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Rationalism (Pro) vs. Empiricism (Con)

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 11/12/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,437 times Debate No: 64997
Debate Rounds (4)
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Rationalism is the view that "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge" or "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification".

Empiricism is a theory which states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.

First round is for acceptance.

Definitions are taken from Wikipedia.


I accept.

I'll be arguing that knowledge comes primarily (but not exclusively) from sensory experience/evidence.

Since we are both advocating different theories, I assume burden of proof is shared.
Debate Round No. 1


I thank segejuri for accepting the debate.

Rationalism is a methodology, in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive[1], such as, "some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions"[2]. The best examples of this thesis are mathematical and logical truths. The basic mathematical and logical truths are known by intuition, knowledge a priori, and other truths can be deduced from these truths. Also we have innate knowledge about some truths, such as morality, we cannot sense of what right and wrong are with our five senses. Other innate knowledge is The Law of Non-Contradiction[3],basically it means two contradictory propositions cannot be true at the same time. For example a person cannot be both mortal and immortal, they are mutually exclusive.
The problem of empiricism, which is in favor of rationalism, is that we cannot verify empiricism[4]. If our experiences tell us about the nature of reality, then how can we ever check our experience with what reality really is, in order to know that? The answer is (with current knowledge we have) never, so we have to rely on reason.
Poverty of the stimulus is the assertion that natural language grammar is unlearnable given the relatively limited data available to children learning a language, and therefore that this knowledge is supplemented with some sort of innate linguistic capacity[5]. Example, children start to understand the grammatical rules before they even know what noun or verb is.
There are some propositions which favors empiricism,but in fact they are wrong. First is empiricism is simpler than rationalism, therefore using Ockham's razor we should choose empiricism. But may be it is not simpler but incomplete, also the empirical method is greatly dependent on innate knowledge, such as mathematical and logical truths. We cannot have science without mathematics, - true statement which cannot be proven empirically. Second is all rationalists do not agree about Innate Knowledge. People did and will have different interpretations about knowledge, how to gain knowledge and etc.,but it doesn't make it wrong. People having different ideas about what punishent serial killer should get, doesn't mean serial killer can go without any punishment.

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Thanks for opening the debate.

I will begin with my opening arguments and save rebuttals for the next round.

I believe Empiricism is the primary source of knowledge for 3 reasons:

1. Many disciplines cannot be understood through intuition alone. Yes, mathematics can be, but that is only one subject area. Disciplines such as medicine, human anatomy, biology, archeology, history, geography, meteorology, oceanography, demographics, language, psychology, etc, etc... require vast amounts of evidence and sensory analysis to learn. I submit that when the total knowledge of these subjects is compared to mathematics, we see more evidence for empiricism than rationalism.

2. Humans are not completely rational beings. As such, the most important subject - human interaction and human nature - cannot be understood or predicted through pure intuition. As an example, if humans were completely rational beings then the chronic gambler facing financial destruction would simply remove the harmful behavior and stop gambling. However, we know this does not happen because humans are also driven by emotion, instinct, and culture. In this scenario, the gambler would likely pursue the non-rational behavior of going deeper in debt. When it comes to fellow humans, sensory experience and evidence usually serves as a better predictor of how people will act, rather than pure reason.

3. Reason can be wrong or incomplete. Humans can make great leaps in knowledge through intuition, yet there is no guarantee that such theories are correct until they are tested through Empiricism. Even the most brilliant minds sometimes fail to see hidden inconsistencies or unforeseen variables. For example, Albert Einstein embraced the theory of a static universe based on assumptions he thought were correct. However, empirical evidence eventually showed that those assumptions were incorrect, and the universe is actually expanding. Because humans are imperfect, we must accept that human intuition is also inherently imperfect and therefore cannot be a completely reliable source of knowledge.
Debate Round No. 2


I thank sengejuri for his (her) argument, but I am little disappointed. The argument is just negating Rationalism, rather than making positive case for Empiricism.

1. Without a basis of subject area you cannot have the subject area. Science, technology and engineering (hereby, STE) are all dependent upon mathematics (also, logic), without mathematics there wouldn't be any STE.

2. Humans being irrational doesn't make Rationalism false. I can use same argument for science (Humans are not completely scientifically literate, therefore........).

3. Observations and tests are also can be wrong.

4. There was no empirical evidence in Con's argument for Empiricism. Actually, it was a rational argument.

Since there was not much things to rebut, my argument is short.



I regret that Pro feels disappointed, and I will try expand on my argument here. For what it's worth, I was equally disappointed that Pro's initial argument consisted mainly of quotes and concepts copied directly from wikipedia.

== Rebuttals ==

1. Math and Science: Pro argues that mathematical proofs are derived through intuition, and that math is the basis for all science, technology, and engineering (STE). Let's examine this claim. I agree that some mathematical concepts are reached by intuition - but that does not hurt my position. We are discussing the PRIMARY source of human knowledge, so the fact that a few disciplines can be mastered through Rationalism hardly tips the balance. Even if I concede that STE is dominated by Rationalism, that still leaves: medicine, anatomy, biology, archeology, history, geography, meteorology, oceanography, demographics, language, psychology, and on and on.... These are all known through Empiricism, and the latter list covers much more human knowledge.

However, I do not concede that STE is dominated by Rationalism. Pure math cannot be applied in useful ways to STE without experimentation. For example, bridges cannot be built without knowing the tensile strengths of construction materials. There's no way to know how much weight a steel beam can support unless we test it. Furthermore, many math and physics equations cannot work without the use of constant variables (for example, one of the most common is the gravitational acceleration on earth, measured at 9.80665 m/s^2) [1] These constants are not arrived at through Rationalism - they are empirically tested and measured. So yes, STE depends heavily on mathematics.... but the math in turn heavily depends on variables that cannot be known without measurements and tests. Without these measurements, the math is either useless or wrong.

2. Experience cannot tell us about the nature of reality: I disagree. Quite the contrary, experience (experimentation) is the ONLY way to discover the realities of the natural world. Almost every natural law we know to be true was discovered through experimentation and measurement. The earth's orbit around the sun, gravity, the existence of other planets, the composition of the atmosphere, the length of a year, how the human body functions, etc.... Before these concepts were discovered, people reached all kinds of incorrect conclusions through raw intuition to explain the natural world. Intuitive theories are nothing more than rational guesses until they are verified by experimentation.

3. Poverty of the Stimulus: Pro says children must have an innate understanding of language. This is illustrated by the fact that they use sentence structures before they understand nouns or verbs (interesting though..... how did we detect this phenomenon? Through experiencing children's speech with our sense of hearing. So this very principle used to support Rationalism was discovered through Empiricism).

In any case, Poverty of the Stimulus is simply a theory - in no way is it prove or even widely accepted by linguists. In fact, the very source that Pro cites says "The soundness of the poverty of stimulus argument is widely questioned. Indeed, every one of the three premises of the argument has been questioned at some point in time." [2]

4. Morality: Pro says humans arrive at moral truths through Rationalism. Morality is an abstract concept. For this to be a valid argument, Pro must first show that morality actually exists as an objective truth that can be discovered - . Good luck with that!

5. Observations and tests can be wrong: Yes, that's the whole point. Experimentation works precisely because it exposes and rejects incorrect or flawed tests. Conversely, there is no way to know if raw intuition is correct without verifying it through evidence. I could rationally conclude that there's life on another planet in the universe, but we will never know for sure until we detect that life through empirical methods. I never said Rationalism is false, I simply said it cannot be the primary source of human knowledge.

6. There was no empirical evidence in my argument: Incorrect. I used lots of evidence gained through experience to support my argument. I thought of my gambler's example because I've experienced people who are addicted to gambling. I did not innately know or rationally deduce that Einstein once embraced a Static Universe theory. I know about the gravitational constant because I experienced a physics class in school. Almost all the information I've written so far was gained through my 5 senses and educational experiences.

== Argument ==

I will now build upon my initial argument, which I hope Pro will find more satisfying.

Empiricism eliminates bias and incorrect assumptions. It yields knowledge precisely because it has no preconceived notions of how things should work, it simply tests them and measures the results. The problem with Rationalism is that it does not allow for possibilities beyond assumed rules of logic. This idea was primarily advocated by the philosopher John Stewart Mill. This is problematic because many things happen that do not make logical or intuitive sense. As I said before, the best example of this is human behavior. Humans do not always behave logically or rationally, and therefore human nature cannot be predicted using Rationalism.

Another example is human biology. There is absolutely no way someone could rationally deduce that an organ called a "heart" contains 4 chambers and pumps blood through the human body. We know the heart exists because we can cut a body open and see it, we can feel it beat in our chest, etc... Similarly, there's no way to conclude through raw intuition that eating certain mushrooms leads to liver failure.... that could only be discovered and verified through experimentation. The examples are endless. As such, it seems to me that Empiricism had produced MUCH more human knowledge throughout history.

Finally, Empiricism is needed to prove the claims of Rationalism. Rationalism claims that human knowledge is gained "a priori" ("from the earlier"), which means knowledge is already innately present in the human mind, and need only be accessed through rational thought void of any experience. The problem, of course, is that such claims cannot be proven true without tests. The only way to verify "a priori" knowledge is to conduct an experiment: isolate one person and do not teach them anything or allow them to experience anything related to math, biology, or physics for the first 18 years of life. On their 18th birthday, give the isolated subject a test in math, biology, and physics and compare their score to that of an educated 18 year old. This is a lose-lose scenario for Rationalism. If the scores are equal, then Rationalism is still questionable because we needed to conduct an experiment to verify its truth. If the scores are unequal, then we have verified that experience contributes more to knowledge than intuition.

I look forward to Pro's response.

Debate Round No. 3


tahir.imanov forfeited this round.


well, that was disappointing. Extend all arguments.
Debate Round No. 4
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