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The Secular Mind II: Positivism

Harvard Diary

By Robert Coles | November 1987
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School.

When I was in college I had a roommate during my freshman year who was headed, even then, for a career in theoretical physics. He was brilliant beyond belief in a certain way – the capacity to handle abstract, scientific reasoning. Unfortunately, he wanted to push that mode of thought into other spheres. He was constantly mocking what he called the “naive assumptions” which my other roommates and I, a consequence of our ignorance and lower intellectual capacities, constantly demonstrated.

This relentless scrutiny of his still lingers in my mind. Now, over 30 years since we were together in a college dormitory, I pass a certain old New England building, look at it and at the well-kept lawn in front of it, and remember that roommate’s insistent lecturing of me one spring afternoon. I had mentioned God, and he laughed yet again. He bore down on my naiveté, my superstitiousness. Relentlessly I was reminded that just about everything I took for granted – never mind my religious beliefs – ought to be questioned skeptically, if I was to be a truly “educated” person. Why, the grass itself, I was told, its evident greenness, should be more candidly assessed. I can still see him, pointing at that grass; I can hear his words. I can remember, too, the intellectual authority he summoned: logical positivism; Professor Percy Bridgeman, who taught physics at Harvard and was also a philosopher; and really, the entire apparatus of the natural sciences. I stood there, helpless and defeated, looking at that soft, inviting, green grass – having been told that its greenness is what I call it, rather than something that is. The lesson for me was clear: I mistake all sorts of subjective experiences for “truth” or “reality.” I ought to be careful – acknowledge that my sense impressions are the basis of my affirmations with respect to knowledge, to what is – and in that spirit of skeptical tentativeness, let go of my various “fantasies” and “illusions,” known to me as beliefs, convictions.

I didn’t yield altogether, but at that time I was close to doing so. I was soon to take a lot of courses in the natural sciences and, alas, the social sciences, to fulfill college and premedical requirements, and their cumulative effect was to send my head reeling: all those forces, those drives, and all those assertions of what is, and what is not. I think I sensed the moral righteousness – the faith of sorts – which was tied to those assertions, indeed, seemed at times to fuel them, but I wasn’t able to stand back, smile, appreciate the irony, that my freshman roommate, for instance, was as positive about his “positivism” as the clerics were with respect to their “superstitions,” which he so eagerly and vocally scorned.

His positivism, I began to learn, was no peculiarity of a college student who aspired to learn more and more about the workings of so-called “matter,” meaning atoms and their apparently infinite world. Again and again, from fellow students and various teachers, I began to realize what my general attitude ought be: I was going to a fancy college, and I was living in the middle of the 20th century, and in a “civilized” nation, the leader of the Western world, in fact, and I came from a well-educated family – and so clearly I must realize that “subjectivity” ought not be confused with “objectivity,” and that what as ought not be confused with what one wishes there might be, and that knowledge and precise thought have their own systematic principles, their own logic, and these are not by any means to be assumed, or Lord knows, accepted without question, but rather argued, proven or disproven.

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