I was reading an obituary in the N.Y. Times written for a Harvard philosopher whose “influence ranged widely across many fields of thought, including mathematical logic, philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and metaphysics,” Hilary Putnam.
The obit stated “Early on, Professor Putnam studied with Hans Reichenbach, a leading proponent of logical positivism, the school of thought, now in disrepute, that maintains that the only basis of knowledge is that which can be scientifically verified. But Professor Putnam argued against it, offering a course at Harvard in “nonscientific knowledge,” encompassing the wisdom that comes from aesthetics, ethics and religion.”
Ah, “the wisdom that comes from aesthetics, ethics, and religion.” And, what, pray tell, is that exactly? Aesthetics is an attempt to provide structure for what people “like” to see, hear, taste, etc. Are there any absolute aesthetic principles or are these just pronouncements about “what I like” by this or that person? Ethics, a study of various systems of ethics created by various people and institutions that, again, seems to be statements about “how I want other people to behave.” There is even a strong core of what is called “situational ethics,” which is telling in itself that while there may be agreements here and there, none of the agreed upon statements are strong enough to say they are factual. And, then … religion. Is their any congruence that we can point to between or among the world’s religions that we might be able to point to as being universal wisdom. I suggest not. (I keep challenging anybody to make a clear, definitive statement of what “Christian ethics” are. I especially would like to know what makes them Christian, as all such utterances I have encountered to date pre-existed Christianity.)
The obituary went on to highlight a favorite tool of this worthy philosopher, that of the “thought experiment.” This was the description of one such experiment he made prominent:
“In a 1975 paper called “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” Professor Putnam further illustrated his argument with a famous thought experiment called Twin Earth. He imagined a planet alongside our own that was a facsimile in almost every way, including holding a replica of each person. The only difference on Twin Earth was its water. Though it looks like H2O, tastes like H2O, fills the lakes, rivers and oceans and performs the same functions as H2O, Twin Earth’s water had a different chemical makeup, abbreviated as XYZ.
“Therefore, if an earthling named, say, Oscar, were to travel to Twin Earth and visit his doppelgänger, Twin Oscar, when they referred to water, they would actually be talking about two different things, even though they appeared to be the same. Because Oscar and Twin Oscar are identical in every way, including their thoughts at a given time, Professor Putnam argued, meaning cannot simply be a function of what is formulated in someone’s head.”
A logical positivist could have pointed out the obvious error in Professor Putnam’s “Twin Earth” thought experiment. His mistake is in building his two Earths with one difference: in the invented Earth, water has a different chemical structure, unspecified other than as XYZ. Had the professor known a little bit of chemistry, he would have known that what makes chemicals different is their chemical structure. If you have a substance whose formula is different from H2O, it is not water, nor does it behave like water. There are variants of water in which the hydrogen atoms are replaced by isotopes that are rarer forms than “ordinary” hydrogen. One such is “heavy water” in which the hydrogen atoms are replaced by deuterium atoms (making the molecule heavier, but keeping its molecular structure quite the same as ordinary water). If you were to drink this smallest variant of the substance water, it would kill you. What the professor describes is an impossible magical “different water” and therefore any conclusion he might come to from this experiment is quite bankrupt. When we think water we are referring to just one chemical substance which cannot be anything else. And this we have formulated in our heads.
The author of the obituary claims that logical positivism is in “disrepute” and I suggest that that is a problem. The source of the disrepute comes from those who wish to engage in magical thinking and have things they way they want them to be rather than what they are.
In the U.S. right now there is massive anti-intellectual sentiment. Just look at our politicians who begin every sentence on a scientific topic with “Well, I am no scientist, but …” Just look at the people who are trusted to lead our governments. President Obama is an outlier, most of the rest are what might be charitably characterized as “far from brilliant,” and Representative Louie Gommert of Texas … well he is an outlier, too, but closer to the norm than is the President. We would be better served if we took a longer look at the merits of logical positivism. And we will be better served, I predict, now that scientists are spending more time investigating things like ethics, wisdom, knowledge, religion, etc. Long the purview of “social scientists” these topics will benefit from some rigorous scrutiny from real scientists. And, possibly much like biblical archeology, some of these topics may disappear altogether as being no longer necessary or defensible.