Science and Religion Friday: From Positivism to Logical Positivism

So I’ve recently finished a series on one of the primary stories of the conflict model between science and religion: the Galileo Affair. I hope to have shown in that analysis (here are parts 1, 2, and 3) that while religious beliefs may have played a role, the only reason that such a conflict was even considered was primarily due to personality conflict and a lack of tact (plus fierce competitiveness) on both sides. Religious belief, in that instance, was merely a pretense and not the underlying motivating factor. Today I’d like to begin to look at the other major instance in the conflict model: positivism. Essentially positivism seeks to maintain not that any particular religion is false, per se, but that they are either incapable of making truth claims (lack authority) or else completely non-sensical. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the primary tact used by many of the new atheists today.

The basics of Positivism

Positivism is a general view of knowledge and authority and, for this reason, may be grouped in with the broad philosophical branch of epistemology. I admit that this deviates from the usual classification, which seeks to place it with philosophy of science, but given the claims that it seeks to make I believe it is appropriate. Positivism is a view, begun in the nineteenth or possibly late eighteenth (at least formally, it may have existed much earlier in informal ways) that states that the primary characteristics of authoritative statements are that they are either derived from sensory experience or that they are analytic. Positivism is concerned, primarily, with the correct source of authority for statements about the world. This is why I like to think of it as an epistemological movement: it seeks to give an account for what should be considered genuine knowledge (which is therefore authoritative). Statements that don’t meet the criteria for positivism may be true, but since they cannot count as knowledge, they are not authoritative. Leaving aside the Gettier Problems* of epistemology, we can say that knowledge is ‘justified true belief.’ Positivism, then, seeks to provide both the ‘justification’ aspect as well as a means for identifying ‘true’ beliefs and even, on most accounts, the source of the ‘beliefs.’ This, it is argued, are the things that count for knowledge. Given that, we can rephrase what Positivism is according to three points:

  1. Knowledge must fit the criteria established in either points 2 or 3. It need not fit both aspects, but it must fit one. If it fails to meet one of these criteria, it does not count as knowledge and therefore these statements or beliefs cannot be considered authoritative. In that sense, positivism is exclusive in its claims for what counts as truth.
  2. Knowledge can be analytical. This means that it is either true by definition, a logical truth, or a mathematical truth (technically, things that are true by definition and mathematical truths are both logical truths, but let’s not complicate things too much). Things that are true by definition tend to be tautologies, and thus, while meaningful, are not particularly helpful. Mathematical truths are, as is expected, anything that is true within a given mathematical system. Logical truths are, also, exactly what it sounds like. They must be based upon sound arguments (both valid and true). I won’t take the time now to spell out what that is because that would a) take a ridiculously long time and b) I think we all know what I’m referring to. OR
  3. Knowledge can be based upon sensory experience. In general this means that it must be empirical (conforming to the scientific method), but in general it must be observable.

In general. Positivism tends to focus on criteria 3. Knowledge/authoritative statements is/are based upon sensory experience. Historically there were a few things that fed into this. It was formalized by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century and is very clearly a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment thinking. However, it is also a rejection, in its later logical positivist form, of German idealism brought about by Immanuel Kant.

From Positivism to Logical Positivism

Around the turn of the twentieth century, some interesting work began to be done in philosophy to genuinely take seriously the

Immanuel Kant

positivist project. One difficulty was how they could consider mathematical truths to be analytic. As Immanuel Kant described it, mathematical truths were ‘synthetic a priori’ truths. In other words, the fact that we know mathematical statements are true is not due to anything about the various concepts of numbers. They are known apart from experience (a priori), but are not analytic. Here it may be helpful to give Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic.

  1. For Kant a statement is analytic if and only if its predicate concept is contained in its subject concept. (i.e. true by definition). So statements like “triangles are polygons with exactly three angles” and “all bachelors are unmarried” are analytic.
  2. For Kant a statement is synthetic if and only if it is not analytic

Kant did not believe numerical properties of mathematics could fit this criteria. For instance, he said that there is no property about ’12’ that is contained in the concepts ‘4’ ‘8’ and ‘+’ such that ‘4+8=12’ would be true by definition. We just know it is true and accept that. Thus it is a synthetic a priori statement. This idea (of synthetic a priori) was built upon and expanded by other German idealists such as Hegel (though I would argue more successfully by his early colleague later rival Schelling). It may have been the desire to eliminate such things as ‘synthetic a priori’ statements that drove the initial developments of logical positivists.

Whatever the case, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of philosophers (most of whom were also mathematicians) at the University of Vienna (known as the Vienna Circle) sought to revise Kant’s understanding of mathematics to describe it as analytic rather than synthetic prior to World War I. While there are several definitions given for what counts as analytic, in general they agreed with the spirit of Kant’s wording, though not the actual wording. They shifted the language to say that an analytic statement meant that a predicate was necessarily entailed by a subject (well not that language exactly, but that’s the uncomplicated version). So they set about to, essentially, express all of mathematics as a logical system so that it could be described as analytic rather than synthetic. (Usually this involved definitions involving prime integers. Thus the integer ’12’ is defined as the sum (represented by ‘+’) of the prime integers ‘5’ and ‘7’, or as 2^3 + 2^2, or something along those lines).


The two primary persons involved in this, at the start at least, were Gottlob Frege and Rudolf Carnap. Eventually the work was brought to Britain, in large part due to A. J. Ayer, and then included the philosophers and mathematicians Bertrand Russell and W. V. O. Quine. Russell, in particular, spent considerable effort to rework mathematics so it would fit this criteria, which had been presented in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (who eventually immigrated to the United Kingdom).

The other branch of this was to focus on statements derived entirely from quantifiable data. This tended to limit the scope of what “counts” as meaningful activity to the hard sciences and some theoretical sciences (provided the later are mathematical).

Logical positivism, in part because of this early work of Wittgenstein,  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,went so far as to say that not only were statements that were neither empirical nor analytic non-authoritative, but they were non-sensical. Thus, not only should they not guide the actions of anyone, but they could not be true (sense they conveyed no information) and they could not have a voice in any dialogue. Thus they could be dismissed a priori.

What was the practical result

Logical Positivism (and to an extent Positivism) had the practical result of advocating (and to a degree achieving) the exclusion of certain types of dialogue/philosophical investigation. They thus sought to exclude the following fields from serious thought/investigation (and from the university):

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Ethics
  3. Religion
  4. Ontology
  5. Certain (most) social sciences including non-cognitive science psychology (i.e. psychology that doesn’t focus on brain scans or medical treatments)
  6. Many types of hermeneutics
  7. Most (if not all) of the humanities
  8. Aesthetics
  9. Most (if not all) of the arts

Among others. Thus, rather than go about trying to prove that statements in these fields were false (for instance one needed to be an agnostic (if not atheist) because Religion was non-sensical), they would simply dismiss conversation on these topics.

Next week, I’ll talk about the spectacular (in every sense of the word) failure that happened with later logical positivism and what it may mean today.


*Edmund Gettier III (yes we “the thirds” are everywhere) questioned the accepted definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief.’ Gettier contested this by give two examples where a person has a belief that is both justified and true, yet does not strike us as counting as knowledge. This has led to a huge amount of response, with the most successful responses suggesting that there is some other factor (often given the letter ‘G’ for Gettier) that needs to be discovered in addition to something being a ‘justified true belief’ for it to count as knowledge. If you want to read the text of the paper (its fairly short) it has been reproduced here.

  4 comments for “Science and Religion Friday: From Positivism to Logical Positivism

  1. October 5, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    To get an idea of Positivism, all you have to do is read George Berkeley, and he allows for religion and quite a number of the things you mentioned. So, it appears, that Positivism has been co-opted. But Pierre Duhem was a positivist, and he had no problem with religion or anything like that.

    • October 5, 2012 at 11:25 pm

      I’m not sure I know which George Berkeley you’re referring to. The one I know of (and who I think is famous) was the founder of English subjective idealism, which suggested that physical objects do not actually exist and all we have are phenomena that are actually mental constructs. He is actually nearly the opposite of positivism (and predates the formalized statements of it by more than a century). Pierre Duhem, further, is not a positivist since he tended to reject or ignore all analytic truth. He did engage with philosophy of science (and was a physicist), but he did not believe that physics had any real correspondence to reality. Again he seems closer to idealism (though I wouldn’t place him there) than positivism. If these are different persons, please let me know, but these are the only ones I know about.

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