Monday, July 18, 2005

Blogging, philosophy of science and our discussions

Logical positivism was the doctrine advanced by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle that held that the meaning of statements is found in the conditions under which they would be verified. For example, the meaning of the statement "wood floats" is found in the event of wood floating on water; wood sinking would render it false. The powerful flip-side of logical positivism asserts that statements that cannot be definitely proved true or false are utterly meaningless and should be ignored. For the logical positivists, metaphysics, religious statements about God and most of ethics fell into this class. This was all part of an attempt to make philosophy more like science.

One problem for the positivists is that their pinnacle statement--"meaning is the set of conditions under which a statement is proven true or false"--seems to collapse under its own weight; what set of criteria would we need to make it true or false? The testing of every statement--which seems to be impossible. Two further, rather simplistic problems that are legitimate (but have been answered to some extent) are, one, the sets of conditions under which different people would take statements to have been verified are different; and, two, it seems as though it would take an infinite mind to verify all cases of something, as in statements like "uranium is an unstable element."

For most neo-pragmatists, meaning is detached from any universal theory and becomes simply what agents do when confronted with a belief. The "meaning" of the statement "God exists" is simply the sum of the outcomes of the actions of agents who assert the statement--it is statistical rather than absolute. We can certainly bring in true, false and universal as much as we like in conversation, but when pressed, most neo-pragmatists tend to give up on coming up with a single, coherent account of meaning like the logical positivists did.

Pragmatism is helpful, as it brings agents and actions into the abstract, cold world of the logical positivists; but it leaves people wanting more in most cases, especially when 20th-century science has been so successful at predicting and changing our world. (GK Chesterton once said that pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and the first is a need to be something more than a pragmatist.)

Karl Popper developed a powerful critique of positivism without going the relativistic route of some of the pragmatists and neo-pragmatists. For Popper, the bolder and more easily falsifiable a claim is, the more scientific it is. Einstein's prediction that light would be bent by gravitational fields is bold, measurable and generally understood; Marxism's ability to absorb all historical events without changing its paradigm is not. But Popper never gets top-heavy like the positivists do, by attempting to universalize and perfect his theory: for Popper, good science has a number of characteristics, and that's that.

Some people have expressed frustration at our inability to get anywhere with each other in the blogosphere. I enjoy the debates: even in arguments where neither side gives an inch, I tend to think that we all learn something. So, one way to advance our arguments is, first, to recognize pragmatism's insight that verifiability depends to some extent on each person; and two, to appropriate Popper's insight that good science admits of falsifiability. I think it's important to bring this to bear on our political debates. Most probably, all of this would be unhelpful in discussions of such things as abortion. When it comes to history, however, and the actions of states and statesmen, it' s important to bring to the table that set of conditions that would make you wrong. If I say that the atomic weight of oxygen is 27, I can be disproven; if I say that the Iraq war is justified, I should be able to say to some extent what would make the Iraq war unjustified, and so on.

I'd appreciate anyone's meta-comments on how to blog effectively and persuasively. We all like to think that we're logical, open-minded, fair, and reasonable; here are some ways to do so.


At 8:30 AM, Blogger E.A.P said...

Well stated summary, there. It reminds me of Dr. Trammell reading from his battered copy of Masterpieces in Philosophy as we struggle to remember which obscure Hegelian passage Kierkegaard is critiquing. *sniff* I miss independent studies!

I think you're right about argumentation being worth the time, even if no one switches sides. Persuasion is overated. Unfortunately, as we seek to understand the argument, we may come up against the problems inherent with a faceless medium. I can't see your expression or hear your inflection as you use a charged term. Sometimes sarcasm isn't as self-evident as it sounds when we're proofreading our posts. On the flip side, this medium makes us bold because we have the time to review our statements and we can stir up the opposition with bolder terms than we might use in their presence. But overall it just tends to make people fixate on the use of "torture", tell us our an exclamation point is unmerited, or quibble with the details because being petty is so easy when you have the time and anonymity.

I guess these are problems unlikely to be solved. Letter-writing, email, even IM has these issues. Does anyone have any ideas for weakening their effect at least? As you said CP, having general guidelines for making claims and developing our arguments will help the content, but the context of words and ideas we employ and just how far we push the idiom might be something we can't help much. Thoughts?


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