How convincing is the view that sense experience is the source of all knowledge? (30mark) The view that sense experience is the source of all knowledge is an Empiricist one. Rationalism and Empiricism are the two ways in which one can approach questions regarding the obtaining of knowledge. Empiricism would argue that knowledge from reason is trivial, as it doesn’t tell us anything substantial about the world, and the only way we can do that is through experiencing it.
Locke was an empiricist who believed all knowledge was gained through sense experience. He referred to the mind at birth as a ‘tabula rasa’, ‘clean slate’, thus demonstrating that we are born without any knowledge, and the only way to gain knowledge is through our collective experiences. Throughout our life our sense receive all sorts of information, then in time the mind comes to reflect on its own operations about ideas is got from sensation, thereby generating new ideas.
These two steps are known as the ‘two fountains of knowledge’. Locke is stating that we gather information from our sense, and then when needed we can reflect on multiple knowledge we gained from sense experience, to from new sets of ideas. Thus, even knowledge we haven’t experience, according to Locke comes from reflection upon previous collective experiences. However, Locke’s theory of the ‘tabula rasa’ fails to take into account the innate knowledge we seem to be born with, such as the necessity to breathe.
It also doesn’t take into account the fact our senses can deceive us, demonstrated by Plato’s cave analogy. The cave analogy depict prisoners that from birth have been chained up in a cave looking towards a wall, with a permanently lit fire behind them, thus all they ever see are shadows. They would believe that they have seen these shadows, thus they must exist, when in fact all they are is the absence of light. The shadows would be their reality. Thus they are deceived by their senses.
Dreams are another way to demonstrate the fact our senses can deceive us, as when we are dreaming we experience many things we think to be real, however it isn’t until we are awakened that we see the falsity of the beliefs we held only moments ago. Mill, a radical empiricist would argue that sense experience is the basis of all knowledge; due to the fact he believed there is no such thing as a priori knowledge. For example, most thinkers, especially rationalists would argue that mathematics can be learned through reasoning, and relations of ideas.
However, Mill put our knowledge of mathematics down to powers of induction, and claimed maths to be merely highly confirmed generalizations. He stated that the repeated experience of seeing two things and two other things, and finding that all together they made four things, we are in fact led by induction to conclude that two plus two equals four. However, most would argue that the idea of two plus two totalling four, in regards to our certainty over this, our certainty is not increased by seeing the example repeatedly, but rather as soon as we see the truth in the proposition, our certainty is incapable of growing any stronger.
There is also a sense of necessity over two plus two equalling five, which is absent in most empirical generalisations. There may be a world where two plus two equals five, however that is not the case in our own world. This idea is demonstrated by Descartes’ method of doubt. Descartes aimed to demolish all previous opinions by withholding assent, thus the only things left would be certain. In wave three of his method of doubt, he describes a ‘decieving demon’. He states that a being such as God is omnipotent, thus he could make us go wrong about everything, including maths.
However, God is good, thus he wouldn’t do that, therefore it must be the work of a ‘demon’. Therefore according to rationalist Descartes, a deceiving demon could be making us believe every time that two plus two equals four, when it in fact doesn’t, yet we would never be able to prove this through sense experience. When Descartes came to his final conclusion, he stated that there was only one thing he could ever be certain of, the fact that ‘I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind. Thus also demonstrating the existence of synthetic a priori knowledge, knowledge gained without sense experience. However, and empiricist called Hume also believed all knowledge came from sense experienced, and divided all true propositions into two categories. Hume defined knowledge as true propositions, and that these were either relations of ideas, such as mathematics and logical truths, or matters of fact, such as claims about the world, and a posteriori knowledge.
Hume therefore argued that firstly, relations of ideas, although important, are restricted by mathematical and logical principle thus they do not actually add to our knowledge of the world, which is the most important knowledge to us. Secondly, he stated that if we find a claim which falls into neither category, it is to be “committed to the flames” as is can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion, thus it is meaningless to us. Therefore the method of doubt argument brought forward by Descartes is completely disregarded by Hume’s fork, and is committed to the flames for being meaningless, similarly with Plato’s world of the forms.
Overall I think that the view that all knowledge is gained from sense experience, is only convincing at face value. We do learn through our senses, and I think that is undoubtable, however when looking further into it, it becomes apparent that our senses can deceive us, and that we can in fact never truly be sure of anything, until we prove it to hold necessity through logic and reasoning. Thus I would argue sense experience is not at all the basis of all knowledge.