Notes: George Bealer’s “The Incoherence of Empiricism”

According to George Bealer, empiricism is committed to three principles. First, an empiricist is committed to “the principle of empiricism” namely that “a person’s experiences and/or observations comprise the person’s prima facie evidence.” Second, “the principle of holism” according to which “a theory is justified…for a person if and only if it is, or belongs to, the simplest comprehensive theory that explains all, or most, of the person’s prima facie evidence” Finally, according to Bealer, the empiricist is committed to “the principle of naturalism” according to which, “the natural sciences…constitute the simplest comprehensive theory that explains all, or most, of a person’s experiences and/or observations.”

Bealer argues that such a view is incoherent. First, Bealer poses a dilemma to the empiricist relying on the concept of a starting point for empirical knowledge acquisition. A starting point is a set of basic classes comprising theories, experiences, observations, explanations, laws of nature, etc., and a set of criteria determining what belongs in what class. Since only intuitions provide the criteria for what belongs in what class, starting points rely on non-empirical evidence. The idea behind the argument is that starting points are taken to be reliable. If they are not, then any theory built upon them is unreliable. If they are, then empiricism is false:

Either a person’s intuitions regarding starting points are reliable or they are not…If starting-points are not reliable, then empiricists are in big trouble. For their starting points judgments…are in fact determined by their intuitions…Therefore, if these intuitions regarding starting points are prone to error, the error will be reflected in the comprehensive theory that results from them, making that theory highly unreliable…On the other hand, suppose that intuitions about starting points are reliable…Then, certainly whatever it is that makes such intuitions reliable would also make our intuitions about what does and does not count as prima facie evidence (or as reasons) reliable. However, we have a wealth of concrete-case intuitions to the effect that intuitions are prima facie evidence (reasons). Because these intuitions about the evidential status of intuitions would be reliable, it would follow that intuitions are in fact prima facie evidence and, hence, that empiricism is false (168-169).
Bealer’s second argument suggests that empiricism arbitrarily proscribes the deliverances of intuition from prima facie evidence. Empiricists must demonstrate that the deliverances of intuition are in some way defective and they must do so using only a critical standard justificatory procedure. And this, Bealer argues, they cannot do. It turns out that there is no good reason to conclude that intuition is a defective source of prima facie evidence.

Empiricists might suggest that intuitions fail to satisfy the conditions of consistency, corroboration, and confirmation, but, as Bealer shows, they do not fail in any of these ways and, if they do, they do so only as much as any evidence drawn from observation might fail. In other words, if the empiricists set the standard high enough to exclude intuition, it is high enough to exclude observation.

Empiricists might try to exclude intuition on the grounds that evidence drawn from intuitions conflicts with a given scientific theory. However, Bealer argues that the same is true for observations and other sources of prima facie evidence: “experience, memory, and testimony come into conflict with certain theories. None of these conflicts suffice to overturn observation, experience, memory, or testimony as a source of prima facie evidence. The same holds for intuition” (175). Bealer concludes that there is no good, non-arbitrary reason for excluding the products of our intuitions in our prima facie evidence. Thus, empiricism is false.

Bealer’s final argument contends that the three principles enumerated above are self-refuting. Bealer treats the evidence for his conclusion as reason to reject the principle of empiricism, the view that “a person’s experiences and/or observations comprise the person’s prima facie evidence” (163). Bealer argues that the terms outlined in the three principles of empiricism “do not belong to the primitive vocabulary of the simplest regimented formulation of the natural sciences” (180). Concepts such as justification, explanation, and even prima facie evidence do not belong to the class of concepts permitted by the simplest formulation of the natural sciences. Any attempt to replace the terms with terms permitted by the simplest formulation of the natural sciences fails either to show the relevance of the new term to the previous term’s definition or cannot be defined at all according to the limits of the simplest formulation of the natural sciences. Thus, the three principles of empiricism ought to be rejected.

In order to render the view coherent, Bealer contends that the principle that ought to be rejected is the first according to which only experience and observation count as prima facie evidence. Instead, Bealer proposes a ‘moderate rationalism’ according to which the deliverances of one’s intuitions are part of one’s prima facie evidence.

George Bealer “The Incoherence of Empiricism” in Naturalism: A critical Appraisal, eds. Steven Wagner and Richard Warner (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 163–196.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.