Measuring the Universe

Astronomy – Empiricism versus Rationalism

Philosophers have battled forever on the different approaches to finding truth.  To begin, we must define the two opposing views.


The Senses determine truth.  Reality and truth can only be determined via measurement with physical tools and our senses.  Many seemingly logical things are subject to unseen and unsuspected influences and only by actual measurement can we seek the truth.  Mankind’s logical constructs are flawed and needs calibration against objective external measurements.


All truth can be deduced by logical means.  Reality is in our minds and the physical world is decipherable logically.  Observation is fraught with uncertainty.  Mankind has fallible senses that cannot sense invisible forces at work.  Mathematics is the tool of deciphering the Universe.

Astronomy is challenged by the feebleness of our senses.

The huge distances involved preclude touch, smell, sounds, and tasting.  But, we can see our objects of study and build instruments to amplify and reach beyond our normal senses.  We study in visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, microwaves and radio.  We use logical means to deduce theories about what we are seeing in all of those electromagnetic bands.  Then we test those theories by direct observation of the Universe.  In the history of Astronomy, with each major advance in instrumentation, new measurements have put old theories to the test with many surprising revolutions in understanding.  The Earth Centered Universe was logical but measurements have relocated us to our current understanding of the suburban location of Earth in the Milky Way orbiting the Sun.  Earth was the only known habitable planet until we devised sensitive methods of detection and launched the Kepler space telescope and discovered multitudes of exo-planets around other stars in the habitable zones around those stars.

Empirical measurement is essential to understanding the Universe.  But, we need rationalism to interpret the raw data and logically reject the erroneous old concepts.  It is not so much a battle of logic versus senses, but the symbiosis of the two that is the edifice of Astronomy.  Theory is revised based on collected data.

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