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Science, presuppositionalism and worldviews, part 2

We continue from where we left off in our last article on science, worldviews, and presuppositionalism. In this article, we will continue to look at the philosophical positions taken by the logical positivists and logical empiricists. To reiterate our previous point, these were philosophers who believed that the only legitimate means of knowledge acquisition was scientific investigation. This is important for Christians, especially presuppositionalists, to be cognizant of, since historically, this is a relatively novel idea. Contemporary popular atheistic scientists and writers, such as Richard Dawkins, and more recently, Bill Nye, have uncritically inherited the intellectual capital of a movement which was eventually recanted even by many of its own advocates, and even among secular, philosophical academia, is regarded as a mere historical curiosity. So far, we have seen some of the positions taken by these writers and some of the problems their philosophies faced, and the criticisms they encountered from fellow non-Christian scientists and philosophers of science.

Let us continue with Otto Neurath's philosophy of language and his understanding of its implications for the scientific conception of philosophy of which he was an advocate. Unlike Carnap, Neurath was more pessimistic about the idea of utterly purging scientific language from all 'ordinary language' associations. Ideally, of course, scientific language ought to be analyzed into its more basic parts, but ordinary-language associations could not be utterly eliminated.

Understanding the Duhemian background for Neurath's understanding of a protocol statement helps us to understand his rejection of Carnap's foundationalism. The

"methodological role [of protocol statements] reflected Duhem's holism: hypotheses are not tested individually; only clusters of statements confront empirical data. But their methodological value in the testing of other statements didn't make them unrevisable. This is Neurath's anti-foundationalism. Insofar as they were genuinely scientific statements, consistency with the spirit that opposed science to dogmatic speculation and, no less importantly, opposed naturalistic attention to actual practice, required that protocoals too be testable. This is the so-called Neurath Principle: in the face of conflict between a protocol and theoretical statements, the cancellation of a protocol statement is a methodological possibility as well"(Cat 2011).

Thus, in the realm of physics, for Neurath, as for Duhem, items of 'knowledge' are never unrevisable. We do not possess indubitability, and if we are to find in logical positivism a safe-haven from metaphysics, we can never consider any synthetic proposition beyond criticism. All scientific theories are potentially falsifiable at some later point, and nothing is so sacred that it might not be disproven in the future.

"The complex structure of the explicitly laid out protocol would serve, in the holistic Duhemian spirit, the purpose of testing it by making explicit as many circumstances as possible which are relevant to the experience, especially as sources of its fallibility (was Otto hallucinating? were all the parts of the experimental instrument working reliably? etc.). Neurath's dictum was meant to do justice to actual scientific practice with regard to the role of experimental data"(Cat 2011).


Protocol sentences, by virtue of perception terms, could provide certain stability in the permanence of information necessary for the generation of new expressions. But methodologically they could only bolster or shake our confidence. To acknowledge these limitations is a mark of proper rationality—which he opposed to pseudorationality. A loose coherentist view of justification and unification is the only logical criterion available: ‘a statement is called correct if it can be incorporated in this totality’ of ‘existing statements that have already been harmonized with each other’ (Neurath 1931/1984, 66). Reasons underdetermine our actions and thus pragmatic extra-logical factors were required to make decisions about what hypotheses to accept. Thinking requires provisional rules, or auxiliary motives, that fix a conclusion by decision (Neurath 1913/1983). Scientific rationality is situated, contextually constrained, practical rationality. The system of knowledge is constrained by historically, methodologically and theoretically accepted terms and beliefs, with limited stability, and cannot be rebuilt on pure, secure, infallible empirical foundations. This is the anti-Cartesian naturalism, non-foundationalism, fallibilism and holism of Neurath's model. This is also the basis for its corresponding conventionalist, constructivist normativity (Uebel 1996 and Cartwright et al. 1996). Without the conventions there is no possibility of rationality or objectivity of knowledge. Neurath captured the main features of his doctrine of scientific knowledge in the image of a boat:

‘There is no way to establish fully secured, neat protocol statements as starting points of the sciences. There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry-dock and reconstructed from its best components. Only metaphysics can disappear without a trace. Imprecise ‘verbal clusters’ [Ballungen] are somehow always part of the ship. If imprecision is diminished at one place, it may well re-appear at another place to a stronger degree’(Neurath 1932/1983, 92)(Cat 2011).

Thus, for Neurath, conventionalism, according to which scientific norms are agreed upon by those engaging in the practice, rather than being objectively discoverable in some sort of Platonic realm, were essential to scientific practice. He would thus anticipate Quine's coherentism, and his conception of scientific investigation would in important ways likewise resemble that of the methodological pragmatists. Popper, for his part, had serious problems with Neurath's radical anti-foundationalism on the grounds that it opened the doors to metaphysics, dogmatism and utter skepticism. Popper argued that "a theory of scientific knowledge was not to be a subjective or descriptive account, but a normative logic of justification and demarcation"(Cat 2011). Popper saw Neurath's anti-foundationalism and proto-coherentism as an utterly unscientific, de facto rejection of empiricism.

Popper replaced Neurath's protocol statements with "basic" statements. A basic statement is "basic relative to a theory under test"(Cat 2011). These basic statements would be existential statements which were to be understood "logically" rather than psychologically or subjectively (though it is not at all clear how Popper understood the distinctively logical nature of basic statements). These basic statements, for Popper, would not consist in purely empirical statements, as he admitted the use of the language of law-like regularity rather than merely observable entities or properties (Cat 2011). Their role would be provisional and methodological and they would function only to falsify "theories and hypotheses 'individually and conclusively' only once they were conventionally and communally accepted by decision in order to stop infinite regress and further theoretical research"(Cat 2011).

Of course, the point at which a group of scientists quit experimenting and agree upon a conclusion is totally arbitrary. Unless Popper was able to provide clear, straightforward "conditions of testability...they [basic statements] could not be rightful part of science"(Cat 2011). Since Popper was unable to offer such explicit conditions of testability, he instead had recourse to "theories of psychology of perception" which weakened "his normative criterion of demarcation"(Cat 2011). To put it simply, no criteria was furnished by which we could determine whether or not agreement between a group of scientists was based upon a properly scientific criteria. Popper's aim here was to furnish us with a rational, non-empirical basis for empiricism. Nonetheless, Neurath saw clearly that Popper's philosophy was clearly no less pure an empiricism than his own, and therefore no less susceptible to his own objections. Popper's belief that "historical contingency provides the rich constraints that establiswh communities and communication and the possibility of knowledge, and in this holistic form, preclude radical relativism in pracitce; in historically situated practice, inherited or constructed stable Archimedean points always come into place; there is no tabula rasa"(Cat 2011) was transparently utterly vacuous rhetoric. Neurath thus criticized Popper's "emphasis on and faith in the normative uniqueness, precision and conclusiveness of a logical method - at the expense of its own limitations and pragmatic character"(Cat 2011).

Moritz Schlick, as a more 'conservative' thinker like Popper, rejected "Neurath's coherentism, and also the pragmatism and conventionalism of Carnap's Principle of Tolerance in logical matters as well as his Thesis of Metaologic"(Cat 2011). Schlick was an epistemological realist who, like Hilbert, he advocated "a formal, structural notion of communicable, objective knowledge and meaning as well as a correspondence theory of truth"(Cat 2011). Rather than being concerned with protocol statements per se, Schlick was concerned with "the claims motivating protocol statement"(Cat 2011). A foundationalist, Schlick argued that such affirmations "carried certainty and elucidated what could be showed [sic] but not said, they provided the elusive confrontation or correspondence between theoretical propositions and facts of reality"(Cat 2011). Schlick was excited about these affirmations, because he believed they constituted "the fixed starting points and foundation of all knowledge"(Cat 2011).

Affirmations, as acts of verification or giving meaning, lacked logical inferential force; in Schlick's words, they ‘do not occur within science itself, and can neither be derived from scientific propositions, nor the latter from them’ (Schlick 1934, 95). Schlick's empiricism regarding the role of protocol sentences suggests but does not support strong epistemological foundationalism. Schlick's occasional references to a correspondence theory of truth were just as unacceptable and were felt to be even more of a philosophical betrayal within the framework of empiricism. Predictably, Neurath rejected Schlick's doctrines as metaphysical, manifesting the pseudorationalist attitude (Neurath 1934/1983) (Cat 2011)

It is in Neurath's philosophy that we see one of the 20th century's strongest expressions of scientism, according to which the only legitimate means of knowledge acquisition is scientific investigation. He referred to this attitude approvingly as "the scientific world-conception."

Certainly, different kinds of laws can be distinguished from each other: for example, chemical, biological or sociological laws; however, it can not be said of a prediction of a concrete individual process that it depend on one definite kind of law only. For example, whether a forest will burn down at a certain location on earth depends as much on the weather as on whether human intervention takes place or not. This intervention, however, can only be predicted if one knows the laws of human behaviour. That is, under certain circumstances, it must be possible to connect all kinds of laws with each other. Therefore all laws, whether chemical, climatological or sociological, must be conceived as parts of a system, namely of unified science. (Neurath 1931/1983, 59, orig. itals.)

For Neurath, knowledged is acquired merely by testing, predicting and observing. All synthetic a priori knowledge, as for the other positivists, is out of the picture. Furthermore, very important for Neurath was the conventionalist notion of progress to scientific knowledge through collective efforts and cooperation among scientists of differing academic disciplines, rather than a foundational, axiomatic, deductive framework by which truth could be obtained. Likewise, Neurath was a pluralist when it came to ideal languages for scientific disciplines. The language involved in studying electrons was irrelevant to the language of sociology, for example (Cat 2011).

Karl Popper:

One of Popper's central tasks was that of distinguishing authentic science from non-science or pseudo-science. Within his particular historical context, he intended to refute ideologies such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, which had claimed to be authentically scientific, but which, according to Popper, served as mere hermeneutic frameworks which preserved themselves from critique by generating ad hoc defenses against legitimate criticisms. For Popper, an ideology was unscientific if it did not put forth falsifiable predictions. If a theory or ideology's falsifiable predictions turned out to be false, whatever claim that theory might have made to the status of authentically scientific diminished considerably.

While Popper believed that the traditional Humean critique of induction was legitimate, he denied that genuine scientific reasoning ever actually used induction. Furthermore, he insisted that all observation is inherently "theory-laden." Contra more scientistic thinkers, Popper denied that there is such a thing as purely neutral or unbiased observation. For Popper, scientific investigation is not

In this way he destabilises the traditional view that science can be distinguished from non-science on the basis of its inductive methodology; in contradistinction to this, Popper holds that there is no unique methodology specific to science. Science, like virtually every other human, and indeed organic, activity, Popper believes, consists largely of problem-solving (Thornton 2013).

We have briefly reviewed Popper's well-known doctrine of falsifiability. For him, it was this practice that made a theory genuinely scientific. Popper referred to this question as the problem of "demarcation." It was the fact that a scientific theory took a 'risky' test that made it properly scientific, and distinguished it from metaphysical claims. It is difficult to see how, in Popper's view, we could definitively prove anything scientifically. Indeed, Popper accepted Hume's rejection of the formal validity of induction. No matter how many instances in which we observe such and such an event happening, we can never form a universal belief or state a universal proposition based upon such observation, because a future occurrence might always falsify such a proposition. We never know when a future instance will diverge radically from what we have observed. Popper therefore rejected verificationism and replaced it with falsificationism.

Every genuine scientific theory then, in Popper's view, is prohibitive, in the sense that it forbids, by implication, particular events or occurrences. As such it can be tested and falsified, but never logically verified. Thus Popper stresses that it should not be inferred from the fact that a theory has withstood the most rigorous testing, for however long a period of time, that it has been verified; rather we should recognise that such a theory has received a high measure of corroboration. and may be provisionally retained as the best available theory until it is finally falsified (if indeed it is ever falsified), and/or is superseded by a better theory (Thornton 2013).

Thus, Popper denied the formal and logical validity of induction. Belief in the certainty of a fact because of induction is, as far as Popper is concerned, a logical fallacy. In this, Albert Einstein (himself a philosopher of science in his own right; something of which not many people are aware) and Karl Popper were one. For Popper, then, ideologies like Marxism and psychoanalysis were utterly unscientific. Such theories tend to make predictions and then merely develop ad hoc defenses for their theories when their predictions fail. If they claim to be scientific, Popper would argue that they are in fact pseudo-sciences.

Formally, then, Popper's theory of demarcation may be articulated as follows: where a ‘basic statement’ is to be understood as a particular observation-report, then we may say that a theory is scientific if and only if it divides the class of basic statements into the following two non-empty sub-classes: (a) the class of all those basic statements with which it is inconsistent, or which it prohibits—this is the class of its potential falsifiers (i.e., those statements which, if true, falsify the whole theory), and (b) the class of those basic statements with which it is consistent, or which it permits (i.e., those statements which, if true, corroborate it, or bear it out) (Thornton 2013).

For Popper, scientific theorizing is best understood as a form of problem-solving requiring the creative use of one's imagination. For Popper, the scientist does not begin with mere "facts" (Thornton 2013). We begin, rather, with problems, and observations about this problems, and we attempt to creatively come up with solutions to these problems. Popper believed that we use deductive inference in attempting to solve these problems. While Popper believed that scientists used induction, he did not believe that the theories were themselves the results of deduction (or logic at all, for that matter). More interesting, for our purposes, is Popper's rejection of the notion of mere brute facts. For Popper, all observation is definitively theory-laden. There is no such thing as unbiased or impartial observation.

Further, since the scientist begins with problems rather than with observations or ‘bare facts’, Popper argues that the only logical technique which is an integral part of scientific method is that of the deductive testing of theories which are not themselves the product of any logical operation. In this deductive procedure conclusions are inferred from a tentative hypothesis. These conclusions are then compared with one another and with other relevant statements to determine whether they falsify or corroborate the hypothesis. Such conclusions are not directly compared with the facts, Popper stresses, simply because there are no ‘pure’ facts available; all observation-statements are theory-laden, and are as much a function of purely subjective factors (interests, expectations, wishes, etc.) as they are a function of what is objectively real (Thornton 2013).

Let's review some of what we've learned in light of the arguments used against many secularists by presuppositionalists. We have seen that for Karl Popper, the conventionalism of thinkers like Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath was totally unacceptable. If scientific investigation is totally a matter of agreed upon practices, then we cannot speak of a definitively scientific method. Furthermore, Popper was concerned to establish some form of definitive epistemic foundation for scientific investigation. He was deeply disturbed by Neurath's anti-foundationalism.

This is precisely the argument used by presuppositionalists against secular unbelievers. Our argument is that unbelievers have no rational epistemic foundation upon which they can base their investigations. More significantly, even if they attempted to establish such a foundation, it would be totally inconsistent with their worldview, which, as Neurath and Carnap conceded, was impossible. To commit to a view in which the only legitimate claims to knowledge are those of scientific investigation is to commit oneself to a form of anti-foundationalism and conventionalism.

Popper saw clearly that such conventionalism was unacceptable, and sought to ground scientific inquiry in a definite, objective foundation. Unfortunately for him, it was obvious to Neurath that Popper by this merely meant to smuggle in as thoroughgoing an empiricist epistemology as he himself held. He therefore held that Popper's foundationalism was quite a flimsy and transparent pseudorationalism. These are the same arguments used by presuppositionalists against secularist unbelievers. Their worldview commits them to an anti-foundationalism and conventionalism which necessarily entails total arbitrariness and epistemic relativism totally incompatible with the sort of thoroughgoing scientific epistemology they desire. Other secularist unbelievers understand this and therefore seek to establish a ground for their beliefs, but, like Popper, their attempts can be clearly refuted as forms of pseudo-foundationalist attempts to smuggle in a thoroughgoing empiricism whose presuppositions are totally incompatible with foundationalism.

Carnap likewise attempted to erect such a foundationalism, but his attempts resulted in a thoroughly solipsistic epistemology incompatible with the sort of public cooperation which thinkers who desire an epistemology centered around scientific investigation desire. Neurath condemned Carnap for his subjectivism and phenomenalism, by which the latter desired to establish a foundationalism worthy of the Cartesian heritage, which began from indubitable first principles. For Neurath, all knowledge must be inherently public, not private, since the scientific conception of the world which they desired required cooperation among practitioners of various scientific disciplines. The Cartesian foundationalist, however, could never escape his own world of private perceptions and would succumb to a form of subjectivism and solipsism incompatible with the sort of scientific conception of the world which the positivists desired.

As we have seen, these arguments by presuppositionalists are not mere desperate ploys whose purpose is to justify an untenable Christian position. They are totally legitimate objections with impressive historic pedigree put forth by philosophers of science who were very interested in having a purely scientific conception of the world, yet who could not figure out how such a thing could be justified according to their own presuppositions.

Furthermore, Karl Popper admits in his articulation of his understanding of science, that 'confirmation' is never infallible. In fact, he goes as far as to argue that the scientist requires a fallibilist understanding of science according to which it is always possible that our scientific theories, no matter how apparently reliable, may be totally incorrect. Each scientific theory is therefore totally provisional. Scientific theories can be falsified by future occurrences, but they can never be ultimately and finally 'proven.'

Cat, Jordi, "Otto Neurath", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Thornton, Stephen, "Karl Popper", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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