In the case of Jessica, the ten year old who has been comatose since birth, empiricist and rationalist epistemologists would have to distinct theories regarding what Jessica knows the moment after she wakes up. If we assume that Jessica is completely unaware of herself and her surroundings while in this comatose state, then at the moment she awakes she has essentially been born. The empiricist John Locke argues that at the moment of birth we do not have any knowledge while the rationalist Rene Descartes would argue that there is knowledge we are born with.
The empiricism of John Locke tells us that all of our knowledge is a posteriori. That is, we only attain knowledge after observation. It would make sense then, that we start out with a mind that is a tabula rasa or blank slate. Locke explains at which point the brain has knowledge in his epistemological thesis: “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer in one word, from experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself,”(Palmer 76). Based on Locke’s proposed experiential source of knowledge we can conclude that, at the moment of her awakening, Jessica had no knowledge. Jessica is a blank slate. She would look up at the doctors and her family and only then start formulating ideas based on her first sense experiences. Locke originally arrived at this blank slate hypothesis by observing and refuting the epistemological ideas of the radical rationalist Rene Descartes.
Descartes believed that the only source of knowledge was through reason independent of the body and senses. Knowledge gained through sensory experience could not be trusted. In his first meditation he states “…I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once,”(Descartes 60). Through his process of radical doubt he found that nothing was certain outside of our “self”. This idea of “self” was him existing within his mind as a “thinking thing” separate from the body. This description of the “self” is quite similar to the existence someone might have living in a coma. Because Descartes believed that sense experience was useless, we must be borne with our ideas. He believed in certain innate ideas such as identity and the existence of god. To Descartes, these were logical conceptions that he gave to himself. In his Third Meditation Descartes describes some of these innate ideas: “For I understand what a thing is, what truth is, what thought is, and I appear to have derived this exclusively from my very own nature,”(Descartes 72). It is clear that Descartes does not give any credit to his experiences for helping him understand these concepts. He was born with them. If we are to view the Jessica scenario through Descartes’ rationalistic lense we would say that she does have knowledge at the moment that she wakes from her coma. If knowledge does come from a priori ideas, as Descartes suggests, then Jessica does not necessarily need to be conscious and have life experience to have ideas which are true. John Locke later refuted Descartes’ innate idea claim on the grounds that people from different cultures are not born with the same concept of god. Locke felt that if these innate ideas were really available to anyone then we would see that people from all cultures held the same religious views as Descartes. This was enough evidence for Locke to use Ockham’s Razor to cut innate ideas from his epistemological approach(Locke PPT, Palmer 76). Both Descartes’ and Locke’s epistemological views on Jessica are quite radical. Today philosophers would take a more balanced stance.
The argument from a moderate epistemological perspective, such as Immanuel Kant’s, would claim that we have some knowledge within ourselves, prior to birth, but it is dependent on the senses to exist. This type of knowledge is in the organizational part of the brain that helps us decipher sense information coming in. Otherwise, without some part of the mind to organize it, the raw sense data would be too much for us to handle. In the words of Professor Martin, “The world would be one giant acid trip,”(Kant PPT). It is most likely that when Jessica wakes up she will have some mental tools to help her organize the onslaught of sensory data pouring in. Jessica’s situation offers us a great epistemological food for thought. While it might be better explained by a moderate such as Kant, approaching this conundrum with the philosophies of Locke and Descartes highlights the key distinctions between empiricism and rationalism. The empiricists would deem the freshly awoken Jessica: a blank slate. Conversely, the rationalists would claim that Jessica’s comatose mind was never void of knowledge.