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Positivism – not so positive after all

August Comte via Wikipedia

Positivism is a branch of philosophical thought asserting that all knowledge is arrived at through observing phenomena and learning facts.

Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought, the modern sense of the approach was formulated by the philosopher Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. Comte argued that, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws, so does society.¹

Proponents of positivism advocate the sheer negation of any kind of knowing that cannot be demonstrated to others. Love, mysticism, introspection, intuition, metaphysics and theology are all rejected. As absurd as this may seem, we find aspects of this unsavory outlook in contemporary society. Today, many people uncritically uphold apparently positivist truth claims that, in fact, are not even truly positivist.

A good example can be found in in psychiatry, where all sorts of ideological, political and economic statements pose as scientific “truth” while competing theories within psychiatry, itself, are downplayed. This is especially so in neuropsychology where competing theories about, for example, “depression” exist. However, by the time we visit the psychiatrist’s office or watch TV ads selling medications, we hear only a simplified version of the dominant theory at any given point in time. And competing ideas are effectively blocked from public awareness.²

Moritz Schlick, the founding father of logical...

Moritz Schlick, the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So instead of involving, say, a complex relation of spiritual, social, environmental, biological and ethical factors, the idea of depression has sometimes been narrowed down to a “chemical imbalance.” Again, this seems absurdly simple. But we hear it time and again in the 21st century, with believers uncritically repeating the idea.

This would not be such a huge problem if it merely involved personal choice. But psychiatry has legal power, in varying degrees depending on where one lives. And believers sometimes try to push their simplistic beliefs onto others who would rather – or perhaps must – think for themselves, making this not only a philosophical issue but also a human rights issue.

In the 20th century “logical positivism” arose as an elaboration of positivism. Logical positivism deals with the meaning and verification of statements.


² I own an excellent Oxford handbook that outlines competing biochemical theories for depression. I just searched my home a second time, trying to find it. Unfortunately, it’s still missing. But I plan to find and list it here.

Related » August Comte 

Allen Frances on Anti-Psychiatry

An inclusive approach to mental health: Not all in the brain


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Psychokinesis in Orange

Psychokinesis in Orange: needoptic / Aurimas

Also called PK, psychokinesis is a form of psi in which a person’s thoughts allegedly affect objects in an observable manner.

This includes moving or transforming objects in space. One of the most famous exponents of transforming objects is Uri Geller, who has bent spoons in public, apparently with the power of his mind.

Detractors such as James Randi suggest that Geller is a fraud, using trickery without the revealing the integrity to call himself a conjurer.

Since many PK performances are on TV or seen on the internet as video clips, it’s virtually impossible for the ordinary person to ascertain their authenticity. A movie editor with even the simplest video editing software could produce the illusion of, say, spoon-bending.

The scientific community generally agrees that there’s no conclusive proof for psychokinesis. However, many have reported spontaneous instances of objects moving (or appliances switching on or off) in relation to severe emotions of anger or fear. For instance, someone gets angry and all the stove elements turn on.

As a volunteer working in the paranormal section at, I have received countless reports of psychokineses-like phenomena. Whether or not all are authentic or the result of wannabe fantasy writers cannot be determined. But from a sheer statistics perspective, it would seem that at least some of the fantastic accounts I’ve read and replied to are authentic.

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Providence is a theological term referring to the belief that God is free to choose the course of temporal events in all of creation.

This idea stands in contrast to the idea of fate, which points to a fixed, unalterable sequence of events. It also differs from the concept of chance, which infers a random, unregulated universe.

Opponents to the idea of providence stem back to ancient times. St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Summa Theologica:

Certain persons totally denied the existence of providence, as Democritus and the Epicureans, maintaining that the world was made by chance (“The providence of God,” Prima Pars, Q. 22)

Others ancients add an interesting wrinkle to the debate by claiming that natural events are ruled by God, but particular human events are not. To this idea St. Thomas replies according to standard Catholic teaching:

…all things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual being (ibid.).

If God really is in control of everything, or, at least, has knowledge of how all events will unfold in the course of human history, many ask why so many bad things are found in our world. This leads to the problem of evil, a theological issue which scholars have called theodicy.

» Determinism, Epicureanism, Fatalism, Free will, Social Darwinism, Soteriology, Teleology

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Lycia-46: Phoebe Luckyn-Malone

Proclus (410-85 CE) was an influential Neoplatonist philosopher born in Lycia who moved to Athens for the remainder of his life.

Modern writers often call him the last of the so-called classical Greek philosophers.

His works include extensive commentaries on Plato’s dialogues and on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. He also wrote two major treatises: The Elements of Theology and The Platonic Theology.

Like his better known predecessor, Plotinus, Proclus attempts to combine the Platonic notion of the ideal Forms with Aristotle’s concept of a prime, unmoved Mover (i.e. the first cause of all creation).

His particular synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian systems culminates in the theory that an overall, divine action coordinates all cosmic elements as the soul embarks on a journey back to the One from which it originally emanated.

Due to the non-Christian aspects of his teaching, the emperor Justinian closed Proclus’ school at Athens after it had survived for nine centuries.

But the Church authorities couldn’t suppress his ideas indefinitely. Considerable interest in his work reappeared during the medieval and renaissance periods.

» Platonism

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Polyphonic Chant

gregorian chant

gregorian chant: amppit / K Leb

Polyphonic Chant is a type of Christian devotional singing, developed in the 9th century, where more than one voice accompanies the main melody.

As with anything new, not everyone approved of polyphony. Some believed that too much musical intricacy was the work of the devil, who tried to seduce believers through the sin of pride.

However, such narrow-mindedness couldn’t stop the flow of musical innovation. As different cultures and musical styles continued to intermingle, more complex forms of polyphony emerged in the 11th century, such as the motet, the rota, the canon, polyphonic masses and madrigals.

The 18th century saw the development of the fugue. A good, humorous example of a fugue can be found in Glenn Gould‘s “So You Want To Write a Fugue?”

» Orpheus

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Politically Correct

Politically Correct

Politically Correct: _rockinfree / Claire Powers

The term “politically correct” describes an idea that the majority – or a highly visible group – in a given historical time period see as true or acceptable.

When a politically correct idea takes hold, many follow suit and boldly proclaim with an almost religious certainty some ‘right’ idea or course of action that could just be an ephemeral, ideological trend.

The classical French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) argued that democracy’s emphasis on equality could possibly squelch individuality, leading to a suffocating majority rule characterized by total conformity.

In Biblical lore, Pontius Pilate voices the philosophical essence of political correctness when he says to Jesus Christ:

What is Truth!  (John, 18:38 NASB).

Likewise, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate sarcastically says:

But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?

And the following from the New Testament offers a rather scathing view of worldly wisdom, which could be seen as a kind of political correctness:

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS”; and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS” (I Corinthians 3:18-20 NASB).

Having said this much, we shouldn’t become so jaded, cynical or perhaps self-righteous to say that all politically correct ideas are bogus. Many may have virtue. The key, however, is to not blindly submit the intellect (and heart) to majority opinion while assessing politically correct ideas.

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view of Vatican

view of Vatican: Juan Rubiano

Pope (Greek Papas = father)

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church. For Catholics he is a direct successor to St. Peter, who was the first Pope.

The Pope is the primary pastor of the Catholic fold. As such, he’s regarded as the primary servant of God.

In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of infallibility, which some believers say has always been present in the Catholic Church.

Strictly speaking, infallibility refers to the idea that the Pope cannot err when speaking “ex cathedra” (from the chair). When speaking ex cathedra, the Pope solemnly defines issues concerning faith and morals.

We usually hear that, after 1870, only the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are ex cathedra–i.e. infallible.

However, some Catholics say that infallibility extends to all Catholic teachings concerning faith and morals. In fact, many Catholics debate the meaning of this term.

But one thing is clear. Infallibility does not refer to cosmological issues nor does it relate to grave blunders in ethical judgment and related behavior concerning specific situations. For instance, the Church tried Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and found him guilty for claiming that the sun – and not the earth – was at the center of the solar system.

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains this historically embarrassing mistake as follows:

As to the Galileo affair, it is quite enough to point out the fact that the condemnation of the heliocentric theory was the work of a fallible tribunal. The pope cannot delegate the exercise of his infallible authority to the Roman Congregations, and whatever issues formally in the name of any of these, even when approved and confirmed in the ordinary official way by the pope, does not pretend to be ex cathedra and infallible. The pope, of course, can convert doctrinal decisions of the Holy Office, which are not in themselves infallible, into ex cathedra papal pronouncements, but in doing so he must comply with the conditions already explained — which neither Paul V nor Urban VIII did in the Galileo case.¹

More recently, the Pope has declared the Vatican’s legal copyright over the use of papal figure.² Almost like a corporate logo, the papal name, image and symbols of the Pope are not for all to use as they please. Although the Church outlines spiritual reasons for this tightening of control over the papal figure, some critics argue that’s it’s more about money, insecurity and its psychological flip side–i.e. the will to dominate.³

¹ See:

² Holy See declares unique copyright on Papal figure:

³ See comments thread:

On the Web:

  • TOTNYC Presents — Papal Infallibility: What It Means…

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