The positivist blindfold
January 8, 2016 § 35 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.