Rationalists and Empiricists

These days – especially on the internet, although usually out side of a formal philosophical context, a lot of outspoken atheists take the title “rationalist.” Within popular philosophy, therefore (again, in the context of internet based discussion), if a person uses the word “rationalist” it is often assumed that one is talking about opposition to religion. Groups like the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists expect people to assume, based on the name of the group, that the group’s members are not religious (I won’t delve into the use of the word “humanist” just now, but that’s fascinating too).

I thought it might be helpful to point out, therefore, what rationalism really is. The best way to do this is to compare rationalism with its philosophical rival, empiricism. I’ll be brief, because brief explanations are the easiest to remember.

Rationalists, like Descartes or Kant, believed that (some) knowledge and concepts are innate: We are born with built in knowledge concepts. Candidates for this sort of thing might be moral intuitions, mathematical truisms, or perhaps a whole range of common sense judgements summed up as “folk psychology.”

Empiricists, like Locke, Berkley and Hume, believed that everything is learned via experience. We are born as a blank slate, and we accumulate knowledge and concepts as we go.

Every now and then I have a geeky chuckle over the fact that a lot of contemporary sceptics who like to call themselves “rationalists” are in fact empiricists after all. Yes, mine is truly a sad existence….

Further reading


19 thoughts on “Rationalists and Empiricists

  1. First, I really like your Blog. I’ve been impressed with much of the material; at least the bits I’ve read and watched. I like the video on Sam Harris, which did a much better job than I in refuting his ideas on moral facts.

    I’ve been critical of this assertion from Sam Harris at a fundamental level. It essentially asserts that there is a single objective “reason for human life” applicable to everyone. This is a dangerous fantasy; one that might lead to people believing they must impose what they believe to be good on others by force.

    My belief; one held from my teen years, was that we each get to decide what our purpose is. I would go one further; that there is no reason to be alive – that the genuine rationalist would not eat or do anything until they died. Thus our lives are founded in the irrational choice of humans to live.

    And that’s fine. I enjoy living. I enjoy making my life worthwhile, even though I know that it is but a brief moment in eternity and founded in the irrational. Sam Harris by trying to create “moral facts” tries to impose objectives of “happiness”, and tries to equate this with wealth and living standards.

    As a Stoic I reject such a linear and ugly equation. Contentment and happiness are not found in the outside world, but within. It is our choices which define us and our judgments which make us happy or sad. Knowing this you can control you can endevour to live a contented life.

  2. Glenn, I also get a kick out of the same thing. The following example is, I think, the quintessential expression of such a misunderstanding: “The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.”

  3. You say:

    “I thought it might be helpful to point out, therefore, what rationalism really is”

    That is just silly. There are many uses of the word “rationalist”. The one you choose is not the only correct one. Obviously, the association you mention has a different usage of the word.

    Words do not have inherent meanings.

  4. I guess I was basically saying that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is a prime example where although “reason” (or “rationality”) may be used, it’s just a synonym for “science” or empiricism.

  5. I think defining rationalism in such a narrow way is a straw man. I think we need to define the difference between facts, which are observed, and ideas or models which make sense of the facts. For example, I can observe a bag with an apple in it, can add another apple, but the concepts of numbers of apples and rules of addition are human concepts. The concept of addition is a idea; one that is rational and follows explicit rules.

    In other words we can believe that ideas come from the mind, while facts come from the outside world. It’s not a case of accepting one or the other because accepting that there are observed facts and that one can make sense of facts by way of ideas/models are easily held; and compliment one another.

    To believe that one must reject objective reality to be a rationalist is… irrational.

  6. “To believe that one must reject objective reality to be a rationalist is… irrational.”

    Peter, who represented rationalism as rejecting objective reality?

  7. Rob, certainly people are able to create conventions of using words in a certain way of their choosing – as that society and modern sceptics have. It is the convention and the historical irony it creates that I was commenting on.

    Just as words don’t have inherent meanings, neither do they have purely subjective meanings.

    But by all means, feel free to comment on my cheese sandwich again in future.

  8. Matt,

    That is a horrible analogy. The term “Marxist” does not have the variety of uses that the term “rationalist” does.


    “Modern skeptics” have not created any conventions around the term “rationalist”. In fact, the sharp distinction you draw between rationalism and empiricism is rather fringe.

    But, if you are a black and white thinker, that may be your only option. Fortunately, most philosophers and scientists and normal folk are able to understand the subtleties here.

  9. Rob, I the distinction between rationalism and empiricism is not fringe. Anyone who has studied the history of philosophy knows its mainstream.

    marxism does have different meanings, there are different kinds of marxism, but it would be really odd to use the word in a way that it refered to the antithesis of historical paradigms of marxism. That’s Glenn’s point about rationalism

    Glenn, Peter thinks rationalist is denying objective reality because he is an empiricist and thinks one can only know reality through experience. Its a shock to him to learn the word rationalism historically refers to a position he thinks is irrational and so wants to use his understand of what’s rational to define what the term rationalism means.

  10. Matt,

    I understand Glenn’s point. He picks one particular usage of the word, and points out that that specific usage of the word is opposed to empiricism.

    But my point is that Glenn is just being silly, because when a skeptic refers to herself as a rationalist, then Glenn’s meaning is not the one she intends.

    In other words, Glenn is just wrong when he asserts that his definition is “what rationalism really is”.

    Your analogy is still horrible. When a skeptic uses the word “rationalist”, a contradictory position is not “empiricist”. However, most folks would agree that a Marxist cannot support capitalism without contradiction.

    I think your best option here is to admit that your analogy is particularly bad.

  11. Rob, by your own admission, modern sceptics don’t use the word in its historic philosophical sense. They’re using the word in a way that it wasn’t formerly used in, so I don’t see why you want to deny that they’ve created a convention of usage. They have.

    It’s just ironic that in doing so, they have chosen a word that referred to a mindset that was opposed to the epistemology that modern sceptics embrace. That’s all. It’s a bit redundant for you to point out that “when a skeptic refers to herself as a rationalist, then Glenn’s meaning is not the one she intends.”

    That was my point to begin with, Rob. Modern sceptics are using the word according to their fairly recent convention, and not in any historic sense. Labeling my comments silly don’t change this.

    Of course, they’re allowed to use words any way they like. I just get a chuckle out of the fact that while the term in philosophy refers to a rejection of empiricism, those sceptics are often empiricists. You don’t have to find this amusing, of course.

  12. Glenn,

    Do you acknowledge that you made a mistake with this sentence: “I thought it might be helpful to point out, therefore, what rationalism really is”?

    Words do not have inherent meanings. Rather, words acquire meanings by how they are used. You and Matt have confused the issue. Matt’s analogy of Marxism/capitalism and your analogy of Blog/cheese sandwich are ridiculous.

    Most people most of the time use the word “rationalist” as the skeptic does, not in in the arcane way you have defined it.

    There is nothing that “rationalism” “really is”. You are confused. Just own up to your error and be done with it.

  13. No Glenn, I’m not ticked off, just amused that both you and Matt make such rudimentary mistakes and don’t have the intellectual honesty to admit it. Thanks for the exchange.

  14. Rob – no, I didn’t make a mistake there.

    You can just state that I have confused the issue, but that’s no reason to agree with your assessment. The cheese sandwich argument is fine because it illustrates to you that you can’t treat words as totally fluid, being subject to a limitless range of acceptable usage.

    Your comment about “most people” is strange. The fact is that most people never use the word “rationalism” (and “rationalist”) at all. How could you doubt that? Of those who do use it, they will be very likely to be using it as a philosophical term – and it’s not “arcane” by any means. Walk into any philosophy department today and you’ll see this. The only other people – note that, the only people who use the word in a way out of step with the previously established meaning – are sceptics who use it of themselves in precisely the ironic way that I have described.

    If you see no irony at all in the fact that certain sceptics use that word today in a way that historically describes their opposite point of view, fine. Nobody’s forcing you. But puffing out your chest and trying to get me to cower and say I was wrong about… something… is not really going to get you anywhere. Maybe you’re a bit ticked by my comments because you sympathise with those… *ahem* “rationalist” groups and would rather not concede that they might be ignorant.

    In any event, your comments at this cheese sandwich are welcome. (There, I’ve used it twice, so it’s becoming a legitimate convention.)

  15. Rob, see above. I’ve addressed your concern.

    For what it’s worth (and yes I’m sure you’ll see this as patronising, but it happens to be the case), I think you see and probably grant the point being made here, but something is disallowing you from granting it and to get personal (accusing people of lacking honesty merely because you do not agree with them). Nobody is being dishonest with you. I have made a humble and easy to verify observation – largely for no other than the purpose of explaining terminology for the public.

    You reacted, I daresay, just because I also made a reference to sceptics and so you felt that you had to say something in their (your?) defence. Although my observation there was quite correct, it was also not the main point.

  16. Glenn,

    Sorry to be off topic, but I thought you might find a new article by Wes Morriston interesting: God and the ontological foundation of morality, Religious Studies, doi:10.1017/S0034412510000740. At the moment, it’s an “early view” article, thus the absense of volume, issue number, etc.

  17. You also might be interested in the forthcoming book by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls: Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, OUP, forthcoming March 2011.

    This book aims to reinvigorate discussions of moral arguments for God’s existence. To open this debate, Baggett and Walls argue that God’s love and moral goodness are perfect, without defect, necessary, and recognizable. After integrating insights from the literature of both moral apologetics and theistic ethics, they defend theistic ethics against a variety of objections and, in so doing, bolster the case for the moral argument for God’s existence. It is the intention of the authors to see this aspect of natural theology resume its rightful place of prominence, by showing how a worldview predicated on the God of both classical theism and historical Christian orthodoxy has more than adequate resources to answer the Euthyphro Dilemma, speak to the problem of evil, illumine natural law, and highlight the moral significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Ultimately, the authors argue, there is principled reason to believe that morality itself provides excellent reasons to look for a transcendent source of its authority and reality, and a source that is more than an abstract principle.

    Table of Contents
    Foreword by Thomas V. Morris
    Chapter 1: Moral Apologia
    Chapter 2: The Euthyphro Dilemma
    Chapter 3: Naming the Whirlwind
    Chapter 4: A Reformed Tradition Not Quite Right
    Chapter 5: God and Goodness
    Chapter 6: Divine Command Theory
    Chapter 7: Abhorrent Commands
    Chapter 8: The Problem of Evil
    Chapter 9: Knowing God’s Will
    Chapter 10: Ethics and Eternity
    Appendix A: Answering the Extended Arbitrariness Objection to Divine Command Theory
    Appendix B: Outrageous Evil and the Hope of Healing

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