Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Attack of Logical Positivism

I keep hearing about logical positivism - not form atheists, but from theists who seem to want to use it as a defeater for atheism.  And I have to ask myself, why do they keep bringing this up?  There are certain theists who insist that materialism implies logical positivism, or that empiricism is equivalent to logical positivism.  I often hear the less sophisticated ones ask in an accusatory tone, "What's the difference between your beliefs and logical positivism?"

But it's not just the philosophically unsophisticated theist who raises this issue.  Even the trained philosophers among them, while not directly calling atheists logical positivists, still make claims that their materialistic beliefs are somehow founded upon logical positivism or at least that modern materialism arises from its ashes.  And in doing so, these philosophers feed the troll and keep it alive.

It is worthwhile answering the charge directly.  I am not a logical positivist, and I do not know of any modern atheist who claims to be one.  Logical positivism is a defunct school of philosophy based on epistemological verificationism that holds that statements making truth claims are without meaning if the claim cannot be empirically or analytically verified.  Theists have rightfully noted that its core thesis is self-refuting, since it cannot be empirically verified.  But the genuine philosophical dismantling of logical positivism has come from atheist philosophers like Quine and Popper.  From my own non-philosophical perspective, a claim like "God exists" or "God does nor exist", may not be empirically verifiable, but it is still cognitively meaningful.  Though logical positivism was founded upon an outgrowth of empiricism, its passing as a viable philosophy does nothing to undermine my empiricism. 

And this is where many theists seem to get it wrong.  They want to equate empiricism with logical positivism.  Empiricism doesn't support theistic belief for the simple reason that there is a lack of empirical evidence to justify that belief.  And that's something for which theists have no good reply.  If they can label atheists as logical positivists, they have something that can be refuted.  This is what's known as a straw man.  And for many theists, attacking a straw man is preferable to having no sound basis for refuting the beliefs of atheists.

All this is par for the course, I suppose, but I would expect theistic philosophers to take a more sophisticated line of attack, and that's what they try to do.  Their game is guilt by association.  They don't directly call modern atheists logical positivists, but they still draw a connection between the two, and then leave it up to others to conclude that they are joined at the hip, as evidenced here, where Victor Reppert quotes from philosopher and Christian activist Peter Williams.

It may well be true that logical positivism contributed to bringing atheism into the mainstream, and that's why it has earned the scorn of theists.  At the same time, it seems irresponsible for philosophers like Reppert to make this connection without ever trying to point out that modern atheists do not adhere to this philosophy.  Instead, they are quite happy to sit back and watch their minions continue to prey upon the straw man, as we observe in the comments:
Wouldn't you agree that we see this type of thinking in the wild today? - bmiller 
No, we don't. If you want to attack the epistemology of atheists, you need to find a way to refute the epistemology they actually adhere to, like empiricism.  And good luck with that.

In the meantime, I'll thank people like Victor to stop raising this as an issue.  We've heard it over and over again, and it grows tiresome.  And I'm not the only one who thinks so.  It has no merit.  But, hey, maybe that's the best you can do. 


  1. Obviously, if Logical Positivism isn't the foundation for all of philosophy and science then we can only rely on Medieval Scholasticism to point us in the direction of the Truth.

    1. grodrigues gives the atheist no option. It's logical positivism, no matter what you might say about it. Heads I win, tails you lose.