11 June 2017

Positivism & freedom's extinction

The rise and consolidation of positivism in the latter half of the 19th century signalled the death knell of philosophy and with it the extinction of human being AS such as a matter for thought. Encyclopaedia Brittanica provides a succinct definition: "The basic affirmations of positivism are (1) that all knowledge ... is based on the 'positive' data of experience and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics. ... On the negative and critical side, the positivists became noted for their repudiation of metaphysics — i.e., of speculation regarding the nature of reality that radically goes beyond any possible evidence  that could either support or refute such 'transcendent' knowledge claims."

This positivist stance was associated initially with Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, the social science that like no other serves as an Ersatz for philosophy today. It proceeded, via a detour resuscitating Kant as a mere epistemologist, to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and the early Wittgenstein who, in turn, served as the go-between enabling the merger between positivism and today's hegemonic analytic philosophy first announced by Russell and Whitehead at the turn of the twentieth century. Positivist-analytic philosophy is that mode of modern Western thinking which has capitulated to modern mathematico-empirical science. Facts (empirical data) are good. So are formal logic and mathematics. What's bad is metaphysical speculation. The very word, 'speculation', becomes with positivism a term of abuse for unfounded, and thus fanciful, ideas. Originally, however, 'speculatio' was the Latin rendering of Greek _theoria_ as practised by Aristotle in his Metaphysics: the inquiry into _to on haei on_, into beings AS beings. Both terms, 'speculatio' and _theoria_ derive from roots meaning 'to look'. Philosophically meant originally learning to look closely at the apparently most self-evident phenomena.

What positivist-analytic philosophy understands by metaphysics as "'transcendent' knowledge claims" is most often understood as speculation about a transcendent being beyond the physical called God. This speculation about the divine is what interested Christian theology from the outset in its appropriation and distorting adaptation of Aristotle's thinking. In turn, the transition from medieval philosophy, which is basically Christian theology, to the Modern Age, was a centuries-long philosophical struggle against theological thinking in favour of empirical evidence for knowledge gathered and mathematically processed by the modern human being cast AS the underlying subject of all knowledge. Philosophy becomes at core epistemology. With this shift in Western thinking, the original Greek meaning of 'subject', i.e. the _hypokeimenon_ that presents itself to view to be addressed AS such by humans, is turned upside down. The original Greek subject becomes the object of modern subjective experience in interior consciousness! Today this world-shaking inversion as such has long since been forgotten and suppressed.  All modern philosophy since Descartes via Kant to positivist analytic philosophy is philosophy of subjective consciousness vis-à-vis an external, objective world. The single exception is Heidegger's thinking which  — how could it be otherwise when power is at stake? — is vituperatively denounced and forcefully suppressed employing all contumelious means available. Consciousness replaces that which was known to Greek thinking as _psychae_ and _nous_, L.: 'anima' and 'mens'.

Positivist-analytic philosophy is oblivious to the ambiguity inherent in Aristotle's Metaphysics, whose latter part deals with _epistaemae theologikae_, i.e. theological knowledge. The former, major part of Metaphysics investigates _physei onta_, i.e. physical beings themselves, not any 'transcendent' beings at all! As an inquiry into the being of beings AS such, the former books of the Metaphysics deal with the simplest, most inconspicuous phenomena associated with ordinary, everyday beings (_pragmata_) which are preconceived in multiple ways AS beings prior to any empirically-based science getting under way. Such ontological preconceptions are the tacit presuppositions for any empirical science whatsoever. In particular, the phenomena of movement are brought to crucial concepts in an ontology of movement that represents the apex of Aristotle's thinking that brought to culmination ancient Greek thinking on the perplexing phenomena of movement AS such.

Of the three fundamental ontological concepts of movement (_dynamis, energeia, entelecheia_) studied in depth in the Metaphysics, two have been borrowed in an excruciatingly superficial manner by modern science without thinking twice about this thoughtless misappropriation. Nevertheless, without this appropriation of metaphysical (or better: ontological) concepts of movement AS such, there would be no modern science as all! Positivist-analytical philosophy thoroughly confuses ontology and theology.  For it, ontology is the philosophy of existence, i.e. that things exist. It never poses the question as to the meaning of existence itself, i.e. what being means, but takes existence as a self-evident fact, like any empirical fact. At most, analytic ontology undertakes a taxonomy of beings, becoming thus a dry and empty enterprise. Completely lost is the depth of Aristotle's deepest thinking that struggled to philosophically, i.e. ontologically, comprehend the being of _kinoumena_, that is, of beings that can move and change which comprise all physical beings. The ontological difference between beings and their being AS such is fundamentally denied as if it were just one more unfounded "transcendent speculation" like 'speculating' about the 'existence' of a Supreme Being. But the ontological difference concerns those subtle preconceptions that enable the human mind to understand beings AS beings. Hence, not 'transcendent' but prior.

The ontological difference is the site where human freedom itself resides. Why? For it enables the world in its fundamental ontological structure to be seen AS such, and this AS as an historical cast of being is what enables each of us to act from his or her own individual starting-point proceeding from a guiding understanding of the world. By denying the ontological difference, analytic philosophy extinguishes the possibility of human freedom. Today, it takes a distinguished mathematician like Sir Roger Penrose to salvage a final hope for human freedom through the back door by proposing that a conjectured quantum indeterminacy of neural processes in the brain could provide some wiggle-room for free will to move outside the ambit of rigorous efficient linear causality. Since philosophy has abdicated and capitulated, advanced science, which has the pants on anyway, steps into the breach.

The insistence on empirical fact leads positivist-analytic philosophy to narrow the view of the world to what the conscious subject can garner temporally one-dimensionally from the world via the media of its senses in the present, with or without the aid of sophisticated technical apparatuses. The gathering of empirical data provides the bedrock material that skilful, mathematically adept consciousness works up into theoretical models of the world which, in turn, have to be verified or refuted by referring back to empirical data.

Modern science in whatever form is intent, nay, hell-bent, on developing empirically based, mathematically mediated, models for effectively controlling or predicting movements and changes of all conceivable kinds. Enter the cyberworld, with whose advent the logical _logos_ becomes self-active as algorithms controlling all sorts of movements. In particular, with so-called artificial neural networks and their learning algorithms, the mathematical means are at hand for predictively bringing all kinds of movement and change in the world algorithmically under control. Hence the insatiable hunger for Big Data on every front to feed all those learning algorithms out there, poised to pounce on any data you might divulge. Today, humanity is willingly, blindly, thoughtlessly plunging into and allowing itself to be devoured by this ever-encroaching cyberworld. Positivist-analytic philosophy aids and abets this fateful movement of our time; it is no help whatever for learning to see our predicament. 'Learning to see' phenomenologically is replaced by artificial intelligence's learning algorithms. If this centuries-old historical trend is not to be inexorable, it will be redirected only by our learning a kind of thinking that does not block the view of the simplest phenomena themselves by dogmatic prohibitions on seeing.

Further reading: Martin Heidegger History of the Concept of Time - Prolegomena; original German in Gesamtausgabe Bd. 20 Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Zeitbegriffs. Summer Semester lectures 1925; see Michael Zimmerman's review. Raul Rojas Neural Networks. See also my The Digital Cast of Being and A Question of Time.

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