At one point or another, many of us have engaged in a conversation in which one of the parties expresses concern over some new technological breakthrough and is met with the statement, “trust the science.”
But in the case of science, what exactly is one putting their trust in? Most people would agree, as a subject or method, science is intrinsically neutral, but because science is conducted and interpreted by human beings, scientific conclusions can be (and often are) biased towards a particular point of view. This is certainly evidenced in discussions on contemporary issues like climate change, vaccines, and artificial intelligence, in which opinions on what science is saying vary widely depending on one’s social, political, or religious orientation.
But what is it that makes us believe that science should be the final arbitrator in the first place? In large part, it is the success of science and technology over the past several centuries that bolsters our faith in its ability to provide solutions in a wide range of “non-science” fields. This success has even given rise to a whole strand of philosophy called Positivism, which, in many respects, could be considered the philosophy of the modern world. Although no phenomenon in modernity can be relegated to one singular philosophical influence, there is little doubt that Positivism has played an outsized role in shaping the contemporary worldview.
What is Positivism?
Positivism may be foremostly understood as a specific approach to any subject, such as science, mathematics, logic, or sociology, in which any hypothesis or assertion must be grounded in mathematical or logical proofs. Meaning, any belief one has ought to be empirically verifiable. Therefore, anything that involves abstract notions, such as metaphysics or religion must be rejected on the grounds of not being mathematically or logically justifiable.
The origin of Positivism can be attributed to the 19th century philosopher, Auguste Comte. Comte wished to develop a science of man which would serve to solve all myriad of social problems. For this purpose, he is considered by many to be the father of sociology. He attempted to develop, in essence, social physics, in which there would be two branches of study: social statics, which describes the laws of order, and social dynamics, which describes the laws of progress.
In Comte’s Positivism, the emphasis on science was predicated upon his belief in The Law of Three Stages, which he developed. The law contends that any pre-existing or presently existing body of knowledge evolves through three phases: a theological phase, a metaphysical phase, and finally, a scientific phase. Comte’s central idea behind the third phase is that within the scientific phase, man recognizes the world as it truly is, rejecting immature notions of religion and unattainable metaphysical knowledge.
In the years that followed Comte, Positivism became, for many, the default approach in considering any philosophical question. More specifically, one of the most influential branches of Positivism would be that of Logical Positivism, which began in the 1920s.
Logical Positivism was created by a group of philosophers called The Vienna Circle, who posited that all previous philosophical questions were simply, in some capacity, critiques of language, a form of “babel”. According to Logical Positivism, the root of purpose within the universe can be relegated to a single, uniform language present to some extent in all sciences, or an “ideal language”, as Logical Positivism calls it.
This single, uniform language serves to establish a purely analytic body of knowledge. Questions about God, nature, or even morality are not only unanswerable, but according to Logical Positivism, not genuine questions to begin with. Since those questions are not empirically verifiable or logically answerable, they are not essential in developing a uniform scientific language, therefore, such questions ought to be viewed as meaningless and foolish.
So, where do we see the influence of Positivism in our modern day? The sociological influence in the origin of Positivism cannot be ignored when answering such a question. Positivism is equally socially impactful as it is influential in the realm of science. As Comte desired, a substantial portion of modern society has elevated science as a form of a new religion. Science is considered to be the de facto authority with regards to human progress and is only grounded in empirically justifiable belief.
Thus, the influence of Positivism has touched virtually all facets of our society. When we attempt to determine our social laws, it is often under the belief that empirical observation can accurately identify the motives underlying social behaviors. In approaching criminology, the approach of Positivism contends that criminal behavior is wholly determined by environmental and social factors. Additionally, in approaching modern economics, positivism reduces economic behavior to only mathematical models that can aid in predicting behaviors and thus inform policy.
Positivism Pros and Cons
An advantage of Positivism is that through its approach, a plethora of knowledge may be developed in a concise, empirically grounded, and apparently objective manner. Such effects are what the proponents of Positivism, like Comte, wanted. The supporters of Positivism desired for science to be upheld in the place of religions and abstract knowledge as the truest form of enlightenment.
However, the issue that one begins to encounter with modern Positivism is that dogmatic grounding in empirical verification presents difficulty in defining any level of morality other than a survival-of-the-fittest approach to scientific ethics, or ethics, in general. If any level of metaphysical knowledge is impossible, how can a human be capable of self-sacrifice, charity, or love? Wouldn’t such actions be incapable of being wholly rationally justifiable? Does it sit well with the reader to relegate something like love to a chemical response that compels one to breed? Can we praise a mother for sacrificing her life for her child and simultaneously assert that her sacrifice was inseparable from an animalistic instinct?
It likely does not take much thought to realize that there is purpose in the universe, and that purpose in relation to humans cannot be relegated to only empirically justifiable assertions. Our complexity is boundless, nuanced, and beautiful. Additionally, we often encounter experiences that cannot be explained in the terms of Positivism, like love or our ability to recognize beauty. Ultimately, our purpose goes beyond merely mathematical or logical proofs and scientific facts. By stripping value from the richness beyond the provable sphere, Positivism cheapens the human experience, the human purpose. Positivism is humanity’s negative.