The Return of the Logical Positivist

UnknownLogical positivism was a philosophical movement that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and the 1940s and 1950s in America. At its core, the movement represented a commitment to empirical science and its technical apparatus (mathematics and logic), a new way of doing philosophy, a radical anti-metaphysical stance, and the rejection of synthetic a priori statements. The movement was largely abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, its spirit survives.

Central to logical positivism was its various permutations of the verification principle, an empirical criterion of meaning that was supposed to demarcate acceptable discourse from unacceptable discourse, empirical knowledge from speculative metaphysics, meaningful propositions from meaningless nonsense.

The fundamental tenet of verificationism is that a non-logical sentence is meaningful when one knows the method of its empirical verification. The sentence “Jones is gruff” is meaningful because it can be verified as true or false through observation. However, theological statements such as “God is loving,” while grammatically similar in form, are unverifiable empirically and therefore not merely false, but meaningless.

Thus the theological claims of the believer don’t even have the dignity of being dubbed false—they are utter nonsense. They are expressions of the emotions of the speaker.

By way of implication, this means (for example), there can be no dispute between Christianity and science, not because the deliverances of Christianity and the deliverances of science converge on the truth (my view), but because the deliverances of Christianity are meaningless gibberish.

Additionally, this means that religious claims are not to be understood as knowledge claims. Rather they are just the private, subjective musings of some speaker. Religion has a place in the positivist program, just not an intellectual place. Religion is like art, not science—matters of taste and personal preference reign supreme.

By way of partial response, Alvin Plantinga has pointed out (in his seminal essay “Advice to Christian Philosophers”) that it is open to the Christian to retort: “Statements such as ‘God is loving’ very clearly have a meaning; Christianity is very obviously a knowledge tradition, therefore, logical positivism is false.”

More fundamentally, many have pointed out that verificationism is self-refuting and therefore false (Although some formulations of the principle (such as Carnap’s) manage to avoid self-refutation by giving up the notorious “metaphysics-is-once-and-for-all-meaningless” claim, a central plank of the positivist program.) The elimination of metaphysical or religious claims from theory construction is impossible. The salient issue is whether or not there are good epistemic grounds for holding the metaphysical or religious beliefs in question, not whether or not the beliefs are confirmable via some empirical criterion of meaning.

With logical positivism largely abandoned by analytic philosophers today, one would expect its influence to have waned. But it seems that its spirit and influence lives on. Sometimes we hear the positivist mantra coming from the mouth of academics (who should know better) such as the philosophy and religious studies professor Hector Avalos.

In a recent article in the Iowa State Daily, professor Avalos gives expression to his own understanding of scholarship and the scholarly enterprise. It is a perfect expression of the tried-and-found-wanting verificationism:

“Personally, I don’t think that theology is a legitimate academic enterprise because there are no objective methods to verify any claims about the entity called ‘God,’” Avalos said. “It has no place in a public university due to constitutional issues regarding the separation of religion and state.”

Mostly, however, we find verificationism within the loud and (largely) populist movement that is new atheism.

What explains the return of the logical positivist?

I’ll venture an answer: The desire that one’s beliefs be properly grounded and rational (I support!) conjoined with the confused notion that science is neutral and the best or only way to gain knowledge and (all to often) the (false) hope that the empirical world is all there is.

For a discussion of the myth of neutrality in scholarship in general, and science in particular, see my forthcoming article “An Essay on Academic Disciplines, Faithfulness, and the Christian Scholar.”

















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