Empirical Stance vs. Absolute Rationalism

My comments:



Craig, thanks for the invitation. Well, I have recently read The Empirical Stance (The Terry Lectures Series) by van Fraassen:


I guess, that I prefer the empirical stance right now. Remember that the other name for rationalism is dogmatism.


Frank, dogmatism concerns rationalism vs. empiricism. That is, the question where knowledge comes from. For example, if we say that the knowledge comes from the mind, this would mean that there is some universal knowledge independent from experience, hence the term dogmatism.


Craig, I was deeply impressed by the book indeed.

Feyerabend has a paper Classical Empiricism (Problems of Empiricism) where he considers two apparently different statements:

1) Sola scriptura by protestants (The knowledge is based on the bible only)

2) Sola experientia by the empirical school (The knowledge is based on experience only)

Feyerabend proves that the logic of both statements is similar and it is internally contradictory. In other words, it is impossible to employ statements consistently. Feyerabend shows on historical examples (Calvin and Newton) that to be successful in reality both views have been also based on historical tradition.

Van Fraassen revives empiricism in such a way that it should not be based on a philosophical statements like Sola experientia but rather it should be a philosophical stance. A stance means:

«In every century we must reinterpret ourselves to ourselves. We do not come in our century with a tabula rasa. We must interpret what we find ourselves to be, with an eye to what we have been and to what we could be and can be. That is the perennial, ever-recurring task, ever new

Van Fraassen fights against metaphysics (dogmatism) and he shows how it could work. Roughly speaking according to van Fraassen the proof of both statements

1) Angels exist;
2) Selfish genes exist;

follows the same logic. Hence the belief in selfish genes is at the same level of logical necessity as the belief in angels.

However, I should say, that such a position comes for a cost. Let me quote from other van Fraassen’s book about a microscope:

p. 98 ‘The ‘window into the invisible world’ metaphor has dominated modern philosophical thinking about science as much as the «mirror of nature» metaphor dominated modern epistemology and metaphysics. It will serve us better to dislodge or at least weaken its grip on philosophical discourses, and to think of experimentation in terms of a literal enlargement of the observable world, by the creation of new observable phenomena, rather than a metaphorical extension of our senses».


This is exactly the question where reason that allows us to work with experimental data comes from.

As for Popper, recently I have read his Three Worlds (The Tanner Lecture On Human Values, 1978). I guess that this theory is also in his book. A quote from the paper:

To sum up, we arrive at the following picture of the universe. There is the physical universe, world 1, with its most important sub-universe, that of the living organisms. World 2, the world of conscious experience, emerges as an evolutionary product from the world of organisms. World 3, the world of the products of the human mind, emerges as an evolutionary product from world 2.”

This is exactly metaphysics. Well, I have nothing against dualism or Popper’s trialism but on the other hand I see no reason to believe in it.

Feyerabend has a review Popper’s Objective Knowledge  (Problems of Empiricism) where he concludes:

At first reading, Popper’s book makes a tremendous impression. This impression has blinded some of its already not too clearsighted reviewers. But look at the reasons given and the doctrine proposed, consider the progress made in all fields, and especially in methodology, since the publication of Popper’s opus magnum, consider its predecessors, such as Mill and other thinkers of the nineteenth century, and you will be surprised to see how difficult it is to find a moderately acceptably argument, how often blunt assertions, equivocation, rhetorical questions take the place of rational discourse, how little more recent discoveries are taken into account and how small the difference is between the valuable parts of his book and the views of his predecessors. We are not too far from the truth when saying that with Objective Knowledge Popper’s research programme has entered its degenerating phase“.


One response to “Empirical Stance vs. Absolute Rationalism”

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  1. Paul says:

    We ARE born with certain knowledge. That’s not my opinion. The answer is in the Declaration of Indpendence.