Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Popper Context: Logical Positivism

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in. 

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week.  Among the themes of class discussion was logical positivism and Popper's reactions to it as the origins of his "negativist" philosophy of science.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Popper: empiricism, meaning, and "reality"

Enjoyed enormously MK's context setting for Popper and resulting discussion. Contributed greatly to my understanding of what the issues were when Popper was active, and hence how/he became central to/influenced as he did subsequent movements in philosophy of science. Also put on the table a number of issues that we'll be returning to over the semester.

Need to/will go back and reread Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. Very intrigued by logical positivism (logical empiricism) as an "anti-metaphysical" program: a position I sympathize with but that perhaps went awry in interesting ways. And curious about how that relates, chronologically and conceptually, with the story told in Reisch's How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science.

Central to this is MK's characterization of the positivists/empiricists as distinguishing between not science and non-science but rather "meaningful" and "meaningless", with "science"/math being meaningful and everything else meaningless. Probably more appropriately, the "a posteriori", that derived from and checkable by experience, is "meaningful" and everything else (the "a priori", ie metaphysics) is "meaningless". Or at least has to be rephrased as a "psychological state" (God exists -> "my belief that God exists makes me feel good", or similarly: Reality exists -> "my belief that reality exists makes me feel good"). The focus on the empirical/inductive as the root of all knowledge/understanding (cf Empirical Inquiry: Limitations and Possibilities), and the associated need for a redefinition of the status of universal claims (as brain states), anticipates nicely material we'll be getting to later in the course. So too is the notion of science as "a collection of reports [of empirical observations and stories about them] made to a community of [critical] inquirers". And the "atheist" vs "agnostic" positions about "reality": there isn't one as opposed to one can't say anything about it (Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent").

It is helpful indeed (to me at least) to read Popper against this background, as well as, as MK points out, that of concerns about the argumentative style of Marxists, Freudians, and (later) Darwinists. I had previously recognized Popper's insistence on preserving metaphysics but had regarded that as distinctly anomalous (even contradictory) and now see it as less so. There really is a terribly important difference between "positivism" and Poppers negativism or "fallibilism", and I have long felt (and still do) that Popper was wise to shift the ground from what is currently supported by empirical observations to what is potentially challengeable by future empirical observations (see Getting it Less Wrong) in distinguishing science from non-science. The key here is that science cannot and should not claim "Truth" but only (and no less than) to be summarizing wider and wider arrays of observations in ways that are subject to further empirical testing.

What I had not previously fully appreciated was the rationale for making this argument (the apparently empirical rather than "metaphysical" claims of Marxism and Freudianism that were nonetheless not challengeable empirically), and Popper's move from a distinction between "meaning" and "meaninglessness" to a distinction between science and non-science, leaving open the significance of that which is not "empirically falsifiable". For reasons we'll be again coming to later in the course, I like both of these Popperian characteristics, and will argue strongly that that which is not either empirically strongly supported NOR empirically falsifiable is still quite significant/meaningful (its the "stories" of Empirical Inquiry: Limitations and Possibilities).

All of this sheds for me at least new light on why Popper wanted to hang onto the idea of "reality". It is a barrier to pure solipsism? It is what distinguishes elucidation from edification? It is the incentive "to turn a statement into a refutable statement"? It provides a needed stimulus for continuing exploration? All of this begins to make more sense to me. But I still think Popper overused/overvalued "reality". Does science need to presume "explanations at a higher and higher level of universality"? I still think there are ways to preserve what Popper wanted to preserve without appealing (undesirably, and I think naively) to a singular "reality". Perhaps along the lines of "reality" as providing the essential grist for inquiry and of conceptual frames as subject to the same "falsifiable" test as statements.

Looking forward to continuing conversation.