Thursday, August 14, 2014

Philosophers reject logical positivism

It is sometimes said that quantum mechanics brought a new philosophy of science, inspired by logical positivism. Eg, see this comment:
Bohr is an example of a scientist who made some philosophical remarks in defense of a scientific theory.

Where do you think that philosophy came from? Did you ever hear of the Vienna Circle, that collaboration of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists?

Bohr collaborated with people like Schlick, Neurath, Godel and others on this philosophical approach. This was a completely new way of looking at science, the suspension of the automatic assumption that it was about a ‘real world’ or ‘external reality’.

This is not to say that they denied an external reality (although some, like Schrodinger did) but that it was not a hypothesis that physics needed.

You could certainly argue that this is one of the things that enabled physics in the 20th century to make such bold leaps.
Maybe so, but those philosophical ideas have been rejected by nearly all philosophers of the last 50 years. I have posted how positivism has been attacked by Michael Polanyi and Steven Weinberg.

This is at the core of why I say that philosophers are at war with science. They are the equivalent of Flat Earthers, because they are rejecting what underlies XX century science.

Joshua Engel tries to answer Has logical positivism been successfully debunked? on Quora:
"Debunked" is the wrong word for it. "Abandoned as unsuitable for its purpose" is more apt. And that's only because its ultimate purpose is so lofty, and the power of so intense, that it is the only philosophical movement I've ever known to actually be able to determine that it was on the wrong track.

As a name for the not-completely-rigorous discipline of scientific materialism, "logical positivism" remains in use. What's often called "logical positivism" isn't: it's commonly associated with "falsifiability", which is actually antithetical to the key idea of logical positivism that statements could be positively proved to be true.

In its original, more rigorous definition, "logical positivism" has been abandoned for a number of reasons. The most important of these, I think, is in the Problem of Induction: how can you possibly derive a rigorous definition of truth from finite numbers of observations? The Logical Positivist school had been inspired Wittgenstein's effort to make language rigorous and thus to translate the entire world into a single, true logical formalism, but there's an inherent gap between observation and reality that they could never cover.

The goal had been to replace "metaphysics" with observation and proof, but this turned out to be a self-swallowing problem: you always end up creating your formalism according to what you perceive now, and this determines the kinds of observations you make. In other words, there's always a metaphysics there, whether you notice it or not.
Olaf Simons defends logical positivism on his blog, and answers:
The idea of “debunking” positivism is intriguing since logical positivism has indeed attracted immensely popular refutations. Some of them went viral as killer applications to be used against the odd logical positivist, while logical positivism itself has rather silently disappeared from the map of active philosophies. Did it vanish because of these refutations? Did Karl Popper kill logical positivism? Or did it kill itself thanks to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contribution to this particular philosophy?

Quora is a medium of rather short and opinion driven statements. My short assessment is that this is a philosophy that virtually imploded in the shock wave Wittgenstein’s Tractatus sent out. The popular refutations should deserve a perspective even though. They betray a public desire to see this philosophy as dead as if it had never been invented. The very idea of “debunking” logical positivism betrays this desire.
Here is one of the arguments:
Logical positivism: all statements that can't be empirically verified are meaningless.

Response to logical positivism: you can't empirically verify that claim…
Apparently some philosophers accept this as a refutation, but it is nonsense. A more precise statement would be that logical positivism is interested in empirically verifiable statements, and yes you can verify their claims, if you state them correctly.

This reminds me of people who argue that Goedel somehow refuted logical analysis because he showed that certain logic systems could not prove all truths internally.

The 2nd main argument against logical positivism is that Karl Popper showed that falsificationism is better. That is, proving things false is better than proving things true.

The 3rd main argument is that paradigm shift theory is better. That is, scientists accept what is popular, not what has been shown to be true.

These arguments are very weak. Logical positivism remains the best way to understand modern science. Philosophical attacks on positivism are mainly attacks on modern science.


  1. Modern Science is obviously Einstein and geniuses. LOL.

    Pedro G. Ferreira, "The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity" c. 2014

    Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement in modern physics. Anything that involves gravity, the force that powers everything on the largest, hottest or densest of scales, can be explained by it.

    From the moment Einstein first proposed the theory in 1915, it was received with enthusiasm yet also with tremendous resistance, and for the following ninety years was the source of a series of feuds, vendettas, ideological battles and persecutions featuring a colourful cast of characters.

  2. Stand back people, another revolution (transformation) is about to occur in the next few years. Only geniuses and popes need apply:

    "Even Edward Witten, the pope of modern string theory,..."

    The resident looney tune of the university of oxford says so. Naturally, about a quarter of the book is about string theory. From the prologue:

    "We have talented young scientists looking at general relativity with an expertise that is built on a century of geniuses."


    "Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and string theory are all progeny of Einstein’s theory, and they dominate physics and astronomy. While giving talks at various universities, attending workshops, and participating in meetings of the European Space Agency, responsible for some of the world’s most important scientific satellites, I have come to realize that we are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics."


    "The story of general relativity is magnificent and overarching and needs to be told. For, well into the twenty-first century, we are facing up to many of its great discoveries and unanswered questions. Something important really is going to happen in the next few years, and we need to understand where it all comes from. My suspicion is that if the twentieth century was the century of quantum physics, the twenty-first will give full play to Einstein’s general theory of relativity."

  3. Prof Pedro Ferreira certainly has a fetish for Eddington in this laughable book. The final hype-filled paragraph of the book "The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity c. 2014"

    "That night as we celebrated Eddington’s and Einstein’s colossal achievements, I thought about how we are only at the beginning of what the theory of spacetime is going to tell us about the universe. The twenty-first century is surely going to be the century of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and I feel fortunate to be living at a time when so many new things are waiting to be discovered. Almost a hundred years after Einstein finally came up with his theory, something fantastic is going to happen."

  4. Modern science is a 200 page long "paper" filled with mathese that CFT cannot understand that wins a prize (eg. Fields medal)

  5. "These arguments are very weak. Logical positivism remains the best way to understand modern science. Philosophical attacks on positivism are mainly attacks on modern science."

    - I would offer that people, such as myself, critique positivism because many scientists seem very uniformed as to believe that their (scientific) logical positivism should be applied to all branches of knowledge and questions of existence.

    Claiming, 'These arguments are very weak." does not undermine the three critiques you've listed.

    You are welcome to critique my critique of positivism and atheism, if you are interested, at the following link: