The rise and fall of logical positivism

Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2015.

The rise and fall of logical positivism is the most spectacular story of 20th century philosophy. Logical positivism was wildly successful, and some of its key ideas became widely accepted as common-sense truths among the general public. For instance, p845291eople routinely make a sharp distinction between facts and opinions, thinking that this is trite and obvious. They do not realise that they are stating the conclusion of a complex philosophical argument which is fundamentally unsound.

The philosophy of logical positivism was the culmination of centuries of efforts to prove that science was the only valid source of knowledge, while metaphysics and religions were meaningless nonsense. Philosophers called it the “demarcation problem”: how do we draw the boundary line between science and religion? An obvious answer would be that religion requires faith in the unseen — heavens, angels, afterlife, God, while science deals with the real world around us. However, this runs into the problem that science also requires faith in positrons, quasars, gravity, electromagnetic fields, and many other un-observables. The positivists found a solution: we can translate references to un-observables by their observable implications. For example, gravity is not observable, but it implies that planets will have elliptical orbits. According to positivists, when we use the word ‘gravity’, what we really mean is that the planets have elliptical orbits (and all other observable implications of gravity). With this clever philosophical manoeuvre, the positivists showed that despite appearances to the contrary, science does not require faith in the unseen. When scientists talk about electrons, they are just using a shorthand language to describe some rather complex collection of observations that they have made in their laboratories.

Youthful British philosopher A J Ayer went to study the newly emerging philosophy in Vienna, and became an ardent and enthusiastic advocate. One of the key tenets of the philosophy was that sentences were meaningful only if they could be confirmed empirically. Ayer’s exposition of positivism created great excitement. It provided a powerful weapon to modernists, enabling them to attack traditions by asking for an empirical demonstration for all claims. Since no proof could be provided for them, Ayer said that “ethical judgments … have no objective validity — they are (as meaningless as) a cry of pain”. This became widely accepted throughout the academia. Prior to positivism, social scientists had actively engaged in the struggle to improve human welfare. Logical positivism made this an intellectually unrespectable expression of feelings, not suitable for a scientist. To improve their image, social scientists learned to couch passionate advocacy in cold, sterile, and apparently objective language. For example, the intensity of the debate in the Cambridge Capital Controversy baffles observers. Both sides argue using technical and complex mathematical arguments. Neither side drops any hints that the underlying issue is an argument that justifies earnings of capitalists, against Marxist ideas that they exploit workers. As detailed in a previous article, Professor Julie Reuben has explained the damaging effects of this marginalisation of morality on modern university education at book length.

Among philosophers, positivism had a spectacular crash. Many of the central ideas of positivism proved to be indefensible on closer examination. Even the fundamental concept of factual and objectively verifiable could not be sensibly defined. For example, my feeling of happiness is observable to me, and as factual as the sun shining in the sky, but it is not observable and hence subjective to others. Even the lifelong advocate, Ayer, came to realise that positivism was wrong, and said so in a public interview.

The surprising kicker to this story is that the reasons for the philosophers’ rejection of positivism have not been widely understood. Economists in particular, and most social scientists in general, continue to believe in positivist ideas, and to use them as a basis for research. Inertia keeps professionals wedded to this obsolete philosophy, since replacing it would require rejection of 50 years or more of theorising. Nonetheless, a radical re-thinking is the need of the hour, since the positivist rejection of human experience as a source of knowledge has led to impoverished theories in social sciences, which are manifestly incapable of dealing with looming catastrophes on several fronts.

This post was re-blogged on RWER, where it generated more comments and discussion.

see also: Deification of Science and its Disastrous Consequences  — to appear in International Journal of Pluralism  in Economics Education, 2015

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2 comments
  1. Lyonwiss said:

    You said: “Among philosophers, positivism had a spectacular crash. Many of the central ideas of positivism proved to be indefensible on closer examination. Even the fundamental concept of factual and objectively verifiable could not be sensibly defined.”

    Philosophers are not scientists and they do not understand science. They have never done any science and they have tried to reduce a complex process to simple principles. Philosophers’ idea of science does not define science. Scientists do not care about what philosophers think. They just keep doing what they are doing and the successful results speak for themselves. It makes me very sick when I hear some economists claim credit for the rising living standards of the recent decades.

    You said: “The surprising kicker to this story is that the reasons for the philosophers’ rejection of positivism have not been widely understood. Economists in particular, and most social scientists in general, continue to believe in positivist ideas, and to use them as a basis for research. Inertia keeps professionals wedded to this obsolete philosophy, since replacing it would require rejection of 50 years or more of theorising.”

    Scientists do not care about positivism or the theorising of philosophers. The fact that economists take notice of philosophers shows that they have no idea of science. Why is it that millions and billions of people fly in airplanes and plane crashes are relatively rare? And when a crash does occur, no one starts by doubting the laws of physics? Economic disasters are quite common and when they occur, economists scurry around for defunct economists to “their
    frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”? Economists have never systematically practised science.

    Forget about positivism or what economists think it means. Scientists do not falsify or verrify important assumptions or propositions once or twice. They are obsessive about veracity of important facts, which are tested continuously and endlessly. For example, the constancy of the velocity of light (on which the theory of relativity depends) has been tested many dozens of times over more than one hundred years and each time a new enabling technology is developed more tests are performed.

    Popper is clueless about science because he is an armchair philosopher in the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition. He did not understand falsification. To understand empiricism, do not read David Hume (another armchair philosopher), but read Galileo, someone who had actually advanced human knowledge rather than talked about. If you want to understand sex, don’t just read sex manuals, you have got to do it! Economists have never done it. Science that is.

  2. Macrocompassion said:

    Logical Positivism should be able to explain the cause of the Big Bang (and the creation of space-time), but without both science and religious faith and the concept of an extra-to-universe being (or God) no explanation is possible. It is here that religious beliefs and scientific knowledge come together.

    The trouble with religious faith is that it is 100% certain and the trouble with scientific knowledge is that it isn’t!

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