Rationalism, Empiricism, and Cognition

Wow. My first post (the quote was just to prime the pump).

Over the next week, I'll be posting a lot , just to get things started, and to create a sense of false history.

Today, I'd like to talk about how we think, in the broad philosophical categories of Rationalism and Empiricism, and what we can learn about this when we argue with people, which people like me do all the time.

Why is it that so often, I agree with people only long after I talk to them? Why is it that so many people I talk to end up coming around to my point of view only long after we talk? I think it has something to do with the way our minds work.

As an introduction, Rationalism is taking two or more things you know and drawing a conclusion from them, e.g. I know that all bachelors are unmarried, and I know that Jim is a bachelor, therefore Jim is unmarried.

Empiricism, on the other hand, is most simply the extrapolation of knowledge from two or more pre-existing pieces of knowledge, e.g. This bachelor is unmarried, that bachelor is unmarried, and that bachelor is unmarried, therefore all bachelors are unmarried, or at least, most bachelors are unmarried.

These two categories have been debated time and time again by philosophers, and have been brought into some agreement by science, which forms hypotheses with rationality and empiricism, and tests them with empiricism, e.g. this bachelor I know is unmarried, that bachelor I know is unmarried, could it be that all bachelors are unmarried, Jim is a bachelor, let's ask him if he's unmarried, and make ourselves look like social idiots.

As an interesting aside, the difference between scientists and normal people is extremely well expressed in this XKCD comic:

But anywho, back to what I was saying. What I think is that, by nature, we have always been scientists. We watch things happen, we form hypothesis, and we test those hypothesis out (that seems like the most logical explanation of how we each learn to call unmarried men bachelors.)

So, basically, we've been doing science since we first started thinking, and thinking is in many ways a scientific process.

Now, you may be reading this, and think, "that makes sense!" or you may be reading this and think "that's poppycock!" either way, you're probably comparing it to your own experience (empiricism) and comparing it to your own hypothesis (rationalism) of how we came to speak/think. So, if I'm correct (which I'm not sure of, but hey, I think it's and interesting hypothesis) what does it mean?

And by asking what does it mean, I'm actually asking for a social experiment (again, with the thinking scientifically semiautomaticlly) Anyway, it means that, if we are already operating this way, to be convinced of something, we need both evidence for it, and a way it can become a hypothesis within our minds, or integrate into our pre-existing rational explanations for things. This would be why debates often aren't immediately convincing, and both parties tend to leave debates annoyed. Because they both need more time to find evidences for and think through what they're arguing about.

The best research I can find (both Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio) seem to talk about the memory not as storing everything we experience, but as categorizing everything we experience. When we debate, is it possible that we help to strengthen or create a category within our opponent's mind that was either not there, or not strong before, and this category then needs time to accumulate evidence and thought before the person's mind can change - and this sort of categorization happens, for the most part, automatically. We don't think "blue" when we see blue, we simply categorize that with our other experiences of blue. Likewise, when we see evidence for different things, be they evolution, creationism, capitalism, communism, idealism, realism, pessimism, or rambling philosophers, we may not think about that evidence, but our minds may still categorize it as evidence for that thing.

All this is really only a theory, and much more research should be done on it before drawing any firm conclusions (hurray for work I don't have the time or money to do...) but for now, I think we can perhaps be of good cheer after arguing with someone, because we may not have convince them yet, but we may have planted seeds.

Speaking of seeds, all this reminds me of the parable Christians use for the spread of their ideas- as seeds, which don't bear fruit right away. Hmmmm... how odd....

Where cognitive science meets ancient religious text. Only in a kingdom of information.

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