Appealing to mathematics doesn’t help you here. It is possible that mathematics is empirical and so that all mathematical facts are empirical facts. What you would need to do is to give an account of what numbers are and how we interact with them. People have given hand wavey-metaphor-laden suggestions of what they could be. But all the metaphors are based on empirical facts. Doesn’t that alonse suggest that the empirical way of knowing is better understood?

    3. Empiricism doesn’t commit you to any metaphysical view a priori. The claim is that physicalism is an empirical hypothesis. It seems to me that non-naturalism is just as good a candidate, a priori, as naturalism. But, ultimately things that we have discovered about the world have tipped the scales towards physicalism. Predominately this is because of causal closure. So, long story shory, I do think that the empiricist is committed to either idealism or physicalism (i.e. to naturalism). So, too I take rationalist to be committed to non-naturalism. I mean, what rationalist claims that numbers exist and exist in space and time? Are there such rationalist?

    4. I think I see why we keep crossing signals. You take me as assuming that empiricism is true and then critisizing rationalism according to empiricist standards. The rationalist does the same from his point of view and so each is just begging the question against the other. But I don’t think I am doing that, and I don’t think that the passage quoted shows that I am doing it. Rather what I am trying to do is to point out the mysteriousness of rationalist accounts and how evasive rationalists actually are with respect to giving an account of this stuff. So, to do this you take out the stuff that could overlap and you see what is left, what is distiinctively rationalist. It is those bits, the distinctly rationalist bits, that need a systematic, comprehensible, accounting for. And that is exactly what I am claiming that the rationalist never gives. This ‘distinctely rationalist’ bit doesn’t include things like theories of the infinite. For that is something, in principle, that the empiricist could account for and so counts as a part that overlaps.

  19. The generally accepted picture emerging for cognitive science that talks about neurons firing and encoding information about the environment as an account of sensation is surely correct in broad strokes.

    Yes, but what you keep forgetting is that the rationalist will say that this is a rationalist account of the brain — you don’t sense information, which is an intelligible structure found in communication channels. Remember, the rationalist complaint is that the empiricist is only an empiricist in principle; when he tries to show that empiricism is the way of doing science, etc., he always goes beyond what sensation can give. Now, this may be wrong. But it cannot be merely assumed to be wrong in an argument that empiricism is the default.

    Rationalists aren’t committed to non-naturalism, simpliciter; they are committed only to non-naturalism of the sort that the empiricist would recognize. There are plenty of naturalist rationalists; Thomas Nagel, for instance. There are indeed rationalists who hold that mathematical tokens exist in space and time; after all, if mathematics describes the leaf on the tree, one can take that as meaning that the leaf on the tree is a particular token of a type of a mathematical object. What such rationalists will deny is that the the empiricist can recognize the leaf on the tree as a mathematical object at all, without assuming some principle or set of principles that can only be known if the rationalist and not the empiricist is right. More commonly, though, and Nagel would be an example, such rationalists are committed not to non-natural objects but to non-natural (where ‘natural’ here means simply ‘what can consistently be known on empiricist principles, i.e., by finite operations upon finite sensations’) features of natural objects.

    Rationalists, of course, deny, and have always denied, that the empiricist can account for the infinite; and if you tell that to a rationalist, I guarantee that some of them would call you a liar to your face. Rationalists of various sorts have been arguing for the past three hundred years that empiricists can’t have a theory of the infinite without supposing something that can’t be known on empiricist principles, and they are occasionally touchy about it, because empiricists repeatedly have claimed to be able to handle the infinite without ever showing that the rationalist arguments on the subject are wrong.

  20. Information is an arrangement of events. There is no information without representation as an arrangement of events. Are there any facts that are not information?

    Are there any rationalist facts that are not geometrical facts? Two or more dots present at the same time are an arrangement of events and they are also a definition of “space”, the relationship between the dots creates geometries. There cannot be facts, rationalist or not, without geometries. Rationalist philosophical arguments usually assume Euclidean geometry and so are frequently false.

    Empiricism rightly assumes geometry because there can be no facts otherwise. Empiricism does not assume any particular geometry and so is capable of discovering facts without discounting them on the basis of rationalist theory.

    Once armed with these arguments I can state that eliminative materialism is an expression of a very particular geometrical theory. This is the theory that matter exists at an instantaneous present and there is either no matter at other times (strict presentism) or there is matter at other times but it is absolutely impossible to know of this matter except as a record at the instantaneous present. This theory allows the eliminative materialist to declare that the doctrine of incorrigibility is false because at each instant everything is stationary so events can only be known in the following instant when everything is stationary so… This regress (the essence of the homunulus argument) is held to “prove” that the mind cannot exist. (See Dennett in Consciousness Explained). The argument is entirely specious because the cosmology is known to be false and archaic, and of course, regress arguments prove that the argument is wrong and cannot be used to draw conclusions.

    The geometrical thesis also shows the source of dualism. Archaic materialist cosmology is false and cannot explain mind so there must be something else…dualism. This is nonsense because the “something else” should be a better cosmology.

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