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In this dialogue between André Breton and a journalist, André Breton defines surrealism as a reaction against rationalism and philosophical positivism.

I suppose André Breton he referring here to Comte's positivism which is defined as:

Auguste Comte's system, which considers that all philosophical and scientific activities should be carried out solely within the framework of the analysis of real facts verified by experience, and that the human mind can formulate the laws and relationships established between phenomena, but cannot go beyond them. (Larousse)

We know that Comte's positivism has a risible aspect, due to its rigidity, and its later mystical development.

I feel this "positivism" is often used as a strawman by anti-science people to indirectly diminish science, a rhetoric which goes like "the scientific vision naturally leads to (or is) positivism, which is quite laughable, irrational, and borderline authoritarian. Understand: give up science all together".

Is "positivism" often used as a strawman by anti-science people?

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  • Positivism 19th century -> Materialism 20th -> Physicalism/Scientism 21st. One could say old wine in new bottles. Do you call this science or anti science scientificamerican.com/article/…
    – Rushi
    Jun 24, 2023 at 7:39
  • @Rusi The definition provided in my post is more about the scientific method, rather than about materialism. So the link to Scientific American is science so far as it employed the scientific method
    – Starckman
    Jun 24, 2023 at 7:48

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Science can just be understood as knowledge developed following the scientific method.

It is important to remark that scientific knowledge is empirical: ...

  • ... what is experienced by the senses;
  • ... what is phenomenal -related to perception- and not noumenal -what really happens out there, that we can't access-;
  • ... what is physical -as opposed to metaphysical, that which is purely developed by reason-.

Therefore, anti-science is someone that opposes to knowledge. I imagine you refer to religious people, that proposes believing on ideas that can't be experienced physically. No relationship whatsoever with positivism.

But positivism has a dark side: the absolute focus on the object implies the absolute negation of the subject. According to positivism, a rotten apple is an object... but how? Where is the scientific definition of a rotten apple? Is it an apple? Where is the scientific/physical definition of an apple? What are its limits, boundaries, etc? Most of the attributes of a rotten apple are subjective, metaphysical. It is easy to negate the issue: "this is stupid! science does not need to address rotten apples! there are bigger problems! Rotten apples are not important to science!", but scientific knowledge might be at risk. Positivism is comfortable, while we don't question it.

Let's develop the problem of positivism in more depth.

Although you can clearly see a rainbow and it seems possible to walk to its extreme, you must understand you will never get there, because a rainbow exists in part as an OBJECT, that is, as what is produced by nature (raindrops, light, refraction, dispersion, etc.), and it exist in part due to a SUBJECT, that is you, the observer, that determines where it appears according to the position of your body and what colors it has due to what your eyes do with photons.

In consequence, a rainbow is in part SUBJECT and in part, OBJECT. It is not purely an object, as in positivism. Worst even: from a positivist perspective, a rainbow is the result of a conjunction of states of rain, light, eyes and body. In other words, even the observer's eyes and body are part of the object... which is completely wrong. You see? Positivism implies, as a consequence, the absolute negation of the subject.

Any other physical thing is the same, believe it or not, but at different scales. A rock has a form, texture and weight due to capabilities and attributes of your own body. It will be completely different to an alien, to the point that aliens might not even perceive its existence.

So, a rainbow is not an object that can be known scientifically without representing it as part OBJECT and part SUBJECT.

In case of a rainbow, the scientific description, sustained by positivism, is relatively easy. But what about an electron? What about a quark? As soon as we try to describe microstatic (yes, as in thermodynamics) entities, using Quantum Mechanics, we come to learn that we can't. The subject in QM is a largely complex issue.

Then, we came to the original statement: the subject defines the object, and a complete focus on the object implies the complete negation of the subject. A quantum system cannot have certain properties, if we decide to observe others; it might exist as two objects, etc. Richard Feynman said "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics". This, because it is impossible to understand a QM object, because the subject defines the object... and we have never understood the subject, formally, metaphysically, at the level of a science. Our minds are not prepared to understand an object that jumps from one position to another without a continuous displacement from one point to another, or an object that is a wave in some field and a dot at the same time.

Where have things go wrong, that we came to a point that we can just not apply the scientific method and get the knowledge of an object that is absolutely under our control?

Positivism.

Science has been developed under the light of scientific positivism, that, more or less, completely focus on the object, but absolutely denies the subject in consequence. We then are confronted with QM, and positivism is in trouble: we need another approach, because in QM, most of the objective behavior is determined subjectively.

So, positivism is not related with anti-scientific perspectives, or anti-knowledge groups. Positivism has allowed the development of lots of scientific knowledge, that, even if wrong, has been absolutely helpful for our survival and the development of technology and arts (not as in aesthetics, but as a fundamental philosophical branch of knowledge, related to creativity and social contribution).

But positivism has proven to be a weak approach to address the empirical object, precisely because it excludes the subject, it excludes the metaphysical dimension that ALL things have, and suddenly, we have noticed that such dimension was huge. And it was almost excluded from the development of scientific knowledge. That is the problem of positivism.

Are there alternatives? Which?

To my knowledge, there is no other -which provides a real solution- than Kant's approach: Transcendental Idealism.

In late 1700s, Kant already noticed the huge problem of the subject in the creation of knowledge: the object, the thing, was in part physical, and in part, metaphysical. given that the physical aspect of the thing was properly addressed by science, he expressed the necessity of making the same with the metaphysical aspect of it: he intended...

To raise metaphysics to the level of a science.

Such approach implies the development of a solid and formal foundation to metaphysics, to the pure knowledge that is developed by the subject. This approach would determine an approach of knowledge development that goes way farther than positivism, which just focus on sense experience: it would also include the knowledge that is developed by the subject, and the relationship between both.

Sadly, although Kant has a strong point here, his proposition has been never taken into account by his followers, and his ideas about metaphysics have not been developed further on. I personally am working on an essay about formal metaphysics for some years, but it will not see the light soon.

In any case, if you google for "Kant Quantum Mechanics" you will find that scientists seem to get answers about the subject from Transcendental Idealism.

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