Rationalism, Empiricism, Critical Thinking … and Rationalism

Stephanie Zvan is complaining about the “rationalists” among her atheist compatriots. She comes out as an empiricist in opposition to rationalism, and in her post discusses what’s wrong with rationalism and right about empiricism, with the general idea — one supposes — that everyone should choose empiricism over rationalism. In fact, she describes how she thinks of rationalists thusly:

I have friends who are rationalists. I do my best to think of it as a nice little hobby of theirs. I do cryptograms and other puzzles in my down time. They spend time hacking their thinking processes, or trying to. We’ve all got our thing.

Which is a rather odd thing to say, considering that her post seems to be trying to use the philosophical definitions of the terms, and if that’s the case then it can’t be just a hobby. Philosophically, both are meant to describe a fundamental approach to understanding the world. Neither are things you just dabble in. Adding critical thinking to the mix just makes this sort of statement all the more puzzling. So, I see her post as an example of “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”; she seems to know a little about those philosophical schools, but not enough to really understand them well-enough to understand that, ultimately, the people who call themselves “rationalists” are not rationalists in the sense that opposes empiricism, but are rationalists in the sense of insisting that all truths must be filtered through reason before they can be accepted.

In this post, I’ll go through her post and point out how it doesn’t describe the philosophical positions of rationalism and empiricism accurately, and so ascribes things to those who call themselves rationalists that they don’t have to hold and don’t hold. In the next post, I’ll introduce a new way of classifying these epistemic views that I think captures both her objections and the reasons that those “rationalists” oppose her “empiricism”.

So, first, a summary of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism, at its heart, is a doctrine that truths about the world have to be ultimately justified by reason. Empiricism, on the other hand, is a doctrine that says that truths about the world have to be ultimately justified by sense data. The justification for rationalism is that our sense data is unreliable and doesn’t apply universally; different people experience different things, and our experiences don’t tell us what’s true about the world. Also, when we start looking at categories — ie what a dog is — we don’t seem to have enough data available to allow us to figure out what the key features of those things really are. For example, we all think that it is part of the categorization of dogs that they all have four legs. But if we find a dog with three legs, we still say it’s a dog. How do we explain that? Plato appealed to Forms for that, but it is clear that the empirical data isn’t sufficient for us to learn how to classify dogs just from what we experience in a lifetime, given the wide varieties of dogs and their characteristics that we encounter. The justification for empiricism is that if we rely on simple reason and don’t appeal to sense data, we can end up disconnected from the world. Our only access to the external world is through sense data, and if we try to reason out how the world should be when we go out into that world we often find out that it isn’t that way. Rationalism, it would seem, cuts itself off from the only data we have about the external world, while empiricism embraces it.

This can lead to what I’ll call here a “weak rationalism”, which is the idea that some propositions that are not just innate propositions and not just about fields that aren’t meant to apply to the real world can only be justified through reason, and not through sense data. Thus, not all propositions about the world are or can be justified by sense data. The common example I use of this is the existence of something that has necessary existence; there is no way to empirically examine such an entity to see if it really needs to exist. The same can be said of something that has omnipotence or any of the omni-traits; you simply can’t observe enough things to prove that true. I, personally, am a weak rationalist.

When we talk, then, about atheist, where do they fit into this debate? Well, despite the fact that in “The God Delusion” Dawkins claims at one point to be a rationalist (I think), he’s clearly an empiricist. Almost all atheists are empiricists, as far as I can tell. A strong argument for it is that most atheists react to the Ontological Argument and Classical Theism with some variation of “You can’t simply use logic to prove the existence of something!”, but this is precisely what even weak rationalists will deny. Weak rationalists may argue that certain specific propositions have to be justified by sense data, but they will never claim that that’s how it works in general. So, then, all atheists of that sort are empiricists because they aren’t even weak rationalists, and I suspect that this includes almost everyone that Zvan is referring to in her post.

Critical thinking spans both rationalism and empiricism. Critical thinking, it seems to me, encompasses a few main principles: Figure out what type of evidence you need to demonstrate the truth of a proposition, figure out what specific evidence you need of that type, and then go see if the evidence does demonstrate the truth of the proposition. These all apply to both empiricism and rationalism, even when “reason vs sense data” is already settled, because it also applies to testimony versus observation versus expert opinion versus … well, everything else. So to ascribe critical thinking to rationalism is clearly nonsensical when considering the philosophical debate.

So with the framing out of the way, let’s look at what she says using this frame:

I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data. Such arguments can only perpetuate ignorance by giving it a shiny veneer of reason that it hasn’t earned.

The oddest thing here is that she later ascribes critical thinking to rationalism, but it seems to me — in light of what I said above — that one of the hallmarks of critical thinking is to reject the idea that intuition and common sense are what we should base arguments on. They usually aren’t the sort of evidence that can justify a claim. Also, the most famous rationalist ever — Descartes — didn’t rely on them at all, and insisted that all propositions must be logically justified, and therefore certain. Without being able to justify logically intuition and common sense, he wouldn’t allow it to be used. So this doesn’t even apply to traditional rationalism.

Rationalism is, at heart, an individualist endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the self, improving the thinking of one person at a time. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians. It focuses primarily on individual action.

Um … no, not really. Rationalism is supposed to be about deriving universal truths, meaning truths that are certain and hold true. That’s a universalist approach, as the idea is to be able to get something that everyone can immediately accept once it is presented to them. Empiricism, on the other hand, is indeed more individualist because I don’t have direct access to anyone else’s sense data than my own, and this leads to empiricism pushing for a “I won’t believe it until I can experience it myself” line. But, ultimately, both are equally about individual action because both are about what you, as an individual, should accept as true or false … and both are equally about collective action because as they both aim for knowledge they aim for justifications that must, in the end, apply to everyone who can get access to the data or the arguments.

Critical thinking, however, might indeed be the sort of individualist endeavour that she’s talking about here, as it focuses on making sure that you, as an individual, have the tools you need to evaluate the truths of any propositions that you are considering, and ensuring that you don’t have to rely on experts or the word of others, but know how to verify it for yourself. But it’s hard to imagine any atheist thinking that this is a bad thing, as one of the main complaints about religions is that they fight too hard to get people to just accept the word of experts and not enough on figuring out the truths for themselves. And, of course, it really ought to be part of critical thinking to decide when you need or ought to rely on an expert and when you should go investigate it for yourself, and when you should trust your own experiences over those of others or vice versa. Critical thinking should not in general rely on or dismiss intuition, common sense, sense data, logic or any other source of data or reasoning. Instead, it should decide when those things are reliable and ought to be used. So the sort of individual action it espouses doesn’t seem to be the kind of action that Zvan could possibly argue against.

Scholars add to our knowledge of the world by building on the work of others. They apply tools and methods developed by others to new material and questions. They study the work of other scholars to inspire them and give them the background to ask and answer new questions. They evaluate the work of others and consolidate the best of it into larger theoretical frameworks. Without the work of scholars before them, scholars today and evermore would always be recreating basic work and basic errors.

But both rationalism and empiricism allow for that, and critical thinking at best would ask you to look to see if that work is still relevant or if there’s reason to doubt it. Only an extremely skeptical critical thinking would just toss away all of that knowledge that has previously been gained, if for no other reason than that it wouldn’t be practical to redo it all every time you wanted to know something. So it almost sounds like her problem here is not rationalism, empiricism or critical thinking, but is instead skepticism, or at least the overuse of it.

All too often, I find rationalists taking this repetitive approach. They think but they don’t study. As a consequence, they repeat the same naïve errors time and again. This is particularly noticeable when they engage in social or political theorizing by extrapolating from information they learned in secondary school and 101-level college classes, picked up in pop culture, or provided by people pushing a political cause. Their conclusions are necessarily as limited as their source material and reflect all its cultural biases.

The irony here is that those “same naive errors” are often only “revealed” by information provided by people pushing a political cause, like feminists or those advocating for social justice, which by her own reasoning would make that information suspect and would include their own biases. Critical thinking would try to ensure that one either tries to filter out the biases or gathers information from all sources to ensure that they have all the relevant data no matter the biases of those sources, providing a less limited viewpoint.

The situation is worse than that, however. Not only do these rationalists come up with poor conclusions, but they’re frequently convinced that they must be right because they know how to think better than other people do. A greater understanding of cognitive biases and traps should engender epistemic humility. It should build comfort with uncertainty and some ability to estimate how much uncertainty is likely to exist around a question. Instead, it often seems to foster arrogance, as though avoiding certain errors makes someone’s conclusions correct.

There is nothing in rationalism or empiricism that fosters epistemic arrogance or humility. They are just ways to go about learning about the world. And critical thinking would have as a prime component the notion that you should indeed always evaluated your knowledge and skills to see what you do well and what you are an expert in and what you aren’t. If she’s encountering people who are epistemologically arrogant, maybe that’s because they are just arrogant people and aren’t doing critical thinking or even skepticism right. A big problem among atheists, it seems to me, is that they often see their escape from religion as being a triumph of their own intelligence, and people who stay as either being less intelligent or less willing to use that intelligence when it comes to religion. If you think you’re smarter than most other people, you’ll start to act like it … whether rationalist or empiricist. Only proper critical thinking can get you thinking that maybe you aren’t as smart as you think you are.

Adherence to empiricism does, however, limit the topics on which people feel qualified to opine. It reminds people that their conclusions are only as good as the information and evidence on which they’re based. It reminds them that experts matter.

Rationalism doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do it in theory, with the emphasis it puts on how one thinks. Even in the modern rationalist movement, which speaks more to collecting evidence than classical rationalism, I have yet to see any emphasis on epistemic humility. In fact, I see calls to apply rationalism broadly to people’s decisions, which adds to the uninformed arrogance I see too much of.

Critical thinking place its emphasis on how one thinks … but then does include as part of it a limit on the topics people feel qualified to opine, if done properly. It reminds them that their conclusions are only as good as the information they have access to. It reminds them that experts matter but that experts are not always right either. All of these come from proper critical thinking, which suggests that the people she’s running into just aren’t doing critical thinking properly. But neither rationalism nor empiricism imply either; they are about how one gets data and what data one uses, not about epistemic humility.

It seems clear that when the people Zvan talks about call themselves “rationalists”, they do not mean rationalism in the philosophical sense that Zvan criticizes. Most of them are empiricists in that sense, and the implications that she sees are not ones that follow from a rationalist position, or from critical thinking. In the next post, I’ll try to clear up the confusion by inventing a new set of categories that I think will cover her objections better, and avoid extra implications that aren’t necessarily there.

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3 Responses to “Rationalism, Empiricism, Critical Thinking … and Rationalism”

  1. James Says:

    “Rationalism is, at heart, an individualist endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the self, improving the thinking of one person at a time. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians. It focuses primarily on individual action.”

    Where in the hell did this even come from ? It just blindsides one out of nowhere and it makes absolutely no sense, to boot. I couldn’t think of a more transparent attempt at poisoning the well.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      It was kinda in a specific context, essentially that she was mad at Dawkins and others for making arguments that we should rely on logic and not emotion, and then expanded that into a full-blown argument that, well, as you say doesn’t make sense. It’s a prime example of the dangers of knowing a little bit about something.

  2. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    One would think that having such a big audience would make the author worry about checking simple facts before writing.

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