Positivism I. Starting Point

A small printed sign appeared one day in the 1980s in a medical research lab in Houston––

There is evidence for God and leprechauns.
Test your hypotheses.

My esteemed senior colleague wanted his students and post-docs never to accept the first intimation of data, but always to do the hard work that would make interpretation unquestionable.

In the same place, a friend told me that she had decided in college against spiritual belief partly due to lectures pitting evolutionary biology against religion by a venerable professor, an Englishman who had studied directly under Thomas Huxley.

Scientific materialism, logical positivism, and philosophical naturalism are variations on a theme, a philosophical stance that relies on science as the only arbiter of real knowledge. To name it with a single word, positivism gained adherence from most leading scientists and thinkers of the late modern era, extending from the mid-19th century on through the 20th.

How did this come about? Let’s look at the origins of positivism.

In the ancient Western world, philosophy found its first full expression among the Greeks, perhaps benefiting from the weakness of Greek polytheistic religion. The Romans adopted Greek philosophy, adding elements of science and civic morality. In the classical era of philosophy these ideas were blended with Christian sensibilities by late Roman thinkers such as Augustine and subsequently the Schoolmen mostly based in Paris in medieval times.

Epochal shifts in GSOT[1] do not occur by gradual accumulation of theories and facts. Instead, revolutions in philosophy happen when someone proposes a radical re-orientation, finds a new starting point for truth and knowledge, and uses it to blaze a new trail. In philosophy, the starting point is crucial.

The modern era of Western philosophy[2] began with a remarkably brief tract titled “Meditations on First Philosophy” by René Descartes in 1641. In making his break from the Schoolmen, Descartes famously chose to doubt –

…to raze everything in my life, down to the very bottom, in order to begin again from the first foundations.

Through radical doubt he hoped to find some bedrock truth immune to doubt, upon which to build a new structure of thought.

“Cogito, ergo sum”[3] was that bedrock truth, and on this foundation Descartes rapidly superimposed belief in God, then in the physical world, and subsequently in practically all of the philosophy and theology he had inherited from ancient and classical thinkers.

Doubt at its uttermost limit was the method Descartes used to wriggle philosophy free from the chokehold of traditional authority. For that accomplishment, he deserves full credit and gratitude. Yet many who appreciate his effort have differed with his metaphysical conclusions, and most with his starting point of radical doubt. Nobody else exposed the charade as clearly as Charles Peirce in 1868 –

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. It is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.[4]

In his article in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Peirce moved quickly on to other topics. I want to linger on the notion expressed here of how to “begin… when we enter upon the study of philosophy” and especially his admonition “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” His insight tells us more than merely to eschew radical doubt. Peeled down to a short sentence, the kernel of Peirce’s thought is this:

We should start from where we are.

This brief sentence seems to state the obvious. Yet if conscientiously applied, it might solve a number of problems – even today.

Peirce’s admonition gained little traction. His contemporaries continued to search for undeniable truth, accepting Descartes’ rule that whatever can be doubted has little worth. They found their greatest inspiration in scientific advances, which fueled the industrial revolution and answered age-old questions about the earth, its place in the heavens, and myriad forms and processes upon it.

Charles Darwin’s solution to the puzzle of evolution, The Origin of Species in 1859, came to epitomize scientific progress. Darwin founded his theory of natural selection with wide-ranging inquiry, detailed observation, and elegant writing.

Prior to The Origin of Species, wonder and awe accompanied the contemplation of “life” that quickened biology. After The Origin admiration began to shift toward physics, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as the methods by which we achieve understanding of them. What previously was called natural philosophy became simply “science.” As scientific knowledge transmuted into economic prosperity, moral instruction stepped back and technological discovery took center stage as the primary means for betterment of the human race.

As a result of this transition, what could have been more appropriate than for the methodology of science to be declared the starting point for all philosophy?


Next post: Positivism II. Free to Choose

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[1] GSOT, the grand scheme of things.

[2] I tell the medical students to avoid relative dating in their histories, such as “3 weeks ago.” The term “modern philosophy” is just such an example of bad usage.  While modern philosophy began in 1641, modernity usually refers to modes of thought and culture ascendant from the latter 19th century through the 20th century, which we may call the late modern era.

[3]           “I think, therefore I am.”

[4] Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.


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