Positivism II. Free to Choose

In the first half of the 19th century Auguste Comte in France proposed to apply scientific methods to the study of human relationships, initiating sociology as a scientific discipline. On a broader scope, he declared that science had eclipsed religion and metaphysics as systems for understanding the universe. He named his views philosophie positive or positivisme.

Comte adorned his ideas with various exhortations and moral imperatives unacceptable to later philosophers of science. Therefore, positivism as we know it today is sometimes called neo-positivism. I shall not make this distinction.

The most fervent exploration of positivism happened between the world wars among members of the Vienna Circle. A collection of their work along with some later additions was compiled by A. J. Ayer under the title Logical Positivism, published in 1959, the 100th anniversary year for The Origin of Species. The collected essays exude confidence and surety, as if the final course for human philosophical endeavor has been defined, and all that remains is to fill in the details.

I was born a member of the baby boom just after World War II. My father was a medical school professor, a physiologist, who shared his excitement at scientific discovery with his children. When I had just turned 7, the pupils of my eyes must have dilated as he opened a hallway refrigerator at the medical school to show me jars of dog blood he would be using in experiments. Later I would stare in awe at open chest preparations, watching the heart beat and the lungs expand and contract, driven by the piston of a respirator. Yet Daddy had the sensibility to bring home a handsome black and white puppy saved from the usual fate to become our family’s all-time favorite pet. We named him Mutnik after the Soviet satellite.

One night Daddy took us outside to look at the night sky. Peering up, he said, “The stars are very far away. But don’t just look at the stars. Look at the black between the stars, and think about how far away that is.” Sometime later he described to us Einstein’s theory about the curvature of space. If you could travel in a rocket ship past the stars in a straight line going very far and fast, he told us, eventually you could end up right back here where you started.

We children knew our father to be agnostic, but living in Mississippi in the 1950s, we also recognized that he did not want the outside world to know. Our mother was a community leader and churchgoer. Questions of science versus religion were rarely discussed at the dinner table. Instead we heard about the PTA, the latest discovery in space or in the ocean, new movies, the chances of the Ole Miss football team, or the musicals they had attended in New York – complete with singing renditions for our ears.

I went to Sunday School and church with my mother. In my early teens I began to look seriously at the claims of religious faith, expressed most effectively to me by some of my friends. Science or faith? Would I follow in the path of my father, a path that I partially recognized had attracted some of the best minds of the era, or would I accept the faith of my friends and my mother?

But where in the scientific realm of positivist thinking was the mechanism that allowed me to make a choice at all? Are we only observers of the events that describe our lives, events that answer only to reproducibly defined stimuli, responses, and genetic traits? I pushed back against that thought. Science, I pondered, might not be the only way to gain knowledge, especially the knowledge of who I am and what I want.

I began to think that the deepest feelings and commitments that steer the course of our lives are mostly unscientific. My father would have said that evolution put the feelings and commitments inside of us. In his absence now, I ask different questions and observe that the process by which each learns about his own passion is not scientific at all.

If the process of self-discovery is unscientific, should I count the result unsubstantial?  William James contrasted the “tough-minded” empiricist with the “tender-minded” rationalist.[1]  What young man would not choose to be “tough-minded”?  Religious as well as secular thinkers have distinguished the rationality of science from the irrationality of faith. What kind of foundation for GSOT can be built on irrationality?

Now some 50 years beyond adolescence – quick decisions were never my style – I have settled on a position that I consider both rational and tough-minded. Positivism, scientific materialism, and philosophical naturalism are wrong. Effective in their time perhaps, but in the light of new understanding somewhat quaint and, finally, stupid.

My philosophical birthright from the mid-20th century is too narrow, leaves out too much. I hope you may come to agree that the case against positivism and its kin is decisive. Decisive, yet neither logically compelled, nor universally evident, nor manifestly probable. If it were any of these, it would be mathematical and scientific, and would fit neatly within the frame of positivism, canceling the case.

In the next 4 blogs, I shall try explain how I find positivism to be demonstrably, though not scientifically, wrong. We’ll examine closely the founding principle – the starting point – of positivism, and I will try to show how that starting point conscientiously applied may lead to the omission of much that is real and valued in our lives, and how even the most dedicated disciples of positivism fall short of complete adherence to their credo.

But you will see no attempt from me to marshal a preponderance of evidence that compels you to agree. To make a judgment in the face of compelling evidence is not to choose but to acquiesce. I wish to leave you free to choose.


Next post: Positivism III. Immediacy and Particularity

Previous post: Positivism I. Starting Point

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[1] William James.  Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978, p. 13. James did perhaps more than anyone else to popularize pragmatism, while simultaneously making significant advances in the new science of psychology. Pragmatism as presented by James, Charles Dewey, and others departed critically from the rigorous program conceived by their close friend, Charles Peirce. In 1905 Peirce wrote that he, “finding his bantling child ‘pragmatism’ so promoted, feels that it is time to kiss his child good-by and relinquish it to its higher destiny; while he begs to announce the birth of the word ‘pragmaticism,’ which is ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” – What Pragmatism Is. The Monist. 1905; 15:161-181, reproduced in Weiner, P.P. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings. Dover, New York, 1958, p. 186.


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