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In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is any view appealing to reason (Logos) as the source of the justification required to know something beyond a reasonable doubt. (Empirically observing the sun rise again and again is not sufficient to know beyond a reasonable doubt that it will rise the next day. One much have an understanding of the 'reasons' why it rises). At issue is the fundamental source of human knowledge, and the proper techniques for verifying what we think we know (see Epistemology). Rationalism should not be confused with rationalization.

Rationalism is often incorrectly contrasted with empiricism. Taken very broadly these views are not mutually exclusive, since a philosopher can be both rationalist and empiricist.[1] The empiricist view holds that beliefs are only justified if they come to us through experience, either through the external senses or through such inner sensations as pain and gratification. But empiricism does not claim that those beliefs are known beyond a reasonable doubt and therefore does not conflict with rationalism. The distinction between rationalists and empiricists was drawn at a later period, and would not have been recognized by the philosophers involved.

Empiricism is certainly not wrong but without rationalism it is a shallow and incomplete world view. In the purely empirical world view (utterly devoid of any rationalism), a person is seen as just a "collection of atoms" and since it is not morally wrong to use, abuse, or manipulate atoms to one's own ends it is, therefore, not thought morally wrong to use, abuse, or manipulate people to one's own ends. On the face of it, this almost seems reasonable. After all, we are indeed made entirely of atoms (or some other units that can be modeled mathematically). It fails, however, to take into account the emergent phenomena that make a human being so much more than "just atoms". Atoms don't have thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, or aspirations but people do.

Failure to take these emergent phenomena into account leads to absurdities. For example, if people are just animals and eating animals is okay then it would seem to follow that eating people is okay (which is obviously not the case).

Clearly, being "made of" something (for example atoms) is not the same thing as "being" something. But this brings up an even deeper issue. What does it mean to "be" something? In the purely empirical world view it doesn't mean anything. In the purely empirical world view names are arbitrary and meaningless labels. This is confusion. I would compare this to believing that its OK to be a thief as long as you don't steal anything. Words are categories and the phenomenon of Convergent evolution clearly shows that those categories are neither arbitrary nor meaningless.

People subscribing to the purely empirical world view think that since we are "just atoms" therefore everything is, as the saying goes, "all-good" and that therefore "anything goes". This is an example of all-or-nothing thinking. It is certainly true that nothing is a "sin" (nothing is "all-bad") and that people should not be "judged" because nobody is "all-bad" and therefore nobody deserves damnation but it does not follow that everyone and everything is all-good. That is the opposite mistake. Everything is definitely not all-good and anarchy is definitely not freedom.

(The difference between poo and s*** is that we see the latter as being all-bad. In reality nothing and no one is all-good or all-bad. Even God who is said to be completely selfless, would have a shadow)

People subscribing to the purely empirical world view do not think in terms of right vs wrong but rather in terms of great vs not great.

At this point someone usually interjects "But all information comes to us through our senses therefore all information is empirical". That may be true, but the way we process that information isn't always empirical. Intuition can give true and justified results yet because of its nature it is impossible to prove it to someone else. There is nothing magical about intuition. Intuition is simply the brain using inductive reasoning and massive parallel processing to determine the reasonableness (plausibility) of a given idea. You suspend your disbelief long enough to get a "feel" for how well the idea "fits" with everything else you know. Does it conflict with other things you know? Does it require that you make many other assumptions? Or would it, in fact, explain things that would otherwise be unexplained?

More often than not the reasons why something happens are not empirical observable (why did the dinosaurs go extinct?) yet they may still be detectable to intuition, just as it's possible to hear things that cannot be seen.

A classic case of intuition would be the feeling that something dangerous is hiding behind the shower curtain. We have all felt it. This would seem to be a perfect case of our intuition malfunctioning and giving us a ridiculous feeling that we know cant be right. But is it really? How well does the idea that something dangerous might be hiding behind the shower curtain fit with everything else we know?

People do indeed break into other people homes and rob them every day. If you were to come home while they were doing so they might quickly try to hide somewhere. The first places someone would think to try to hide would be under the bed or in the shower. A person who robs other people and then tries to hide is undoubtedly an irrational and therefore dangerous and unpredictable person. So the possibility of a dangerous person hiding behind the shower curtain, though extremely unlikely, is nevertheless real. Some will argue that the fear we feel is all out of proportion to the actual risk. This is well and fine for all those people for whom the possibility of being brutally raped and murdered by a vicious psychopath is no big deal but for the rest of us there is a very good reason why it registers as a real and palpable fear.

Intuition can't tell you whether a given idea is true or not, but if used properly, it does tell you whether that idea is reasonable or not. Occam's razor states that the most reasonable possibility tends to be the correct one. This is an important principle in understanding Russell's teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

It really is as they say: "you see what you want to see". And if you truly want to see what the facts say when they are allowed to speak for themselves then you will indeed see that too.

I believe that hyper-empiricism is common among those with autism. One woman with aspergers writes in her blog that "The world I perceived was a random, self-sufficient system. It wasn't built; it grew. (When I was little, I thought houses and roads were some kind of large plant that grew out of the ground; if you had told me people made them I would've been thunderstruck)".


  1. Lacey, A.R. (1996), A Dictionary of Philosophy, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. 2nd edition, 1986. 3rd edition, Routledge, London, UK, 1996. page 286

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