This thought occurred to me during my Metaphysics class this morning. Positivism is a theory of semantics which says basically that a sentence is meaningful if and only if it is analytic a priori or synthethic a posteriori and verifiable. It is analytic a priori if it is logically true or logically false by reason of the terms, or else by reason of the connectives, in the sentence. It is synthetic a posteriori and verifiable if and only if there is a way in principle to confirm or disconfirm it empirically. Thus, it is charged against the theologian, all theological claims about the world are meaningless, since they are neither analytic truths, like “Pv~P” or “all Bachelors are men”, nor are they verifiable in principle since the theologian cannot stipulate any conditions under which this or that theological claim would be falsified or confirmed. Statements like “God exists” are among the most popularly cited examples of sentences which positivists will not find meaningful.
As I pondered this definition in class, I re-examined all my reasons for disagreeing with it. First, it says of all statements which are neither known to be true (or false) a priori by reason only of the connectives or the terms, nor known to be true because in principle verifiable, that they are pseudo-statements. In other words, they aren’t even worth being dignified with the label ‘false’ but rather are entirely meaningless. Now, by it’s own standard, this theory of semantics is not worth being dignified with the label ‘false’ but rather is entirely meaningless, since it is neither known to be true (or false) a priori by reason only of the connectives or the terms, nor known to be true because in principle verifiable. This seems a pretty scathing critique, given that a theory of semantics is precisely the kind of thing which is a candidate for being either true or false. The typical positivist response, however, is that this theory of semantics is not intended to be either true or false, but is merely prescriptive. I object here by noting that it is self-consciously proscriptive, and not prescriptive, but I can object further. I can say that if it is prescriptive (or proscriptive for that matter) then we will have no justification for accepting it which isn’t just emotive. That is to say, all our reasons for accepting it will be reducible to emotivism. That may be a problem in itself for the positivist, but it may also get worse in other ways. For instance, I might say that theological claims are in principle verifiable, even in the Positivist’s sense, by appealing to eschatological verification. If one wants to verify by experience whether Christianity is true or not, for example, then one thing they could do is die, and if their consciousness is somehow operative then consciousness is not a quality of matter (which seems evident to me for other philosophical reasons already, but let’s put all those aside for the moment). Now, if a person dies and finds that they experience God’s presence, or absence, and that their whole lives become clear to them, and all the rest of those things which Christian doctrine stipulates will happen after death do happen, then Christianity, it seems, is verified. Christianity, and perhaps most typical forms of theism can be falsified by this method as well, since if one dies and is faced with an entirely different set of experiences which Christian theology would not have the resources to explain, then Christianity would be falsified (maybe Gnosticism is true, who knows). One response to this from the positivist is to say that something must be verifiable in principle in this world. Of course, the theologian is likely to argue that what we mean by ‘this world’ is just a uniform network of experiences, which would obviously include the afterlife (the afterlife is obviously in ‘this world’ in that sense). The positivist might object that it must be in this world in the sense that it is verifiable in a way which is publicly accessible. I think if they try to give any non ad-hoc definition of public accessibility, though, they will find that death is an experience which is unambiguously publicly accessible. Indeed, if death is construed as not publicly accessible, then I wonder if thought experiments will qualify as publicly accessible!
The theologian might, though, entertain the positivist a little longer and say that there are some theological statements which are verifiable, such as “if you simply pray sincerely to God, and open your heart to him, you will be met with his presence as an undeniable and transcendental reality.” That is verifiable, and provides a good experiment for Positivists to try out for themselves at home to see what results they might get. I note that the way in which the results would confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis of theism does not provide deductive closure, but neither does any other experiment in the natural sciences – such things are inductive, and perhaps abductive to the extent that they require some explanation which best fits the facts which might be inferred just from the data itself.
We might also add that such statements as “I exist”, which is the conclusion arrived at painstakingly in Descartes’ famous meditations, are also meaningless according to positivism, since there is nothing which the person who claims to know that “I exist” is true can stipulate as a set of conditions under which such a belief would be abandoned (falsified), and of course the conclusion “I exist” doesn’t qualify as an analytic truth according to the positivists’ definition of what things may be analytic truths. We might thus respond in a Moorean way: we can say that we are more sure that “I exist” is meaningful than we are that positivism is true. Alternatively, since the positivist has already presumably admitted that positivism is not supposed to be true, but prescriptive, we can say that we are more sure that “I exist” is meaningful than we are that we ought to accept positivism.
The theologian could already rest her case a few times over, but just for fun I was thinking in class today of what other problems we might find with positivism thus construed. I was looking for a sentences which even a positivist would likely want to acknowledge is meaningful, and yet which positivism would not be able to acknowledge as meaningful. I think I found one: “The past exists.”
Consider the following proposition: “The world was created recently with the appearance of age.” Here by ‘created’ we can substitute “popped into being uncaused by nothing from nothing and for nothing, or else was created” and that should satisfy any pedantic readers. Thus, from here on in, when I say ‘created’ I am simply using a short hand form to say what the previous statement outlines. Now, most positivists will want to admit that it is meaningful to wonder about whether the world is as old as it appears, or whether it was ‘created’ very recently (say within the last hour at the time of reading) pre-loaded with everything from memories in human minds (including yours) to fossils already buried deep into the earth. This is a meaningful proposition, and yet it is neither known to be true or false a priori by reason of the terms or the connectives in the sentence, nor is it in principle verifiable, since whatever evidence you might bring forward to establish the age of the world, I can bring forward the same evidence and claim that it confirms my hypothesis of ‘recent creation‘. Thus, positivism forces us to abandon such talk, or else abandon positivism. An almost parallel case could be the Grue paradox, but at least in that case there is some way in principle to verify it – though oddly enough, that would mean that a Breen parody of the Grue paradox (where all emeralds were blue before recorded history, and then turned green) would be meaningless on positivism, while Grue would paradoxically remain cognitively meaningful. Thus, for positivism, Breen and ‘recent creation‘ are meaningless, while Grue is meaningful – but I wonder if “~recent-creation” could be considered verifiable. It seems to me that it cannot, since there is nothing to which the positivist can point even in principle to confirm that “~recent-creation” is true. Thus even a statement such as “the (distant) past is real” in the “~recent-creation” sense is, according to positivism, meaningless. I think only somebody who has a strong prejudice in favour of positivism would choose to pay such a high price for sticking to it. If that’s true, then I suspect most people would, upon hearing this criticism, think twice before swallowing the magic pill of positivism (the pill to make all our metaphysical worries disappear).
Let’s pursue this a little further. On Positivism, the whole debate in the philosophy of time, between A theory of B theory, is only maintained to be meaningful because there is one thing which, if it happened, would confirm B theory and disconfirm the A theory: namely, time travel. On A theory time travel is not logically possible, while on B theory it is logically possible. Therefore, there is at least one thing which we can stipulate in principle would verify one and falsify the other. Interestingly this entails that even if A theory is meaningful, the positivist has every reason to accept B theory, because at least then they can never find out that they were wrong (since there are no conditions under which B theory could be falsified).
What, though, if the thesis of ‘recent creation’ is true, and the B theory of time is true. Then we would not ever be able to travel backwards in time to some event in the past which never occurred. However, our inability to travel backwards in time to some point the world has now the imprint or appearance of from will no more confirm ‘recent creation‘ than it will A theory. In other words, it doesn’t verify anything for us, and thus our inability to travel back through time will always fail to verify either ‘recent creation‘ or A theory, and thus will not verify either ‘~recent-creation‘ or B theory.
As a personal note, I must say that it has always baffled me that anyone can accept positivism. What motivation could we possibly have for accepting such a constricting theory of semantics except the escape from God? Is there any other attractive quality to positivism aside from the romance of enlightenment optimism in it’s most indulgent and gratuitous manifestation yet? I cannot see any, and the only reasons I can even imagine for accepting positivism are, it seems to me, just bad reasons. Forget that positivism makes itself unverifiable; it still construes as meaningless what we all have good reason to believe is meaningful. We cannot accept it in the interest of pursuing the truth, since positivism is itself essentially emotive and does nothing to guarantee truth significantly. Moreover, as a theory of semantics is tells us as a rule to not acknowledge as meaningful some things which we all know are meaningful by intuition and by experience (particularly cognitive experience). So, it is proscriptive with respect to metaphysical language, which we have absolutely no reason to bar ourselves from speaking about meaningfully, and it offers us absolutely no insights which we can not just as easily purchase with a broader more satisfying theory of semantics… Interestingly, here’s another argument: if the positivist even wants to claim that ‘~recent-creation‘ is true, then plausibly their only epistemic justification for that is to accept it as a properly basic belief – but of course it seems that we should maintain in a properly basic way the meaningfulness of propositions which we all take to be meaningful, and in respect to which we have no defeater on offer to think that it is not meaningful after all.
Not only do you have to be extremely clever to entertain positivism, but you also have to be particularly blind to what all the rest of us see meaning in all the time – or you must follow positivism’s prescription to ‘gauge out your eyes.’