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.


The Evolutionary Argument against Rationalism

In the comments on my post on Armstrong on Naturalism and Empiricism Brandon and JS raised a concern about the evolutionary argument I sketched against rationalism. I have hinted at this kind of argument before but I guess I have never spelled it out. I have sort of thought it was just too obviously an extension of Hume’s kind of argument…but maybe it is worth spelling out.

Suppose that you have a stable environment E. In E there are events (e1, e2,…en) and it so happens that there is a regularity in E such that e2 regularly and reliably follows e1. Now suppose that there are creatures, C,  that live in E. Then evolutionary theory says (roughly)  that C will adapt to E via natural selection (I do not mean to be saying that C will become optimally adapted, that is a hotly contested claim). One obvious source of reproductive advantage would be being able to track the regularities in E. If e2 is such that it is (harmful or) beneficial for C then it would, through the course of natural selection, come to be the case that C  tracked the regularity, R, expressed by ‘e1 then e2’; that is to say C would come to associate e2 with the occurrence of e1. Now assume that R is some basic and (hitherto) extremely reliable regularity (like that when you have one object and you place another object next to it you then have two objects).

Now suppose that, for whatever reason, R continues to be regular and tokens of e1 are immediately followed by tokens of e2. Decedents of C will also track R, but will also have to track other regularities that they discover for themselves. So, decedents of C that have R ‘hardwired’ in will free up cognitive resources. So now suppose that C is a species from which a species evolved from which a species evolved…from which we evolved and that R has continued to be regular and reliable up till now. At this point R would presumably be something for which we are equipped to find intuitively obvious. This is exactly what developmental psychology (like work from Spelke and many others) has shown.

So, when the rationalist appeals to their experience of ‘finding something obvious’ as evidence that we know something in a special way that is revealed to be necessary and universal, it could just be the product of that regular and reliable conjunction of events has, around here and so far been that way. But that, of course, does not guarantee that it must be that way. Now how could the rationalist know which of the two theories better accounted for his experience? Our intuitions are shaped by the world that we happen to find ourselves in. And so if evolution is true rationalism is most likely false.

JS asks,

I’m also not sure evolution precludes intuition as evidence for rationalism. I suppose I just don’t think your reasoning pans out in real life. I don’t see how I can’t both agree with this: “we would expect that there would be certain truths which seem to be self-evident but are really just the product of a long process of natural selection in response to a stable environment”, and not believe in rationalism. Can’t I tell an equally nice just-so story like this: I agree with RB’s quote, but at a certain stage of complexity it’s been found that animals begin to intuit other actually self-evident beliefs, which then survive natural selection in virtue of their fitness. The end. I’m sure you disagree, however.

Well it would depend on what you mean when you say ‘animals begin to intuit self-evident beliefs’. If you don’t mean ‘discover solely by the use of reason necessary and universal facts about reality’ then we do not really disagree on anything. But if you do mean that, then the question is how could those kind of things be selected for or have any fitness at all if they did not causally interact with C or E? Sure there are spandrels and such, but in order for a property P to be reproductively beneficial it would have to play some role for C or in E. Notice that the mathematical truths play a hugely beneficial role for us. It is in fact their usefulness and indispensability to science that Quine and others have taken to show that they are empirical. David Rosenthal has given (in class) a similar argument for logic being empirical. He argued that one reason to think that it is is that it explains inferences that humans find valid and to that extent is hostage to the empirial–and so not analytic.

But maybe we did evolve to track necessary and universal facts about reality discovered by the use of reason. The point is that we couldn’t appeal to our experience of certainly as evidence for that view since we can’t rule out that the experience isn’t due to a very long association between certain events (that are not necessary). We would need some other kind of evidence. But what other evidence is there?

Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory

In celebration of my one year in the blogosphere I have decided to start a new (randomly published) series of posts highlighting a post from exactly one year ago that did not recieve much attention. Here is the First.


If you have been around here lately then you know that I have been working on a paper on the higher-order theory of consciousness, and right now I am supposed to be converting the paper into a PowerPoint presentation, but I was distracted by the following line of thought…ah well…why fight it?

Freedom of speech is a foundational value in American society, and indeed ought to be foundational for any free society. Yet, even so we all recognize that there ought to be some limits set of this freedom. The important question, of course, is just what these limits ought to be. Famously Mill argued for what has come to be know as ‘the Harm Principle,’ which says, as he puts it, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” But what limits does this impose?

Here is a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Mill.

If we accept the argument based on the harm principle we need to ask “what types of speech, if any, cause harm?” Once we can answer this question, we have found the correct limits to free expression. Mill uses the example of speech related to corn dealers; he suggests that it is fine to claim that corn dealers are starvers of the poor if such a view is expressed through the medium of the printed page, but that it is not permissible to express the same view to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the dealer. The difference between the two is that the latter is an expression “such as to constitute…a positive instigation to some mischievous act,” (1978, 53), namely, to place the rights, and possibly the life, of the corn dealer in danger.

This kind of argument is common is the free speech debate. It is akin to the adage ‘you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre’and the so-called “fighting words” exception to free speech. Recent times have seen an adaptation of this kind of argument (especially in Britten) with respect to inciting terrorism.

It seems to me that what this kind of an argument amounts to is an injunction on certain kinds of speech acts (i.e. an injunction against certain illocutionary forces especially when they have some harmful perlocutionary effect. (I take it for granted that you know some speech act theory (Austin, Grice, etc), if you don’t let me know in the comments and I will give you a brief introduction to the basic ideas)). In fact when one goes back and re-reads Mill with some speech act theory in mind, it becomes clear that he is defending our right to make assertions (read: express beliefs) that are unpopular/believed to be false by others and to express moral sentiments that others may deem immoral but this clearly does not apply to ever kind of act that we can perform with speech.

Once we see speech as a kind of action then it becomes obvious that we ought to prohibit some kinds of speech, in just the same way that we prohibit certain kinds of actions (this, I take it, is similar to Stanley Fish’s views and why he says that no speech is ‘free’ though he does not appeal to speech act theory). In particular it becomes obvious that some kinds of speech acts that fall under ‘hate speech’ ought to be prohibited. We would not allow someone to poke a random person on the subway with a stick repeatedly, just to annoy the person. Why, then, should we allow someone to psychologically jab at someone with a racial slur, just to annoy the person?

Let us invent a racial slur for discussion’s sake. Let us say that there is a group of people for whom to be called a ‘bagger’ is as hurtful to them as our English “n” word.  Now suppose that someone said “Baggers are less intelligent than Asians, and it is a waste of time to try to educate them.” On the view that I am advocating it would be allowable for someone to say that in the course of asserting that baggers are less intelligent than Asians, as that is the expression of a belief which is an allowable speech act no matter how repugnant the belief is, and also no matter how much it pains me to hear you express it. This is because the perlocutionary goal of assertion is to get someone to believe something and not to cause harm to that person. Any harm produced is “collateral damage.” 

But it would not be allowable, on my view, to say the same thing in the course of performing some other kind of speech act that had as its perlocutionary goal inflicting some kind of psychological damage on the person, or of inciting them to do violence. Thus what matters is not what is said, but what one is doing in and by saying it.