Empiricism conceives the world as a series of atomistic events; our knowledge of it is perception of those events and a memory of sorts of conjunctions between them. A causal law would be under this view a constant conjunction of events. This world-view permeates the intellectual heirs of both Hume and Kant, and rears its head in more modern iterations of pseudoscientific philosophy such as falsificationism or determinism. It is incorrect and untenable.
The adoption of empiricism effects two things — that is to say, conceives of the debate about the nature of the real in two important ways. First, it makes knowledge atomistic events apprehended through the senses. Second, these atomistic knowledge-events are identified with the world as such. This framing of the world causes all manner of problems, such as Hume’s eradication of a self that can survive and reason from each atomistic event-state to each atomistic-event state1, etc.
Transcendental Realism proposes that the world is not made up of events, but rather it is made up of structured, intransitive objects that generate the flux of phenomena that we apprehend as events. This is a radical break with empiricism whether it is explicit, as in Hume’s heirs, or implicit, as in any form of idealism that works to maintain an empirical world. In fact, the world is not made up of objects which in essence may be experienced; it is made up of objects only some of which may be experienced. The world is non-empirical of essence and empirical only accidentally. Recognizing this means that we must be willing to admit that the world is bigger, and will always be bigger, than our (possible) knowledge of it. And we must recognize it, if we want to have an tenable account of the possibility of science. Because if the world is only a series of atomistic events, perceived or not but always potentially available to experience, then there is absolutely no way to account for why science is possible; likewise, if knowledge really is just perception of atomistic events then there is no way to account for the rationality of scientific change.
Events apprehended by the senses, events that are experienced, even events that occur but are not experienced, do not encompass the whole of the world or the whole of the real. Rather, they are actual events which are generated by real, structured, causal laws and generative mechanisms that can be known as such through the activity of science. For, again, if the mechanisms that work on the world are not real there could be no intelligibility to either experience or the activities of science.
The error of assuming that human experience defines the world is hugely self-centered. It has been labeled anthropocentrism, and I think that the label fits. And its implications stretch outward from science into popular conceptions of the world, into all manner of judgments and behavior, from the academic (eg, Baudrillard claiming that there was no first Iraq war, since it occurred in the west only as an image on televisions screens; or as is evidenced in the recent spat on the leftist blogs over a purported decline in Symbolic Efficiency) to the bourgeois (“I don’t notice the temperature rise, so it isn’t happening, plus my new car is pretty”). Once we realize that our experiences do not exhaust the real, and we recognize the real as such, we will be better prepared to engage it.
1. In Searle’s Mind, which I read in France a while back, there was a whole section dedicated to the problem of the Self after Hume. After having read a bit of this book (A Realist Theory of Science), I am interested in taking a second look at Searle’s problems with the self specifically and his overall efforts in philosophy of mind: it seems to me now that he is wrestling with his own assumptions through most of it.