Empiricism Revisited: Intuition and Epistemic Priority

There was a really interesting comment on a thread on my original “Empiricism as Foundational” that would be good to stimulate more discussion. Here it is, from Joseph Graney.

So, I would like to offer the following response (in an order unrelated to the above article):

1) Empiricism does not, in fact, reject the innate knowledge thesis, because it claims that we can know things via experience. However, there is no means by which experience can be demonstrated to be useful in generating knowledge, therefore, the knowledge that we can know things via experience must be innate.
2) Rationalism allows a check for intuition on the basis of axiomatic necessity. In other words, any statement that is must be true in order for any truth statement to be correct is accepted as a basis for reasoning, and every other case of intuition is valueless as regards learning truth. There are four such statements to the best of my knowledge.
3) I would object to the idea that rational arguments are evaluated relative to empirical appeals on the grounds that such a claim is self-refuting. The claim that there exists an empirical reality is itself the product of rational argument, and thus the arguments that justify our belief in such a reality cannot be evaluated based on an empirical reality without the system of argumentation being circular. Yet we know those rational arguments are extremely valuable, because of the knowledge they produce. Thus I propose that arguments are to evaluated by whether they reach true conclusions, and not on some empirical appeal.

There is some unpicking that needs to be done here, but it should be well worth the discussion.

Let’s start at the beginning:

1) Empiricism does not, in fact, reject the innate knowledge thesis, because it claims that we can know things via experience. However, there is no means by which experience can be demonstrated to be useful in generating knowledge, therefore, the knowledge that we can know things via experience must be innate.

Innate knowledge can mean a number of things I would argue that intuition, as commonly understood, is actually the nonconscious brain taking in sense data and calculating without the use of the top level of consciousness. Our brains do an awful lot of work, and it doesn’t always need to be reflected consciously. There are some interesting real world examples of this: chicken sexing and World War 2 plane spotting. Both of these are thought to be really intuitive skills that the people doing them find difficult to teach (see Divid Eagleman’s Incognito), because the experts don’t really consciously know what the markers for differentiating actually are. But there must be markers. They are looking at something.

But innate knowledge, here, might be referring to something else, such as the understanding of logic. This is what Joseph looks at in further points.

Knowledge that we know things by experience is not innate, but self-validating. I know by experiencing the taste of food, and the reactions of my body, that I have eaten food. This keeps me alive. Without the knowledge of experience, we simply would not exist.

2) Rationalism allows a check for intuition on the basis of axiomatic necessity. In other words, any statement that is must be true in order for any truth statement to be correct is accepted as a basis for reasoning, and every other case of intuition is valueless as regards learning truth. There are four such statements to the best of my knowledge.

Does rationalism check intuition or does empiricism? I would say empiricism in that if I want to check whether the silhouette above is an enemy plane or not, I use intuition. If I get it wrong and get bombed by staying in the open, then that is the empirical way it gets checked. Intuition is validated by experience. If we get intuitions wrong too often, we learn that our intuition is not reliable. It is reliability that we measure these things against.

Now, that inductive logic that I use, you could argue, is the rational underpinning of the framework I am using. And this is the rub. Is logic “merely” a descriptive language we use for reality, like maths? In Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly (a book that I edited), author James A. Lindsay talked about not confusing the map with the terrain. In other words, we have an understanding of the world and reality (say, maths and logic) that is the map, but we must not think the map actually is reality. Logic is arguably a way we have of understanding the world and is not only borne out by empirical data but may be derived from data. The law of non-contradiction sounds very logical and abstract but it could just be what we experience of the world, a mental representation of our sense data.

3) I would object to the idea that rational arguments are evaluated relative to empirical appeals on the grounds that such a claim is self-refuting. The claim that there exists an empirical reality is itself the product of rational argument, and thus the arguments that justify our belief in such a reality cannot be evaluated based on an empirical reality without the system of argumentation being circular. Yet we know those rational arguments are extremely valuable, because of the knowledge they produce. Thus I propose that arguments are to evaluated by whether they reach true conclusions, and not on some empirical appeal.

As mentioned above, this could well be the wrong way around, that logic and rationalism are tools we develop in our brains that help us to navigate reality.

This is not to say rationality and rationalism, in general, aren’t important: of course they are. I wouldn’t be employing them on a daily basis if they weren’t. The reality is that both empiricism and rationalism need each other in order to work in conjunction to allow us humans to make sense of the world around us.

Much of this is, of course, the a priori / a posteriori debate and the analytic / synthetic debate.

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