Questioning the Positivist Approach in Science

Prof. Dr. Âdem Tatlı 

Logical positivist thought, which regards religious and metaphysical doctrines in philosophy as meaningless, has dominated over the world of science since nineteenth century. Positivism put forward by August Comte, the founder of this philosophy, on the one hand is a philosophy of sciences and on the other hand politics and religion. According to Comte, positivism is the only real religion that has been assigned to suppress all of the incomplete and transitory systems1.

            Doubtlessly, it is not possible to say that all of those who share the same positivist thought system follow the religion of Comte. However, they all agree on denying the other religions. Murtaza Korlaelçi states it as follows:

                  “Positivism is a philosophical system whose followers are  characterized by their agreement on denial rather than the similarity of their doctrines , without having to accept the same belief”2.

            The scientific understanding of positivism is expressed by the following words of Ernest Renan. Their approach is that religion will be replaced by science. He says,

                  “One day the humanity will no longer believe but know. As the humanity knows the physical world now, there will be a day in the future when the humanity will know the metaphysical and spiritual world”3.

            Jacques Maritain, who regards it both possible and necessary to extend the concept of being scientific so as to include theology too, calls science to make peace and harmonize with theology by surpassing the rigid framework. According to him, theology also has a base as sound as science4.

We see a similar approach in Copleston. He thinks that theology complements science in understanding and explaining the universe. According to him, the individual explanations of the phenomena are not sufficient to understand the universe. A sufficient explanation is one that that covers everything wholly and that does not need much addition. Such an explanation can be expected from metaphysics not science. Sciences, whether they are considered individually or as a whole, can only examine certain aspects of the features of the reality. The domain of science is limited. Many problems related to life are outside this domain. For instance, psychology, which is a science related to man, examines our behavior and the “psychological” processes. The subject of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, etc is related to the structure and functions of the organism. Anthropology, sociology and social psychology deal with man, beliefs, customs, traditions and habits, and lifestyles. Even if we evaluate all of those studies together, we cannot say that we have been able to analyze man from all aspects by penetrating into his “real nature”. According to Copleston, man has a nature, an entity and a problem of meaning that cannot be reached through scientific method. What is hidden inside this nature can only be explained by the concept of God. Similarly, if the relationship between the entity that is called the world and God cannot be established, the world has no meaning or an understandable nature in itself5.

As it is seen, it is not sufficient to understand the universe and man through cause and effect relationship in science. Holistic thought is necessary in order to be able to understand the nature of life and the purpose of the creation of man. It is possible only through metaphysical thought. In fact, man is always within the metaphysical world with his thoughts and evaluations. Süleyman Hayri Bolay states it as follows:

“Events cannot be reduced to the events that can be explained by physical system and mathematical terms only. The studies of metaphysicians and scientists on the phenomena are not the same things. For instance, in Mariotte’s law, an engineer is interested in the application of the law to an event and it is enough for him; however, a metaphysician is interested in the whole event. He tries to understand the meanings of the events wholly within their concrete complexity based on reality. Therefore, a unitarianistic metaphysics based on reality is always necessary. Man cannot give up such metaphysics, thinking about the universe, time-place, matter-spirit-life, destiny-doom of man, Allah, who is the basis of goodness, the cause and principle of all reality. Man cannot be satisfied with relative things; he needs to surpass the personal things and reach the Absolute and to understand the one that exists unconditionally, that is the unshakable foundation of the universe and the essentials of life and reach Him 6.

Thus, the thoughts and evaluations put forward by man in order to understand the nature of the universe and to know the creation of his purpose cannot be considered independently from metaphysics. A holistic thought is necessary in order to place the limited knowledge acquired by experiments or experience somewhere in terms of the whole universe and the future of man. When it is ignored, the studies carried out about the past of man and the structure of the universe, the data that were acquired will look like searching treasure with closed eyes under the sea. Everybody who will dive into the sea in order to get the jewels that are very different from each other in terms of shape and structure will come up with some jewels and claim that all of the jewels under the sea are the same shape and structure as the ones he has acquired. However, the holistic thought will describe the nature, shape and the structure of each being there truly like a diver who dives into the sea with open eyes.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionist biologist, states with a materialistic approach that when the universe is viewed in a way that is far away from the compassion and mercy of God, everything seems meaningless and to consist of chaos as follows:

“There is no system, purpose, good or bad in the universe that we observe. Everything is blurred and consists of ruthless disregard. DNA neither feels nor knows anything. That is what DNA is and we are dancing accompanied by its music”7.

Francis Crick, who is one of the discoverers of DNA, thinks that man consists of the piles of atoms without heeding his mental and emotional world:

You are nothing other than the sum of neurons8.

If the spiritual and emotional world of man is not taken into consideration, and if he is examined with a materialistic approach as a living organism that consists of molecules only and that has emerged as a result of a coincidence, that will the point to be reached. It is because the being that is examined as man consists of the cells viewed under the microscope and the law of physics and chemistry that are valid in those cells. They have neither spirits, nor feelings nor thoughts as Dawkins states. However, man is not like that. He is a being that thinks, understands, reasons, feels sorry, imagines and rejoices. Furthermore, he has certain responsibilities and liabilities. He does not belong to this world only; he is a candidate for another eternal realm and he is a traveler heading there.   

Steven Weinberg also claims that science shows that the universe is meaningless9.

According to Nursi, this universe is not meaningless. It is the perfect book of Allah containing many wisdoms and purposes; there is a book in each of its lines, there is a line in each of its letters. All sciences try to interpret, understand and explain that book of the universe. One page of that book of the universe is the earth. Thousands of living and non-living beings have been recorded in it. Man is like a single letter in that book. The science of medicine and biology is engaged with examining and explaining each dot of that letter10

            Both Kant and Nursi deal with the purpose of the creation of man. According to them, if the reason why man was sent to the world were to reach happiness, then man would be equipped with the feelings that animals had. Instincts would be enough for him. As a matter of fact, animals are very easy and peaceful in this sense. Their instincts lead them to the necessary places. Animals have neither the anxiety of sins nor the fear of death. However, man has the mind along with instincts. According to him, the mind does not lead man to happiness because the pains that come from the past, the anxiety of the future and the fear of death prevent man from being happy in the world. Then, man cannot have been sent to this world only to be happy. According to them, the purpose of his existence in the world is to know the Creator, to read the book of the universe and to fulfill his duties based on the law of ethics11.

            It is a great deficiency that science does not aim at understanding the behavior and style of thinking of man in terms of its method and purpose. Attracting attention to the view of Kant regarding the issue, Ahmet Arslan states the following:

                  “According to Kant, man is not a being that has the need of knowing only. He also does deeds. Deeds, and ethics that deals with deeds necessitate our belief in the existence of the spirit, freedom and immortality and demands it. Those concepts may be insignificant for science but they are indispensable values for ethics”12.

            The positivist philosophy and religion of Comte has been dominant over the world of science for about one hundred and fifty years. It is time people reviewed this philosophical approach and what it gained the mankind. The mankind must no longer be obliged to suffer from the religion of Comte.

             Limiting the framework of the science only with phenomena based on experiments and insisting on it in order to settle the positivist religion and ethics put forward by positivism have contributed to the mankind very little.

According to Arslan, many philosophers support the view that the behavior, thought and cultural values of man need to be included in the scientific category in order to be able to understand the nature of man better; and they appreciate its importance. Stating that the religion and ethics of science that Comte wanted to realize did not come true, Arslan makes the following evaluation:

            “Various schools of philosophy or philosophers that oppose the views of scientists or philosophers of science have objected to the imposition of “Either science or nothing”; they have attracted attention to the fact that man is not a being that knows and has the need of knowing only as Kant pointed out justifiably. They have insistently reminded that ethics and natural philosophy are not meaningless fields at all... They have underlined that the attempt of Comte to establish a “positivist religion” and a “positivist ethics” is a “dream” that will never be realized, that will have never been realized and that does not need to be realized. Today, most of the reasonable philosophers agree that the scientific examination of the behavior of man has an important role and advantage in understanding the basic cultural-human activities like religion, art and ethics13.


1-Larousse du XXe Sicle, Volume 5, Positivisme item; Comte, A. 

 Systéme Politique, Tome II, p. 62. Quoted by: Murtaza Korlaelçi.

 Pozitivizmin Türkiye’ye Girişi. Hece Yayınları, Ankara, 2002, p. 17.

2-Korlaelçi, M. Pozitivizmin Türkiye’ye Girişi. Hece yayınları, Ankara, 2002, p. 18.

3-Renan, E. Bilimin Geleceği. Çev. Ziya İhsan. C. 1, İstanbul, 1951, p.16.

4-Maritain, J. A New Approach to God.  Our Emergent Civilization . Ed.

R.N. Anshen, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1947, Chapter XIV.

5-Russell, B. and Copleston F.C. The Existence of God - A Debate," ve "A. J,  Ay er and F.C.

Copleston: Logical Pozitivizm-A Debate," A Modern Int. to  Philosophy, Ed.s P. Edwards

and Arthur Pap, The Free Press, New York, 1965, Chapters V and VIII.

6. Bolay, S. H. Felsefî Doktirinler ve Terimler Sözlüğü. Akçağ Yayınları,7thimpression,1997, p. 165.

7-Dawkins, R. Rise out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1995, p. 133.

8-Crick, F. The Astonishing Hypothesis : The Scientific Search for the Soul.

New York: Scribner, 1994, p. 3.

9-Weinberg, S. Dreams of a Finel Theory. New York: Pantheon, 1992, p. 255.

10. Tatlı, Â. İnsanlık Tarihi, Boyunca Evrim. Ufuk Yayınları. İstanbul, 2010.

11-Copleston, A History of Philosophy Volume 7, Burns and Dates, Wellvood, 1999, p. 378;

12-Arslan, A. Felsefeye Giriş. Adres Yayınları. Ankara, 2005, p. 47-47.

13-Arslan, A. Felsefeye Giriş. Adres Yayınları. Ankara, 2005, p. 60-62.

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