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Logical Positivism

David Cowles

Dec 1, 2023

“Following the science, LP assumes that the same act, performed under the same conditions, will always produce the same result…it’s true, precisely 0% of the time!”

It’s October 2023, and Norwegian novelist and playwright, Jon Fosse, is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In naming Fosse, the Nobel Committee cited “his innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unsayable.” 

But isn’t that the function of all literature? Of all language even? According to Heidegger, art is what empowers us to see the world in new ways. As a certain poet (Keats) once said, “Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty.” Language is ‘saying’. If language says it, then it’s said, and therefore obviously was never really ‘unsayable’.   

When I was in college, Logical Positivism (LP) was the philosophy du jour. It presented a view of the world that was embraced by academic philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic. The justly renowned Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote LP’s Bible (Tractatus)…before he repudiated it years later in Philosophical Investigations.  

According to LP, propositions (sentences) have meaning if, and only if, they are subject to ‘falsification’ via the scientific method. Undoubtedly, such propositions do have a special semantic character, but they represent a tiny fraction of the things human beings yearn to say to one another about their lived experience.  

According to the tenets of LP, propositions that cannot be falsified are just meaningless strings of words. ‘To be’, Hamlet, is to be consequential. There is no being without consequences. If we cannot identify the consequences of an Act, why should we assume that there was an Act in the first place? Where there’s smoke, there isn’t always fire! We are rewriting Descartes: “I am, therefore I am engaged; I am engaged, therefore I am.” 

In elementary school, we were taught that sentences are meaningful if and only if they link words selected from a culturally shared lexicon according to patterns that conform to a culturally shared syntax. 

Later in life, we learn that such rules are arbitrary. New words are coming into our language all the time from all sorts of different sources. Also, strings of words can often be meaningful even if they don’t conform perfectly to ‘the rules of grammar’.  

Only the most conservative critic would argue that James Joyce’s two great novels, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, are meaningless, even though the former includes copious neologisms, and the latter is barely recognizable as English.  

And then there’s ‘poetry’! When a writer uses language ‘poetically’ (in the broadest possible sense of the word), no hard and fast rules apply…ever. The author and the reader come together virtually, of course, and agree on a vocabulary and grammar that are meaningful to them. If you find my writing gibberish, and many do, that’s ok by me, as long as ‘some of my readers are able to tease some of my meaning out of some of my articles’. (Pseudo-Lincoln) 

I think most of us would agree that the most of the important propositions we’ve encountered in life would not pass LP’s Turing Test: I love you; thou shalt not kill; this sunset is gorgeous. Superficially, LP might be appealing. After all, if a proposition claims to be true, why shouldn’t it undergo rigorous verification? Why should I pay any attention to assertions that cannot be verified? It’s 2023—we ‘follow the science’ — now! 

The exclusion of so-called ‘slang’ and ‘poetry’ from the semantic universe is a heavy price to pay for scientific precision, but it is far from LP’s deepest flaw:  

Propositions refer to events. Every event is unique. If an event were not unique, it would not be an ‘event’. Following the science, LP assumes that the same act, performed under the same conditions, will always produce the same result…that is essence of science, and of course, it’s true, precisely 0% of the time!  

Repetition is an approximation. An experiment creates ‘information’ only to the extent that the results deviate from expectations. Every event has something in common with every other event, but no event has everything in common with any other event.  

So, is this the ultimate irony or what? LP is based on the truth criteria of science, which in turn rely entirely on the usually unstated but always false ‘axiom of repeatability’.    

A little reflection will likely lead you to conclude that it is precisely those ‘excluded propositions’ that embody the real content of our lives. The thrill of contemplating a remarkable sunset is for most of us a more important aspect of life than the satisfaction of calculating the precise boiling point of water. 

According to LP, ‘meaningful propositions’ are propositions that can ultimately be reduced to algorithms of the form, ‘if x, then y’. Conceivably, every such ‘verifiable proposition’ could be programmed into a relational database and then downloaded onto a mechanical platform (e.g., a computer).    

While such a result might be beyond our current capabilities, the project itself is certainly conceivable. That would make ‘living life’ a superfluous exercise. At the very moment when we are discovering that reflective consciousness is liberally distributed throughout the biosphere (and possibly beyond), LP comes along and says we don’t need reflective consciousness after all. ‘We don’t need no lived experience.’ (Pseudo-Pink Floyd) We can know everything that there is to know algorithmically. 

Can you stand another twist? This is beginning to sound like an episode of Big Brother (CBS).  In fact, we know that the assumptions underlying LP are falsifiable! For example, LP was supposed to rescue the concept of Truth from the machinations of skeptics and nihilists. LP allowed us to answer Pontius Pilate’s dismissive question, “What is truth?” It’s simply the set of all verifiable propositions (above).  

The only problem with this is that we know that no algorithm can generate the set of all true propositions (Godel). Far from rescuing Truth, LP is incompatible with it! 

Likewise, we know that no two events are ever identical; if they were, they would be one event. Sure, events can closely resemble one another, and that may be good enough for government work, but it doesn’t satisfy us philosophically. The soul of the scientific method is repeatability, but no real-world event can ever be repeated. 

Finally, we increasingly suspect that the fundamental building blocks of Universe are not objects or even events but patterns. Contrary to what we said above, patterns can be congruent. So, have we rescued LP after all? ‘Fraid not! Congruent patterns are not identical patterns. 

Congruence may be serial or scalar: (1) ‘serial congruence’ refers to identical patterns that have different locations in spacetime; (2) ‘scalar congruence’ refers to patterns that are identical but on different scales. Examples: (1) a box of ball bearings; (2) atom, cell, or solar system. 

BTW, did you hear the one about the atom, the cell, and the solar system that walked into a bar? The bartender couldn’t tell them apart. That’s scalar congruence. To the extent that Universe displays scalar congruence, we say that it has a ‘holographic structure’ and consists of ‘fractals’.   


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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