Ontology is the theory of being and ontological questions are concerned with existence, reality and the true nature of things. Realism is the ontological position that the external world is real and it ‘exists’ independent of the human observer. This position also takes the view that the ‘really existing’ objects, structures and mechanisms of that world stimulate the sense perceptions of human observer giving their perceptual knowledge. On the other hand, anti-realist position professes complete agnosticism as regard to ontological questions.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and epistemological questions are concerned with what can be known about the world and methods of knowledge. Empiricism is the epistemological position that ultimately all the knowledge stems only from the sense experience. On the other hand, rationalism is the position that, besides sense experience as source of peceptual knowledge, reason is true source of real knowledge of reality.
Empiricism on the epistemological level is usually associated with anti-realism at ontological level. On the other hand, justification of realism on the ontological level requires rationalism on the epistemological level. Empiricist philosophy
The rise of empiricist philosophy in Europe in 17th and 18th century was result of the changed intellectual climate following the ‘scientific’ achievements of men like Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, Newton etc. This school of philosophy is largely associated with philosophers like John Locke, George Berkeley and Auguste Comte. In the 20th century, the logical positivists of Vienna Circle and their successors analysed the logical consequences of empiricist thinking. Though there is disagreement on several important points, all the empiricists share the fundamental belief that all knowledge is derived from experience.
Empiricists accept the laws of purely deductive disciplines of logic and mathematics but assert that logical and mathematical deductions are analytic, which means that these do not generate new knowledge and serve to only analyse the existing knowledge. Anti-realism of empiricists makes it necessary to redefine the concepts like causality and objectivity in such a way that they do not presuppose any reality beyond observation. Empiricists do not accept the generative theory of causality that implies that causal relation takes place in the external world independently of our observations. They propose the alternative succession (Humean) theory of causality in which idea of causality is explained in psychological terms. This theory points out that if we observe one event followed by second event several times, our expectation of the occurrence of second event after the occurrence of first event increases. The causal relationship is this expectation, a mental habit, which we erroneously extrapolate to an external world. The succession theory may be refined by analysing in detail the logical relationship between cause and effects.
From the point of view of empiricism, the laws of nature do not tell us what really goes on in the world. Their function is the ‘mnemonic reproduction of facts in the mind’ i.e. these laws are only mental constructions that serve to describe as concisely as possible, the observations made.
The term objectivity is used by empiricists in a very restricted sense. The term has ontological implications and refers to phenomenon believed to exist independently of the observer. Since empiricist position denies this interpretation, empiricists equate objectivity with inter-subjectivity. They assert that if exactly same observation is made by two different observers then the observation statement is said to be objective meaning that it is inter-subjective, public or verifiable. This assertion lead logical positivists of 20th century to formulate a demarcation criterion, which may serve to distinguish those propositions, which are meaningful from those that are not. They proposed a criterion of verifiability according to which only those statements are meaningful, which in principle could be labelled as verifiable. However, this criterion leads to quite serious consequences and difficulties:
According to this criterion, all attempts to discuss moral issues rationally are considered futile. This nihilistic attitude to moral philosophy is called emotivism.
The criterion itself is not verifiable and, therefore, must be regarded as meaningless by empiricist standards themselves. Thus, the criterion is self-defeating.
The criterion leads to the classical problem of induction since the criterion may well be applicable to singular statements. The leap from experience, which always consists of singular observations, to a ‘law of nature’ can not be logically defended as the law can allways be proved false by next observation and this possibility can never be excluded. This logical problem has always vexed empiricist philosophers. Despite much effort by logical positivists in the last century, it has yet not been possible to logically define the jump from singular observation statements to general theory.
Importance of empiricist philosophers’ teaching regarding the importance of empirical evidence is undoubtedly great. However, it is obvious that from a purely philosophical point of view the radical empiricism leads to a dead end and creates insurmountable problems. It imposes a view of the world that is quite counter-intuitive. The empiricist belief that all knowledge is derived solely from the experience has not been established up till now to be fully consistent. The empiricist denouncement of realism has been unsuccessful in clarifying many of the philosophical problems. This forced inquiry along the lines of weakening the empiricist position.
Immanuel Kant did not accept the Locke’s idea that mind was originally like a blank sheet of paper. According to him, space and time are preconditions for the perception of something as an object and, therefore, human beings are ‘programmed’ to think in categories of quantity, quality, casualty, possibility, necessity, existence etc. A human being’s picture of the actual world reflects this a priori organisation of his sense perceptions and his actual observations. Kant, is thus, a rationalist asserting that the empirical knowledge is organised according to a priori principles but, like empiricist, he does not accept the possibility of knowledge of things-in-themselves. Contemporary philosophers and psychologists have also given up the idea that the mind was originally a ‘blank sheet of paper’. They also deny the existence of anything like pure observation. In many scientic examples, theory-dependence of observations can quite obviously be demonstrated. Philosophy of science
It has been dominated by empiricist thinking for the last few centuries. The role of empiricist philosophy in the development of science should be viewed in historical perspective. The metaphysical theories of pre-empiricist era were far too extravagantly rationalistic and realistic. Therefore, it was only natural that empiricists felt that science must start afresh with systematic observations and establishment of the Laws of Nature.
The ontological scepticism of empiricists, though seemingly counter-intuitive, is quite acceptable in advanced science. The empiricism asserts that scientific process starts with observation. Scientists are generally concerned with the study of natural ‘entities and phenomena’, which are not directly observable. They ‘observe’ these by the use of ingenious instruments. It is always debatable whether such ‘entities and phenomena’ exist really or they are just creations of scientists’ imagination that only serve to organise their ideas.
The usefulness of succession (Humean) theory of causality can be shown in discussion of the causation of in many scientific fields . Further, science is generally concerned with general statements, which can not be verified with absolute certainty by experience alone. In view of the empirist analysis of ‘Laws of Nature’ in light of their epistemological positiom leading to the classical problem of induction, Bertrand Russell has simply concluded that ‘induction is an independent logical principle incapable of being inferred either from experience or from other logical principles and that without this principle science is impossible’.
Karl Popper (1965, 1968, 1976) has been the most influential philosopher of science of this century. He has made very important point that observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. He asserts that the first step in scientific process is not observation but the generation of hypothesis, which may then be tested critically by observations and experiments. The goal of scientific effort is not verification but falsification of the initial hypothesis. As empiricists use the criterion of verifiability to distinguish between meaningful and non-meaningful statements, Popper used the criterion of falsifiability to distinguish between those theories that fall within province of science and those that may be labelled as pseudoscience. This thought and the criterion of falsifiability has influenced the modern scientific methodology to a very large extent. However, the criterion of falsifiability, despite its importance from the logical point of view, is not easy to handle in practice. Popper himself has pointed out that there is no such thing as pure observation. Therefore, a scientist who conducts an experiment and contradicts a theory can not be sure whether the theory has been falsified or the observation (or the experimental set-up) was at fault. Further, scientists mostly have to subject their observations to a statistical analysis. Here the final analysis depends not only on the observations but also on the convention as regards the choice of statistical tests and the accepted level of significance. Thus, Popper instead of solving the problem of induction, in a sense, has tried to bypass the problem. The scientists undoubtedly in many cases try to falsify hypotheses but in many other cases, they try to reason inductively. Scientic research papers contain numerous statistical calculations that reflect inductive reasoning. Popper has asserted that we can never be quite sure about our theories being true. The efficacy of modern technology, which is based to some extent on scientific theories, proves beyond doubt that in some areas Popper’s ‘approximation to truth’ has been achieved.
It is quite true that the development of modern science is inextricably bound up with empiricist philosophy, but philosophical reflections and the results of modern science in many areas suggest that the position of classical empiricism is quite untenable. It is seems more appropriate to accept the view of:
realist position on the ontological level that the purpose of science is to explore what really goes on in the world and on the epistemological level, accept existence of pure observations but deny that the observations are the only source of knowledge,
the existence of causal relationships and deny the empiricist succession theory of causation,
existence of a laws of nature being indicated by a causal relationship existing between the two events if one event generates another event through some or the other mechanism (as is quite obvious in some bio-medical situations) and
objectivity of causal relationships and laws of nature in the sense that they exist independently of observation.
Though the realist position does not solve the problem of induction, the knowledge of underlying mechanism sometimes makes the problem less troublesome.
Teething phiosophical problems with the empiricism domiated philosophy of science prevalent for the last few centuries have prompted many philosophers (Smart, J.J.C., 1963; Harre., R., 1970; Hacking, I., 1983; Bhaskar,R., 1975) to favour a realist theory of science. These philosphers point out that scientific knowledge has both a transitive and an intransitive aspect. Knowledge in the form of a scientific theory should be regarded as a changeable social product, and as such, it is transitive. However, the object of that knowledge that does not depend upon the existence of observer, is intransitive.
The importance of this observation is that it reveals the deficiency of two different views of science. On one hand extreme realists disregard the transitive aspect of scientific knowledge while on the other hand extreme empiricists disregard the intransitive aspect. It may be proposed that a balanced philosophy of natural science must take into account both the aspects and the relationship between them. Emergence of ‘Holistic’ thinking in science may lead to a balanced philosophy of science.


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