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Chapter 3: Necessity and Volition

2. The Ultimate Given

It follows that scientific research will never succeed in providing a full answer to what is called the riddles of the universe. It can never show how out of an inconceivable nothing emerged all that is and how one day all that exists may again disappear and the "nothing" alone will remain.

Scientific research sooner or later, but inevitably, encounters something ultimately given that it cannot trace back to something else of which it would appear as the regular or necessary derivative. Scientific progress consists in pushing further back this ultimately given. But there will always remain something that—for the human mind thirsting after full knowledge—is, at the given stage of the history of science, the provisional stopping point. It was only the rejection of all philosophical and epistemological thinking by some brilliant but one-sided physicists of the last decades that interpreted as a refutation of determinism the fact that they were at a loss to trace back certain phenomena—that for them were an ultimately given—to some other phenomena. Perhaps it is true, although not likely, that contemporary physics has at some points reached a barrier beyond which no further expansion of knowledge is possible for man. But however this may be, there is in all the teachings of the natural sciences nothing that could in any way be considered as incompatible with determinism.

The natural sciences are entirely based upon experience. All they know and deal with is derived from experience. And experience could not teach anything if there were no regularity in the concatenation and succession of events.

But the philosophy of positivism tries to assert much more than can be learned from experience. It pretends to know that there is nothing in the universe that could not be investigated and fully clarified by the experimental methods of the natural sciences. But it is admitted by everybody that up to now these methods have not contributed anything to the explanation of the phenomena of life as distinguished from physico-chemical phenomena. And all the desperate efforts to reduce thinking and valuing to mechanical principles have failed.

It is by no means the aim of the preceding remarks to express any opinion about the nature and structure of life and of the mind. This essay is, as has been said in the first words of its preface, not a contribution to philosophy. We have to refer to these problems only in order to show that the treatment that positivism accords to them implies a theorem for which no experimental justification whatever can be provided, viz., the theorem that all observable phenomena are liable to a reduction to physical and chemical principles. Whence do the positivists derive this theorem? It would be certainly wrong to qualify it as an a priori assumption. A characteristic mark of an a priori category is that any different assumption with regard to the topic concerned appears to the human mind as unthinkable and self-contradictory. But this is certainly not the case with the positivist dogma we are dealing with. The ideas taught by certain religious and metaphysical systems are neither unthinkable nor self-contradictory. There is nothing in their logical structure that would force any reasonable man to reject them for the same reasons he would, e.g., have to reject the thesis that there is no difference and distinction between A and non-A.

The gulf that in epistemology separates the events in the field investigated by the natural sciences from those in the field of thinking and acting has not been made narrower by any of the findings and achievements of the natural sciences. All we know about the mutual relation and interdependence of these two realms of reality is metaphysics. The positivist doctrine that denies the legitimacy of any metaphysical doctrine is no less metaphysical than many other doctrines at variance with it. This means: What a man in the present state of mankind's civilization and knowledge says about such issues as the soul, the mind, believing, thinking, reasoning, and willing does not have the epistemological character of natural science and can in no way be considered as scientific knowledge.

An honest man, perfectly familiar with all the achievements of contemporary natural science, would have to admit freely and unreservedly that the natural sciences do not know what the mind is and how it works and that their methods of research are not fit to deal with the problems dealt with by the sciences of human action.

It would have been wise on the part of the champions of logical positivism to take to heart Wittgenstein's advice: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."1

  • 1. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York, 1922), pp. 188 ff.
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