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Many people today have embraced the idea that if they can’t see, hear, or touch something, it isn’t real. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul explains how this way of thinking is influenced by a 19th-century philosophical school called positivism.
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There are many schools of thought competing for acceptance in our day, but they have several things in common. All of them, in one sense, can be traced back to a movement that was a post-Kantian movement of the nineteenth century introduced by a philosopher by the name of Auguste Comte, and it was the school known as positivism. Positivism, as it was set forth by Comte, was an attempt, as Marx had given us and others, to produce a kind of philosophy of history. Comte said that in the development and the evolutionary progress of civilization and of Western humanity, people have gone through three stages of cultural development and intellectual development that correspond to stages in human biological development. In his analysis, he said that the first stage of Western culture is the stage of its infancy. Here, the dominant themes of inquiry were those associated with religion. which, according to Comte, in the final analysis, is nothing more and nothing less than an exercise in mythology. It is an infantile response to our world and life to try to make sense of it by an appeal to some kind of religion. But then, as people began to grow up, and as civilization began to mature, at least reaching its adolescent stage, then the dominant controlling factor to defining life and the world was found in the abstract realm of philosophy. Now, according to Comte, at the end of the nineteenth century and going into the twentieth century, mankind has finally come of age. Here, we’ve moved beyond the infantile and beyond the adolescent to the adult stage of intellectual inquiry that is dominated now, not by religion or philosophy, but by science. This is a new form of empiricism. So, positivism, as it moved into the twentieth century, and as it was developed particularly by British thinkers, such as A.J. Ayer, and Antony Flew, it developed the concept of a scientific approach to reality, by which they came to the conclusion that no propositions are meaningful unless they can be verified empirically. Now, this is an idea drawn from science, wherein the scientific inquiry in the enterprise, the data that is collected and observed, have to be tested, not by formal principles or theorems, but in the final analysis, their accuracy and truth value can only be determined by empirical measurement or verification. That is, that if you can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, and so on, it isn’t real, so that “the real” is only that which can be verified by the senses.