The Empirical Has No Clothes

The empirical method, embraced by the New Philosophers in the 17th Century, has given us almost everything we think of as technology.  The function of discovery to time when using the empirical method is non-additive.  That means that at first, we made very little headway, but now, we can manipulate DNA itself.

Yet I’ve got a problem with the empirical.  The empiricist believes several important things, among which are:

  1. Humans have no innate knowledge; we only acquire knowledge from experience and observation.
  2. Observation and induction is, although less certain, more useful than deduction from pure reason.
  3. An assertion that can be falsified by observation is stronger than an assertion that cannot.

I’ve got a couple problems with these that I’m banging out.  Let me address them one at a time:

First, the idea that humans have no innate knowledge is a dig at Kant, who argued that humans innately understand certain a priori categories, such as space and time.  The empiricist says no, we observe space and time and come to, sometimes faulty, understandings of them.  And this is largely true: our understanding of space and time were fairly sketchy until Einstein, and even now . . . Luuuucy, you’ve got some splaining to do!  The problem is, many scientists no longer think that we don’t have innate knowledge.  Pinker, for example, is famous for suggesting that humans have a “language instinct,” that explains how we can pick up language so easily as children.  If that’s the case, then we do have some innate knowledges — but how can we tell which we have and which we don’t?   Only by deducing from reason can we draw some conclusions about what we have, innate, in our heads.

The empiricist believes that inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning is more useful.  This is in response to a prevalent idea that our senses were easily deceived, and that we could not trust them to be accurate and honest.  Therefore, we should use pure, deductive reasoning to draw conclusions about the world.  The problem is, deductive reasoning is harshly limited.  I don’t have a problem with induction as a means of reasoning, certainly — but it, like deductive reasoning, is also limited.  One can only induce conclusions about observable and measurable events.  What can you induce about love?  Poetry?  Art?  Sure, you can draw some scientific-sounding conclusions — a physicist once told me she could study “art” by listing the wavelengths of the colors in a painting; aaah! horrible — but those conclusions are remarkable silly.  What’s the common reaction to science’s claim that they have isolated the chemicals in the brain that make us fall in love?  A shrug and a scoff, mostly, because most people know that this information is trivial.  It doesn’t matter what’s sloshing around in our head (plus, you can’t induce cause-and-effect from mere correlation) when we’re in love.

Finally, the third belief of the empiricist is also something I believe in — but some things are not subject to falsification at all.  For example, I believe magic works.  How can I falsify that?  Well, to stop believing in magic, it’d have to stop working for me.  Will one failure do it?  Naw.  Two?  Nope.  Three?  Probably not.  It’d have to stop working consistently.  Still, once in a while, it might just seem to work by coincidence, in which case, I haven’t falsified or proven anything.  Look at something more controversial: can you falsify God?  One can’t even imagine a scenario that would, once and for all, falsify God.  The empiricist would say, in that case, don’t believe in God or magic, because they’re unfalsifiable and therefore nonsense.  To which I might ask, “Does your husband love you?  How do you know?  What would falsify that love?  One harsh word?  Two?”  I type 80 words a minute, but sometimes, I slip and hit the wrong key.  How many teh’s falsify my belief in my ability to type well?

We’re in the condition, right now, of not only the postmodern but the post-empirical.  But the question is, can we come up with another method, something to include (not reject!) the scientific method but still give us room for the intuitive, miraculous, and beautiful?  I don’t know.


2 Responses to “The Empirical Has No Clothes”

  1. Anatole Nymrod Uszmin Says:


    Thanks for taking the time to give a thoughtful comment.

    Here is something you can sink your teeth into.

    “A new scientific study shows that prayer didn’t seem to help patients who underwent bypass surgery. In fact, some of the people who were prayed for did worse. The results of the study of more than 1,800 patients were published in the American Heart Journal.”

    While I’ve often sympathized with such sentiments, since I’ve studied the Theories, I can think of a number of better explanations than the superficial “they prayed to the wrong god” theory of why the prayers didn’t “work,” or the seemingly more “plausible” theories as to why the science is junk. However, I’ve not read the paper [second link] in depth, and am not a scientist per se. But one could argue that:

    1. The people prayed improperly; too much conscious, not enough subconscious;

    2. Prayers nullified by negative prayers from patient (negative prayers would constitute bad thoughts, worried thoughs, fears, etc.);

    3. Prayers only partially effective; [when will the scientists learn: you can’t explain the truly supernatural with the natural . . . .]

    Have a look. I’ve got to get some sleep.

    -Anatole Nymrod Uszmin

  2. Administrator Says:

    Thanks, Anatole. I blogged it.

    The problem with such studies is that they’re offered as “proof that prayer doesn’t work,” which isn’t, scientifically, what this study shows. What is shows is that prayer didn’t work in that instance, under those specific conditions. And by “work” it means that it didn’t have one particular material effect.

    When I was in college, I did an experiment in which I placed some beans in two plates, watered them equally and prayed over one and left the other alone. The one I prayed over grew faster. Perhaps coincidence — to be scientifically valid, it’d have to be repeated with a much larger sample.

    I am impressed that this study was done at all, however.

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