Van Fraassen’s Approach to Epistemology

Kant famously wrote that David Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” I had my own philosophical awakening after reading Bas Van Fraassen’s “The Empirical Stance.” I found him to be a fascinating creature, though I agreed with very little of what he wrote. Nonetheless, he inspired my current trajectory, so today I’m reviewing the book that changed my academic future.

The Empirical Stance

“The Empirical Stance” is a series of lectures by philosopher Bas Van Fraassen that takes a unique approach to empiricism, particularly as it relates to the field of science. He starts by rejecting metaphysics and redefining materialism before getting to the crux of his coherentist understanding of empiricism in the third and fourth lectures. According to Van Fraassen, empiricism is a stance that involves emotions, human reasoning, and community coherence rather than a clearly defined principle.

When criticizing metaphysics, Van Fraassen throws the epistemological approach of rationalism under the metaphysical bus. This is seen clearly when he wrote, “Kant exposed the Illusions of Reason, the way in which reason over-reaches itself in traditional metaphysics … About a century later the widespread rebellions against the Idealist tradition expressed the complaint that Reason had returned to its cherished Illusions.”

Later in Lecture 2, he used the term “rationalist metaphysics” to pit rationalism against epistemology rather than offer a critique of rationalism as an epistemological theory. I will not offer a guess as to why Van Fraassen took this approach, but what is clear is that in his denial of the branch of metaphysics, he also denounced rationalism as a viable approach to epistemology.

Materialism

In setting up his foundation for his empirical argument, Van Fraassen took a more interesting direction in his discussion of materialism. Addressing the idea of “material mechanisms” for observable causes, he criticizes the classic definition of materialism, which is the belief that matter is all there is. He points out that there are things that exist that does not fit that classic definition, like gravity and other forces in nature since they are not made of any particles. He also points out that the elementary particles in quantum mechanics do not meet the criterion of physical matter.

Lastly, as a theist, Van Fraassen presupposes the existence of God and the angels, yet they are not made of atoms or anything else that we would consider to be physical. In order to save materialism from the hits that it took by physicists and theologians, Van Fraassen redefines materialism in Quinean terms. Simply stated, materialism is what there is, it is what exists. Unicorns do not exist and are not material. We know of their nonexistence through empirical means. Quarks, on the other hand, do exist and are known through the empirical means of theoretical predictions and experiments, though they have not been directly observed.

Paradigms

After laying down this foundation, Van Fraassen explains his empirical stance as a philosophical position which includes attitudes and approaches to methodologies. He recognizes that theories are often postulated within scientific paradigms. Paradigms are sets of concepts and theories that guide the standards for further research and what constitutes legitimate contributions to the field. Newtonian physics was the standard for hundreds of years until Einstein introduced his special relativity. Quantum theory replaced the old Newtonian paradigm and revolutionized physics so that all research and theories fit within this new paradigm.

Van Fraassen rejects classic empiricism, which is the belief that all knowledge is through experience, as being naïve because “if we are to listen to experience, we need to be able to identify what our experience was and hence divide what we really lived through from what we only seemed to be living through,” which is “either circular or inadmissible.”

Just as he redefined materialism, Van Fraassen adopts a newer form of empiricism that does not fall into the trap of circular reasoning and experience only. In recognizing scientific paradigms, he argues for a coherentist approach. Since experience alone can often lead to conflicts in our interpretations, he advocates for a secondary authoritative source of information.

Scientists working within the authoritative paradigm limit the possibility of error in perceptual judgements. Paradigms provide structures and blueprints which cohere with a community using the same structures, making each researcher and his experiences liable to the whole community. While this approach has the potential of discarding evidence that does not cohere to the paradigm, Van Fraassen argues that it is just as important for the paradigm to agree with experimental and observational facts.

Paradigms relating to Christianity

I’ve written about paradigms frequently on this blog, particularly as it relates to Christianity, and this is where Van Fraassen and I almost agree. He posits that the Catholics and Protestants share a similar problem, in that the foundation of understanding Scripture is built on the “determined adherence to one’s own tradition.” He argues that when we rely on certain foundations, whether they be texts or traditions, for our beliefs, we admit alternatives.

In order to understand Van Fraassen’s argument, we must know what foundationalism is. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines foundationalism as “a foundational or noninferentially justified belief is one that does not depend on any other beliefs for its justification.” This classical position of epistemology rests on non-demonstrative axioms as the basis of belief. However, with paradigms beliefs cohere with a set of propositions, yet it is not pure coherentism either since both scientific and religious paradigms rest on the foundations of certain axiomatic proofs.

For those who might point out that I am arguing for both foundationalism and coherentism, I posit that even with the epistemological framework of coherentism, beliefs have some sort of basis, whether it be background knowledge, foundation, or a shared understanding of language. Beliefs of scientists have a strong unified conformity, but the support for this coherency has its foundation in experimental evidence.

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