Criticism to Logical Positivism, Term Paper Example
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Willard Van Orman Quine’s Two Dogmas of Empiricism, originally from 1951 and a revised edition from 1961, is an extremely influential and challenging article in contemporary philosophy. Empiricism, in the sense in which Quine uses the term, is one of the most common epistemological positions that holds that one’s senses are a reliable judge of truth and falsity, and that one can rely on their senses to understand the world (Godfrey-Smith, 2014). Empiricists rely on their senses, evidence, and methods of inquiries such as science to arrive at a body of truth that can be accepted as such. Quine begins by saying that modern empiricism operates by two fundamental principles that are not well justified. These are dogmas for empiricism and there is no good reason to believe them. The first Dogma is the analytic-synthetic distinction which refers to the idea that synthetic sentences are true contingently depending on whether they measure up to the facts and that the analytic sentences are true no matter what true independently effect (Godfrey-Smith, 2014). The second Dogma, known as logical or conceptual reductionism, is the theory that all human ideas are reduced to small individual units of sensory experience. On the other hand, logical positivism or logical empiricism refers to a philosophical argument established in the 1920s in Vienna, whose features entail the perspective that scientific knowledge is the only form of factual knowledge hence any other perspectives such as traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be repudiated as they are meaningless (Godfrey-Smith, 2014). Logical positivism is unique from other forms of positivism such as David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s and hence argues that the optimal basis of knowledge is dependent upon public experimental confirmation instead of personal experience. Quine’s perspectives are different from Auguste Comte’s or John Stuart Mill’s philosophies, which express that the metaphysical doctrines are meaningless (Hall, 2013). He further explains that some unanswerable questions regarding freedom, causality, and God remain unanswerable because these questions are not genuine. Therefore, according to the Vienna Circle, all legitimate philosophical perspectives are a critique of language and whose results depict the unity of science. This implies that all genuine knowledge surrounding nature can be associated with a single language that is common across all sciences. The logical positivists held that scientific hypotheses could be reduced to what they called ‘protocol statements’ which are the basic reports of direct observation. These reports form the standard by which other empirical statements are to be tested. This view raised the question, “didn’t protocol statements themselves need to be verified?” Otto Neurath held that they cannot be the starting point of the sciences which led him to compare knowledge to a ship that has to be continually rebuild even while it is still at sea. Reconciling the objectivity of science with the subjectivity of personal experience presented a challenge to the Vienna Circle. If experience takes the form of private sense data, how can science achieve the attitude of detachment to which it aspires? Neurath and Rudolf Carnap tried to resolve this conflict with a revised version of materialism called physicalism. The aim of physicalism was to turn physics into the catalyst for unifying the sciences (Vallicella, 2014). It stated that everything that exists or happens can be completely described in the vocabulary of physics. Here then was the holy grail of logical positivism, a scientific language that could theoretically give voice to all the sciences. For the purposes of this term paper, the following interpretation is adopted. In Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Quine criticized and annulled one of the fundamental principles of logical positivism (which he named as the first dogma) and its supposed justification (the second dogma) in a critical analysis that can be summarized as follows: There is no proven standard of notions of sense, analyticity, and modality valid in all domains of sentences.
The detriments of Logical Positivism
The First Dogma- The Analytic-Synthetic Distinction
The Analytic-synthetic dogma is a belief in some fundamental principle between truths which are analytic or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic or grounded in fact. An analytic sentence is true solely on the basis of meanings rather than facts. Such meanings are intentional and should not be confused naming or reference, which is extensional. Logical positivists argued that synthetic truths are based only on meanings and are independent of facts, while analytic truths are grounded in facts. Notably, a statement is regarded as analytic whenever it is true based on its meaning and is also independent of fact. For instance, Kant argues that in an analytic statement the predicate concept what is contained in the subject concept. There is also a keen interest in necessary and contingent propositions actualized by Leibniz who analyzes the truth of reason compared to the truth of facts. Therefore, a statement is only necessary if it has some truth across all possible worlds. This situation implies that it is not logically possible for the information to contain any falsehoods as intimated by Leibniz. Also, a statement is only true if any possible deniability creates a self-contradictory situation while contingence surrounds statements that are not necessary.
According to Hume, statements that are describable as true entail a relationship of ideas compared to the virtue in matters of fact. However, Quine expressed that Hume’s perspective only labels the issue of comprehending the analytically true or analytically false. Considerably, little progress has been realized in the quest to comprehend analyticity. On the other hand, Leibniz expressed that analytic statements are true from any dimension but Quine expressed that apart from the obscure imagery across multiple dimensions, the analyticity on notions of possibility and necessity are based upon the notion of analyticity. Thus, when an individual seeks to explain a necessary truth, they stimulate an aspect of analyticity, and little progress is seen to have been made.
Kant also argues that analytic truths entail arguments whose predicates contain their subjects (Vallicella, 2014). However, Quine expressed that this analysis is incomplete as a myriad of analytic statements fails to appoint the subject-predicate structure. Quine argues that the intentional meaning is, in fact, a sort of replication of the old Aristotelian notion of essence. Aristotle defined man as a rational animal by arguing that rationality was the very essence of man. This linguistic philosopher opines that man is a rational animal because the intentional or semantic content of the word man is rational animal as opposed to its extensional meaning, which might be man is a featherless biped. Every human one comes across is a featherless biped and that all those bipeds on this planet are human. But no one assumes that is the intentional meaning, that merely has to do with reference. In examining these analytic truths, two classes were found. The first class are pure logical truths; for instance, in the sentence “no unmarried man is married.” The second class is exemplified by another sentence “no bachelor is married.” This is a sentence that is based on intentional meaning because the intentional meaning of bachelor is presumably an unmarried man. Arguably, the second sentence can be reduced to the first sentence and turn it into a logical truth by replacing synonyms. For example, bachelor with unmarried man, hence have the sentence, “no unmarried man is married.” Thus, the second and critically important class of analytic truths rests on the notion of synonymy or sameness of intentional meaning.
Therefore, synonymous terms can be evaluated as those with equivalent contributions to the necessary conditions for verification of the sentences that they are within. However, Quine finds this argument to be invalid as individual sentences lack intrinsic confirmation conditions, and are independent of the verification conditions available in other sentences. Quine argues that sentences operate via a tribunal of experience and not on a one-on-one basis, but as a whole (Connors & Halligan, 2015). Therefore, synonymy cannot rely on the notion of interchangeability of expressions because such interchangeability is not distinguished between intentional or cognitive meaning and extensional sameness. A specific sentence is not the minimum unit of meaning within a paragraph or script but it can be expressed as a minimum unit of truth. However, an array of sentences makes the minimum unit of meaning. Quine’s analysis clearly indicates that synonymy appears to be a dead end.
Analyticity can also be defined as a relation between some sentences and a language or theory. Carnap posited semantic rules, especially in the paradigm of special languages, which specify by one means or another, all of the sentences which are analytic in L could simply be listed on a page (Godfrey-Smith, 2014). The problem with this explanation of analytic is that the word itself is used in the definition, that is, the semantic rule. If one simply eliminates the word analytic and say the semantic rules specify a certain set of truths in a theory, then the unexplained word “analytic” is replaced with the equally unexplained word, semantic rule. Analyticity ultimately is based on the presupposition that there are some sentences in human language which are true and have no factual basis. While this seems intuitively reasonable, Quine argues that no hard distinction can be drawn demarcating such sentences from their synthetic or factual counterparts. In fact, that such a distinction exists, is a dogma or a metaphysical article of faith.
The Second Dogma- the existence of sharp differences between empirical science and logic (Reductionism)
Reductionism is the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to an immediate experience. The verification theory of meaning presupposed that reductionism could show that statements or expressions are synonymous when they share the same method of empirical confirmation. Therefore, the relationship between a statement and experiences which constitute empirical confirmation is thus said to be one of radical reduction. In this case, the sentences are reduced to the experiences which confirm them. Such reductionism claims that every meaningful expression can be translated into sentences about one’s sense experience. Throughout the history of empiricism Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all tried to do this on a term by term basis, and as John Stuart showed in the 19th they failed because not all of human words have straightforward reference.
The logical positivists found a solution to this. They realized that a term by term basis would not work of such reduction, but perhaps it could be done on a sentence by sentence basis. They then focused on the unit of the proposition which corresponds a natural language to the sentence which was the linguistic equivalent to a fact. One could think of a fact as the sentence sized description of the world. To pursue this study, Rudolf Carnap had tried to characterize or define physical objects in terms of a string of conjoined sentences about sense experience that took the form “Quality Q is at a particular instant X,Y,Z, and T” where “X, Y, and Z” refer to spatial location and T refers to the time (Vallicella, 2014). But Quine argued that there is something problematic in that sentence the ‘locution is at’ remains undefined and as a result the study fails. There is no sense equivalent for reducing that phrase “is at.” The dogma persists in the belief that for any synthetic statement, any empirical proposition, there exists a unique range of sensory experience that would either confirm or disconfirm that sentence. This implies that every sentence stands before the tribunal of truth and experience on its own. Quine rejects this on behalf of what he calls “holism.” He insists that human sentences face experience not each on their own but as a whole. This is reflective in one of Quine’s books titled Web of Belief right where the outside of human web is connected to human experience.
Humans weave the interior of that web to account for the exterior changes. Perhaps a more useful analogy he draws is that of comparing total science or the sum of human knowledge to a field of force (Carlson, 2018). The boundaries conditions of that field are our experience. Anomalous experiences force readjustment of the sentences in the fields interior. Nonetheless, the total field is sufficiently underdetermined by its boundary conditions such that any single recalcitrant experience leaves one with a lot of choices as to which of their senses or beliefs to reevaluate. Therefore, when an individual experiences an anomaly, the structure of their sentences and belief is such that they have choices as to which of their old beliefs to change. In this analogy, logical laws can be thought of simply as the sentences one places at the center of their field. They are, therefore, those sentences which are least likely or desirous to change. However, no sentence is ultimately immune to revision.
While individuals must square the periphery of their field with experience, the chief considerations in doing that in governing the arrangement of the interior of our field of force or of our beliefs is the conservation of belief and simplicity especially of laws. The reason why Quine stresses simplicity and conservation of belief is not only to give support to earlier pragmatists but also for good Darwinian evolutionary reasons. Simpler explanations are easier to follow, and when something goes awry, it is easier to find where the error occurred.
Whereas positivists had allowed pragmatic considerations to rule over our synthetic beliefs or scientific theories, they never believed that science gave us absolute or logical truth. By destroying that analytic-synthetic distinction, Quine opted for a far more thorough focus on pragmatism. He argues that pragmatic considerations govern all of our beliefs. During the 20th century, when there was an intense debate in physics over the nature of light, whether it was particular of a function of waves, Quine argued that if we had not resolved that problem through quantum physics, then we might have reached a point when we would have revised our most basic logical law of excluded middle. When experiences are sufficiently recalcitrant, we even reweave that very interior of our web of belief (Carlson, 2018). Arguments based on scientific evidence are also based on experience since science took time to justify these claims. New ideas may lead one to repudiate any claims or perspectives about how the world functions, particularly those that are not well supported with evidence or observations (Klein, 2018).
By the end of the 1930s, the logical positivist movement had started to break down and was drawing towards its end. However, the ideas and methods of logical positivism continue to this day in various disciplines. The reasons for the breakdown of logical positivism can be grouped into two categories: 1) Its internal weakness and 2) The external criticism.
For the internal weakness, one of the foremost criticisms was that logical positivism rendered certain forms of languages like poetry, ethics and theology meaningless for they are untestable. Even though this problem did not bother them, it created contradictions and inconsistencies for their model. Considering the example, water is blue and God is good, is testable under the rules of logic. If a. is false, then a and b must be false. While part of this statement is meaningless, another part is verifiable but it makes for a tricky position to occupy. Logical positivists tried but failed to solve this contradiction. Another point of criticism for logical positivists was the status of the verifiability principle. The verifiability principle could not be classified as an analytic statement, which meant it had to be synthetic. However, the logical positivists were confronted with the problem of reflexivity. How could the theory of verifiability be verified? Even the distinctions that the logical positivists based their theory on were not empirically testable. For instance, one may ask whether there is a scientific way to make sense of the analytic-synthetic distinction. In fact, the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions can collapse with the revision of the analytic statements in the light of new experiences. For example, parallel lines do not intersect is an analytic statement. However, with the discovery of black holes, space warps make it possible for parallel lines to intersect. A final problem with the verifiability principle was to do with the application of itself. The application of this principle would suggest that no scientific law is meaningful. For example, it can be verified that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are all mortal. However, it is not possible to verify the statement that all people are mortal. This is because an infinite number of cases would have to be observed in order to verify this position. Scientific laws are applicable to an infinite number of situations and since it is not possible to verify innumerable cases, they remain strictly unverifiable.
For the external criticism, Quine in his paper, The Two Dogmas of Empiricism, stated that testing and meaning are holistic in nature. That is to say, when testing one idea or hypothesis, we test other related ideas as well as any other time we get a result that is not anticipated. The problem may lie with one of the assumed or related ideas and not necessarily with the hypothesis being tested. If testing an idea means testing other statements associated with it, then we also subject the analytic statements to testing, which contradicts the very supposition that analytic statements are immune from testing.
Carlson, M. (2015). Logic and the Structure of the Web of Belief. Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy, 3(5).
Connors, M. H., & Halligan, P. W. (2015). A cognitive account of belief: a tentative road map. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1588.
Godfrey-Smith, P. (2014). Quine and pragmatism. A companion to WVO Quine, 55, 54-68.
Hall, B. (2013). Kant and Quine on the Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In Kant und die Philosophie in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (pp. 749-760). De Gruyter.
Hettema, H. (2017). Reduction: Its Prospects and Limits. In The Union of Chemistry and Physics (pp. 1-24). Springer, Cham.
Klein, A. (2018). In defense of wishful thinking: James, Quine, emotions, and the web of belief.
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Sinclair, R. (2020). Quine’s Structural Holism and the Constitutive A Priori. Quine, Structure, and Ontology, 147.
Vallicella, W. F. (2014). Two Dogmas of Analysis. Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics, 45.
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