The Emergence of Logical Positivism

[] This post details on Logical Positivism, an issue raised briefly in section 2: Flawed Foundations of Modern Economics, in my paper on “Islam’s Gift: An Economy of Spiritual Development”. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, March 2019. Video (23m) was part of Lec 11 of Islamic Economics 2019 ( at IIIE, IIUI:

Summary of lecture on Emergence of Logical Positivism:

“Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Just as we cannot see our own faces, so some insights about European history are only easily visible to outsiders. The philosophy of logical positivism is one of these areas, where the internal European account of what it is and how it emerged is radically different from the external account I will present below. To put it in one sentence, this philosophy is an effort to make Science a Religion, and even the common religion of all mankind. The purpose of this post is to explain this point of view. First, we must start with the story of the loss of faith in Christianity in Europe. Again, there is a radical difference between the internal European account, and an external outsider perspective.

European Loss of Faith in Christianity

Internal, European Account: According to the internal, European account, Christianity (like all religions) was just a collection of superstitions: stories about unobservables like angels, God, afterlife, which were not empirically verifiable. When the Enlightenment began, Europeans learned to reason for the first time, and they understood that religion was just superstition. Then they rejected religion and have made tremendous progress by using the light of reason, instead of superstition. This cover story is extremely powerful, because it seems to be proven by the historical facts – Europeans conquered 85% of the globe by early 20th Century, proving their superior ability to reason, and demonstrating the validity of the cover story. De-constructing this story and providing a satisfactory counter-narrative requires hard work.

The External, non-European Account: The real story of how Europeans lost their faith in Christianity is far more complex. We aim to explain some crucial elements of it here.  In 1492 a triplet of climactic events occured with devastating consequences which continue to reverberate in the corridors of history. One: Columbus sailed for the Americas, giving Europeans access to vast lands and materials. Two: The Reconquest of Islamic Spain was completed, giving Europeans access to millions of books containing knowledge gathered from around the globe and developed in the Islamic Civilization; this sparked the Enlightenment. THREE: But most importantly for our current account, Rodrigo Borgia purchased the papacy in 1492 and named himself Alexander VI. (see European Transition to Secular Thought – This was a critical moment within a chain of events described in The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman in “Chapter Three – THE RENAISSANCE POPES PROVOKE THE PROTESTANT SECESSION: 1470–1530”. She writes that:

From roughly 1470 to 1530, … a succession of six popes (displayed) an excess of venality, amorality, avarice, and spectacularly calamitous power politics. Their governance dismayed the faithful, brought the Holy See into disrepute, left unanswered the cry for reform, ignored all protests, warnings and signs of rising revolt, and ended by breaking apart the unity of Christendom and losing half the papal constituency to the Protestant secession. Theirs was a folly of perversity, perhaps the most consequential in Western history, if measured by its result in centuries of ensuing hostility and fratricidal war.

The breakup of the church shattered the ideological unity of Europe and led to major wars, as well as political power struggles between Protestants and Catholics with extremes of cruelty towards each other. For example, one of the key fratricidal events was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre . All this bloodshed and violence between Protestants and Catholics led to public dis-enchantment with religion as whole, and the idea that religion is the root of all warfare and conflict. This idea is still prevalent among secular modern thinkers, although countless deadly twentieth century wars show it to be false.

Trauma of Loss of Faith

Loss of faith is massively traumatic event. A Creator who knows and cares for us, makes our lives meaningful, and the eternal perspective offers strong solace against temporary tragedies of our mundane existence. Bertrand Russell describes how accepting the cold, harsh and cruel universe requires us to build our lives “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” The trauma of loss of faith had a dramatic impact on European intellectuals, as we now describe.

Rejection of Heart and Soul: One of the most significant impacts of this trauma was the rejection of the HEART as a source of Knowledge. This is exemplified by Descartes’ logic: “I think therefore I am”, whereas “I feel therefore I am” related far more closely to our life experience. But this second statement was not acceptable. The heart had been proven to be a deceiver – it testified to the existence of God, and gave us faith in unknown and unknowable mysteries, and hence it must be rejected. Henceforth, the Enlightenment Philosophers vowed to never to trust their hearts, and instead, only trust what they could touch, and see, and arrive at with cold logic. They rejected the heart and intuition, and made a commitment to use of REASON and EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE only as sources of knowledge.

Deification of Science

When you reject religion, you lose answers to the most important questions we face in our lives, such as the meaning of our lives. As I have explained in “Origins of Western Social Sciences”, the Social Sciences originated in the attempt to find new answers to questions previously answered by religion. In particular, faith in religion was replaced by faith in Science: in the IDEA that science will solve all problems of mankind. This is, on the face of it, an absurdity; only the trauma of loss of faith can explain how one could come to believe such a thing. We lead unique lives, every human being is unique and distinct, and every moment that we experience is like none before, and none after. The idea that we should search over previous experience for patterns to guide us today, actually blinds us to the unique potentials which exist now, which never existed in the past, and will not exist in the future. The idea the “science” could be a guide in terms of teaching us how to live our lives and to realize our human potentials, is a non-starter. Nonetheless, having lost faith in their religion, Europeans had no option but to put their faith in the potential of science to solve human problems. This faith persists today, even though science has brought humanity to the brink of destruction via an environmental catastrophe.

The Philosophy of Science: The project to turn science into the new religion of man led to extreme distortions in European ways of thinking (see Deification of Science for links to many readings). In particular, it led to the search for a philosophy of science which would prove that ALL scientific knowledge – based on observations and logic alone, with no intuition and emotion involved – would lead to objective facts which were certain. The worship of science also led to the ELEVATION of objective over the subjective. Science is based on the sacred facts out there, and not on wishy washy subjective opinions which vary from person to person and can change whimsically.  In fact, this was a huge reversal of priorities. What is most important for you and me are the questions of how we should lead our lives; who to befriend, what to believe, how to behave. The answers are necessarily subjective and personal, dependent on local and unique circumstances and environment; they are not “scientific” – universal laws applicable to all. This most important knowledge was ruled to be un-important, subjective, normative, as part of the process of deification of science.

Emergence of Logical Positivism

It was these underlying trends that set the stage for the emergence of logical positivism. This philosophy asserts that all knowledge is based on observations and logic. Observations are objective, out there, verifiable, unquestionable and certain. Logic is the mortar we use to put together these bricks to construct the towering skyscrapers of scientific knowledge. The counterpart methodology to this worldview is the Axiomatic/Deductive scheme of geometry. Axioms come from observations and are CERTAIN. Logic leads to certainty in deductions.

Elimination of Unobservables: There were many technical problems with the idea that science was based only on observables and logic. Many scientific objects like gravity, electrons, magnetism, were not observable. For details about how these problems were resolved, see my paper on  Logical Positivism and Islamic Economics (December 30, 2013). International Journal of Economics, Management and Accounting, Vol 21, No. 2, pp1-18. The central device used by positivists was to replace unobservables by observable manifestations; for example, replace unobservable preferences by observable choices, or onobservable gravity by the observable elliptical orbits of planets. This point will be discussed in greater detail later. Logical Positivism achieved dual goal of philosophers of science, which European intellectuals had been searching for, for centuries. This philosophy showed that SCIENCE leads to truth and certainty. At the same time, RELIGION is pure superstition, because it is centrally based on unobservables. Because it fulfilled a DEEP psychological need of Western intellectuals, it became wildly popular and widely accepted, despite many fundamental weaknesses, which eventually led to its downfall.

One of the most important consequences of logical positivism was the elimination of morality from the scope of human knowledge. Since morality is a feeling of the heart, and is not observable or empirically verifiable, positivists said that there is no such thing – it does not exist. Every human being can feel whatever they feel according to their personal tastes and upbringing, regarding moral issues. This exclusion of morality from the realm of knowledge has had disastrous consequences. One of these consequences was the exclusion of morality from education; see The Higher Goals of Education. Recently, evidence has emerged that all human beings share common moral principles. Surveys show agreement over seven basic moral principles (and more evidence on agreements over moral judments is available – see literature on Fairness). This is in line with Islamic teachings that all human beings are born in Islam, which is the natural deen. Knowledge of morality is implanted in hearts of human beings as part of our nature.

(to be continued) –

This is complex topic, for which I have provided a thumbnail sketch of some important ideas which are not readily available elsewhere.  See European Transition to Secular Thought – for more details about how Europeans lost their faith in Christianity and the lessons that we Muslims should learn from this history. For more on LOGICAL POSITIVISM: My webpage linked below provides a large collection of links to articles related to various aspects of logical positivism

Collection of Articles & Video-Lectures on Logical Positivism

On the lighter side, I came across a great cartoon put-down of the Vienna Circle, which was responsible for the development of this philosophy.

This entry was posted in Eurocentric History, Historical Context of Economics, methodology, science by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

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