Rationalism vs. Empiricism
I am a bit confused about the terms 'rationalism' and 'empiricism' since their dictionary definition seems to contradict their usage when it comes to defining the philosophical debates involving the two 'sides'.

When rationalism is used in the sense of calling ourselves 'rationalists' or the umbrella organization 'FIRA' or in saying things like, 'Indian rationalist debunks miracles,' we take the following philosophical meaning, quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

OED, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158505?red...nalist#eid
Quote:rationalist (n)

2. a. Theol. A person who considers reason to be the ultimate authority in religion; spec. a person who explains supernatural or miraculous events on a rational basis (cf. rationalism n. 1a).

b. Philos. A person who regards reason as the only guiding principle in life, and who thereby rejects the need for reliance on, or adherence to, any form of religious belief

But, rationalist, as defined alternately by the OED itself, or by say, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which accurately borrows from philosophical literature), we have:

OED, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158505?red...nalist#eid
Quote:rationalist (n)
a. A person whose opinions are based on pure reasoning (cf. empiricist n.); (Philos.) one who emphasizes the role of reason in knowledge, or claims that reason rather than sense experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ration...mpiricism/ :

To be a rationalist is to adopt at least one of three claims. The Intuition/Deduction thesis concerns how we become warranted in believing propositions in a particular subject area.

The Intuition/Deduction Thesis: Some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions. ...

The second thesis associated with rationalism is the Innate Knowledge thesis.

The Innate Knowledge Thesis: We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature. ...

The third important thesis of rationalism is the Innate Concept thesis.

The Innate Concept Thesis: We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

Some of these theses can contradict our modern conception of 'rationalism' and the OED meanings given in Definition 2.a. above.

Can someone please clear the air about the usage of the terms 'rationalism' and 'empiricism'? Or is this attempt to set the definition straight an exercise in futility?

(I don't want to argue about definitions, but these two terms are too basic to let it pass. The confusion in these definitions can possibly make some arguments for scientific method slippery.)
The continued use of the term 'rationalist' in India seems to be a choice that is rational in some ways and arbitrary in others. Even the Richard Dawkins Foundation chose to call itself a foundation for 'Reason and Science' rather say, 'Evidence and Science' which would have literally emphasized and empiricist bent. Why then is it assumed that empiricism goes without saying? In many real-life situations we encounter, it is only reason that we may have resort to rather than any means of directly 'seeing for ourselves'. The Indian philosophers of antiquity enumerated the pramANa ('grounds for belief'/standard of proof) system which begins with pratyaksha(direct perception) which is the only proof the radical empiricists (such as Charvakas) consider admissible, and includes anumAna (inference) which is fundamental to Science as it is practiced today. However we know that Science is an endeavour not just about 'seeing for ourselves' (pratyaksha by empirical methods) but also 'making sense of what is seen' (anumAna or rational inference). The 'Reason' in the RDF name or in Sam Harris' Project Reason alludes to a rationalism that impels and is informed by empirical fact-finding and such connotations of the word 'reason' have a long history.

As early as 1620, Francis Bacon noted in his Novum Organum that 'a closer and purer league of the experimental and rational' faculties is indispensable to the progress of Science.
Quote:Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped. -Aphorism 95

Scientists in the following centuries have duly followed this counsel. The theoretical/deductive/'first-principles'-based approaches and experimental/inductive/'heuristic'-driven approaches are in practice viewed as complementary rather than competing. This is recognized even among streetfighting science-popularizers in the raving Internets, for instance with thunderf00t self-identifying as a PEARList (where PEARL stands for Physical Evidence and Reasoned Logic i.e. synergy of empiricism and rationalsim). In the popular imagination too, and rightly so, it is not that Peter Higgs is viewed as a rationalist and Fabiola Gianotti is viewed as an empiricist, but both are viewed as scientists who happen to have different methodological specialization.

In sum, the term 'rational' has through a certain history of usage come to really mean 'rational-empirical' and we can therefore let well alone. It is a sort of usage like, "Thanks to Science, we have cellphones and iPads.", which may annoy engineers who may correct a layperson by clarifying that 'thanks to Technology' maybe more appropriate. However, just as 'science' has become a stand-in for 'science and technology' in popular parlance, so has rationalism come to mean 'rationalism and empiricism'. Confusion surrounding the meaning of another word, 'secularism' though has more tangible political implications because far too often in India, it is taken as synonymous with 'ecumenism'.
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This post in the blog Modern Psychology titled Psychology's Neglect of Philosophy gives one example where the distinction between empiricism and rationalism seems relevant. Basically, his argument is that psychology (unlike the hard sciences) does not lend itself easily to empirical study:

Quote:As already stated, if psychology is to be defined as an empirical science, it must prioritize knowledge obtained through physical observation, measurement, and experimentation. However, its main target of investigation (e.g. the human mind) escapes adequate definition on empirical terms alone. So while investigators may on very rare occasion touch a living physical brain, they cannot physically touch or visually observe a human thought or feeling. And though we can carefully observe and measure many human behaviors, it is extremely difficult to know with certainty where it originated from, either in the physical structure of the nervous system, or in the causal sense of attribution. Advances in neurobiology appear to be slowly closing this ‘mind-body’ gap, though it would seem to me that mainstream psychology ignores the neurosciences almost as much as it does philosophy.

And so psychology is largely conducted inside theoretical frameworks, which ought to be arrived at via deductive reasoning. But the reasoning some of these frameworks are not sound, and therefore this leads to plenty of bad science:

Quote:The logical fallacies or faults in reasoning, that our paradigms are accused of committing, seldom, if ever make it into the mainstream psychological literature or classroom discussion. Students are never taught to be suspicious of the theoretical blueprints they are handed. They are never encouraged to hone their deductive reasoning skills. So while serious conceptual flaws might be debated for years or even decades within international journals that address conceptual problems within the field, mainstream psychology continues to be swept along by theoretical momentum and the drunken allure of empirical investigation. The research generating paradigm becomes both figuratively and literally life sustaining, even if it may be fundamentally wrong. In experimental psychology, empiricism reigns king, as does the ‘publish or perish’ adage and dreams of rejecting null hypotheses. Psychological ‘discoveries’ are triumphantly made, though their validity may only be maintained while the theoretical ‘flavor of the decade,’ or ‘the Truth of the moment,’ endures. But even if psychologists were trained to recognize the ways in which their theories have parted ways with reason, who would want to bring an end to the party, where nearly any kind of empirical study can get published – where we get to have our cake and eat it too!

Also from his critiques of Evolutionary Psychology (Critiques of Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology and Theoretical Faith):

Quote:While empirical ‘findings’ are made within the field, many of them only make sense if one accepts the assumptions of evolutionary psychology’s definition of the human mind. Criticisms and alternative explanations have been offered for some of evolutionary psychology’s most cherished findings, including those related to: kin selection (Sigling, Wolterink-Donselaar, & Spruijt, 2009), human mating (Eastwick, 2009), incest aversion (Ingham & Spain, 2005)...
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(15-Jan-2013, 06:06 PM)unsorted Wrote: And so psychology is largely conducted inside theoretical frameworks, which ought to be arrived at via deductive reasoning. But the reasoning some of these frameworks are not sound, and therefore this leads to plenty of bad science

Here is a recent New York Times article on the pitfalls of the theoretical framework of evolutionary psychology and the seeming indifference of its proponents to empirical reality-checks.
Darwin was wrong about dating, NYT Jan 12 2013

Such an emphasis on deductive reasoning is by no means limited to psychology though. Euclidean geometry is the classic example of emphasis on deductive reasoning, since 'points', 'lines' and 'planes' are strictly abstractions and not empirical entities from whose occurrences laws can be inductively established (Einstein's classic essay 'Geometry and Experience' is a useful read in this regard). Even in the 'hard sciences', there are questions which don't lend themselves to empirical treatment due to obvious limitations of technology or more involved epistemic limits. Michael Shermer lists some examples in this article.

Quote:The problem is that many sciences are nonfalsifiable, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, grand economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis. On the last, short of searching every planet around every star in every galaxy in the cosmos, can we ever say with certainty that E.T.s do not exist?

An earlier thread 'Is falsifiability taken seriously in today's science?' touches upon the place in the scientific establishment of certain endeavors which don't strictly conform to the falsification paradigm, and therefore may not qualify as 'empirical investigations'.

The Simulation Argument deals with a question which was thought of as only approachable rationally, but an empirical handle to that might just have become available.
I think rationalism is relying on reason as the sole tool to conduct life.
Empricism is related to verifying our concepts(models,logic) by experimentation.

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