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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, p845291eople 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 

  1. October 8, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    I would be interested in any argument that might convince me that logical positivism as such is unsound. In so far as I understand them, attempts at this merely show me that the combination of logical positivism and something else, such as scientist or naïve inductionism, are unsound. But I suppose that scientist and naïve inductionism on their own are unsound, so logical positivism is only criticised by its involvement in the misguided enterprises as cited.

    I accept that logical positivists have often done great damage, and that a logical positivism that insists on a bad logic is itself a bad thing. But might not logical positivism with a more appropriate logical be much needed? (for economics, think Keynes.)

    • October 13, 2015 at 11:50 am

      Oops! A spell checker has replaced my ‘scientism’ by ‘scientist’ in the above. By scientism I mean something that attempts to look like science, but which is less concerned about validity than one would wish. Similarly it seems to me that some of the apparent logical positivism that had bad consequences is not entirely genuine.

      One common desire is for a universal law / logic to ‘rule them all’, everywhere, for all time. But, following Whitehead, Russell and Keynes, it may be that there is actually a trade-off between ‘power’ and scope. The may be universal laws (e.g. of economics) but they do not support much computation. More constraining laws / logics are particular to place and time. 2008 may have been one such change. Logical positivism seems fine. A belief in universal logics less so.

  2. Dave Raithel
    October 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    I get the general indictment. That said, not all logical positivists are/were substitutions for one another. My favorite was Otto Neurath – wiki link to follow just as a starting point – whom I believe (been a long time) was the primary author of the original Vienna Circle “manifesto.” A much briefer critique of the Vienna Circle project(s?) can be made by going directly to Ayer’s “empiricist criterion of cognitive significance” and ask: “Is it an empirical statement, or analytic?” May as well just get metaphysical…. But the truly salient point of the critique put into he above is, for me this observation re the Cambridge Capital Controversy: “Neither side drops any hints that the underlying issue is an argument that justifies earnings of capitalists, against Marxist ideas that they exploit workers.” As a younger man, I’d cite/try to argue “profit” vs. “surplus value” as in instance of “ontological relativity.” Maybe, maybe not. But Neurath can be – from what I could find in English years ago – can be some fun.


  3. October 8, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    @Dave I have several papers which list the many defects of logical positivism. One of them is methodological mistakes and econometric consequences — http://ssrn.com/abstract=2140372 — this paper shows how logical positivism has led to a hopelessly bad methodology in econometrics.

  4. Norman L. Roth
    October 8, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    Oct. 08, 2015

    David Raithel ‘s perspective on the Cambridge Capital Controversy is somewhat distorted by the Marxist shadows that obscure the clarity of his memory.. I advise him to read Chapter 5 of TELOS & TECHNOS to finally sort out the reasons behind the well deserved defeat of the neoclassical culprits at the Cambridge Mass. end of the controversy. Especially the roles of Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa.
    But I commend him enthusiastically for resurrecting the memory of the late Otto Neurath
    who has been so regrettably forgotten, in spite of his one great insight, and in spite of his tragic addiction to the Marxist faith. To quote Neurath directly in TELOS & TECHNOS on pages 89 & 90 of the 197 page edition:
    “It is this tendency to derive the meaning[value],the sense of individualities from the WHOLE: Not the SUMMATION of individualities to the WHOLE, which contributes to the advancement in other fields apart from Physics.. even more so than in Physics.”
    Otto Neurath in a letter to Ernst Mach himself, circa 1915.

    Unfortunately in 1945, poor Otto met a “bad end”, so to speak. Not only was he a hardcore Marxist advocate of any and all manifestations of free market activity. He was also at the losing end of the ‘Socialist calculation debate’…. And a firm believer in the omniscient powers
    of planning what is best for everybody down to the last detail. But Neurath’s lapse into [economic] sanity, was a reversal of “vector” of his mentor’s vision ….”

    GOOGLE {1} Norman L. Roth {2} Norman L. Roth, Technological Time {3}Norman L. Roth,
    Economics of Work {4} Norman L. Roth, Current Conception of the Standard of Life

  5. October 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Demarcation works, but it takes longer in economics
    Comment on Asad Zaman on ‘The rise and fall of logical positivism’

    You sum up: “The rise and fall of logical positivism is the most spectacular story of 20th century philosophy.” (See intro)

    In 1977 Suppe gave a condensed account titled ‘Swan Song for Positivism’ (1977, pp. 619-624). The summary had been followed by an outline of the subsequent developments. To be sure, the fundamental question of logical positivism — how can science be demarcated from non-science? — is still at the center of epistemology and methodology.

    “… it is a central aim of science to come to knowledge of how the world really is, that correspondence between theories and reality is a central aim of science as an epistemic enterprise and crucial to whatever objectivity scientific knowledge enjoys …” (1977, p. 649)

    The actual consensus is that the answer to the demarcation problem is not as straightforward as logical positivists at first thought.

    “… the fundamental problem in philosophy of science — making sense of and determining how science has arrived in a justified way at its present, extremely weird, beliefs about how the world is. … Thales and Aristotle could not have arrived at quantum theory; no naive examination of experience could have suggested such a view of the world.” (Suppe, 1977, p. 684)

    Clearly, Asad Zaman misses the crucial point of methodology. While science is about the sharp demarcation between justified weirdness and metaphysical nonsense, he blurs the distinction again by playing with the word faith.

    “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.”

    There is no problem at all as we know from history. Newton introduced the ‘occult’ concept of gravity but at the same time he deduced a testable formula from the set of axioms which he stated at the first pages of Principia. And this formula was successful beyond the wildest dreams.

    There is obviously an important difference between faith in angels and faith in gravity.

    “It does not matter that moos and goos cannot appear in the guess. You can have as much junk in the guess as you like, provided that the consequences can be compared with experiment.” (Feynman, 1992, p. 164)

    The application to economics is rather straightforward. Orthodoxy is based on nonentities like utility, equilibrium, and others, which have the same real world content as angels or the Easter Bunny, that is, zero.* Therefore, orthodox economics is a proto-science and there is no hope that it will ever be accepted as a science. The acceptance by many economists only disqualifies them as incompetent scientists.

    The task of Heterodoxy is to lift economics above the proto-scientific level and not to kick the dead horse of positivism or to replace one metaphysical nonsense with another.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    Feynman, R. P. (1992). The Character of Physical Law. London: Penguin.
    Suppe, F. (1977). Afterword–1977. In F. Suppe (Ed.), The Structure of Scientific Theories, pages 615–730. Urbana, IL, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

    * For more details see ‘The intelligent layperson’s guide through vacuonomics’

    • Dave Raithel
      October 9, 2015 at 8:44 pm

      “To be sure, the fundamental question of logical positivism — how can science be demarcated from non-science? — is still at the center of epistemology and methodology.” Yep, or so I do still think. ….

  6. Norman L. Roth
    October 9, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Oct. 09 2015

    Psssst, Fellas,

    How many “true believers” are there who would automatically “demarcate” anybody who has the most unaggressive & unobtrusive religious convictions, as a superstitious “unscientific
    “incompetent” ? Yet they accept with little or no skepticism such aggressively fashionable ‘orthodoxies’ as cosmically proven man-made climate change, conspiracy theories of economic and financial control, that all human conflict can be reduced to class warfare & resentment of exploitive ‘elites’; the consignment of ALL metaphysical thinking to the realm of “nonsense”. Not to mention the quasi-superstition that economics can be brought to “scientific” respectability, by assuming that there are objective structural axioms out there, independent of psychological, political, & behavioural/belief motivations .

    Regard not at the speck in thy neighbours’ eye. Consider first the wood in thine own.

    Norman L. Roth

  7. October 10, 2015 at 6:04 am

    @Egmont — you regard as “obvious” what extremely intelligent people diligently seeking solutions have not been able to clarify for centuries. And also, what some of the most intelligent people in the 20th made very serious mistakes about. You espouse a nominalist view in the Feynman quote, whereas most scientists are realists — mainly because the success of predictions based on patterns requires an explanation, which CAN be the existence of the posited un-observable real phenomena like gravity.
    These debates often get clouded by strong emotional attachments to science or religion — both sides having passionate believers. That is why I examine the issue in the context of econometrics, where nobody is wedded to either side (nominalist or realist) with any emotional attachments. The issue appears crystal clear — econometricians have been led astray by nominalist views, which cannot sustain a productive methodology for econometrics. Whether or not the moos and the goos of Feynman exist REALLY matters a lot. If you will examine the argument against positivism in the econometrics context, you will see why the issue is neither clear nor simple as you think:
    http://ssrn.com/abstract=2140372 :

  8. October 10, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Passionate belief is no substitute for knowledge
    Comment on Asad Zaman on ‘The rise and fall of logical positivism’

    With regard to econometrics I agree with you that Orthodoxy messed the whole thing up.* This is bad enough, however, it is only a secondary effect. The root cause is that Orthodoxy as a whole is unacceptable as scientific theory because it is based on nonentities. Roughly speaking, if one starts with utility, constrained optimization, equilibrium, etc. and then goes on to test for the equilibrium price one is bound to fail — not because the statistical methods are defective but because the hypothesis to be tested has no real world content.

    Empirical verification/falsification plays a decisive role for demarcation which in turn is the central issue of science since the ancient Greeks introduced the distinction between opinion and knowledge.

    “There are always many different opinions and conventions concerning any one problem or subject-matter (such as the gods). This shows that they are not all true. For if they conflict, then at best only one of them can be true. Thus it appears that Parmenides … was the first to distinguish clearly between truth or reality on the one hand, and convention or conventional opinion (hearsay, plausible myth) on the other …” (Popper, 1994, pp. 39-40)

    Since more than 2000 years it is known that science is about knowledge and that religion is about belief. Obviously, you cannot get your head around this fundamental point: “These debates often get clouded by strong emotional attachments to science or religion — both sides having passionate believers.” (your post of 10 October)

    There is, to begin with, no place for passionate believers in science. All great scientists pleaded for the utmost degree of objectivity and that meant to keep belief, passion, and other human-all-too-human failings out of the discourse. Science is about true/false and that is that. “Like Planck, Einstein viewed the human element of any physical theory as essentially arbitrary, something that should be purged on realization of the final true theory.” (Mirowski, 2004, p. 159)

    Heterodoxy has a choice: it either drowns in beliefs,** opinions, emotions, wish-wash, ad hominem argument, and anything goes (=political economics) or it eventually establishes material and formal consistency (=theoretical economics).

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    Mirowski, P. (2004). The Effortless Economy of Science? Durnham, London: Duke University Press.
    Popper, K. R. (1994). The Myth of the Framework. In Defence of Science and
    Rationality. London, New York, NY: Routledge.

    * See also ‘Redefining economics’

    ** “The animistic fallacy is the informal fallacy of arguing that an event or situation
    necessarily arose because someone intentionally acted to cause it. While it could
    be that someone set out to effect a specific goal, the fallacy appears in an argument
    that states this must be the case. The name of the fallacy comes from the animistic
    belief that changes in the physical world are the work of conscious spirits.”

  9. October 13, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Counter-arguments to Egmont are available in my paper  Deification of Science and its Disastrous Consequences, which is due to be published in the International Journal of Pluralism in Economics Education shortly. However, in my experience, the paper is opaque to those with insufficient background, or with ideological blinders.

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