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The difference between rationalism and empiricism

Rationalism vs Empiricism

By Jay Stooksberry

Where does knowledge originate? Is it a naturally gifted to humanity or is it constructed process built on experience? These chicken-or-the-egg questions are central to epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Furthermore, these questions are “ground zero” for philosophy. Standing at this foundational level of philosophical discussion are two schools of thought: empiricism and rationalism.

The primary difference between these worldviews is the relationship of experience to the creation of knowledge. For rationalists, knowledge is innate, and occurs a priori, or before experience. Rationalism tends to be skeptical of our perception of the senses. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel are merely opinions that biased by experience – thus, they cannot be fully trusted as sources of truth since we all might not share the same experiences. For example, how a war veteran, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, responds to a car randomly backfiring nearby will most likely produce a different result than somebody without the disorder.

Instead of sensory perception, rationalists trust reason. Without reason, the world would be a huge hodge-podge of colors and noise that couldn’t be effectively compartmentalized or fully understood. Rene Descartes, considered to be the godfather of rationalism, stated simply, “I think, therefore I am.” Simply put, thinking and rationalizing are fundamental to human existence. This philosophical truth presumes the existence of self can be fully understood simply by its self-actualization of itself.  

This same rationalist axiom can be applied to truth. Absolute truth is a certainty in a rationalist’s mind. If a person claims that “truth is relative,” they would need to argue so in an absolute matter to be correct. Therefore, the existence of absolute truth is a confirmed, simply by being a truthful axiom in itself.

On the other side of this discussion stands empiricism. Empiricists believe that knowledge can only occur a posteriori, or after experience. Humans start with a “blank slate,” and begin to fill that slate with knowledge as experiences accumulate. Empiricists ask, if knowledge is innate, why aren’t children born knowing everything? Until an item can successfully pass the scientific method of induction, nothing can be for certain.

A great example of how knowledge can only be obtained through observation is Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger presented a theoretical paradox and thought experiment that involved a cat locked inside a steel box with a vile of radioactive material and an atom decay sensor. The vile is set to break and spill once atom decay is detected – thus killing the cat. However, from the casual observer of the box, where one cannot see the inside, the cat can both be thought of as alive and dead at the same time; only observation will reveal whether or not P.E.T.A. needs to be contacted.

It is important to remember that these seemingly conflicting worldviews are not entirely diametrically opposed to one another. There are occurrences where both approaches to epistemology complement each other. Consider a young child about to touch a hot plate for the first time. Although the child might have limited understanding of extreme heat and its adverse effects on human flesh, he is about to get a crash course in pain whether he wants to or not. After the tears have dried up, the child now has a sensory experience that will hopefully shape how he approaches other plates in the future. On the surface, this seems like an entirely empirical moment (where experience shapes perception),  but innate understanding of causality played into this equation as well. Studies have shown the ability to understand cause and effect events are built into human’s DNA as an evolutionary mechanism. Both natural traits (rationalism) and direct experience (empiricism) will shape this child’s cognitive faculties and physical reactions specifically related to hot plates in the future. This is a case for nature and nurturing.

Both rationalism and empiricism provide the foundation of epistemological studies, which have been a part of philosophical discussions since the dawning of human civilization. Understanding where knowledge comes from will not be an easily answered question, because usually questions beget more questions. Albert Einstein said it best: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”


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