Epimenides for cretans

July 4, 2014 § 33 Comments

… or, positivism for dummies.

As we’ve discussed before, most of the meaning communicated by a text comes from sources outside of the text. Any finite text of sufficient complexity will have multiple possible good faith interpretations, depending upon (among other things) the underlying metaphysical understanding of the reader, the reader’s general state of knowledge, the assumptions of the author about the reader, and the intellectual tradition from within which the author writes.

Sometimes one good faith interpretation will conflict with another.  If we take them both to be true, that creates a contradiction. A text that contradicts itself – an inconsistent text – is meaningless.  The whole shebang unravels, and by the principle of explosion the text asserts everything and its opposite all at once.

So we can’t take all good-faith interpretations of a text to accurately reflect what the author asserts.  If we can’t take all good-faith interpretations of a text to accurately reflect what the author asserts, that means that the text is incomplete. The text means literally nothing at all – we cannot discriminate between what is asserted and what is not – unless there is some authority outside of the text itself, an authoritative source of meaning separate from the text which can resolve conflicts between mutually incompatible good-faith interpretations of the text.

Positivism asserts the possibility of intensional meaning – meaning about something other than the literal symbols themselves – arising from a text or other formal representation taken in itself.  Positivism presumes that metaphysical neutrality is rationally coherent and possible, that formal expressions can have meaning on their own.  Positivism presumes that it is possible to isolate pockets of knowledge away from their metaphysical baggage.  A whole package of errors and wrongheaded thinking flows from positivism, some of which is straightforward and some of which is more subtle.

Positivism is wrong. But when it encounters reality it doesn’t just up and admit that it is wrong and repent. Instead it stops believing in meaning at all, and, voilà, we get postmodernism.

Because positivism is literally rationally incoherent, it is not something that anyone can believe consistently and still function as a human being outside of the asylum.  So we get the usual sort of compensations: gnosticism, unprincipled exceptions and weaponized nihilism.

§ 33 Responses to Epimenides for cretans

  • Latias says:

    Positivism asserts the possibility of intensional meaning – meaning about something other than the literal symbols themselves – arising from a text or other formal representation taken in itself. Positivism presumes that metaphysical neutrality is rationally coherent and possible, that formal expressions can have meaning on their own. Positivism presumes that it is possible to isolate pockets of knowledge away from their metaphysical baggage. A whole package of errors and wrongheaded thinking flows from positivism, some of which is straightforward and some of which is more subtle.

    If I could correctly grasp the meaning of “positivism”, I would say that all incarnations of positivism are rooted in a strong empiricist epistemology. Thus, the meaning of terms are supposed to correspond to some form of experience particularly one’s direct sensory impressions or some form of “observation” and not refer to some intangible, abstract metaphysical entity. In order for a given statement to be deemed “meaningful”, especially if a statement is a proposition concerning a matter of fact or existence, the predicates in the terms used in the statement should therefore entail some reference to an observable consequence (and these observational consequences should be decoupled and interpreted different from “theoretical language” as a form of “brute” sensory experience).

    Logical positivism has ran it is course, and it succumbed to its various problems. One problem, in particular, is the practical difficult to distinguish between “theoretical” and ostensible “observational” terms due to the interdependence of the two, as many “observational” terms require interpretation in the light of theory in order to be meaningful; in order words, many “observational” terms can only acquire meaning within a theoretical framework. For instance, the terms “gravity” and “mass” acquires meaning if its understood within a physical theory of gravitation as those terms do not refer to anything that can be observable. Surely, one can say the he/she can experience “mass” and say that it is a property of an given object, but one cannot apprehend the “mass” of an object through brute observation since one’s experience (or that of a scale’s) is through the force the object exerts within the local context of the surface of the Earth due to the mutual attraction of the planetary body and the object, which depends on the mass of the objects and their distance away from each other. (Indubitably, within the local context of the Earth’s surface, it is reasonable to say that an object’s weight is directly proportional to its mass, and this can be easily understood through Newton’s theory. Obviously, in the case, “mass” refers to the phenomenon of the force that an object exerts towards the Earth when in proximity to the surface of the Earth). One can see that, in the case of “mass”, the term does not refer to property of an object that is accessible to the senses or any instrument but rather it explains observable terrestrial and celestial phenomena within a theoretical framework Moreover, since force is defined as “mass x acceleration”, mass is not reducible to “force” and it is dependent on the term “mass”.

    Would you consider the less logically formal versions of empiricism, particularly forms of pragmatism and other forms of instrumentalism, to be subsumed under “positivism”? I especially identity with the more pragmatic forms of empiricism and adopt an instrumentalist interpretation of the philosophy of science. I also commend the efforts of David Hume in criticism of the turbidity and ambiguity of “school metaphysics” in his pursuit for clarity and understanding of human nature.

  • Zippy says:

    Latias:

    Would you consider the less logically formal versions of empiricism, particularly forms of pragmatism and other forms of instrumentalism, to be subsumed under “positivism”?

    Are you asking me if there is a demarcation criteria between positivism and other ‘less formal’ pragmatisms?

    There may well be pragmatisms (loosely, philosophies that wag their fingers at metaphysics) that aren’t strictly positivist. But I think they are related.

  • […] Source: Zippy Catholic […]

  • Hey Zippy, I just wanted to point out that I mentioned you in passing in a recent WWWtW thread, if you want to check that out.

  • Latias says:

    Are you also aware of the conflict within atheism on the value of philosophy, such as the contrasting views of individuals such as Massimo Pigliucci and perhaps Sean Carroll versus the new atheists like Jerry Coyne have? Do you think Pigliucci is a positivist?

    I think most scientifically minded people will embrace some form of positivism, at least implicitly.

    I also wonder if “producerist” populism also constitutes a form a populism. I just saw Wall Street and I remember Bud Fox’s father who believed in the value of an honest day’s work that involves producing something tangible of value or rendering a service as opposed to speculation

  • William Luse says:

    Hey Zippy, I just wanted to point out that I mentioned you in passing in a recent WWWtW thread, if you want to check that out.

    Well, whatever ails Zippy is apparently contagious, although how virulent is not yet clear.

  • Zippy says:

    Latias:
    You might enjoy David Stove’s thoughts on positivism. Stove is always worth reading. He was in favor of positivism, and despaired. He ultimately ended up hanging himself in his garden.

    His son went on to write a delightful little book on the history of music, and converted to Catholicism.

  • Zippy says:

    For that matter, my more manospherian readers might be interested in this essay by Stove.

  • Patrick says:

    I had an idea like that. Mine was if men and women were equal, they would be equal, and history would look very different than it does.

  • Latias says:

    From his Wikipedia entry, he hanged himself due to the physical pain of his ailment, not his philosophicla views.

    Hume was actually a cheerful, jovial person in his life.

  • Zippy says:

    Latias:
    I haven’t read the Wikipedia entry, but you can read his son’s account of it here.

    Excerpt:

    All Dad’s elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough- mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust.

    […]

    (Years later, I discovered—and was absolutely pole-axed by —the following passage in Bernard Shaw’s Too True To Be Good, in which an old pagan, very obviously speaking for Shaw himself, sums up what I am convinced was Dad’s attitude near the end. The passage runs: “The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt. Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, led, instead, directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshipers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.”)

  • Well, whatever ails Zippy is apparently contagious, although how virulent is not yet clear.

    That would be me. I originally posted as MarcAnthony on WWWtW and chose the name Malcolm the Cynic for my own blog. I still post as Marc over there to avoid confusion (they can still identify me as the same guy).

  • […] to awaken another mind to a shared meaning.  So it is no wonder that attempts to use language positivistically end up destroying the possibility of shared apprehension of […]

  • buckyinky says:

    There is an interesting discussion sprouting at The Thinking Housewife about Pope John Paul II and his teaching concerning mutual submission in TOB. Aside from the question of whether there are problematic aspects of TOB, Laura Wood’s treatment of PJPII’s words seems to be a case of positivistic thinking – i.e., everything necessary for knowing about this (subtle, complex, nuanced) concept of mutual submission as held by PJPII can be obtained by reading his published statements on the matter. What she has obtained from this reading (so she concludes) contradicts constant Church teaching on the subject of male-female relationships, but neglected is the question of whether she has obtained, or whether it is even possible now to obtain, the knowledge necessary to make such a judgment.

    As regarding positivism I am a student so far only of Zippy, and have no understanding of the concept except insofar as I have grasped Zippy’s explanations, so I would appreciate any help anyone might offer in understanding better.

  • Zippy says:

    buckyinky:
    Sedevacantist trads frequently end up where they are because they pit positivistic readings of Magisterial texts against each other. It is the same basic process that causes proliferation of Protestant sects, as far as I can tell. In that sense the protestants who reject my critique are right: that is, if you are a textual positivist then expanding the body of text to include more than just the Bible doesn’t help, and a lot of modern non-protestant Christians have positivist commitments too.

    Heck, Larry’s positivistic uncharitable reading of JPII is part of what led me to ‘break’ with VFR back in 2004 or so.

    I came by my understanding of positivism by reading a lot of different stuff, a plurality of which was probably in the philosophy of science. I’ve given rough ‘getting started’ reading lists before, but really it is just a start. There is no ‘positivism for dummies’ book of which I am aware — that’s part of why I talk about it, because I don’t tend to say much unless there is something important that I think is being left unsaid. It is one of those subjects that you can only come after obliquely in the modern Canon.

    Some interesting books:
    The End of Science by John Horgan
    Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstien (about Kurt Gödel)
    Beyond the Postmodern Mind by Huston Smith
    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
    Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit
    After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy by Catherine Pickstock

    I’m sure there are plenty of others to whom I am indebted.

    For that matter, another problem with the neoreactionaries is that they’ve swallowed the naturalist evolutionary narrative hook, line, and sinker. I took some graduate classes in bioinformatics, molecular biology, and biophysics a while back specifically with an eye toward getting a better handle on evolution.

    I have no theological beef with evolution understood as an efficient cause, but the science part of it always seemed like a bunch of question-begging crap. Everything I have learned since then has reinforced that impression. 99.9% of biology practiced as a science is independent of evolution, and the bit that is related to evolution rests on the kind of philosophy of science that e.g. Peter Woit criticizes here in the domain of physics.

    Combine that with the ‘science’ of psychology to get evolutionary psychology, and you get the metaphysical foundation for most of the neoreaction. It is a wonder they are even capable of talking about anything coherently.

  • Zippy says:

    Oh, and I left off the Cushing book I talked about here, as well as Godel’s proof itself for the mathematically minded.

  • buckyinky says:

    Thank you Zippy; that reading list especially is very helpful.

    I’ve read a good portion of the David Stove essay you linked to above on “The Intellectual Capacity of Women.” His coin analogy seems to be the approach taken by sedevacantists in their overall judgment of the published statements of JPII (or Pope Francis, for that matter) – i.e., “We’ve flipped the JPII coin enough times, and it keeps coming up disproportionately feminist, liberal, modernist, etc. How many more times must we flip it before you are convinced that the only reasonable conclusion is that he was all of these things?”

    Stove’s “coin toss” seems to be reasonable, and difficult to answer when applied as I’ve described above to recent popes’ public statements.

  • Latias says:

    Regarding Woit, I really think that any form of scientific antirealism/instrumentalism should inoculate one from accepting string theory’s “verisimilitude” based on the non-existence of compelling alternative theories and its explanatory coherence, especially if string theory does not make any precise predictions that could be subjected to an empirical test. The question for antirealists is whether string theory has pragmatic value instead of merely being a mathematically and aesthetically pleasing description of the underlying ontology of the universe (including the higher dimensions and the unseen 10^500 Calabi-Yau manifolds that correspond to a “universe” with different physical parameters.)

  • Latias says:

    Are the neoreactionists “realists” in their interpretation of science? It has not been explicitly stated.

  • Zippy says:

    buckyinky:

    His coin analogy seems to be the approach taken by sedevacantists in their overall judgment of the published statements of JPII (or Pope Francis, for that matter)

    A coin flip hermeneutic doesn’t strike me as especially positivist; but it doesn’t strike me as especially Catholic either.

  • Zippy says:

    Latias:

    Are the neoreactionists “realists” in their interpretation of science? It has not been explicitly stated.

    Well, it is hard to say to what extent things like this are intended to be ironic. But I am pretty certain that a naïve ateleological reductionism underlies much of HBD (and indeed is precisely what differentiates HBD from acknowledgement of racial differences more generally); and HBD is certainly a cornerstone of NRx as presently constituted.

  • […] Positivism and meaning. […]

  • jf12 says:

    The funny thing is, one man’s uncertainty does not imply or entail another man’s.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Sure. It doesn’t follow that sufficiently complex texts have, as an objective property of the text itself, one and only one correct interpretation absent a source of meaning outside the text itself to resolve conflicts in interpretation. Appealing to the fact that some interpretations are wrong doesn’t help the positivist, because positivism is a completeness claim not a consistency claim. (In fact the completeness claim guarantees inconsistency).

  • […] reason I discuss positivism and liberalism and the like is because they are subtle errors that hold almost all modern people in […]

  • Zippy says:

    If anyone pops in here looking for book recommendations, another interesting one is Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits by Barrow.

  • […] way of thinking about positivism and its epistemological cognates is that, recognizing the impossibility of becoming universally […]

  • […] up each morning still trapped in a dystopian liberal Groundhog Day. And it is impossible for a positivist, who confuses definiteness with completeness, to grasp this essential […]

  • […] If that amounts to a “red pill” – perhaps the beginning of an understanding that positivism is modernist nonsense and that sola scriptura is positivist – then, in the words of the Prophet Morpheus, welcome […]

  • […] that I think that Aristotleanism, at least as expressed by present-day Aristotleans, has positivist tendencies.  Positivists make a kind of argument from incredulity to the effect that if formal […]

  • […] think that Aristotleanism, at least as expressed by present-day Aristotleans, has positivist tendencies.  Positivists make a kind of argument from incredulity to the effect that if formal […]

  • […] Positivism refuses to grant the reality of anything which is not explained by positive theory. Reality[*] is limited, for the positivist, to things he can explain with his positive theories. His first instinct when presented with a counterexample, something real which is incompatible with his positive theories, is not to critically examine his question begging theories or his metaphysical dependence upon them. His first instinct is to disbelieve in the reality of the counterexample sitting right there in front of his face. He might start believing in the existence of the counterexample at some point — if and only if its existence can be incorporated into his positive theory.  But he doesn’t believe in it until its existence is demonstrated and explained by his theory. […]

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