In art, the first lesson taught is to not focus on small details instead to stop and examine the overall structure and form of what is being captured. Focusing on a single detail can provide some information about the form, but it is not enough. To overcome this issue, artists study the fundamentals such as anatomy, lights, and perspective. Similar to artists, philosophers aim to see the overall form without getting too caught up on the individual details. In epistemology, the beliefs of rationalism and empiricism attempt to answer the question of how knowledge is truly attained.
One outlook of philosophical epistemology is rationalism. Rationalism is the outlook that knowledge, actions, and beliefs should be based on logic and reason. A few sources of knowledge that rationalists claim are innate ideas, intuitions, and deduction (Fieser). The notion of innate ideas describes how people are born with knowledge independent from sense experience. An example of an innate idea can be the existence of God or the laws of nature. While intuitions are the information gained without any conscious reasoning, they are often described as having a gut feeling or inner voice. An example of intuition is love at first sight or simply having a strong feeling that one belongs with a person they have just met and knows nothing about. At times, it feels as if intuition is like a higher instinct that warns and guides. Alternatively, a deduction is the reasoning used to reach a logical and true conclusion. Deductions begin with a hypothesis then an examination to reach a logical conclusion. An example of a deduction comes from Socrates, “All humans are mortal. I am human. Therefore, I am mortal.” However, if the original hypothesis is not true it is still possible to reach an untrue but logical conclusion. A major strength of rationalism is that it gives mind authority over other senses, human senses can be unreliable sources of information at times making it difficult to truly trust them. If we can see, touch, smell, feel, or hear something then we must know it. Well, no not really, our senses fail us all the time. For example, the popular face or vase optical illusion deceives the eye by combining shapes with positive and negative space. The brain processes the information gathered by the eye and creates an understanding of the illusion that does not match the actual image. No matter how well we understand the effects behind the optical illusion, we are still easily tricked by them. Furthermore, rationalism offers an alternative to religious explanations and appeals to God. In spite of the fact that many religions see it as a duty to help the sick and less fortunate, their methods of help are limited to faith and prayer. Attempting to solve human problems, such as treating diseases, with religious practice keeps civilizations at a standstill and hinders progress. The most significant benefit gained through rationalism is the encouragement to think for ourselves, to look at all of the evidence and come to logical conclusions. Yet, no outlook is completely free of error. A major weakness of rationalism is that thinking on its own is not enough, thoughts cannot always be applied to material reality. If one relies completely on reason, they can lose their sense of reality. Sensory experiences give evidence needed to confirm beliefs. For instance, if a person saw a pear among a variety of fruit, logic tells the person that it is actually a pear, yet it can be made out of plastic only designed to look incredibly realistic. Without experimenting with the senses of taste and touch, an incorrect conclusion is reached. In addition to this, rationalism cannot always be put in practical use. To illustrate this is the statement 1
Another outlook that challenges rationalism is empiricism. Empiricism is the belief that knowledge should be based on experience and observation. Unlike rationalists, empiricists reject the notion that ideas and concepts are inborn, rather, minds are blank slates from birth. This origin of innate ideas can be explained through experiences shared later in life. The world affects perceptions thus the idea of God is not an innate idea. To further expand on this, if people are all born with innate ideas, why do they take so long to show it? Why must children need to learn how to speak or walk if they already have this knowledge at birth? Rather than deduction, empiricism argues that knowledge is acquired through induction. Induction is a form of reasoning in which assumptions of an argument support a conclusion but do not necessarily ensure it to be correct (Inductive Logic). Very few ideas, if any, are proven, nothing can be known with 100% certainty. Sense perception allows a person to know if the color of an apple is red and that the color of a banana is yellow, but there is doubt that the perceptions of these fruits align with the actual fruit. If the person were to look away from the fruit, there is no way to prove that it will remain the same color or if it even exists after they are no longer there to perceive it. Moreover, if a person eats an apple and feels energized: they infer that all fruit they eat will also energize them. First, knowledge is perceived, then inferred, this is how knowledge is gained. A major strength of empiricism is finding truth through proving and disproving theories to explain how the world works. For example, Galileo argued that beliefs must be tested rigorously to ensure that they work within the laws of physics (Haigh). Reason alone determines a reasonable subjective perception but it cannot determine if something is true; whereas empirical testing can determine what reality is. Empiricist beliefs help advance an understanding of the world. General laws about nature are made by observing changes and development in the environment. To base conclusions on empiricism, allows people to see mistakes that help them improve on and change theories. However, empiricism still has its flaws. Take for instance, people having lucid dreams while they are sleeping where they experience things that do not exist. In lucid dreams senses are often heightened to an extreme than they would be in real life (All About Lucid Dreaming). If these dreams feel like reality, how does a person know that what they are currently experiencing is not a dream? There is no way to know if what they are experiencing is in fact reality. Recall that empiricism maintains that all knowledge is gathered through experience, if true, how are mathematics and logic gathered? Mathematical knowledge cannot be derived from sense experience as it would provide potential knowledge to an extent.
When speaking about either of these outlooks on philosophy, it is impossible not to mention the prominent philosophers behind each. The French philosopher from the 17th century, Rene Descartes, answered the question of how the act of thought is proof of our existence in his belief “I think therefore I am.” Accepting this belief into consciousness is the first step to attain certain knowledge. This is further seen in his Meditations on First Philosophy where he makes arguments in favor of rationalism. In his famous wax argument, Descartes experiments how his senses deceive him about the nature of what wax is. He observes, “But as I speak these words I hold the wax near to the fire, and look! The taste and smell vanish, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases; the wax becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and it no longer makes a sound when you strike it” (Descartes 7). Under the fire, all of the features he saw have changed, such as the hard texture that has now become soft. Yet, he concludes that it is still the same piece of wax that he first began with but this knowledge cannot be understood through our senses as they have easily changed. The only true conclusion that he can come to is that the wax is extended, flexible, and changeable. By allowing himself to be guided by his imagination and senses, his perception of the wax is imperfect, but by allowing himself to be guided by intellect and scrutiny, his perception is clear and refined. He concludes, “I now know that even bodies are perceived not by senses or by imagination but by the intellect alone, not through their being touched or seen but through their being understood; and this helps me to know plainly that I can perceive my own mind more easily and clearly than I can anything else” (Descartes 8). Descartes reflects on how easy it is to be deceived and how he cannot rely on any evidence gathered by his senses. Though he sees the color and shape of the wax, it is his intellect that perceives what it actually is. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by English philosopher John Locke, he rejects rationalism in favor of arguing in favor of two sources of ideas, sensations and reflections (Locke). He states, “Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters” (Locke). This is the concept of tabula rasa, meaning that the mind is hypothetically a blank slate at birth, and that sensory knowledge is the only knowledge possible (Klus). He further stated that some knowledge is gained through sensation, some from reflection, and some from both. In sensation, we perceive information from the world around us through the five senses, while reflection required inward contemplation to receive thoughts, doubts, and wills.
After analyzing both rationalism and empiricism comes self-reflection. Which one am I? There are advantages and limitations to both outlooks. While rationalism uses reason to draw together truth and knowledge, empiricism uses our senses to better understand the world around us. Neither outlook denies the significance of logic or sensory experience, they just value one over the other. Through time, both outlooks have converged as the rational argument requires logic and an empirical argument begins with logic and continues with the basis of observation. Unlike Descartes or Locke who saw a major dilemma with picking one as the sole source of knowledge, I cannot say I agree with either as their work has shown me how I can find a balance between both. The power in the simple logic of Descartes’s statement, “I think therefore I am,” resonates deeply with the influence that our attitude and thoughts can have, as our mind is, so is our life. Though, at times when our feelings, thoughts, and opinions can distract and confuse us, it would be best to use logic to reach a conclusion. Though, sensory experience allows for mistakes and questions that further develop a more accurate conclusion. To conclude, after much research and analysis, I have to say that I lean towards a middle where reason and experience come together to reach a conclusion.