The basic assumption behind philosophical positivism is that unless something can be described then it cannot exist. It’s unlikely that a subscriber to the positivist viewpoint will state things quite as baldly as this however, but that’s what it comes down to. No one is going to state things as baldly as this because it sounds rather unconvincing as an argument! It makes ‘the act of describing’ in some way more important than whatever it is that’s being described, and this clearly can’t be true. Since when was the description more important than the thing itself?
The positivist paradigm isn’t usually explained in quite this way however – usually we’d say something to the effect that ‘positivism means that unless something can be physically verified as being there then it cannot meaningfully be said to exist’. Unless we can obtain verifiable data about the thing being investigated, obtained on the basis of physical interaction, then it doesn’t exist. This sounds reasonable enough of course – if the object under investigation phenomenon can’t be made the subject of any physical verifiable interaction then what claim has it to be ‘real’? What does its supposed ‘reality’ consist of if not verifiable features or characteristics?
Philosophical positivism states that unless a thing can be measured then it isn’t a thing, therefore. ‘No measurement’ equals ‘no reality’, we might say. But measuring something, no matter how rigorous that might sound, is really nothing more than the act of us imposing our ideas on it. If I seek to ‘know the reality of something’ by measuring it then all I’m doing is imposing my framework of meaning on the phenomenon under investigation and this is ‘putting the cart before the horse’.
When I seek to discern ‘the true reality’ via the act of measurement I am taking it for granted that those assumptions which are implicit in the operation of the measuring device can be used to exhaustively describe (or account for) the object that I’m trying to find out about. Measuring is essentially an act of aggression, therefore. I’m not really trying to ‘learn something new’, even though it looks like I am. I’m not trying to disprove my own assumptions but rather I’m ‘assuming that I’m on right track’. I’m actually imposing what I already understand (or think that I understand) on the world. This automatic assumption is implicit every time I ‘ask a question’, of course. The questions I ask determine the sort of answers that I’m going to get back, so ‘questioning’ isn’t really the open-minded sort of thing that we think it is! We are interrogating the universe on our terms, and this has nothing to do with ‘being open’. That’s only a pretence on our part; that’s only old fakery…
In order to be genuinely open, we would have to refrain from imposing our framework of meaning, our ‘assumed context of interpretation’, on the world. We would have to ‘refrain from measuring’, in other words! We would have to ‘put the ruler down’ and approach the object of our investigation ‘empty-handed’. We would have to stop defining, stop describing, stop ‘commentating’ and all of that ‘positive-type’ business. We would have to stay quiet and let the world talk to us (if it wants to, that is!) rather than us telling it what it is. As soon as we say this however we are admitting to a dilemma, the dilemma being that we don’t actually recognise it existence of any reality that hasn’t been measured, defined, described., etc. We don’t – on a fundamental level – actually believe in the existence of anything that doesn’t conform to our assumptions, our expectations! The possibility that they could be such a thing simply can’t occur to us. We absolutely deny (in an implicit rather than an explicit way) the existence of anything that does not conform to our expectations, our expectations.
The stance of positivism is based on the idea that the universe is a ‘closed system’, therefore. If the universe is closed then positivism is ‘the paradigm of choice’, so to speak. It’s not just ‘the paradigm of choice’, it’s the only possible paradigm. It’s not even ‘a paradigm’– it’s just ‘the way things are’. So this is all fine if universe is a closed system, but suppose that it isn’t? We can’t know that it isn’t, after all – not by applying our positivistic outlook we can’t! Once we assume the universe to be closed (as we do when we subscribe to the positive view of reality) then we automatically lose the ability to understand the nature of the assumption that we have just made. Positivism (like dogmatic religion, or classic Freudian psychoanalysis) is one of those theories that doesn’t have the possibility of questioning itself, that doesn’t have the possibility of ever being shown to be wrong. Positivism isn’t ‘falsifiable’ therefore, to use Popper’s term.
How could positivism ever falsify itself when in order to do so would first have to drop its key tenet that ‘the only real things are things that can be positively represented’? The only way positivism could be properly falsifiable would be if it dropped this key tenet, but then if it did this then it would no longer be positivism! It would be something else other than positivism. It’s not easy to argue against the doctrine of positivism – it doesn’t by its very nature allow space for argument, after all! Karl Popper’s principle of falsification allows us to do so, however – positivism isn’t a falsifiable proposition, and so this removes it from the domain of anything that could properly be called ‘science’. Anyone can come up with an ‘all-explaining theory that doesn’t allow for itself to be questioned, after all’! Human beings come up with unquestionable belief structures all the time – is ‘what we do’. We create constructs and then get hopelessly stuck in them. We love removing all possibilities of ‘radical revision’ with regard to our chosen viewpoint on the world; this – we might say – constitutes our ‘main preoccupation’ in life.
The reason we love removing all possibilities of radical revision with regard to the question of what life is all about is of course quite self-explanatory – we go to all the trouble of constructing a system or structure and then the next thing is that we learn that we have to radically revise it. What a pain! We have to go back to the drawing board, and that doesn’t feel good. Having to ‘go back to the drawing board’ when we have invested everything we’ve got in our model or theory of the world is of course the biggest challenge that there ever could be. Challenges don’t come any bigger than this. We should not forget that it is not just our model of reality that we have to let go of (or ‘radically revise’), it is also our model of ourselves. My view of the world is the ‘all-explaining structure or system’ that I have invested in, and so is the structure /system that I call myself’! Radical revision of everything we believe in, and also everything we believe ourselves to be, is therefore no small affair.
We have two important points to consider when discussing positivism therefore. Firstly, we are bound to admit that it is a non-falsifiable proposition, and secondly, we are also bound to note that it is inevitably the case that every one of us harbours a very powerful ‘unconscious motivation’ to embrace a description or model of reality that can never be falsified. This unconscious motivational force (or ‘hidden bias’) is sometimes known as existential terror! Once we take these two factors into consideration this does tend to weaken the case for philosophical positivism. Obviously, if we happen to be looking at the world in a positivistic way then it doesn’t weaken the case because nothing can weaken it! We’re in an impregnable position; we’re in the position of ‘not ever having to acknowledge the possibility of our basic assumptions being questioned’. We’re in the position of not having to ever acknowledge the validity of any possible counterargument, and so from this point of view this whole discussion is null and void. This is what the positive paradigm is all about – shutting down all counter-arguments in a non-negotiable way, shutting down all counter-arguments forever…
The closed viewpoint cannot ever understand what ‘open’ really means – it has ‘no concept for it’! If all I can believe in is what I myself have already thought (or ‘verified by thought’), then how can I imagine a reality that exists and yet has not been thought of by me? I could try to imagine it of course – I could try to imagine a reality that I have not myself imagined, but that would only be my own imagination! How can I model a world that hasn’t been modelled by me? What I’m actually trying to do here is ‘simulate the state of non-simulation’ in an attempt to break out of the prison of my own self-imposed limitations. ‘Closed’ can never understand ‘open’, in other words – or as James Carse says, a finite game can never contain or incorporate the Infinite Game, although this can happen the other way around.
The closed world comes with no way of exiting it therefore; there is no way to ever leave it – not on its own basis, at any rate. There is no way out of the closed world, in other words! We just too clever for our own good; we’ve come up with a theory that is too good at explaining things…. But even the need to somehow ‘disprove’ the positivist paradigm is to fall into the trap of positivism – ‘true’ and ‘false’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are terms that only have meaning in the closed world. In a genuinely open universe we can’t say what anything is and that’s the whole point; we can’t say what anything is’ because we don’t have any fixed framework of interpretation. We can’t say what anything ‘is’ because we have no fixed context. ‘Is’ is only our assumed context reflected back at us, after all.
When we can’t say what anything is then this is the ‘negative reality’, the ‘reality’ (for want of a better term) that we have no way of describing and never will. The negative reality simply isn’t about right or wrong, true or false, and this is profoundly baffling to us! We can’t see how something could be neither true nor false and this is because we have reared on positive reality, which isn’t actually real at all. The ‘positive’ (or ‘compartmentalized’) reality is all we know, all we believe in. Philosophical negativism certainly doesn’t help us any when it comes to ‘running away from our existential fear’ therefore, but the one thing we can say about it is that it is infinitely more interesting than its positive cousin! It’s interesting because there’s no question of ‘proving or disproving’ anything; it’s interesting because we’re going beyond feeling the need or disprove, beyond the need to actually say anything one way or the other…
Art: Chapel of the Apocalypse. Ernst Fuchs. Picture taken from arthive.com