The 2023-2024 NCFCA debate resolutions have been announced! The new Lincoln Douglas topic is,

Resolved: rationalism ought to be valued above empiricism.

As many of you know, I was not a fan of this resolution when it was proposed. I am still not a fan, though I am less pessimistic than I used to be. “Rationalism” and “empiricism” are usually reserved as labels for views defended by philosophers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and some of those views were so extreme that no living philosopher would endorse them. For example, Rene Descartes, history’s paradigmatic rationalist, thought that knowledge of anything requires absolute certainty and that such certainty can be achieved only through the exercise of pure reason (more precisely, through a convoluted series of deductions from self-evident truths). On the other hand, David Hume, the most famous of the British empiricists, argued that all knowledge comes to us through experience and that reason never constitutes an independent source of knowledge.

No living philosopher I know of holds either Hume’s view or Descartes’, and many historians of philosophy think that “rationalism” and “empiricism” are crude labels that may not even apply to the early-modern thinkers they were coined to characterize. However, there are ways to define these terms more moderately, ways that could still make interesting, even-handed debate rounds possible. This will require very clear, very careful analysis. If you are planning to compete in LD next year, your priority between now and the start of next season should be to decide precisely what you will mean by “rationalism” and “empiricism” and exactly what you will take the conflict between them to be.

In this article, I will offer some suggestions to get you started. Let’s begin with a couple standard dictionary definitions, both from Merriam-Webster:

Rationalism: a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions

[Note: most dictionaries define “rationalism” as the view that beliefs should be based on reasons, or that people should be rational, as opposed to irrational. That’s not the sense of “rationalism” with which empiricists disagree. Please resist the temptation, as the affirmative, to make the resolution about whether it’s good to be rational or not. No one disputes that.]

Empiricism: a theory that all knowledge originates in experience

These definitions are pretty vague, but they are (by far) the best ones available in standard dictionaries. They suggest a one or two workable interpretations of the conflict between rationalism and empiricism.

First, we can take rationalists and empiricists to disagree about whether reason or experience is fundamental, that is, foundational to other sources of knowledge. Does experience give us knowledge all on its own? Or does the authority of experience depend in some way on the authority of reason? Descartes held the latter position: he thought that we need to prove that experience is reliable through reason before we can trust it. Hume thought that was impossible, and that we are forced to trust experience whether or not we can prove that it is not misleading us.

Here is an (imperfect) analogy that illustrates this difference. Think of everything you know as a building composed of beliefs stacked up on top of each other. The “foundation” of this building is composed of your most fundamental beliefs, beliefs that you hold very strongly, upon which all of your other beliefs depend. Your belief in the law of noncontradiction, or your belief that you have a body, probably belong in this foundation. Descartes held that all foundational knowledge comes from reason, i.e. that all knowledge is “stacked” on top of a few fundamental, self-evident truths known through reason. Hume held that all foundational knowledge comes from experience. So, it is possible to interpret the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists as a disagreement about what kind of knowledge is on the “ground floor,” metaphorically speaking.

I don’t think this is the best way to interpret the resolution. First of all, it assumes a controversial view in philosophy called “foundationalism,” according to which the structure of knowledge is similar to the structure of a building. Not all rationalists and empiricists were obviously foundationalists. Second of all, rationalism and empiricism are almost certainly both false when interpreted this way. We all hold some foundational beliefs based on reason and some based on experience. I can’t prove that murder is wrong through experience, and I can’t prove that I have a body through reason (contrary to what Descartes believed). Yet both of these beliefs of mine are foundational; I don’t infer them from other things I know. I just know them. In reality, knowledge is a mixed bag all the way down to the ground level.

Here is another, more promising route to take. We can interpret the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists as a disagreement about which kind of knowledge is superior. Sometimes reason and experience seem to conflict with each other. For instance, quantum physicists tell us (roughly) that light behaves like a particle and a wave at the same time, and that particles like electrons sometimes exist without being in any particular place. That sounds abhorrent to reason, and yet our experience (that is, our scientific experiments) seem to confirm it. So, what do we believe about quantum physics? Is it really possible for something to be a particle and a wave at the same time? Or should we conclude, by an appeal to reason, that our senses (or our scientific equipment, or our other theories) are deceiving us? (There are other, less arcane examples you can use under this interpretation of the resolution. For example, you may point out, on AFF,  that our senses often deceive us, but that reason never deceives us, since self-evident truths like the law of noncontradiction and the law of excluded middle are never false. You may also argue that reason is necessary to determine which experiences are trustworthy when they conflict with each other. Of course, empiricists have answers to these arguments.)

Now for the most promising route, in my view. Rather than relying on dictionary definitions like the ones above to determine the main points of conflict between rationalists and empiricists, we can simply look to historians of philosophy to tell us what the main points of conflict are. In their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, Peter Markie and M. Folescu, both professors of philosophy at the University of Missouri, argue that the main point (or one of the main points) of contention between rationalists and empiricists is about whether the “Innate Knowledge” thesis is true:

“The Innate Knowledge thesis asserts that we have a priori knowledge, that is knowledge independent, for its justification, of sense experience, as part of our rational nature. Experience may trigger our awareness of this knowledge, but it does not provide us with it. The knowledge is already there.”

The Innate Knowledge thesis is basically the denial of John Locke’s famous assertion that the mind is a “blank slate” upon which anything can be written by experience. (If you thought you had finally escaped John Locke this season, think again – he is the most famous of the empiricists after Hume!) Rationalists hold that there are some things that we all know even though we never learned them. These items of knowledge are, so to speak, hard-wired. Our slates are not blank.

The good news is that this topic is still of interest to some philosophers writing today. Noam Chomsky, for example, is famous for arguing that humans have an innate knowledge of the structure of language. We must posit this innate knowledge, he argues, in order to explain how children learn to use language so quickly with so little information. Peter Carruthers, a philosopher of cognitive science, has argued that we have innate knowledge of the principles of “folk-psychology,” a set of commonsense truths that we use to interpret other people’s actions. Even children are able to tell intuitively when someone is angry, what they want, and what they are thinking, even though practically no child has enough experience to develop a sophisticated theory of psychology. Carruthers’ arguments dovetail nicely with the work of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, who argued that all humans have innate knowledge of what he calls the “principles of common sense,” which include the principles of folk psychology along with principles about morality, the existence of the physical world, and other subjects. (Reid is sometimes, confusingly, classified along with Hume as one of the British empiricists. Truth be told, I am not sure why. Their views were radically different – almost all of Reid’s writings are in explicit and direct opposition to Hume.)

From where I am standing, the Innate Knowledge thesis looks like the most interesting, most relevant, most even-handed point of conflict between rationalism and empiricism. I would strongly recommend that debaters focus on this topic in their constructive speeches. Of course, there might be other interesting points of conflict that could make for interesting rounds (the resolution hasn’t even been out for 24 hours, and we all still have a year’s worth of thinking to do). It might also be possible to focus on more than one point of disagreement in a single round. For example, AFF could argue both that some knowledge is innate and that knowledge acquired through reason is superior to knowledge acquired through experience.

Regardless, I am now slightly more optimistic about the prospects for this resolution than I was a few weeks ago. I still think that handling it responsibly will require a lot of work on debaters’ parts, and making the debate clear and intelligible to judges will be very, very difficult. But I invite you to think of this as a challenge, rather than an obstacle.

Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln Douglas debate for six years.

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