miriam berg

For several decades i have considered myself a logical positivist,| the concepts of which i learned primarily from my friend Buzzy Turner, who passed away in 1963, and also from my friend Bill Handley, who was a well-known fixture in Berkeley although most people knew him as "Santa Claus", because he wore a Santa Claus costume while collecting donations for the Berkeley Free Clinic in front of banks in downtown Berkeley. He had been a philosophy major in college and knew more about philosophical systems than anyone else i have ever met.

Although i have had this conviction, and have asserted it at many times and in many gatherings, i had not read anything by anyone who claimed to be a logical positivist or to explain it, so i did not have any kind of a reasoned basis for my assertion. It was enough for me, because it seemed to me to be irrefutable, to answer the question, "What is logical positivism?" by saying: It is the principle or belief that nothing needs to be accepted as true without evidence. To this day i still feel that that axiom is a true statement of my philosophy, or at least part of it.

In more recent years i have learned that the original basis for logical positivism was the axiom: Every statement is either true,| or false, or meaningless. In the 1980s Bill Handley explained to me that this axiom itself had been declared inadequate, because it was impossible to determine whether the statement itself was true, false,| or meaningless. I have also learned from reading modern books on philosophy, notably by Donald Palmer, that logical positivism is considered disproven and is generally rejected by modern philosophers,| because no one can figure out whether the axiom is true of itself.

But no one has yet showed me that my claim to a right to disbelieve any statement for which there is no evidence is invalid. It was forcefully asserted by Leucippus and Democritus in ancient Greece in the 5th century B.C.E., as follows: Nothing exists but atoms and empty space; all else is merely opinion. Now, is this statement itself merely opinion? probably yes, because there are many people whose opinion is different, that there are transcendental or spiritual things which exist as well as or within empty space and whirling atoms but are not themselves atoms or emptiness. Modern rationalists have attempted to show that even these things can be traced down to atomic and electronic forces, so as to "prove" Democritus' statement; but no one has yet shown that hope, and fear, and love, and choosing this instead of that or turning to the right or to the left can be derived from quantum mechanics.

So does that mean that i believe that those things have an existence as well as atoms and empty space, and that the statement by Leucippus and Democritus was wrong? To answer this, we probably need to arrive at a better understanding of those entities that are referred to by the words "hope", "fear", "love", and "choice". Let me only answer this question by saying, No; it only means that i do not believe that they can be derived from quantum mechanics, since that they are all examples of creaturely behavior, and cannot exist without creatures to exhibit them. Therefore the statement is still true that "All else is merely opinion", as long as we cannot identify those things without creatures to exhibit them.

Bill Handley often used to present the statement, "Triangles bend emotions", as an example of a meaningless statement, in the days that he himself considered himself a logical positivist. I used to argue that the statement was not meaningless, since it was possible to conceive of pictures or constructed objects of triangular shape to influence or "bend" people's emotions. That does not seem difficult to understand the statement to mean, so it does not seem meaningless to me. Sherlock Holmes once quoted "Life pheasant's hen" and "the of for" as meaningless, but it is difficult to consider those to be "statements", since they don't state anything.

However, the important point about the traditional axiom as stated for logical positivism which i wish to underline is that there is no statement which can be truly said to be meaningless, as long as it is composed of words for which the meanings of the words are understood and the grammatical structure is declarative, that is, that it is an assertion of something, in whatever form in whatever language expresses itself. Tik-tok's famous verbalization in L. Frank Baum's book "The Land of Oz": "...fizidigle cumsoluting hybergobble intuzibick" may in fact be meaningless, but it is not a statement in any known language, and might in fact have a meaning in clockwork language.

So i believe that this axiom should be restated as: All statements are either true or false or ambiguous. An ambiguous statement is one which may be true or may be false, but not enough information is given to determine which. Similarly, my own understanding of the useful side of logical positivism may be stated as: We are not obliged to believe any statement unless some evidence is given supporting that statement. This formulation is ambiguous within the tighter definition I have given, because we do not know for certain what "obligation" consists of. So all i can positively assert is that "Logical positivism means for me, that i am not obligated to believe any statement unless some evidence is given for that statement." Others may find this to be true for themselves as well, or as false for themselves, or as ambiguous; but it is not meaningless.

Let me now begin to discuss the concept of "visionary pragmatism" with you. Elsewhere i have written that i do not consider myself to be a mystic, or a mystical person, that is, someone who believes that there are things which can be known and experienced but not understood or explained. If it means that there is something or some things which exist but cannot be apprehended through the ordinary senses, well, i do not believe in that either, because there is no evidence for them which can be shown to me. But there have been friends, particularly in the Society of Friends to which i belong, who have responded to my claim that i am not a mystic by saying, Yes, you are, you just don't realize it.

Now i don't like to contradict people unless i have some evidence or basis for doing so, so i usually don't respond to that assertion about what i believe but don't realize it, especially after i have explained the kind of mystic i do not consider myself to be and they do not give me an alternate definition of what a mystic is so i can decide whether that definition fits me or not. But one lesson i have drawn from this occasional experience is, Perhaps other people know me better than i know myself, i don't know. This of course follows from one of my other principles, which is, One cannot be sure of anything. But i think that is merely a restatement of Leucippus' and Democritus' statement that all other than atoms and empty space is merely opinion. Isaac Azimov also formulated it as the Skeptic's Creed: I accept only what i am forced to accept by reasonably reliable evidence; and i keep that acceptance tentative pending the arrival of further evidence.