The Poison of Positivism

Introduction: Logical Positivism is a toxic philosophy which forms the foundations of a Western education. Like my fellow students, I absorbed its basic tenets without even learning its name, because it is so deeply embedded as to be invisible. Time after time I ran into problems because the ways of reasoning taught by this philosophy conflicted with my intuitions and gut-feelings. Eventually, after exploring one of these conflicts in depth, I realized that my heart was right, and that positivism was a wrong way of reasoning. But it took me a long time to undo the effects of positivism, and to learn to see clearly why it was wrong, and how to think correctly. In this portion, I will try to boil down these life experiences into the simplest possible form; exploring the topic in its full depth would require much more depth and detail (see The Emergence of Logical Positivism)

The questions I hope to address in this part are the following:

  1. What is Logical Positivism?
  2. What is wrong with Logical Positivism?
  3. Why does it appear to be extremely plausible, even though it is obviously false?
  4. How can an obviously false philosophy become widely popular, and deeply influence thought and action worldwide?

Before proceeding to provide more detailed answers, a very brief summary will be helpful as a guide. Logical Positivism (LP) is a theory of knowledge. According to LP, only science produces valid knowledge. All other types of knowledge are do not qualify to be considered as “knowledge”. The LP theory has its origins in some subtle mistakes made by early Enlightenment Philosophers which became deeply entrenched in the foundations of Western thought. Because nearly all the literature produced by intellectuals in the European traditions reflects these mistakes, a Western education automatically indoctrinates students into believing this false philosophy. A clear rejection of this philosophy became possible only after Thomas Kuhn’s pathbreaking work on “the structure of scientific revolutions” in the 1960’s. This work has been understood by specialists and philosophers, who have decisively rejected positivism. However, outside this narrow circle, pre-Kuhnian ideas about science continue to dominate. The idea that science is the only valid source of knowledge continues to be the foundation of a Western education, and influences thought globally.

My Personal Journey

Reality is hidden from our eyes. It is unknowable, unmeasurable, unquantifiable. Knowledge consists of trying to learn about this hidden reality, even though we will never be able to grasp it fully. We can feel with our hearts what we cannot see with our eyes. Even though I could not have articulated it at the time, this is the natural epistemology we all grow up with. However, my education in the West taught me an entirely different set of ideas about the nature of knowledge.  

My Western education taught me to believe in Logical Positivism. This philosophy says that all the knowledge that we have comes from our senses and logic. Importantly, it denies the value of tradition and of faith as sources of knowledge. Any traditional knowledge, or Quranic teaching, must be tested empirically, and must accord with our observations and logic, if it is to be counted as knowledge. Positivism has very disturbing implications. Morality is just meaningless noise; we cannot evaluate, using observations and logic, statements like “It is wrong to kill”. Emotions are not part of knowledge. Thus, our feelings of outrage, anger, and disgust, at acts of oppression against innocent victims have no significance. Our life-experiences and skills are not part of knowledge.

This radical change in the theory of knowledge, which took place in the early 20th Century, created a radical change in university education, designed to convey knowledge. The change is documented by Julie Reuben in “Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality”. She writes that in early 20th Century, the explicit goal of university education was to build character, and teach civic and social responsibility to students. Changes in theory of knowledge created by logical positivism, combined with other forces, led to the purely technical education now in vogue. Abandonment of character-building as a goal of education has caused a lot of damage globally.

These broader issues escaped me completely in my youth (see however, Social Revolutions). What was of concern to me was the technical implications of positivism for statistics. The standard definition of probability as a limiting frequency within an infinite sequence of identical trials fails completely from a positivist perspective. The subjective Bayesian approach is much more satisfactory, but it also leads to some puzzling conclusions. This approach identifies probability as a subjective belief and proves that this belief must exist and must satisfy some rules if our behavior is rational. However, experiments on people, as well as introspection into my own heart, led to the conclusion that personal evaluations of probability do not satisfy the rules specified by the Bayesian approach.

This was another miniature conflict between my head and my heart. My reason was perfectly convinced by the Bayesian arguments, and I was an ardent subjectivist. But my heart and intuition kept telling me that this position could not be right. Ultimately, I stumbled upon some technical difficulties with the Bayesian position. In attempting to resolve them, I realized that the subjectivist position was wrong. The key stumbling block is the conflict between the observable manifestation of subjective belief, and the actual unobservable belief. Positivism holds that no such conflicts can exist, because we only have observable manifestations, but we never have access to the unobservable. But my personal experiences tell me that I often make choices which do not correspond to the preference inside my heart.

Choosing the Heart Over the Head

As I struggled with the problem of understanding the meaning of probability, I came to the realization that the Bayesian argument, strongly dependent upon positivist philosophy, was wrong (for technical details, see “Subjectivist Probability Does Not Exist”). Then, I set myself the task of understanding why it was wrong, when it seemed so clear an persuasive intellectually. Gradually, the flaws in the positivist position became so clear to me, that it became clear that Logical Positivism is obviously false. A brief explanation of this can be given by thinking about the idea of “observable”. Positivists take intuitions, emotions, spiritual states to be unobservable. This is true in the sense that my internal states are not observable to others. But they are very clearly observable to myself. In fact, my internal states are the foundations and building blocks of all my knowledge about the world. Denying the importance and relevance of my internal states is like “feigning anesthesia” – assuming that we have no emotions and spirituality, when we observe these states directly. This fundamental problem was recognized and stated by a lifelong enthusiastic advocate and popularized of Logical Positivism, A. J. Ayer. In a late life interview, he acknowledged that “it was all wrong

To accept Logical Positivism is to accept that our internal states – feelings, intuitions, experiences, and the knowledge that our hearts have been imprinted with – are not part of genuine knowledge. Such a stance is immediately implied by the idea that science is the only source of valid knowledge. But it is also obviously false. Our life experiences and heart-certainties are the most important sources of our knowledge. Once this became clear to me, I tried to explain this insight to others. These attempts failed miserably initially. Positivism is so deeply embedded into a Western education that it is very hard for those trained in the West to overcome. We need to create a “Positivists Anonymous” organization to help these struggling to overcome addiction to positivist thought.

The central debate can be summarized very briefly as follows. What is knowledge? A Western education teaches us knowledge consists of mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, economics, political science, management etc. These are all the subjects contained in the syllabus of a modern Western education. What is common in these subjects is that they study the external world, but not our internal world. Science is the study of external reality. If this is taken to be the sole source of valid knowledge, then the only knowledge which matters is that of the world around us. But what about our internal world, the world of our heart and spirit? Logical Positivism denies that these are sources of knowledge because any knowledge that these provide are unique to us, and therefore obviously not a part of science. Yet, learning how to make the best use of these precious few moments of life is obviously the most important question we all face in our lives. It is equally obvious that science cannot provide us with any clues to the answer.

Once it became clear to me that the most important knowledge, that we all need, is ruled out of the bounds of knowledge by Logical Positivism, a second question emerged. WHY did such an obviously false philosophy become the foundation for Western knowledge? The philosophy of Logical Positivism explains the meaning of the following two Quranic verses:

“It’s not the eyes that are blind, but the heart. ” Quran 22:46

And those who disbelieve, their guardians are the evil ones; they bring them out of light into all kinds of darkness.  Quran 2:257

I have already discussed in previous posts some details of European intellectual history which led to their rejection of unobservables, one of the central pillars of positivism. It is this rejection of unobservables which blinds positivists to our internal world, which is actually at the center of our human experience and knowledge of the external reality. This rejection leads to absurd philosophical stances on things of extreme importance to our daily lives. Just reflect on how much Einstein’s celebrated discoveries about relativity can help us in making friends, understanding social responsibilities, learning courage, love, compassion, and other essential human qualities.

Epistemic Arrogance Versus Humility

Religion provides us with certainties on which to build our lives. Rejecting Christianity left European intellectuals afloat on a sea of uncertainty. They cast about for alternative certainties and decided to put their faith in the newly emerging science. It was widely believed that Newton’s discoveries represented certain truth about the universe, showing that man could arrive at truth by using observations and logic.  It became an uncontested article of faith among European intellectuals that science led to truth, and that science was the only source of truth. It remains an unrecognized truth that this quest for certainty has caused enormous damage to the European intellectual tradition:

Epistemic Arrogance:  Knowledge is worthy of this name only if it is true with certainty.

This idea, that knowledge must be true leads directly to skepticism. It is fairly easy to show that we can be certain of nothing, and therefore we have no knowledge; this was argued clearly by Imam Al-Ghazali in his landmark essay on “Deliverance from Doubt” over a thousand years ago. David Lewis, a prominent philosopher faces the problem squarely in his essay on “Elusive Knowledge”. He starts by noting that we all have a lot of knowledge. But if we insist on certainty, then all of this knowledge disappears, because it is all fallible. The essay starts by an appeal to our (Eurocentric) sensibilities: the idea that “we have knowledge, but we cannot rule out errors” just sounds wrong.  Surely, knowledge must be certain. Lewis refuses to  accept the straightforward idea that we are humans and hence fallible, and all our knowledge is subject to the possibility of error. Instead, in a complex and convoluted essay which can only be understood by professional philosophers, he attempts to redefine the meaning of certainty in such a way that all of our knowledge becomes infallible. To accomplish this impossible goal, he starts with the infallibility of knowledge as an axiom, and redefines the entire lexicon to make protect this axiom from the charge of being obviously false.  The problems being faced by Lewis arise from a crude binaries like something is either fallible or infallible, corresponding to something is either true or false. To understand why this creates unnecessary problems for epistemology, we contrast this confusion with the clarity of an Islamic approach, based on epistemic humility.

Epistemic Humility:  Infallibility is unachievable. Certainty is a condition of the heart, which can be achieved. However, this feeling is not infallible as a guide to the truth. One may feel absolutely certain, and yet prove to be wrong. Quran (17:85) “You (mankind) have been given very little knowledge.”

A complex and multilayered Islamic approach to epistemology is sketched in an excellent series of lectures by Dr. Recep Senturk entitled “Decolonizing Social Sciences: From Uniplexity to Multiplexity”. The following diagram from the first lecture provides the following diagram showing the different levels of certainty which are possible for human beings to achieve:

Multiple Levels of Certainty

An experience provides the highest level of certainty achievable, but even this is not enough to provide us with infallible knowledge. When Western philosophy assume infallibility as an essential characteristic of knowledge, skepticism is the only possible outcome – nothing we know is infallible, and hence we have zero knowledge. David Lewis starts out by acknowledging this, and then shows how we can play word games which will allow us to pretend that the fallible knowledge we have is infallible, so that we can make-believe that knowledge is true with certainty. In the next portion of this lecture, I will explain how the defective epistemology of logical positivism made it impossible to develop a satisfactory theory for economics, econometrics, and statistics. This will conclude this series of lectures, which provide the motivation for this new textbook on Real Statistics: A Radical Approach.  

One thought on “The Poison of Positivism

  1. Give me ambiguity or give me something else. It seems that at the core many humans cannot tolerate uncertainty so become attached to false certainty. We vary one from another on our ability to tolerate the anxiety stemming from ambiguity. Religions are rife with false certainties that over time have been revealed as harmful even dangerous.

    We use metaphors such as heart or spirit to describe so-called “knowledge” but they are subject to the false certainties promulgated by most if not all religions.

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