MWP 1.2.e: The Limitations of Empiricism

Full text level

By appealing to experience, Middle Way Philosophy might be labelled as a type of empiricism. However, great care needs to be taken in applying that label – and, to avoid confusion, it is probably best not to apply it to Middle Way Philosophy at all. The various forms of empiricism in Western philosophy have been laden with almost as many unnecessary metaphysical assumptions as the rationalists. Before closing this section on experience, it is as well to ensure that the appeal to experience in Middle Way Philosophy is not confused with those made previously by empiricism.

One of the major metaphysical assumptions made by empiricists since Hume has been the fact-value distinction, already tackled in 1.i. However, this assumption arose in association with others. Facts could only be assumed to be justified in a different way to values if it was assumed that there was a definite way to prove them. There are three common ways to do this, which could be described as the Aristotelian and Humean forms of naturalism, and positivist phenomenalism.

In Aristotelian naturalism, the universe is taken to be structured in such a way that we can gain understanding of it. Every object in the universe, for Aristotle, has a distinct form that is intelligible, even if its ultimate matter is not so. This is still the basis for one possible form of empirical realism, but it is obviously based purely on dogma – we have no way of knowing that the universe is human-shaped in this way[1].

Humean naturalism, the more recent and sophisticated form, admits that there is no response to scepticism, but nevertheless argues that we cannot help believing in what the senses present to us. We believe in the facts presented to our senses despite scepticism, because (as was discussed in 1.b) Hume thinks that we cannot continue to take it seriously. As I have already argued, this is based on a misunderstanding of the implications of scepticism. It is also based on an involuntarist account of how we form beliefs (see 2.c) that presupposes determinism, a dogmatic metaphysical belief that goes far beyond experience. We can help what we believe to the extent that we can evidently respond to it in differing ways.

In terms of its practical effect in promoting belief in science, there is not much difference between the Aristotelian and Humean brands of naturalism. However, it is Hume’s version which has given rise to the fact-value distinction, which Hume himself first made (see 1.i), and has been much more influential over modern analytic philosophy.

Hume’s supposed respect for scepticism is also sharply at odds with his theory of ideas and impressions, which attempts to provide grounds for foundational certainty from sense-experience. He does this by analysing ideas into impressions, alleging that all ideas must derive solely from sense-experiences, and analysing all impressions into simple atomic packets of sense-data. Each of these simple impressions, it is reasoned, provides a definite source of information from the universe, even if it is then assembled by the mind into complex and abstract forms[2]. Although the precise form of Hume’s theory has not stood the test of time, the concept of phenomenal atomism has not gone away (being turned by the early Wittgenstein into a logical atomism[3]). Any form of atomism, however, runs into the problem of linguistic ambiguity. How do we know which way the universe is meant to be cut up, and how do we know when we have reached the final atomic units, even if we are dealing with atoms of experience or its analysis rather than atoms of substance itself?

Logical atomism gave way to the third type of empiricist response – the positivist phenomenalism of the logical positivist movement. Rather than attempting to prove the existence of a world that we observe, or even arguing that we can’t help believing in it, the logical positivists developed a phenomenalist sense-data theory that denied the existence of a material world beyond potential packets of sense-data, and used linguistic methods to give a privileged status to theories about scientifically-observable sets of sense-data over other theories. Verificationism depended on the assertion that unverifiable propositions are strictly meaningless. The dogmatism now, then, is not materialistic or deterministic but linguistic. Whatever your experience of the meaningfulness of moral or religious expressions, the logical positivists were obliged to impose a blanket meaninglessness on them. This was a major mistake because, as I have argued (see 2.b) meaning is affective as well as cognitive, so the logical positivists simply cast aside a whole dimension of our experience of meaning and tried to define it into nothingness. The problem with metaphysics is not its lack of meaning but its lack of relationship to experience – a point that the logical positivists had some inkling of but were unable to theorise usefully.[4]

Apart from the doomed atomistic project and logical positivism, the main recourse of modern empiricists has been convention. There is no answer to why we should accept information from the senses apart from the fact that we do. Analytic epistemology, rather than attempting to solve the problems of scepticism, is now overwhelmingly concerned with merely definitional issues, where the basis of any solution consists only in identifying intuitions that we conventionally accept.

The overwhelming reason for rejecting contemporary empiricism, then, is that it is mired in dogma, and in turning to conventionalism has effectively given up on the main challenges of philosophy. Middle Way Philosophy is not ‘empiricist’ in any of these senses, because it begins by taking sceptical arguments seriously and by rejecting the fact-value distinction. Hume can still be an inspiration because he set much of the agenda on the crucial issues, but his theories are too deeply flawed and too contradictory to be in any way a foundation for further progress.

Some other further features of empiricism are its rejection of a priori reasoning as a basis of knowledge, and its reliance on the five senses. Here its account of ‘experience’ as a basis of knowledge also seems unnecessarily narrow, and indeed compares unfavourably with phenomenology. Internal experience of physical pleasures and pains, emotions, thoughts, imaginings and other mental events are just as much sources of information as the five senses. Indeed, as we have seen through the sceptical arguments (1.a) and the complexity of experience (2.a), the products of the senses are often not distinguishable from the influence of mental events. The boundary between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ is a fuzzy one that can hardly be made the basis of rules that distinguish acceptable judgements.

Reasoning is also an aspect of experience, both because reasoning is something that we experience doing, and because we can hardly distinguish ‘experience’, often heavily conditioned by reasoning, from reasoning about experience (much of which may in any case be processed unconsciously). This reasoning may be about the a priori conditions for experience, or about mathematics or logic. If we include the a priori within the purview of experience, accepting its general but not absolute validity, we immediately defuse the centuries-old conflict between empiricism and rationalism. The unnecessary narrowness of empiricism consisted in trying to exclude it, and the narrowness of rationalism from privileging a priori reasoning above experience and giving it a falsely absolute status. Thus Middle Way Philosophy is also distinguishable from empiricism in the very much wider scope it gives to its account of experience. Experience, after all, is just what happens to people. This wider scope for experience is a crucial aspect of the way in which it attempts to overcome dualism by incrementalising metaphysical absolutes.

[1] For further discussion see Ellis (2001) 4.b.ii

[2] Hume (1978) pp.1-7. For further discussion also see Ellis (2001) 4.c.ii

[3] Wittgenstein (1961)

[4] For further discussion see Ellis (2001) 4.d.iii