Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Logical Positivism, The Vienna Circle, and Saucermen

I use roads almost every day, in one way or the other. So does almost everybody else in the world, except for farmers, but even they use so-called "tracks" for driving tractors, corralling cattle, and being generally pretty strange and antisocial. Its a simple and brilliant life, but people live it. Roads define where we go pretty much, define what we see, which would be cool, if the only sights were not just fields and a one off statue of a T-Rex. Seriously. Take the M5 to Bristol. T-Rex.

Back during the 1920's there was a group. Bear with me. There was a group of people who established a way of thinking that influenced almost everything in life, from their views on religion, to politics, economics, and yes, even roads. Logical Positivism came from The Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers that gathered at Vienna University, around Moritz Schlick. It was sort of like the Algonquin Round Table, except in Vienna, and not as vicious in such a horrible, horrible way.

In the same way as any great philosopher, the group, chaired by Schlick had a massive impact on the world, in the same way that Hegel, Marx, Neitzsche and Kant did, with one important rule; that knowledge was defined by experience and proof. Of course, this meant that there was a strong interest in science, empiricism and reason, and skepticism of theology and metaphysics, but by far the biggest staple among logical positivists was verificationism, the theory that the idea that a statement or question only has meaning if there is some way to determine if the statement is true, or what the answer to the question is.

This verification principle was basically a way of splitting every question or statement into three convenient and accessible bite-sized chunks;

1. Is it true?
2. Is it false?
3. Is it verifiable?

Even now, this concept is used by Journalists in a very similar way, the most common being the way of avoiding libel;

"Is it true, and can we prove it?"

This principle can be used in many incidences of proving whether something is true or false, up to, and including things like the Roswell UFO Incident that happened in New Mexico in July of 1947, and even though that turned out to be nothing, nothing at all, it was strange how people believed it. Logical Positivists would be skeptical of something like this, unless there was hard evidence, or they had met a space alien themselves, despite theories that the aliens might be very far away, perhaps even, on other planets. But instead, what was indeed a downed weather balloon, and nothing else, would not have convinced anyone who followed procedures of the Vienna Circle, because it simply cannot be verified.

Logical Positivists also made Religion, and the existence of any Deity seem completely false. How could we prove that there is a God? What is there, right in front of us to show that there is something of a higher power than our own. Sure, there may be evidence, but much of it is subject to disproving, and almost all of it circumstantial. But its not just God that they had a bone to pick with. Even Freud was a target. His Psychology was based around the idea of a subconscious, something inside of our brains that dealt with our innermost emotions and primal instincts, but what use are these theories when there is nothing to prove any of this? There is no tangible evidence, nothing that can be experienced or explained beyond theories, you might as well be trying to prove the existence of Unicorns.

It seemed that the logic was airtight. The Verification Principle would be the standard on which any scientific theories would be either proven or falsified. Except something else turned up. Something dark and sinister. Something, named Karl Popper.

Popper was critical of Verificationism, arguing that the principle itself cannot be verified, instead touting his principle of Falsifiability, which is, instead of proving whether something is right because of evidence supporting it, it proves statements, questions and theories by falsifying evidence to the contrary. An example of this is;

Statement: All toilets are white.

Falsification: If we can find one toilet that is another color, we can conclude that the statement of "all toilets are white" is false, thereby proving that all toilets are at the least, white and one other color, a statement that can be proved by the existence of another color and so on. The original statement can also be construed as racist, but we will not get into that.

Roads are important, in the ways that one cannot think of, but when we look at designs of certain roads, we can see the influence of Logical Positivism. Take Milton Keynes, a place named after John Maynard Keynes, creator of Keynesian Economics. This place has logical roads. Logical roads! Unheard of by most people, but you can be sure that it is incredibly simple to get round to anywhere, unlike a place like Winchester, where the roads were most likely formed around pubs, and how easy it would be to get back home after said pubs. Its not science. Its not Logical. Would you rather live in a world with ease of public transport, or a world with a greater ease of getting smashed every night?

Okay, tricky question, but heres another one. Would you rather live in a world with art, and music, and trees and birds everywhere for no reason, or a place where you don't have a name, because its not logical?

Choose your poison, they're both bittersweet.


Anonymous said...

Welll, Maths has used this type of logic/proof since about 2000 BC - you cannot however disprove the existence of God (although I think religion is always subjective). The theory also uses "All" whereas you can also say "There exists" - so if for example if you say There exists a white toilet, by finding a red one you cannot disprove the first theory. If you say "There doesn't exist a God" - if you can't find hard evidence for this (that again isn't subjective) - you can't use the theory to disprove the existence of God.

S'what I think =)

Luke J. Garratt said...

nice point with the toilet, but what I was trying to say is that if a person was to make a general sweeping statement that all toilets were white, finding a red toilet would prove that this is wrong using falsifiability. I wasn't saying that finding a red toilet would suddenly make the first toilet disappear.

I guess. Maybe.

Chris Horrie said...

Superb blogging - the Gonzo piece is really excellent. Can you get hold of a tape recorder and use that as a script and perform it and produce it as an MP3 file. If so it would be great to include that in teh General election site we are going to make over the summer. It is really funny and a good read.

Rest of the blog is very good as well. Creative and worth a read always.

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