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Re: "positivist-empiricist?"

Posted by Bob on November 22, 1999, at 16:25:42

In reply to "positivist-empiricist?", posted by Elizabeth on November 20, 1999, at 17:45:38

[an aside to those who might have been asking, "What about Bob?" ... buried in paperwork and still digging, but I had to chime in on this one]

Empiricism is one of the philosophic cornerstones of the natural sciences, something truly held as axiomatic. It's basically the belief that the truth is "out there" in the sensible world, and only through examination of the world and the report of our senses can we determine its nature.

Empiricism by itself isn't enough to beget capital-S Science, though.

Positivism is an epistemilogical/ontological (how we know/what exists) stance steeped in empiricism and attempting to make philosophy and other social sciences as rigorous and empirically-based as the natural, "hard" sciences. In its heyday, positivists believed that they could arrive at a Universal Science -- kind of like physicists' Theory of Everything, but the positivists truly meant EVERYTHING, excluding (of course) that which is opinion and not fact. Only facts could be true or false, and eventually there was a split in the positivist camp as to how one determines what is true. One side favored an exact correspondence to sensible reality. There is no truth in saying that what I am holding is a styrofoam cup of coffee, because it introduces cultural artifacts like "cup" and "beverage" that have nothing to do with the item's measureable characteristics. Better to describe it as "here, now, white, hot" as all of those terms are definable in terms of measurable quantities. The other side, strangely enough, resorted to coherence of logic rather than focusing solely on what could be sensed and measured. Look at a church steeple, and you know what the object is. The "leaps" of knowing in being able to say such a thing come from the coherence of the logic underlying the statement -- in this case, what it means for something to be a church steeple. The coherence school, in this sense, was trying to get around the concern that sensation both seriously underdescribes our world and that our senses are not infallible.

Anyway, these two camps were having a grand time riping each other to logical shreds while the dogma of Universal Science pervaded certain areas of the scientific world at large -- it fit quite well with the natural sciences (except for when you start figuring in chaos, probability, and other quantum weirdness) -- but worst of all, it totally hijacked American psychology and was the perfect tool for the behaviorists. In the mean time, Sir Karl Popper came along and pointed out that scientists do NOT verify, they falsify -- something that just about killed positivism. It still rears its ugly head whenever you hear of anyone (particularly scientists ... what a sin!) say that something scientific has been proved to be true. There simply is no such thing as a Scientific Truth.

Which, by the way to CC, is exactly why I have no faith in science. I have a healthy amount of skepticism and a willingness to suspend disbelief when warranted, but I accept nothing purported to be scientific on faith.

Anyway, being a research psychologist, I'm constantly confronted by the work of those who think they are proving something ... positivism's cult-like, covert adherence in the social sciences is what Stephen Jay Gould calls "physics envy". Nothing like a nice hard, uh, FACT to get you all hot and bothered, is there? ;^)

Bob (heading back to the mounds of paper ... happy T-day to all my fellow yanks out there ... and yes, you canadians can celebrate a second thanksgiving if you want....)




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