Rationalism and empiricism are two distinct philosophical approaches to understanding the world around us. They are often contrasted with each other, as their approach to knowledge is completely different. Empiricists believe that we learn about our world through our previous experience, while for rationalists, reason is the basis of understanding anything. Both views can help someone attain knowledge, but they have certain disadvantages.
An empiricist would say that the laws of electrical conductivity are dependent on human observation. It's because we've seen electricity going through a piece of metal and not wood thousands of times that we consolidated the fact that metal is a conductor and wood is not. Our senses don't lie -- under normal circumstances -- and experience can show whether a phenomenon repeats itself and therefore it abides by certain laws or it happened randomly. Scientists for example use experiments to test through observation whether an assumption is true or not.
Perception is not universal: What a person perceives as true can be false for another person. For example, a book can be red for one man, but for a color-blind person it may be green. Does this mean that because one or many color-blinds perceive the book as such it is indeed green? Furthermore, perception is also affected by external factors: the same experiment under different conditions (temperature for example) can give different results, unbeknownst to the careless researcher.
Rationalists believe that there is a reason each object or phenomenon exists. An object comes back to the ground when thrown upwards not because a million people have observed so but because there is a reason for it to happen: the law of gravity. In addition, metal is a conductor because it facilitates movable electric charges, unlike wood. Rationalism tries to find the already existing general principles (man didn't create them) behind each phenomenon, which are independent of each individual's perception of knowledge. The result is undisputed theories explaining the laws of the world surrounding us.
Rationalism suggests that people are born with innate ideas, truths in a particular subject area (such as math concepts) that are part of out rational nature and we only have to bring them to the surface. However, as philosopher John Locke suggests, there are "idiots" who are not aware of -- and cannot understand -- simple notions, contradicting the universality of innate ideas. Furthermore, laws or logic describing the world are not infallible, as they may be based on human misconceptions, otherwise scientists would not conduct experiments and just rely on logical arguments.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images