03 August 2009

The Foundation: Empiricism

I do not believe in deities. I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian God, the Hindu Vishnu, the Muslim Allah, the Greek Zeus, or the Roman Jupiter. I have beliefs of the world and how it exists, but my beliefs don’t fit into any recognized—or even heretical, for that matter—religious pot. When it comes to day-to-day living, I base things on observed knowledge as much as possible. Though empiricism has been debated for a long as debate has existed, I’m still pretty comfortable that there are shared observations among people and that as long as we understand those shared observations, we can make decisions. Religion, by its very foundation in personal belief therefore cannot be “shared” observations. At least, not for everyone.

For example, most people around the planet can recognize the animal known to Americans as a cow. We all use different words to name it, and we all have different views on what to do with it, but we all recognize a sentient being separate from ourselves that walks on all fours and eats grass. These are empirical facts. Whether or not the cow is tasty to eat or a divine animal meant to be worshipped are non-empirical facts. There is nothing inherent in the cow itself that says “eat me” or “worship me.” Those ideas are placed upon the cow from external sources – people. Any subjective ideas placed upon other things by people are going to vary by as many people that you have. But even if a large number of people agree with an idea does not make it fact. Just because a large portion of Americans like the taste of beef does not automatically make a cow “tasty.” Conversely, just because hundreds of millions of people hold a cow to be sacred and refuse to eat a cow does not make beef “not tasty.”

It is the empirical ideas by which we must do our best to make laws when governing a large group of people. Not everyone feels this way. Many people believe in the “majority rules” way of government, in that whatever the most people in a given group decide, that is how they will act. Don’t get me wrong, this idea works fine when deciding what restaurant to go to or what movie to see. Because if a group picks a restaurant or a movie that one particular person is definitively against, that person is not obliged to go. When a governing body is trying to make laws that suffice to cover all people equally, opinion then has to be discarded and something more tangible must be put into place. And the best way to appease all people is to base laws on empirical truths. Let’s look at some examples.

Murder. Empirically, murder ends someone else’s life without their permission. Whether or not the murderer believes the killing was justified, they are placing their beliefs on another person, ergo, it should not be allowed. The same holds true for rape, robbery, arson, destruction, assault and any crimes against persons or objects. Any time the alleged assailant imposes their will on another person or thing that is not their own, they are at fault. This can be summed in the phrase, “Your rights end where mine begin.” Fraud also fits here. Lying to someone is the same as imposing your will on their actions or property. If you takes someone’s money under false pretenses, you are imposing your will on someone without their knowledge and permission—robbery.

Some other laws on the books are justifiable because they are essentially lease laws. The government builds roads or buildings and thus the people then are free to use these under rules set up by the owners (government). These rules tend to be less empirical and rely more on majority or ¾ rules, but try to maintain some relations to protecting civil rights. All people will be driving on roads, therefore rules are imposed to help increase the safety of all people. Does driving 70 mph impose your will on someone else? Singly, no. But if other people are sharing that road, the increased speed could put the other motorists in danger. And for the privilege of driving on the government-owned road, you agree to abide by government-set rules. If you own 100 acres of land criss-crossed with a variety of roads, you get to set your own speed limit, or obey none at all. If a corporation owns a building and hires employees, the corporation gets to set the rules. If the employees don’t want to comply, they can choose to leave the company.

Then there are some even trickier laws, like gun laws. People are free to own guns. But when a gun’s purpose (for sake of this specific argument) is to kill other people, imposing the shooter’s will on another person, things get sticky. The same goes for labor laws and religious laws. If a company gives employees paid time off for Christmas, why should someone who does not celebrate Christmas not get to take off Chanukah or Kwanzaa instead? (Of course, it’s not so sticky for me. My answer to those quandaries is that no laws should be made. We already have laws against murder, proven empirically; therefore, if a gun owner kills someone, they face the consequences. Period. Companies are also free to establish their own time-off schedules, and the employees can comply or not.)

I understand that this logic is also not without its flaws, but there are very few. It all boils down to simplicity. Let’s keep the laws simple, base them on something empirical, and then they are much easier to obey and to enforce. Keep government strictly for maintaining order for the group at large and protecting the whole from outsiders. This way, it also makes taxes a lot easier to sort out because the only “government programs” would be defense, civil order (e.g., roads and healthcare), and law enforcement for the empirical laws.

I maintain that this is what the Founders were thinking when they set up the Constitution. Freedom from persecution, no matter what your beliefs, was paramount. Personal property rights and personal freedoms were at the heart of the Revolution (especially against tyrannical rule and nonsense taxation from abroad). The Federalists papers and notes from Constitutional Congresses bear this out. The Constitution itself is bare bones, dictating the minimum rules by which to govern, keeping it simple. And the diversity of the colonists was just as varied then as it is today. With a smaller populace and land area, I think it was easier to maintain that ideal. But as the population grew and opinions became more varied and groups of like-minded people decided to band together, it got more difficult to remember that main empirical principle. If an entire state of people agreed to outlaw something, it was easier to enforce because there was no (or very little) opposition. Laws were passed without reaching back to the empirical basis. As the country grew, so did government. And here we are today.

I wonder how any political issues would disappear today if we could revert to the empirical-based governing upon which we were founded.


  1. I think you're giving way too much credit to John Locke in terms of influence upon the Founders and the formation of the Republic. Indeed, the Founding Era is not as simplistic as you seem to think. The ideals of the Enlightenment--which, for the most part, have been discredited--played a role in the founding of the Republic to be sure, but it was just one factor among others.

    To say that the War for Independence and the subsequent creation of the Constitution were merely products of Enlightenment ideals (like empiricism) is to misread history. It's no different than those on the Right who like to claim that the Republic is entirely the product of Christian ideals. Neither is true. It is more accurate to say that the Republic is a product of certain aspects of Enlightenment thought, certain Christian principles, and discernment of ancient history (think Greece and Rome). We can debate the extent to which each of these factors contributed to the final product which came out of Philadelphia in 1787, but it is blatantly wrong to assert a simplistic origin.

    I also take issue with your assertion that your worldview isn't tainted by "religious" ideals. You claim that your worldview is simply the product of mere observations, but this is inherently false. Observations only tell us what *is*, not what *ought* to be. All of our observations--including yours--are filtered by our respective presuppositions. We don't engage in observation with a neutral mindset. How I observe the natural world as a Christian, for example, is going to be radically different than what an atheist would see--and yet, we are observing the same thing.

    Therefore, these political issues will not disappear by simply reverting to an empirical-based system of thought. We can have 20 different people looking at things empirically, but we can still have 20 different opinions about how to address policy. Shared observations do not mean shared opinions.

    Your example of murder is a case in point. Empiricism cannot tell us whether murder is wrong. In fact, the very concept of murder doesn't even exist within the realm of empiricism--there is only killing. We can see that someone has clearly been killed and observe the facts as such, but those observations alone will not tell us whether the killing was justified or morally wrong.

    An atheist who believes in philosophical naturalism and macro-evolution will certainly observe that one man has maliciously killed another, but he may find no fault with the killer. The atheist may observe that such things do indeed happen within the animal kingdom and that the killer was simply acting out on his evolutionary instincts. Therefore, the killer shouldn't be punished for doing what is clearly observed to be normal and natural within the animal kingdom, the atheist would say. He may even go on to suggest that such laws against murder be repealed as they hamper our natural instincts.

  2. (continued from above)

    That's why I say that empiricism is no viable means by which we ought to establish our laws. Moreover, the Founders did not employ empiricism as the basis for American law and jurisprudence. Nor is that the basis for the type of "bare bones" limited government you describe. We have a Constitution that limits government power precisely because of the collective presuppositional views of the Founders regarding human nature. It is certainly true that early America's Calvinistic heritage played no small part in how most of the Founders viewed human nature, thus giving an emphasis upon checks/balances, a weak executive, a republican form of government, and federalism.

    What really caught my eye in this entry was how you related the Constitution's protections of religious liberty, property, and the like to the Federalist Papers. In point of fact, the Federalists who drafted the original Constitution did not want a bill of rights. That came later only after the Anti-Federalists wrote extensively about the potential abuses of power from the new national government and thus the Bill of Rights was created as a sort of compromise. Even after the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, virtually all of the original 13 states still had established churches (a practice which did not end until Massachusetts was the last to disestablish its state church in the 1830s). I mention this because the Bill of Rights exists *primarily* to protect state sovereignly rather than protect individual liberties (except for Federal territories like D.C. where individual liberties indeed become the primary concern).

    What worries me about your post is that you seem to want an ultra-secular state in which religious voices of any kind are suppressed from policymaking entirely. I interpret you to mean that people of faith ought to be shut out of any such discussions because their religious convictions would otherwise taint the process. What you want, it seems, is a religious test to weed out those who truly live by their convictions and let those convictions inform their respective worldviews. If that's the case, then you want something that virtually none of the Founders ever desired nor intended.

  3. Clarification: It was lazy writing when I just said the Federalist Papers. I am so accustomed to the Federalist papers as being published in the form that they were written - as dialogue between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, so tend to use the FP as a shorthand. And I still maintain that their overall goal was indeed to try and serve the overall needs of all people. But as a point, this is an issue of intrepretation.

    I agree that empiricism cannot tell us what is "right" and what is "wrong." That's actually my entire point. Murder is killing, yes, whatever the intent, the end result is the same, regardless of your "interpretation" a person's life was ended. And it seems to me that only the person killed gets to have a say in whether or not the killing should be allowed as it affects that person intimately and if there's no record of permission, then that becomes a crime.

    And I don't think that people with religious views should be shut out of discussions, but I do believe that the religious agenda behind convictions should not be a litmus test for laws affecting religious and non-religious people equally.

    Let's go back to the cow example. You, a religious Hindu sees the cow as a sacred animal to worship. I, a non-Hindu, see the cow as an animal to be eaten. Should I not be allowed to eat the cow just because you think it is sacred? How does me eating a cow affect your belief that the cow is sacred in any way? Wouldn't me eating the cow have consequences for me only or do you really believe that your god will punish you for what someone else does? In which case, that would be a pretty crappy life, constantly policing everyone around you to live exactly the way you do - and good luck to you. Also, if that cow is my property and not yours.. well, you see.

    And I'm not sure what you mean by religous convictions "tainting" the process, because empirically, it shouldn't matter what your religious views are in making decisions. "Because a book tells me that X is so" does not empirically make X actually so (just as it does not empirically make it not so).

    Also, laws are not forcing you to change your worldviews whether or not you agree to them. Simply by allowing things to happen that you don't like or disagree with doesn't mean that somehow, magically, you are forced to accept them into your own life.

    I, personally, dislike organized religions in most forms. But that doesn't mean I'm going to support a law that prevents people from practicing said religion - as long as it does not in any way hinder my own personal actions. Not buying alcohol on Sundays (as is law in my particular state) is ridiculous and based purely on relgious reasons. How does me buying a bottle of wine or a case of beer on a Sunday differ from me buying it on any other day of the week? Because clearly, the act of buying the alcohol isn't the issue, or it wouldn't be allowed the other six days, it's only on Sunday that it's taboo. And that makes no empirical sense whatsoever.

    What if I wanted a law that prevented you from going to any church function on any day of the week *except* Sunday? No mid-week Bible studies, or Saturday church socials. It's just as ludicrous.

  4. First, the Federalist Papers are not dialogue with the Anti-Federalists. They were propaganda documents designed to appeal to those in the "middle" who were still uncertain about whether to ratify the Constitution. Each state had to hold a ratifying convention and thus said documents were drafted to appeal to those still undecided.

    Moreover, it is not a matter of interpretation--the purpose of the Constitution was not to "serve the needs of the people," but to establish a compact in order to better preserve the several *states*--it had nothing to do with the people in the aggregate. The people in the aggregate did not ratify the Constitution, but rather it was the people acting as part of their respective states.

    Second, you fail to realize that civil government's entire purpose is to determine what is right and wrong. Hence, I stand by my statements that empiricism (another discredited part of the "Enlightenment") is woefully insufficient to determine what laws we ought to have. Every law is inherently based upon certain moral presuppositions. This is an inescapable concept which you don't seem to understand.

    Ultimately, the question isn't whether morality will government within the public square, but *whose* morality will govern as such. That's why we operate with a democratic system within a republican form of government. If you don't like a particular law because it conflicts with your views of morality, then you have the opportunity to vote said individuals out of office. Therefore, the make-up of government itself in that regard is a clear indicator of where society is in terms of worldview.

    Third, you seem to be contradicting yourself when you claim that you don't want to shut out those evil "religious people" while at the same time wanting to stifle "religious agendas" (whatever that's supposed to mean) from the discussion of ideas within the public square. Not only is that task impossible (for it is impossible to have a "religiously neutral" government), but it underscores the fact that what you want is a civil government that endorses secular humanism as the official state religion--all other religious views are therefore regulated or restricted.

    Why would it be ludicrous according to your worldview to pass a law restricting me from attending church? It could easily be argued on an empirical basis that religion causes violence and therefore we ought to stifle it at all costs. That's the road empiricism takes us down. When we consider events such as 9-11 and other religiously-based conflicts, the idea of pushing religion out of society doesn't sound like a bad idea to the empiricist.

    I'm not suggesting that this is what you're trying to do, but it seems you are at least leaning in that direction in part. You want to put religion inside of a narrow box in order to prevent it from ruining whatever public policy agenda is going on. That's what I meant when I made the comment about religion "tainting" the process. What I'm saying is that a policymaker's religious views will always affect his judgment one to degree or another. This will never change.

    I'm also against the idea of banning alcohol sales on Sunday and I find it foolish. This is based upon the legalism inherent within fundamentalist Christianity. There is no biblical prohibition against consuming alcohol and therefore I see no need for such laws. That being said, I don't base my objection to that law on any notions of empiricism. Instead, I object to that law based upon its own ethical merits (or lack thereof). That's inherently what makes your position differ from mine.