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Rationalism vs. Empiricism

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posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 06:44 AM
So, ATS, which do you feel is the stronger position and why?

This thread is not intended to create division between followers of each school of thought; rather, it is to examine the strengths and weaknesses present in both positions and decide which is overall the stronger, more reasonable position.

Personally, I believe the Empiricist approach to be the stronger position, though I do admit there are shortcomings.

(For those not familiar with both, I recommend the perusal of the following sources.)

Source 1: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world.

Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. (Empiricists will at times opt for skepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don't have them.) Second, empiricists attack the rationalists' accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge.

Source 2: About - Rationalism

Rationalism is the philosophical stance according to which reason is the ultimate source of human knowledge. It rivals empiricism according to which the senses suffice in justifying knowledge. In a form or another, rationalism features in most philosophical tradition; in the Western one, it boasts a long and distinguished list of followers, including Plato, Descartes, and Kant.

The Case for Rationalism
How do we come to know objects, through the senses or through reason? Descartes brought some of the strongest arguments to believe that the latter option is the correct one. Consider polygons (i.e. closed, plane figures in geometry). How do we come to recognize features of polygons; for example, how do we know that something is a triangle? The senses here may seem to play a key role: we see that a figure has three sides. But, now imagine to have two figures in front of you, the first with a thousand sides and the other with a thousand and one sides. Which is which? Well, presumably the senses will not suffice in providing an answer to this question: you will need reasoning (e.g. counting) in order to tell them apart.

For Descartes, reason is involved in all of our knowledge. This is because the nuances of the objects we encounter are far more than we can detect by the senses alone. Consider looking at a person waving at you for ten seconds: what you see are literally hundreds of different images; how do you know that they belong to one and the same gesture? And how do you know they belong to one and the same person? Now suppose that the person you are looking at is yourself in the mirror: how do you know you are looking at one person?

Reason alone can explain puzzles such as the one above. Other authors offered different arguments, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave or Spinoza’s arguments for God’s existence in the Ethics.

Source 3: About - Empiricism

Empiricism is the philosophical stance according to which the senses are the ultimate source of human knowledge. It rivals rationalism according to which reason is the ultimate source of knowledge. In a form or another, empiricism features in most philosophical tradition. In Western philosophy, empiricism boasts a long and distinguished list of followers in all ages; probably, the most fertile period for this trend happened during the early modern period, with the so-called British empiricists, whose rank includes authors of the caliber of John Locke and David Hume.

The Centrality of Experience
Empiricist claim that all ideas that a mind can entertain have been formed through some experiences or – to use a slightly more technical term – through some impressions; here is how David Hume expressed this creed: "it must be some one impression that gives rise to every real idea" (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Section IV, Ch. vi). Indeed – Hume proceeds in Book II – "all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones". Under this characterization, empiricism is the claim that all human ideas are less detailed copies of some experience or other

Empiricists seem to have several cases on their side, cases where a person’s lack of experience precludes her from possessing an adequate idea. Consider pineapples, a favorite example among early modern writers. How can you explain the flavor of a pineapple to someone who never has never seen one such fruit? Here is what John Locke says about this case in his Essay:

"If you doubt this, see whether you can by words give anyone who has never tasted pineapple an idea of the taste of that fruit. He may approach a grasp of it by being told of its resemblance to other tastes of which he already has the ideas in his memory, imprinted there by things he has taken into his mouth; but this isn’t giving him that idea by a definition, but merely raising up in him other simple ideas that will still be very different from the true taste of pineapple." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book III, Chapter IV)

There are of course countless cases analogous to the one cited by Locke. They are typically exemplified by claims such as: "You can’t understand what it feels like …" Thus, if you never gave birth, you don’t know what it feels like; if you never dined at the famous Spanish restaurant El Bulli, you don’t know what it was like; and so on.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 07:18 AM
reply to post by Dark Ghost

I personally haven't ever really thought of this but it seems to me, if one were to come to a reasonably acceptable outcome, one would need to use both his senses and his rationalism.

All we know of this physical world we learn through our five senses. We then use our prior experience to compare this new data and interpret what we are learning.

If somehow you were deprived of all five of your senses you could no longer take in new information about your enviroment. You would be limited to only your previous experiences, and your imagination. Therefore you could no longer rationalise any new information.

You have to use your senses to gain new info. However your senses can decieve you. You have to use your brain to rationalise any info to come to any conclusion. However we misinterpret what our senses are experiencing all the time.

So i think that you cant have one without the other. Although i would not trust an outcome which uses only rationalization without solid physical evidence provided by my own senses.

So if i had to pick one side over the other i would go with empiracism because rationalisation should only come after empirical examination.

Very interesting topic thanks.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 08:06 AM
I think that since your senses can deceive you frequently, I lean more towards rationalism. However, like the last poster stated, I don't think it is an either/or equation. I think personally that rationalization is the prominent form and empiricism is the complement. I have Cartesian leanings in my personal philosophy, so that is probably why I feel that way.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 08:10 AM
Why try to pick one or the other. Is not the truth somewhere in between. Rational thinking to try to understand the reality around you that you experiance and measure.

It takes both rational thinking and measuring to make it outside Platos cave. And you know when you are no longer in the cave since you can literally feel the light. And then you walk around those that are in the cave and hear their views of what is outside based on the pattern the light make on the cavewall. It is like people who have read a lot of theoretical knowledge but have never practised it. What look good in theory might now work that well in reality since the theory is to simplified and do not take in all the variables. Theory and experiance of using that theory practiclly is most efficient from my point of view.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 08:18 AM
I'm usual boring self on that question, refraining from taking a side.
Some call that soft, but I say it takes a lot of will, endurance and effort to stand on the tightrope of middle position!
-more than to jump off to one side or the other!

I do have this to say-
When it comes to communication and exchange between beings, empiricism is essential.
This is the one language that we all share and that we share also with animals. (those who communicate with animals know this- it is the sensorial information that can be shared and exchanged).
Empiricism is associated with the emotion and consciousness of relation,
Rationalism is associated with thought and self consciousness.

When you rely too heavily on one, to the detriment of the other, you can begin to see weakness or problems arise int he corresponding areas.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 12:53 PM
reply to post by Dark Ghost

The senses do not deceive. It is always the mind that deceives.

For instance, before Copernicus, man thought the universe revolved around the Earth. Some have said it is the biggest example of deceptive senses. But it wasn't the senses that deceived us, because we still see the exact same motion of the sun and the stars as they did, it's just now we understand it better. The rationality behind it was faulty, and it wasn't until someone properly observed and properly rationalized the goings on when we began to realize the mistake.

Optical illusions, mirages, etc.—all deceptions of the mind. The eyes are still nonetheless seeing what is really there.

posted on Mar, 15 2013 @ 06:18 PM
Hello I'm a Rationalist, I started a thread a little while back on my Rationalist view and I've written several papers on it. In my opinion the big difference between Rationalists and Empiricists is the weight they place on inductive reasoning. Empiricists depend on inductive reasoning through science to understand the nature of our physical world. Rationalists are skeptical of inductive reasoning, because the nature of inductive reasoning is that there is always an element of doubt. Because an Empiricist believes all knowledge comes from sense experience, they deny the existence of any realm other than the physical realm. However, a Rationalist would say our senses don't have the capability to KNOW that other realms don't exist, since when we reason based on our sense experiences we are using inductive reasoning.

Knowledge is commonly defined as a true justified belief. For something to be true, it cannot be doubted. Any conclusions we reach through inductive reasoning can be doubted. All of science is based on inductive reasoning.

A Rationalist accepts that there is a large realm of possibility out there that we can't know. For example, we can't know if a non-physical realm exists, and we can't know if God exists. What we can know is all based on reason... for example since we think, we can logically deduce that we exist. Rationalists accept that what we can actually know is very limited; it is a position that in many ways is less empowering for humans, so it is often less appealing.

Cartesian Rationalism (Descartes' view) is a little different from my Rationalist view because he refused to accept that the existence of God could be doubted... so even though he was one of the chief proponents of Rationalist I don't actually think he was a Rationalist in the full sense of the word.

My Conclusion: Unless you have a different definition of what knowledge is I think Empiricism is ridiculous, and is mostly driven by the modern view that because of advances in science, technology, and logic, we are smarter than humans were 500 years ago, and therefore we can know more. A Rationalist would say nay, a human 500 years ago could know just as much as a human can know now.

Good thread I hope more people jump on board.
edit on 15-3-2013 by Wang Tang because: above top secret

posted on Mar, 16 2013 @ 01:42 AM
I appreciated reading your well written and thought out views!
I have a couple questions and hoped you'd be willing to elaborate?

One, in reasponse to this-

My Conclusion: Unless you have a different definition of what knowledge is I think Empiricism is ridiculous, and is mostly driven by the modern view that because of advances in science, technology, and logic, we are smarter than humans were 500 years ago, and therefore we can know more. A Rationalist would say nay, a human 500 years ago could know just as much as a human can know now.

I admit that is a statement that is rather bold.... maybe it is just my early morning mental fog and I just need more coffee, but I have trouble seeing this right away. Could you go further into this assertion?

Like 500 years ago, without sonargrams and x-rays, when someone has a internal medical problem or injury we would not be able to know exactly what it was... we could not manipulate non-visible parts of the EM spectrum (because we didn't know they exist, because our senses could not pick them up).......the examples of this type are endless.

Maybe the key lies in the word you used- "smarter"? What exactly do you mean by that?

posted on Mar, 16 2013 @ 02:16 PM
reply to post by Bluesma

Ah yes good observation. I will grant that we ARE smarter than people 500 years ago. By smarter I mean in the scientific sense... we have much more information at our disposal, and have refined our methods of applying this information to the benefit of the human race. However, being smarter does not translate to having more knowledge, it just creates the illusion that we have more knowledge.

posted on Mar, 18 2013 @ 03:18 AM
I'm afraid I am terribly confused! I do not wish to "badger" you... if my questioning bothers you pleae let me know I will not continue to post here! I am hoping to understand better.
These were pulled from the rest of the context, only to highlight exactly what i find confusing- the surrounding sentences did not seem to make a difference to this confusion. Is there perhaps another way you could attack this concept, that might be easier for me to grasp?

In this form, it seems self contradictory

Originally posted by Wang Tang
By smarter I mean in the scientific sense... we have much more information at our disposal

However, being smarter does not translate to having more knowledge,

Is it in the usage of the idea "having" more knowledge versus having it "at our disposal"?
Is there a difference there to you, that is significant?

posted on Mar, 18 2013 @ 07:38 AM
reply to post by Bluesma

I think we are using information and knowledge interchangeably and that's where the confusion is.

Information doesn't equal knowledge. For example, computers can hold an immense amount of information, but they don't have knowledge... they don't have true justified beliefs.


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