Empiricism and Philosophical Idealism are complicated concepts in Philosophy so this is a broad description. I believe that the two are effectively at war with each other. Idealists and empiricists disagree about the fundamental nature of the universe, the human mind, and political interaction. The last two cause political disputes. This is my defense of Empiricism.
Epistemology must rank as one of the most boring topics possible. In short, Empiricism asks “How?” and Idealism asks “Why?” One is answerable and the other is not.
Empiricism begins with the hypothesis that there is an objective reality independent of humanity and we may use inductive logic to learn about this reality through our senses. We can experiment and test the validity of our ideas. The scientific method is a method of empirical testing to prevent common fallacies and errors. Empiricism does not assume a priori knowledge. This is also called Philosophical Realism or materialism.
Philosophical Idealism begins with the idea that knowledge primarily exists inside our minds.
Idealism refers to efforts to account for all objects in nature and experience as representations of the mind and sometimes to assign to such representations a higher order of existence. It is opposed to materialism. Plato conceived a world in which eternal ideas constituted reality, of which the ordinary world of experience is a shadow.
In modern times idealism has largely come to refer the source of ideas to man’s consciousness, whereas in the earlier period ideas were assigned a reality outside and independent of man’s existence. Nevertheless, modern idealism generally proposes suprahuman mental activity of some sort and ascribes independent reality to certain principles, such as creativity, a force for good, or an absolute truth.
Idealism is a search for Absolute Truth. It assumes there is a design and purpose to the universe and the human mind, and by discovering this purpose they can understand everything.
Idealism creates teleology. Everything has a function and purpose, and therefore everything has a final cause. This world is highly deterministic. Idealists rely almost purely on deductive logic. They create an artificial set of governing axioms. They can then use deductive logic to answer any problem within their Idealist world.
Idealism gives us god-like powers to imagine and design an artificial universe. That is powerful, and I suppose we can get drunk on it and think our ability to construct an ideal in art means we can construct the same ideal in reality. Idealists use a form of “Reason” to create this artificial universe. So they proclaim themselves Rationalists. We should keep in mind their ideal is merely artificial, no matter how pleasant sounding it is.
Metaphysics describes the external world beyond empirical science. There is also a branch of political and human idealism that examines humanity. Metaphysics is no longer as popular as it once was, but “Humanities” as a branch of Philosophical Idealism is still popular and directly opposes human sciences.
Some ideals are Utopian, some Dystopian, some vaguely realistic. I do not care about how “pleasant” or rational any idea sounds. I am only interested if it works in reality. If it does not work, it is an inconsistent explanation for real world relations.
Empiricism beats Idealism by default. It works. Empiricism is the old-fashioned notion that you need to observe and measure reality before knowing it. For some reason, Empiricists create machines with moving parts, while Idealists cannot.
Empiricism uses experiments and tests to see if hypotheses are false. More likely than not, the a-priori assumption of probable results is wrong. There is nothing bad about being wrong. You must test an idea to see if it works. If it does not work, we correct it or dispose it. Empricisim discovers the mathematical axioms that govern scientific interactions. Once scientists discover the axioms empirically, they can deductively derive theorems which allow them to expand their knowledge beyond direct experience. The scientific method guides this process as best as possible.
Idealism is a notion that objective knowledge is really subjective. It is based on the nature of the person and the objects in study – and less about the mechanics of interaction. This just says anyone’s fantasy is relative to everyone else’s fantasy – it’s all beliefs. Under this belief, there are no correct or incorrect opinions. An idealist can never know if their idea is wrong because they refuse to test it.
The relativism problem is not a serious issue. Mathematics is the tool to bridge an idea in your mind to reality. It independently validates what is true and what is not. If your idea is inconsistent in application, it is not isomorphic to reality. We can assume an inconsistent idea, opinion, or belief is false.
Empiricism takes considerably more effort to understand reality, but the ideas it produces are more consistent even if knowledge remains incomplete. Empirical reality may seem dangerous, as it disproves some moral preconceptions in religions and ideologies. Is it not better to accept reality whether it is pleasing or not?
If offered the opinions of an Empiricist and an Idealist, I have greater trust in the empricist’s observations and conclusions.
Set theory holds a key to logic in mathematics. Isomorphism, in particular.
“A one-to-one correspondence between the elements of two sets such that the result of an operation on elements of one set corresponds to the result of the analogous operation on their images in the other set.”
Say there are real world objects AB and mathematical set named XY. These are isomorphic sets. We can do the math to describe the relation between XY and assume the same relationship will hold for AB. Test it in reality and it works.
We need to quantify reality. This does not mean waiting until every atom is counted. We act on incomplete knowledge and our rationality is bounded, so there is an element of uncertainty.
Idealists avoid mathematics because they cannot prove their ideas are true. They know their a priori belief is true and evidence does not matter. Sometimes, they may imitate science by using random evidence without proving relations. This is probably just to convince others that their belief is plausible.
Philosophical idealism may have great utility for art. But it should be confined to art and not allowed to dictate policies in reality.
Idealists created Theology and Metaphysics to describe nature. Everything had a design and purpose and was fundamentally perfect. Heaven had a rational and perfect structure – the Earth was at the center and the planets revolved around it. Earth was a perfect sphere too. Metaphysics searches for this design. Idealists reflected on issues such as the nature of weight and the final purpose of gravity.
Idealists made some scientific observations but placed them within the ideal construct. Idealist predictions were never true.
Empiricism radically upturned the entire Idealist notion of nature. A long history of astronomers, mathematicians, biologists and physicists proved many of these beliefs wrong. This ranges from Newton’s laws of classical mechanics to Darwins’ idea of biological evolution.
Newton created formulas to represent the behavior of moving objects in reality. He made observations and described how objects interact. The formulas are tested and repeatable. Engineers can predict results without engaging in trial and error. Turn on a car engine and you prove Newton correct. Drop something – law of gravity. It’s an idea that can be applied to reality and used.
Neither Galileo, Newton, or any other scientists stopped to wonder about the nature of weight. They merely discovered the formulas to describe the motion of objects.
Science does not have to be 100%, just good enough to be useful. Some people noticed some distortions in planet’s orbits which Newton’s laws could not explain. Einstein corrects for it with the theory of relativity which describes gravity wells. Later on there is quantum theory and more questions are raised.
A real theory can be practiced in reality. Electrical theory: light bulb. Evolution: Genetic Engineering. Creationism: Nothing. Marxism: 100 million dead, but otherwise nothing.
Humanities vs Science
The same situation holds in this field. There are some who Idealistically reflect on the nature of humanity and it’s final purpose in life. Humanities asks why people do what they do. Any answer to the why question is non-falsifiable.
Science describes how people think and how they interact. To answer the How side, scientists produced useful mathematical tools to describe human politics, like economics, game theory and network theory. This causes a bit of feuding, since mathematics does not compute in the Humanist form of Idealism.
Human idealists assume mankind can be perfected because they imagine an artistically perfect man. To say this is mathematically impossible destroys their entire philosophy.
One brief example of a Political Idealist: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His assumes Mankind is declining in virtue and quality. In his artificial universe, man originates as a noble savage existing in a state of natural purity. Increasingly complex societies corrupts his soul, body, and mind. Rousseau’s theory of a social contract attempts to halt this corruption and create a new perfect society.
There are many too many flaws to count. History disproves his idealistic concept of primitive hunter-gatherer societies. Biology disproves the idea of a noble savage with changing natures. In politics, the French Revolution failed to implement any of these ideas in practice.
European politics has been dominated by Idealist political philosophies of all sorts. Marxism was an especially popular idea. It described a perfect teleology. There was a manichean relationship between classes and at the end of the Revolutions, the working class would triumph and create a utopian communist society on Earth. Can we empirically test this hypothesis? No. Idealists continue to seek this utopia regardless of failures or inconsistencies in their ideas. They claim past failures are because the idea was implemented imperfectly, not that the idea is imperfect.
The Enlightenment is the Empirical response to natural and political idealism. British empiricists entered politics and did something quite different. They rejected teleological explanations. They merely wanted to describe how things worked.
The British created economics. During revolutionary times in Continental Europe with wild debates over the nature of property and man, the British measured inflationary effects of silver mining.
One can almost understand why so few rally to the banner of Empiricism. Yet economics proved correct and was useful while the revolutionary idealists, while more ambitious, were wrong.
Perhaps more importantly, Empiricist designs for government did not assume that Man had the ability to perfect itself or that there was a teleological purpose to government and society. As James Madison put it in Federalist 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
Politics manage imperfections and asymmetries in mankind rather than create a perfect New Man.
Idealism pervades the arts and humanities departments of universities and continue to debate what mankind should be rather than accept what is. This belief is not content to restrict itself to art. Marxists, artists, feminists, religious clergy and the like, all unite against empiricism, even if they disagree amongst themselves. They attack the foundation of science and empiricism by claiming that all truth is relative. They attack branches of science with their quasi-religious mythologies.
They also twisted our language. Idealists strive for “Social Justice.” Justice handles legal proceedures to treat citizens fairly. Social Justice is undefined. The word “social” implies something beyond justice – but every individual has a different definition of what that is.
Social Justice is nothing more than an appeal to emotion. It is cognitively meaningless. Advocates of “social justice” must sacrifice real justice in order to eliminate imperfections in politics. The goal is utopian, however defined. Ah, but to say you are in favor of social justice? That indicates morality. To say that social justice is nonsensical magical thinking? Cruelty.
Empiricism still wins because math beats magic.