Can Anyone Really Be an Empiricist?

To be an atheist, one must deny the existence of God, any God.  When pressed as to why they don’t believe in God, any god, not even the ones that allow them to throw crazy parties, ie Bacchus, many atheists reply that they don’t believe in God because there is no scientific evidence to prove that there is such a thing as God.  And thus, whether he knows it or not, the atheist has killed science.

“Speak, Christian. But do it fast, or else.”

Perhaps I should back up a little.  First of all I should explain that this particular brand of atheists also tend to refer to themselves as Empiricists.  And if they don’t refer to themselves as such, I believe that they ought to.  The empiricist holds that nothing which cannot be demonstrated to them, that is to say, nothing which cannot be scientifically proven, is true.  And there you have it, nice and neat, there is no proof that there is God, and thus there is no God.  But what else might one cut out of the picture by claiming, and holding to, empiricism as the basis of all knowledge?

For an answer to this we have to look to perhaps the most famous of all empiricists, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and proto-troll, David Hume.

The first of Hume’s explanations that needs to be addressed is his theory of man’s interaction with reality, since that’s what’s being discussed here.  Hume’s theory of human understanding of reality is called “Bundle Theory.”  Bundle Theory relies on the empiricist dogma that nothing which cannot be demonstrated can be believed and explains to us that there is no “thing-in-itself,” a fixed metaphysical reality or driving purpose, there is only a bundle of attributes (thus the term Bundle Theory).  To prove this, Hume challenges anyone to think of an apple, without thinking about the attributes of an apple.  Can’t do it, can yah?  Well, there you have it, if we can only know empirically, then there is no thing-in-itself, there are just attributes.  But, if this is true, then there’s no such thing as friendship, love, or anything else that isn’t physically or mathematically demonstrable.  This is something that almost no one (aside from a few very honest and depressed denizens of the internet, most of whom are convinced that we are all living in a computer simulation), would agree to.  But all proof of these things boils down to emotion, inclination, or intuition, none of which constitutes empirical, and thus scientific validity.
Thought Experiment:

You are an empiricist, and have a degree in robotics and computer programming.  Your family sucks.  Your father’s an alcoholic, your mother’s passive aggressive and has never approved of anything you’ve done with your life.  Your spouse has fallen out of love with you, grown cold and distant, and is probably cheating on you.  You discover a way to create very complicated and lifelike simulations of human behavior, as well as robots who would look, sound and move like people.

Do you break ties with your family and replace them with robots who do a better job?

But, back to science!

Hume also relates to us that since we there are no things-in-themselves there is also no direct knowledge of causation.  Instead, we see patterns.  I drop the ball and see that it falls; after doing this enough times I become convinced that the ball will always drop.  This however brings us back to the classic problem of Induction.  The problem of induction is that there is no way of proving, empirically, that an event will always happen.   If you have only ever seen green apples, and thus conclude that apples are always green, you’ll be pretty shaken up when someone hands you a red apple.  And so, induction, or concluding that things viewed are always going to be that way, is against the most basic tenant of empiricism, that we can only know what is demonstrated to us.  However this, the belief that we can indeed know things for certain, is the foundation of science.  As such, the empiricist cannot allow science.  And if he does than he is not abiding by his own logic.  This is how Hume dealt with the problem, to ignore the problem, and simply play a lot of cards.


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  • abb3w

    Your big error is in portraying “the foundation of science” as “we can indeed know things for certain”. Science does not work at a p=1 level of confidence, but at relative certainty — ”confidence intervals”.

    The empirical problem of induction is resolvable in such probabilistic sense, from about a dozen more basic axiomatic assumptions. Most are simply the ones required to get to propositional logic and mathematics (particularly arithmetic, probability, and Church-Turing finite automata), providing an abstract language for talking with and allowing formalization for “pattern”. (A lesser problem in your piece would seem in presuming the only means of demonstration for empiricists is scientific proof, rather than allowing that empiricists may merely require scientific proof for matters of experience, but allow other means of proof such as via purely mathematical methods for purely abstract propositions.) Once mathematics is around as a tool set, an additional axiom may be taken that experience has ANY pattern. A more rigorous version of Occam’s Razor (doi:10.1109/18.825807) may be derived as a consequent theorem, which in turn allows an algorithm akin to science as a consequent, which uses parsimony to identify maximum (but not necessarily unary) probability.

    Anyway, I have to argue about flying saucers on the beach with people, you know. And I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that’s true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not. — Richard Feynman

    It is possible to take the Refutation of any of these axioms rather than assertion, but doing so for any of them presents some difficulties. Binary boolean logic is not a requirement; the proof holds even when more complex boolean lattices are considered. Heyting logic is more problematic, but then you’re left with problems any time you say “not”. Taking alternates to ZF often merely leads to equivalent ends at best, and at worst leads to an inability to say “5+3^2=14” or even “2”. The most promising would seem to be taking refutation on the axiom about pattern — but that way leads to a dead end in Ramsey theory, in territory even more hostile to theology than empiricism.

    • Ryan Adams

      I feel obliged to thank you for this comment. You raise a good point, and because of this comment I’ve spent a great deal of time researching the philosophy of science. Fascinating stuff.

  • Psych

    “Be a philosopher but, amid all your philosophy be still a man.” David Hume ehehhehehehehehehhe

  • Randy

    the main problem I see is your usage of the terms atheist and empiricist. you’re taking a much more narrow definition of the two than the real world offers. you’re trying to take the extreme definition of the empiricist as someone who only believes in what they personally experience and that simply isn’t the mindset of the modern empiricist. it’s the same with your usage of atheism to hold only those people who believe that there absolutely is no god when it really just means someone who doesn’t believe in god.

    • Ryan Adams

      I still contend that it is you who are misunderstanding the terms used. You want, ever so badly, for empiricism to means science. This is, however, not the case. The “modern empiricist” is simply someone using an outdated system of philosophy. Science predates empiricism, and has outlived it. As for atheism, being that it is a term which has a more fluid definition than empiricism, I’ll grant some leeway, and even admit to confining the definition. This being said, I find something a little off in the logic which distinguishes a belief that there isn’t something and an absence of belief that there is something. If I say “there is a man in the room” and you say “I do not believe there is a man in the room,” then you have stated a negation of my view. If you respond “I believe there is not a man in the room” you have stated the same negation. Both the statement “I believe not” and the statement “I do not believe” point to a reality of the absence of the man in the room.

      • Randy

        so now you are saying that there are no empiricists?
        and you still don’t understand what I’m saying about atheism. you can say that you believe there is a man in the room and I can say that I don’t believe there is a man in the room, but that’s not the same as me saying there definitely is not a man in the room. some people claim to know that there is a god. some people claim to know that there is no god. neither of them can actually “know” anything of the sort. I believe that there is no god but I don’t know that there is no god. some call the differences between the two ways of though positive and negative (or strong and weak, or pretty much any other polar opposites) atheism, but the fact remains that they are both still atheistic statements.

        • Ryan Adams

          If you were to ask any philosopher who is currently working what they would consider “their philosophy” to be, I doubt very much that you would find many people who would consider themselves empiricists. This being said, there are still MANY philosophies that draw from the empiricist tradition (typically found in the Anglo-American schools of thought).
          As for atheism, you’ve added a term (“definitely”) to the argument, which was not used. I simply stated that atheists deny the existence of God, gods, Xenu, etc.

          • Randy

            this is what I was talking about when I said there was a difference between the philosophy and scientists. though philosophers may not consider themselves empiricists most scientists would say they were empiricists. the atheists you referred to are mostly of the scientific lot as opposed to the philosophical. and as for adding the term “definitely” to the argument, I used that term in the very fist response to your facebook post. there is a difference between actively asserting something (“there is no god”) and simply not believing something. you don’t seem to want to believe that’s true but it’s one of the big problems you have run into when talking about atheists. you need to stop believing you have an understanding of people with different ideas than you and learn some more about them.

          • Ryan Adams

            The problem we have here is that empiricism is a philosophy, not a science. If there are scientists who consider themselves empiricists, they are acting under an outdated philosophy of science. Philosophy of science is important. And since empiricism is a philosophy, it is philosophy who judges it’s value and ability, not science.
            Continuing the discussion of the difference you try to make between the active assertion of “there is no god” and the “passive” not believing in God, you hit the same logical problem. You have to actively assert that you don’t believe in God, it cannot be a passive thing, unless you are not willing to take a stance on it. It is entirely possible to withhold assent to the idea, but that is different from the active “I do not believe.” Withholding assent makes one an agnostic. There IS a difference between “I do not believe” and “There is no,” but this difference is not what’s in question here.

          • Randy

            empiricism isn’t just a school of philosophy. empiricism, at it’s core, is simply believing only that which can be observed. a scientist could very easily claim to be an empiricist without actually being a philosopher. you’re premise that someone, who by saying that they don’t believe in god because there’s no evidence, somehow destroys science has no merit. that’s exactly what science does. it shows, through method, which ideas have evidence in their favor and which do not.
            your logic as to what equates to “active” and “passive” is also flawed. by your argument the only answer to the question that would qualify as passive would be a blank stare. even stating “I don’t know” is active by your standards. an active assertion suggests that something either exists or does not exist. the statement “I don’t believe so” does neither, which is what makes it a passive statement. it again goes to what a person knows to be true and what he does not. I don’t know that there are no gods, but at the same time I don’t believe there are. by your reasoning that statement cannot be true, but it is. and according to the first sentence in this blog post that is exactly what is in question here.

          • Ryan Adams

            You’re still missing the point, on both fronts. Empiricism is a school of philosophy. Like all schools of philosophy, they have influence on the world outside of the confines of academia, and yes, there are people who are not at all involved in philosophy who call themselves empiricists, just as there are people not at all involved in philosophy who call themselves nihilists, determinists, existentialists, marxists, etc.
            Statements of belief are active statements. You actively believe regardless of whether it’s a positive belief or a negative. There IS a difference between belief and abject, mathematical certainty. Anyone claiming this kind of certainty, regardless of direction, with regards to the existence of God, is to me a fool. You’re playing with the meanings of the words at play here. You’re trying to take “passive” to mean that which doesn’t claim absolute certainty, and “active” that which does. This is not what the terms mean. If you would like to use them in that manner for the sake of this argument, then within the strict confines of this argument you would be correct, there is a difference between the “active” there is not and the “passive” I don’t believe there is. However, it still remains that in this post I said atheists are those who “do not believe in” not “are absolutely sure there is not,” a god.