Empiricism is Silly as an Epistemic Basis

If you’re going to take the idea of ‘truth’ seriously, you need to have a belief about what can, and cannot, be true.  You might call this a ‘filter on the truth.’   The most popular filter on the truth today, among my peers, is empiricism.  This ‘filter on  the truth’, says “only things which can be demonstrated empirically can be considered as true.”  If a claim cannot be tested via some experiment, empiricism says it’s meaningless.

There’s a good reason for this! There are many, many instances of entire cultures believing things that simply weren’t true. If we’ve tested something empirically, we can feel pretty confident that it’s true, right? I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb.  Empiricism – so long as we practice it consistently – will make it very, very hard for us to believe things which are blatantly false.  You might think that the only problem with empiricism is that people will often refuse to practice it, believing things which can’t be tested or verified. 

Wouldn’t the world be better if people always practiced empiricism?  I think the answer is “no; this world is terrifying because people will refuse to believe anything.” Why?

There’s a basic problem with empiricism as your ‘filter on the truth’: empiricism won’t let you believe in the validity of empiricism! If you always, always, always insist on empirically validating beliefs, then you have to reject the belief that empirically derived results, which have been reliable for years, decades, centuries are likely to remain trustworthy.  Empiricism is a filter on truth, but it’s so restrictive that it rejects itself.

Empiricism works as a technique if and only if the material world is governed by laws which are universal and unchanging. How could we possibly prove such a thing? Even if an experiment has been tried 100 times and produced the exact same results, why should we believe that it will do the same thing the next time we try it? This belief requires believing that the material universe is governed by fixed, unchanging rules.  Do you have evidence that this is true? What kind of evidence could possibly suffice to prove that this is always and will always be true?

Yes, empiricism is a useful tool. But it’s fundamentally absurd as a primary epistemic stance.  It works pretty well as a tool in the toolbelt, but empiricism requires faith in an immutable external reality.   The existence of an immutable, unchangeable reality isn’t something we can prove with empiricism. You either take it on faith, or you don’t.

We might think of empirical experimentation as being like a flashlight which requires batteries.   We could assert that “only things which show up in the light of the flashlight are real”,  and this actually works pretty well! The only problem that arises is when you try to use the flashlight to inspect its batteries. The flashlight stops working!

“No problem”, we might assert, “this shows that the batteries don’t really exist.”  

Of course, that doesn’t work. It’s impossible to take that seriously. So we might add on a little bit of addendum: “Only things which are visible in the flashlight can exist, except for the batteries, which are obviously necessary for the flashlight to exist, and so these don’t count.”

But now that there’s an exception to the rules, we might ask, “Are there other exceptions?” The empiricist can say “no!” but then the question comes up “what is your evidence that there aren’t other exceptions?” 

The only way to take empiricism seriously, as an epistemic basis, is to seal your epistemic basis off from your ability to reason about the world. That’s a pretty dangerous thing to avoid thinking directly about, isn’t it?  You can’t think too much about why empiricism is the correct filter on the truth, because if you do, you’ll eventually realize empiricism doesn’t allow you to believe in an objective reality at all. You might find yourself asking “Why is it that i am allowed to believe exactly one thing which cannot be empirically verified, when this one thing is ‘only things which can be empirically verified can be true?” It’s totally absurd on the face of it. 

Now, you might try to just run with it because empiricism obviously works.   At this point, proponents of many major religions will tell you that their religion works, too. 

 At least taking an old book literally supports the weight of its own assertions.  Empiricism, as a worldview, is like believing in the literal truth of a book which tells you directly, in the introduction,  “this book is made up by humans to advance material aims, and clearly does not contain all truths.” Even if the book does go on to tell you precisely which laws of physics give the most predictive model to empirically measurable phenomena, you can’t ignore the introduction merely because it’s the introduction! And yet this is the stance of most educated adults in the world today. They take ’empiricism is the only path to truth’ as an axiom, while conveniently ignoring that empiricism has to be taken on faith, since you can’t use empiricism to prove itself.

If I believe that there are laws of physics which govern the evolution of the material world, there is not a single experiment which can prove this.  It’s a belief that cannot be falsified. It is only faith in something beyond physics which makes it feasible for a person to believe that the laws of physics don’t change in the shadow of jupiter, or that they won’t change tomorrow. What experimental evidence rules out the idea that a week from now, physical laws will change?

OK, so how do I solve this problem? Simple: I use mathematical truth as my  root filter on the truth: any set of beliefs which is internally coherent might be truth. I try out beliefs that seem plausible, and if i get good results – if my life is richer for these new beliefs – then i hold onto them.   Among the most consistently useful beliefs I have found, are:

* I have lived experiences which have patterns

* the patterns described by physics map, with high precision, onto my lived experiences

This leads to a worldview that gives rise to empiricism, as a useful tool.   Does this mean i’m bad at empiricism, always believing what i want? No;  if anything, i think this makes me better at being consistently empirical!

For example, my evidence for the correspondence between my lived experiences and the laws of physics is primarily tangential, socially derived, and ultimately a product of faith. When you throw a ball, are you really sure it’s a parabola? How many times have you checked? If you’ve never made the measurements and checked them yourself, your belief  in the laws of physics is much more akin to that of a medieval churchgoer repeating the prayers they were taught by the authorities, than it is to the rebellious empiricists which have become part of the modern pantheon of thinkers today. 

Perhaps the best way to tamp down on intellectual rebelliousness is to turn ‘rebelliousness’ into a kind of state value, an officially virtuous thing to do – which means that all well-trained thinkers will consider themselves to be a bit of a rebel, and thus never do any actual rebellion. 

Yes, i have acquired sufficient evidence to believe that i live in a material world which follows cause-and-effect rules. I perform an act of faith in reducing doubt in this proposition to zero; faith is merely choosing to believe something with probability one, and my faith in empiricism is consciously chosen.  

I tested physics, empirically.  I tried believing real hard i could break the laws of physics if i just believed enough, and somehow it never managed to stick.  I tried focusing real hard on a geiger counter to see if i could make it tick consciously.   I tested physics as best i could. I did my best to poke holes in it, and eventually accepted that, if it is an illusion, well, it’s an illusion beyond my ability to manipulate.

Why should I believe that nobody can change the laws of physics, ever? If I want to take empiricism seriously, only an act of faith could lead me there. This little puzzle tripped me up for a few years, because i took seriously the cultural maxim that says faith is stupid and for unsophisticated idiots, until i eventually realized that people were repeating this idea to each other without realizing that they, too, had faith. They just denied it to themselves. 

I think the true effect of taking empiricism on faith (and thus sealing off your epistemic basis from your own ability to investigate and explore the world) is to effectively neuter people’s ability to discern, for themselves, what is true and what is false.  The things you experience via consciousness which cannot be measured directly are things upon which it is impossible to build social consensus. The primary benefit of empirical experimentation is that it allows you to prove and demonstrate things to other people, even if they don’t believe you. 

I suspect this effectiveness at persuading others is why empiricism has become an article of faith in modern educated circles: it’s a sufficiently strict filter to prevent people from falling prey to the confirmation bias that becomes immediately possible if you become open to the possibility of truths which can’t be empirically verified.

Empiricism is obviously a powerful tool. Empirical evidence is obviously sufficient to compel other rational people to change and update their beliefs. And yes, there are lots of people who will hold onto beliefs, despite empirical evidence that these beliefs aren’t true. Yes, sure, of course it would be better if everyone were capable of updating their beliefs when confronted with evidence.

It’s not that I think empiricism is bogus and it should just be dropped – I think we should not have it at the root of our epistemic basis of reality, and instead see it as being an extremely powerful, yet limited tool.   Empirical evidence against a belief is a great reason to stop believing something. Yet ‘absence of empirical evidence for a belief’ shouldn’t prevent us from using those beliefs, if those beliefs improve the quality of our lived experiences, and don’t give rise to contradictions with the evidence.

6 thoughts on “Empiricism is Silly as an Epistemic Basis

  1. (I wrote a comment that got too long, I felt (and maybe a little off-topic), so I made a post on my own blog:

    Briefly, it’s about how empiricism can be defined differently, and the criterion for whether to trust propositions or not can be “how does this affect whether or not someone is harmed (or benefited in some essential way)?” rather than cordoning off non-sensory perception or being egoistically pragmatic.)

    1. I read through this, and my interpretation is that what you’re calling ’empiricism’ i’m thinking of as ‘trying to avoid contradictions’ – but i think i’m following a very similar thought process. Instead of seeing value judgements as being something tacked onto a causal model, at the very end, but rather, the entire point of reasoning to begin with. So you want to value a reasoning process based upon how well it lines up with your existing value system, rather than based upon the seemingly arbitrary criterion of ‘does it make accurate predictions’. Do I have that right?

      1. I thought what I was trying to say (at first) was “empiricism is when you believe in what you observe” (an older definition, somewhat like the British empiricists / Locke, Berkeley, Hume). Berkeley (and I think Hume) took it to mean something like “observation itself is what exists”. But the meaning of “empiricism” you use (and question) I think is a later evolution of (or from) British empiricism, where people are stricter in what they believe / more scientific. (So there are different meanings of “observation”, one broader and the other more rigorous.)

        When you say “what you’re calling ’empiricism’ i’m thinking of as ‘trying to avoid contradictions’”, are you referring to the “empiricism” I first talk about, my original favorite meaning, or the “empiricism” which I think I see in you? Is it the case that the meaning of “empiricism” you talk about is more like “trying to avoid contradictions” than “we believe what we observe, if our observations pass some sort of test of verification or something like that”? Or do you think that the one I prefer is “trying to avoid contradictions”?

        Maybe those questions are not the most important thing to figure out, but it might be worth clearing up.

        Yeah, I think I found your post to be something to reply to in the first place because it was somewhat in line with my own thinking.

        I think that humans always make value judgments when they decide how to believe. People who are into verification (more-verified believing), sensory perception, or physicalism as opposed to less-verified believing, noetic perception, or something other than physicalism are deciding (implicitly or explicitly) to throw out some of their impressions (things they would see immediately, at first blush, to be true) as untrustworthy, or to discount those in other people as untrustworthy. And people don’t examine the fact that they do that, as I think you point out. It may be good to throw out impressions or beliefs as untrustworthy, but there’s always that filtering that we do, and it’s often for human reasons (like self-preservation, or promoting certain cultural values) rather than strictly rational ones.

        Or, could we somehow listen for what value ought to be and thus actually is? If a transcendent right way to do epistemology exists (as opposed to one of a number of pragmatic ways we choose based on what we want), how could we know what it was? There might be something productive along that path.

        1. So maybe to be more clear, I do think that “makes accurate predictions” is somewhat arbitrary, that values should inform how we see things, but I think it might be possible to have some idea of what values ought to be, and this could help us choose an epistemology.

  2. Enjoyed the read. This was David Hume’s whole realisation in the 18th century: causality cannot be justified rationally, without assuming what he called the uniformity principle. I don’t know if you’ve read about him?

    >If I believe that there are laws of physics which govern the evolution of the material world, there is not a single experiment which can prove this. It’s a belief that cannot be falsified.

    This may have been a typo, but this can be falsified by evidence of the laws not applying. It’s a claim of the same strength as any other empirical claim. It just can’t be proven true.

    In any case, I would have thought the {maybe, no} nature of science is generally well-known in the scientific community, if not to educated “lay people” – Popper was popular for talking about the same kind of thing last century. But I don’t know.

    Finally, and coincidentally, I am actually in the process of writing an article on a very similar topic to this; I will perhaps drop by with a link when it’s published, if you’re interested? 🙂

    1. I’d definitely be interested in reading any responses. I’m aware of Hume, but haven’t gotten around to reading him. I do get the impression that i’d be better served if i were more versed in ‘arguments other people have already made’, but it seems like there’s such a huge number of those, that i end up being better off writing things like this, and then going to follow through when people comment with ‘oh, check out Hume, he already wrote this kind of argument before.’

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