Stop bringing up logical positivism

Oct 30, 2011 Comments Off by

In the debate over the veracity or rationality of religious doctrines, the greatest thorn in the theists’ side is our asking what evidence supports their claims. As they can’t answer that challenge, they do all they can to excuse taking umbrage an evidential criteria. It has been said theology is not an effort to justify theism but rather to explain why one needn’t. Presuppositionalism is one way this is done. Another is to attack the quality of the decision to rely on evidence. One bizarre form this second approach takes is to pretend such empiricism is synonymous with logical positivism. “But logical positivism was thoroughly refuted by twentieth century philosophers; don’t you atheists know that? And that’s why no evidence is needed that Jesus is the creator of the universe and hates sex before marriage.” As is often true of theists citing a field, they rely on you not knowing enough about it to realise the point is wrong and/or irrelevant. Soon you will understand the error of the LP ploy, as I am about to explain it.

Logical positivism was a response to centuries of philosophers worrying about claims we cannot test, such as that an intangible elf sits on one’s shoulder, or all the reality we perceive is an illusion. Such questions worried philosophers because, for example, if one couldn’t rule out such things, one may well not know anything about the world at all. Logical positivism took perhaps the clumsiest approach to remedying this with its verification principle. The VP’s exact statement varies, but it’s along the following lines: if you cannot, with logic or evidence, deduce whether something is true or false (and some versions make explicit the fact one need only draw probably correct conclusions rather than demanding certainty), the sentence isn’t really a claim about what is true or false in the first place. Most famously, this rendered metaphysics, religion and ethics “literally nonsensical”, by which it was meant the sentences they string together don’t concern any matters that can be true or false. As A J Ayer put it, while it was traditionally though the theist and atheist are one of them right and the other wrong but the thorny question is which is which, the VP meant neither “There is a god” nor “There is no god” is meaningful.

Now you know what logical positivism is, you see at once it’s not the empiricism rallied by those rationalists who call for evidence to support religious claims before we embrace them. If we cannot test a claim, we cannot evidence it, so have not; so, on the rationalist’s view, we shouldn’t think it is true. (Russell’s teapot style exceptions exist; if I can’t test the shoulder–elf’s existence I cannot test its non–existence either, but the latter seems a reasonable belief even if, as Dawkins puts it, we must remain technically agnostic.) This inference, from a claim being untestable to a policy rationalism mandates regarding what our reaction to it should be, is a far cry from the logical positivist’s conclusion that, if the claim is untestable, it’s neither true nor false but instead literally meaningless. (Non–literal meanings, such as expression of one’s emotions in moral verdicts, are still allowed on this view.) It is true philosophers have abandoned this school of thought. But to pretend complaints about the baselessness of theism are examples of positivist thinking is a straw man, like so many theist arguments. Hence this piece’s title; I don’t want to hear this nonsense again.


About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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