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The SSA eNews Renamed: The SSA eMpirical!


This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 15 - Student Voice, Part I.

Nic HallWe've established a new name for the eNews: one that is not only less generic but actually reflective of the SSA mission. The new name: the SSA eMpirical, as thought of by Nic Hall, one of our board members. What follows is an essay by Nic explaining the philosophical issues surrounding empiricism: 1. the empty alternative 2. the problem with a strict interpretation and 3. its ultimate superiority in respect to science.

In the freethinking community, everybody's touting "science and reason" - it's "science and reason" this and "science and reason" that. Just look at the mission statement of any atheist/agnostic/Humanist organization: sure enough, you'll find good ole' "science and reason." They're ubiquitous. Hell, they're my default response to religious antagonism.

And there's a reason why we are so prone to cite them: because, frankly put, they're way better than other epistemological concepts like religion, faith, intuition, etc. In spite of this, simply spouting off "science and reason" as your standard for belief won't get you any respect among the local philosophy squares. For, rather than representing this unambiguous unity we've come to believe, our beloved catchphrase reflects one of the most divisive arguments within the history of philosophy, formally known as the empiricism/rationalism debate.

What's with the jargon shift, right? Philosophically speaking, what we understand today as science translates into empiricism, the view that knowledge of the world is obtained only through sense experience. On the other hand, reason correlates to the philosophical tradition of rationalism, the belief that knowledge is gained by deducing it exclusively from concepts within our minds. This dispute - beginning unofficially with Plato and Aristotle, but not coming to the forefront of intellectual discourse until the Enlightenment - therefore revolves around the question of what medium (the senses or the mind) gives us access to objective knowledge.

Since, for empiricists, every idea in your mind can be traced back to one of your senses, at birth the mind is a tabula rasa, a "blank slate." Rationalists paint the opposite picture, holding that the mind is filled with certain innate truths prior to experience, prior to any possible sensory corruption. But, the empiricist asks, if mental truths don't come from the senses, how does the mind come to know them? What is their ultimate origin?

The short answer points to a source "beyond," since, for rationalists, all data from the here-and-now remains transitory, error-ridden, and thereby, categorically unreliable. Through a special capacity, the mind is able to transcend sensory limitations and access a higher degree of being where knowledge of the eternal, unchanging, and perfect resides. As you've likely inferred, though, metaphysical assumptions are needed to validate this line of thought. And, of course, there are plenty of ontological and theological arguments that have attempted to do just that - for Plato, each individual is born knowing universal truths since the soul takes part in them à la the "Forms," while St. Augustine offered the comparatively simple explanation of "God" - but, for obvious reasons, such metaphysical speculation is unlikely to sit well with this audience. So at this point you're all probably renouncing rationalism for a strict empiricism, right?

The problem is that such an empiricism - one that wholly excludes rationalism - commits us to a view of humanity that conflicts with the contemporary academic consensus. You'll recall that if (strict) empiricism is indeed true, then the "blank slate" scenario logically follows, rendering the opposite view - that individuals come into existence with a cognitive blueprint - false. Yet, the mind is not merely a passive receiver to sensory immediacy without any recourse to concepts; it classifies and processes all sensations as they come streaming in according to numerous biological factors that go "beyond" - not in a supernatural sense, as was the case with pure rationalism, but within the naturalistic paradigm - our experiential lives.

As psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his book The Blank Slate, the brain begins from birth to organize experience into meaningful concepts, into coherent patterns, whose structures are the consequences of natural selection. Equipped with remnants of an internal structure that operated in the brains of our ancestors, we find our stimuli responses, at times, resoundingly instinctual. And surely this conflicts with that which we'd expect to find if our minds were, indeed, fundamentally "blank slates." Take, for instance, the body's "fight or flight response," a trigger-like chemical response to 'fight' or 'flee from' anything that may threaten individual survival. Working within the tabula rasa hypothesis, what might cause such an automatic response - such a neurological "attack mode" - in contemporary, civil society, where such immediate threats (comparatively speaking) remain scarce? Surely, simple habituation can't explain its universal quality. The more likely scenario, then, is that the "fight or flight" response was a pre-human adaptation to the threatening presence of saber-tooth tigers and such, passed down to our current form through our genes.

And while it is certainly true that human beings have self-consciousness and, thereby, the ability to both reflect upon and transform elements of our evolutionary dispositions, it doesn't make their existence - not to mention influence - any less real. As Robert J. Richards states, "No magic moment occurs when souls rain down on waiting primate bodies to wash away all signs of brute origin." Yet, in ignoring the byproducts of biological evolution, such a strict empircism seems to warrant this kind of mystical attribution.

A sound epistemology will, therefore, grant the rationalist claim that a priori ideas make up a large part of our reality. But (and this is a big "but") beyond countering the tabula rasa hypothesis, we must suspect just how much objective knowledge even a naturalistic rationalism is able to shed light upon. After all, we adapted these cognitive structures hundreds of thousands of years ago on another continent (hint: Africa) as a result of many conditions no longer present or relevant. It was experiential utility, not metaphysical designation, which rendered them a necessary part of our neurological framework. Therefore, they are not - in any sense - doorways to metaphysical truths; they simply contribute to they way to we understand and make sense of our surroundings. In order to procure knowledge of our external world, we rely upon the collective use of our senses; we rely upon empiricism.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 15 - Student Voice, Part I.

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