The rise and fall of logical positivism
from Asad Zaman and WEA Pedagogy Blog
The rise and fall of logical positivism is the most spectacular story of 20th century philosophy. Logical positivism was wildly successful, and some of its key ideas became widely accepted as common-sense truths among the general public. For instance, people routinely make a sharp distinction between facts and opinions, thinking that this is trite and obvious. They do not realise that they are stating the conclusion of a complex philosophical argument which is fundamentally unsound.
The philosophy of logical positivism was the culmination of centuries of efforts to prove that science was the only valid source of knowledge, while metaphysics and religions were meaningless nonsense. Philosophers called it the “demarcation problem”: how do we draw the boundary line between science and religion? An obvious answer would be that religion requires faith in the unseen — heavens, angels, afterlife, God, while science deals with the real world around us. However, this runs into the problem that science also requires faith in positrons, quasars, gravity, electromagnetic fields, and many other un-observables. The positivists found a solution: we can translate references to un-observables by their observable implications. For example, gravity is not observable, but it implies that planets will have elliptical orbits. According to positivists, when we use the word ‘gravity’, what we really mean is that the planets have elliptical orbits (and all other observable implications of gravity). With this clever philosophical manoeuvre, the positivists showed that despite appearances to the contrary, science does not require faith in the unseen. When scientists talk about electrons, they are just using a shorthand language to describe some rather complex collection of observations that they have made in their laboratories. read more