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Monday, July 30, 2012

That's an Empirical Question: Part I

Having studied philosophy and having discourse with many philosophers, I had heard (and used) this phrase on many occasions. At times during the course of a conversation a conjecture or question is generated and it's decided that the conjecture or question can (should) be decided empirically. After demarcating the question into the "empirical" pile, philosophers then move on to other questions, discussions, etc.

My goal today is to offer a brief overview of two questions to which I will offer hypotheses regarding them (whether or not my questions and/hypotheses are "empirical" can be decided by the reader.)
My questions:

1) What do we mean when say that a question is empirical?

2) What criterion do we use to demarcate empirical from non-empirical questions?

These two questions should overlap significantly. If I were a strict operationalist, I would insist that they are identical questions. But I think there is some insight to be gained by considering them to be different questions.

For example, one meaning (perhaps, implication) that can be granted to the first question is that for philosophers, once it's decided that a question is empirical, discussion of it largely ends. We may go about investigating whether or not the question has in fact been answered yet and what that answer is, but the philosopher qua philosopher need no longer consider the question. It becomes somebody else's responsibility.

This immediately suggests a partial answer to the second question. An empirical question is a question which can (should) be answered by an empirical scientist. That raises the question of what tools an empirical scientist has that will enable her to answer empirical questions. It also suggests that her tools are incapable of answer nonempirical questions.

Conjecture 1: A question is empirical if there exist tools (possessed by an empirical scientist) capable of answering the question.

There are at least two objections to this conjecture.

1) The empirical scientist may possess a variety of mathematical tools  at her disposal. These tools are capable of answering a number of mathematical questions. Mathematical questions are rarely regarded as "empirical". As a result, this conjecture may be a necessary criterion for whether or not a question is empirical, it is not sufficient.

2) Some questions are regarded as "empirical" even though no such tools yet exist. As an example, let's consider the question of how many satellites Jupiter has. Prior to the invention of the telescope, there was no means for counting the number of satellites that Jupiter has. This question might be regarded as empirical even though prior to the existence of the telescope, there were not sufficient tools to answer that question. (Alternatively, we might mean that the question became empirical with invention of the telescope.)

The first objection can be easily avoided by distinguishing empirical tools from nonempirical ones. Empirical questions are those which are answered by empirical tools. This raises the obvious question of what an empirical tool is (and whether or not this conjecture offers us any more insight than we had when we began this inquiry.)

The second objection is a bit more troublesome. On the one hand we could insist that the question is only empirical if there presently exists "empirical tools" available to answer the question. This may, however, not match up well with how the phrase is commonly used (well, used commonly amongst philosophers.) To account for this latter fact, our conjecture would need some reference to a set of all possible empirical tools. This would include already existing tools but also any tools that could be in the future developed to answer the "empirical question".

Like the proposal to the first objection, it raises the question of what an empirical tool is. And I will leave that for Part II.

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