Classical empiricism, which really is an update of sola scriptura, is as political as it gets. The central contention of both sola scriptura and empiricism (where it becomes more concealed) is that we do not need to rely on other’s interpretations of so called “data” and that any person can access the “facts” as is. In effect, empiricism is a denial of authority, a denial of the necessity of a cultural background, and an assertion of man being able to come to knowledge as an individual without assistance of any kind. The depth of how incoherent empiricism is, is so great that it is hard to see without some assistance, plus it seems to be one of those things where like a crime that is enormous there is no mechanism in place to correct it, hence it goes unpunished.
Here is Edward Feser referencing Feyerabend on empiricism, and I will ask the reader to note that this explicitly references authority, tradition, as well as culture and the health of the observer:
“For the Aristotelian, Feyerabend says, “experience [is] the sum total of what is observed under normal circumstances (bright daylight; senses in good order; undisturbed and alert observer) and what is then described in some ordinary idiom that is understood by all” (p. 35). It also involves interpreting what is currently perceived in light of “tradition” or “preconceived opinion” (p. 37). Hence ordinary, everyday statements like “The gunman was wearing a ski mask” or “This apple is stale” — which presuppose that we already know, from past experience, what a gunman typically looks like, what stale apples taste like, etc. — would for the Aristotelian provide examples of the sorts of things we know immediately via experience.”
Empiricism, meanwhile, takes the observers as just given. He just appears, or just is, and this parallels with the manner in which the state of nature man at the center of liberalism just exists. The reason for this is that these people, these liberal “thinkers”, really just engaged in political conflict. They were building just so stories to justify what they wanted to happen in their political milieus.
Now we could go round in circles like poor old Feser and countless others before him in refuting in detail every silly claim of empiricists (see here for example,) or we can get to the root of the problem. We are all pretty busy, so we should take option two. The root of the problem is that empiricism is as I have mentioned a politicization of epistemology as a means of political attack by unsecure power systems. The system, being the system, is total. Anything favoring the system gets selected by the system and promoted by the system. If it didn’t then it wouldn’t be a stable system at all. Feyerbend has the devil by the tail here as Feser notes:
“His [Feyerabend’s] aim is to provide an illustration of how the purported “success” of the empiricist interpretation of science — which might seem to confirm that interpretation, despite its conceptual problems — involves selective and inconsistent application of empiricist scruples, question-begging assumptions, ad hoc hypotheses, and so forth. And once again he sees parallels with sola scriptura. In both instances, Feyerabend thinks, partisans of the doctrines in question claim “success” by focusing their attention on cases they think confirm the “rule of faith” while dismissing problematic cases as relatively insignificant puzzles raised by heretics and other oddballs. Though question-begging, this procedure seems reasonable to them because they are surrounded by a “community… which is already committed to a certain doctrine” (p. 38) and which thereby reinforces their perception that the doctrine is the one that is accepted by all reasonable people. These communities inculcate a “party line” (p. 39) which determines how one perceives the weight of various objections, the significance of the relevant pieces of evidence, etc. Hence the doctrines in question — classical empiricism and sola scriptura — “although logically vacuous, [are] by no means psychologically vacuous” (p. 38).
“Sola scriptura and early modern empiricism were both self-consciously revolutionary doctrines, intended decisively to rein in what their proponents thought to be epistemological excesses. Hence they were formulated precisely so as to lay down an unambiguous line the crossing of which is strictly forbidden, thereby to take down in one fell swoop enormous bodies of doctrine (Catholic theology in the one case, Scholastic and rationalist metaphysics in the other).”
You will note that at all points here the target is Catholicism as well Aristotleanism underpinning Catholicism at the time. Why would this be? Well it only comes into view clearly from the absolutist political analysis of unsecure systems in conflict. What occurred was a significant battle between state power centers and the Catholic Church power centers and this epistemology was center stage. So when Feyerabend talks of empiricism’s doctrines as being “although logically vacuous, [are] by no means psychologically vacuous”” he is understating the situation. We can add that they are indeed (internally) logically vacuous but are by no means psychologically vacuous nor (and this is key) vacuous in their logic to power.”
At this point that only real recourse from empiricists is to appeal to the success of empiricism, but the simple counter to this is to ask what does this success mean? Feyerabend asks the same question in the essay Feser is referencing and he makes the following claim regarding what he calls the classical empiricism of Newton:
“For just as in the case of Protestantism the success of the chosen theories is entirely man-made. It is due to the fact that the psychological result of a complex process of indoctrination was turned into a basis. In the case of Protestantism the basis supported faith. Here it supports a scientific theory which is constantly being expanded by the addition of ad hoc hypotheses (that is what the ‘success’ of the theory really amounts too.) In both cases we are dealing with nothing but a party line.
Let us reconsider what we have discovered so far. We have discovered that the rejection of authority, of tradition, of the results of speculation that is such a characteristic outer feature of both Protestantism and of the empiricism of Bacon does not lead to a more critical attitude. It leads to the enthroning of new authorities which demand slavish attention: scripture on the one side, experience on the other. We have seen how the vacuity of the rules makes them excellent allies in the defence of partisan ideas. If we follow the demand for an authoritative foundation such ideas are first made plausible, they are then based upon their own most plausible parts and are justified thereby. In the case of Protestantism the plausible parts are the intuitions resulting from a strict and merciless education. In the case of empiricism the plausible parts are those elements of a theory which can be readily illustrated by experiment.”
Feyerabend, being Feyerabend then turns around and declares this complete shambolic system is then actually quite good because it means that effectively it opens the doors to anarchism:
“Any idea can now be presented in a manner that makes it acceptable and capable of winning followers.
The fact that we are dealing with party lines is therefore not really a drawback. Quite the contrary: party lines play a most important role in many civilised institutions, such as the democratic process
Party lines are not the problem. Problems arise only when an attempt is made to turn subjective conviction that makes a particular party line stand out into an infallible objective judge who withstands criticism and demands that his dictum be obeyed. Classical empiricism which adopts this procedure has not yet completely overcome its even more restricted ancestry.
That Feyerband could make this conclusion is premised on being unable to account for exactly what has outlined in the preceding parts of the chapter. This being that both empiricism and Protestantism share the same structure, with both being anti-authority (a specific authority.) That this is so can be seen in the following passage:
“It is rather interesting to examine the similarities between the theories of Protestantism and Baconian empiricism. These similarities are expressed not only in the structure of the respective doctrines, but even in the phrases which are used to direct attention to the respective bases (scripture; experience): reverence is demanded of both of them, success and a clear view of an all-embracing entity (God; nature) is promised in both cases, and in almost the same exalted terms. A detailed description of such phenomena is a challenging task for the historian of ideas.”
What we can add to this history of ideas is the illumination provided by the role of power in promoting these specific party lines. This means that there is no possibility of epistemological/ methodological anarchism because both Protestantism and empiricism in this guise are explainable in terms of political structure. Feyerabend fails to account for the fact that party lines require institutions within which the parties exist. In Newton’s time this would be the Royal Society, in our time they are the progressive foundations. What we see in both instances is not an encouragement of many ideas but as Feyerabend points out, a rabid stomping out of dissident ideas which considering the motto of the society is quite impressive. Feyerabend is again instructive on this “fascinating, tortuous, schizophrenic combination of a conservative ideology and a progressive practice” in which a revision of any part is allowed regardless of experience, but that the stable foundation is experience which itself needs of no “support or interpretation” a state of affairs which is impossible as it does not allow us to “identify” experience in the same way a call to sola scriptura doesn’t allow us to identify the scripture. The whole things stands or falls logically on experience, which is to say it falls.
The obvious response to all of the above is to assert the correlation between empiricism and technological development, but the Jouvenelian mechanism which places empiricism within the purview of unsecure power would indicate that this correlation is significiantly more complicated than on first appearances. It would seem to indicate as has been put to me elsewhere that there are two processes at play at once. One is a destructive process of no intellectual value and is fact absurd, the other is a surreptitious integrative process which is of extreme value; the second process developing in the shadow of the first parasitic process which claims the success of the second. Empiricism then becomes a camouflage covering the real developments, and not a cause.