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Rationalism Vs. Empiricism: Everything About This Age-old Debate

Rationalism Vs. Empiricism
Rationalists and empiricists always seem to be in a tug-of-war with each other on some of the very fundamental issues concerning knowledge and reality. Let's try to figure out what this age-old debate is all about.
Sucheta Pradhan
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
Various famous people have been the proponents of rationalism and empiricism. While has been supported by people like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant, empiricism has found its proponents in Francis Bacon, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.
The two terms, rationalism and empiricism, are markers of the great fundamental divide between two rather dominant theories of knowledge. While for the rationalists, reason is the primary basis of knowledge, the empiricists consider experience as the source of all knowledge. Despite this fundamental difference between the two concepts, it needs to be noted that they are not completely exclusive of each other, and that there often exists a considerable amount of overlap between them. As the philosophical concepts that have been covered under the umbrella term, "epistemology", they do seek to find the basis for knowledge (epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge). But, they also seem to go a step further, in order to establish a proper justification for that particular kind of knowledge.
Rationalists vis-à-vis Empiricists: A Critical Debate
Despite the fact that the two schools of thought hold an equally dominant place in epistemology, it has always been observed that proponents of both these schools have been in a pragmatic battle with each other. While the empiricists feel that empiricism is a better epistemological theory, the rationalists feel the other way round. There are numerous, seemingly vital points on which the debate has been going on since ages together. Let us make an attempt to shed light on why the supporters of these philosophies always seem to stand in opposition to each other.

One of the most fundamental points of this debate is the nature of knowledge and reality itself. For the rationalists, knowledge is innate, which means that it originates in the human mind. They support the view that it is only the human mind and five senses that can make logical reasoning for the existence and/or non-existence of certain things. These things then need not be testified or proved. The rationalists propose that it is the inherent nature of a human mind to know certain things, and this is precisely what makes humans different from the other animate beings. The human nature, thus, forms an invariable core that adheres to certain knowledge and beliefs in its own way, and refuses to get manipulated, come what may.
The empiricists, on the other hand, stand by the belief that knowledge, whether rudimentary or of an advanced nature, needs to have a solid ground. Every kind of knowledge and/or reality should be based on a firm evidence, that can be acquired through proper experimentation. The empiricists oppose rationalists, in that they hold a view that there exists nothing like innate or inherent knowledge. Everything, according to the proponents of empiricism, has to have a solid foundation. Every kind of knowledge that the human mind acquires is purely based on the person's experiences. Hence, while a certain thing may hold good for one individual, that same thing may deter the other. Also, because experience holds a prominent place in the empiricist philosophy, it is also believed that the human mind is capable of being manipulated. It can be easily twisted and turned, depending on the kind of experience it gets.
Views on Science
Science is one of the most primary subjects on which huge philosophical debates are known to have taken place, and the trend has not declined even today. In fact, science seems to be an easy target as it has always been open to healthy criticisms.

It is a known fact that the field of science has been founded on empiricist principles. This means that all scientific theories and concepts have a definite root, and their origin and/or causes and consequences can be testified into a science laboratory by following a specific methodology. Some people opine that if all our science-based conclusions, and the way we go about establishing evidence for them, are rooted in the empiricist principles, empiricism can also help us go a step further, such that we can not only mend our own theories, but also improve upon them by spotting our own mistakes. We can do all this because all the scientific knowledge that we tend to acquire is based purely on experience.

The rationalist point of view differs in this matter from that of the empiricist. Although rationalists do not deny that personal experience does play a vital role in establishing evidence, they tend to go a step further, and seek to find the very root of human experience. Rationalism maintains that the kind of knowledge that one can grasp through experience, depends largely on one's inherent ability to understand nature and reality. It is this very ability that makes some people think that a glass of water is half full, while some others may think that it is half empty. This innate ability of the human mind affects its power to look at and understand things.

Owing to the above discussion, it can be concluded that with regard to science, empiricism prefers to rely on tried and tested evidence. On the other hand, rationalism adheres to its principle of innate knowledge. Because empiricism relies on experimentation and not merely on logical reasoning based on inherent beliefs, rationalists might often be scientifically inappropriate at times, but philosophically, both the schools of thoughts have their own justifications.
Views on Religion and Morality
Alongside science, religion is philosophically the most supported as well as criticized niche. People adhering to all the philosophical schools of thought have their own takes on religion and morality, and it is also interesting to observe how, many a time, proponents of the same school of thought tend to contradict views of each other, and how at times, one view is often open to several interpretations. This holds true even for the two epistemological schools in question.

Religion is a highly subjective matter, and adhering to its tenets or believing in God is entirely a matter of one's own opinion. The rationalists, who believe in innate knowledge and logical reasoning, argue that knowledge about the religious tenets can neither be innate in a human mind, nor about the existence of God. In other words, because we cannot logically establish the existence of God (owing to the fact that He can neither be seen nor be felt), it is easy to dismiss His teachings, which come to us primarily through religious scriptures.

Moreover, considering that the rationalists do not believe in religion, it is quite obvious that they also dismiss the notion of religious morality. Morality, for the rationalists, is entirely a matter of individual perception of right and wrong. Owing to this, morality, from the rationalistic point of view, is subjective, in that the rules not only tend to change with changing circumstances, but their interpretation also tends to differ from person to person, and is also based largely on the parameters of time and space.

The empiricists have a very different take on religion than that of the rationalists, though not a completely opposite one. Because their ideology is based on acquisition of knowledge through human sense experience and evidence, they do not seem to completely dismiss the notion of religion or the existence of God. For the empiricists, the evidence of God's existence lies in the fact that there have been real prophets who have spread the word of God. Furthermore, there are also several religious scriptures, which affirm and/or validate its tenets. Going one step even further, there have been several people, who have had divine revelations or have experienced, what they term as miracles. All these supposed evidence adds up to the empiricist belief in religion and God.

Because the religious scriptures are accepted as a solid evidence by the empiricists, the moral code of conduct that such written works may then lay, also tends to hold good for them. It needs to be noted that in this context, empiricism dwells on the ground that personal experience provides us information about the good and bad, and hence, it forms the basis of one's moral understanding. Rationalists do not oppose this point completely, but go a little further to say that although our experience can show us two different paths, and help us identify the right and wrong, it is still one's own mind and inherent understanding that make an individual choose between two paths. It is needless to say that despite the fact that different schools of philosophy have been founded on different values, there have been ongoing debates, even among the proponents of the same school of thought. After all, a single philosophical belief can be open to numerous interpretations. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that because there are two differing viewpoints on the same thing, it does not mean that either one of them is wrong. In fact, both of them may hold good in their own way; both of them may have their own justifications. Therefore, while rationalism and empiricism have been established as two different schools of thought, they seem to be overlapping with regard to certain points. Hence, though it may be possible to compare the two, it may not be always possible to contrast them.