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On Positivism

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On Positivism

Postby Paul » Sat May 06, 2006 3:28 pm

I have lately noticed here in "The Academy" the occasional use of words with positivist provenance, e.g., "verifiable". I have no problem per se with the use of such words and expressions. But I do object to what those who use such terms seem to think is a consequence of their use: that they have said something incontrovertible; that their poor interlocutor - be he a man of faith, a metaphysician, or cut from some other mystical cloth - has been trumped; that the conversation has ended with him vanquished.

Such crowing is not without precedent. Having worked out various "criteria of meaning" during the late 1920s, the Viennese logical positivists spent the next several years gleefully declaring "meaningless" all metaphysics and religion. Their delight in this endeavor soon turned to outright shame. For it was pointed out to them that their basic criterion of "meaningfulness" which they applied so ruthlessly was itself "meaningless." You see, for the logical positivists a statement is meaningful if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable. But this very statement is neither. Consequently, they and the English positivists (including Ayer) began to back down, keeping the principle as a methodological tool, but admitting that, yes, emotional, religious, and metaphysical statements could indeed have meaning. As Ayer himself later remarked about the failure of logical positivism, "Well I suppose that the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false."

"Academy" members who would wield "verifiability" should familiarize themselves with the history of logical positivism. Perhaps they would then understand exactly what they are and are not saying when they invoke it:

To say that something cannot be verified is only to say that it is not a scientific something. But then to go further and say that the non-scientific is meaningless or false -- to speak so is to make a non-verifiable value judgment. Again, those who relegate to "meaninglessness" all statements that cannot be verified in terms of experiential data are simply expressing a personal preference, a value.

Now a more interesting question is that concerning the psychological ground of such a valuation. It is important to note here that science itself does not require this. Science should be content to observe that if a hypothesis is not testable, then it simply is not a scientific hypothesis. More than this need not be said.

I have already suggested one such ground, that evinced by the 1920s positivist attacks against metaphysics and religion. One could see this as the expression of a kind of will to power tainted, perhaps, by a vengeful spirit; the revolutionary desire to tear down the towers of the reigning ideas, to overthrow one's enemies, to see one's own perspective triumph that one's type might rule.

But I also sense another psychological ground beneath the empirical philosophy of logical positivism. And here we are in a sadder and less energetic place. I would describe it as a deep-seated fear of disappointment that gives rise to a need for certainty. It is a kind of depression, a lack of abandonment, an unwillingness to risk, to trust the world; an unwillingness even to hope that there might be more than mere matter - because one might learn that there isn't. Such a spirit is, I suppose, not unlike that of one who guards against falling in love for fear he might have his heart broken.

Against so cautious and timid a disposition, I hold up the stirring invitation of Christ to Peter in Luke 5.4: "Ἐπανάγαγε εἰς τὸ βάθος", "Duc in altum", "Put out into the deep." These words invite us to engage the world in a spirit of trust, with the certain hope that there is always more in the cosmos than meets the eye.

Cordially,

Paul
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Re: On Positivism

Postby annis » Sat May 06, 2006 4:51 pm

Paul wrote:Now a more interesting question is that concerning the psychological ground of such a valuation.


Only as a set-piece demonstrating an ungrounded pop-psychology in the service of an ad hominem attack. The naive positivist is of course not sincere but mistaken, goodness no, but rather a pervert or a knave.
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Postby Paul » Sat May 06, 2006 5:19 pm

Yawn.

Of course they could simply be mistaken. But it is my opinion, and that is all I am stating at the end of my post, that sometimes it's less than an innocent mistake.

And speaking of "ad hominem", yours was a poor and sarcastic reply to what I, at least, thought was a fairly thoughtful post.

You failed to pick up on two points I made:

1. The glee with which the LPs attacked metaphysics. My description of this affect is not an exaggeration. Is such affect born of a scientific spirit?

2. Given that there is no need for the LP to go any farther than to say that a metaphysical statement is simply "not scientific", one has to ask why they went farther and denied all meaning to such statements?

I would also point out that I did not even hint that the logical positivist is a "pervert".


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Postby annis » Sat May 06, 2006 6:20 pm

Paul wrote:And speaking of "ad hominem", yours was a poor and sarcastic reply to what I, at least, thought was a fairly thoughtful post.


You started a thoughtful post. Any chance this would be heeded by your intended audience was, in my opinion, irreparably damaged when you indulged in the speculation on motivations, all of them ugly.

You failed to pick up on two points I made:

1. The glee with which the LPs attacked metaphysics. My description of this affect is not an exaggeration. Is such affect born of a scientific spirit?


No, but it's irrelevant to a critique of LP.

2. Given that there is no need for the LP to go any farther than to say that a metaphysical statement is simply "not scientific", one has to ask why they went farther and denied all meaning to such statements?


Also irrelevant.

A bad argument is a bad argument, and you're not going to get any defense of LP out of me. But you spent 3 of your 8 paragraphs on utterly groundless and illigitimate speculation about motivation. Sandwiched as they were between exhortations to people posting on the Academy, you implicitly accuse people here of a tainted will to power or deep-seated fear. Sarcasm seemed as good a response as a yawn.

I would also point out that I did not even hint that the logical positivist is a "pervert".


I suppose I have to give up that word. I still think it's the best noun for someone who is perverse (in the broadest sense of that word), but the sexual tone has overwhelmed it.
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Postby Paul » Sat May 06, 2006 9:31 pm

annis wrote:You started a thoughtful post. Any chance this would be heeded by your intended audience was, in my opinion, irreparably damaged when you indulged in the speculation on motivations, all of them ugly.

You are certainly entitled to your opinion. If I detect any argument at all through your use of the emotionally charged terms "indulged" and "ugly", it is the bald assertion that I am guilty of a moral fault; in fine, you believe that one should not even raise the question of "motive". To which I respond, Why not? Why people behave as they do is a fundamental question. It is not outside the realm of legitimate inquiry to raise such questions.

Moreover, there is nothing in the least "ugly" about the two possible motives I suggested. These seem to me commonplaces of human nature. What you find "ugly" is not the content of these motives but the fact that I would dare raise the question of motive.

Sometimes, William, thought - interesting thought at least - involves taking risks. Sometimes, to think about a thing issues in more than mere description, more than affixing names to types of phenomena.


annis wrote:
You failed to pick up on two points I made:

1. The glee with which the LPs attacked metaphysics. My description of this affect is not an exaggeration. Is such affect born of a scientific spirit?


No, but it's irrelevant to a critique of LP.

2. Given that there is no need for the LP to go any farther than to say that a metaphysical statement is simply "not scientific", one has to ask why they went farther and denied all meaning to such statements?


Also irrelevant.


Read my original post more carefully. These points were not adduced as part of a critique of LP. Rather, these points speak to why LP sought to deny all meaning to metaphysics when their is no scientific requirement for such a denial. It is this question that is the point of departure for my speculation about motive.


annis wrote:But you spent 3 of your 8 paragraphs on utterly groundless and illigitimate speculation about motivation.

I count 2, but only if I grant your imputation of "utterly groundless and illigitimate (sic) speculation...." - which I don't.


annis wrote:... you implicitly accuse people here of a tainted will to power or deep-seated fear.

Perhaps, but only perhaps.

Moreoever, my primary intent was to further conversation, not squelch it. If the "Academy" members hew to Gilbert Ryle's observation that physics and philosophy are not rivals, but that starting from their own presuppositions each asks different questions of the same world, then perhaps fewer threads will founder when someone declares something "not verifiable."


annis wrote:Sarcasm seemed as good a response as a yawn.

Except that "yawn" has a much less scary etymology - and psychology - than "sarcasm". But I am sure you know this.
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Postby annis » Sun May 07, 2006 1:49 am

Paul wrote:You are certainly entitled to your opinion. If I detect any argument at all through your use of the emotionally charged terms "indulged" and "ugly", it is the bald assertion that I am guilty of a moral fault;


A rhetorical fault.


in fine, you believe that one should not even raise the question of "motive".


Oy. I do not.

You started out your post clearly drawing attention to fellow Textkittens of what you see as epistemological faults of a particular stance. You give some precedent, and talk about the problems. This is the the customary procedure for doing philosophy in the Western tradition, to which you have probably had exposure than most of us here.

Based on your beginning, I had assumed (always trouble, I know) you were making an philosophical point primarily, in which discussions it has rarely been considered sound to address people's motivations for holding ideas, only the ideas themselves. The taxonomy of ad hominem flavors is not recent.

Speculations about why people hold to this or that epistemology seems to me a separate question, and illigitmate it the sort of philosophical argument I had thought you were making.
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Postby pyrheraklit » Sun May 07, 2006 2:08 am

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Postby Rindu » Tue May 09, 2006 2:12 am

Logical Positivism is really not taken seriously at all by contemporary philosophers. It's a "punch-line" position at this point.
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Postby Bert » Tue May 09, 2006 10:23 am

I think I can understand William's sensitivity to Paul's post.
(Though I am not sure if it was Paul's intention to try and determine William's motive for his position or if he was talking in general about Logical Positivism.)
In a discussion with Chris Weimer I was frustrated because he insisted he knew WHY I believe in God even after repeatedly stating that he was mistaken.
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Postby Paul » Wed May 10, 2006 2:19 am

Bert,

I had no particular person in mind. My chief concern is that the rejoinder, "That's not verifiable." says only so much and no more. As such, it ought not be used as a kind of club to end conversations.

Rindu,

Why does it matter that a philosopher is "contemporary"? Do you assume that, because they have the latest word, they are therefore "right"? Please bear in mind that 75 years ago the logical positivists were the contemporary philosophers.

Cordially,

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Postby Rindu » Wed May 10, 2006 4:17 pm

Paul wrote:Rindu,

Why does it matter that a philosopher is "contemporary"? Do you assume that, because they have the latest word, they are therefore "right"? Please bear in mind that 75 years ago the logical positivists were the contemporary philosophers.

Cordially,

Paul


I don't understand this comment, actually. What does it matter whether positivism was in vogue 75 years ago? How does this bear on the truth or falsity of the doctrine?

I was merely pointing out that philosophy has progressed beyond Verificationism--to such a degree even that to say "a sentence is cognitively meaningful iff it can be empirically verified" is absurd.
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Postby Paul » Wed May 10, 2006 8:51 pm

Rindu wrote:I don't understand this comment, actually. What does it matter whether positivism was in vogue 75 years ago? How does this bear on the truth or falsity of the doctrine?


Exactly my point. The age of the doctrine ought not be relevant to its truth or falsity. And I was applying this very criterion to the thinking of today's philosophers - that they are "current" is of little importance.

I thought, perhaps, that you were invoking currency as a measure of correctness. Forgive me if I misunderstood you.

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Postby Rindu » Thu May 11, 2006 1:53 am

Not really as a measure of correctness, no, but I am more inclined to accept the dictates of contemporary philosophy, in the same way as I accept current phyics. Philosophers build on the work of others, and Philosophy is an intellectual discipline which progresses.
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Postby Paul » Thu May 11, 2006 4:36 pm

Rindu wrote:Not really as a measure of correctness, no, but I am more inclined to accept the dictates of contemporary philosophy, in the same way as I accept current phyics. Philosophers build on the work of others, and Philosophy is an intellectual discipline which progresses.


I quite agree, especially where science is concerned. But I am less convinced about the notion of progress in philosophy. I think one could readily argue that "today's philosophy" has foundered against the rock of relativism. It is hostile towards even the idea of Truth.

I would welcome discussing your understanding of progress in philosophy.

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Postby annis » Thu May 11, 2006 5:45 pm

Paul wrote:But I am less convinced about the notion of progress in philosophy.


In general I'd agree with you, but I'd think that when a school that has run its course and fallen apart so dramatically at the end, we could speak a bit more reliably about it after the fact.

I think one could readily argue that "today's philosophy" has foundered against the rock of relativism. It is hostile towards even the idea of Truth.


Eh? If we omit those literary critics who, after mastering the ghastly jargon-laden logorhea of Foucault and friends, think reading Nietsche entitles them to call themselves philosophers, I can think of no reasonably well known contemporary philosopher apart from Rorty hostile to the idea of truth.

We must be encountering different philosophers. In the last, say, year, I've had occasion to read books or articles by Susan Haack (Defending Science within Reason, Vulgar Rortyism); Martha Nussbaum (I have several of her books; in The Professor of Parody on Judith Butler); Julian Baggini, Daniel Dennett. Just last month saw the release of Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. Related to the original topic, David Stove died in '94, but I suppose we can still take him as reasonably contemporary. Writing in his acerbic and ungenerous way What's Wrong with our Thoughts? he relies on sturdy ideas about the truth.

Can one speak of "today's philosophy" as a unified school?
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Postby Rindu » Thu May 11, 2006 6:19 pm

I also disagree that today's philosophy has "foundered against the rock of relativism." The entire projecto of doing philosophy requires a notion of truth, as far as I'm concerned.

Progress involves discovering true propositions, and correcting false beliefs. Astronomers once held that the planets kept their course in the heavens because they traveled on concentric rings (Ptolemaism). Progress was made when this false model was abandoned, and gravitation was discovered. In the same way, philosophers once held that only verifiable propositions were meaningful, and when this view was refuted, progress was made. Philosophers once believed that Knowledge is a justified, true, belief, but this is no longer the case. Such an account has been shown to be full of logical error.

Another pursuit of philosophy is the analysis and organisation of our concepts. Philosophy makes progress when it organises our concepts in such a way as to best promote our acquisition of knowledge. For instance, substance dualism--the belief that the mind or soul is of a different kind than the brain--leaves us in the dark about a great deal of the human experience. The old view of the soul left it completely mysterious and unsusceptible to scientific study. However, now that naturalism has mostly won the day, and the primary belief is that mind and brain are not distinct, we can embark on scientific studies of the mind.

The prevalent 'school'--if there is such--in contemporary philosophy is naturalism.
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Postby Paul » Sat May 13, 2006 4:25 pm

annis wrote:Eh? If we omit those literary critics who, after mastering the ghastly jargon-laden logorhea of Foucault and friends, think reading Nietsche entitles them to call themselves philosophers, I can think of no reasonably well known contemporary philosopher apart from Rorty hostile to the idea of truth.

Will - I don't think we can omit the members of this class. They continue to wield significant influence at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It is an interesting experiment to measure the amount of Borders or B&N shelf-space occupied by Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty.

I don't know if you consider the following "reasonably well known", but in Europe we also have: Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Lyotard; in America, Allan Megill, Julia Kristeva, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith.

I know neither Haack nor Baggini (so many books, so little time). Although I am delighted to see David Stove's name, he remains almost unknown. Most bookstores will shelve either nothing of his or a copy of "Against the Idols of the Age."

Rindu wrote:The entire project of doing philosophy requires a notion of truth, as far as I'm concerned.

Philosophers once believed that Knowledge is a justified, true, belief, but this is no longer the case. Such an account has been shown to be full of logical error.

Rindu - I readily agree with the first quoted sentence. But I don't understand how you reconcile it with the second (emphasis mine). But perhaps you are simply referring to Gettier's paper and various responses thereto. If so, then we're dealing with what set of conditions deserves the name "knowledge". Nor do I think it accurate to say "..but this is no longer the case." It's fairer to say that there is an ongoing discussion of what constitutes "knowledge".

Rindu wrote:For instance, substance dualism--the belief that the mind or soul is of a different kind than the brain--leaves us in the dark about a great deal of the human experience. The old view of the soul left it completely mysterious and unsusceptible to scientific study. However, now that naturalism has mostly won the day, and the primary belief is that mind and brain are not distinct, we can embark on scientific studies of the mind.


It would be helpful here if you could clarify what you understand by "naturalism". It seems to me to be a disposition that cuts across several scientific and humanistic disciplines. I see it as a kind of newly burnished empiricism, and nothing really new.

Aristotle, Leibniz, Brentano, and other psychologists would deny your claim that the "old view of the soul is unsusceptible to scientific study." But if by "scientific" you mean "mechanistic-materialistic", then you are surely right.

"The mechanistic-materialistic investigation of the brain will help us better understand what it is to be human." I suppose you believe something like this. I further suppose that at some level it is certainly true. But from another, and in my view higher, perspective, such a proposition has almost nothing to do with being human.

Cordially,

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Postby Rindu » Sat May 13, 2006 7:14 pm

Paul wrote:Will - I don't think we can omit the members of this class. They continue to wield significant influence at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It is an interesting experiment to measure the amount of Borders or B&N shelf-space occupied by Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty.
Shelf space at a bookstore really doesn't mean much. Compare the number of books devoted to alchemy or astrology in the new age section to the number of books devoted to chemistry or astronomy. Does this indicate that Alchemy is a prevailing view? No. Bookstores stock books that sell. In general, highly technical, analytical works of philosophy do not sell well among the general public. Relativism is quite popular nowadays amongst the hoi polloi, however, so bookstores stock books written by 'thinkers' who peddle such doctrines.
Rindu wrote:The entire project of doing philosophy requires a notion of truth, as far as I'm concerned.

Philosophers once believed that Knowledge is a justified, true, belief, but this is no longer the case. Such an account has been shown to be full of logical error.

Rindu - I readily agree with the first quoted sentence. But I don't understand how you reconcile it with the second (emphasis mine). But perhaps you are simply referring to Gettier's paper and various responses thereto. If so, then we're dealing with what set of conditions deserves the name "knowledge". Nor do I think it accurate to say "..but this is no longer the case."
I have no idea why you think those two sentences can't be reconciled. They aren't in conflict at all. The old theory of knowledge was:

(K) S knows that p iff (p is true & S believes that p & S is justified in believing that p)

Now, Gettier showed that (K) is false. He couldn't have shown that it is false if he wasn't working with a robust, objective notion of truth. Further, his examples wouldn't have been so widely accepted by the philosophical community if relativism were the prevalent view. If it were, then philosophers might say, "Well, (K) is false for him," or, "Well, in some power structures, (K) is false."

Gettier's article has nothing to do with whether there exists an objective truth &c.
It's fairer to say that there is an ongoing discussion of what constitutes "knowledge".
Not necessarily. Working epistemologists concede that (K) is false. They are still debating the nature of knowledge, sure, but the majority view is still that (K) is false.


Naturalism is a set of assumptions concerning the nature of reality. It really is not logically related to "empiricism," which is an epistemological doctrine. Naturalism can be summed up flippantly as the doctrine that there exists no spooky stuff. Thus, there are no souls, ghosts, telekinetics, etc. The universe is a closed, physical system.

Aristotle, Leibniz, Brentano, and other psychologists would deny your claim that the "old view of the soul is unsusceptible to scientific study." But if by "scientific" you mean "mechanistic-materialistic", then you are surely right.
Well, I don't know about Brentano, but, if I recall correctly, Leibniz was as mechanistic as they come. If one is a naturalist, then one does not believe in souls.

Aristotle also had an entirely different concept of "soul" than do we. The psyche is not at all a soul in the modern sense.

"The mechanistic-materialistic investigation of the brain will help us better understand what it is to be human." I suppose you believe something like this. I further suppose that at some level it is certainly true. But from another, and in my view higher, perspective, such a proposition has almost nothing to do with being human.


I don't see why not.
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Postby Paul » Sun May 14, 2006 12:19 am

Rindu wrote:Bookstores stock books that sell. In general, highly technical, analytical works of philosophy do not sell well among the general public. Relativism is quite popular nowadays amongst the hoi polloi, however, so bookstores stock books written by 'thinkers' who peddle such doctrines.

You make my point about the significance of shelf-space. Of course brick and mortar bookstores stock books that sell. And within a typical philosophy section therein you will usually find that the combined shelf-lengths of Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty exceeds that of any other three thinkers. These authors sell because their relativist thinking is popular. Would you adduce this as an argument against my claim about the "rock of relativism?"

BTW: you are simply mistaken if you think the writings of, say, Derrida or Deleuze are easy, suited to the masses in the manner of a self-help or "new age" text.

I suspect that you simply don't consider such writers philosophers. This may be the source of our dispute about the state of "contemporary philosophy."

Evidently, you were referring to Gettier, ktl. Hence, when I said, "But perhaps you are simply referring to Gettier's paper and various responses thereto.", I meant that in this case the question of the objective truth of "p" is not in issue. Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly.

Rindu wrote:Naturalism is a set of assumptions concerning the nature of reality. It really is not logically related to "empiricism," which is an epistemological doctrine. Naturalism can be summed up flippantly as the doctrine that there exists no spooky stuff. Thus, there are no souls, ghosts, telekinetics, etc. The universe is a closed, physical system.

I think you are splitting hairs here. Naturalism and empiricism are allied. Are there any naturalists who are not empiricists?

Rindu wrote:...but, if I recall correctly, Leibniz was as mechanistic as they come.

This is simply false; a mere matter of fact.

Rindu wrote:Aristotle also had an entirely different concept of "soul" than do we. The psyche is not at all a soul in the modern sense.

Yes, since Descartes, "soul" has been reduced to "mind". And in recent times, "mind" to "brain." Many regard this as unalloyed progress. I am far from convinced.

Are you really, dear Rindu, one of those who believes that the vast, deeply compelling, and often terrible range of human experience can be reduced to nothing more than the motion of matter?
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Postby annis » Sun May 14, 2006 1:11 am

Paul wrote:Are you really, dear Rindu, one of those who believes that the vast, deeply compelling, and often terrible range of human experience can be reduced to nothing more than the motion of matter?


I don't know if Rindu is, but I sure am.

For years I worked with a neurologist simulating epilepsy in a computer, with a goal of one day being able to produce better drugs to control it. He never had access to the computing power to use any but the simplest electrochemical model of neurons in his models. Regardless, a few model neurons with a radically simplified electrical model of behavior, linked together simply, can produce a huge range of behavior. And I work with computers, where once again I can every day see a few simple components interacting to produce complex — and, less happily, unpredictable — behavior. It requires no faith to imagine that 100 billion neurons with 1000s of synaptic connections can produce something as complex as human behavior.
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