Aristotelian Empiricism vs. Platonic Rationalism and What they mean for Atheism
Posted: 09 February 2011 04:36 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m interested in whether, or not other atheists find it hard to be persuaded by rationalistic arguments that lack evidence.  Is the Platonic approach antithetical to the atheist world view?  And As atheists, are we required by principle to favor empiricism over rationalism in arguments pertaining to science?  Lastly, are there any atheists or skeptics who reject rationalistic arguments altogether?

For example, in my own field, that of linguistics, there is a dichotomy between Chomskian generative grammar and typology.  In my opinion, Chomskian ideas concerning ‘universal grammar’ are highly rationalistic since there is no biological or neurological evidence to indicate that any mechanism that might be considered a UG actually exists in the brain.  However, many linguists still adhere to the hypothesis of generative grammar simply because of its explanatory value.  On the other hand, typology is a highly empirical approach to language in that typologists only look at language features as they exist in languages. 

Furthermore, at a lecture by the renowned physicist Brian Greene at the Griffith Observatory last week, Professor Greene indicated that string theory is another hypothesis that lacks any empirical evidence.  However, scientists still entertain the plausibility of string theory because of its explanatory value particularly regarding the interface between quantum mechanics and general relativity. 

So, that elicits the question, has there every been a purely rationalistic hypothesis in science that was later confirmed with evidence? 


However, I’d like to know what other atheists and skeptics think of these ideas.

[ Edited: 11 February 2011 11:53 PM by Gallant Skeptic ]
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Posted: 09 February 2011 04:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Well, many of the best scientists and mathematicians are or were ‘rationalists’ by this definition. I’m partial to the view that laws of nature are universals and that what we’re doing in the sciences is trying to ascertain them by experiment and rational cogitation.

You’re right that the fact that one garage door opener works a certain way doesn’t necessitate that all do, however physicists do assume (absent evidence otherwise, of course) that if one cesium atom works this way, all do. If the laws of nature work this way here, they work this way everywhere. (Though that’s not strictly necessary for there to be laws: laws could be non-uniform in space or time, so long as their variances are themselves lawlike).

At least a naïve sort of empiricism makes a hash of all this, in that we really never do understand the point of the sciences. All we’re doing is doing a finite number of experiments with a finite number of objects, and we can’t ever extrapolate since doing so assumes uniformity between things we have witnessed and things we have not. Indeed, induction assumes uniformity, viz., that the unseen future resembles the seen past.

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Posted: 09 February 2011 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m completely lost with your philosophical and linguistic statements.  I don’t have time to look for any major rationalistic hypothesis that was later confirmed, but I can give you a minor one that may work.  The Periodic Table was constructed prior to the discovery (or cyclotron based production) of a number of elements.  Techetium, Astatine, and Francium, for example.  Their properties, when tested physically, were precisely as predicted from the atomic structure that defined them.

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Posted: 09 February 2011 09:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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dougsmith - 09 February 2011 04:57 PM

physicists do assume (absent evidence otherwise, of course) that if one cesium atom works this way, all do. If the laws of nature work this way here, they work this way everywhere. (Though that’s not strictly necessary for there to be laws: laws could be non-uniform in space or time, so long as their variances are themselves lawlike).

At least a naïve sort of empiricism makes a hash of all this, in that we really never do understand the point of the sciences. All we’re doing is doing a finite number of experiments with a finite number of objects, and we can’t ever extrapolate since doing so assumes uniformity between things we have witnessed and things we have not. Indeed, induction assumes uniformity, viz., that the unseen future resembles the seen past.

I would interpret the fact that numerous experiments have been conducted, and experiments that assume those results to be true having been conducted as empirical evidence.  What I’m really getting at are ideas in science for which there is no evidence only hypotheses, yet scientists pursue these avenues for their explanatory power.  That is why I presented Chomsky’s ideas on universal grammar and string theory.  There is no biological or neurological evidence for a generative grammar, and Chomskians are frequently criticized for this.  However, because ‘universal grammar’ is able to logically explain a number of linguistic grammatical dilemmas many linguists assume it to be true.  Apparently, string theory (which according to Greene should be called a hypothesis) is a similar situation in which there is no evidence for the veracity of the hypothesis, but because if it were true, it would explain a great deal. Regarding string theory, I’m just going by what I heard in Brian Greene’s lecture since physics is not my field.

I’m sorry if my original post was confusing.

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Posted: 10 February 2011 05:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Gallant Skeptic - 09 February 2011 09:50 PM

I would interpret the fact that numerous experiments have been conducted, and experiments that assume those results to be true having been conducted as empirical evidence.  What I’m really getting at are ideas in science for which there is no evidence only hypotheses, yet scientists pursue these avenues for their explanatory power.  That is why I presented Chomsky’s ideas on universal grammar and string theory.  There is no biological or neurological evidence for a generative grammar, and Chomskians are frequently criticized for this.  However, because ‘universal grammar’ is able to logically explain a number of linguistic grammatical dilemmas many linguists assume it to be true.

I’m not sure what you mean about there being no evidence for generative grammar. I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Steven Pinker is, and his book on the Language Instinct is all about such evidence. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding your point.

Gallant Skeptic - 09 February 2011 09:50 PM

Apparently, string theory (which according to Greene should be called a hypothesis) is a similar situation in which there is no evidence for the veracity of the hypothesis, but because if it were true, it would explain a great deal. Regarding string theory, I’m just going by what I heard in Brian Greene’s lecture since physics is not my field.

Well, I wouldn’t use string theory as any clear example distinguishing empirical from rational approaches to science, simply because both such approaches are always necessary. E.g. Einstein’s development of relativity depended essentially on his use of thought experiments about light, motion and time. They led to a fruitful and accurate theory.

String theory is at the ‘thought experiment’ stage, that is, at the level of mathematical modeling. It might be that it ends up like phlogiston, a failed theory, or it may not. But as of yet it’s up in the air.

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Posted: 10 February 2011 08:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Gallant Skeptic - 09 February 2011 04:36 PM

In my opinion, Chomskian ideas concerning ‘universal grammar’ are highly rationalistic since there is no biological or neurological evidence to indicate that any mechanism that might be considered a UG actually exists in the brain.

Well, ‘highly rationalistic’ is not ‘totally rationalistic’. I don’t know if this is exactly what you mean, but totally rationalistic would only be logic and mathematics. No ‘real’ objects must conform to logic or math: it is possible to design logical and mathematical universes that do not apply on anything observable.

Being no linguist myself either, I can imagine that Chomsky must have thought that we must have some capability to learn language. What structure all languages share, that the brain is prepared to learn any of these languages? I do not know the answer, but a hint lies in the research on neural networks:

Rumelhart taught the network solely by offering it examples of verbs and their past tense forms. Then the network predicted the past tense of new verbs.

As the network learned, it said, for example, go-goed or put- putted—theoretically correct past tense forms that are wrong because English is an inconsistent language.

This type of mistake is called “overregularization” and was long known from children. They apply past tense suffixes of regular verbs to irregular verbs. Children later learn the correct forms, although some errors, like digged instead of dug, can persist until high school, according to Rumelhart.

From here.

As a personal example, my sons were born in Switzerland but I am Dutch. I speak Dutch with them as much as possible, my wife speaks Swiss German, as everybody around. So their first language is Swiss German. When my oldest son started speaking Dutch with me, he made a few interesting language errors.
- He wanted me to lift him on a wall, and called this lifting in Dutch ‘oploepen’, which is not Dutch. But the Swiss German is ‘uffe lupfe’
- He said something about carrots to me, and called them ‘roefjes’ which is again not Dutch. In Swiss German it is ‘rübli’
But both words sounded very Dutch.

As (Swiss) German and Dutch are related languages and some words are pretty close to each other, he obviously found a rule how to make Dutch words from their Swiss German equivalents. When I would have remembered a few more examples I might have been able to formulate the rules he was using (something like ‘pf’ becomes ‘p’, ‘li’ becomes ‘jes’ (which is close to the real rule about how to refer to small objects based on the normal substantive used for the object), and ‘b’ becomes ‘f’. ‘U’ and ‘oe’ are more or less the same sound in the respective languages.

But of one thing I am sure: at that age he would never have been able to explain the rule he was using explicitly. So did he use a rule? Can we expect to find a specific structure in the brain? And what does this mean for a Universal Grammar? Can we recognise rules even when they are not explicitly used? Can Universal Grammar not be a perfectly correct rational reconstruction of rules on which every human language is based?

However I share your skepticism on string theory. As far as I understand there are many different string theories which all fit to the standard model in physics, i.e. that is they can all be bent so that they fit empirical data. But we have no way (yet?) to find out which is the correct one because the empirical observations to decide between them is many orders beyond the energies we needed to find differences. So for me, most theoretical physicists could stop with working on string theory. And the few that stay on this topic hopefully remember it, when some decisive observation is in our reach.

So I think, even if both cases are similar, there are also some essential differences.

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Posted: 10 February 2011 11:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Did Aristotle and Plato just have different methods of being dumb?

But our educational system is designed to glorify ancient European intellectual history.

Is it passed time to be NON-Aristotelian.  A lot of so called LOGIC is playing semantic games with words.

http://www.thinkartlab.com/pkl/archive/gg_fiction/aristotelian.htm

http://www.doyletics.com/art/sciencea.htm

http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/GeneralSemanticsInfo.html

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Posted: 07 December 2011 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Gallant Skeptic - 09 February 2011 04:36 PM

I’m interested in whether, or not other atheists find it hard to be persuaded by rationalistic arguments that lack evidence.  Is the Platonic approach antithetical to the atheist world view?  And As atheists, are we required by principle to favor empiricism over rationalism in arguments pertaining to science?  Lastly, are there any atheists or skeptics who reject rationalistic arguments altogether?

For example, in my own field, that of linguistics, there is a dichotomy between Chomskian generative grammar and typology.  In my opinion, Chomskian ideas concerning ‘universal grammar’ are highly rationalistic since there is no biological or neurological evidence to indicate that any mechanism that might be considered a UG actually exists in the brain.  However, many linguists still adhere to the hypothesis of generative grammar simply because of its explanatory value.  On the other hand, typology is a highly empirical approach to language in that typologists only look at language features as they exist in languages…

I am agnostic when it comes to whether or not there is a “God/s” of some sort.  That is because I have no convincing empirical evidence that there is a “God/s” and due to the fact there is empirical evidence that much of what is espoused by the world’s “great religions” is incorrect, implausible, conflicting, etc.  But I also imagine that there are some persons who simply choose to be Atheists as there are persons who simply choose to be beleivers in “God/s” without a need for empirical evidence or rational reflection. 

I am interested in your field of study as I am a Behavior Analyst (Skinnerian) with a particular interest in practical applications of Skinner’s theory of Verbal Behavior which was effectively quashed for decades by Chomsky’s effective lobbying against it (essentially) as nonsense.  I have personally worked with many children who have Autism, using Skinner’s paradigm re: language being a special class of behavior with the different forms of verbal behavior dependent on different (primarily) operant functions.  Using this approach I have seen children progress in developing communication that would not have otherwise developed. (I personally think it is a shame that all Speech Therapists who plan to work with children who have autism, are not typically offered or expected to get training in this model of Verbal Behavior.  As late as an interview in 1983, Chomsy had the following to say:

QUESTION: Moving to another controversial area in the behavioral sciences, how do you think your views differ from B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist theory of language, learning, and mind?

CHOMSKY: Skinner used to take a relatively extreme position. At one point, he held that, apart from the most rudimentary functions, essentially nothing of importance was genetically programmed in the human brain. Skinner agreed that humans were genetically programmed to see and hear, but that’s about all. Accordingly, he argued that all human behavior was simply a reflection of training and experience. This view can’t possibly be correct. And, in fact, Skinner’s approach has led absolutely nowhere in this area. It has yielded no theoretical knowledge, nontrivial principles as far as I am aware—thus far, at any rate.

QUESTION: Why is that?

CHOMSKY: Because Skinnerian behaviorism is off the wall. It’s as hopeless a project as trying to explain that the onset of puberty results from social training. But I really don’t know whether Skinner still maintains this extreme position.

Chomsky still seemed to believe, at that point, that there is a “genetically preprogrammed language organ in the brain”.  This hasn’t been found.  Nevertheless, it is not to say that his attempts to explain how we develop language were not of value.  It seems to me that his stance if correct would have simply meant that Skinner was emphasizing operant behavior too much over respondant behavior in the formation of language (the old and stupid battle of whether behavior is nature vs. nurture - when in all instance, to some degree any operant behavior is founded upon or can be influenced by pre-existing and/or current respondant influences.)  To some degree, it seems clear to me that the brain itself is a “genetically pre-programmed for the development of language in humans.  But it is also clear that a primary part of that “preprogramming” is the “mechanism” for operant learning. Clearly there are areas of the brain that have been identified as critical in language, (i.e., Broca’s area) and “mirror neurons” which I am sure are critical in language development have been identified. 

So back to your original post, on the topic of “rationalistic vs.empirical’, I would say both can potentially be paths to knowledge, but unlike religious beliefs, IMO, both should be subject to continual reveiw for supportive or conflicting evidence.

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