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The Epistemological Gap and Two Meanings of Empirical

There are two meanings of the word empirical, subjective and objective.

Key points

  • There are two meanings of the word empirical that are important to keep in mind.
  • One meaning is tied to to one's first person, subjective experience of being in the world.
  • A second meaning is more scientific, objective and based on exterior, objective data.

About a decade ago, I talked with my niece and shared this conundrum: “How do you know that the red I see is the red you see?” To this day, I remember her reaction.

Her eyes widened, and she said, “Wait…Oh my god. That is amazing!”

Like most kids, she had taken for granted that there was a world out there and that we all projected our vision onto it. That was what allowed us to see and share the same experiences. This is called “naïve realism.” And, yet, like so many before her, when I walked her through the logic for the first time, it dawned on her that she had the arrangement backward. It is not that her eyes were projecting something like a flashlight out into the world so that she could see it as it was. Rather her eyes collected light and turned it into the language of the nervous system, and then, somehow, the virtual world she saw inside her head was generated from that.

This insight opens up many new ways of thinking about the world. For example, it follows that this epistemological portal is the only way she has direct, sensory access to the world. And then it follows that no one else could directly see the world she saw. And it follows further that no one could ever see the red she sees and that she could never see the red anyone else sees. When it first dawns on you, it is indeed remarkable.

“That is right,” I said,

Think about it this way. Take your camera. We can take pictures of the outside world and share them. But no one can directly take a picture of your first-person experience of observing the world. If we look inside your head with a camera, we only see your brain.

As she followed the insight trail, the logic of the brain-in-the-vat implication dawned on her. “But, then, how can we know anything? What if it is all a dream?”

I smiled and said, “Welcome to philosophy.”

My niece was encountering what I call the epistemological gap. I coined the term in this blog,1 highlighting two complex problems associated with consciousness. One is ontological (i.e., consciousness and how it arises), and the other is epistemological (i.e., we can only directly observe our own subjective conscious experience, which is what the gap points to). Of course, as the example with my niece shows, the idea of the epistemological gap is well-known. Consider, for example, it is one of two basic divisions that Wilber makes with his analysis of the epistemological quadrants (i.e., interior versus exterior).

My goal here is to use the epistemological gap to help folks be clear that there are two very different meanings of the word empiricism. I have found that much confusion and equivocation can follow when folks are not clear on these two meanings. One meaning of the word empirical is essentially subjective, whereas a second meaning is more scientific and objective. Thus, they have almost opposite meanings in some contexts.

We can begin with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which gives the following three meanings of the word empirical, as (1) originating in or based on observation or experience; (2) relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory; and (3) capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment. The first and third meanings are subjective and scientific, respectively, and they are very different. [Note, the second meaning highlights that empirical is different from theoretical, conceptual, or metaphysical considerations; see here for more on this.]

Consider the following: I look over and see a red cup of coffee. This is an empirical observation. But depending on what we mean, we can either mean the first or third person meaning. From the first person meaning, I am referring to my experience of observing redness. That is the empirical world that only I can access. And only I can directly confirm or disconfirm that reality. Everyone else must infer that I can see red, and no one else can directly, empirically see the red I see.

The third person means that others could independently confirm that I am in a chair and that the coffee cup emits electromagnetic wavelengths that correspond to how humans generally experience redness. And if we hooked me up to a brain scanner, we could see brain wave activity associated with color experience (see here).

The epistemological gap only applies to the first person, subjective meaning. That is, we cannot directly link our subjective interior empirical perspectives on the world. That is the gap that blew my niece’s mind. However, the epistemological gap does not apply to the third person meaning of the world empiricism. Indeed, the epistemological gap is one of the reasons we invented science, which helps us systematically overcome the gap. Epistemologically, science is defined by a commitment to an exterior third-person perspective, which factors out the subjective interior view and leaves behind an objective view.

A philosopher of science will quickly point out that scientists do not fully escape their subjective perspective. Rather, they quantify the world and then interpret data and come to a shared, intersubjective understanding. This is accurate, and the proper description of scientific epistemology is that of an intersubjective-objective vantage point. That is, trained scientists get together and develop a shared system of justification that allows them to create devices to obtain objective data that any trained observer can interpret. It generates empirical knowledge that is situated and interpretable from the position of a generalizable knower rather than a specific, unique, subjective empirical position.

The key point here is that there are two very different meanings of the word empirical. One is grounded in the first person interior epistemological perspective. It is one’s primary epistemological portal into the world. Any known methods cannot directly cross it (although see here for an example of what a possible exception might look like). This is the epistemological gap between two interior perspectives.

The second meaning of the word empirical is grounded in the exterior, third person, and science is an exemplar of an epistemology grounded in this meaning. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that scientific methods were constructed to overcome the epistemological gap and develop systems of understanding based on data available from the vantage point of a generalized knower.

We can see many examples of this. For example, researchers often use a double-blind, randomized controlled design when they run clinical trials in medicine. This functions to get subjective bias out of the knowing process. If, when they break the seal and run quantitative analyses on the obtained data, it becomes apparent to everyone that the intervention worked, then the intersubjective conclusion is that they have achieved objective empirical knowledge that the trial was a success. This empirically grounded knowledge is obtained and legitimized even if no single person could directly observe the effects.

The bottom line is that the next you hear someone use the term empirical, keep in mind whether they were referring to the interior or exterior meaning of the term.


See Epistemological Gap