Empirical arguments rely on scientific data—data derived from the five senses. Conceptual arguments don’t rely on empirical evidence—they rely on thinking about concepts. So then we can say that it’s about a priori vs. a posteriori knowledge. A posteriori knowledge is empirical/scientific knowledge while a priori knowledge is conceptual/logical knowledge. An argument about concepts would be analyzing the concepts which make up a proposition while an empirical argument would be an argument derived from our senses and what we observe. In this article, I will articulate the distinction between empirical and conceptual argument and then provide arguments why empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual objections. This, then, has implications for things like the reducibility of the mental to the physical.
An empirical argument is one in which scientific data is paramount to it and observations and using our five senses are key to gaining knowledge. A related inquiry is what philosopher of mind Markus Gabriel calls rampant empiricism in his book I am not a Brain. Rampant empiricism is the philosophical claim that all knowledge can be derived from our five senses. However the claim that all knowledge derives from sense experience is a philosophical—conceptual—claim, and can’t be corrected with sense experience. In my article Against Scientism, I articulated an argument against the claim that scientism is true:
Premise 1: Scientism is justified.
Premise 2: If scientism is justified, then science is the only way we can acquire knowledge.
Premise 3: We can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning, along with science.
Conclusion: Therefore scientism is unjustified since we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning.
While empirical evidence and argument do, of course, hold value—as evidenced with scientific inquiry—it is quite clear that we can nevertheless gain knowledge through thinking about concepts, through a priori reasoning. That is, we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning, so there is more than one way to gain knowledge. So evidence is empirical if it is derived through one of the five senses, that is if it is accessible to sense experience.
Empirical evidence is concerned with the physical world. That is, what we can see and measure. It is based on observation, experience, and measurement of physical quantities. So, for example, if X isn’t quantifiable, then X can’t be measured, therefore X wouldn’t be subject to empirical verification so it would be subject to conceptual argumentation.
A conceptual argument is an argument that doesn’t rely on empirical evidence—it is a priori (Bojanic, Laquinto, and Torrengo, 2018). It merely relies on logic and reasoning to gain knowledge. However, “logic without empirical supports can only be used to prove conceptual truths” (Icefield, 2020). Such arguments are based on abstract concepts, ideas, and principles, and claims are established based on a logical analysis of concepts.
Conceptual arguments are based on a priori knowledge such as mathematical proofs, conceptual definitions and logical principles. Knowledge like this can be established through reasoning and reasoning alone without appeal to empirical evidence. Since a priori knowledge is knowledge gained without appeal to empirical evidence, or observation, empirical evidence is thusly irrelevant to conceptual arguments. Concepts are general meanings of linguistic predicates, and so philosophy itself is an a priori, conceptual discipline, which relies on deduction.
Conclusions in an a priori, conceptual argument are established with logic and reasoning without appealing to empirical data. Such examples are, of course, the relationship between the mind and body, and the nature of causation. There could be no scientific experiments which would establish which theory in philosophy of mind would be true, nor could there be a scientific experiment which would establish the nature of causation.
For many, philosophy is essentially the a priori analysis of concepts, which can and should be done without leaving the proverbial armchair. We’ve already seen that in the paradigm case, an analysis embodies a definition; it specifies a set of conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for the application of the concept. For proponents of traditional conceptual analysis, the analysis of a concept is successful to the extent that the proposed definition matches people’s intuitions about particular cases, including hypothetical cases that figure in crucial thought experiments.
A related attraction is that conceptual analysis explains how philosophy could be an a priori discipline, as many suppose it is. If philosophy is primarily about concepts and concepts can be investigated from the armchair, then the a priori character of philosophy is secured (Jackson 1998). (SEP, Concepts)
The argument against empirical evidence being relevant to conceptual arguments
I have articulated a few arguments for the claim that empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
P1: If empirical evidence is relevant to conceptual arguments, then empirical evidence can be used to support or refute conceptual claims.
P2: Empirical evidence cannot be used to support or refute conceptual claims.
C: Thus, empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
Conceptual claims are based on a priori truths and so we can know things without experience, whereas empirical evidence is based on experience and observations and so they cannot refute conceptual claims. There is, though, no kind of empirical evidence that can refute conceptual claims from philosophical analysis.
P1: If empirical evidence is relevant to conceptual arguments, then all conceptual arguments would be subject to empirical verification.
P2: There are conceptual arguments that are not subject to empirical verification.
C: Therefore, empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
A few conceptual arguments that aren’t subject to empirical verification include: Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s (2009, 2010) argument against natural selection, the argument against the reducibility of the mental, the Berka/Nash measurement objection, a theory/definition of “intelligence“, the argument against localization of cognitive functions in the brain (Uttal, 2001, 2012, 2014), the argument against animal mentality (Davidson, 1982), the argument against machine intentionality/mindedness, the argument against the possibility of science being able to study subjective states, and Gettier’s argument against knowledge as justified true belief (Chalmers and Jackson, 2001). These all have one thing in common: There can never be any empirical evidence that would validate or invalidate these arguments, and so falsification would be irrelevant. One would disprove the arguments not by empirical means—if they could—but by dealing with the logic/concepts of the arguments. These arguments deal with abstract, theoretical concepts which cannot be observed or tested empirically; they rely on logical reasoning like deduction and using inferences and not observation and measurement ; many involve normative judgments; and they are subject to interpretation. While empirical evidence is concerned with the directly observable, measurable physical world.
Furthermore, arguments like those in Gourionouva and Mansvelder (2019) fall prey to the facts: that there is no definition or theory of “intelligence”; that twin studies don’t show genetic influence (Joseph, 2014) since the “laws” of behavioral genetics don’t hold; and last but not least that neuroimaging studies don’t and can’t do what they set out to do (Uttal, 2001, 2012, 2014), since neuroreductionism is false along with the fact that neuroscience assumes mind is physical and reducible to the CNS.
P1: Empirical evidence relies on the observation and measurement of physical phenomena.
P2: Conceptual arguments are based on abstract concepts and logical deduction.
P3: Abstract concepts cannot be observed or measured through empirical means.
C: Thus, empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
P1 asserts that empirical evidence is based on observation and measurement of physical phenomena. P2 establishes that conceptual arguments are based on logical deduction and abstract concepts which aren’t observable or measurable empirically. P3 follows from the definition of abstract concepts and logical deduction and how they aren’t directly observable or measurable phenomena. So the conclusion necessarily and logically follows from the premises—it’s impossible to directly measure or observe abstract concepts or logical deductions which are the basis of conceptual arguments, so empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
P1: If a proposition is conceptual, then it is not based on empirical evidence.
P2: If a proposition is not based on empirical evidence, then it is not subject to empirical testing.
P3: So if a proposition is conceptual, then it is not subject to empirical testing.
P4: If a proposition is not subject to empirical testing, then empirical evidence is irrelevant to assessing the truth or validity of the proposition.
C: Thus, if a proposition is conceptual, then empirical evidence is irrelevant to assessing the truth or validity of the proposition.
This argument builds on the others, and using hypothetical syllogism, successfully concludes that if a proposition is conceptual then it isn’t subject to empirical verification. Thus, taken together, empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments, and so falsification, too, is irrelevant. Since falsification is irrelevant, then testability of the conceptual argument is, too, irrelevant. Conceptual arguments are irrefutable using the methods of scientific inquiry and can only be refuted using philosophical inquiry.
P1: If empirical evidence is relevant to an argument, then the argument must be testable using empirical methods.
P2: Conceptual arguments aren’t testable using empirical methods.
C: So empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
This argument is simple: If empirical evidence is relevant to an argument, but conceptual arguments aren’t testable through empirical methods, then empirical evidence isn’t relevant to conceptual arguments. This is due to the distinction between empirical and conceptual arguments/evidence.
Now I can use destructive dillema to argue that empirical evidence is irrelevant to the mind-body problem.
P1: If an argument is conceptual, then it is based on abstract concepts and logical deduction.
P2: If an argument is based on abstract concepts and logical deduction, then it cannot be observed or measured through empirical means.
P3: If an argument cannot be observed or measured through empirical means, then empirical evidence is irrelevant to that argument.
P4: The mind-body problem is a conceptual argument.
C: Therefore, empirical evidence is irrelevant to the mind-body problem.
If the mind-body problem is a conceptual argument (P4), then it is based on abstract concepts and logical deduction (P1), so it cannot be observed or measured through empirical means (P2), thus empirical evidence is irrelevant to the mind-body problem (P3), ultimately meaning that the mind-body problem—along with the mental and first-personal subjective states—cannot be studied by science. This of course—as I have been arguing for years—has implications for the so-called hereditarian hypothesis and any kind of genetic or neuroimaging studies they attempt and assert that shows that the mental is reducible to genes or brain physiology. Indeed, a priori philosophical conceptual analysis shows that consciousness cannot be reduced to any material features—meaning it is outside of the bounds of scientific explanation, just like first-personal subjective states (Chalmers and Jackson, 2001).
I have articulated the distinction between empirical and conceptual arguments, and provided valid and sound arguments which distinguish between both types of argument. The nonidentity between how the types of argument work and gather support for premises shows why empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.
Quite clearly, there is evidence that isn’t empirical and so it isn’t subject to empirical verification/falsification/testing. This is because logical concepts/argumentation/reasoning are subject to falsification from the scientific method. For one to be able to successfully reject conceptual arguments, they need to grapple with the logic and reasoning of the arguments. No empirical evidence would be able to show that a proposition is false, since empirical evidence wasn’t used for the proposition.
The most powerful arguments against so-called hereditarianism are conceptual, and no matter what kinds of studies the hereditarian conjures up, none of them will refute the arguments against the possibility of psychophysical reductionism. So if consciousness (mind) cannot be reductively explained by the scientific method, then hereditarianism fails and therefore, there cannot be a science of the mind.
Since empirical arguments rely on observation or experimentation, and conceptual arguments rely on logic and reasoning, they have different bases of evidence. Empirical arguments are concerned with observable phenomena, while conceptual arguments are concerned with abstract concepts. Empirical arguments rely on the scientific method and data collection, while conceptual arguments rely on philosophical frameworks, logic, and reasoning.
The validity of a conceptual argument relies on the logic of its inferences along with the consistency and coherence of its logical framework and the soundness of the logic underlying the premises of the argument. The distinction and non-identity between the two types of evidence allows us to rightly state that, for these reasons why empirical evidence is irrelevant to conceptual arguments.