The Meaning of Empiricism

The Meaning of Empiricism

Empiricism is the basic practice of science. Science can be described as empirical because it relies on direct experience or observation in order to describe or explain phenomena. In other words, a scientific or empirical approach is inductive, and bases its explanations upon that which can be directly observed in a replicable or repeatable manner.

The requirement concerning empirical observations being potentially replicable is key. This is what differentiates science from mystical or religious traditions. Science does not rely on dreams, or visions, or the authority of sacred texts as a basis for knowledge. That’s why science does not recognize the existence of the human soul, for example, since it cannot be observed. Similarly, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.

This is, once again, because empiricism is skeptical of anything which cannot be replicably observed. Empirical evidence is confined to only these phenomena which more than one person can observe. If someone claims that the tallest mountain in the world is in the Himalayas, for example, it must be possible for others to go there and confirm this contention. And if a taller mountain is found elsewhere, opinions must be revised based upon this new evidence.

Empiricism, however, is not equivalent to modern, Western science. This suggests a contrast between modern science and science as such. After all, all cultures throughout history have relied on direct experience to a large degree in developing their technologies and patterns of subsistence. What makes modern Western science unique is that it has systematized its empiricism, especially through measurement and formal experimentation.

Another central empirical concept, or method-of which all science makes use-is the concept of the hypothesis, and the method of hypothesis testing. An hypothesis is a statement about relationships which can possibly be shown to be /untrue/. Hypotheses are basically if/then statements, which are intended to be predictive (eg. if Theory X is correct, then we would expect to observe Y).

Note that the definition does not say “relationships which can possibly be shown to be true, or proven correct.” This is because the scientific method proceeds through the /falsification/ or /testing/ of hypotheses against empirically observable data.

When you find the right one, you haven’t proven your hypothesis is correct, so much as shown that it works. In other words, it accomplishes your goal of explaining or understanding a particular phenomena. At least for the time being. Due to its inherent skepticism, empiricism always assumes that more adequate or more complete explanations may be found in the future.

In other words, as the old saying goes, “science never proves anything.” The perpetual revisability of scientific opinion in light of new hypotheses tested against the empirical data is its greatest strength as a means of understanding the world around us.