What is ‘post-positivism’? November 1, 2015
One of my American Facebook friends posted this recently and I replied with the comment set out below, which might be of interest to others.
“When my professor brought up positivism in my class last week, I started quietly laughing. When she asked me why I had laughed I told her it had nothing to do with her, but positivism. After I explained the failures of positivism, she said: “Well post-positivism is alive and well!” When I asked her if she could elaborate on the conceptual distinction between the two, she said she did not know how to articulate it, but would love to hear me look into it and explain it for the class. Does anyone know of authoritative sources on this? When I looked online I found it explained as a reaction against positivism but the source did not seem authoritative in any way.”
Here’s my response;
I’ve never heard the term “post-positivism” but it could be a reference to the new atheists who have adopted logical positivism as their philosophical stance without calling it by that name. Here is a short extract from my book “Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything” (p.58 2nd edition);
“A related but distinct hazard is the ‘hidden hypothesis’ whereby an otherwise invalid argument is bolstered by an un-stated assumption. This device can turn a silly syllogism into powerful propaganda, as the following example suggests:
1. (Hidden hypothesis): nothing has objective reality that cannot be experienced by our natural senses.
2. Science is the use of our natural senses to study objective reality.
3. Science produces no evidence for the existence of non-natural causes or entities.
4. Therefore non-natural entities (for example, God) have no objective reality.
The hidden hypothesis (1) is quietly absorbed into the definition of science given in (2) so that science is no longer just the study of the natural-physical-material universe (as in our earlier example) but becomes transmuted into the study of reality as opposed to non-reality. If we buy into this idea we inevitably conclude that science is the only means of acquiring genuine knowledge or establishing ‘true’ truth.
This idea — that the only meaningful (and non-tautological) statements are those capable of being verified by sense experience — is actually a venerable philosophical theory known as ‘logical positivism’. It claims that what cannot be verified by science has no reality, and implies that in studying the material universe science actually encompasses all legitimate knowledge. Logical positivism was the philosophical flavour of the day in the 1920s and 1930s and was popularised by A. J. Ayer in his book Language, truth and logic (1936). But Alfred Ayer himself, writing fifty years later, declared: ‘Logical positivism died a long time ago. I don’t think much of Language, truth and logic is true … it is full of mistakes’ . In spite of this, many philosophers recognise in the ‘new atheism’ of writers like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Stenger and Wolpert a reincarnation of this discredited school of thought — and do so with grave concern.”
I might add that Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book “The Grand Design” (published a year after “Who made God?”) say on p.34 “This book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism, which implies that … there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature”. ‘Scientific determinism’ is just another term for logical positivism.
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