When I throw a ball
into the air and watch it fall, I am confirming something that I
know to be true about things in the world - that is, that they obey
the law of gravity. But how do I know this? Is it from having seen
it happen countless times? Or, is it from understanding some principle
or law that is fundamental to the universe?
This debate has been part of philosophy for a long
time. On the one hand are those who claim that our knowledge of
the world comes from experience and the information that we receive
through our senses: these are called Empiricists. They would view
the law of gravity as being dependent on observation (the ball falls
once, twice, ten times, fifty, a hundred, a thousand… and
so on). From the empiricist’s point of view, our knowledge
of things comes from piecing together all the different bits of
experience to arrive at an overall explanation. So, if the experiences
change – the ball stays in the air – so must the explanation.
the other hand, there are those who argue that we understand the
world through reason: these are the Rationalists. In the case of
the ball, they would argue that we discover the fundamental truth
(the law of gravity) which underlies all these experiences. A better
example might involve the idea of an object: do we learn this concept
from experience (“that thing seems to be a thing”),
or is it because we already have the idea of it (“That things
seems to be a red thing”). So, for the rationalist,
there are certain principles or ideas that form the basis of our
understanding of the world. We do not create them; they already
exist. The empiricist, on the other hand, doubts the very existence
of these “first principles”, and instead tries to show
that they can be derived wholly from experience.
In all truth, this distinction between rationalism
and empiricism is not really as simple as that; both outlooks are
vital to our understanding of the world. Science, for example can’t
just rely on the application of laws because those laws may change;
on the other hand, it can’t just perform experiments without
having an idea of what best explains the underlying behaviour (that
is, they must have what’s called a “working hypothesis”).
However, the two labels are useful in the sense that they represent
the two furthest extremes in how we acquire knowledge and allow
us to see what’s good and bad in each approach.
of all, let's look more closely at Rationalism.