Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

In spite of the empiricist trend of modern science, the quest for certainty, a product of the theological orientation of philosophy, still survives in the assertion that some general truths about the future must be known if scientific predictions are to be acceptable.  It is hard to see what would be gained by the knowledge of such general truths…How does it help to know that similar event patterns repeat themselves, if we do not know whether the pattern under consideration is one of them? In view of our ignorance concerning the individual event expected, all general truths must appear as illusory supports.  The aim of knowing the future is unattainable; there is no demonstrative truth informing us about future happenings. Let us therefore renounce the aim, and renounce, too, the critique that measures the attainable in terms of that aim.

Hans Reichenbach – The Theory of Probability (1949)

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personal traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

In his classic book Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory (1938) Terence W. Hutchison  makes the case for economics as an empirical science.

An interesting aspect about this book is the ease with which Terence W. Hutchison uses logical empiricist authors like Moritz Schlick, Rudulf Carnap, and Otto Neurath but also the “critical rationalist” Karl Popper in making his case for the testability of economic theories.

On a number of occasions Rudolf Carnap himself has drawn attention to Popper’s habit of exaggerating the differences between his work and the logical empiricists. Historians of philosophy, or at least those with little training in the philosophy of science, have often followed Popper in his views while ignoring the quite substantial agreements between the logical positivists and Popper on topics such as the unity of scientific method and their common objective to find criteria to distinguish science from other activities.

In hindsight, Popper’s compulsive need to distance himself from the logical positivists has harmed his own project more than he could have anticipated. The traditions of thinking and social inquiry that Popper railed against, and hoped to defeat by his non-justificationist philosophy and falsification criterion, were often identified as problematic by the logical positivists as well. It is rare to find a philosopher or social scientist dealing in obscurantism and anti-empiricism who rejects logical positivism but praises Karl Popper’s demarcation between science and non-science and his views on falsifiability.

But until the dominant reception of logical empiricism as a monolithic enterprise with little more to offer than its verification principle persists it is doubtful that the broader concerns of Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper will receive the attention they deserve. A promising start would be for philosophers to seriously engage with the work of Carnap instead of judging it on the basis of Karl Popper’s views. For example, in his later writings Carnap recognized both the problems with the classic verification principle and Popper’s falsification  principle and proposed a more liberal criterion of confirmability. As Carnap would be the first to recognize, this proposal may turn out to be either too liberal or too restrictive after detailed analysis, and further refinement may be necessary. Last, but not least, Carnap is also an admirable example of how one can do philosophy of science without (political) hyperbole.

Most contemporary philosophers and social scientists have little interest and understanding of logic or the physical sciences and  therefore have little to offer to those who want to understand the philosophical aspects of knowledge. The following five books have been written by thinkers who have a great respect for science and the importance of empirical observation. With the exception of one book, no 21st century thinkers are featured to ensure that hype is not mistaken for importance.

(1) Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951) is one of the best 20th century books on philosophy. The author shows how speculative and rationalist philosophy has been gradually replaced by the natural sciences. Writing from a consistent empiricist perspective, Reichenbach proposes that the lack of progress in philosophy is due to philosophers asking themselves questions that could only have been answered by the experimental method and the tools of modern logic. In the chapter about induction Reichenbach answers David Hume’s skepticism about causality and proposes a pragmatic justification of induction.

(2) Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is a classic and accessible exposition of logical positivism (or logical empiricism) by an English philosopher. Logical positivism is a school of thought in philosophy that is strongly shaped by the advances in physics and mathematics and seeks to eliminate metaphysics and meaningless statements from philosophy. Like most other philosophers in this tradition, Ayer kept refining his views throughout his life but always remained committed to the objectives of the original Vienna Circle.

(3) Rudolf Carnap was the most important exponent of logical positivism but his writings are of such an abstract and technical nature that most fellow philosophers and scientists are only familiar with his early popular statements of the positions of the Vienna Circle. A notable exception to his demanding work is his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1966) which is based on a seminar Carnap taught on the philosophy of the physical sciences. This book is not only valuable for its rigorous treatment of the philosophical foundations of physics but also represents a good summary of the views of the late Carnap.

(4) Bertrand Russell is among the most popular philosophers of the 20th century and had little reservations about speaking his mind on topics ranging from atheism to marriage. Unlike most philosophers that work in the analytic tradition, Russell had a great interest in the history of philosophy which would find its destination in his monumental and rich A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell attempts to treat the thinking of most philosophers he discusses with respect but the mindset of a logician and scientist is ever present, making this book one of the few available histories of philosophy from a (sometimes reluctant) empiricist perspective. The book does suffer from Russell’s highly subjective approach in some chapters, notably his rather melodramatic treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

(5) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) is not a book on philosophy but the general approach that informs his book about the role of chance in life and markets is informed by a thorough skepticism about our claims to knowledge. As a “skeptical empiricist” Taleb stands bemused at the urge of humans to seek and detect patterns everywhere and our illusions about control. Taleb’s work received a lot of well deserved attention after the 2008 financial crisis but his distinct epistemological views still receive little attention.

Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy is among the most accessible and illuminating statements of logical empiricism. Although the book can be read as an introduction to philosophy, the central message of the work is that most of what constitutes philosophy is either (outdated) pre-scientific speculation or incoherent reasoning.

One of the most powerful chapters in the book is  about evolution. Reichenbach starts by contrasting the inorganic world, which obeys the laws of physics, with the organic world, which is goal directed. But then he goes on to show that the semblance of design and purpose can be accounted for by an evolutionary explanation, and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to physical phenomena. We do not need two separate sciences to account for non-living and living phenomena and can have a unified science about matter. Anticipating synthetic biology, Reichenbach suggests that future science should be able to create life through purposeful manipulation of inorganic matter.  Then Reichenbach moves from the evolution of the microworld to the evolution of the universe and reviews how contemporary findings in physics and astronomy affect questions about the past and the future of the universe.

Throughout his discussion of the relationship of science and philosophy, Reichenbach presents a number of distinct logical positivist positions:

It has become a favorite argument of antiscientific philosophies that explanation must stop somewhere, that there remain unanswerable questions. But the questions so referred to are constructed by a misuse of words. Words meaningful in one combination may be meaningless in another. Could there be a father who never had a child? Everyone would ridicule a philosopher who regarded this question as a serious problem. The question of the cause of the first event, or of the cause of the universe as a whole, is not of a better type. The word “cause” denotes a relation between two things and is inapplicable if only one thing is concerned. The universe as a whole has no cause, since, by definition, there is no thing outside of it that could be its cause. Questions of this type are empty verbalisms rather than philosophical arguments.

At the end of the chapter, Reichenbach criticizes the widespread view that there are other means of establishing knowledge which can answer questions that science cannot:

The elimination of meaningless questions from philosophy is difficult because there exists a certain type of mentality that aspires to find unanswerable questions. The desire to prove that science is of a limited power, that its ultimate foundations depend on faith rather than on knowledge, is explainable in terms of psychology and education, but finds no support in logic. There are scientists who are proud of when their lectures on evolution conclude with a so-called proof that there remain questions unanswerable for the scientist. The testimony of such men is often invoked as evidence for the insufficiency of a scientific philosophy. Yet it proves merely that scientific training does not always equip the scientist with a backbone to withstand the appeal of a philosophy that calls for submission to faith. He who searches for truth must not appease his urge by giving himself up to the narcotic of belief. Science is its own master and recognizes no authority beyond its confines.

This passage raises the important question of whether the position of logical empiricism is self-applicable. The same issue has been encountered by critical rationalists. One “solution” to this challenge is to make critical rationalism coherent by holding all positions open to criticism, including critical rationalism itself. This approach, called “pancritical rationalism” or “comprehensive critical rationalism,” has been proposed by the philosopher William Warren Bartley in his book  The Retreat to Commitment. Bartley’s solution has been criticized for producing logical paradoxes and its vacuous nature. Hans Reichenbach response was to develop a distinct probabilistic account of knowledge to avoid some of the remaining “rationalist” tendencies in contemporary empiricism.

Logical positivism found itself in the peculiar situation of struggling with its own internal consistency while at the same time seeing many of its basic tenets reflected in contemporary scientific practice.  One of Hans Reichenbach’s projects was to develop a scientific account of philosophy to resolve this situation.

In ‘The Rise of Scientific Philosophy’ the logical positivist philosopher Hans Reichenbach writes:

In Leibniz’s philosophy the rational side of modern science has found its most radical representation. The successful use of mathematical methods for the description of nature made Leibniz believe that all science can be ultimately transformed into mathematics. The idea of determinism, of a universe that passes through its stages like a wound clock, appealed to him because it meant that physical laws are mathematical laws.  He applied this idea in one of the strangest creations of rationalism, in his doctrine of preestablished harmony. According to him, the minds of different persons do not interact with each other; the semblance of such interaction is produced because the different minds, in their predetermined courses, go continuously through stages strictly corresponding to each other, like different clocks that keep the same time without being causally connected.

In 1950 the writer Fritz Leiber writes an urban horror novel titled ‘You’re all alone(later expanded in an adulterated edition called ‘The Sinful Ones’) which deals with the slightly different premise that the world is a mindless machine and the main character is the only person alive. At one point we read:

What if Marcia weren’t really alive at all, not consciously alive, but just a part of a dance of mindless atoms, a clockworks show that included the whole world, except himself? Merely by coming a few minutes ahead of time, merely by omitting to shave, he had broken the clockworks rhythm. That was why the clerk hadn’t spoken to him, why the operator had been asleep, why Marcia didn’t greet him. It wasn’t time yet for those little acts in the clockworks show.

Fritz Leiber’s novel weaves together solipsism (the idea that one’s own mind is all that exists) and Leibniz’ view of pre-established harmony in which “windowless nomads” follow their own internal logic but produce the semblance of communication.

Not much information about Leiber’s novel can be found on the internet at this time. Which should be remedied because Fritz Leiber was one of the pioneers of the genre of urban/philosophical horror which would later find a powerful expression in the works of authors like Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels.