Human Thought: Rationalism Versus Empiricism


I Think, Therefore I Am

The human thought process (or lack thereof) fascinates me. That we think at all is a miracle of evolution, and elevates us (I suppose) above other lifeforms. Do other lifeforms consciously think? I would posit they do, especially the more evolved mammalian species: primates, elephants, whales, canines, and felines, and the like. Certainly their memory and ability to communicate among themselves rival our abilities to do so. When it comes to thinking ahead (planning) I am less sure. Can they plan future action based on thought or experience, or are they simply reacting to instinct (an embedded genetic roadmap)?

There are many branches of philosophy. I don’t have the higher formal education (I never went beyond high school) to talk intelligently about these matters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about them and try to educate myself. I use the phrase empirical knowledge a lot in my writing. Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes from sense-experience. When I use the phrase empirical knowledge I mean that I have proved it to myself based on my experience (not my emotions). It is my belief based on personal factual knowledge and not emotional feeling.

Empiricism seems to be similar to rationalism, but slightly different if I understand the two theories correctly. Rationalism is the theory that opinions and actions (should) come from reason and knowledge instead of religious or emotional response. My own conclusion is rationalism is a product of scientific method, and that empiricism takes it one step further by requiring a person to prove it to themselves through practical experience. Paraphrasing the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama): Don’t believe me prove it to yourself. He was cautioning against blind faith I think.

I think empiricism is superior to blind faith and rationalism, because it requires not only proof but self-validation of that proof. I’m a skeptic at heart so the idea of proof (and self-validation) is attractive to me. Beliefs lose gravitas (and credibility) when they can’t survive scrutiny. The Buddha scrutinized the esoteric knowledge of his day looking for truth, and found that knowledge lacking when put through the rigorous tests of rationalism and empiricism. I would argue that Buddhism, as a religion, is the first to survive the scientific method. He would, on the other hand, argue that his teaching was philosophy and not religion.

I find it distressing that so many people reject rationalism and empiricism in favor of blind faith. I’m not talking specifically about religion, I’m also talking about everyday thinking (how we develop our beliefs and opinions), from global warming to politics. Blind faith absolves us from logical thought. If God exists (in the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition), then God created our thinking brain, and it would suggest God intended us to use that brain. I can’t imagine God would endow us with the ability to think, and then command us to form our patterns of thought, belief, and opinion through blind faith alone.

Skepticism is critical to informed thought. To question isn’t committing religious, scientific, or political heresy. Questioning is a search for knowledge and truth. Beliefs and opinions should holdup under rational and empirical analysis. Emotional blind faith is not enough. To do otherwise is to abdicate your role as a thinking human being. It’s alarming to see so many people abandon critical thinking, and revert to the ignorant mindset of the Dark Ages. In this time of information overload its become difficult to separate fact from fiction, but never has it been more important to do so.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


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