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Whenever you discuss philosophy, inevitably you will come across a type of person who holds empirical truth above all else, and will blatantly ridicule any discussion which has its onset in a paradigm that emphasizes other aspects than just empirical evidence.

Some famous examples are perhaps Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, two men who have built their fame on satire, mockery and insults, but when actually forced to address the philosophical nature of certain topics (primarily God) outside of their own comfortable paradigm of science, they have proven themselves to be quite inept at understanding the subtleties involved in the perspectives offered by their discussants. See e.g. Sam Harris vs William Craig in "the God Debate".

However, what surprises me is the immense popularity of such behaviour and the number of people who ascribe to such a philosophy. I say surprise because, a fairly simple philosophical argument seems to break it apart quite easily:

Empirical truth, although obviously very useful for empirical and practical matters such as physics and engineering, does not hold the same weight in philosophical discussions because by the very nature of philosophy, one is not bounded to the empirical world, and therefore what we call "empirical truth", could be neither truth nor empirical, at least not in the greater, philosophical sense.

For example, does God exist? By the very nature of a discussion concerning God and the supernatural and the possibility of different realms of existence containing different levels of people, it stands to reason that empirical evidence acquired by a certain level of people in a certain realm has no say in the matter of the philosophical debate, it is a completely void and irrelevant contribution to the discussion.

So why do people prioritise empirical truth so much in philosophy? As mentioned, it is a thing of beauty in science and other practical matters, but in philosophy, we aspire to discover a higher level of truth. Why do people think we can obtain this higher level of truth by employing something as basic as what the eyes of a human can see?

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    The short answer is: Because of the story of success natural sciences had within the last some 300 years and in philosophy specifically because of Hume and Kant and pragmatism and like almost all serious philosophy (still taught today) from mid 18th century on, historically speaking. – Philip Klöcking Mar 28 '18 at 17:18
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    Any particular reason for the snidy comments like "psuedo-science" and "narrow mind" – Tim B Mar 28 '18 at 19:48
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    "Why do people think we can obtain this higher level of truth by employing something as basic as what the eyes of a human can see?" You have to build off something right? (though I think describing empirical evidence as "what the eyes of a human can see" is flippant at best...) Maybe you should ask yourself how we find truth as opposed to just creating random ideas. – Harabeck Mar 28 '18 at 20:19
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    @geowo, are you aware of how inflammatory the accusations of "inept" and "narrow-minded" are? I'd recommend asking questions like this in a more neutral tone. – MattClarke Mar 29 '18 at 4:41
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    I agree with @MattClarke, geowo: why are you making such inflammatory accusations? You are coming dangerously close in invalidating you own question since the help pages clearly state "Please note that this site is not (a) pulpit for you to express your own personal philosophical beliefs". Not only are you risking moderator action, you are also setting the tone to be that of antagonism and dismissal due to opinion rather than arguments. For your own sake: edit out the bare claims of ineptitude in others. – MichaelK Mar 29 '18 at 7:41

15 Answers 15

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Neither Harris nor Hitchens dismiss or ridicule non-empirical philosophy itself. Harris, in particular, calls himself a philosopher and studies Eastern religions and similar traditions. What they ridicule, and rightly so, are the many attempts by philosophy and religion to make pronouncements about the physical world based on their non-empirical philosophy.

The existence of a God, as you point out, may well be a non-empirical question. But the existence of a being that creates physical matter, hears prayers, and intervenes in human lives is 100% empirical. Something like the value of studying history might be a non-empirical question. But the question of what methods of studying history and what sources are reliable is 100% empirical. Those who choose to believe in a personal God that answers prayers, or the historicity of the Exodus, or other such things in the complete absence of evidence for them are criticized for bringing their "spiritual" matters into the real world.

There probably are people who ridicule the non-empirical (Tyson is probably a better example). I suspect that they will continue to do so until you or someone can show them some specific way in which that affects their lives and well-being. That the physical world affects our well-being is clearly beyond doubt, and empirical science is clearly superior to every other epistemology for revealing that.

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    "But the existence of a being that creates physical matter, hears prayers, and intervenes in human lives is 100% empirical." No, not at all. Fundamental to empiricism is the notion that results are deterministic, that others can repeat the same experiment and get the same results. Once you put a being who's capable of making choices and responding differently to different iterations of [what appears from the empiricist's perspective to be] the exact same experiment, determinism goes right out the window. – Mason Wheeler Mar 29 '18 at 13:37
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    @MasonWheeler: Even though I cannot guarantee (or control) that Google gives me the same results tomorrow that it gave me today; that doesn't mean that I can't empirically approach how to Google something. We can still ponder the existence of a God who randomly creates matter, cherrypicks prayers, and selectively intervenes in human lives. Determinism can be used to confirm an empirical approach; but that doesn't mean that a lack of determinism inherently disproves an empirical approach (that's a logical fallacy). – Flater Mar 29 '18 at 14:18
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    @MasonWheeler You're not wrong, and in fact God's "unknowable perfect will" is a common dodge given by Christians when asked for evidence of their faith or the efficacy of prayer, etc. But your criticism ought to be against that believer/evangelist trying to convince us to "just give God a chance" and accept their faith, not on the skeptic pushing back on their (unverifiable) religious claims. – BradC Mar 29 '18 at 14:27
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    @MasonWheeler If there are any patterns in the being's choices, they can be empirically studied (this is why psychology is a science, even though humans are "capable of making choices and responding differently to different iterations of [what appears from the empiricist's perspective to be] the exact same experiment"). If there are no patterns, there's no reason to care about the alleged being; it's indistinguishable from randomness. – rlms Mar 29 '18 at 15:09
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    @trutheality, there may not be definitive tests for these things, but there certainly are things we might reasonably expect to happen if they are true. For example, if physical laws are a manifestation of God's will, then we might expect that his will, and therefore the laws, might change from time to time--else what does "will" mean? We have found no such evidence in our searches. If hundreds of people search a forest for Bigfoot for decades, and no one finds it, that doesn't prove it's not there, but it certainly raises the odds quite high, and is an empirical result. – Lee Daniel Crocker Mar 29 '18 at 18:47
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It is not just that empiricism works, and in 300 years has brought us from semaphore lines to global high speed interconnects, or that non-empiricism is a fervent breeding ground for falsehoods and mysticism; those are true and more than justify aversion to the magical, but they don't explain why that should be the case.

Rather, it is that in the modern day we come further and further to irrefutable evidence that people are empirical. I will not go into detail on the evidence, but it suffices to say that if you agree to this much you also understand that there is nothing that you can do, even in theory, that a machine cannot. There is no mental magic that lets you probe beyond the veil. There is no mystical wand to wave that lets your knowledge constitute more than a map to the territory. Even if there was such a contortion of reason it would be nothing that could not in principle be done by another appropriate arrangement of gears and lasers.

There is no higher level of knowledge than empirical knowledge because that is all that can be known. No matter how smart you are, Solomonoff induction is smarter. No matter how wise you are, your mind can only be causally related to causal objects.

A devotion to a "higher level of truth" leads to epistemic voids like zombies or the ontological argument, arguments that seem appealing on the outset but do nought but waste time. In contrast empirical work is why we can now talk about the consciousness of brains under fully homomorphic encryption, or the measurement problem, real problems that represent huge leaps in the boundaries of philosophical discussion. Even when talking about the mind, or issues like free will, actual progress is made through empirical study.

If you want to say that empirical arguments do not stand at the same height as the rest of philosophy, I would not disagree, but it is certainly not because it is lower. Until brute philosophy can make a single step forward in its own field the way Copernicus, or Turing, or Darwin, or Everett, did upon it, I hardly see much competition.

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    I'd posit that a similar approach espouses the value of honest debate, in striving to argue based on what may be provable/disprovable, rather than arguing based on opinions. Ultimately, any debate about religion is really a debate about belief (opinion), and quite often the motive is dubious vis a vis cascading beliefs and anecdotes couched as fact. Whereas an (honest) debate based on the provable/disprovable strives for a firmer basis, the challenge of opinion. If it's impossible to prove/disprove that pick-a-deity==other-deity or that any are real, then can it be debated honestly? – K_foxer9 Mar 29 '18 at 16:28
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    "irrefutable evidence that people are empirical." How does one prove that? Hopefully not by empirical means... otherwise that would be begging the question. Let's keep in mind, that if news reports are to be believed, all modern science happened to overlook the biggest 'organ' in the body until very recently. – NPSF3000 Mar 30 '18 at 4:49
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    @NPSF3000 You seem to think that empirical methods cannot shine light on such things, but if one did simulate a human under fully homomorphic encryption and find the output a perfect predictor of the source biological human it was copied from under an accurately reproducible environment, would that not be an example of strong evidence from an empirical method? – Veedrac Mar 30 '18 at 13:42
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    @Veedrac most empirical methods assume the world is empirical. For example, if you create an empirical simulation and match it to empirically gathered values... all you've done is test your assumptions. A useful feat, but basically begging the question. Let's keep in mind, that for our 'empirical proof' we know very little - again, how can one claim certainty of their empirical data when even the most modern and advanced science overlooks very large, clearly visible organs? – NPSF3000 Mar 30 '18 at 14:29
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    @NPSF3000 How did you conclude that that is begging the question? I'm struggling to unpack how random this sounds. "Yes, you've got a maximally-isolated, fully causally controlled model, but did you know that in 2018 some researchers discovered some fluid channels in the body held more liquid than we previously thought?!" – Veedrac Mar 30 '18 at 15:52
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I agree with the comment of @Philip Klöcking concerning the success story of empiricism in science. Apparently philosophy is not based on experience, in particular it is not based on observation. But the great benefit of the scientific method is the possibility to check its results. It is possible to derive consequences from scientific theories and to test these result by experience. The tests confirms or refutes the theoretical statement. (I know that I make some simplifications.)

The method of philosophy is restricted to argumentation. But history shows: In many cases there is no agreement whether the case is settled by the arguments presented by the experts or not. And so the discussion goes on.

If one considers a philosophical theory a model for a certain domain of knowledge, then this model has to satisfy at least the following properties:

  1. The terms of the model must be clear and understandable.

  2. The premisses of the model should be made explicit.

  3. The statements of the model must be consistent, i.e. they must not introduce a contradiction.

  4. The theory must state the problems it attempts to solve, and it must present a solution.

These criteria can be used to judge the soundness of a philosophical theory. In addition, the theory should be as simple as possible, e.g. it should satisfy Occam's razor.

Nomenclature: The term "empirical truth" could be misleading. Not the truth is empirical; being true or false is a property of statements. Instead, the method to check the statement is empirical.

  • Are your conditions at all related to the list that goes, "Plausible, explanatory scope, explanatory power, and less ad-hoc"? – elliot svensson Mar 28 '18 at 18:37
  • @elliot sensson IMO your four criteria can be considered expanding my criterion 4. – Jo Wehler Mar 28 '18 at 18:43
  • I heard this little set in a discussion of how to choose a good historical explanation for something, or formulate the truest historical account. – elliot svensson Mar 28 '18 at 18:45
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    elliot svensson I consider these lists very useful in a broad context. Often these criteria are not satisfied. E.g., the theory presents an answer, but nobody knows what the question was :-) – Jo Wehler Mar 28 '18 at 18:48
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Empirical truth is what we can most easily verify that we share. Experiences and experiments can often be recreated, if the phenomena involved in framing them are actually understood and documented well.

Subjective or intuitive truth may often be just as real, but it has historically been manipulated by those in power to one degree or another. So there is a real motive for trying to ground things in empirical truth whenever possible. We do not wish to be manipulated, and therefore empirical explanations have a democratic element to them. Democracy and equality are imperatives in modern society, (especially, strangely, among our elites, who also tend to be condescending in the way you are complaining about.)

That said, Hume has never been completely refuted: At some level, empirical truth also always relies upon mechanisms that we know are limited or misleading. It has to fall back on some more abstract explanation to smooth out the errors we know are implicit to measurement and perception. And those correctives must ultimately come from somewhere else. So philosophy has a long history of working back and forth between these. Some folks now somehow imagine this can stop.

Now that philosophy has spawned science as a discipline that considers itself independent, that part has taken up disowning the rest. But every thought that underlies a scientific theory is, at root, philosophy. Theories cannot make themselves, they have to be contrived out of intuitive or metaphorical material. And the meaningfulness of scientific observations is based in theory.

Science is free to try to dismiss philosophy, but it is philosophy, just of a circumscribed sort. Trying to undermine all the other forms of reasoning will eventually backfire in a lack of source material for framing meaningful theories.

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    Not true. Science explicitly acknowledges the errors in measurement and perception. The study of metrology specifically aims to establish the bounds of those errors, and to reduce the error bounds where possible. Data always has error bounds, and results always have a probability attached relating to the error bounds of the data or methodology. This has never, at any time, been addressed by philosophical studies. Every single stage of progress has been made by empiricists working with real-world evidence and real-world processes. – Graham Mar 29 '18 at 15:22
  • @Graham What part of philosophy forbids working with real-world processes? I explicitly said philosophy goes back and forth between the idea and the real world. Every major philosopher has referenced real-world data to support their positions (even if some of that was psychological rather than physical, it was real-world data). This is just a modern perspective taken to an extreme where it is completely wrong. And how long was physics a branch of philosophy? Certainly through Newton, and long enough to include discussions of measurement error. Don't attack me for saying what I did not say. – user9166 Mar 29 '18 at 16:24
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    Sorry, I wasn't clear about my context there. I was particularly focusing on your paragraph starting with Hume. I'm currently working in an area which is heavily focused on metrology. Hume and his colleagues contributed precisely zero to that; nor was it ever Hume's intention to contribute there; and nor has philosophy ever contributed to it. – Graham Mar 30 '18 at 1:33
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    Yes, there was a time when physics, chemistry, maths, religion and astrology were all rolled into a single entity known as 'philosophy'. It is not what we call philosophy today, any more than you would ask a physicist today to tell you your horoscope. – Graham Mar 30 '18 at 1:36
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    @Graham Nothing you have said contradicts what I said. You are still attacking points I did not make and that are not relevant to my argument. Sorry for the deleted comments. I am tempted to argue here, but there is no point. If metrology uses math then it "relies upon a more abstract..." And you are just proving my point. If you can't see that from the beginning, and have no intention of arguing fairly, this is over. – user9166 Mar 30 '18 at 19:20
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Let me answer with an illustration:

I think the Ontological Argument for God's existence is probably the perfect example (within the genre of arguments about God) of a purely philosophical argument, without any attempt to appeal to empirical truth.

Here's S. Anselm's original version, written nearly 1000 years ago:

[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Or, broken down:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  4. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Is this an interesting philosophical argument? Some people certainly seem to think so (I'm not a particular fan of it). Is it worthy of spirited discussion over an after-dinner drink or worth a debate in front of an academic society? Absolutely.

But does the ontological argument actually make a persuasive case for joining a particular church? Or for revering a particular holy book? Or for adhering to specific faith practices? Or for tithing to a particular spiritual leader?

Clearly not. (At least it is clear in my mind, perhaps you'd disagree).

That's the point that I think people like Harris and Hitchens will focus on: sure, they may engage on the abstract philosophical point, but the takeaway will consistently be on "even if this was a valid argument, I reject your (sometimes unstated) implication of what it means for what we should therefore believe and/or practice."

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Empirical truth's great strength stems from the assumption that all that matters is empirical. This assumption, itself not an empirical statement, is typically so well buried in people's psyche that only a small portion of the population is even aware that this assumption exists.

Empirical truths have a special position in today's society because they can be tested by science, and science is currently a very popular process. Any philosopher which makes a statement in the form of an empirical truth should expect people to run their statement through the gauntlet of scientific inquiry to see if the idea falls short. In modern society, that is pretty unique. Not many disciplines in modern life are quite so harsh as the scientific method.

Case in point, WorldBuilding recently fielded a question about one second in eternity. The parable, clearly intended to be imagery, contained phrasings which could be construed as empirical. The question asks to treat them as such. The resulting numbers are quite startling, even if they do not all agree in their final magnitude. Science's nature is such that we can take such imagery and assign numbers to it that push the limits of the lifespan of the universe. Not many other disciplines can do that!

I also find empirical truth to be important to people because they don't know another key phrasing: sufficient empirical truth. As it turns out, you can't make any meaningful scientific hypothesis without it being phrased in some sort of non-empirical way. By the nature of scientific hypotheses, their purpose is to explain what will happen in future scenarios, and by necessity the future is never empirical -- only the present (and maybe the past). On top of that, the inference tools, such as abduction, are inherently non-empirical in their nature. If you dig far enough into someone's usage of empirical truth, you will eventually find the point where they throw their hands up and tell you that you're being a ninny in this line of reasoning. That's the point where they draw the line, and you can choose to label that "sufficiently empirically true," reserving "empirically true" for a deeper truth which is never truly attained.

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    Do you really think that most people actually assume that? If most people actually expected that all that matters is empirical, there wouldn't be stuff like astrology (especially the western kind), Japanese blood type personality, modern religion that desperately tries to ignore all the very empirical claims from their past... It took people a long time to realise that at least most of the world around them can be discovered and understood by observation - and the problem with those bits that cannot is that you can't tell the difference between reality and just making stuff up :) – Luaan Mar 29 '18 at 7:10
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    @Luaan people who follow astrology probably take it to be empirical. I would actually say that physicists are frequently less inclined to assume that all is empirical because when you really understand how humans are defining the fundamental particles of the universe you realise that firstly that Platos cave has you completely trapped and secondly how important the intrinsically subjective interpretation is to move further with the maths. – Clumsy cat Mar 29 '18 at 12:31
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    @Luaan I like THeoreticalPerson's argument very much. However, I do think your point causes me to relax the argument a bit. I used "people" in the same way the OP uses the word in the title, and I probably should have specified as such. I do find that everyone has this assumption, but obviously people hold metaphysical opinions so how they apply this assumption must clearly be more nuanced than I portrayed it. We constantly find astrologers trying to define empirical reasons for their predictions. There's a long history of trying to tie behaviors to physical attributes such as blood... – Cort Ammon Mar 29 '18 at 14:30
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    ... types. And while modern religion tries to ignore some of the empirical claims, it reinforces others. – Cort Ammon Mar 29 '18 at 14:32
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    I'd also rephrase your last sentence "... the world around them can be discovered and understood..." as "... the world around them might be discoverable and understood." There's no empirical proof that it can actually be understood that way =) – Cort Ammon Mar 29 '18 at 14:33
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Empirically the world is full of con artists who weave nonsense and use it to cause damage.

It is very easy to bamboozle someone with complex social and mental constructs and use those to convince the target to do something or not to do something.

Distinguishing this frankly hostile use of communication from helpful forms of communication is difficult. One method that can work is to determine if the communication asserts Empirical facts that can be checked. Then, arrange for methods to check those facts, and rely on the results of the Empirical facts communicated rather than on the entire content of the communication.

This still leaves people open to manipulation and damage from communication. In retrospective, often the damage and manipulation comes from a mixture of selective communication of Empirically verified facts and non-Empirically verified fact communication. This makes the manipulation and damage seem to come from incomplete facts and on failure to filter out more of the non-Empirically verified fact communication.

Repeated exposure to such damage results in social groups that form a various defensive tactics against damaging communication. One example is insular religious groups who treat information from anything other than a religous authority as suspect. Another is Empiricism, where you treat non-Empirical facts from outsiders as noise.

These may be reasonable responses to the world we live in; we live in a world where megadeaths have been caused by convincing communicators talking about "ought" and "should". Almost everyone has filters to keep hostile communication attacks out; this is just one of them.

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This comic by Corey Mohler does a good job of addressing this question. In short, because said people find a sort of short-sighted "New Atheism" convenient for maintaining the marginalization of women and other oppressed groups and preventing social change in general. While this position may seem quite harsh, it is well supported in the case of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as the lengthy explanation following the comic shows. Most of that explanation (the parts relevant to the discussion at hand) are reproduced below:

"Scientism" is the position that Science can solve all problems, or that all problems are empirical. Philosophically, it is mostly associated with the strongest statements made by the logical positivism movement, which mostly died out in the mid 20th century. Culturally, however, it is stronger than ever, and is closely tied to movements like the so-called "New Atheists". These newer, more naive forms of Scientism, also have a strong tendency to call philosophy "a big waste of time", "pointless arguing", "nothing but semantics", etc. Rhetorically, they tend to say that non-empirical ideas have no way to guarantee they are true, so are pointless to talk about. This is a rather ridiculous point to make, since their entire movement is based around spreading a certain set of non-empirical, philosophical norms, which they apparently don't feel it necessary to open up to criticism. What they mostly seem to mean is, assuming everyone agrees with us on the important philosophic questions, such as atheism, utilitarianism, capitalism, eliminative materialism, etc., then we don't need anything but science. Well, this is maybe true in a strange way, insofar that if everyone agreed on every philosophical position, i.e. if philosophy was solved, then we probably wouldn't need philosophy. Philosophy, however, has not been solved. Furthermore, if it is going to be solved, it certainly won't be solved by a bunch of people who don't even read or engage in philosophy. The real goal is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn't question, because they don't want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change. And, well, people who don't want society to change often also find themselves not wanting people to even think about changing society.

This is, of course, a deeply conservative position, and reflects the politics of the people who make this sort of claim. In a lot of ways "New Atheism" is just a political movement that is attempting to secularize conservatism (in particular, it seems, the foreign policy doctrine that the United States and Europe should be "exporting" their culture overseas, i.e. governing the Earth). People who want to change society in a fundamental way, not just improve the efficiency and technology within society, seldom use this kind of anti-intellectual rhetoric. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the 1700s, was trying to convince people to allow women to be educated in the same manner as men. It doesn't take a genius to realize that science or technology alone aren't going to solve this kind of problem. People wanting to make comparable changes today also aren't going to be fooled into thinking that all we need is more advanced technology, or to understand atoms better or something. Somewhat amusingly (or actually probably not that amusingly), people like Richard Dawkins, when attacked for their conservative views, will sometimes try to defend themselves by saying that they actually are feminists, or whatever. But, of course, when you get down to their views and actions, it's obvious that what they mean by "feminism" is "gender equality was already achieved a few decades ago, so everyone needs to stop complaining about it." Sam Harris, for instance, when asked why there were so few women in the "New Atheism" movement, had this to say:

There's something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. The atheist variable just has this- it doesn't obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.

The "critical posture", of course, means "people who agree with Sam Harris". Someone who doesn't find it necessary to read a book about a topic before writing a book on that topic can hardly be said to have a "critical posture".

You can see Christopher Hitchens talk about feminism here.

There were some links to explanations of topics like 'logical positivism' in the original that are not preserved here, since they aren't strictly necessary.

The linked youtube video is an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Hitchens where he talks broadly about how women should stay home and raise children and men should go get jobs.

At one point he says "No. I'm not having any woman of mine go to work." The interviewer then says "You know you're going to get in trouble if you go down there" (Mr. Hitchens tries to say something over this about halfway through her talking, but I'm not sure what. Possibly "No, no they-- no, they-- I don't--". In any case, I think he's just trying to interrupt and the line I can't quite make out isn't critical). Mr. Hitchens then says "No, they don't need to work. They can if they like, but they don't have to". The interviewer then says "You are joking, aren't you?" to which he replies "No, I'm not. No, I would expect her to take care-- Well, you can work if you want, but you don't have to."

  • Unsure about how much of the linked text/material to reproduce here. Suggestions? – Please stop being evil Mar 28 '18 at 20:47
  • @elliotsvensson Such a concept seems rather obvious. I had not heard of Paolo Friere, but the basic idea of the formerly oppressed engaging in oppression is well known. Is there a way that this connects to this answer? – Please stop being evil Mar 28 '18 at 21:04
  • I was remarking on one of the lines of the comic, in which Mary Wollestonecraft says, "You will never hear such rhetoric from a repressed minority working to change society", referring to her caricature of scientism as saying, "No more thinking, our ideas are finished! We need only work out the details of our system." It would be a mistake to believe that therefore, the individuals who don't do that stuff wouldn't try it if they got the chance. – elliot svensson Mar 28 '18 at 21:09
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    @elliotsvensson Ah, yes, that's why the 'working to change society' part is important. – Please stop being evil Mar 28 '18 at 21:16
  • I can think of one counterexample of this, however... the great Green Energy leader and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben won't support nuclear energy as an alternative to carbon-based fuel, saying "If I came out in favor of nuclear, it would split this movement in half.” theenergycollective.com/meredith-angwin/92451/… – elliot svensson Mar 28 '18 at 21:22
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Why do people care so much about empirical truth?

Well, if we are talking about why people care, you can probably summarize an answer by talking about what people value.

Why would people put so much value, so much stock in empirical truth (over other forms of truth)? Why would they care about empirical truth (implying they don't care about or value other kinds of truth)?


My understanding is that some people are not concerned about big philosophical quandaries. In fact, most people are not concerned about philosophical questions. People don't live in a supernatural realm in their day to day existence. We live in this empirical realm, and this is the realm where the vast majority of our attention and decisions and actions are focused.

In short, most (or all, depending on your preference) beliefs or 'truths' that have any pragmatic impact on our actual lives is usually tied to empirical reality in some way.


  • How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?
  • What if quantum randomness is actually the universe splitting into bajillions of multiverses where there is a different universe for every possible reality?
  • What would happen if the Startrek Enterprise, an Emperial Star Destroyer, and Gallente Erebus all fought at the same time?

The above example questions all have little to zero actual pragmatic impact on anything in 'the real world'. Or in other words, this is is a class of questions where no matter what answer you give, it makes no difference.

Philosophical topics and discussions that are completely divorced from the empirical realm by definition have no empirical significance. This is why some people don't care for 'truth' unless it ties to the empirical realm. It is the difference between topics/claims/discussions that actually impact our lives, and topics/claims/discussions that make no difference to any empirical thing, no matter what the answer turns out to be.

If a philosophical topic indeed turns out to be completely divorced from the empirical realm, that is okay. It is perfectly fine, and perhaps even fun, or maybe even extremely valuable to speculate about. However it is not everyone's personal taste. The line is drawn at the mind. Does a philosophical proposition have impact outside the imagination, or not? If a proposition has consequence outside the imagination and in the measurable realm, that is when an empiricist starts to care.

If something does not have any measurement and can truly not be interacted with in any way, then what is it anyway? Indistinguishable from a fiction. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just how it is.

Personally, I tend to think most philosophical questions or truths of interest are likely to have a pragmatic or empirical element. That's not at all to be at ends with the God question though. Some people think God is completely divorced from the empirical realm, and therefore indistinguishable from an imaginary fiction. Other people believe and argue that God is interactive and consequential with our realm. Such a proposal has empirical consequences. In my opinion anyone has a right to defend either stance they prefer. And of course, any audience has a right to care or not depending on whether or not the hypothesized consequences fall in their realm of interest.

Hopefully that helps explain why some people might prioritize empirical truth the way they do.

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    "The above example questions all have little to zero actual pragmatic impact on anything in 'the real world'." could we not say the same for most of astronomy, cosmology and particle physics? – Clumsy cat Mar 29 '18 at 12:33
  • @TheoreticalPerson Trying to figure out how the universe works is how we created atomic weapons. Understanding particle physics could change life as we know it. The example questions in this answer were meant to stand for topics that are completely divorced from the empirical realm. Astronomy, cosmology, and particle physics are an absolute part of the empirical realm, and all have had an actual pragmatic impact on the real world. – JackArbiter Mar 29 '18 at 14:56
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    @TheoreticalPerson You'd only say that if you don't care about the results, and the people answering the questions aren't always the ones thinking about applications. From Terry Pratchett: "One minute it's all is truth beauty and is beauty truth, and does a falling tree in the forest make a sound if there's no one there to hear it, and then just when you think they're going to start dribbling one of 'em says, incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy's ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles.” – Graham Mar 29 '18 at 15:29
  • @TheoreticalPerson Quantum mechanics are completely integral to modern electronics. Particle physics overall less relevant to the every day person, but maybe technological impact in future. Astronomy and cosmology, people have a right to not care if space colonization is not expected in their lifetime. These topics are absolutely still a part of the empirical realm, but yes, your analogy is still worthwhile. The analogy is suitable as long as we remember the question is angled at 'why people care' rather than 'what has impact more than you know' or 'what might really impact distant future'. – World Outsider Mar 30 '18 at 2:23
  • @Graham, seriously though, can you think of anything that has come of BSM physics? I'm not saying it won't one-day, (old men and trees...) but when we start speculating about sci-fi futures we are probably out of what most people consider to be 'the real world'. – Clumsy cat Mar 30 '18 at 8:37
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In short, the primary appeal of empirical truth is its universality.

If you can observe a fact or demonstrate a theory empirically, you effectively accomplish three things (assuming you use scientifically valid methods):

  1. You create evidence which should persuade any reasonable person of the veracity of your claim,

  2. You provide him a method by which he can verify those claims himself, and

  3. Your demonstration exposes underlying assumptions and sources of potential error so that your claims can be corrected by subsequent empirical tests if necessary

Other methods of knowing things may not be universal or applicable in all cases. Some, such as deontological morality, rely on personal experiences, paradigms, or norms which may not be shared---and, in some cases, cannot be shared. Others, such as mathematics/informatics rely on axioms which may not apply to our physical, perceptible world.

Empirical truths are, in some sense, the greatest success of philosophy because they can be accepted by anyone with an open, critical mindset. The primary problem with empirical truths is their limitations.

There are many questions which we feel are important that cannot be answered by any empirical test. Many important questions have very few empirically-supported claims which can support an answer at all. It is seriously questionable whether empirical facts can ever fill these gaps.

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Dismissive comments about philosophy have been made by such folks as Neil DeGrasse Tyson (philosophy is "distracting") and Stephen Hawking ("philosophy is dead"). Christian person William Lane Craig defended philosophy in this podcast / transcript, making reference to the rebuttal given by Massimo Pigliucci.

I think dismissing better kinds of truth than verification is a dumb mistake that has bit Tyson publicly. Fortunately, people who study philosophy have already developed the tools to dispatch this kind of abuse.

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    This appears to be a rant. Where do you try to answer the question? – Muschkopp Mar 29 '18 at 11:36
  • The question was formed as "why do some people...", which I think can be appropriately answered as "it was a dumb mistake". – elliot svensson Mar 29 '18 at 15:29
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    Well...I'm sorry, but that's just not very helpful or insightful IMO. – Muschkopp Mar 30 '18 at 8:19
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So why do people prioritise empirical truth so much in philosophy?

  1. Because a lot of people accept that science has tremendous, enormous explanatory power -- demonstrable explanatory power -- and carry this invisible passenger with them in some shape or form when they move on to other domains.
  2. Because science can answer a lot more today than it could a hundred years (or more) ago, and:
  3. Some people (or many) misunderstand or misrepresent what is and isn't a strictly philosophical argument.

Case in point for #3:

For example, does God exist?

It would depend on your specific belief, but typically, God is defined as an entity that has some power over the universe or the creatures living in it. To have such a power would mean the ability to influence the physical reality. To influence the physical reality would mean that you're subject to the laws of physics, or at the very least, scrutiny by physical means.

Thus, for every definition of God where (potential for) physical influence is party, it follows that the question "Does God exist?" is a question that cannot be strictly philosophical because it by definition must be some part related to the physical sciences.

A lesson many students have to learn quickly is that the question doesn't stop being about math just because you took all the numbers out of the assignment text. Similarly, a question isn't absolved from influence by empirical claims just because someone subjectively chooses to disregard the fact that the question touches on domains where empiricism is at the heart of the matter.

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You make a good point that empirical, and even rational, evidence may not be the only forms of knowledge. One place to look for alternatives is to consider Plotinus and creative contemplation. See the Enneads: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm and for a survey see the SEP article on Plotinus: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plotinus/

To see how Plotinus can be linked to science, in particular quantum physics, see Shimon Malin’s “Nature Loves to Hide”. Malin also discusses Schrodinger's term “objectivization”. According to Schrodinger, the “Subject of Cognizance” is removed in the process of making measurements. Malin also links this to Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. See the SEP article on Whitehead: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/

Now consider the question: “So why do people prioritize empirical truth so much in philosophy?”

This is a question of social mood which can change. So the question of why depends on what one thinks are the underlying influences that explain changes in social mood. There are two very different explanations that are worth keeping in mind as one looks for useful explanations.

First, Whitehead in Science and the Modern World offered an explanation for science that tied with the Protestant Reformation. Science rejected medieval reasoning and wanted to focus on empirical evidence. This led to scientific advance. Protestants wanted to do something similar focusing on early Christian communities and the Bible for evidence. In both cases there was a social mood change that went against the previous rationalism. Although this does not explain why we continue to prioritize empirical evidence today, it is worth considering as an explanation for the origin of interest in empirical evidence.

Second, socionomics attempts to study social mood through what it calls sociometers. https://www.socionomics.net/ The chief sociometer, and what gives socionomics its greatest amount of empirical evidence, is market data. Having this data is of no value if one believes, as the efficient market hypothesis maintains, that the markets are random and rational. However if socionomists are correct and the patterns in this data called Elliott Waves have better than random predictive power this not only would help traders time the market, it would help historians and sociologists explain why we may be preferring empirical evidence today over other evidence and when that trend may change.

That a theory can explain why we prioritize empirical truth today does not mean that the theory offers a useful explanation for social mood. That change in social mood occurred in the past suggests that social mood might change in the future. The most useful explanation of past change would also be able to anticipate future changes in trend.

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So I am a good example of someone who holds empirical estimations of truth above any other form. Just to get my assumptions out of the way, I would endorse the implications of Cox's postulates. Cox's postulates are sufficient to arrive at all of the sciences and are based on Aristotelean logic.

While I have both Cox's book on the topic and Jaynes book on it, they are not physically available to me, so I am going to engage in heresy and use Wikipedia's description so that I can disclose my starting position. May the gods of science forgive me for using a Wiki.

Cox's construction of probability theory is around assessing the truth of logical statements using information. It is usually a form of inductive reasoning but can be deductive in the binary case. Two of the three postulates are not considered controversial, but one of them may be the most contentious axiom in probability theory.

The primary non-controversial axiom in Wikipedia is, unfortunately, described as consistency with common sense. A more formal look at this would be that any rule created to assess the plausibility of a statement contains no contradiction and that items with equivalent truth tables are the same. The other non-controversial one is that if there are two ways to assess the plausibility of a statement for a given set of information, then each method must arrive at the same result. Now, this may not imply strict equality, for example, if something has a 1/3rd chance of being true and 2/3rds chance of being false then it is equivalent to 1:2 odds the first one is true.

The controversial axiom is that the plausibility of a statement can be measured by or stated as a real number for a given information set. The controversy comes from the fact that Frequentist statistics cannot do this. The strongest statement that can be made with a Frequentist measure is that if a null hypothesis is true, then there is some value less than a real number p, which is in the open interval of (0,1), that is a statement of the worst-case probability of the observation being due to chance alone.

Of course, any reasoning, except for special cases, must be incomplete using Cox's postulates. Do note that neither Cox nor Kolmogorov have a unique axiomatic structure from which to construct a theory of probability. As I said, I am accepting Cox's postulates as sufficient to construct all of science on.

From Cox's postulates, you can derive both Bayes theorem, but also, Bayesian analysis over a parameter or a model space. This permits a clear solution to questions of belief.

For example, let us imagine that I am working to determine the validity of the idea of acceleration due to gravity. I can construct models where gravity doesn't exist, where the acceleration is a constant and where it is a non-constant. I can collect data, maybe poorly, and assess my relative beliefs. Perhaps I can do a very good job. As I gather more and more data, then I can get good beliefs. I can do this with anything that I can state a model and collect data.

Humans were hopelessly impoverished century after century until the coming of science and humans mostly lived short, brutish lives. People endorse empiricism because it produces usable results both to endorse concepts and to reject ideas.

For the idea of a god, however, it is not useful. It is similar to Sagan's comment from one of his instructors where he asked students why people believed the world was flat. Their response was because it looks flat, so he asked them what a round world would look like.

A world with a god looks exactly like this one. A world without a god looks exactly like this one. No amount of data can strictly exclude either case.

Therefore, the question is without importance. Not only can it not be solved, even if it could be solved the solution wouldn't matter at least not to the level that it would change my brand of toothpaste.

Now, this is not to say that individuals cannot be intrigued or driven by the problem. I know someone who is driven by knitting. If you like something, then there generally is no harm and probably quite some good for people to explore it. It is irrelevant to me. It simply cannot impact my life as there is no added content to my life or existence by either answer.

Let me give you a more concrete example. There does not exist a Frequentist solution to the estimator for the parameter, R, in the equation x(t+1)=Rx(t)+e(t+1), where x(t,t+1) are real numbers and R is an unknown real number greater than one and e is a random variable centered on zero with a finite and positive variance. While there may be some mathematical value in exploring why no solution can exist in Frequentist statistics, in fact, there is a great deal of value, it still results in there being no Frequentist way to solve this problem. It is the ancillary knowledge created in the understanding of why that is very important.

Questions about God are valuable regardless of whether a god exists, but treating any answer to the question as having any value or even attempting to strengthen or assert one point of view is without any value. If it cannot be solved then, ignoring the hobby value or the indirect value of testing the boundaries of knowledge, it is a waste of time to work on something that is non-existent.

I believe that listening to music or going on a hike is a valuable thing. I won’t find truth, but I will enjoy it. Maybe if I did psychological research, I would even care about why my mind enjoys music, being in the woods, or simply walking around. I have no doubt this is well studied.

It is possible that philosophers have misdefined truth and are conflating it with things that people persistently enjoy. That observation of regularity is the goal of the realm of probability and statistics. The beautiful thing about observing regularities with probability and statistics is it is possible to resolve, though not always, which patterns are real and which are idiosyncratic.

For me, it is sufficient to assert that truth need not exist. It is enough to define what does and does not constitute a regularity in nature operationally without requiring an actual existence. For example, I don’t believe that gravitation exists. I do not believe, for example, that a rock obeys the law of gravity because it cannot disobey. Instead, I believe that the fabric of existence, space-time if you would prefer, is warped and the effect we call gravity is a human solution to talking about the observed regular effect.

I also do not believe that I can disobey the laws of gravity. There is no agency that allows for a decision on which natural laws to follow and which to ignore. I also do not believe this is not up for debate. While I do spend time reading the philosophers, it has never been to find truth, but to find a way to think about things from a different perspective and to avoid well-known mental traps.

People, such as myself, use empiricism to discover truth because the alternatives cannot provide assurances that they lead anywhere useful.

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Some people lack enough self-confidence to stand their grounds or find internal peace. They hide behind other "anchors" or references such as religion or science. - Religion sample would be: God or the some holly book did not say that. Question here is do you really want your precious live governed by a book? - Science case will be like: If I don't see it with my eyes, it does not exist. Argument here is you do not see air, magnetism or love, and yet they do exist. Do you really want to live your live missing on existing realities because you can't see them with your eyes?

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