The analytical philosophy of logical positivism or logical empiricism, which dominated 20th-century Anglo-American scientific thinking, leaves philosophy with a complex and problematic legacy that must be addressed and overcome if we are to have any hope of a renewed, meaningful, philosophically rational realism.
On the one hand, the positivist view of philosophy is deflationary, diminishing and even delegitimizing the very notion of philosophy more popularly, outside the discipline. The idea that philosophy was to become ‘underlaborer to science’, following Lockean empiricism, proved quite popular with scientists and science enthusiasts, and to this day informs the common belief that philosophy can be wholly displaced by empirical investigation on pretty much any question. On the other hand, following the linguistic turn and Thomas Kuhn’s historicist account of science, many disillusioned analytical philosophers have become convinced that their discipline cannot really provide any affirmative, unchanging, principal foundations to scientific thinking. For example, the principles of method and observational verification sounded great until one realized that the principles themselves couldn’t be reached by method nor verified by an empirical observation.
The problem we’re given here is that despite the serious challenges to Whiggish science triumphalism recognized by Kuhnian history of science, the latter has produced only criticisms but no affirmative solutions, and the philosophical tenets of logical positivism continue in fact to provide the ideological and normative principals which inform much thinking about science in the public sphere. So philosophy is still widely granted some limited importance as a form of critical defense by non-positivistic and humanistic areas of thought, but the unthought influence of logical positivism remains strong. It is evident everywhere someone asserts in the public sphere that empirical investigation functions (in fact or potentially) wholly independently of philosophical considerations.
For example, we often see the positivistic attitude in the ‘God debates’ by enthusiasts of the New Atheism. Sam Harris has said that ‘what we now know in neuroscience shows that there is no free will’. In such statements we can detect the thrill Harris must get from making a big, threatening, macho statement presumably resounding from the bowels of deep science out towards the unscientific public with their silly myths and folk beliefs. This is the sort of attitude the legacy of positivism continues to leave us with. It is clear here that Harris is either philosophically ignorant or uninterested in questioning his own concept of free will, where it derives from, or the transcendental question of how it is possible in the first place that an experience of conflict between concept and reality could arise at all. Positivism prevents intelligence from recognizing itself. It is an incredible irony and a mark of philosophical shallowness that Harris and his followers claim the banner of ‘reason’ when their positivism operates with a diminished, instrumental, utilitarian sense of ‘reason’ that is in conflict with their claim to realism.
Logical positivism has given us the following influential metaphysical picture of reality, inspired originally perhaps by Hume, created and tailored to suit the needs of an empirical science that would therefore be enabled to claim independence from philosophy and religion:
Reality consists of (1) sense-data and behaviors there for observation, and (2) on the side of science we have methods and operations of formal logic to be applied, like a computer program, to create formulas and statistics representing the behavioral patterns of the sense-data. One can thereby formulate larger scientific theories to represent or cover more or more patterns of observed sense-data.
This model certainly does yield useful science and technology, as far as it goes. Logical positivism believes that when science is functioning properly, rationally, this model tells us what’s really — essentially — going on in it, despite what else the actual practitioners or historical agents of science may think they are doing. We should appreciate how attractive this metaphysical picture is for the idea of doing science. The aesthetic is minimalist, and it yields a tidy theory of rational agency in addition to its metaphysics. That is, it gives us a normative criterion, telling us clearly what may count as being rational. To be a rational agent is to execute logical operations upon the empirical patterns of sense-data. What a conveniently flat, easily analyzable world created for doing science in. But is this the real world? The original logical positivists never claimed it was the real world. In light of Hume and Kant they knew they were abandoning the concept of reality, but the inheritors of their scientistic ideology today are not as philosophically well-informed and do not realize that they are unwittingly peddling artificial abstractions in the name of reality.
Now, it is important to see how the positivist view of science and of the world was motivated in part by the desire to ensure absolute contrast between scientific and theological concepts. Note how the above picture of the world and reason removes any need for reference to unobservable theoretical entities. Theoretical entities are ‘things’ like universalizing concepts or inferred causal forces. A cause is never observed, but inferred as a reason behind, to explain a pattern of observable phenomena. We express a cause linguistically in terms of a rule or law of nature, conceived to regulate, normalize, or mediate behavior across a set or category of empirically observable entities.
God is usually considered an unobservable theoretical entity (except in the case of Jesus or other religious figures supposed to embody the divine), but science, when philosophically realistic, also refers to unobservable entities as though they are real. The scientist’s law of nature is supposed to give us the real causal explanation for the patterns or regularities in the behavior of observed phenomena. For example, the force of gravity. We observe things falling, and we infer a common explanatory force operating behind or within the various but similar behavioral phenomena, normalizing, mediating, or regulating them. We do not observe the force of gravity directly. Rational inference to a single causal force that can explain a diversity of phenomena is what we mean by the explanatory power of reason. As such, reason is always “transcendental,” always operating beyond what is empirically observed.
Thus we should see how positivism, nominalism, constructivism, instrumentalism, and skepticism are related. Positivism is a form of constructivism because it denies that reason can legitimately refer to unobservable causes supposed to be real, supposed to really exist. All these forms of thinking deny reason the ability to think reality in itself. Instead, reasons are superficial constructions, referring only to limited sets of sense-data when describing the world. Reason is fundamentally prohibited from claiming reality by these views.
Now, this should help to make clear a major contradiction in contemporary attitudes about science. Logical positivism was born of a critical impulse to delegitimize the unobservable character of theological and metaphysical thinking. But its tenets equally require that science deny itself the ability to refer to causes or laws as realities.
The ideological inheritors of positivism today, like the New Atheists, are happy to embrace the dictum to delegitimize theological concepts, but tend not to realize that they are also thereby disallowed from allowing science to refer legitimately to its unobservable causal laws.
It is vital therefore to see that causal realism is a metaphysical position shared by both rational theology and scientific realism. Through causal realism, both are aligned against the various forms of positivism, instrumentalism, and constructionism, holding that human reason can come to know reality, since the causality we infer to be regulating the universe of natural phenomena is ultimately rational and therefore amenable (ultimately) to human scientific understanding. Thus I argue that the claims of conflict between religion and science are rooted in a difference of how to characterize the causal realism upon which many of the disputants actually agree in principal. There are differences of course. For the rational theologian, a “person” can be a real cause in the order of things, whereas the scientific realist tends to restrict all causality to being natural and nonpersonal or impersonal. The issue between these two views really hinges on whether we can grant a normative authority to causal realism about the world, instead of merely a descriptive authority.
In any case, we shouldn’t lose sight of how both are against positivism, which is willing to sacrifice causal realism in science for the sake of prescribing that talk of unobservables everywhere be deemed irrational. Unfortunately, the ugly truth of positivism, revealed thus, is that it is driven by spite against reason.