The dispute between rationalism and empiricism takes place withinepistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature,sources and limits of knowledge. The defining questions ofepistemology include the following.
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To know a proposition, we must believe it and it must be true, butsomething more is required, something that distinguishes knowledgefrom a lucky guess. Let’s call this additional element‘warrant’. A good deal of philosophical work has beeninvested in trying to determine the nature of warrant.
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Historically, the rationalist/empiricist dispute in epistemology hasextended into the area of metaphysics, where philosophers areconcerned with the basic nature of reality, including the existence ofGod and such aspects of our nature as freewill and the relationbetween the mind and body. Major rationalists (e.g., Descartes 1641)have presented metaphysical theories, which they have claimed to knowby reason alone. Major empiricists (e.g., Hume 1739–40) haverejected the theories as either speculation, beyond what we can learnfrom experience, or nonsensical attempts to describe aspects of theworld beyond the concepts experience can provide. The debate raisesthe issue of metaphysics as an area of knowledge. Kant puts thedriving assumption clearly:
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Contemporary supporters of Plato’s position are scarce. Theinitial paradox, which Plato describes as a “trickargument” (Meno, 80e), rings sophistical. Themetaphysical assumptions in the solution need justification. Thesolution does not answer the basic question: Just how did theslave’s soul learn the theorem? The Intuition/Deduction thesisoffers an equally, if not more, plausible account of how the slavegains knowledge a priori. Nonetheless, Plato’s positionillustrates the kind of reasoning that has caused many philosophers toadopt some form of the Innate Knowledge thesis. We are confident thatwe know certain propositions about the external world, but there seemsto be no adequate explanation of how we gained this knowledge short ofsaying that it is innate. Its content is beyond what we directly gainin experience, as well as what we can gain by performing mentaloperations on what experience provides. It does not seem to be basedon an intuition or deduction. That it is innate in us appears to bethe best explanation.
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A serious problem for the Innate Knowledge thesis remains, however. Weknow a proposition only if it is true, we believe it and our belief iswarranted. Rationalists who assert the existence of innate knowledgeare not just claiming that, as a matter of human evolution,God’s design or some other factor, at a particular point in ourdevelopment, certain sorts of experiences trigger our belief inparticular propositions in a way that does not involve our learningthem from the experiences. Their claim is even bolder: In at leastsome of these cases, our empirically triggered, but not empiricallywarranted, belief is nonetheless warranted and so known. How can thesebeliefs be warranted if they do not gain their warrant from theexperiences that cause us to have them or from intuition anddeduction?
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Like philosophical debates generally, the rationalist/empiricistdebate ultimately concerns our position in the world, in this case ourposition as rational inquirers. To what extent do our faculties ofreason and experience support our attempts to know and understand oursituation?