Empiricism is the theory which states that the origin of knowledge is the sense of experience. It talks about the role of experience and evidence, specifically sensory perception, in the formation of ideas. Most empiricists discount the thought of innate ideas or innatism. The term “empiricism” has a dual etymology, evolved from the Greek word which means experience. The term “empirical” also refers to the method of observation and experiment used in natural and social science.
History of Empiricism
The concept of tabula rasa was developed by the Persian philosopher Avicenna in the 11th century. Avicenna argues that knowledge is only attained through the empirical familiarity of objects in this world.
Sir Francis Bacon is an early empiricist, also the father of Empiricism. He was popular for his inductive methodology for scientific inquiry. The members of British Empiricism, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume were the primary exponents of Empiricism. They defended the ideology of Empiricism against the Rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. John Locke first formulated the doctrine of Empiricism in the 17th century.
Characteristics of Empiricism
Empiricism as experience and evidence
- Empiricism talks about the significance of evidence and experience in the formation of ideas in individuals. Therefore, sense perception is the main source of knowledge. Empiricists support their theology with the situations in which a person’s lack of sense experience stops her from fully understanding the situation. For eg. How can one describe the taste of apricot if he has never tasted it before? Therefore, the ideas of the human mind are divided into two parts:- Simple and Complex. The simple ideas only talk about perception such as color, taste, size, shape, etc. However, complex ideas are those formed with a combination of simple ideas.
- Empiricism states that there is nothing on the earth which more certain and indubitable than a person’s immediate sensation. Our senses can deceive us regarding the world. However, it is quite impossible to ignore that we are having sensory experiences. We cannot doubt the origin of our senses, and cannot change our mind about it. For example, If I have a toothache, then I am having a sense of toothache. Thus, ‘How do you know you have a toothache?’ is a kind of silly question.
- Most empiricists believe in the notion of innate ideas. That means that each mind is born with some ideas or knowledge rather than with a blank slate. Many empiricists reject the theory of innate ideas. They believe that human acquires ideas from experience, not from innate ideas. For example, if a child knows everything since his birth, then why he needs to learn to walk and speech? Why does he not have this knowledge from birth? This is the belief of empiricists that one can create simple ideas only from experience. That come together to make complex ideas.
Empiricism as Inductive Reasoning
Inductive reasoning is the type of logical thinking which involves the formation of generalizations based on specific incidents and individual experiences. Also by applying the observations, you have made, or facts you know to be true or false. Deductive reasoning is the basic form of valid reasoning. Deductive reasoning usually starts with a general statement or hypothesis. Mainly the hypothesis examines the possibilities to reach a specific, logical conclusion. In simple words, we analyze through, create evidence, and reach a conclusion in inductive reasoning, while in deductive reasoning we first make a decision and then analyze it.
The main difference between inductive and deductive reasoning is that inductive reasoning aims at the development of theory while deductive reasoning aims at testing an existing theory.
- The empiricists believe much more in inductive reasoning rather than in deductive reasoning. Empiricists believe that to build a more complex body of knowledge by directly observing the sensory perceptions. Then there must be the need for inductive reasoning.
- The empiricists rely on evidence and experience. Empiricism is significant in science as it is a fundamental part of the scientific method. Empirical research, which includes experiments and validated measurement tools, guides the scientific method. Hence, science is considered methodologically empirical.
Rationalism Vs Empiricism
Rationalism and Empiricism are directly opposite to each other. Therefore, rationalism refers to the theory of innate, reason, and deduction. Whereas Empiricism refers to the theory of sense, perception, and induction. It does not believe in the theory of innate.
Rationalism believes in innate ideas, which means we have certain ideas from our birth. For example, Plato explains this fact from his theory of the forms, the place where everyone goes and attains knowledge. Innate ideas help us to explain why distinct individuals are better than others even if they had some experience. Whereas empiricists believe in sensory perception as the sole source of knowledge. John Locke divides ideas into two parts, simple and complex.
Believing that reason is the main source of knowledge makes Rationalism different from Empiricism. Rationalists believe that your five senses can only provide you with opinion rather than reason. Descartes in his argument, explains how the candle has a single shape at the starting. However, when we light a candle, it starts melting and changes its shape. Thus, our idea of a candle and its should also change with this. This argument results that our senses can be molded, therefore they should not be trusted. However, Empiricist has a different belief that ideas can only be acquired through experience rather than innate ideas.
The deduction is the third characteristic that makes rationalism different from empiricism. In his third meditation, Descartes tries to prove the existence of God by deductive reasoning. Whereas induction is the final characteristic of empiricists, which means that there are very few things that can be proven.
So, these were the characteristics of Empiricism. It is a significant part of the scientific method. The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge.
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