DISCUSSION: Positivism is a Humanism (A Liberal Manifesto)
*This article is a reply to Santiago Zabala's "Being in the University" (Purlieu No.3)
In a previous issue of Purlieu, Santiago Zabala has accused analytic philosophy of not really being philosophy at all, and of being subordinated to science and to scientific modes of legitimation. I think this offers a good opportunity to reflect on the most despised core of analytic philosophy, i.e., positivism.
1. Imagine you are watching on the TV your favourite football match, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, and that you can choose on your remote two digital channels in which the game is being broadcast, Telemadrid (based in Madrid) and TV3 (the Catalan public station). The experience of watching the match in one or other of these two channels makes no trivial difference, besides the obvious point that they are in different languages (but Catalan is easy enough to understand for madrileños like myself); even if the transmitted visual signal is exactly the same, the commentators say very different things: they do not judge the fouls in the same way, they do not interpret in the same way the gestures of the players and managers, and two perhaps do not draw the same conclusions as to the relevance of the scores. It makes a lot of sense to prefer watching the match on one of the stations instead of the other, depending on your sympathies and leanings, even if what you are looking for is simply to get angry. Whatever the circumstances, there is one thing that you might be tempted to do, whereas it is something completely silly: suppose you thought that the result of the match would be more favourable to your preferred team (say, Barça) if you watched the match on the Catalan channel. Perhaps what movie premieres are more interesting, what political party is fighting more resolutely against internal corruption, or even what country, faction or coalition is winning a war, decisively depends on what TV news you prefer to watch. But it is simply absurd to select one source of information or another if by your choice you are attempting to find out that your preferred team has won the match, or that your preferred party has won the elections, or that a new novel of your preferred writer has just been published. Of course we can conceive of bizarre cases in which there is no agreement on who won, or on whether the novel has been published or not, but in the usual flowing of everyday life there simply are lots of things that are pointless to try to confute by simply reading a different newspaper or by sitting in different seats in the stadium. Obviously, I don’t ignore that many things that happen during the football match depend on, and are subjected to, conventions, negotiations, situated perceptions, conflicting interests, and arbitrary decisions (by the way, the Spanish word for ‘referee’ is árbitro). I don’t even ignore the truism that there are many cases in which it is difficult to establish the limits between what depends (to a higher extent) on these things and what is more independent of them. Further, and to continue with our example, all of this does not say anything against the fact that there are many other things whose public, intersubjective, inescapable being-there constitutes the point of having an interest in watching, not to say playing, a football match. For example, it can often be difficult to appreciate an offside, but precisely because it is difficult, the referee and the players must take into account the linesman’s raising of the flag, a type of event that is formally regulated, just to make it uncontroversially observable in a range of circumstances much wider than those in which an offside is so.
2. Let us call ‘positive facts’ these events which can become uncontroversial. Not in the sense that controversies about them are forbidden, but in the sense in which these common and publicly observable events, that constitute a precondition of our co-existence with other human beings and our everyday interactions with our environment, ‘impose themselves on ourselves’, making it psychologically pointless for us to deny them. Of course, no one of us is absolutely infallible in those observations, and at times bitter disputes may arise about some presumed ‘facts’, but this is far from a formidable argument against the thesis that the stream of our daily life smoothly runs within the bed of plentiful of ‘positive facts’.
Though a Descartes or a Feyerabend may try to persuade us of the doubtfulness of those presumed ‘positive facts’, I shall not enter here into a metaphysical disputation about the possibility of a Matrix-like nightmare: perhaps our full life is such a fiction, but nevertheless there is a relevant distinction within that fiction (or whatever ‘it’ happens to be ‘in itself’) between those events that are legitimately taken as ‘positive facts’ and those that are not – and it is this difference upon which I want to build my ensuing arguments.
Some positive facts become ‘established’ in the sense that there has been an institutional process ending in the ‘public’ recognition of them. (For example, the result of a match in the official table of the Spanish league.) Of course, ‘public’ is a relative notion, for it always refers to some specific group of people; but what makes a result ‘public’ is the effort of this group to afford ‘anyone’ the ability to examine or contest the process that has led to the establishing of the fact. Furthermore, ‘established facts’ range further tha ‘easily observable events.’ In many cases, they can be difficult to observe, in the case of athletic races decidable only via photo finish, or not ‘observable’ at all, in the case of the chemical composition of water, and perhaps even not referring to physical events, as is the case with infinite primes. (By the way, the recognition that Real Madrid defeated Barça by 3-2 entails that you and me are capable of seeing that three is more than two.)
Many philosophical criticisms of the sciences, sound and reasonable as they can be in many other things, often tend to forget the distinction between established facts and other types of claims or hypotheses. For example, though the ultimate nature of atoms and particles is unknown, and our best theories about the topic are at best good approximations that future theories, based on concepts we cannot imagine by now, will surely revise in very fundamental aspects, it is absurd to deny that more than 80% of the mass of a litre of water corresponds to oxygen, or that there are about 334 times 1023 water molecules in it. In one thousand years our descendents will no doubt have very different conceptions from ours about mass and molecules, and this will make them interpret those established facts in relatively different ways, but they will surely accept then, those established facts, as today we do with ours. To deny this is as absurd as to affirm that, if the arithmetic of the Spanish football league’s table were kept by intuitionist mathematicians, the results would have made a different team win the league.
We can consider the concepts ‘established’ and ‘scientifically established’ as synonyms, not because there is a priori a certain type of methods of verification that belong to science and happen to be cognitively superior to the rest of the procedures for, say, the generation of beliefs. Rather, the question concerns that we must start by considering every method of research and then discuss whether it actually leads to facts that we consider as ‘established’ or not. If the answer is ‘yes’, we just include that method within the ‘scientific’ ones. Hence, any epistemic procedure (those employed by Buddhist monks, by hermeneutic philosophers, or by Midwest car dealers) can in principle be considered as ‘scientific’: the sole necessity is that the proponents of those methods show that they lead to intersubjective results that are robust enough to critical examination.
3. Positivism is the (philosophico-political) thesis that real knowledge reduces to the domain of established positive facts, and that all the other claims must not be taken as knowledge, but, at best, as more or less reasonable opinion. Positivism in this sense is a child of liberalism, for it is based on the (normative) idea that the number of beliefs that a society can legitimately command its members to accept must be kept to a minimum. Thus, the question is: what things can I be blamed for not believing? – For not acting as if I took them to be true?
Suppose that a father drowns his baby by keeping his child’s head under the bath water for ten minutes. We will not accept as an excuse (assuming the father is mentally healthy) that he simply failed to know that acting as he had would necessarily cause the death of the infant. So, ‘we’, at least in the sense of a group of people willing to impose on themselves certain social regulations, will consider that one has the obligation of knowing, or believing, or acting as if he or she believed, certain things. But what things? Well, since ‘we’ liberals (this is now obviously a different, second sense, of ‘we’) are allergic to obligations, our automatic response is to say ‘as few as possible’, and therefore, believing an established positive fact is for us a necessary condition for being accepted. However, it cannot be a sufficient condition, both because no one person can wholly learn the immense and growing set of established facts, and also because it is good that sometimes some people criticise some established facts.
Furthermore, our life in common would be utterly impossible if we could not rely on some facts being ‘positive’ and ‘established’ in the senses explained above. I do not claim this in the epistemological classical sense of some ‘certainties’ on which the full edifice of our theories or beliefs would be ‘grounded,’ but in the social sense that each of us necessarily relies on being able to point to some things that the people she is talking to accept as she does. (You would be infuriated if a shop assistant returned to you, as change, a newspaper’s cutting claiming that it is a €20 note; you would obviously think, at least in the customary course of life, that the assistant has the obligation of noticing and acknowledging that that shabby piece of paper is not a bank note. This an obligation to which you feel yourself as forcefully subject as everybody else in a modern society are, save very small children and the mentally disabled.) The important question for our present discussion is, of course, to what set of assertions does the obligation extend? – and ‘none’ is not an acceptable answer to this question for then you would not have anything to talk about with me if, at the very least, you could not depend on my accepting some facts. Even if you want to enslave me, you will at least expect that I remember, as a positive fact, the time I disobeyed you and as a result you ruthlessly whipped me – though in this case we would hardly talk about an ‘obligation to accept.’
It is important to keep in mind that what I am defining here as ‘positivism’ is not basically an epistemological stance (i.e., neither a theory about the ‘nature’ of established facts, nor about the logical or non-logical organisation of particular families thereof – viz., scientific theories–, nor about the logical or non-logical relation between established facts and other types of claims), for it is a position about the principles that tell how epistemic stuff and endeavours have to be organised within ‘our’ society (in the first sense of ‘we’ mentioned). There can hence be a bounty of different positivistic theories, depending on the particular claims and arguments they make about all those epistemological or normative questions, but the point of this response is not to take sides for one or other of those theories, but to defend positivism in that most general and political sense.
4. I cannot ignore the numerous and profound critiques positivism has received all along its history. I shall examine a few of the most relevant ones in the remaining of the paper, but first of all I want to explicitly point to a couple of important claims.
The first one is that, in spite of all those objections, I know of no other answer minimally satisfactory to the question raised in the past section: to what set of assertions does the obligation extend? Alternative views would tend to be either too much dogmatic or too much anarchist. Dogmatism is the view according to which there is some set of propositions you have the obligation to accept even if they are not positive facts established after a public and critical process of testing; these can be the dogmas of a religion, a political creed, a social frenzy, or a fashionable academic vogue. Anarchism is the view that there are no positive facts, or at least that these facts cannot be publicly and critically established, i.e., that nobody has any obligation at all to accept any kind of fact. I think that this kind of anarchism is only conceivable in some philosophical dreams, and that in practice everyone of us would take it as an grotesque nightmare if some community actually attempted to live according to its (anti)precepts. I recognise that liberalism is perhaps a too unstable equilibrium between the poles of dogmatism and anarchism, but, being a true liberal, I happily admit of a wide range of intermediate positions (i.e., different preferences about exactly where to set the limits of those facts that we think are compulsory to accept within the normal course of social life) as representing ‘truly liberal options’.
The second important point is that positivism, as I have defined it, is not to be confused with the request that it be ‘forbidden’ to accept those facts that have not been positively established, and also that it must be compulsory to reject them. I mean to say only that it must not be compulsory to accept them. Liberalism loves freedom and so let a thousand flowers of free discussion, free invention and free spreading bloom. After all, for every established fact there was a time when it had not yet been established, so it is important that we can launch conjectures and speculate about open problems.
Furthermore, most, if not all, philosophy, including positivism itself, lies far from the limits of the realm of ‘established positive facts.’ Therefore philosophical research and discussion (including discussion about these very limits) is almost necessarily conductive to theories and claims that ‘we’ would not like to see become part of what our fellow citizens (nor even our colleagues) have the obligation to believe. Of course, a competent philosopher, one deserving an academic position, for example, must know lots of things about philosophy as well as many other things, but she has not to accept in particular any of all the philosophical theories she knows about.
5. I will consider three main objections that have been levied against positivism in various of its brands: (i) the epistemological objection that science – and human knowledge in general – cannot be reduced to a neutral empirical basis nor to purely formal arguments; (ii) the political reproach that positivism is naturally allied with ‘the axis of evil’ (capitalism, industrialism, bureaucracy, and the military); and (iii) the humanist critique that positivism’s collusion with western science deprives us of the meaningfulness, wonder, and beauty of the Lebenswelt.
No doubt, positivism is often associated with the view that there is a clear-cut distinction between observational and non-observational concepts, between empirical and theoretical propositions. Also, Wiener Kreiss logical positivism and its post-war successors have often defended the claim that legitimate scientific knowledge and arguments must be expressible through formal, logico-mathematical schemas. A considerable component of the philosophy-of-science industry of the last five decades has been devoted to showing how unlikely these two aspirations were: observation is always ‘theory-laden’; meanings are ‘negotiated’; concepts are based on metaphors; and formal arguments are always conventional to some degree. (I am tempted to say that all these four points are ‘established positive facts’ about scientific knowledge). The liberal positivism I am defending does not require of any of those things, for it is only based in the fact that the outcome of the public exercising of our cognitive capacities leads naturally to an in-practice, unavoidable, intersubjective agreement about some claims on empirical events or logico-mathematical propositions (even perhaps about some normative propositions, but this question leads to a discussion I prefer to leave for another opportunity).
What obstacles and complications, both factual and conceptual, those cognitive capacities encounter during their operation is plainly irrelevant for the public and compulsory character of some part of their outcome, though these are of the greatest interest from a philosophical and scientific point of view, as far as we are interested in how our knowledge is produced.
I think a good epistemological theory should try to explain how it is that are we capable of noticing and discovering things like that there are infinite prime numbers or that water is made out of molecules. Surely Carnap’s Aufbau did not succeed in explaining that; but any theory that concludes that we are just not capable of doing such things (instead of pointing to how implausible it is that we do) will be missing the point.
Certainly, what is undeniable is that a large portion of what is contained in scientific papers, books, presentations, or lectures does not consist at all in established facts. These are conjectures that in many cases will not survive the criticisms that will be raised to them with the help of established empirical facts and established mathematical arguments. Of course, it can be the case that some people, even the core of a scientific discipline (either by mistake or maliciously) take and present some of those conjectures as if they had been established, but the regular practice of science is critical enough to allow researchers to recognise that most of ‘frontier science’ is just a living layer of conjectures from which only a few pebbles will luckily sediment as established positive facts. Scientists, science communicators, business people, teachers and politicians have a responsibility in not presenting something that is not established knowledge as if it were (and vice versa); but denying that there is a meaningful distinction (even if not always a crystalline one) between established facts on the one hand, and conjectures, opinions and mere interpretations on the other, simply contributes to undermine the epistemic responsibility on which our common life depends.
6. The second criticism of positivism points towards a particularly important topic. Positivism, as here defined, is about rights and obligations, and every time that these are to be instituted there exists the danger that they are allocated in a biased way, cease to respect reasonable principles of justice, and accord rather to the interests of the powerful. For example, it has been too easy for governments and industries to employ the rhetoric of positivism and scientism in order to delegitimize points of view they considered as ‘dangerous’. It is also true that scientific research, particularly applied research, having been funded basically by governments and industries, may have tended to concentrate on issues that benefited those patrons most. But, in the first place, all this does not entail that the difference between established facts and non-established claims or opinions is pointless; it only means that ‘we’ should attempt for a more democratic ‘social contract for science’, one according to which it becomes more difficult for the powerful or for anyone else to advertise and impose certain views as ‘scientific knowledge’ when they are simply not so; and, moreover, we should attempt for a ‘contract’ that makes research more profitable to the common citizen, both in practical and epistemic terms.
Furthermore, asserting that industries and governments employ fake’ experts solely to delude the citizens, or that scientific research benefits the interests of the capitalists, ironically presupposes that it is reasonable to trust ‘experts’, and that the results produced by scientific research are often empirically successful. For if presumed ‘experts’ were not systematically trustable (at least in a statistical sense), people would not care a bit about what the ‘government-industry’ appointed ‘experts’ proclaimed at all; and if the science carried out under the umbrella of industrial or military sponsors were not conductive to successful predictions, these ‘demoniac’ agents could not benefit at all from their heavy investments in research.
Hence, perhaps positivism has been historically associated with the ‘wrong’ political ideologies (something that I sincerely doubt as a legitimate generalisation), but the truth is that, if we want really to democratise the production and distribution of knowledge and its products, what we need is more positivism, rather than less. That is, we need to take still more seriously the difference between what we would like to count as certified knowledge and what we would not.
7. Lastly, what about the point that positivism contributes to the ‘disenchanting’ of the world? In a certain way I have already answered to that question in section four: liberal positivism is not about commanding people to reject everything that fails to be ‘scientifically established’, but about letting them the right not to accept it. So, ‘liberals’ are not the ones to forbid people to entertain or believe any mystical, humanist, transcendent, or holistic theory, or by the way, any reductionist, determinist, materialist, or racist hypothesis they happen to find more convincing. What ‘we’ want is for theories that compete for the minds of the people be publicly presented as mere speculation unless they have (to use a well known expression) ‘proved their mettle’ after modestly submitting to a meticulously critical, intersubjective scrutiny. If the result of these examinations is a lack of reasons to take the existence of the afterlife, of orcs and elves, of the inexistence of anything outside of the text, as compulsory when compared to the reasons we have for accepting the existence of water molecules, the extinction of dinosaurs, or the satellites of Jupiter, we can only say ‘sorry’ to these theories, ‘you had the chance.’
I personally find much more fascinating the complex world, and this is including humans, that is manifest to us through the profuse discovery of scientifically established facts, than the comparatively much more simplistic world views typical of religious, mystical or some philosophical doctrines. Works of fiction, as well the reading of history, provide me with nearly all the share of fabulous excitement I could desire, though I admit that perhaps I am less in need of that type of drug than many other people.
Nevertheless, I also recognise that the complaint against positivism is not only about imagination, but mainly about values. For does not the scientific image deliver a mechanical cosmos which is empty of values? And does not the reduction of knowledge to science eliminate wisdom and judiciousness? Well, not at all: we want established positive facts, and we want to have plenty of them, because we value things, and because we think that the knowledge of those facts will help us in getting those things. We want medical knowledge because we value health; we want thermodynamics because we value travelling; we want to have (better) economic knowledge because we value wealth and hate unemployment and poverty; and we want many of items of knowledge also because we love to know. Of course, knowing a large array of facts is not enough to know how to use them, how to argue with their help, nor even how to understand them. More than knowledge is required: wisdom, reason, prudence are needed. But, unfortunately, there is no knowledge about wisdom (only, at most, knowledge about what many thinkers have written about it). Wisdom, almost by definition, belongs to the realm of what does not consist in established facts. The only thing you can know about it is that there are no masters of wisdom, in spite of everything they perhaps say. Discussion of values and the wise use of knowledge is not the kind of discourse about which we can reach an intersubjective agreement (save a number of truisms derivable from logic, statistics and commonsense), but of course it is the sort of discourse where there is something in which there is a lot of space for reasoned argumentation, only with the proviso that all the adopted stances which occur within those debates are optional in the last term, and none of them offers anything like a warrant of leading one to the truth or to happiness more often than the rest, nor even more often than not.
To conclude, liberal positivism invites you to (wisely) think about knowledge in terms of social epistemic responsibilities and obligations: again, what you think we can legitimately demand that our fellow citizens (including you) believe about the things they are dealing with. Perhaps you have an answer to this question which is different than ‘well, at least that they accept what has been rigorously established about those matters’, and I would be happy to discuss these other answers in the future. I also admit that how well established is ‘rigorously established’, is a matter of wisdom, not of knowledge, and that we may have different reasoned opinions and judgments about that. And I finally admit that my own point of views on these topics depend on the values I have and surely on many prejudices that I would like to disclose and openly discuss. But I would be happy enough if this paper promotes a debate on the ethico-political foundations of our epistemological ideas.
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