Part 1: Empiricism

Let’s start like responsible philosophers with clear definitions…

Empiricism is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. It emphasizes the role of experience and evidence in the formation of ideas, and argues that the only knowledge humans can have is “a posteriori” (Latin for “from what comes after”)

Thi is opposed to Rationalism which is…

Rationalism is a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge and, in contrast to empiricism, tends to not approve of  sensory experience. A priori (Latin for “from what was before”)

A priori (prior to experience) knowledge is what we know using our minds and not our senses. We live in a world of Empiricism right now. Science gives us empirical evidence and we are told we need this to believe anything. We are a culture of extreme skepticism in everything, except of science and empirical evidence.

This is a problem for two reasons. 

  1. Not everything is subject to the scientific method. God, ghosts, anything spiritual. Even psychology, we can do experiments and test but we can’t be as certain in psychology as we can be of something like gravity.
  2. The other problem is that we don’t know how much we can trust our senses. This is what I want to spend some time on.

You’ve probably seen the movie The Matrix which leaves us with the question, how do I know that everything I’m experiencing (Empirical data) isn’t just a dream or a computer program? Now, no one believes this is real, but we can’t know for sure! Descartes took this to the extreme and decided the only thing he can know is that he is a thinking thing. There is something (his soul? his mind?) that definitely exists because he knows that he is thinking about these things. From there I think we can build a few basic truths and know them for sure (as Descartes tried to do).

One truth we can never know for sure is Empiricism. I’m not saying I believe we are in Inception or something, however science itself helps to prove how unreliable science actually is. Einstein came up with his theories of relativity in the early 1900s which basically say that time is different depending on your perspective. Not that it is perceived differently, but time is actually different.

“Scientists have tested this theory through experimentation – proving, for example, that an atomic clock ticks more slowly when traveling at a high speed than it does when it is not moving. The essence of Einstein’s paper was that both space and time are relative (rather than absolute)…”

So depending on your speed time literally moves slower or faster (you don’t perceive it slower or faster, it actually slows down or speeds up!!). I know it sounds insane, but that is because we place so much importance on experience. This was confirmed conclusively just recently because not only is time relative, but also physical matter itself is relative. Gravitational waves from a supernova came through and scientists detected that it stretched all physical matter on earth (including the earth itself) by a microscopic amount. We didn’t notice a thing though.

My concern is that if something as basic as time and my height can be completely subjective, then how can I trust anything I see or hear or smell or taste or feel? Logic is something I can trust much more. The law of non-contradiction is more concrete than Newtons laws. Furthermore if we can throw out so much of what we knew about physics so quickly, maybe we will be throwing out Einsteins theories sooner than we think? 

My point is just that we cannot choose to trust only Empiricism, as we have. I would argue that Rationalism is more trustworthy than Empiricism. You may not believe that, but either way, we all have to wrestle with the fact (and it is a fact) that we cannot be as certain about anything as we thought we could. We know staggeringly little about the world we perceive. We should be more open to uncertainty and not act so sure of so much.


This clip from Last Week Tonight expands on the science problem. There is a quote in this piece (below), “I think the way to live your life is you find the study that sounds best to you” where Jon Oliver makes the joke that choosing only what you want to believe, “is religion, that’s religion you’re thinking of.” That’s Exactly the problem, our society doesn’t understand what science does or what philosophy/religion is. 

Jon Oliver – Science Studies


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