It’s Tough Being a Positivist

Fenster writes:

Over at the Unz Review, Razib Khan has a realization:

A few days ago I joked on Facebook that life isn’t about the score up on the board, but standing with your team. By this, I have come to the position that when it comes to arguments and debates the details of the models and facts, and who even wins in each round, is irrelevant (barring extinction) when set against the value and gains to group cohesion. In the middle 2000s a friend advised that I should be more explicitly partisan and ideological, because that is how I could gain friends and allies in my hour of need.

In my short jaunt through Theory writ large I have finally come that conclusion as well. I am a naive realist and a positivist. I work under the assumption that there is a world out there, that that world out there manifests itself in the order we see when we decompose it with analysis and empirical methods. As long as I kept my eyes on prize, the “score,” I felt at peace.

This was dangerously naive. Whereas before I had worked under the hypothesis that my interlocutors were falling prey to cognitive biases when they engaged in ad hominem or logical fallacy, I am now coming to suspect that one some level they are aware that they are engaging in the dialectics of ultimate victory. Every battle they lose is simply another opportunity to shore up their forces in future battles. Just like Rome against Hannibal, their contention that the structure of human society, rather than the world “out there,” is determinative, may very well be true in relation to all that matters.

It is ironic–or is it?–that positivists don’t see the awkwardness of their own positions.  A positivist view leads Khan to understand ideas as a part of culture and as culture as part of evolution.  And since that idea seems sound it is deemed immune from the lowly Darwinian push and pull that may characterize the idea of others.  Having that insight is exhilarating as it represents a kind of ascent from the mud.  But it also tempts the thinker to forget that ideas undistilled by pressures are rare indeed–if indeed they exist at all.

Here’s an article from Joseph Henrich on the dynamic between culture and biological evolution.  And a quote:

Culture, cultural transmission, and cultural evolution arise from genetically evolved psychological adaptations for acquiring ideas, beliefs, values, practices, mental models, and strategies from other individuals by observation and inference. Thus, the first step in theorizing is to use the logic of natural selection to develop hypotheses about the evolution and operation of our cultural learning capacities.

I am actually not so sure that Khan is right in thinking that everyone is aware that they are engaged in “the dialectics of ultimate victory.”  It is much more plausible to think that both Razib and the people he wonders about are equally stymied by the noses in front of their respective faces.

We observe that people’s ideas are moored in things other than ideas.  And yet we insist that “the idea”–the unsullied idea, the correct idea–triumph.  But that’s not logical, Captain.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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One Response to It’s Tough Being a Positivist

  1. Callowman says:

    I might leave out the bit about “ultimate victory”, but then again, I might not. Either way, the insight that thinking dialectically is a very fruitful approach to social phenomena is a good one. Twentieth-century scientific positivism is starting to feel like a luxury we can no longer afford in the more socially embedded sciences.

    Like

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