Monday, March 4, 2013

Defining a New Magazine: "Radically Empirical"

Letter from the EditorMay 2012
Olav Bryant Smith

Originally published in the May 2012 issue.

Welcome to the magazine Empirical. I’d like to open with a few words about the name Empirical and our mission.

PHOTO: Olav Bryant Smith

Our mission statement reads: “A literary and current affairs magazine with the openness and pioneering spirit of the Pacific Northwest, Empirical aspires for truth by boldly introducing thought-provoking points of view and new paradigms. A forum for discourse on contemporary issues, the magazine is ‘radically empirical’ in considering the broad range of human experience.”

To begin with, we’ve already encountered more than one person who thought that Empirical was a reference in some way to empire. The word would have been “imperial” if that were the case, and I want to assure everyone that it’s the last thing we would have intended. We live in an age where visions of empire have helped to take us to the edge of the abyss.

Another misunderstanding of our intention has come from those with philosophical training. The standard definitions for empiricism have to do with making judgments on the basis of experience, and most people get that. Empirical supports this. The problem comes in with people who are aware of the debates that have surrounded what counts for “experience” in the world of science and philosophy.

The Philosophical Background

William James

The English philosophers Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke established what’s thought of as the “empirical” tradition in philosophy and science. Thinking that people were misled by religious and other traditions into believing claims that lacked evidential support, they urged us to base our beliefs on experience. Again, Empirical stands in this tradition. But—standing against rational dogmatism of all kinds—Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke tended to count as experience only those things that can be verified through sensual observation. Experience, according to such empirical philosophers, came to be identified exclusively with such observation through the five physical senses. This is often commonly summed up by the expression “Seeing is believing.”

For most things in science, this works just fine—though science itself has had to modify its expectations in this arena. No one has ever seen, for example, a quark. It’s a theoretical construct based on evidence that has been seen. So attempts to insist on a theory of verification through such observation failed, and Karl Popper’s theory of falsification has taken its place.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume had seen this coming a couple of hundred years earlier, arguing that we can’t even verify the concept of causation through sight or the other physical sensations alone. We never see causation with our eyes. And without the principle of causation, we could not have science.

David Hume went further. He insisted that all we have in experience, according to this type of empiricism, are multiple sensory perceptions—often bundled together by association. We cannot, he argued, verify the existence of the world, any physical object, or even something we might call “the self,” much less God. We are ourselves, he concluded, nothing but a bundle of perceptions.

It was against this backdrop that takes away so much of meaning and value in human existence that William James protested with his call to radical empiricism. James was an American philosopher and psychologist who died in the early part of the 20th century. To James (and Alfred North Whitehead, who later defended and built upon this position), we have a great deal of experience that is not limited to the five physical sense organs. James and Whitehead both pointed to memory as a prime example of such experience. Whitehead spoke often of our experience of our own bodies as well, calling it the withness of the body. James coined the term radical empiricism in the context of addressing our experience of interconnectedness with the world.

Many of you may be familiar with James, who was a prominent scientist as well as a medical doctor and psychologist himself, as the author of Varieties of Religious Experience. He wrote this from an open-minded, radically empirical point of view. He and Whitehead encouraged us to not get trapped in a too-narrow view of the world imposed on us by what usually passes as “empirical” science.

What This Means To Us

We live in a time of turmoil. No one is quite certain how to move forward. The tidy categories that we had grown used to in the past (in politics, economics, religion, and many other fields) often fail to satisfy us or solve our problems today. We need to think outside-the-box as we move forward into the future.

Empirical wants to encourage sound reasoning and penetrating reflection that appeal to all of the facts of our experience without the limitations of preconceived categories of thought. Toward that end, we will feature essays in politics, economics, philosophy, and social science that break new ground and look at things in new and often exciting ways. The editors at Empirical may not always agree with the points of view that we feature, but we will always offer them with open minds and great interest. We will cover paradigm shifts and new technologies in a wide variety of fields.

Whitehead, a logician and mathematical physicist in addition to being a philosopher, said that the process of discovery is like the flight of an airplane. You begin on the ground with observation. Then you “soar into the thin air of imaginative generalization.” This is where you try to make sense of what you have observed. Then you land again for further observation, noting what does not fit your current theory and adjusting the theory as you go. The key in this last step is to be keenly observant of those parts of experience that do not fit into the current paradigm, and to adjust our paradigm accordingly.

James and Whitehead, as radically empirical philosophers, were committed to science and applying a sharply rational and logical intellect to the data of experience, but were both concerned that empiricism not be limited in its scope. Both sought to widen the range of investigation to include all aspects of life. James and Whitehead sought, for example, to include science and religion under the same umbrella of reasonable discourse.

In this spirit of courageous and inclusive exploration of the facts of our experience, Empirical magazine seeks to encourage bold speculation through reasoned discourse, and new ideas that seek to explain the facts of the entirety of our experience—not only those that fit what we already believe. Empirical will encourage the consideration of new paradigms, new ways of life, and new technologies as presented in art, non-fiction, and fiction. And the range of Empirical subjects will embrace the wide range of human experience in ways that are informative, and often uplifting and encouraging.

We also begin with a Jamesian leap of faith. In his Will to Believe, James—concerned as he was with purpose in life—wrote that there come moments in life (such as standing on the edge of an abyss while mountain-climbing) where it does not pay to only believe in what you have verified in the past. Sometimes, we must take a leap of faith based on our perception of ideal possibilities that have never before been realized. This is the basis of real progress. It is our hope that you will join us in making that leap together.

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