Monday, January 28, 2013

Empiricism and Categorical Knowledge

The paper below is Appendix I from my book, Why Christianity is True. 

The purpose of this paper is to show that it is possible to have real knowledge about reality that is universally applicable. Most importantly, it is possible to know that logic is universally valid and applies universally. This is important, because the arguments for the existence of God that are used in this book, and have been used through the centuries, are to a great extent logical in form. That is, they attempt to show that God is logically necessary and that to deny God is illogical. If logic is universally valid, this argumentative method is legitimate. If it is not, they are not. Some have challenged the universal applicability and legitimacy of logic, and so I felt a need to show how logic’s universality can be conclusively defended. And that is what this paper tries to do. It was written with a philosophical audience in mind, but is certainly understandable to anyone who wishes to put in the effort it takes to think about these issues.

I should also add that my terminological habits have changed a bit since I wrote this paper. I used to distinguish between broad empiricism (the idea that we can learn truth not just through the senses but through reason and logic--the view I am defending in this paper) and narrow (or naïve) empiricism (the idea that we cannot use logic and reason to establish truth but are dependent only on our senses in a more crude, everyday sense). What I used to call “broad empiricism” I now tend to call “rationalism,” and I tend now to use the word “empiricism” to refer to what I used to call “narrow empiricism.” Of course, these terminology changes don’t make any difference as to the substance of my arguments.


It is often assumed that in order to have categorical knowledge, one must have access to what is frequently called “a priori” knowledge. Empirical knowledge is not sufficient. “Categorical knowledge,” as the term will be used in this paper, is knowledge that is universal, knowledge that can affirm something to be universally the case or exclude something from being the case anywhere in universal reality. “A priori” knowledge refers to knowledge that is gained prior to or apart from all experience. “Empirical knowledge” is knowledge that is gained through experience.

It is a frequently-held position that empirical experience can only provide a very limited, non-universal view of things. For example, empirical experience can lead one to observe a connection between a particular kind of event occurring and some other particular kind of event that always occurs before it. When the sun comes up, the earth is filled with significantly more light and heat than it was before the sun came up. In our experience, this happens all the time, so we feel we can count on it and call it a universal, categorical law. However, it seems that no matter how many times we observe this connection, we cannot strictly speaking say that we know it must always happen. We can suspect that the connection will always exist, but we could not prove it unless we could personally observe the sun coming up everyday throughout time. Any other example of cause-and-effect would be subject to the same limitations. The laws of logic in general are frequently thought to be underivable from empirical experience, because even though we observe existing objects acting in logical ways whenever we watch them, we can never get from there to being sure they must act in these ways even when we are not observing them. Therefore, it is frequently concluded that empirical knowledge is incapable of grounding truly categorical, universal knowledge.

This supposed lack of ability of empiricism to ground categorical knowledge has important implications. Categorical knowledge is essential to human knowledge in general. Without categorical knowledge, one cannot know that the laws of logic are valid; but the laws of logic are foundational to all knowledge. If A does not exclude non-A, no propositions can have any meaning at all. This is true of both high metaphysical propositions as well as everyday propositions about the immediate physical world around us.

There are two directions taken by those who are convinced that empiricism cannot ground categorical knowledge. One direction is to continue to affirm the validity of categorical knowledge but to attempt to ground it in a priori ways of knowing. The other is to abandon belief in the validity of categorical knowledge and therefore, in effect, all real knowledge whatsoever.

The main purpose of this paper is to argue that the belief that empirical experience cannot ground categorical knowledge is mistaken. It is important to show this because a priori foundations of knowledge simply do not work, and therefore we are left with either empiricism or skepticism.

There can be no such thing as a priori knowledge. A priori knowledge, by definition, would be knowledge that is attained apart from any experience. But “experience” is simply “contact with reality.” To gain information “from experience” simply means to gain information from reality. Knowledge is knowledge of reality. A propositional claim is a claim about reality. The only way to tell if a claim is “true” (in other words, if it matches up with reality) is to compare the claim with reality, which implies a perception of (or experience with) reality in some way or another. There is simply no other way to verify the truthfulness of any claim or belief. Without contact with reality—experience—it is impossible to know what is true.

We can see this even more clearly if we look at a couple of examples of ways in which some have suggested we might gain a priori knowledge. One popular idea is the way of innate knowledge. “Innate knowledge” would be knowledge that is simply built into us as a part of who we are, not derived from any experience with the world. For example, we can suppose that “two plus two equals four” is a piece of innate knowledge. In that case, we know that two plus two is four because we were born knowing it, not because we have learned it through any sort of contact with reality. It seems at least theoretically possible that humans might be born with innate beliefs. But how would we know that our innate belief that two plus two is four is really true? How would we know it is not just a concept in our heads but actually matches up with reality? Just being born with it as a belief is no guarantee. We might reason that we would not have been born with the belief if it wasn’t true, but why would we assume this? What evidence do we have that this is the case? Is this belief also simply born with us? If so, how do we know that it is true? Do we have some kind of evidence that innate beliefs tend to be true, such as having observed a track record of innate beliefs matching up with reality? But this would be an empirical argument, grounding the reliability of the innate belief in empirical observation, and therefore giving up the argument for a priori knowledge. Either way, we come to the same conclusion: Apart from some kind of verifying contact with reality, we have no basis to conclude that our innate beliefs, if we have any, match up with reality and are therefore true. Innate beliefs therefore cannot constitute innate a priori knowledge.

Another popular idea about how we might come to possess a priori knowledge is that we can gain it by intuition. But “intuition” is a vague and nebulous concept. Sometimes “intuition” can be grounded in subconscious observation. For example, someone might say that he has a “bad feeling” about going down a certain street even though he doesn’t know why, but upon reflection he might realize that there are a number of observational clues that he is picking up subconsciously that are prejudicing his mind against that particular street. In this case, intuition is quite empirical, so it has nothing to do with establishing a priori knowledge. There are also ways of construing “intuition” that are not empirical at all. But we can ask the same question here we asked with regard to innate knowledge: How can an intuition be known to be true, and thus be real knowledge, apart from experience with reality? If Janet has an intuition that Brad is a really bad guy, but she has no input from reality at all that would verify this claim, how can she know it is true? She holds the belief, but without any access one way or another to the reality that her belief is about—the character of Brad—her intuition must be groundless. It might turn out to be true, but that would be only a coincidence. Intuition is often claimed as the source for very grandiose claims about the nature of the universe. For example, many people, including many philosophers, base ethical claims on intuition: “How do I know that stealing is wrong? I just know!” But this is very unsatisfactory. It may be that those who make such claims really do have good reasons for believing them, but if these reasons are good they must be based on some kind of verification derived from contact with reality. If they are truly non-empirical in nature, they have no evidential support whatsoever, and so are empty claims that cannot command assent.

So we must conclude that knowledge cannot be had apart from a foundation in empirical experience. Whatever methods of obtaining a priori knowledge we look at, they all have the same basic problem: A priori knowledge is an inherent impossibility, because without contact with the reality our beliefs are about (whether direct or indirect) there can be no verification and hence no knowledge. Many would conclude that total skepticism is our only option at this point. But this is not the case. Empiricism is quite capable of filling the role of grounding categorical, universal knowledge.


As we noted at the beginning of this paper, “categorical knowledge” would be a knowledge that certain concepts or characteristics are universally the case. That is, we have categorical knowledge if we can know that certain characteristics apply to all reality, to all real being. To know that the laws of logic are valid would be a form of categorical knowledge because the concept of “the laws of logic” implies that certain logical principles are applicable to all being everywhere.

Not surprisingly, our human ability to categorize is helpful to us in trying to get at such universal knowledge. And categorization can be empirically based. For example, take the concept of red. Our concept of red is derived from our experience in perceiving red. We can perceive the color red in our imaginations, and we can perceive it in the external world. Of course, we never see merely “redness” abstracted from actual red objects. Even in the ideas of our imagination, “redness” is always accompanied by other physical characteristics, such as extension. That is, we are always imagining a certain red object of a certain size and shape. (Even a pure “wall” of red in the mind is a determinate object. We can see this by altering our idea so that we see half blue and half red. The fact that our red “wall” can be thus divided in half indicates its determinate form.) However, even though we cannot perceive “redness” by itself, we can abstract it theoretically as a characteristic from other characteristics like extension. That is, we can talk about “redness” and “extension” as two different concepts. We can do this because although redness always appears in conjunction with extension, they are empirically distinct ideas. We can have two objects equal in their degrees and kinds of redness while differing in their physical shape and size.

Since we can conceive of the distinct empirical characteristic of redness, we can examine the idea and see what sorts of inherent qualities it possesses. One obvious quality that redness possesses is the quality of not being blue. “Blueness” is another empirical characteristic, distinct from redness. Since they are empirically distinct, they are not the same thing. Therefore, they empirically exclude each other. Insofar as something is blue, it is not also red. If something is all blue, it must contain no red. If something is only partly blue, it might also be partly red; but it cannot be red in the same places that it is blue. It is the fact that empirical characteristics are distinct from each other, each possessing its own intrinsic nature, that allows categorization to take place. Since we know what red looks like, we can talk about the category of “red things.” We can distinguish this category from the category of “blue things.” This sort of categorization, based purely on empirical observation, gives us access to universal knowledge. If we know what the essential characteristics of redness are, we know that whatever is red, whatever fits into the category of “red things,” will exhibit those characteristics. If an object doesn’t exhibit those characteristics, it simply isn’t a red thing. We don’t have to travel through the entire universe to confirm that every particular red thing exhibits those characteristics; we already know based on the essential characteristics of “redness” that all red things, even things that we will never have the opportunity to observe, will exhibit those characteristics.

Now, let us apply this same reasoning to the category of “being.” “Being,” like “redness,” is an empirically-based category. We derive it from our perception of ideas, both ideas originating in our imaginations and ideas originating from the external world. Since “being” is a category, we can examine it to see what essential characteristics beings have, just as we examined the category of “redness” to determine some of the characteristics of red things. In other words, our question is, What sorts of characteristics make us put something into the category of being? Perhaps the most basic characteristic of beings is that beings have positive characteristics. This distinguishes being from the category of non-being, or nothing. Non-being possesses no positive characteristics. It has no particular shape, size, color, nor any other particular quality at all. So the concept of a “being” is the idea of something that possesses certain particular qualities. We can derive two characteristics from this idea: Beings will be distinguished from non-being by having some particular qualities; and because they have some particular qualities, all beings will be not only something but something in particular. The concept of “being” includes in it the idea of “being something in particular.” The idea of “being,” since it reduces to the possession of characteristics, cannot be abstracted from some particular set of characteristics. It is meaningless to talk about characteristics that have no particular characteristics.

Attributing positive characteristics to members of the category of beings distinguishes being from non-being. It also distinguishes particular beings from other particular beings. An apple is a being because it manifests certain particular positive characteristics: It is red, round, relatively small (compared to, say, an elephant), etc. This distinguishes an apple-being from non-being, which is not red, round, or small, or anything else; and it distinguishes it from non-apple beings like elephants, which have a different set of characteristics—in the case of elephants, relatively large (compared to an apple), not round, grayish in color, etc.

So we can see that “being,” like “redness,” is an empirically-derived category that has certain essential characteristics. Just as the essential characteristics of redness will apply to any member of the category of redness, wherever it may be found, so the essential characteristics of the category of being will apply to any member of the category of being, wherever it may be found. But the category of being is coextensive with the category of “things that exist” and the category of “reality,” for these are all the same category. “Existence” and “reality” are synonyms of “being.” Therefore, we can conclude that the essential characteristics of the category of being will apply to universal reality. All real things everywhere will possess the characteristic of having particular characteristics and will therefore be distinguished from non-being and from each other. All things that exist will be as opposed to not being, and they will be what they are as opposed to being something else. But notice that these characteristics are nothing more nor less than what we call the “laws of logic”: A is not non-A. Therefore, by examining the empirically-derived concept of being, without bringing in any a priori ideas, we can conclude that the laws of logic apply universally. We have empirically established categorical knowledge.

An objection might be raised at this point: Perhaps we have proven that the category of being includes certain essential characteristics, and thus that any member of this category will possess those characteristics; but how do we know that our category of being is coextensive with reality itself? Perhaps nothing fits into our conception of “being” which does not exhibit the principles of logic, but what if there are beings beyond our conception of being? What if something exists which we cannot conceive and which therefore doesn’t fit into our categories?

This objection sounds very plausible, but it is based in simple confusion. The objector speaks of something that might “exist” in “reality” but which would not fit into our category of “being.” But, as we have seen, “reality” and “existence” are synonyms of “being.” To speak of something as “existing” is simply to say that it fits into the category of being. To talk about something existing which does not fit into the category of being would be like talking about there being a red object somewhere that does not fit into the category of redness. If it is red, of course it fits into the category of redness. If it does not fit into the category of redness, it is not red by definition. If the objector thinks our category of being needs to be redefined, he may present specific suggestions towards that end. But the way we have defined this category is in fact how it is actually used by human beings, and therefore for the objector to talk about “existing things” that are outside of the category of “existence” is meaningless gibberish. There may be a lot we do not know about many of the beings in the universe, but we do know that any being, however strange, is going to actually be, and it is going to be something in particular rather than being something else. Otherwise it would not be a being at all and therefore would not exist by definition.

We have specifically shown how categorical knowledge of the laws of logic can be derived from strictly empirical resources. This foundation shows us how other pieces of categorical knowledge can be established. For example, the law of cause and effect is established. This law is simply an aspect of the basic principles of logic. The law basically says that “whenever anything comes to be or changes, there must have been a cause as to why it came to be or changed.” The truth of this can be established simply by looking at the nature of the concepts of “coming into being” and “change.” “Change” is really a form of “coming into being.” When a change occurs, something new is present that was not there before. “Coming into being” is a process. In any process, there is some agent acting: Something is doing something. When we have nothing and then something, what is doing the acting? It is not the something that is coming into being, for then it would have to be acting before it exists. It is not non-being, for non-being by definition is not something and therefore can’t do anything. It must be something else. It must be some other being besides that which is coming into being. We call this other being the “cause.” So the law of causality is simply the observation that in the process of change, there are agents acting. To say that something can happen without a cause would be to say that a process can occur without any agent acting in it, which is contrary to the very idea of “process” and therefore a violation of the laws of logic.

The categorical concepts of metaphysics are also established by the establishment of the laws of logic. Once we have access to universal characteristics of being, metaphysics becomes possible. This is not to say, of course, that all metaphysical claims are therefore valid, any more than all claims in any other area must be valid. But metaphysical claims can be valid and rationally-based if categorical knowledge is empirically-grounded and therefore evidence-based. In other words, if categorical knowledge is empirically-based, then there can be such things as metaphysical claims that are legitimately inferred from empirical data. For example, the classic theistic arguments for the existence of God claim to contain empirically-based metaphysical claims.


We have now seen how categorical knowledge can indeed be based on nothing more than empirical experience. Since empirical experience, and that which is derived from it, is the only thing that can constitute evidence for anything, in proving that categorical knowledge can be empirical we have shown how it can be evidence-based and hence known to be true. Our observation of how our universal knowledge is tied to categories is very reminiscent of the thought of Immanuel Kant. Kant was quite right to observe how our knowledge takes particular shape and is thus accessible to us in the form of categories. Where Kant went wrong is that he supposed that such categorical knowledge could not be empirically-based but must be a priori. He assumed that the categories in the human mind must be originated by the human mind rather than reflecting inherent characteristics of the real world. This assumption produced a fundamental distinction in his thought between “the way things are in themselves” and the categorical, orderly way they appear in our minds, and this distinction created a barrier that would effectively prevent any human being from ever knowing the true nature of reality. Since we cannot conceive anything, even the most minute observation, without that thing appearing to us in an orderly, logical form, attributing all such categorical knowledge to human imagination rather than to the real world effectively implied that we can really know nothing at all about reality. We are cut off completely from any real access to reality; all we have are the imaginary creations of our own minds. But the fact is that there can be no rational distinction drawn between reality “as it really is” and the reality that we actually experience. Our category of “reality” is derived from the reality that we actually experience, and whatever does not fit into this category does not “exist” by definition, as we noted earlier. Therefore, our categories are not made up by our human minds apart from reality; they are derived from our observations of reality. It is not human imagination but the real world that provides us with our categories. Therefore there is no real distinction between the logical, orderly reality that we know and “the way things really are.” For Kant, our categories block us from experiencing reality and become a substitute for it. In reality, however, our categories are part of our perception of things as they really are.


On a bit of a different note, there is one more thing worth noting before we conclude this paper. The grounding of all knowledge, including categorical knowledge, in empiricism has interesting implications for the definition of science and for the perceived relationship between science, philosophy, and theology. Science has frequently attempted to define itself as distinct from philosophy and theology, and it has often chosen as its defining characteristic a commitment to empiricism and an empirical methodology. But if our conclusions are correct, all knowing and reasoning is empirically-grounded, and so the distinction between science and “other ways of knowing” becomes blurred. For example, it is often assumed that arguments for the existence of God (or against the existence of God) are non-scientific in nature. But if theistic arguments are empirical in nature, it is harder to figure out why they would be excluded from being considered scientific (whether or not one agrees or disagrees with their soundness). For another related example, the theory of evolution is often defended from charges of being atheistic by making a distinction between higher-order causes and empirical causes. Physical laws and the interactions of matter/energy are considered to be empirical, while the involvement of God as an ultimate creator is presumed to be non-empirical. Therefore it can be said that science, which deals only with the empirical world and uses only empirical methodology, need not take “higher-order” metaphysical causes into account. But if all knowing is empirical, then arguments for the necessity of God to explain the existence and continuance of the world and its objects (living and otherwise) as well as arguments against God’s necessity are empirical in nature, and it is harder to see how science can exclude them. There is no time to explore these implications and the questions that arise from them in any depth here, but it is interesting and useful to note that they exist. 

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