Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Why is only empirical evidence evidence? Isn't this a self-refuting requirement?

This is from Sloan Lee's Facebook page. We've heard the "Where's  yer evidence" challenge around here a lot.

Consider the demand for empirical evidence -- or the question (often rhetorical): "What is your empirical evidence for that claim?" -- where empirical evidence is evidence based directly on sensory experience (or something along those lines). Often the demand for empirical evidence is made (or requested) without the modifier "empirical" -- but it is assumed or understood that this is the sort of evidence being demanded (or requested).
Often empirical evidence is just the sort of evidence one needs in order to answer a question or settle an issue. For instance, if you want to know how many chairs are in the room or whether or not any trees are planted in the courtyard, empirical evidence is just the sort of evidence that is most appropriate. However, is that the only sort of evidence that is acceptable or legitimate? What sort of empirical evidence could settle the question of whether or not 2 is necessarily an even number? What kind of empirical evidence could refute (or establish) whether it is necessarily true (or not) that only nothing comes from nothing? Not even quantum indeterminacy or particles arising from minimal energy states could do that.
In any case, this sort of epistemological demand sometimes (perhaps even often) has as a background assumption that the only legitimate appeal to evidence is the appeal to empirical evidence. However, such a demand is self-defeating. This assumption has no empirical support itself. Further, an appeal to the success of science will not help here, for the most that this can show is that certain sorts of issues are best investigated by empirical (or scientific) means. In other words, there is no good empirical evidence that the only kind of genuine or real or legitimate evidence that one can have is empirical evidence. So, if the only grounds that one can have for rationally believing something is empirical evidence, then (by its own standard) no one can rationally believe the claim that only empirical evidence is legitimate evidence.
Nevertheless, the demand for empirical evidence as the only legitimate evidence is an extraordinarily pervasive demand on internet discussions -- but that doesn't make it any less self-defeating as a demand (or as a question or as an assumption). It is such a pervasive mistake that I think that it deserves its own name. To that end, I suggest the following:
"The Empiricist Fallacy"
Of course, I'm open to hearing the thoughtful, polite, and well-articulated considerations of others on this issue.

12 comments:

Starhopper said...

Where's the empirical evidence for what Mahler's Second Symphony has to tell us? Or Homer's Iliad? Or Michelangelo's Pieta?

One Brow said...

Logical arguments are inward spirals. You start from broader presumptions and argue to narrower conclusions. Arguments based on belief have not evidence at all. By contrast, arguments based on empirical evidence can add true concepts to our knowledge. It's the one form of argumentation that does not rely on something being true being proved outside of the argument.

I am not supporting that only empirical evidence is valuable, but it does have this unique feature.

Starhopper said...

One Brow,

Thank you for a most thought provoking comment!

I occurred to me after mulling over your posting that your use of the term "argument" is restricted to things that can be reduced to words. But words are only a subset of our total thought processes, and of our ability to understand and relate to the world around us.

By looking at Saffron 1957 by Mark Rothko, I learn more about myself and the universe than otherwise. But I simply cannot translate that knowledge into words. When listening to Where Hope is Shining by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I understand humanity better than if I hadn't. But any attempt to communicate those insights in any medium other than music would be fruitless.

If it were possible to do so, then Rothko would have written a book rather than painting a painting, or Vaughan Williams an essay rather than a film score.

Logical arguments and empirical reasoning are wonderful tools for understanding reality and communicating what we learn to others, but they are far from being the only means of doing so.

One Brow said...

Starhopper,

I agree there as well.

David Brightly said...

Much hinges on how widely or narrowly we interpret the term 'evidence'. The narrow view takes evidence as something to be seen: videre=to see. Thus evidence is of necessity empirical, just as two is of necessity even. There is no need for evidence for these claims, certainly not evidence in the narrow sense, as they are analytic truths. In contrast, the wide view seems to want to include other kinds of belief justification under the heading 'evidence'. Is that a fair characterisation? If so, we ought to look at good examples of such justifications. Sadly, the post doesn't give us any. It merely rejects the narrow view on the ground that it is self-defeating, that it has no justification under its own terms, which is to forget that it needs none.

Hugo Pelland said...

David, brilliant.
Even though the examples of the wider view are not listed, some are probably implied. Widening the heading 'evidence' is almost synonymous with widening 'existence' to include some form of independent realm of existence that cannot be assessed through empirical means.

Legion of Logic said...

There is no need for evidence for these claims, certainly not evidence in the narrow sense, as they are analytic truths.

I've never seen that term before. Is "analytic truth" essentially synonymous with "by definition"?

One Brow said...

Legion of Logic,

To my understanding, Kant made a distinction between the analytic truth (true by deduction only) vs. the synthetic truth (true based on external evidence).

David Brightly,

I saw no allowance for the inferred truth in you paragraph, something true based on inductive reasoning over several witnessed events, but that can not be directly witnessed.

David Brightly said...

LoL: Yes, that's right. The usual definition is 'by virtue of the meanings of the terms alone', as in 'all bachelors are unmarried'.

OB: Have you an example in mind?

One Brow said...

David Brightly,

For example, there is no direct evidence that men are apes. That is the inference of many other pieces of evidence. It's not a belief, but not directly observable.

David Brightly said...

OB, I'm a bit confused by your 'it's not a belief'---was that a typo?---but I don't see a problem here. From observing the large footprints under the library window we might form the belief that the murderer has big feet, without ever having seen him. I would have thought that the greater part of our belief in general has this indirect and tentative character.

One Brow said...

David Brightly,

I seem to have misunderstood your initial comment. My apologies.