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Rationalism Versus Empiricism -- How Reality Is Understood

Updated: Jan 21



Rationalism vs. Empiricism: In the Quest For Knowledge


The quest for knowledge's a puzzle whose construction might as well resume indefinitely, given how much we are more ignorant of reality than we admit. Now, in the maze of decisions we venture forth to build the most accurate puzzle to reflect reality as it is, we encounter two paths. One is paved with consistent pondering, the other a rollercoaster of experimentation.


The former, my dear audience, is rationalism, which can be defined as a philosophy that holds reason to be the chief source of knolwedge. The latter is empiricism which can be defined as several meanings:


  • The belief that all concepts originate from experience.

  • All concepts can be applicable to experience.

  • All beliefs can only be known or verified by experience.


Together, these two form the epistemology, or the philosophy of what is knowledge, how it is gained and so on. Epistemological questions include, but are not limited, to:


  • What do we seek to create knowledge about?

  • Who accepts knowledge as ‘true’ and how?


Knowledge Through Reason and Experiment


Now, the distinction between these two beasties is as clear as a polished gem. Rationalists, with their introspective minds, build their knowledge empires within ivory towers of logic, without much need to even go outside and interact with a lot of people for their knowledge. Using deduction, they construct and discover truths with the delicate tools of thought.


Like myself, yes. Our minds have the power to generate insights almost autonomously from the external world, by becoming self-learners. While we rationalists don't necessarily need to do much external research, I'm doing it nonetheless in my articles (and even in articles I receive from other writers) in order to enhance their quality, further.


Empiricism, on the other hand, is nowadays the main way science develops, i.e, through experience and experiment-based research, as opposed to "internal research" which is how philosophers become philosophers. For more on the relationships between science and philosophy, read about "The Two Heads of Wisdom".


Empiricists roll up their sleeves, per se, dive into the churning gears of the world, and wrench out understanding through experiments and direct experience. By doing so, they risk their mental survival. Rationalists, while being safe in their metaphorical ivory towers, are and will be missing out on life by the reaoning of what I call, the "Same Result Problem".


Interestingly enough, however, these paths find their homes in different corners of our different bodies of knowledge. Rationalism lies humanities: literature, art, philosophy, where truths stem from contemplation and verbal agility. These fields, unlike the "hard sciences", don't rely on tangible experiments but on the elegant dance of logic and language.


The expection for that, in the rationalist approach to knowledge, is mathematics. That's because although there is no necessary correlation between logic and language in math, there is a strict correlation between logic and numbers, without the usage of regular, literal communication required to understand reality from a mathematical perspective. Arguably, the universe is either built or can easily be represented by numbers, but I digress.


Empiricism, on the other hand, can be represented not only in any science that demands experimentation, but what is called in slang, as the "university of life". It's a term that shows us that there isn't a necessary correlation between wisdom and education, as I proved myself in a logical fallacy I devised, called "The Degree Fallacy".


By involving ourselves in society we can experiment in social interactions to better understand how other humans behave and what we should do in order to "get our way" in life. One can say that, in the "university" of everyday life, we become both experiments and "scientists", discovering the machinations of civilization by being part of its machinery. Most of us, like Japanese Salarymen, do it to survive, anyways.


Both rationalism and empiricism are like trusty screwdrivers in the toolbox of understanding. Sometimes, a good, hard think is all it takes to unscrew a mystery. Other times, we need to get our hands dirty, tinker with the world itself, and see what makes it tick.


So, the next time you're grappling with a question, remember: Knowledge is a destination with a specific way to get it. After all, the most brilliant thinkers are arguably the ones who can wield both logic's scalpel and experience's wrench with equal finesse. They really have the power to complement each other, when one way of knowing things can be combined with another way.

I myself won't deny the allure of empiricism. It's a thrill to get your circuits buzzing with firsthand experience, despite the risk involved, to truly feel the truth rather than just think it. And let's be honest, sometimes a good, hard experiment can save you a lot of mental gymnastics. You know, like prepering to suffer in the name of love.


And yet, not everything can be poked and prodded. Take the delicate network of abstract concepts. The meaning of life, the nature of consciousness, the existence of a higher power – They are "higher" expressions of existence, best approached with reason, not experimentation.


You can't exactly file a good arguement for the existence of divine beings if your source is your own personal experience, for example. That is known as the anecdotal fallacy. You must rely on more than a single case study, and the problem in the case of religion lies in the fact that it is still belief/faith-based. And belief/faith are not proper substitutes of knowledge. Hence why I choose agnosticism, (and hence why I once again digress).


By the same token, consider the dangerous feat of jumping off a cliff. I haven't personally tested that one either, but I'm fairly certain it wouldn't end well. But we don't exactly need to jump off cliffs, nor hear of real life examples where people fell of cliffs, in order for us to understand that we shouldn't do it. How come? Unlike moths we can better know when to stay out of such dangers.


So, where does this leave us? In a delightful dance of both logic and experience! Some truths, like the sting of a lemon, demand direct contact. Others, like the beauty of a sunset, can be appreciated from afar, through the lens of careful contemplation.


Summary


It's through the combined forces of rationalism and mpiricism that we understand reality. However, neither one is without its flaws and its costs as well. You might find out that those who have been traumatized by life, will be more inclined to spend their time in isolation from the world.


Nevertheless, you might find some of them to be as much knowledgeable as anyone else, and even more, because a first-hand experience is not necessary to understand this world, at least not entirely. Comapre this to understanding North Korean philosophy without ever being in North Korea.


By the same token, people who have travelled a lot, spoke to a lot of people and had exotic experiences, could in theory still have a less-than-profound understanding of reality if they do not work on becoming more logical beings. And yet it does not negate the fact that they had many experiences many people do not have, making them good sources of knowledge nevertheless.


When seeking knowledge, we should take into account that we may be sacrificing something out of ourselves, if we want to maintain our sanity and safety in general. Pain, gathered along with living in general, is a most helpful teacher. But we better make sure it doesn't kill us or drive us to insanity. Even love can increase suicide risk when there's a heartbreak as a possibility.


Do make sure that the knowledge you're seeking justifies the means to get it.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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