Thursday, April 06, 2006

Parodies of Positivism

Logical positivism is more subtle than it looks.

Consequently, my debates with dualists (e.g., here and here) degenerate into, shall we say, less-than-generous characterizations of materialism and logical positivism. Here are a few misconceptions.

Parody 1: The materialist believes everything is physical.
Incorrect. She claims that only the intelligible parts of the universe are logical and governed by natural laws. The materialist can admit that there might well be unintelligible (inconsistent, random, inexplicable) parts, but she will insist that we cannot know anything about such parts.

Parody 1B: The radical empiricist believes everything is physical or everything is ideal.
If mental sensation and physical sensation are two sides of the same coin, then it does not follow that the coin has two heads or two tails. Saying they are the same kind of thing actually says that mentality and physicality are joined in some other aspect, specifically by their experiential nature, their regularity and their consistency. It says that, like physical phenomena, intelligible mental phenomena are consistent and governed by rules. A priori, it does not declare that the mind is reducible to laws of physics, nor that the mind must be wholly explicable.

Parody 2: The logical positivist says that statements are meaningless unless physically verifiable, e.g., in a lab.
I, too, would laugh at such a claim. However, the actual claim is that thoughts (expressed as propositions) are semantically meaningful when they are models of past or potential experience. Physicality is not a requirement.

A thought that purports to be a mental model must specify what experiences (mental or physical) are implied and denied by the model. If there are no such experiences, then the thought is not a model at all, but just a thought. Such non-model thoughts have either precluded the existence of the modeled thing by their definition (they are confusions), or they were never intended as models in the first place (they are art).

Physical or mental existence (essence, as some would put it) is a correlation between mental and physical patterns of sensation, i.e., it is actual correlation of a mental model with an experience. A unicorn is a meaningful concept because I know what experiences I would interpret as a unicorn. However, I only know that unicorns exist when I correlate my model with implied experiences.

Thus, logical positivism analyzes mental models for consistency. If a mental model is found to preclude correlation with any particular experience, then the mental model is not a model at all.

So, what is meaningful for the logical positivist? When the logical positivist says that a proposition is meaningful, she means only that the proposition is a valid model of mental or physical experience.

This is a far more practical scheme for avoiding category errors than any attempt to place individual words in categories. Words have different meanings in different contexts (language games), so it is important to establish meaningfulness at the model or proposition level.

Parody 3: Logical Positivism cannot accommodate concepts like love or justice.
The meaning of a proposition (a mental model) is contained in its predictions of experience. The meaning of "unicorns exist in Africa" is in its predictions about what experiences will constitute its verification or falsification. The meaning of the Golbach Conjecture is contained in its predictions about prime numbers. Similarly, the meaning of "I love you", while somewhat imprecise, still makes predictions in behaviors and emotional experience.

From here, it is easy to see that the claim that logical positivism is blind to justice or dignity couldn't be further from the truth. I have a mental model of justice and dignity that specify what experiences justify such labels (for me and for most people I know). Logical positivism would only deny the meaning of justice if it could show that there could be no experience that validates the mental model of justice.

Parody 4: Logical Positivism rules out many things accepted in daily life.
Logical positivism excludes only a handful of purported mental models. It only rules out those thoughts which by definition have no experiential test. For example, whether or not we have "free will" has no experiential test whatsoever. Therefore, logical positivism says that it is not a model at all. It's just a thought (and a rather confusing one at that).

Sometimes, mental models are deliberately defined as being untestable through experience. "God is good" is one such model. It is generally claimed that no experience can falsify the proposition. But of what could such a thought possibly be a model? Nothing at all and everything at once. It's like statement "God is everything you experience," which is at best a relabeling of "everything you experience."

My view of logical positivism might be considered unorthodox. I don't aim to create some "unity of science" program, or rule out courses of study that have well-defined experiential tests. I am just a proponent of the Principle of Verifiability in its broadest sense.


Holopupenko said...

In your crusade to eliminate all form of knowledge other than those accessible through the methodological approach of Logical Positivism, you note these forms of knowledge are not verifiable (meaning: not accessible to the five primary senses) and therefore “unintelligible (inconsistent, random, inexplicable) parts, but she will insist that we cannot know anything about such parts.” You throw into this pile metaphysics, as you’ve made clear on many occasions. You’ve also lectured readers to read Ayer on this.

Have you read the later, more intellectually mature Ayer? This is what he notes in his book Logical Positivism (Free Press, 1959, from the Forward, p. 15-16): “... is consistent with all the appearances, whatever their content may happen to be. But, for the positivist, it is just this that condemns them. An obvious objection to the verification principle…[it could not be applied against itself] The Vienna Circle tended to ignore this difficulty... It seems fairly clear that what they [note the distancing of himself from the members of the Vienna Circle, of which he was a founding, card-holding champion!] were in fact doing was to adopt the verification principle as a convention. They were propounding a definition of meaning which accorded with ... with the suggestion that only statements of these two kinds should be regarded as either true or false, and that only ... true or false should be regarded as literally meaningful. But why should this prescription be accepted? [EXACTLY!] The most that has been proved is that metaphysical statements do not fall into the same category as the laws ... surely it does not follow they are neither true nor false, still less that they are nonsensical…

Your thoughts?

How do you see Logical Positivism in light of the fact that ALL subsequent professional analytic philosophers have agreed with MacKinnon’s (1979) assessment that “… logical empiricism died the death of a thousand qualification”? Further, how do you see these problems in light of the fact that this “death by qualifications” charge was (ironically) leveled by Anthony Flew against religious faith, yet who subsequently (and even more ironically) not only abandoned it but (I’m sure much to you chagrin) recently became a deist? By the way, Flew is due to receive an award for his intellectual courage:

Apart from failing per the above, your remaining comments are straw men of the “parodies” you provide. Also, it’s interesting that you level the “misconception” charge as “my debates with dualists… degenerate into, shall we say, less-than-generous characterizations of materialism and logical positivism,” when you yourself leveled ad hominem attacks and have been warned against such emotional outbursts by the moderator of the Real Physics blog. Finally, to label your interlocutors as “dualists” testifies to your not having a clear idea what that term means: to assure you, a label like that would have you laughed out of any discussion with people of faith and reason. Do you honestly understand what the terms “dualism” and “hylomorphism” mean without running to Wikipedia?

Doctor Logic said...


Thanks for the prime example!

Parody 1: The materialist believes everything is physical:

you note these forms of knowledge are not verifiable (meaning: not accessible to the five primary senses) and therefore “unintelligible (inconsistent, random, inexplicable) parts

Emphasis yours.

What are you trying to say about Flew? You seem to say that he accused religion of suffering "death by qualifications" (a charge many philosophers level at logical positivism), then say that he turned out to be wrong (analogy: logical positivism wins in the end). Maybe your paragraph didn't come out the way you intended it.

Your excerpted Ayer quote is intended to suggest that he renounced Logical Empiricism. Is that really your claim?

The Principle of Verifiability is indeed a convention. It defines meaning in systems of logically consistent propositions. Under their definition, the meaning of a proposition is contained within its experiential (logical or empirical) consequences. As I described above, this really says that a proposition is meaningful when it is a model of experience. Of course, you are free to define the term "meaning" in some other fashion, but I cannot imagine knowing the experiential meaning of a proposition that is defined as having no consequences in experience. Let me be clear. Mathematics has meaning because I experience doing the mathematical operations that verify mathematical claims. Mathematics consists of claims about the outcomes of following recipes. Likewise, the Principle of Verifiability is a definition of a property. However, the meaning of statements like God is good, or "all things are physical" is limited to their symbolic mathematical consistency with other propositions.

But why should I bother explaining this to you yet again? I'll just receive another smoking straw man for my troubles.

when you yourself leveled ad hominem attacks and have been warned against such emotional outbursts by the moderator of the Real Physics blog...

Um, it's not an ad hominem attack to compare one brutal totalitarian regime to another. The medieval church isn't Christianity, and it isn't a person.

And, I generally confine my emotional outbursts to my responses to bigotry or, in this case, historical revisionism.

Peg said...

*Peg's giggling warm and happy* Good to see ya Doc and that you are still plugging away!! Just dropped in to say 'Howdy!*

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Peg, thanks for stopping by.

Funny enough, I was just at your site, and I noticed that you published a children's book. Congratulations!

Franklin Mason said...

Hello! I've had the opportunity to read a number of your posts at ThinkingChristian. I am often, but not always, in agreement. You seem disliked there, but I cannot discern the reason.

One quick comment. You assent to what you call 'The Principle of Verifiability'. I take the Principle to mean something like this: the semantic content of a proposition is exhausted by its experiential consequences. But this very principle seems to have no consequence for experience. It makes no experiential difference. Thus it seems that the Principle of Verifiability, if true, is meaningless. But any true proposition is also meaningful. Thus the Principle can't be true and so is false.

If you object that the Principle is merely a convention, I ask in response why I am to accept it. Convention aren't mandatory.

This of course is the objection to Logical Positivism that ended its philosophical life (except of course for a few die-hards, like yourself). I'm curious to know how you respond.

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Franklin,

Thanks for your comment, and for your defense of me at TC.

On to your question...

In my experience, most philosophical differences are caused by differences in assumptions or axioms. The two sides in the debate should at least be able to agree that if axioms are fixed one particular way, a certain conclusion must be reached. In a sense, philosophy is an attempt to make explicit those axioms we have held implicitly. So, I think it is vital that one decide on one or more formal definitions of meaning. Otherwise, every debate will degenerate into an arbitrary subjective decision about what is meaningful to each of us.

In my definition of meaning, a proposition has meaning when it has logical implications for other propositions, that is, when other, independent propositions are implied and denied by its truth. Of course, this definition isn't the only possible one we could assign to the symbol "meaning." However, it would be difficult to imagine a proposition whose meaning is well understood, but which had no consequences for any other proposition. I think that this definition of meaning seems to embody the minimum requirements for any formal definition corresponding to our intuitive sense of meaning.

This definition also tells us what it means for one a proposition to have a meaning "about" something. Propositions are meaningful in the context of the propositions for which they have implications. Definitions, such as the Principle of Verifiability, are meaningful when one can execute them as a recipe and arrive at consistent results. (This is also why mathematics is meaningful.)

The next question is whether my definition of meaning, and that of the logical positivists, are one and the same. I won't go through the whole analysis here, but I think that axiomatic systems can be split into two categories: those whose axioms are arbitrarily chosen by us (mathematics), and those whose axioms are imposed upon us by observation (science). (Note: all of them have a few basic axioms to enforce consistency). This leaves no room for metaphysical claims that purport to expose truths about the world, but which have no implications for observation.

For example, propositions like "God is good" do have implications in a related set, e.g., "God performs no evil acts" might be implied by our proposition. However, if none of the implied propositions have implications for observation, then none of these propositions is about the world. Rather, they are just mathematical structures that use worldly symbols instead of x's and y's. In my interpretation, this is what the logical positivists meant when they said that much of metaphysics was meaningless, i.e., much of metaphysics is mathematics dressed up as something more.

I should mention that I don't agree with every claim made in the name of logical positivism. In a sense, I'm just building on logical positivism the way most analytic philosophers have done. I suspect that my views aren't really that remarkable because most U.S. philosophy departments teach LP + Quine + Sellars + Godel etc. I don't deny any of the work of more recent analytic philosophers like Quine, I just don't think that more recent work has been able to discredit the Principle of Verifiability the way that it discredited more ambitious positivist ideas about synthetic vs. analytic a priori.

I hope this helps explain my position.