The positivist blindfold

January 8, 2016 § 36 Comments

For sane people, a real counterexample calls for revision of the theory or metaphysics which its existence contradicts. For positivists, a real counterexample is something to be dismissed unless it can be incorporated into positive theory.

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 capture 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.

This dynamic manifests itself especially when talking about intangible realities. Tangible realities are harder to explain away into oblivion, although it is worth noting that positivist anti-realism does ultimately explain away even tangible realities. For the positivist a rabbit doesn’t really exist qua rabbit: a rabbit is just a collection of selfish genes, themselves merely invisible wave-particles bouncing mindlessly around in conformity to the invisible laws of physics. And at some indeterminate utopian time in the future a positive theory will, the positivist believes with religious fervor, formally explain all of that. The messiah, I mean the ultimate Scientific Theory of Everything, will be completed in the Parousia and anoint us gods. What ‘explanation’ could actually mean – what ‘mean’ could actually mean – to a bunch of wave-particles bouncing around mindlessly in conformity to the laws of physics, is a minor metaphysical gap in the catechism. But I’m sure that gap too will eventually be filled by the Dawkins of the Gaps.

However, it is rather difficult for everyday people to deny the reality of rabbits even to ourselves, especially when we are actually looking at one.

Because we are all indoctrinated from birth into anti-realist physicalism though it takes somewhat less solipsism, though still a substantial amount, to deny the reality of authority, than it does to deny the reality of rabbits. So conversations with positivists (or folks with unexamined positivist commitments) tend to go the same way every time:

Positivist Pete: “Sure X form of government is immoral, because no man has the right to rule over other men; but someone is going to govern and X gives us the best outcomes”.

Me: “It sounds like you don’t believe in authority.”

PP: “No man has the right to rule over other men.”

Me: “There are times when children are morally obliged to obey their parents, and when potential trespassers are morally obliged to obey the property owner.  Therefore legitimate authority is real.”

PP: “But what if a father tells his children to torture kittens?”

Me: “The claim is just that authority exists: that sometimes – not always – children are morally obligated to do what they are told.”

PP: “You haven’t given me a theory of what authority is, even of what kind of thing it might be, or how to distinguish legitimate authority from illegitimate authority.”

Me: “So what?  I’ve given you actual examples of authority. Your metaphysical assumptions need to be examined if you still can’t believe in something when I present you with actual examples.”

PP: “You aren’t even listening to me!”

Me: “I understand you perfectly. You are putting your metaphysical assumptions ahead of actual concrete reality.”

PP: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore with someone who isn’t listening.”

[*] Strictly speaking, not all versions of positivism deny the reality of things which are not explained by positive theory. They just deny that things which are not explained by positive theory can matter in any important way. Positive theory is on this view at least potentially complete with respect to everything that matters.

§ 36 Responses to The positivist blindfold

  • Peter Blood says:

    Every “reality kulak” must be liquidated.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    How could one incorporate these ideas into theistic apologetics?

  • Zippy says:


    I’m the wrong person to ask. Apologetics has never been my ‘thing’, and I already did my penance working in marketing.

    My thing is killing stupid ideas dead.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    >My thing is killing stupid ideas dead.

    Atheism is one of those ideas.

  • King Richard says:

    Tangentially related: this positivism is very commonly seen in apologetics as a reply to the quinque viae or the ontological argument, like this
    -The apologist demonstrates, oh, the First Cause argument
    -The other person is forced to admit that the logic is sound, thus the conclusion is logical and rational, but rejects the conclusion [‘therefore, there is a God’] because the argument in and of itself does not says which religion is true. The positivist claim that because they cannot derive which particular religion is true, the argument fails to prove anything at all

  • Zippy says:


    Sure, atheism is a stupid idea for the immature and for intellectually stunted imbeciles.

    But you asked me about apologetics, which I take to mean something like ‘religious marketing’. That is probably in part my own bias though, since I tend to find a lot of what passes for ‘apologetics’ to be rather mealy-mouthed dancing around the truth to try not to offend anyone. I don’t even like the word ‘apologetics’. People should feel apologetic about getting things wrong, not about telling the truth. The word itself begs the question in favor of error.

    But that’s my own biases talking, I am sure. If what you are asking is how my critique of positivism applies to reasoned argument for the existence of God, etc, I think you’ve already hinted at the answer by moving from ‘theistic apologetics’ to ‘atheism is [a stupid idea]’. Part of the reason atheists tend to have such fervor for positivism is because science understood as pursuit of truth about the natural world doesn’t support atheism at all. Science has to be envisioned in positivist terms in order to beg the question against theism.

    But there are certainly atheists who are not positivists. Thomas Nagel comes to mind, and David Stove (who really, really wanted to be a positivist but couldn’t quite get there).

  • Zippy says:


    The positivist claim that because they cannot derive which particular religion is true, the argument fails to prove anything at all.

    Yeah, that’s why the flip side of positivism is postmodernism. If my positive theories can’t explain away everything I don’t want to hear, then nothing can be definitely true at all.

  • GJ says:


    I really don’t see how this is special and any different from the blindfold (or worldview glasses) that results in many people of all ideologies ignoring inconvenient facts.

  • Zippy says:


    Positivism is pervasive in modernity (like e.g. liberalism), so it shouldn’t be considered strange to see it everywhere in both ‘strong’ and ‘casual’ forms. (Keep in mind that, strictly speaking, ‘strong’ and ‘casual’ refer to the degree of commitment various individuals have to the thing in question, not the thing itself).

    At a very casual level, positivism can indeed be characterized as ignoring or suppressing facts which do not comport with theory. That is, positive theory is simply assumed to be potentially if not actually complete. So, upon being presented with a real X which his theory does not capture, the positivist’s immediate response is to demand, on penalty of his refusal to believe in X, that we show how X fits within his theory. Positive theory comes first; reality only follows upon its demonstration within positive theory.

    Said still differently, positivism is a way of reversing the requirement that positive theory comport with reality rather than vice versa: subjective projection by the anti-realist, again.

    Man’s conscupiscient desire to do what he wants rather than what he should – while at the same time congratulating himself on how moral he is – explains, to some extent, liberalism’s appeal. Likewise man’s desire that the world conform to his expectations rather than vice versa – while at the same time congratulating himself on how smart and objective he is – explains, to some extent, positivism’s appeal. Both liberalism and positivism make man feel virtuous and intelligent while simultaneously simply confirming him in his prejudices, in what he subjectively wants to do and expects of reality.

  • Zippy says:

    More succinctly on the specific point:

    Liberalism is not merely the principle that every man should do what he wills. Liberalism is a specifically political doctrine which provides many layers of rationalization, ultimately creating the false appearance not only that man doing whatever he wills is his ‘right’, but that all good people support the triumph of the will.

    Positivism is not merely the rejection of inconvenient facts, but is a specifically epistemic doctrine which provides many layers of rationalization, ultimately creating the false appearance that reality is just what man expects it to be, nothing more, nothing less.

    Liberalism is political anarchotyranny. Positivism is epistemic anarchotyranny. They naturally appeal to modern man, who sees himself as the measure of all things.

  • AureliusMoner says:

    Zippy, surely a guy as smart as you knows what “apologetics” means, knows the Greek derivation and historic usage, and knows that it means so much more than “saying sorry” or “feeling apologetic for getting something wrong.”

    I would say the chief work of your site, is making an apology for reality – “apology” in its fullest sense.

  • Zippy says:


    Certainly. I just, at times, find the homophonic assonance personally repulsive. I recognize that the flaw is mine.

  • William Luse says:

    ‘Apologia’, as used by e.g. Newman, means ‘in defense of.’ It is therefore an argument in support of a particular view of things. You’ll learn to like it, since you do it all the time.

  • Zippy says:


    I like to think that I’m generally more offensive than defensive. Certainly I’d rather be the former than the latter: polemicist as opposed to apologist.

    But in any case, I’ve already admitted that my aversion to the word “apologetics” is an irrational personal quirk.

  • William Luse says:

    Yes, your modesty did not escape me.

    I was not clear. I meant that when you mount an apologia, you’re going on offense.

  • GJ says:


    Something that has ‘worked’ for me in the past (in the sense of getting the opponent to turn tail and run) is to press the positivist who rejects God for being intangible and supposedly being an unempirical concept as to why he believes in intangible natural rights and their centrality to morality.

  • GJ says:

    In other words, while the average positivist atheist is very strongly committed to rejecting everything that cannot be explained by positive theory (as analysed by Zippy) some such things are at a very central location of his intellectual worldview – rights, which govern not only his individual morality but his views on social policies and politics.

    So it only remains to exploit this vulnerability.

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  • vishmehr24 says:

    “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 capture with his positive theories.”

    And what is this “positive theory” and what does it say?

  • Zippy says:

    “Positive theory” in the OP doesn’t refer to some specific positive theory and only that positive theory. It refers to any positive theory at all.

  • Zippy says:

    “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare)

  • vishmehr24 says:

    “Any positive theory”– for instance?
    What is this category of “positive theories” and is there a category of “non-positive theories” as well?

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  • Jonathan Walker says:

    Vishmehr24, you asked, ‘And what is this “positive theory” and what does it say?’ and a little later, ‘What is this category of “positive theories” and is there a category of “non-positive theories” as well?’

    I know it’s not normal to respond to comments that are over a year old, but this is in the “permapost” category, and Zippy does indeed make frequent references to “positive theory”, so I thought I’d give an answer – even if you know by this time, someone else might not.

    The term “positive theory” is quite opaque until the moment you find out that the opposing term is not “negative theory” but “normative theory”. So the distinction here seems to stem from the spurious “fact/value” distinction (spurious to a Thomist, like me, and also to Zippy). I may have to be corrected on this, but I think that at least in principal, someone could consistently endorse a positive (non-normative) theory without interpreting it positivistically.

    Zippy, by the way, since this is my first comment at your site, I must say that you’re a marvel, and long may you flourish. Thank you for all your writings.

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