Episode 67: Carnap on Logic and Science

On Rudolph Carnap's The Logical Structure of the World (1928).

What can we know? Carnap thinks that all the various spheres of knowledge (e.g. particle physics, attributions of mental states, moral claims, the economy) are logically interrelated, that you can in fact translate sentences about any of these into sentences about sets of basic, momentary experiences. This book, better known as the Aufbau, is Carnap's attempt to sketch out how this system of linguistic reduction can work. Though it certainly doesn't work, it's a pretty damned fascinating attempt.

Carnap's hope was to integrate the language of scientific discourse with that of mathematics, and in doing so clarify traditional philosophical problems, in part by showing that anything that can't be recast in this philosophically respectable symbolic language is a bunch of vague nonsense. So we can describe the relations between the various contents of our experience, but the question of what these entities really are (i.e. the traditional realism vs. idealism debate) doesn't and can't arise in the system. Carnap at some points described himself neutral about such questions, but at others as hostile towards the dead-end sort of philosophy that generated them.

Matt Teichman rejoins Mark, Wes, and Dylan to get into some of the details of this very funky constructional system and try to figure out what good it is and whether one can really ignore such metaphysical questions when doing science. Read Mark's spiffy essay summarizing the topic and get the text.

End song: "Undershirt" by Mark Lint, the recording was produced and many instruments played by Edison Carter for his Talk Zack Talk Wound EP in 1996.

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  1. Ryan says

    Mark has really been on a roll these past couple of episodes with batting down the naive primary critiques of these readings (I also laughed out loud at “Frege vs Wade” -_-).

    “Science is not trying to get at what’s really real.”

    Highly contentious! Everybody wants to get at what’s really real, we all have been handed different methods of getting there and the issue of who has the closest access to the real so far goes undecided. We can talk about putting on some scientist’s cap but that is only a gross reduction of the different ways in which we have been instructed to think. How long would it really take to come up with examples of hard science being performed either without referent or without structure, or even lacking both just for its own sake of putting anything and everything to the test including the common philosophical presumptions of the necessity of referent and structure?

    Maybe the problem with Aufbau’s inability to retain sense is that it can not distinguish between noise and information. It might even relate to Chalmer’s notion of compactedness given the relation between information and compression. There are an infinite infinite number of possible logical constructions of the world in this way and for some reason only very few useful proto- or quasi- kinds of frameworks available for us to actually work with, and it is the same way with the exponentially accelerating amount of information society is manifesting in contrast with how we are able to employ very little of it overall. Imputing yet further relations into this mess without sense can only work to perpetuate the problem, it certainly will not bring it into some stage of absolute reconciliation as Carnap seems to implicitly desire. The worth of Carnap’s following through with his system to such an extent though was exactly to reveal this dichotomy. It’s a testament to a lot of the short-sightedness of anti-positivist critique from the 20th century.

    I also wonder what Carnap would have to say about the Continental notion of the being of a critical negativity which can not simply be incorporated into this overt system of positive affirmation regardless of the more specific failures of logical positivism. Surely regardless of whether he is self-aware about it, it is exactly the style in which he tends to do all of his very meticulous writing (and presumably his equally meticulous manner of thinking), even while he portrays his work as some how having been almost arbitrarily decided for him without the necessity for his own confused human thought becoming involved. A test case on this issue for Carnap, unlike the logical construction of the world, what would otherwise constitute nothing? It’s something which follows directly out of his logic being just the negation of what is, but could not hope to be subsumed within its logical structure. As per Kant, it is itself the (being of) emptiness located precisely in this kind of purely formal conceptualization entirely detached from empirical content.


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