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What is logical positivism?

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Question: "What is logical positivism?"

Positivism refers to a belief that only those things that can be empirically detected are real. As an extension of this, logical positivism claims that only statements that are either empirical or purely logical have any meaning. As such, logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, would claim that even attempting to discuss something non-empirical and non-logical is pointless. Not only is this approach to reality false, but it’s self-defeating. Logical positivism grounds its claims in three basic concepts: experience, empirical data—gathered via the senses—and logic. Ironically, all three of these provide direct evidence that this philosophy is false. Scripture, as one would expect, also dissolves the notion of logical positivism.

Our senses provide the most potent analogy showing why logical positivism fails. Sight is, by far, the most valuable of a human being’s five primary senses. The vast majority of the “hard” data we get about the world around us comes from sight. Second to that is hearing. Does that mean anything not perceptible by sight ought to be dismissed as nonsense? Of course not; there are real things we cannot see, but which we can smell, touch, or taste. Vibrations cannot be seen, but they can be heard, and some can be felt. Some real things are simply too small or large to be perceived properly by our eyesight. The mere fact that most things, and many useful things, are perceived by sight in no way means that sight is the only reasonable way to detect what is real.

Further, human beings actually have more than “just” the five primary senses. We also possess faculties such as proprioception—which allows us to know the position and balance of our bodies—and thermoception—by which we sense the temperature around and within us. Some animals have senses that human beings lack entirely. This means the very nature of “empirical data” speaks against the claim that “empirical data is the only meaningful information.” What’s empirical to some animals is insensible to humans. What’s insensible to one sense is obvious to another. It’s entirely logical to say it’s at least possible for something to be non-empirical to a human being and still be real. This is where experience and logic come into play.

Experience also says that empirical data is not the sole definition of truth. Human beings hold to many concepts that are not only vital to our experience but are inherently non-empirical. Morality, love, humor, art, friendship, entertainment, and so forth are not easily dismissed as biological accidents or defined in purely logical terms. That, of course, is exactly what those holding to logical positivism do, but not because there is any evidence to support their claims; rather, it’s because they must. And yet, experience shows that the basic content of our lives includes many things that are neither purely logical nor empirical.

The ultimate example of how experience destroys logical positivism is, ironically, in its own definition. David Hume’s infamous quote about the nature of truth neatly defines logical positivism:

“If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school of metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quality or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Of course, Hume’s statement is not empirical or empirically verifiable. Nor is it purely abstract or entirely analytic. Therefore, it—and logical positivism itself—is self-defeating and absurd.

Finally, the existence of logic itself proves logical positivism false. The laws of logic are considered to be real, absolute, and yet totally non-empirical. In every meaningful way, logic meets the challenge of logical positivism and defeats it. Any attempt to re-define or explain away either logic or logical positivism in order to make them compatible makes logical positivism a tautology—a useless, self-referential truism. For example, saying, “Well, only things that are empirical are ‘physically’ real,” simply admits that “non-empirical” is not the same thing as “imaginary.”

Scripture, of course, does not allow for the idea of logical positivism. First of all, logical positivism is limited by human knowledge and understanding. According to the Bible, we are not the ultimate standard for wisdom and insight: God is (Isaiah 55:8). There are many “true” things that we cannot perceive (2 Kings 6:16–17). And this physical form—that which we readily perceive with the senses—is not the entire substance of our existence (Ephesians 6:12).

Logical positivism is simply an attempt to eliminate God and the supernatural by re-defining words. Unsurprisingly, it fails through self-destruction. Non-empirical truth can exist, and, just because a concept is inherently non-empirical, or even non-logical, does not necessarily mean it is meaningless.

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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