On Socratic Rationalism and Empiricism
As human beings inquire and see what is true and false, it seems that there are two seemingly mutual exclusive sources of knowledge or truth that people refer to. I’m ignoring arguments directly from authority here, though later I’ll reference how Empiricism can fall into this.
In today’s highly scientific world, it seems that Empiricism has largely won out against what I would call “Cartesian Rationalism” or epistemology that is explicitly based on reason and rejects sense data in all ways. Ironically enough, any form of Realism cannot be grounded on Empirical claims either, since if all knowledge is to be gained from sense perception, not only can the senses be fooled (we can be mistaken in a simple sense) but that they themselves have no direct line to reality itself and can never verify that we are indeed habiting the “real” world as opposed to a simulation. Cartesian Rationalism is at odds with both the Empiricism of Scientific Realism and the more sound and skeptical Anti-Realist schools of Instrumentalism and Constructive Empiricism. However, there is a different form of “rationalism” or reasoning that I believe is still of utmost importance and is largely lacking in our society today – in-part because of poor education and in part because of the instant access to information that technology brings.
The kind that I speak of I will call “Socratic Rationalism” for it involves the inquiry and reasoning of either someone or a group of people to ascertain the truth. It could be called simply critical thinking, but what I like about the term Socratic Rationalism is that it implies a type of Rationalism, or form of knowledge, that is a source of authority in its own right, when I have the impression that in today’s highly technological world people might presume that critical thinking is only of utility to gather more sense-data or correct mistaken sense-data. The problem with this is it either does not acknowledge the ‘is’ ‘ought’ distinction in philosophy (or distinction between normative and descriptive claims) or it simply gives no regard to normative claims, which in previous essays I’ve argued (and I would argue established) is always of higher importance than descriptive claims. Science can tell us what the world is like, but never tell us what the world should be like or how we should be as people. The New Atheists, particularly Sam Harris, has attempted to show the distinction of claims to be false, or that science can provide us with normative claims (he, or they, would be right in saying that science can help us get what we value, or showing us specific things to value – like eggs for health – but they are mistaken in saying that science is the end-all of human knowledge and speculation) but this type of “Scientism” is blunt and ignores a great deal of wisdom coming from people who knew one-thousandth of what we do know.
Wisdom comes from reflection and proper temperament, it can never come solely from sense-data. Otherwise a computer would be the wisest thing on this planet. Socratic Rationalism, or critical thinking, is necessary not only by allowing us to question both the validity of empirical claims (which is important in today’s world of segmented print and online journalism and confirmation bias) and normative claims, but also through this process it helps us see that the ultimate judge of any claim descriptive or normative is ourselves and only we can choose what is believed by our own minds. Therefore we should be the most careful and patient judges we can be. Others can convince of what is the proper course to take, but ultimately only we can think our thoughts and live our lives, so it is our responsibility to ourselves and others to be reflective and thorough.
This is perhaps why the Stoics were Rationalists. They focus on everything of a person being “internal” or based on their own nature, thoughts and value-judgments, rather than the actual activities of the world around them. And though Rationalism in the sense of Plato and Descartes is incorrect (a form of Rationalist Realism where we reason about the forms or existence of God through abstract logic alone) which the Stoics make some tepid attempts at, ultimately it could be seen that their form of Rationalism, like S.R. is complimentary of Anti-Realist or Pragmatist Empiricism rather than in conflict with it. Now, the Stoics were unaware of Realist/Anti-Realist arguments and distinctions, but the balance they give of using our minds to judge what our senses present, rather than mind or sense alone, is a practical synthesis of the two that I’m not sure appears in the epistemology of Kant.
For it is true that although we can never know “reality” we can know things of this world through the combined use of the senses and reason. The senses are glorified and reason (even in people who hold to be its champion) is sadly left by the way-side, for sense-data has given us the things to crave our animal and psychological cravings for nourishment and distraction, but reason alone can access the validity of a claim and how we are to proceed based on the knowledge we have of this world.
Socratic Rationalism is not only important because it teaches us that the only ultimate judge of anything is ourselves, it teaches us or implores the value of creativity. The common citizen cannot perform experiments with quantum bonds in their basement. However, anyone with some intelligence and either a library card, access to the internet, or even simply time to think and ponder can reflect on the world and the most basic yet important questions of our existence – many of which science cannot answer. These are the questions that most people have answered for them by religion, and though a religion can teach good things, it also often preaches immoral teachings and also the very fact of preaching of telling someone what to believe and not to reflect on it is always (if effective) worse than telling someone the most immoral thing in the world. For someone trained in critical thinking and then told to do the most heinous action on earth (assuming human’s act on reason rather than sentiment – sentiment of course having influence as well but we are now discussing things to the extent that a person’s reasoning and beliefs have efficacy over their actions – which they surely do if only in relation to their moral sentiments or state of mind) will not do said deed assuming those who are rational observe the distinction ‘tween proper and improper normative claims and (once again, to the extent that reason has influence over action) choose the right over the wrong or the sound reasoning over the unsound. However, someone who has been trained to passively obey and believe based on either popular opinion or argument from authority can be theoretically taught to believe and do (to the extent belief influence action) anything. However good reasoning can only implore us to act on the good and reasonable.
Science is an invaluable tool, but ever the more so is the combination of confidence and skepticism that critical thinking and reflection brings. In fact without reflection, the average mind absorbs and accepts the truths of science exactly the same as one accepts the doctrines of any faith. It is not the source that is of absolute relevance but the inner analysis of the thinking mind which looks at all the relevant criteria to ascertain the legitimacy of a claim or proposal. For though there is a distinction in intellectual epistemology, in terms of the individual there is no absolute or radical distinction between any source of knowledge – all data is sense observation, and the sense data itself in no way can verify any claim about it, and the sense data itself attempts no claim. The table does not say, “I am here!” the laymen simply assumes the table exists in the Realist sense and even the Anti-Realists is convinced after thought that the table’s properties seem to exist in what appears (though I’ll never know if it is or not) a “common world” of other minds which can agree or disagree about any claim I can give about tables or anything else, regardless of whether those minds truly exist or not.
Reflection is invaluable in terms of belief and of great importance in terms of strength of mind and temperament. It can stay our hand and teach us to be patient rather than impulsive and Stoic rather than consumed with grief over which is not sensible and is out of our control.