Checking the pH of the fish tank

March 23, 2014 § 69 Comments

I’ve talked about the intellectual error I call positivism quite a bit over the years.  It is a difficult thing for moderns like us to discuss, precisely because it is like trying to describe water to a fish. Ironically this difficulty is exacerbated specifically by the fact that positivism is false.

Consider what happens when we read a text.  Reading formal arrangements of symbols on a page or screen is the activity; somehow this activity results in an apprehension of meaning inside our minds.

In order to understand a specific text the meanings that it triggers must already be in us, and must have gotten into us from somewhere else. A text can bring us new information and new concepts through novel arrangements of what we already know; but almost all of the meaning of a text must come from something other than that specific text.

Almost all of the meaning of a text is already in our minds before we read it.  If it were not we could not possibly understand the text: it would just be a meaningless jumble of forms.

Understanding that when we read a specific text almost all of the meaning was already in us, before we even started to read it, will not give us a solid grasp of what positivism is and why it is an error — an error so pervasive that for modern people it is like water to fish.  We can’t understand those things concretely until sufficient meaning related to positivism and the problems with it has made it into our minds.

But it is the beginning of an understanding.

§ 69 Responses to Checking the pH of the fish tank

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Zippy’s post reminds me of a fascinating chapter in Richard M. Weaver’s book called “Ideas Have Consequences,” where he argues for something like Plato’s Theory of Recollection. Weaver seems to believe that while we read, our minds record meanings, truths, and other information that we recall when we read. For him, that’s why we still understand some sentences, even when we can’t tell other people what those sentences mean.

    Since Theory of Recollection may be new to some readers here, I’ll try to sum it up in a line or two. In his dialogue the “Meno,” Socrates helps a slave boy do some mathematics, geometry, I think. The philosopher questions the young man, who gets the right answers. Was Socrates hinting at them? Plato doubts that Socrates was doing that. He was instead reminding the boy of what he already knew from another life.

    Zippy, what do you mean by “positivism?” Each time I read that word or hear it, I think about legal positivism, the belief that the U.S, Constitutions means anything the U.S. Supreme Court thinks it means, even if that meaning differs from the intended one.

  • mdavid says:

    Zippy, Almost all of the meaning of a text is already in our minds before we read it. If it were not we could not possibly understand the text: it would just be a meaningless jumble of forms.

    The text: The world is sphere was a brand new concept for me as a child. Yes, I knew what a sphere was, but I had no idea the surface of the ground I walked on was of that shape and if I could walk in one direction long enough I would come back on myself. The “truth” of the text was not in my mind at all, hence my disbelief. it was, by my thinking, a brand new idea to me. Yes, I had seen an ant walking around an orange, but that’s not the same since I am held on the earth by the attraction between to masses, while the ant sticks by chemical and mechanical methods. The gravitational law of (GmM)/rr blew my mind (still does!).

    I’m not sure I’m subtle enough to see the importance of this concept of positivism. To me, new ideas, that is, the ideas of which I might have the individual parts within me but I would still have zero chance of figuring it out myself, are exactly the ideas I seek to know. How does knowledge of the concept of positivism help me discover such truths and separate them from falsehoods?

  • mdavid says:

    Bill, Richard M. Weaver’s book called “Ideas Have Consequences”

    I recently upgraded this book to Kindle and unloaded the hardcopy. Need to re-read. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    You’re welcome, mdavid. Thank you. I didn’t know that anyone sold a Kindle edition of that great book. Please correct me if I’ve misremembered anything about Weaver’s new theory of recollection. I need to reread the book to review what he says about nominalism.

  • Zippy says:

    Plato is always worth reading, and Weaver provided a refreshing dose of realism for me in a sea of 80’s relativism.

    Keep in mind though that I’m not saying that we don’t learn anything new when we read. We obviously do. But if meaning were quantifiable, what we get from the text itself is both derivative from what we already know and a very small addition to the total content of the specific subject matter.

    Positivism is something I’ve talked about any number of times, but unfortunately (1) my blog was transferred from blogger a while back so it is only marginally searchable/browsable, and (2) I probably wrote more in comboxes and other places than here. We recently chatted about it briefly here.

    I do think that legal positivism, logical positivism, and other positivisms are related to each other: they all tend to involve claims of completeness as a basis for ruling out the importation of meaning from “outside” of some formal representation, e.g. a text. Justice Scalia’s philosophy is an example of judicial positivism; there are specifically Catholic flavors of positivism; sola scriptura is positivist; a lot of the New Atheism rests on positivist assumptions; the search for a physical “theory of everything” is inherently positivist; etc etc.

    Generally speaking I seem to have a hard time helping people “get it”, when it comes to positivism. So I’m going slow here. This post won’t really help someone understand positivism with any depth, but it is necessary background, specifically involving recognition that no text has any meaning whatsoever “alone”.

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    You’re doing a fine job, Zippy. Legal and logical positivism were the only kinds of positivism I knew of before I had read your helpful reply. A post ago, assumed you thought we could learn new things while we read. You just reminded me of what Weaver wrote.

    Text is meaningless when it’s alone, I think. Other people usually confuse me when they use everyday words in unusual senses. Years ago, for example, an acquaintance of mine said “selfish” when she meant “assertive.” A little slow on the uptake, I had no idea what she meant by it at first until she used it in its usual sense.

    Although I’ve always hated deconstructionism or my misinterpretation of it, it piqued my curiosity when a YouTube video told me that Derrida thinks there’s no uninterpreted text. I just don’t know what it is he means by that. Naturally, I attach a meaning to a sentence when I use it. But I wonder whether I interpret it while I say it. Even before I speak, I hope, I already know what it is I’m trying to tell you. It’s hard to know whether Derrida assumes that interpreted texts have already been spoken or written by their speakers, their authors, or both.

  • Zippy says:

    Bill McEnaney:
    Two books I found helpful are Beyond the Postmodern Mind by Huston Smith and After Writing: on the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy by (Anglican) Catherine Pickstock. Like Plato they helped me think about things it never occurred to me to think about on my own.

  • Zippy says:

    Another way to come at understanding positivism is that positivism asserts deductive decideability from a formal representation (e.g. text), or insists that any true[1] statement in a class must be verifiable using formal methods. It isn’t necessarily obvious that verificationism is a completeness claim, but it is.

    [1] Some folks are under the impression that limiting truth-claims to a certain subclass of true statements can wiggle around the problem, but they are wrong. So, for example, the notion that the truth of every true doctrine is decideable from the text of Scripture alone is positivist, hence fallacious. In general whenever someone insists on decideability or verification from a text or using formal methods, and attempts to discount anything that is not decideable/verifiable from the text/formulas, philosophical realists should chamber a round.

    Positivists balk at this because the only alternative they can see to positivism is postmodernism; and postmodernism is manifestly crazy. This “rhymes” with classical liberals seeing tyranny as the only alternative to classical liberalism though: it is a failure of perspective. And usually no words can convince folks otherwise, precisely because words are very weak bearers of meaning.

  • jf12 says:

    I agree that the only possible alternative to some sort of positivism is some sort of postmodernism. If it’s not true of a text that “It means what it says” then it means whatever the reader says it means, i.e. it is fully amenable to private interpretation.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    I agree [with the positivists] that the only possible alternative to some sort of positivism is some sort of postmodernism.

    Just clarifying that you don’t agree with me; rather, you express the false dilemma of the positivist.

  • jf12 says:

    Zippy, are you positing an invisible Middle Way you haven’t laid out yet, or are you a postmodernist?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Positivism-postmodernism is a false dilemma of modernity. Knowledge, text, and meaning don’t work the way that positivists think they work. A postmodern is just a positivist who has realized this and, rather than reexamining his positivist commitments, concludes that objective meaning isn’t possible.

    You might find the book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel by Rebecca Goldstein an interesting layman-level introduction.

  • jf12 says:

    My Some Sort Of Textual Positivism evidently doesn’t correspond to what you mean by it.

  • Zippy says:

    I wrote:

    A postmodern is just a positivist who has realized this and, rather than reexamining his positivist commitments, concludes that objective meaning isn’t possible.

    This by the way also “rhymes” with the intellectual dynamic among liberals.

    When a committed right-liberal realizes that the classical liberal property regime is just a thin veneer of equality-rhetoric layered over the top of discriminatory feudalism he abandons the discriminatory property regime and becomes a left-liberal, rather than reexamining his liberal commitments. Meanwhile other right-liberals – those with more uneasy commitments to liberalism – remain right liberals despite the inherent dissonance of their commitments, because the only alternative they see is tyrannical left-liberalism.

    So right-liberals have weaker commitments to freedom and equality, while left-liberals firmly embrace its implications. Neither is willing to critically examine liberalism itself though.

    Modernity is – not without irony – built on a long-cultivated tradition of refusing to examine one’s basic commitments critically.

  • Zippy, can you give a link to a post of yours that gives your definition of positivism?

  • jf12 says:

    Randall Munroe may have written something about this topic.
    http://www.xkcd.com/1343/
    Then again, someone might say “I can’t tell if what I’m reading means something relevant, or not.”

  • Zippy says:

    malcolmthecynic:

    Zippy, can you give a link to a post of yours that gives your definition of positivism?

    No, not really. Defining positivism is kind of like (e.g.) defining metaphysical realism, or Platonism, or Aristotlean-Thomism. Concise definitions can be given, but concise definitions presume that the reader already knows what is being defined and merely needs to be told some specific difference (that the defined term means this thing rather than that, where the reader already has a strong grasp of this and that). Consider the sheer volume of words that (e.g.) Ed Feser has produced just to help people understand what any one of Aquinas’ Five Ways really means: you can ask for a concise definition of the Fifth Way, but it probably won’t be very helpful.

    The three books I’ve already mentioned and the posts I’ve already linked may give an idea. But again, with this post I’m not trying to impart an understanding of positivism: I’m just trying to take a baby step in the general direction of understanding positivism.

  • Ed says:

    Zippy,

    your comment reminded me of a chapter written by David Stove: “the Myth of Formal Logic”. It is not, of course, a diatribe against logic. It attacks the notion of purely formal general judgments of validity and invalidity.

    the chapter can be found here:
    http://fitelson.org/confirmation/stove.pdf

  • Hmmmm, fair enough. I’ll have to work this out on my own.

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Zippy, thanks. I’ve added both titles to my huge Wishlist at Amazon.com. A lecture by Christopher Ferrara made me hesitate to order Pickstock’s because he seemed to think they were hard to comprehend. But I plan to buy the one you suggest. Maybe Plato’s Early Socratic Dialogues help confuse me, because now that I’ve read them, I always try to define the things, not the words, I think about when I read. I’m always searching for the essences of things.

    That may be why I love to write computer programs in functional programming languages. They usually say the way things are, not what I need the computer to do. Logic programming languages can be even more declarative than functional ones. No wonder I wished Leibniz had invented his Charicteristica Universalis, an artificial language that would change reasoning into mental computation. To deduce conclusions validly, you’d just manipulate symbols properly. Sadly, Goedel’s (sp.?) Incompleteness Theorems doomed Leibniz’s project.

  • Zippy says:

    Bill McEnaney:

    …because he seemed to think they were hard to comprehend.

    HAH! I’ll say. I probably went slower through After Writing than I did through Critique of Pure Reason. Chew thoroughly before you swallow. But again in my case she got me thinking about things it never occurred to me to think about before. Your mileage may vary.

    To deduce conclusions validly, you’d just manipulate symbols properly. Sadly, Goedel’s (sp.?) Incompleteness Theorems doomed Leibniz’s project.

    Nothing sad about it though. It turns out that the world is a much more interesting place than a Laplacian clockwork.

  • jf12 says:

    I tend to view the Incompleteness Theorems as limiting, not freeing. For example, a theory can be consistent if restricted to only provable statements, and it can be complete within those restrictions.

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Gee, thanks, Zippy. I think you’ve just frightened me alway from Pickstock’s book. 🙂 I hope I kept my Kemp-Smith translation of Kant’s Critique. I’ll make me look smart when I ride the special bus I use. Some people assume that Cerebral Palsy patients are mentally retarded, which may explain why some waitresses ask my friends what I want. Maybe I should order in Church Latin or in Attic Greek? : ) After the acquaintance I wrote about some posts ago heard about that idea, she replied, “But they won’t understand.” “That’s the point,” I told her. My IQ isn’t my Idiocy Quotient. 😉

  • Zippy says:

    LOL Bill 🙂

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Thanks, Zippy. Gimpy-ness comes with advantages, because my politically incorrect wisecracks evoke some thoroughly amusing facial expressions. Eons ago, when I first played miniature golf, a golf course employee asked whether I wanted to rent a club. You should have watched her eyes when I replied, “No, thanks. Mined are built-in.” A guy I met at a gym assumed that, since I was handicapped, I was a liberal Democrat. He’d be shocked to read my favorite blogs, yours and Bonald’s. After the SPLC discovers that I adore the SSPX, a “wanted” poster will appear on the SPLC website. The good news? I probably will be safe when the center discovers that I belong to a “handi-capable” minority to which American liberals love to pander. 🙂 To make them do that, look persecuted and pathetic. 🙂

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Oops! I forgot. You’ll also need the proper orthopedic hardware for the ruse. 😉

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    You’re right, Jf12. But if I understand what I’ve read about those theorems, sound, informal deductive arguments, can prove the truth of many conclusions that you can’t prove in any formal system that’s either complete or inconsistent.

  • Zippy says:

    Bill McEnaney:

    But if I understand what I’ve read about those theorems, sound, informal deductive arguments, can prove the truth of many conclusions that you can’t prove in any formal system that’s either complete or inconsistent.

    The positivist starts with a body of meaning (mathematics, Constitutional law, religious doctrine, physical science, etc). He then posits a repeatable procedure for verifying doctrines within that subject matter. His trick — the thing that makes him a positivist — is that he then declares that, by definition, any proposed doctrine which cannot be verified using his repeatable procedure can be discarded.

    Positivism – within any non-trivial subject matter or involving any non-trivial verification procedures – makes consistent meaning impossible. There is a reason why sola scriptura produces thousands of Protestant denominations — why it produces massive disunity of belief rather than the unity of belief one might intuitively expect with a consistent, well-defined way of verifying doctrines. The reason is that positivism makes consistent meaning impossible.

    What Godel did was actually quite hilarious. He was a metaphysical realist and just knew the positivists were full of crap. He was also a genius. So he used repeatable mathematical procedures to prove that positivism is inconsistent for any nontrivial body of mathematics – where “nontrivial” meant roughly “mathematics that can do arithmetic multiplication” (Peano arithmetic).

  • jf12 says:

    The nail in the coffin of classical positivism was Bell’s Theorem, and there is good reason why he chose Speakable And Unspeakable for the title of his book. In (quantum) reality, the problem isn’t that interpretation of meaning requires interaction, i.e. exchange of information, between text and reader, but that the text and reader DO NOT have hidden information to exchange. Any actual information is overt, i.e. speakable.

  • Zippy says:

    As I understand it, Bell’s Theorem shows that no hidden variables theory of QM is consistent with actual experimental results. That has nothing much to do with the demarcation problem or positivism more generally.

  • King Richard says:

    The ‘formal’ definition of Positivism is often stated as something like ‘a philosophical view that truth claims may only be derived from mathematics and formal logic in support of direct sensory perception’.
    This statement is usually made with an air of certainty even though mathematics is called ‘the a priori science’.
    It often seems that Scientism, is fast becoming the most popular sub-tribe of Modernist Positivism which is humorous as it is arguably the most self-evidently false sub-tribe.
    Prince Jonathan recently wrote about anarchy and authroity in a manner that relates to the topic at hand, if tangentally.

  • Scott W. says:

    LutheranSatire produced this about the Westboro Baptist Church. Amusing, but really it’s just another spin on the positivist roulette wheel. The WBC may be offensive, but it is really following things like total depravity to their logical conclusions. Meanwhile, in the comments some Calvinists rose up to declare that this is not what Calvin said/taught/meant with a similar indignation that right-liberals declare that this is not what the Founding Fathers or original Constitution said/taught/meant.

  • Zippy says:

    KR:
    The problem with that definition is that it makes more reasonable-sounding forms of positivism sound, well, positively reasonable. Positivism actually seems remarkably commonsensical to modern people. I know, because it once did to me. It is also pervasive, even among people who consider themselves religious, traditional, etc — kind of like liberalism.

    Positivism is implicated whenever there is a completeness claim: a claim that some repeatable procedure can definitely determine the demarcation line between different kinds of meaning expressed as formal symbols (text). So for example the idea that something called “the scientific method” provides a clear and repeatable way of determining which written doctrines are “scientific” and which are “unscientific” is positivist. This notion of a methodological partitioning of knowledge is frequently a prelude to dismissing “non-scientific” truth-claims as second class or whatever, but that additional step isn’t required in order to have made the positivist error.

    Modern people like bright lines established by repeatable formal procedures, because they create the illusion of banishing mystery and getting around the need for faith, if only in certain supposedly well-defined areas of knowledge.

    But as I’ve said, reality doesn’t actually work that way.

    And again, when the reality of the situation finally breaks through the positivist’s ferrous cranus his typical response isn’t to fundamentally reexamine his epistemology. His typical response is to either retreat in horror from the postmodern catastrophe (and double down on positivism) or embrace it.

  • jf12 says:

    Bell’s Theorem is a LOT more relevant to the limitations of positivism as conventionally understood, then is this textual “positivism” of which you speak.

  • Bill McEnaney says:

    Maybe I’ve found a clear example of the positivism that splinters Protestant sect. Years ago, Michael Scheiffler, a Seventh-Day Adventist, emailed with me about soul soul sleep, the idea that disembodied souls remain unconscious until Christ resurrects our bodies. After I quoted St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology to prove that Justin thought those souls stayed awake, Michael said, “That doesn’t matter. We have the Bible.”

  • King Richard says:

    ‘Modern people like bright lines’; yes, but only between themselves and their inferiors and between nations on a map. There can be no lines at all delineating good and evil

  • jf12 says:

    A positivist is forced by his philosophical position to reject Bell’s calculations involving hidden variables as unobservables. Yet Bell derives *statistically* valid observable consequences if hidden variables happened to exist, although actual experimental results say they do not exist.

  • jf12 says:

    Re: the way reality works. That’s what science studies. Scientists per se don’t suffer from the science demarcation problem. “Talking about science” does suffer from the generic meta-demarcation problem of talking about talking about science.

  • jf12 says:

    Is it important to you that the demarcation problem remains important to you? Is that one of your bright lines?

  • Gian says:

    Positivism may enter into the idea, much beloved of AI researchers, that the meaning of a sentence may be decomposed into individual meanings of constituent units of the sentence.
    That is, words or phrases are an atomic unit of meaning

  • Latias says:

    And again, when the reality of the situation finally breaks through the positivist’s ferrous cranus his typical response isn’t to fundamentally reexamine his epistemology.

    Jirachi resists my STABs and flinches me to death with Iron Head.

    Positivism is implicated whenever there is a completeness claim: a claim that some repeatable procedure can definitely determine the demarcation line between different kinds of meaning expressed as formal symbols (text). So for example the idea that something called “the scientific method” provides a clear and repeatable way of determining which written doctrines are “scientific” and which are “unscientific” is positivist. This notion of a methodological partitioning of knowledge is frequently a prelude to dismissing “non-scientific” truth-claims as second class or whatever, but that additional step isn’t required in order to have made the positivist error.

    I regard myself as a classical empiricist since I lionize David Hume, and I am quite loath to insert metaphysics in philosophy such as the notion of essential qualities. Also, I embrace those such as Larry Laudan who argue that the demarcation problem is a pseudo-problem.

  • Latias says:

    As an empiricist, I tend to hold on to the fundamental analytic-synthetic distinction.

    I do not know what you consider to be “positivism” but I do subscribe to Humean theories about impressions and ideas. To be terse, while reading a text, the meaning of specific words, especially those that refer to concrete entities such as objects, are known through prior experience. But one does not have any a priori knowledge about these meanings, and one must ascertain the meaning of the word by making associations with its usage in common parlance and the object that it refers to. If the predicate of a term is usually used to refer to an object with certain properties that are observable by the human senses in some way, the mind then associates the sensory impressions of the word (its symbolic representation in written language and its phonetic expression) with the sensory impressions produced by “experiencing” the given object. When these impressions occur concurrently and in numerous instances, then one’s mind would likely infer an association with these impressions and consequently regard that the word as an instrument that conveys the sensory impressions or ideas about the object that the word refers to.

    But this analysis only refers to concrete objects, not abstract concepts such as “liberty” and “community”, which are more difficult to define since it is cognitively easy to perceive a concrete object.

  • Zippy says:

    I remember enjoying one of Laudan’s books at some point, but I couldn’t tell you which one or why.

    Metaphysics isn’t avoidable. Metaphysics is to positivists as discriminating authority is to liberals: it is unavoidable and they’ve got theirs, but completely lack self-awareness.

    I also think the demarcation problem is a pseudo-problem, but that is because I am not a positivist so I don’t believe that truth and meaning can be ‘demarcated’ that way. (For that matter I think the problem of evil is a pseudo-problem; but lots of folks struggle with it on the level of human experience and uncritical common sense too).

    I never found Hume all that impressive, although he was certainly a higher quality atheist than the sort they are building these days.

  • jf12 says:

    Apropos of this particular demarcation, a pseudo-answer to the pseudo-problem can be found in the following. I am a big reviewer for several big science journals, formerly editor of some, a big big big reviewer of science proposals at the federal level (mostly DOE) and below, formerly a funder of some, and very recently a senior judge at a huge science fair. At some point the more important question is not whether something is or is not No True Science, but how good the science is.

    And I’m here to tell you (you wondered about that, I recall) that provided there are good guidelines about what makes good science, then there are very few articles/proposals/projects whose status as No True Science is at all in doubt. Sturgeon’s Law applies in spades.

    Let’s suppose 90% of science articles don’t pass the smell test. Of the less than 1% whose status is somewhat iffy, there is no handwringing about bright lines (at least, not on the deciders’ part). I tend to the camp of if “I can’t tell if this is science, or not.” then it almost certainly isn’t *good* science anyway. So the ambiguity, if there is any ambiguity, is ultimately meaningless.

  • Zippy says:

    So to summarize, jf12 is a Big Big Fish[tm] in the World of Science[tm], and there is Nothing To See Here, Move Along.

  • jf12 says:

    No, the point is that there is no bright line because it’s a dim dull line.

  • jf12 says:

    Recall, this is the reason wise men hedge things.

  • jf12 says:

    Re: fighting for the bottom. It makes no outcome difference, especially to the English teacher, whether Johnny was right in challenging the half point comma splice on his chapter test, raising his failing 62 grade “all the way” up to an almost nonfailing 62.5 especially if she rounds up. And he may be unfortunately deluded by his success to waste time searching and searching for another half point somewhere. In fact, ANY attention that is paid to the issue of demarcation is attention that should have been better spent on the larger issue of why he missed the other 37.5 points.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Whatever it is that you think you are talking about, it has nothing to do with the subject matter of the post.

  • Zippy says:

    Scott:
    “Neurothugs” is a great neologism. It captures the simultaneous arrogance and stupidity that characterizes modern scientism, though it still fails to express the cussed nerdy blindness in the mix. In That Hideous Strength the scientismist Filostrato’s (IIRC) last thought as the guillotine descends is that he had underestimated the terror.

  • Marissa says:

    Zippy, what would you call your own opposition to positivism?

  • Zippy says:

    Marissa:
    I am an ontological realist of the ‘classical’ variety, depending of course on how that is understood. I’ve even on occasion been accused of Platonism.

    But keep in mind that, in general, we don’t necessarily have to know that X is right in order to know that Y is wrong. So maybe my anti-positivism should just be called “anti-positivism”.

  • Marissa says:

    Thank you, Zippy. I wasn’t asking that question to challenge you; I thought by learning what you do believe that it would be a helpful contrast to understand what you mean by positivism.

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  • Exfernal says:

    A sloppy argument.

    You could say that all brick buildings are basically collections of bricks and mortar. Does that mean any collection of brick and mortar is an equivalent to any other collection of brick and mortar?

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  • Aethelfrith says:

    Seeing this article reminded me about the topic–

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/why-experience-is-a-total_b_11180796.html

    It is almost as if “science” can be used as a synonym for positivism.

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