Philosophy > Empiricism vs. Rationalism

Empiricism vs. Rationalism

Published: March 28, 2009

What humans believe in can be attributed to two different sources, what enters our mind through the use of our senses, and what enters our mind through the use of reasoning. Empiricism is the theory that ideas are derived from the senses alone, while rationalism is the notion that knowledge is discovered by the means of reason alone. Logically, believing what you see and the ideas of empiricism makes sense. To gain knowledge in certain areas, we often experience it firsthand. At the same time, however, our personal set of principles already dictate how we see the world. The question of “to what extent should we believe what we see, or see what we believe?” is worthy of study due to the fact that knowledge is the basic foundation of our society today, and the ways of acquiring knowledge are therefore important in order for us to continue to build the foundation of our world. Empiricist philosophers such as John Locke believed in the idea that the human brain was a “tabula rasa” which means a clean slate or white paper empiricists alleged that “man, no matter how brilliant, cannot evaluate anything in isolation and cannot form innate ideas prior to having experience.” Spinoza and Leibniz were sceptical about the reliability of the human senses, and believed in the notion that we’re not able to see anything unless we have a theory in our heads about it. In fact, one does not have to take a firm stance on whether empiricism or rationalism is correct, for these two concepts coexist in our daily lives. While seeing is believing, believing is also seeing; what we believe shapes what we see, and what we see shapes what we believe; we are the ones that are given the choice of what is being seen and what is believed. In every situation, there is a paradoxical structure, demonstrating to us how the idea or knowledge came to be, thus, we are always able to see the contrasting views of empiricism and rationalism. In the scientific realm of things, we are able to compare and contrast two different views on how the earth and the sun are situated in the universe through the geocentric and the heliocentric models. In the world of emotions and sentiments, love cannot be seen directly, we are only ever able to see the feelings that demonstrate love, or the result of love. In the religious domain, people often choose to believe in what they cannot see, yet it is possible for these people to see the world through what they believe in.

The history of science provides examples of how a group of humans may see the same thing through their eyes, attribute what is viewed to different theories. Beginning in the early fifth century, astronomers such as Plato and his student Aristotle embraced the theory that the earth was the center of the universe and heavenly objects like the sun and stars rotated around the earth; this was known as the geocentric model of the universe. According to Plato and his works of the time, “the earth was a sphere, stationary at the center of the universe, the stars and planets were carried around the earth on spheres.” By the late sixteenth century, this model of the universe was gradually replaced by the heliocentric model, which stated that the sun was at the center of the universe. Copernicus was among the first to come up with this theory by publishing his works of “De Revolutionibus”, a full discussion of the heliocentric model of the universe. These scientists and people of the time had all seen the same natural phenomenon of the sun rising and setting each day, yet their interpretations of what they see is dramatically different. Empiricism played a large part in this change of interpretation due to the fact that there had been technological advancement from the fifth to the sixteenth century, and what could be viewed of outer space increased throughout the years, thus scientists shaped their beliefs based on what they saw. Rationalism also contributed to these two models and the scientists supporting them, because after the heliocentric model of the universe was introduced, many were reluctant to believe in this theory for it was against their original beliefs, so they continued to see the situation the way they believed it to be.

In the emotional world, humans see gestures demonstrating love every single day, but it is not possible to actually see love itself. Using our hearing, we are able to hear the words “I love you”, and through our sense of touch, we are able to feel hugs that symbolize love. We often hear the phrase “love is in the air”, but it is only because we believe in love, that we are able to detect love in our surroundings. But at the same time, we see actions of love, and this is what leads us to believing in love itself. In this case, love demonstrates a cycle of empiricism and rationalism, for we see what we believe, and we believe what we see. This is true for many other cases, such as an individual being intelligent, we are not able to see intelligence directly, yet through the use of our senses, we are able to see characteristics of a clever person, which gives us proof that they are truly smart.

In the realms of religion, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or others, the basis of belief is founded on the ideas of rationalism. Many philosophical scientists in the past challenged the church by attempting to understand the universe and the natural order outside the church’s influence; for example, Galileo embraced the evolving scientific revolution at the time and trusted only in what could be observed. This empiricism movement ended in the establishment of a code of scientific rationalism, which stated that everything that happens in the universe has a logical reason behind it. Many other scientists of the time, such as Aristotle, believed that science cannot provide the answer to all the questions in life. Though very different, both empiricism and rationalism had its own way of looking at the same belief; Empiricism with the ideal that only what can be seen is true, therefore, falsifying religious beliefs; and rationalism through the concept that there is a secular reason behind all events that occur in the universe. The Holy Bible is something that allows believers to build the foundation of their faith on both empirical and rational ideals. The Bible itself is something that is visible, yet we do not know exactly who recorded these words of God, this makes the Bible both empirically visible and rationalistically visible.

What we see shapes what we believe, and at the same time, what we believe shapes what we see. When one experiences sensory phenomena, it is filtered through one’s set of morals and values, and the end result is a perception of an agreement between what we see and what we believe. When taken broadly, these views [of rationalism and empiricism] are not mutually exclusive, since a philosopher can be both a rationalist and an empiricist. If too much emphasis is placed on either sight or belief, one could be fooled by their senses and their preconceived ideas. In the cases of science, emotions, and religion, we are able to see that individuals must find a harmonious balance between the ideals of rationalism and empiricism in order to obtain true knowledge. For seeing is believing, and believing is also seeing.

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