Saturday, January 18, 2014

The problem with positivism

"Positivism states that all authentic knowledge allows verification and that all authentic knowledge assumes that the only valid knowledge is scientific."

What is truth? A simpler, and more frequently used word could hardly be imagined, but philosophers differ over it, probably because of sentimental attachments to beliefs that may not be true. In the hands of theologians, idealists, and artists, truth often stands for "something I believe". If a novel stirs a deep emotion, it is true, even while it is false. If an artwork reflects and expresses a facet of the human condition in a surprising or powerful way, it is true. And if a belief in a deity is beautiful, socially bonding, and morally edifying, it is also true. At least one athelete is the truth.

This definitional issue remains quite confusing and misleading. The subjective uses of "truth" have little to do with the canonical correspondence truth, (i.e. the equation of the thought and reality), in that what is corresponding to the feeling of truth is a feeling it agrees with, not a condition of the outside world. Subjective states surely deserve the recognition of their existence and texture. But the word truth may not be the best way to describe them.

In contrast, science and the law take a more blinkered view. If something is true, it actually happened, or is part of the real world verified by observation and continually available for re-observation, and / or other forms of close analysis. While the sciences are edging into regions traditionally part of the humanities, they still regard truth as objective, and separate from personal state, wishes, ideology, etc. The DNA reads one way, and not another. The defendent was at the scene of the crime, or not. Evidence may not exist, and the truth may not be known, but that does not impair the idea of truth- its definition and possibility.

In this regard, our minds are truth engines, working very hard to model reality with accuracy. Eyesight is the most dramatic example, bringing us incredibly rich and accurate scenes with no apparent effort. But on more abstract levels too, we are constantly trying to figure things out, particularly other people, the object of so much of our intuitive acuity. But there are limits.. we have no intuitive grasp of physics on any large or small scale, and nor is our introspection particularly effective. The self is a black box that we struggle our whole lives to understand.

And one tool of all this modeling is imagination, which both consciously and unconsciously conjures all sorts of worlds and images, sometimes as hypotheses to be pursued, sometimes as warnings to be avoided. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), the line between sober analysis and imagination is not all that clear, leading to the establishment of the scientific method as a general and organized way for communities of people to figure out the difference, in fields where real truth is at least conceivable.

This was the hope of the postivists, to put all knowledge on the this same footing, by setting verificationist, empirical standards for knowledge and truth, and keeping all else outside the door. They tried to define everything else as "nonsense", or as not meaningful. But unfortunately, most of human experience happens in far more nebulous realms of subjective experience, vague judgements, and hopeful propositions. Which are often very highly meaningful indeed. So this re-definitional part of the project was as futile as it was repugnant.

For instance, not even the most airy metaphysical questions are entirely meaningless, which is one of the propositions of positivism. Rather, their resolution, after thousands of years of speculation, does not lie, typically, with the speculators. Philosophers provide the service of keeping some of these questions alive, at least in the academy, and of trying out various intuitive solutions to them. But the remaining problems of philosophy are clearly ones where both data and intuition are lacking. Whether data ever arrives is the main question. Whether intuition will ever resolve them is much less of a question.

More technically, the word positivism signifies positive proof, and by various skeptical arguments, (such as Hume's and the problem of induction generally), and by historical experience, it is clear that proof (i.e. verificationism) is a mirage in science, not to mention other fields. The most that can be hoped for is a provisional model of reality that doesn't violate too many observations- a coherentist model of truth.

So Karl Popper, for instance, who was altogether sympathetic to positivism, came out with his falsificationist principle, in opposition to the verificationist principle of positivism- becoming formally an anti-positivist, or at least a post-positivist. But even falsificationism is too stringent, since a contradictory observation can as easily be erroneous as damning. Judgement and interpretation are always called for, on the appropriate level of analysis.

A positivist temple, with Auguste Comte out front.
My take on all this is that positivism was overly ambitious. The point can be well-taken without setting up a new altar to absolute truth. All truth is, on our level, probabalistic, and exists on a spectrum from the precise and well-attested to the hearsay and ludicrous. That is what the contemporary Bayesian revolution in statistics and science generally is getting at, and what was lost in the positivist's rather extreme, utopian, project, for which they were bickered out of existence. Far larger lies and absurdities, however, were (and are) rampant in the field of philosophy than the shades of truth-i-ness found in the scientific literature or the history of science. To whit, a quote from Nietzsche:
"The other idiosyncrasy of philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first things. They place that which makes its appearance last ... the 'highest concept', that is to say, the most general, the emptiest, the last cloudy streak of evaporating reality, at the beginning as the beginning. This again is only their manner of expressing their veneration: the highest thing must not have grown out of the lowest, it must not have grown at all ... thus they attain to their stupendous concept 'God'. The last, most attenuated and emptiest thing is postulated as the first thing, as the absolute cause, as 'ens realissimum'. Fancy humanity having to take the brain diseases of morbid cobweb spinners seriously! - And it has paid dearly for having done so."
-Quoted by Max Horchheimer, in Eclipse of Reason.

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