Books on Science and Religion #43: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part Two

Books on Science and Religion #43: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part Two

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 19, 2015

From my perspective, this is one of the most important blogs I’ve written (I’ve written nearly 180 of them here on Common Ground – a large number!). It’s not necessarily because of what it says, although there is some importance to the topic, but because of its personal significance.

This blog is important to me because it marks the end of a long journey started more than forty years when I became a Baha’i and needed to understand the relationship between science and religion. Was it acceptable to be religious in an age of science? Did God exist? What was the scientific authority of academics and leaders of thought who claimed that science showed religion to be meaningless? What was their reasoning? Was it true that science and religion were for the ignorant and untutored? Was religion a major contributor to the problems of the world?

My father was a college professor – and my mother a mathematics teacher – and I grew up on the college campus of a small, top-rated, science and engineering university – New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology – on the Rio Grande river in Socorro, New Mexico. Our neighbors were also families of professors – mainly from top universities around the world and often, as then was the case, from the left. It was almost apostasy to believe in religion.That was for the simple uneducated people in the valley below, a crutch. Yes, people went to church, but for social reasons, not because of belief.

Socorro Mountain
Socorro Mountain. Socorro is in the Rio Grande valley – to the left of the base of Socorro Mountain.

This blog, symbolically of course, is a return to the starting point of that personal journey, but now armed with knowledge and an understanding of why people believed as they did, and of why they embraced the tenets of logical positivism – which is what best represents collectively the predominant views of the professors that were my neighbors on the campus where I grew up, and also in academia around the world.

Equally importantly, I now know why the Europeans, and then the Russians, and then the Japanese, and then many other peoples around the world rejected religion and embraced the idea of scientific progress and scientism as its replacement, unaware of the dangers of materialism presented by an uncritical embrace of everything that represented itself as science.

Those dangers – encapsulated in the extraordinary terrors of social Darwinism, in the mass starvations and pogroms against its own peoples in the “scientific” materialisms of communist dictatorships, of colonialism and other aspects of materialistic empire building, in the production of weaponry of incredible destructive power and its deployment worldwide, and most of all as the failure to balance progress in the economic aspects of life with progress in the spiritual and ethical aspects of life – are both the record of the 20th century and the challenges of the 21st.

logical positivism 2Yes, the science and its methods that my family and my neighbors embraced is an essential part of the future. But, we need to add sound principles of spiritual development and ethical and moral advancement if that future is not to be bleak and dark.

But lets talk about the logical positivism that was the faith of my fathers.

Logical Positivism

Despite its failures – logical positivism – also known as logical empiricismis one of the most important and interesting philosophical movements of the 20th century, in part because of its importance to the modern American philosophical tradition and to current philosophy of science. It had its beginnings in Vienna in World War I when various mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers formed a discussion group that later came be known as the Vienna Circle. The Viennese origins of logical positivism are important, according to the Stanford article on logical empiricism because

World War I was an unmitigated disaster for central Europe that was followed by the economic turmoil of the 20s and the political upheavals of the 30s. It is hard to exaggerate these changes. Monarchies that had stood for centuries disappeared overnight and their empires disintegrated. This level of political convulsion had not been seen since the French Revolution, and that earlier upheaval was comparatively confined.

One result of these convulsions was the widespread conviction, shared by the Vienna circle, that old ways of thinking were inadequate and that reform was sorely needed:

The logical empiricists were [convinced] that their cultures were incapable of the necessary reform and renewal because people were in effect enslaved by unscientific, metaphysical ways of thinking. Such ways of thinking might be exemplified in theology, in the racial hatreds of the day, in conceptions of property, and in traditional ideas about the “proper” roles of men and women in society. So to articulate a “scientific world conception” and to defend it against metaphysics was not just to express an academic position in the narrow sense. It was a political act as well; it was to strike a blow for the liberation of the mind.

logical positivismIt wasn’t the first time that reform was expected to come from the artillery of science. Those in the Vienna circle believed that

to articulate scientific methods and a scientific conception of philosophy was the essential first step in the reform of society and in the emancipation of humankind. If all of this sounds like something out of the 18th century Enlightenment, the analogy was not lost on the logical empiricists themselves.

Stuart Greenstreet, writing in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, summarizes some of the logical positivist’s technical perspective. Central to logical positivist thinking was the principle of verification, acquired from Wittgenstein. Here is how Friedrich Waismann, one of the leading members of the Vienna Circle, saw it:

If there is no way of telling when a proposition is true, then the proposition has no sense whatever; for the sense of a proposition is its method of verification. In fact whoever utters a proposition must know under what conditions he will call the proposition true or false; if he cannot tell this, then he does not know what he has said.

What this means is that if we don’t have a way to verify a statement, this raises questions about its meaningfulness.

So the principle of verification was supposed to be a criterion to determine whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful: and the criterion was that the user must know the conditions under which the sentence´s assertions are verifiable.

To illustrate, suppose I say that God exists. Then the question is whether or not I have good reasons to believe in the existence of God. This, of course, is reasonable provided that we don’t forcefully add additional unreasonable requirements. But if we go a step further and say that the proof has to be strictly empirical, then we are doing logical positivism. Or as Greenstreet puts it, the doctrine:

… drew a line of demarcation between science and what the Circle´s members pejoratively called `metaphysics´ – a word they used as a synonym for `nonsense´. Their principle of verification meant that only propositions concerned with matters of empirically-verifiable fact (`It is still raining´), or the logical relationship between concepts (`A downpour is heavier than a shower´) are meaningful. Propositions that fall into neither of these camps fail to satisfy the principle, they argued, and consequently lack sense.

It follows, therefore, that the propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and religion, are meaningless nonsense. The same would be said for any proposition that expressed a judgement of value as distinct from propositions solely concerned with facts.

NPG x163793; Sir Alfred Jules Ayer by Walter BirdIn other words, the logical positivist ruled out the idea that metaphysical ideas – or religious belief – involved factual propositions, invoking Wittgenstein’s arguments about what was philosophical or not.

A.J. Ayer

One of the strongest proponents of logical positivism – and the man responsible for its initial popularity in Britain and the United State – was A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989). From a wealthy half-Jewish continental family living in England, he arrived at Oxford at the age of 18 and soon devoured Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Shortly thereafter he was off to Vienna where he managed to join the Vienna Circle and the watch the unfolding development of logical positivism. Returning to England, he wrote Language, Truth and Logic, an extraordinarily influential book and a classic of modern analytic philosophy:

Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). The principle was at the time at the heart of the debates of the so-called Vienna Circle which Ayer visited as a young guest. Others, including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick, were already offering their own papers on the issue. Ayer’s own formulation was that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical import, otherwise it is either “analytical” if tautologous, or “metaphysical” (i.e. meaningless, or “literally senseless”). He started to work on the book at the age of 23 and it was published when he was 26.

Nick Spencer in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, summarizes Ayer’s stance on religion and atheism as follows:

In it he argued (or, perhaps, asserted) that, as all religious language was unverifiable, it was all basically nonsense. Because it couldn’t be verified one way or the other, the statement ‘there is a God’ was literally meaningless. In the fashion of Moore’s sophisticated self-definition, Ayer rejects the label atheist just as he did theist, as to do otherwise would, in his mind, have been to grant God-talk a legitimacy it didn’t have.

AJAYERbLanguage, Truth, and Logic brought Ayer enormous success and galvanized a whole generation of philosophers. Hilary Spurling, writing in the New York Time, summarizes Ayer’s style as follows:

Ayer belonged to an empirical, anti-authoritarian generation in vehement revolt against an enfeebled, overblown and contaminated metaphysical tradition. Far from laying down the law, he sought to streamline, modernize and cut back the role of philosophy. He insisted it had no business offering guidance on moral or ethical choices.

Logical positivism was to be the scientific and functional equivalent of Bauhaus design in engineering and architecture. It responded to the brutal political realities of the 1930’s in ways more conventional thinking could not manage. Wittgenstein, spoken of in some quarters as a second Christ or Pythagoras, was its secular high priest.

God, it seems, was dead again. (The death of God seems to be a oft-repeated theme in the Christian world.  Apparently, it started with the crucifixion.)  And atheism was in the ascendant:

This was arguably the apex of British philosophical atheism, the logical (as it were) conclusion of atheist ideas critiquing all forms of God-talk that went back to the seventeenth century. It wasn’t so much the final nail in God’s coffin as the denial there had been body to bury in the first place. It was not, however, to last.

implosionThe Collapse of Logical Positivism – and the Collapse of an Atheist Philosophic Tradition

The story of the collapse of the logical positivism has been told many times and in many ways. Nick Spencer brings a succinct and interesting spin to the tale, describing it not only as the collapse of logical positivism, but as the collapse of a major European atheistic philosophic tradition as well.

As in so much of 20th century philosophy, the story starts with Wittgenstein. Returning to philosophy – and Cambridge – in 1929, he decided that the problems of philosophy needed some more work:

Wittgenstein … turned sharply against his former self and made it quite clear the ideas on which the Vienna Circle, Ayer and logical positivism were built were simply wrong.

But more than that:

Independent of Wittgenstein’s change of direction, logical positivism, triumphant for a while, died a sudden death. Post-war philosophers attacked its basic tenets and although these attacks did nothing to rehabilitate God, they did cut the ground from beneath his over-confident detractors.

Even A.J. Ayer admitted the failure of logical positivism, albeit belatedly:

Ayer himself was naturally reluctant to recognize the demise but even he finally acknowledged what was, by the end of his philosophical career, obvious. When asked by philosopher Bryan Magee, mid-1970s, what he now thought were the defects of logical positivism, he admitted, ‘Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.’

beyond positivismSpencer draws an interesting conclusion from this. Logical positivism, he argues, was the “conclusion of atheist ideas critiquing all forms of God-talk that went back to the seventeenth century.” Effectively, logical positivism put atheistic arguments into a sound, logical, and a modern philosophical format using Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic and newly developed analytical techniques. The demise of logical positivism – something that was widely clear in the 1950s – meant therefore the end of an era for an important atheistic tradition:

The abrupt death of logical positivism marked the end of one of the most significant atheist philosophical traditions, one that was as old as modern European atheism itself. Hobbes, Spinoza D’Holbach, Naigeon, Bentham and many others not so philosophically inclined had all, in their own way, argued that theology was nonsense, treating the mystical as if it were real, the mythical as if it were material.

The decline and fall of this philosophical argument was a blow for atheism. Indeed, given the way the argument had long provided the basis for the more substantive attack on spiritual power – religion was wicked because corrupt priests based their power on mythical claims about God and the soul – it was a deeper wound than the merely philosophical.

Summary and Conclusions

The failure of logical positivism – and the fact that logical positivists themselves in the main came to reject it – suggests strongly, as Nick Spencer implies – that there are no sound philosophical grounds and no sound scientific grounds for rejecting religion.  So, when a modern outspoken atheist says that science proves religion to be wrong and that God does not exist, he or she is not speaking accurately about the matter. There are no scientific proofs that God does not exist. There are only opinions.

Now, we could go further than this, and maybe we should. If a scientist – or anybody else for that matter – tells us that science proves that God doesn’t exist or that religion is without a basis, we should ask her or him to give us their evidence. If they can’t provide believable evidence – and I know of none today who can – we must accept that with respect to the issue of religion they are being unscientific. They are substituting belief – their own or their imitation of the belief of others – for science.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we start on the final leg of our journey though atheism – the new or militant atheism.


This is the 43rd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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