Conventional Empiricism vs. Radical Empiricism

 In Building Knowledge

Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience.  This means that a person comes to know facts about the world by use of their senses.  This theory makes the most sense given the prevalence of objective evidence in support of it, although there are situations where knowledge can come from other sources as well.  Evidence shows that some knowledge is inherent to the brain.  We also know that reason can allow one to form knowledge that is logically implied by existing knowledge.  Other than these situations, though, new knowledge can only be formed through experience of some sort.

The traditional understanding of empiricism includes forming knowledge through the five senses.  Some neuroscientists have argued that the traditional list of senses should be amended to include other ways that humans can observe phenomena, such as balance, acceleration, etc.  Regardless of what this list includes, what is common to all of them is that they can all be studied objectively.  This means that any body function that is considered a sense must allow one to gain knowledge of the external world and also must be applicable to scientific testing so that there can be an objective understanding of how this sense works.  Although some will argue that there can be senses that allow them to understand phenomena that are internal, meaning that they are specific to their own conscious experience, the traditional understanding of empiricism understands the internal in terms of the external world.

This understanding of what constitutes empiricism is widely accepted among modern scientists, but it does have a potential problem in that it might be overly strict so as to exclude certain experiences that people commonly have that lead to the formation of knowledge.  There is a possibility that the common definition of empiricism needs to be supplemented to allow for other types of observation that are not often considered empirical.  In a previous post, I explained why I think that emotions and self-knowledge could perhaps be considered empirical as well.  There are other inner experiences that might be considered empirical as well.  Nearly all people, it seems, have beliefs regarding the intrinsic value of certain things and also have certain ethical beliefs that derive from these values.  While some people’s values and ethics are largely determined by what they are told to believe when they are young or what their social group tends to believe, there are others whose beliefs in these areas seem to be the product of mature thinking that derives from their experiences in life.  One can almost say that the latter group’s values and ethical beliefs are the product of their perceptions of the world.

On the one hand, we can simply reduce any beliefs one can have regarding values or ethics to that which can be studied objectively.  For example, if someone believes that some object has value based on their experience with this object, then we could reduce these experiences to the objective senses such as sight and sound (they hear the object, they see the object) and we can reduce their experience of value to a feeling that is somehow determined by their more immediate experiences of sight and touch.  So under this objective interpretation, values are nothing more than feelings that are determined by one’s sensory experience or by the memory of a sensory experience.  Values therefore can be understood as nothing more than brain functions and can, theoretically, be studied objectively.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that people’s values are partially determined by experiences that cannot be studied objectively.  But perhaps if one is able to gain knowledge from an experience that is not reducible to any senses that can be studied objectively, then this should be considered a distinct sense.  The idea that one’s values and other subjective experiences are observed from a first-person point of view and thus should be considered a type of sensory experience is a version of radical empiricism, which was first formulated by Nineteenth Century philosopher William James, who summarized the central idea of this theory as follows: “To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced”.  In other words, any philosophical worldview is flawed if it stops at the objective, physical level and fails to explain how directly experienced phenomena such as meaning, values, and lived thoughts and feelings can arise from that.  This notion is also quite similar to what Edmund Husserl called “Evidenz”, which is awareness of a matter itself as disclosed in the most clear, distinct, and adequate way for something of its kind.

While the theory of radical empiricism comes from the pragmatist tradition, it is not conceptually dependent on any other theories that are commonly associated with pragmatism, such as instrumentalism (the idea that absolute truth is unimportant or unattainable and that the only thing that is important is that a theory works in practice), verificationism (the idea that statements only have meaning if there is some way of determining if the statement is true or false), or fallibilism (the idea that any belief could conceivably be false and that absolute certainty is impossible).

Those who have a more conventional understanding of empiricism, which is restricted only to senses that can be studied objectively, argue that people often misunderstand their own experiences and are unreliable in interpreting the origin of their own beliefs.  Subjectivity, according to this line of thinking, is inherently unreliable and that therefore sensory experience is only possible through the brain functions and sensory organs that can be understood objectively.  This sentiment is known as positivism, which holds that valid knowledge is found only in verified data (positive facts) received from the senses and that introspective and intuitive knowledge does not count as such.  The most extreme version of this view is called scientism, in which it is believed that objective science provides the best way of investigating, understanding, and predicting everything that can possibly be known. A more moderate version of this view, known as naturalized epistemology, has the central tenet that formation of knowledge must occur through natural, physical processes.

While naturalized epistemology allows for ways of forming knowledge outside of science, such as common sense for example, it shares with scientism the belief that it is impossible for anything to be known subjectively (through direct first-person conscious experience) but that is nonetheless outside the realm of objective study.  This view seems to imply that a coherent epistemology could, in theory, be completely natural but still be incompatible with this notion of naturalized epistemology.  This is because it is conceivable that humans could have a purely natural way of forming knowledge (following natural laws) that nonetheless cannot be studied objectively.  This could be possible if humans had a distinct sense through which they can form knowledge but that is too elusive to be studied in any way that can be called objective but would nonetheless be naturalizable because it would be governed by certain laws of nature that are as yet unknown.  If such a sense did exist, then naturally there would be people who would claim that they gained certain knowledge through the use of it, but those who believe in naturalized epistemology, as defined above, would not accept this as knowledge because this sense cannot be studied objectively.

Naturalized epistemology and scientism may have some significant differences, but they both rely on science to discount the theory of radical empiricism.  Quite simply, since radical empiricism involves taking at face value certain observations that cannot be known objectively, it therefore admits knowledge that is outside the realm of objective science.  Radical empiricism is incompatible with the traditional notion of positivism, and it is instead a form of post-positivism, which is a family of epistemological beliefs that admit knowledge beyond that which can be studied objectively.  Believers in some form of traditional positivism, whether it be either naturalized epistemology or scientism, would argue that any subjective experiences either must be reducible to phenomena that can be known objectively or else they would inevitably end up being no better than extremely vague concepts.  Positivists would contend that anything of the sort is simply not worth discussing unless there is some objective basis for it.

The problem with this argument is that it should be obvious to anyone that people discuss their values and the ethics that derive from these quite frequently and therefore it must be false to say that this subject is not worth discussing.  As for the idea that values and ethics can be reduced to brain functions (and other phenomena that can, in theory, be understood objectively), this is based on the overarching assumption of naturalism, which is on one side of The Great Dilemma.  I would argue that we should remain openminded and agnostic on which side of The Great Dilemma is the most reasonable and the most accurate.  It seems theoretically possible for one to gain genuine knowledge from subjective experiences that are beyond the reach of objectivity.  This would include the notion of qualia, which is the supposed qualitative aspect of conscious experience.  If anything of this sort exists, it might be immaterial and nonphysical, which entails that the idealism side of The Great Dilemma is at least plausible.

Nobody is going to deny that there is the redness of red and the distinct sound of a trumpet and distinct emotional experiences of being in love, but many people will argue that these have purely physical and natural explanations.  Perhaps they do, and perhaps they do not.  The main point is that it is plausible that there might be some aspect of conscious experience that is immaterial and nonphysical and that both sides of this are worth openminded consideration.

This discounting of subjective experiences seems to be partially driven by the success of the modern mainstream physical, biological, psychological, and social sciences, which have, for the most part, relied on methods for objective study.  It is true these sciences have certainly demonstrated their ability to allow us to understand the nature of the universe, the earth, and life in many ways.  However, this fact alone does not necessarily imply that nothing exists in the universe that is both completely outside the reach of objective science and entirely beyond the grasp of our minds.  The restriction of legitimate knowledge to that which is objective makes much sense within the contemporary scientific community, but it doesn’t work as well if one tries to apply these same restrictions of knowledge formation in trying to understand life as a whole, including the many aspects of first-person conscious experience.

For example, in our lived experience we cannot help but express opinions that, by all accounts, seem to derive from subjective experiences such as value judgments.  It seems that at least some of our value judgments would have to come from our first-person experience, the direct study of which is incompatible with positivism but is compatible with radical empiricism.  In light of this, if a person expresses belief in positivism and then engages in some form of moral advocacy, then their worldview does not seem to be fully coherent.  It appears that for this person, the position that purely subjective knowledge is impossible, which is implied by positivism, might amount to a kind of self-defeating skepticism.

The term self-defeating skepticism might sound harsh, but the usage here refers to situations where a person’s explicitly stated views do not appear to be coherent with how this same person acts.  For example, if someone makes clear that they do not believe that any normative moral statements can be true regardless of anyone’s point of view but then later tries to convince others to believe in certain moral statements that, by all appearances, are normative in nature, then a valid interpretation is that this individual is self-defeating on the issue of whether or not normative moral statements can be mind-independent facts.  This is because the only conceivable way that normative moral statements can only be absolute truth is if they derive from direct personal experiences of value that are not reducible to any objective senses.

This is not in any way intended to be an attack against people who say these things.  This is instead meant to make the case that when someone explicitly states their beliefs and then acts in a way that makes it appear that they believe something else, there might be an underlying motive for this that the speaker has not become introspectively aware of.  For example, imagine a person who will be called Jenny who explicitly states that she does not believe that X exists where X represents an idea that some people believe in and others do not.  Although Jenny makes clear that she does not believe in X, she later says things for which the most straightforward interpretation is that she does believe in X.

It might be the case that Jenny does not believe in X and that such statements are taken out of context.  However, it might also be the case that when Jenny says she doesn’t believe in X that she is expressing beliefs that stem from a worldview that was formed in an effort to understand reality in as simple of terms as possible, despite the existence of reliable evidence in favor of X that is not coherent with this worldview.  Although Jenny knows that this evidence exists, she chooses to ignore it when forming a worldview.  Although Jenny says she doesn’t believe in X, her knowledge of the evidence in favor of X inevitably contributes to her behavior and other people can recognize this.  In this situation, the most rational thing for her to do would be to acknowledge that X exists and to construct a worldview that incorporates X with all other knowledge.

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