//
you're reading...
Logic & Scientific Philosophy

Jennifer, Mariana, and Misha: A Discussion of Logical Positivism by the Vienna Circle

What is logical positivism, you ask?
A form of logical positivism is dated back to Comte in the 1800s, with us, the Vienna Circle, now building upon his ideas along with the Berlin Circle. The view of logical positivism under Comte was divided human thought into different categories: theological, metaphysical, and positive or scientific. We maintain Comte’s view that positivism should be the basis for all scientific work, focusing our efforts on verifiability criterion of meaning, working to eliminate all non-verifiable claims from science and philosophy.

The foundation of logical positivism is verificationism, which, according to a global encyclopedia, dictates that a statement or question is only legitimate if it can be proven true or false, or if the question can be answered. Math and deductive logic can be verified because their system is that of deduction, where new concepts are pulled from a universally-accepted set of ideas. The disciplines are comprised of tautologies, or formulas which are true for every possible interpretation. This is a form of rationalism.

Meanwhile, our empirical ties connect with our view of science, a field where conclusions are valuable if they are based on observations by the senses.

It is okay to start the base of our knowledge on speculation as long as we actually move on from that and verify our thoughts. We must conduct experiments, observe, and prove whether our speculation is true or false.
Concepts such as ethics and aesthetics are relative; they change from person to person, so even though they may have personal meaning they have no collective relevance.

Other concepts such as theology and metaphysics are neither true nor false, and they can never be proven, rendering them meaningless. There is no point to further study of these divisions of philosophy.

~ * ~ * ~

For something to be objective, it can’t be influenced by personal feelings or prejudices. The power in science lies in it’s ability to be proven by the deductive system of logic and math or verified in the empiricist manner. You hear what I hear, I see what you see. What weakens science is when the method is invaded by theology or metaphysics, constituting it as meaningless as the philosophical branches themselves. It’s also up to the individual connecting the research: are they following the scientific method?

What is the value in thought void of observation, endless hours spent contemplating things which can never be proven? Was was Plato thinking? Much like Aristotle, we can respect Plato while still strongly opposing his approach to knowledge. Constant internal questioning and mulling over different concept does not result in purposeful knowledge.

More and more, science bases itself on experiments and observations, which constitute more purposeful endeavors than solely speculative inquiries. Science has the ability to be objective, and with the separation of religion from science we are more able to reach this potential.  Still, many branches of science attempt to answer questions far beyond their reach, reducing their immediate value.

 

Let us leave with a thought that highlights the risks of improper observation, and therefore scientific conclusions.

While Descartes wrote a book, Discourse on the Method, in which he describes that our “heartbeat” is simply the swelling of the heart caused by the change in temperature as blood enters and exits the organ. Descartes even asks anyone who does not know much about anatomy to go look at an animal’s body, for at the time is was very frowned upon and nearly impossible to dissect a human bodies. If someone wanted to see how a heart worked they would look at an animal’s.

Descartes was in part trying to prove his theory; however, as he could not conduct experiments on human bodies, his proof was unreliable, and we nowadays very much hope that our doctors do not think that by warming up our heart it will start beating again….

Advertisements

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Jennifer, Mariana, and Misha: A Discussion of Logical Positivism by the Vienna Circle

  1. Hello,

    This is very clearly written. You did a good job explaining Positivism. I’m not a huge fan of Positivism so I hope you don’t mind a bit of friendly push back. I think it will help all of our thinking. Also, I apologize in advance for any grammatical errors. I’m not getting graded after all.

    You write,

    “Math and deductive logic can be verified because their system is that of deduction, where new concepts are pulled from a universally-accepted set of ideas. The disciplines are comprised of tautologies, or formulas which are true for every possible interpretation. This is a form of rationalism.
    Meanwhile, our empirical ties connect with our view of science, a field where conclusions are valuable if they are based on observations by the senses”.

    This seems to me to be a great description of Positivism. A belief is only true and/or meaningful if it is ‘empirically based’, or if it is a necessary truth of mathematics or logic. I think that is another way of saying exactly what you wrote, which goes back at least as far as David Hume. I quote Hume’s formulation below:

    “ Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or numbers? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion”?

    Any beliefs that do not fall under these categories are not warranted, justifiable, or meaningfully true. In other words, beliefs that don’t pass these stringent criteria are meaningless. Metaphysics = without meaning, theology = without meaning. This is simply a restatement of Logical Positivism or its near twin verficationism.

    Let’s think about this:

    Here is a good question: Does Logical Positivism or the verifiability principle meet its own criteria for being a rational, meaningful statement about epistemology?

    Is Positivism a necessary truth of logic? No.

    Is Positivism empirically based? No. It is a philosophical approach to knowledge brought to science, not read out of science.

    Is Positivism an incorrigible belief? No.

    Therefore, Positivism is, by its own criteria, meaningless and sub rational. It is, what philosophers call, self-referentially incoherent. Do you get what I mean? According to verficationism a statement is only meaningful if A. It’s true by definition (2+2 = 4 and/or a necessary truth of logic) or B. Empirically verifiable.

    Then that criteria is meaningless because it is not a necessary truth of logic or empirically verifiable. It is self-refuting. To quote Hume, ‘to the flames with it!’

    “Other concepts such as theology and metaphysics are neither true nor false, and they can never be proven, rendering them meaningless. There is no point to further study of these divisions of philosophy.”

    Again, Logical Positivism would be as meaningless as theology because it doesn’t met its own criteria for rationality or meaning. Moreover, certain theological beliefs can be proven false can’t they? For example, if my theological belief was a bastardization of the Biblical view that ‘God’ created all species distinctly (it isn’t btw), devoid of any common ancestors’, then couldn’t that be proven false, by say, ‘the fossil record’, and/or ‘ongoing speciation today’. It seems that it could be.

    Also, it depends what we mean by proven, or proof. It’s pretty hard to prove a lot of things that are still rational and meaningful to believe. I’m not sure if this is a great example but, ‘How do we know our reasoning is reliable and produces true beliefs?’ You can’t prove that without assuming the validity of the very thing you are trying to prove, thereby arguing in a circle. We take it by ‘faith’ that are cognitive faculties can produce a true understanding of our world – the whole scientific enterprise rests on this assumption that is brought to science not the result of science. I think, at least.

    I view Postmodernity far more kindly than Positivism I’m afraid and it may show in this response. I think we need a less stringent criteria for what constitutes a rationally justifiable belief and a meaningful statement. Hopefully, one that doesn’t refute itself in the process of laying out its criteria.

    We can still view some branches of science as producing objective truth (despite not having any scientists totally devoid of biases) and producing true knowledge of our world without embracing Positivism, which is really a sneaky form of scientism with all its embedded metaphysical prejudices (i.e. the very thing you want to disallow)

    Props to all of your for writing so clearly on this issue.

    Thoughts?

    Chris

    Posted by Chris Price | October 18, 2012, 7:59 pm
    • I think you articulate and extend several points being made in the post above that is helpful in clarifying the view of Logical Positivism and accounting for elements of its lens that don’t leave me feeling altogether convinced, either. Whether it is the post-modernist sentiment – or perhaps even the anarchistic epistemologist – in me, I’m not sure, but I like the idea that “We can still view some branches of science as producing objective truth …and producing true knowledge of our world without embracing Positivism.”

      That being said, I think Positivism does serve a purpose in the public sphere, as it is an attempt to keep a conversation about our shared community, a little like Jen points out in this comment, based only in a certain kind of rigorously defined “fact”:

      “What exactly then is a better advisor than the most verifiable means we have to understand our world: science?”

      https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/anarchistic-epistemology-the-fallacies-of-science-liam-clayton-keagan/#comment-239

      But I like Liam’s response, as well:

      “There are other methods – most notably reason – that need to be given more credence, and not automatically discarded simply because science looks like it disagrees.”

      The conversation reminds me a little of the thread about moral relativity (https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/the-objectivity-of-evil/), in that coming to some sort of agreement about the nature of reality depends on drawing a line somewhere between what we can agree is true vs. what might be a more personal truth, if that makes sense.

      The difficulty I suppose is in finding the balance between honouring the public affordance of personal truths (so long as they don’t infringe upon others) and the common coherence of a few universal truths, and having a conversation about where we want to draw that line.

      Posted by bryanjack | October 21, 2012, 9:45 pm
      • Yes. This a good conversation to have.

        I do think logical positivism sifts out a lot of nonsense in the public sphere, including itself 😉 You write:

        “That being said, I think Positivism does serve a purpose in the public sphere, as it is an attempt to keep a conversation about our shared community, a little like Jen points out in this comment, based only in a certain kind of rigorously defined “fact”:”

        I get this and it has its appeal. But isn’t the criteria laid down by positivism way too narrow? I mean how many meaningful topics of public discourse would pass the criteria of positivism? Not many. That being said, ‘if we are looking for total agreement amongst reasonable people than necessary truths of logic and certain conclusions produced by empirical science tend to provide it in a way that nothing else does. There are no long lived debates about gravity for instance. For that we can be grateful. Positivism does get rid off a lot of superstition as well.

        But I tend to think that what we really need in the public sphere is charity, humility, empathy and respect in our dialogues. I don’t think that Positivism is conducive to these virtues – it lacks epistemic humility (unlike Postmodernism) as well as respect and charity for beliefs that don’t meet its stringent, self-referentially incoherent criteria (evidenced by the verification principle and it’s willingness to label a large amount beliefs as meaningless or sub-rational whether held in the public or private sphere).

        “coming to some sort of agreement about the nature of reality depends on drawing a line somewhere between what we can agree is true vs. what might be a more personal truth, if that makes sense.”

        This is important I think. My only objection may be that when people talk about personal truth they’re often exchanging the word truth, or true, for the word ‘personally meaningful’ and I don’t equate the two (I’m not suggesting that you do either. I’m not sure what you would think about that).

        I think Aristotle is right though, ‘truth is saying something is and it is, and saying something isn’t and it isn’t”. In other words, true statements correspond to reality as is not as we would make it to be.

        In the end I do think there is objective truth – it can’t be denied without being affirmed. Science is one way to discover it.

        This class is great.

        Chris

        Posted by Chris Price | October 22, 2012, 2:44 am
  2. As Mariana posted this, I didn’t get any notifications, and just found this thread now as I was reading my old posts. What a wonderful conversation! I love this class too. 🙂

    I have less of a problem with Logical Positivism’s disregard for theology, metaphysics, and aesthetics than I do with their opinion of ethics. Yes, a portion of ethics is really up to the individual person, but I feel the goal of many in that field is to create a social contract that provides a unified theory of what is right and wrong, so that society can like more harmoniously. That is a very important thing to search for, in my opinion.

    On another note, I love how this conversation converged into a dialogue on epistemology, touching on the debate of “opinion vs belief vs truth” that I came to be deeply involved in in the coming weeks. I think that a main goal of the Logical Positivists is to get rid of all the b.s. that comes with people trying to turn their personal thoughts into truth without proper support.

    Also, while theology and metaphysics may be interesting to discuss, do they really get us anywhere? From what I’ve read, a Logical Positivist would say “No, they don’t. Now move on.”

    Posted by Jennifer | January 16, 2013, 6:40 am
  3. But what about the self-referential problem of positivism in the above responses? It really is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. Positivism in its strong form filters out itself as B.S. In it’s weak form it opens the door for ethics and theology and betrays its original purpose.

    I agree that the position of the positivist on ethic’s is troublesome. I would also say that ethical theories sooner or later are tied to what could easily be labelled religious concepts, (when religion is defined broadly to include, for example, atheistic strands of buddhism).

    I think we should say, as the philosophical community has said, ‘Now move on’ – from positivism that is.

    -Chris

    Posted by Chris Price | January 16, 2013, 6:01 pm
  4. The contradictory nature of Positivism is part of what caused it to mostly die out, so we have to just put that aside to analyze the other arguments. In doing so, we can gain perspective to influence our personal philosophy and/or spur on another movement.

    So, yes, it is quite contradictory.

    Posted by Jennifer | January 17, 2013, 6:40 am

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: