September 19, 2017

The empiricist fallacy

Appendix 8 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978.

The empiricist thesis is demonstrably false and that empiricism, or its modern version, logical positivism, should still be taught as gospel in our universities is truly scandalous.

A few considerations should suffice to demonstrate its falsehood. The first is that a child’s mind at birth is far from being the tabula rasa which empiricism implies. A child at birth must be in possession of a rudimentary knowledge of the nature of its environment reflecting the experience of its species (see Appendix 7) which would not otherwise display stability or continuity. The fact is that a system’s behaviour must be based on information that itself displays continuity. Each generation must inherit information which reflects the experience of its ancestors going back into the mists of time. As already pointed out, that is why genetic information is so stable. If it were more plastic and could permit adaptations to changes based on the experience of one or two generations only, it might give rise to adaptations to freak conditions unlikely ever to recur. The species involved would be unstable and hence could not survive.

There is yet another reason why the empiricist thesis must be false. Building up information means improving the model so that it may serve as a basis for ever more adaptive behaviour, and this improvement, contrary to what empiricists may think, does not simply consist in accumulating more data but in organising it. The establishment of a new relationship between two of the variables of a model (thinking, in other words), permitting an improved explanation of certain observable data, must increase the information contained within the model without involving the simultaneous detection of data. In this sense the ‘rationalist thesis’ which empiricists, over the last two hundred years, have been at pains to discredit must be regarded as correct.

Needless to say scientists have sought to overcome this limitation imposed on their ability to understand things by strict adherence to the empiricist thesis. Physicists have introduced into their model variables which correspond to nothing that can be perceived by us even with the aid of the electron microscope. Though they may insist these are hypothetical until such time as their presence can be demonstrated empirically, they treat them, in effect, as if their presence had been substantiated. This is not the case, however, in other disciplines where many of the factors that are relevant to explaining any given situation are ignored because they cannot be perceived.

Finally, the empiricist notion that a hypothesis becomes a fact once it is verified empirically would be true if perception were the objective measuring rod which empiricists take it to be. Since, as we have seen, perception simply involves formulating a hypothesis, to verify a hypothesis empirically simply means to see if it is compatible with another hypothesis.

The fact is that in certain conditions, people will often refuse to accept empirical evidence that conflicts with their basic values, or, more precisely, with the generalities of their cultural pattern.

In the case of such a conflict, the observed facts tend to be modified to fit the general model rather than the reverse. Thus most primitive tribes leading a sedentary agricultural life have their rainmakers. The efficacy of the magical rites performed to induce rain is doubted by nobody. Such a belief survives unscathed, because failure to produce rain will not be attributed to the inefficacy of the rituals, but to some technical failure in their performance, such as the presence of someone who has violated a taboo.

Similarly, in all the so-called higher religions, there is a general belief in the efficacy of prayer as a means of acquiring the intervention in worldly matters of some supernatural being. The fact that in no single instance is evidence available to point to such an intervention does not in any way detract from the belief in its efficacy.

Even more illustrative is the behaviour of the Jivaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador. Harner 152 describes how they believe that a man possesses a number of different souls. Apart from the true soul, or ‘nekaswakan’, he can at times also possess another type of soul, called a ‘muisak’, or avenging soul. But he also acquires an ‘aroutam’ soul, which is the one they treasure the most, and whose acquisition as the result of a complex ritual confers upon them invulnerability in war. This soul, after another ritual, leaves the body of its host. However, its power remains, ebbing away only very slowly. It is at this point that the Jivaro, who have just acquired and lost an aroutam soul, must join a killing party whose role it is to kill a member of some other tribe. This is an essential part of aroutam ritual, as it is only by repeated killings that one can replace the ebbing soul with a new one.

Though they are supposed to have complete invulnerability, it occasionally occurs that the killing party is unsuccessful, and one of their members is killed in the attack. When this happens, the Jivaro are not led to revise their belief in the invulnerability conferred by the aroutam soul. On the contrary, the other members of the expedition “. . . simply consider the death to be evidence that the deceased had already lost his aroutam soul without realising it.”

On the other hand, the Jivaro are consistent enough in their belief to ‘realise’ that their killing expedition would have little success if their intended victim were protected by an aroutam soul. “A man who has killed repeatedly, called ‘Kakaram’, or ‘powerful one’, is rarely attacked because his enemies feel that the protection provided by him by his constantly replaced souls would make any assassination attempt against him fruitless.” So they await the signs of weakness on the part of the intended victim, or “. . . the first-hand observation that the enemy was lacking in forcefulness of speech” which is considered to provide important evidence that the aroutam soul’s power has left the intended victim. In any case, he is only attacked if the raiders believe that he has lost his aroutam soul. If they should fail to kill him, this would not cast any doubt as to the vulnerability of people who have been abandoned by their aroutam souls. On the contrary, failure would be attributed to the fact that “. . . the enemy still retained the soul, or had a second one in reserve.”

There is a tendency to laugh at such tales, of which innumerable examples can be found among tribal peoples. However, as has been shown in this book, we behave in precisely the same way. Empirical verification, in fact, is only effective, when the verifier has no psychological stake in the outcome.


152. M.J. Harner, ‘Jivaro Souls’ American Anthropologist Vol. 64, No. 2, April 1966.

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