Sunday, October 02, 2016

New atheism and logical positivism

From a review of a book by Peter Williams

Why is this? Williams claims it is mainly to do with the devastating effect Logical Positivism had in the 20th Century on religious belief. Logical Positivism holds that only statements that can be observed to be true through our senses or otherwise be potentially verified, have any meaning. This leaves the unverifiable God hypothesis meaningless. However, argues Williams, it does the same to the opposite claim too. The atheist declaration ‘there is no God’ is also impossible to scientifically prove. So under Logical Positivism, atheism is also meaningless. As Williams writes in Ch1, “Dawkins’ atheism, no less than the theism he opposes, is built upon Positivism’s grave.” Positivism had to die for atheism to live. However, Williams then moves on to argue that bizarrely, Logical Positivism is historically the main reason atheism has such a grasp on public imagination today. It provided the social credibility for atheism upon which the New Atheists have built.

10 comments:

Joe Hinman said...

I don't think positivism had much of an influence on anyone outside of philosophy. It's true the strong principle (verification) disproves just about everything invaliding a lot Dawkinss says,but what I remember teh most grom early 70s leashing philosophy for the first time is how Polanyi showed that Ayer's strong principle killed off positivism itself. You couldn't prove it by it's own principle. Then the weak principle was too weak it had no impact.

bmiller said...

@Joe Hinman,

I disagree that it has no influence outside of the study of philosophy, unless you include "New Atheism" under that heading.

Here is a quick description:

Wiki:"Its central thesis was verificationism, a theory of knowledge which asserted that only statements verifiable through empirical observation are cognitively meaningful."

Wouldn't you agree that we see this type of thinking in the wild today?

Joe Hinman said...

yes but I don't think it comes from positivism. I think that kind of thinking (scientism) was let loose immensity through scientists and positivism was a side branch of it, Positivists were embarrassed that philosophy wasn't science,they were willing to be the bus boys of science and clean up the clutter.

Joe Hinman said...

part 2 of my argument against ethical naturalism

bmiller said...

@Joe Hinman,

So you're saying that scientism came first from scientists and then positivism was the reaction from philosophers so that scientists wouldn't look down on them?

Do you find a difference between scientism and logical positivism then? Or are they essentially the same thing?

Joe Hinman said...

Positivism is what philosophers made of scientism, Scientism is not an organized movement but a label stuck on a variety of similar attitudes,

Jimmy S. M. said...

"The atheist declaration ‘there is no God’ is also impossible to scientifically prove."

That's why almost nobody makes that claim. Even Dawkins quote for the Bus Campaign: "there is probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." (Dawkins stated that he preferred the wording "There is almost certainly no God").

grodrigues said...

@Jimmy S. M.:

'"The atheist declaration ‘there is no God’ is also impossible to scientifically prove."

That's why almost nobody makes that claim. Even Dawkins quote for the Bus Campaign: "there is probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." (Dawkins stated that he preferred the wording "There is almost certainly no God").'

Are you saying that because the proposition "there is no God" is "impossible to scientifically prove", then no atheist actually claims that much and resorts to the seemingly more modest claim that "There is almost certainly no God"? Then should we gather that the latter claim *is* scientifically provable? There are two possible answers. If you answer "yes" then you can point us to the peer-reviewed scientific paper containing such a proof. If "no" then your response to the OP is baffling because the possibility or impossibility of scientific proof is actually irrelevant to the claims that atheists like Dawkins make.

Eric Koski said...

The discussion hereabouts seems appallingly sloppy.

First, the talk of "scientifically proving" stuff. Science doesn't deal in proofs. Scientific reasoning tends to be inductive or abductive, where the notion of "proof" doesn't really apply.

Second, verificationism is a theory of meaning, not of knowledge.

Third, verification is generally considered to be compellingly refuted by standard arguments from Quine et al. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any mainstream philosophers of language or mind espousing verificationism or logical positivism. Mainstream philosophers espousing atheism as a philosophical position are most likely to also espouse some theory of language and mind encompassing a substantive theory of reference in conjunction with a realist metaphysics.

Fourth, the absence of peer-reviewed scientific papers establishing the non-existence of God is a special case of the complete absence of assertions about God from recent peer-reviewed scientific papers of any sort. God has this in common with fairies, etc. If one asserts that God exists but accepts that God's existence is irrelevant to understanding of the natural world, what must one believe about God in order to hold these positions simultaneously and without contradiction? (The question may be partly rhetorical.)

Eric Koski said...

In fourth paragraph, "verificationism" -- sorry.