Recently, in a discussion with a fairly dogmatic professor, I mentioned in passing that "I am a bit of an empiricist," and his response was "Well, I hope you aren't since empiricism is false!" Beyond this, he offered no real explanation.

My question is: Is this true? Is it "false" in some categorical way?


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    @Nat First off, how do you know the professor is a naive dualist? (I don't know how you could draw that inference just from a single line about empiricism). Second, what on earth do you mean by "classical philosophy" in this context? In general, that refers to ancient greek philosophy, but many of the ancient greek philosophers were not dualists (though admittedly Plato was). Third, unless I warped in from a different timeline, AI research started well after most philosophers rejected dualism re: mind / body.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 5:43
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    @virmaior The PhilPapers Surveys claims that 56.5% "accept or lean toward: physicalism", so there does seem to be a narrow majority in Philosophy now. That seems pretty far behind other fields who study the mind, hence my perspective on philosophers being slow to catch up.
    – Nat
    May 8, 2017 at 6:21
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    (1) physicalism and empiricism are in a family together but not identical. (2) do other fields study "the mind" or do they study "the brain" and assume that "the mind" is perfectly identical? In other words, maybe philosophers just have not "caught up" or perhaps they have not been swept up? In your answer for instance, you suggest that 1+1=2 doesn't identify anything real or fundamentally true, but is instead just a certain neural pattern. Physicalists about human persons don't have be committed to that (though classical empiricists would be). In part, because that's got a pretty big cost.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 6:25
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    @Nat According to the mentioned Phil Papers survey the answer to "Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?" was 35% empiricism to 27.8% rationalism (the survey covered mostly analytic philosophers, there are few empiricists among continental ones). But empiricism is a position on epistemology and is largely orthogonal to the physicalism/dualism/idealism divide in ontology, it is compatible with any of them. The professor may well be a rationalist physicalist like Tegmark, etc.
    – Conifold
    May 8, 2017 at 20:04
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    Its possible the professor saw an opportunity to tug on your worldview assumptions by challenging empiricism and seeing what you do with it. It's totally possible to argue that empiricism is false, but there's no guarantee you'll win that argument. Given that he is a teacher and you are a student, there's a decent chance he could outmaneuver you in a way that forces you to take a step back and analyze what you believe (such as, say, posting on Philosophy.SE to research what others might have to say!)
    – Cort Ammon
    May 9, 2017 at 0:42

4 Answers 4


The argument against empiricism is that a proper accounting of how we are able to acquire knowledge requires information beyond that which the senses can provide. Kant, for example, argues:

"These are the conceptions of space and time as forms of sensibility, and the categories as pure conceptions of the understanding. To attempt an empirical deduction of either of these classes would be labour in vain, because the distinguishing characteristic of their nature consists in this, that they apply to their objects, without having borrowed anything from experience towards the representation of them." Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

One finds that abstract notions are required for even the most basic functions of perceptions, such as basic notions of logic, recognizing objects, making comparisons, etc. I've found that even those who claim to be empiricists have a hard time avoiding this issue. Quine, for example, makes the following observation about our ability to make comparisons:

"A standard of similarity is in some sense innate. This point is not against empiricism; it is a commonplace of behavioral psychology." Quine, Natural Kinds

What I find surprising about Quine's statement is that it leaves me wondering what he believed a non-empiricist would attribute innate notions to that couldn't be classified under some branch of psychology. If a rationalist and empiricist both were to attribute innate ideas to the workings of the mind, in what way does he distinguish his position as empirical?

Kant, as a good example of a non-empiricist, also attributed certain notions to the way the mind functions, and thus they might be classified as psychological phenomena:

"But to show reasons for this peculiar character of our understandings, that it produces unity of apperception a priori only by means of categories, and a certain kind and number thereof, is as impossible as to explain why we are endowed with precisely so many functions of judgement and no more, or why time and space are the only forms of our intuition."

Some arguments

There are various reasons why abstract notions either are not or cannot be communicated by the senses:

  • In the case of object recognition, if the senses automatically determined what an object is, there would be no way to account for the flexibility that we have for designating things as objects, nor for the way that we sometimes mistake backgrounds with objects.
  • Abstract concepts can only be said to exist in relation to the understanding. For example, numbers are not natural phenomena because they can claim no ontology apart from the mind, and they serve no purpose except in the context of logical relations.
  • To recognize something, one has to have a rudimentary understanding of what is to be recognized. Therefore, recognizing abstract notions in experience presupposes an understanding of the significance of such notions.
  • Logical and mathematical concepts are not verified empirically, so the extent that we attribute truth or validity to them cannot be accounted for by experience.
  • Comparison presupposes some common quality by which the comparison is made possible. Since such qualities could not be discovered empirically except by comparison, there's no non-circular way to account for how we come to discover them.
  • Digital representation of abstract notions cannot be decoded without familiarity with the concepts involved. Since neural signals are understood in terms of digital encoding, physiology provides no explanation as to how abstract concepts could be communicated by the senses even if they could be said to exist in the physical world.

People often have difficulty appreciating the truth of these assertions because they involve notions that are so basic to our understanding of experience that it's difficult to imagine what experience would be like without them.

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    The Quine move seems like a bit of a cheat, because it amounts to "we're good empiricists" who happen to be equipped with faculties that make our empiricism non-naive. (though it's not you who are cheating by mentioning this).
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 4:46

No, empiricism isn't categorically incorrect. Your instructor's position is called naïve dualism:

We labeled this pattern of responses “naïve dualism.” This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct.

Dualism of all sorts was far more common historically. By the late 1900's, we see a tipping point, where people who study intelligence (either artificial intelligence in the context of Computer Science or human intelligence in the context of Neurology) have rejected dualism while more classical figures such as John Searle continued to offer flimsy arguments in its defense.

To see this contrast, I'd recommend checking out the paper in which Searle publishes his Chinese room thought experiment: Minds, brains, and programs (1980). Halfway through the PDF, there're responses from people in other fields, such as Computer Science, sharply criticizing Searle's position.

People who work with intelligence research have had to reject dualism because believing in it limits one's understanding of intelligence itself, preventing one from being an effective researcher. But for people who don't need to understand neural networks, believing in dualism can be comforting; it comes with feelings of absolution and certainty, as internal knowledge stands above all empirical doubt.

Anyway, from the non-dualist perspective, all observations are empirical; even if you think "1+1=2", you're observing the consequence of your neural firings, rather than divining some grand cosmic truth. The dualist position that your instructor advocates would like to claim that such internal observations are fundamentally distinct, but, again, that argument falls apart when we start researching how the brain works and creating new minds, i.e. AI.

PS- Historical analogy

An older analog of dualism was called vitalism. Vitalism was basically this idea that living creatures had something special about them, e.g. Élan vital, which is analogous to the something special about intelligence that dualists believe in, qualia.

If you put yourself into the historical mindset, vitalism probably made a lot of sense to people of the time. Life seems distinct from non-life, so presumably there's some fundamental, irreproducible cause of that, right? That vital spark. Today, dualists see intelligence the same way. There's that something special about it, that fundamental, irreproducible cause - qualia.

Over time, the development of biology discredited vitalism. Neurology and AI are doing the same with dualism.

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    There's a lot in this answer that seems inaccurate to me, but the more important point would be how does this explain what a professor might mean by calling empiricism false? Rather than what it appears to answer which is why you think dualism is false.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 5:46
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    @virmaior I'm not aware of any common, consistent position that rejects empiricism without accepting dualism, to I presume a rejection of empiricism to imply dualism. I'd be interested if you know of any counter-examples.
    – Nat
    May 8, 2017 at 6:06
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    Here's a few examples: Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, William James, the pragmatists writ large. None of them are "empiricists" but none of them are dualists.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 6:20
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    @virmaior In what sense was Aristotle not an empiricist? Wikipedia says he is; not that Wikipedia's an authoritative source, just... I don't know what you mean? I'd ask about your other examples too, but just easier to ask about the first one first.
    – Nat
    May 8, 2017 at 6:28
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    My take is that wikipedia is confused. Aristotle believes knowledge comes through the senses but then that we must use mind to extract the forms or essences of things. These essences are then what we know. I don't think that's the empiricist model. They read the first part and ignore the rest and say "empiricist."
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 6:33

Addressing this question from a computational point of view, research into machine learning has shed a lot of light on the questions concerning the prerequisites of learning. In particular, the No Free Lunch Theorem is the result of an attempt to quantify the amount of prior knowledge required for extracting information from data. This theorem is described as follows:

"The No Free Lunch Theorem Of Optimization (NHI) is an impossibility theorem telling us that a general-purpose universal optimization strategy is impossible, and the only way one strategy can outperform another is if it is specialized to the structure of the specific problem under consideration." Yu-Chi Ho, Simple explanation of the no free lunch theorem of optimization

This might be formalized in logical notation as follows:

  • Sxz = x is a strategy for a problem of type z
  • P(x) = the performance of x
  • Cxz = x is specialized to problems of type z

∀xyz[(Sxz & Syz & P(x) > P(y)) → Cxz]

From this, it's fairly easy to conclude the following:

∀xz[(~Cxz & Sxz & P(x) > 0) → ~Ǝy[Syz & P(y) = 0]]

Translation: Without any prior knowledge of a given type of problem, if a strategy for that type can be expected to be successful, it must be assumed that there exists no strategy of the same type that consistently fails.

What's interesting about this is that the strategy in question is pitted against others of the same type that is not distinguished from it in any way. In other words, such strategies are generic applications, and the No Free Lunch Theorem teaches us that the expectation of success depends on the assumption that the particular type of problem in question must be solvable with equal probability by any generic application. Therefore, from a purely empirical perspective, it must be assumed that the initial stages of learning are of such a type that any generic strategy will have a greater than random chance of success. Otherwise, empiricism is false.

That's really a huge assumption to make when it's remembered that all machine learning programs have certain assumptions programmed into them. The designers of such systems don't expect the machine to learn, for example, that data contains information or that concepts can be extracted by comparisons and other logical operations. In other words, there is no such thing as a purely empirical AI program because they are always hard coded with some basic a priori knowledge. Consequently, it's unimaginable what such a generic strategy could possibly mean if it is supposed that it consists of none of the assumptions hard-coded into current machine-learning programs.

Consider the fact that machine learning programs are themselves specialized for a particular type of problem, viz. to those in which there is something to be learned. Therefore, they cannot be considered generic in the sense described, so a program which is generic would be one that is not specialized for learning at all. This idea can be formalized by specifying the type of problem as learning and applying it to another consequence of the No Free Lunch Theorem:

  • n = learning

∀x[(~Cxn & Sxn & P(x) > 0) → ∀y[Syn → P(y) > 0]]

Translation: If a strategy for learning can be expected to be successful without presuming anything about the nature of learning, it must be assumed that every strategy not specialized for learning would be just as likely to succeed.

This would lead to the absurd conclusion that all algorithms would have to have a better than random chance of learning. Of course, that can't be the case, so any effective strategies must incorporate some prior knowledge about the nature of the problem. In other words, there's no such thing as a generic solution that can be expected to have anything better than purely random success in any task. Any child born with such a system might have a random chance of doing something right, but it could hardly be recognized as learning. Therefore, either the No Free Lunch Theorem is false or empiricism is false.


I don't know the context of your conversation, but "empiricism" can refer both to a historical position in a philosophy and a general epistemological attitude.

The historical position is false (or at least a common understanding of it is). Specifically, the foundationalist version of empiricism which claims roughly that

all knowledge is that which comes from the senses (Cf. wikipedia's definition)

This is demonstrably false. Specifically, it does not work insofar as the truth of this sort of sentence or laws of nature are not themselves derived from the senses. There's a lot of variations on this argument -- but as long as at least one stands, then foundationalist empiricism (empiricism which admits no other source of knowledge than the senses) is false). We can find a more elaborate argument against it in Hegel's preface to the phenomenology of spirit under the title "Sense Certainty"

Now that being said, this is as much a convenient falsehood as Descartes "radical skepticism" and "brain in a vat." In other words, it's not even clear if there's anyone who ever held the view in the easily pilloried form.

Presumably, when you say you're a bit of an "empiricist" what you mean is something more to the effect that you think knowledge comes from the senses. Or perhaps, you use it as a shorthand denial of Platonic forms and the like. The idea that our knowledge comes from the senses has a diverse following that includes both Aristotle, Locke, Mill, Quine, Searle, and others. (Note here that there's no "only" -- as many (all?) of these views think there's some processing and other things that are involved in knowledge).

See also https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/#1.2

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    "all knowledge is that which comes from the senses" This is true when we regard thoughts as empirical observation of internal events, as is consistent with neurology. But, yeah, regarding "the senses" as just vision, touch, etc., is limiting as it ignores the complete set of physical input.
    – Nat
    May 8, 2017 at 5:07
  • (1) It goes further than merely that we cannot reduce it to vision, touch, etc. Because (2) " ... when we regard thoughts as empirical observation of internal events, as is consistent with neurology. " -- many things are "consistent with neurology" but if you think any of your thoughts capture things that are true about the world, then they are not merely a type of internal sensory data, they are true sensory data -- which on some definitions is "knowledge." But again, the main point of my answer has to do with the two uses of the term "empiricism" and not with contemporary arguments re: sense
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 5:34
  • Why are contemporary arguments about sense not relevant to contemporary arguments about empiricism?
    – Era
    May 9, 2017 at 18:45
  • @Era because we don't know what sense of "empiricism" his professor is referring to. (it's in the sentence right above the one that generates your question and is the core of the answer).
    – virmaior
    May 9, 2017 at 23:45
  • @virmaior But the historical position is false only according to a certain conception of "the senses". If this is the historical one, then okay, but why would anyone go there nowadays? This is like talking about ether or phlogiston. Surely a contemporary empiricist who likes the historical definition would reformulate empiricism to fit what "the senses" might mean nowadays. To support the historical definition otherwise is sort of crazy; by analogy, Aristotle got a huge amount of facts wrong but his essential position can be salvaged. No one attacks Aristotle's Physics because he's wrong...
    – Era
    May 10, 2017 at 19:30

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