Complete dependence on logical analysis seems, however, to end up in a
cul-de-sac. Carnap thought that metaphysical (ontological) assertions are
not completely without sense. But the meaning relates to language, not to
the observable world beyond language. Similarly, one school of Positivist
philosophers in the 1930s (epitomised by A J Ayer) proposed that neither
facts nor the scientific method lead to knowledge, but only language itself.
That is, what we can know is limited by the efficacy of language.
specifically, Ayer concluded that all metaphysical statements, such as "God
is omnipotent" (a central tenet of traditional Christianity), are
meaningless because they contain no empirical content. But what then are we
to make of such apparently scientific statements as "The surface temperature
of the sun is 5770 degrees Kelvin"? We can't test that directly for its
empirical content. But that doesn't ultimately matter, says Ayer. We can
test it indirectly through other observations which are entailed by the
statement, and which we can test directly. Similarly, for example,
Einstein's Theory of Relativity remains a mere hypothesis until given
empirical content - in this case as when light was recently shown to "bend"
in the gravitational fields of stars as Einstein had predicted it would.
Similarly, Ayer and other Positivists would argue that most, if not all,
statements of Christian doctrine are without empirical content. Take the
Christian teaching about life after death and about heaven and hell as
examples. The Positivist counter to such teaching is, I think, hard if not
impossible to answer. It is to ask the simple question: "What evidence have
you for life after death and for heaven and hell?" Going to the Bible for
"evidence" only pushes the question a step further back: "What evidence have
you that what the Bible says about such matters is true?" The lack of such
evidence is palpable, since it is available only to the dead.
very well to show the limitations of language to express truth and that
certain propositions lack empirical content. For example the statement
This logical problem is red.
I dislike the colour red.
Therefore I must dislike this logical problem.
meets all of Ayer's criteria for being empirically meaningful. But it's
also clearly nonsense, even though it's logically correct.
elucidating the limitations of language doesn't mean that language is either
meaningless or useless. As C Southgate and others remark, adopting the
vigorous and undiscriminating application of logical positivism to language
... would condemn vast swathes of discourse as meaningless - in
particular metaphysics, religion, aesthetics and ethics.
By the 1950s many had begun to question the sharp and uncompromising
Positivist distinctions between science and metaphysics. Quine and others
contested the idea that "high-level" scientific statements can in fact be
unpacked into lower-level ones, even in principle. Further, they began
realising that our perceptions are "theory-laden" - by which they meant
that each of us inevitably experiences the world from his or her own,
unique vantage point. It could be put in this more stark form: "Any
observation of x is conditioned by our prior knowledge of x and its
There is therefore no such thing as an uncontaminated
scientific observation, regardless of whether or not it is called
"empirical". Indeed, there is no such thing, they would maintain, as an
identical perception held by two or more people. All in the last resort have
to accept at least that the only valid answer to "How long is this piece of
string?" is "However long I decide it is."
Thomas Kuhn elaborated this
sceptical outlook in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
He held most convincingly that even so-called objective scientists are
confined by ruling paradigms which determine what they can make of empirical
evidence. These paradigms change from time-to-time. Such changes
... cause scientists to see the world of their research-engagement
differently. Insofar as their only recourse to that world is through
what they see and do, we may want to say that after a [paradigm]
revolution scientists are responding to a different world.
This insight into the relativity of perceptions has proved highly
influential, despite those who have taken it to extremes in extravagant
positions generally included in the broad label "postmodernism". It seems
to be settling down now into a stance which acknowledges the absolute
relativity of individual perceptions, but nevertheless asserts that
it is possible and useful to use the scientific method to reach
provisional and temporary broad consensus about the reality which is
"out there" for each of us;
that conclusions reached by the scientific method are inevitably
provisional because (a) new evidence may come along, (b) our perceptions
may change, and (c) both may in turn change the paradigms through which
scientific consensus has been reached. Indeed, an experiment may in
theory yield identical conclusions when repeated a thousand times, and
yet vary significantly when performed the 1 001st time or the 1 000
and that, even though we can't exactly or permanently define or
describe the out-there-reality, it does exist. Aspects of it can be
accurately and permanently described, but we must always recognise that
such apparently "final" descriptions are partial and provisional. For
example, Einstein's relativity mathematics may be superceded by new
mathematics or physical data, but they nevertheless remain always true
in a limited sense.
One reaction to Positivism has been the attempt of some theologians to
cut free from its far-reaching influence by, in effect, asserting that the
essence of Christian faith lies beyond reason. Martin Luther reacted early
in this way by describing reason as "the great and mighty enemy of God" in
his Commentary on Galatians.
The greatest modern exponent of
this line was Karl Barth (1886-1965). Although his theology in total was
highly complex and changed throughout his long active life, it is fair to
say that for him revelation supercedes reason, continuing where the latter
fails. Faith, not reason, is ultimately the way to God. Reason can take us
only some of the way. A more recent example is that of the Roman Catholic
New Testament scholar John P Meier. He asserts that the gospels can and must
be relentlessly examined to determine their historicity. However, some
aspects of it, particularly those concerning the resurrection of Jesus from
death, are beyond the scope of history.
Another Christian reaction has
been to revert to what is generally called a fundamentalist position. This
dismisses Positivism by proclaiming that the contents of the Bible are God's
direct and unchangeable communication with humanity. Since God by definition
can neither lie nor mislead us, what the Bible tells us must be accepted
without reservation. Even if its contents contradict everything contained by
the analytical disciplines - including the physical sciences, history,
archeology, geology, anthropology, psychology and all the other modern
fields of knowledge - the Bible remains the final and absolute truth. Even
if analysis of its contents reveal many layers of origin and meaning, the
words of the Bible are without error.
The gradual breakdown of Christian
teachings in the 20th century, which continues apace in the 21st, can be
largely attributed to the insights of Positivists and their more moderate
successors such as Quine and Kuhn.
Whether or not the Positivist positions
will stand the test of time, what is plain is that they are rapidly (in
historical terms) penetrating the consciousness of humanity at large. In
this respect it should perhaps be noted that certain mental constructs are
remarkably resilient over great lengths of time. For example, Plato's
conclusion that our experience is only a reflection or "form" of what is
real and unchanging (the latter existing in what we would today call another
"dimension") has already been sustained for well over 2 000 years. It is
likely to continue for centuries to come.
Nevertheless, in what we today
call the West the idea is already deeply embedded that (a) this world as we
experience it is the only reality there is, and (b) that our constructs
about it need to be "tortured" to ensure their usefulness (validity). It has
taken some 300 years to reach this point. It will no doubt take another
several hundred before it is similarly embedded in the minds of a majority
of humanity as Plato's ideas have been.
The Positivist philosophy as
expounded by its early followers seems to have been judged too extreme by
many, perhaps a majority. But it has nevertheless given considerable clarity
in its modified and more moderate forms to the way in which the world is
perceived by increasing numbers of people worldwide.
 Truth and Reason in Science and Theology in God, Humanity
and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999