What are the benefits and risks of empirical reasoning?

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Empiricism is a theory of acquiring knowledge through sensory perception/experience and observation. One benefit of empiricism is that it relies on raw, physical data. Such data can be recorded and shared with other scientists who can make similar experiments. Once enough members of a certain scientific community reach the same conclusions, this data can become generally accepted as a theory.

Essentially, this is the philosophy of “seeing is believing.” Empiricism does not go into mental abstractions characteristic of idealism; that is, making propositions and conclusions in your mind. Empiricism is mostly characterized by observations made externally; sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. The empirical method is similar to, but not identical with, the scientific method.

Empirical induction is one of the major ways empirical research is done. Induction proceeds by making many individual, particular observations (or propositions) and then coming to more broad, general theories. The benefit here is that you end up with a lot of quantitative data to support your overall, general theory.

The risk of empiricism and induction is that, eventually, you may come across new data which contradicts your previous data and previous theories. Scientists are well aware of this risk and most consider it a necessary flaw of the scientific method. For example, at one time, people believed the world was flat. Then new observations provided data that contradicted that belief. So, the big risk is relying too fundamentally on traditional thought or already established theories. Everything is subject to being overturned. Needless to say, this is a problem of all theories of knowledge.

The other risk of the empirical method is that your senses are flawed. We don't hear everything. We don't see everything. And, we are human and thus can be mistaken. Since empirical observations depend upon human observation/experience (an exception would be using a computer to make observations), human error is a problem.

A good way to think about empiricism is the the tabula rasa (blank slate) model. We are born with mental blank slates. All our knowledge is gained by making observations with our senses. Then we mentally construct ideas about the world from those sensory experiences. We use what we learned from those sensory experience to write on our blank slate. 

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