Re: Empiricism

Garry DeWeese (
Thu, 16 Apr 1998 18:57:21 -0600

Dear Massimo,

At 04:37 PM 4/16/1998 -0400, you wrote:
>Ok, I like philosophy too, especially over a beer. But it is very easy
>to get very silly with this line of reasoning. See, while there
>(probably) is only one reality (yes, that's an assumption, but a pretty
>darn consistent one!), there are many alternative "logics", only one of
>which (at most) corresponds to reality.

As a philosopher, I like botany too, especially when I hike in the
mountains here in Colorado and try to identify different wild flowers. In
fact, my guide book is organized very sensibly according to "yellow
flowers," "white flowers," and "blue flowers." Very practical. Isn't the
stuff you botanists do rather silly, basically overkill?

Of course not! Careful analysis, clear definition, close observation, etc.
are most important. And it is in philosophy too. So it seems to me that
your blithe dismissal of philosophical analysis of the epistemological
basis of empiricism is far too quick.

That there is only one reality is indeed a presupposition, but, yes, a
pretty sensible one. The issue between us, though, is what are the
constituents of that one reality? (More on this shortly.) And as far as
different logics goes, the particular logic one uses is a function of the
kind of problem one is dealing with rather than the nature of reality.
Fuzzy logic, for example, is very useful in analysis and simulation of
certain processes; multivalent logic has a place in discussing future
contingent propositions; etc. But these are extensions of first-order
predicate logic which seems uniquely suited to analyze ordinary language

>So, yes, the scientific method is empirical, and yes, you have at one
>point to take the "rationalist leap". So what? That leap is very very
>small (as Will Provine has repeatedly pointed out) compared to the
>ir-rational one which makes you assume the existence of supernatural
>entities and phenomena of which you have absolutely no knowledge or
>tangible experience.

I suspect you are far too relaxed about the implications of your admission
that you must take a small rationalist leap. It is not a small, one-time
commitment at the very beginning of the empirical enterprise. Rather the
empiricist *must* rely on a priori evidence *throughout* the process. I
think I can show that empiricism must rely on non-empirical evidence in its
starting point, in its evaluation of what constitutes its data, and in its
adjudication of competing hypotheses--in other words, empiricism rests on
rationalism at every point.

But even if I am wrong about that, notice what is involved in your
admission that empiricism must rely on a rationalist leap of faith-however
small--at the beginning. The deliverances of rational processes are
non-empirical: they are deliverances of *mental* events (which you deny
exist other than as epiphenomena of brain events), and deal with abstract
objects such as numbers, properties, relations, propositions, intensions,
intentionality, natural kinds, modality, etc. Once you let the rationalist
camel's nose in the tent, you find you've let in a whole herd of
non-empirical things! And my claim is that the empirical method cannot get
along without thse things.

A question: Is the "world" which you investigate by the empirical method
composed of only space-time universe and its constituents made up of
matter/energy? Or is there more in the world than that? The empirical
method cannot answer this question, for by its very nature it cannot
investigate non-empirical reality. To say it bluntly, the limits of
empirical science is not a scientific matter, but a philosophical matter!

Consider: I take it that you are soon to marry. (Congratulations! May
your love grow and endure!) Did you tell Melissa, "I am genetically
predisposed to experience a hormonal response in the proximity of your
pheromones, baby"? ;-) How far would that have gotten you? Do you really
believe that that is all there is to it? I would argue that love, to take
but one example, is not reducible to empirical data, but is none-the-less
real! It is a non-empirical constituent of the world.

>Therefore, if what you are saying is that there are limits to empiricism
>and in general to human knowledge, I would certainly not disagree. The
>facts remain that:
>1- empirical investigations are the best ways of finding out about the
>world (and they *work*)
>2- supernaturalism and mysticism make unfounded assumptions (and,
>especially, *don't* work).

But this is contradictory. If there are limits to empiricism, how can you
go on to assert that empirical investigations are the best ways of finding
out about the world? The best you could assert is that empirical
investigations are the best ways of finding out about empirical reality.
And on what grounds, having admitted the limits of empiricism, can you
assert that supernaturalism makes unfounded assumptions? (BTW, we should
distinguish between non-natural entities in the world, such as
propositions, relations, properties, numbers, and perhaps moral facts,
love, beauty, truth, justice, etc.) and supernatural entities--God, angels,

William Alston (Syracuse University) has shown that there is no
non-question-begging way to justify the belief that common doxastic
practice based on perceptual experience is reliable, but he argues that
nonetheless it is rational to accept it as relaible. Similarly, he argues
that the (somewhat less) common doxastic practice based on religious
experience should be accepted as reliable, as it has the same theoretical
structure as perceptual doxastic practice. (See Alston's _Perceiving God_
and _The Reliability of Sense Experience_.) If he is right, then to say
that "supernaturalism and mysticism... *don't* work" is incorrect. Or else
you need an argument against Alston's conclusion--and that argument will,
I'm convinced, necessarily make use of non-empirical assumptions and evidence!

Let me close by saying that I have greatly appreciated you and Will Provine
joining in these discussions. Such argument is good for all of us!

Best wishes,
Garry DeWeese