Informationism and Verificationism – A Comparison

Wheeler’s informationism should remind us of Schlick’s verificationism and the old school of logical positivism.  Schlick shares with Wheeler this sort of hardline empiricism.  This section will explore the similarities and differences between the two.  As a first order of business, we should briefly explain Schlick’s verificationism.  (Note that this explanation can also be found in the above Schlick link.)

The main thrust of verificationism is this.  A statement is meaningful only insofar as it is logically verifiable.  Any statement that is not logically verifiable is not meaningful.  The only statements that are logically verifiable or knowable are those which reduce to some description of the given.  The given is the domain of all that is knowable; it is roughly your perceptual experience at some particular point in time.  The given should not be confused with the terms ‘the internal world’ and ‘the external world,’ both of which are meaningless for the verificationist.  This is because propositions like ‘there is an external world,’ will turn out to be not logically verifiable.1 All difference in the given is detectable.  Because the given is what is presented to you in perceptual experience, there can be nothing in the domain of the given that is undetectable.

Features in the given are describable with atomic words or atomic sentences.  Atomic words, like green, pain, and so on, can only be known by ‘pointing’ to some feature of our perceptual experience.  They cannot be understood in terms of other words.2  I point or otherwise gesture to a grassy knoll and say ‘that green.’  The word’s meaning is established by the agreement of the reactions of others, e.g. that other react by observing, ‘green.’  That is, the use of the word occupies the same relational-role in the given}as it is experienced by each of us.  For the verificationist, the question of whether the phenomenal quality of his green-experience is identical to the phenomenal quality of my experience, is meaningless.  This is because that fact is not logically verifiable.

Atomic sentences are composed of atomic words.  All complex propositions, like ‘there is a deer by the bush,’ are made of atomic sentences, like ‘there is a brown spot with such-and-such features by that green spot arranged in so-and-so way.’  So complex propositions are reducible to (some sequence of) atomic words, whose meaning directly describes the given.  To see this, suppose that a proposition’s meaning is something over and above its determining some state of affairs in our perceptual experience.  If this additional meaning is expressible, then it would be a (complex) proposition (and so nothing over and above an atomic description of some feature of our perceptual experience).  But if the meaning is not expressible, then it cannot mean anything, for that which expresses nothing means nothing.  So the truth or falsity of a proposition must correspond to a difference in the given in order to be meaningful.

It follows from this that the meaning of a proposition is identical with its verification in the given.  The meaning of ‘there is a deer by the bush’ is just whether or not there is a familiar arrangement of brown situated by another familiar arrangement of green, and perhaps some audible rustle — for these are the features of our perceptual experience which verify and are associated with the presence of a deer.  So if we cannot conceive of some verification in the given of the fact, then the fact means nothing.  So, a proposition is meaningful only insofar as it is logically verifiable.  A meaningful statement says that under certain conditions, certain data appear.3

Here are the similarities between Wheeler and Schlick.  Prima facie, both seem to share the verification principle — that is, the only statements that are meaningful are those which are logically verifiable.  For both Schlick and Wheeler, if something is meaningful, it must correspond to some empirical indication of fact.  Consequently, both Schlick and Wheeler grant existential status only to those things that have some possible effect on our perceptual experience — for something to exist, it must be meaningful.

They also share a sort of ‘atomism’ about reality.  For Schlick, meaning comes from the atomic features of our perceptual experience.  For Wheeler, meaning comes from the binary answer to a question.  But these binary answers are a lot like the ‘atoms’ of Schlick, as for both reality bottoms out at something that is impenetrable to further investigation or analysis.  The ‘atoms’ of Wheeler are fundamental digital questions/answers, while the atoms for Schlick are atomic words that directly ‘point to’ features of perceptual experience.  They differ in how and when they ‘bottom out,’ but they agree on ‘bottoming out’ somewhere upon which the entirety of our discourse gets its meaning.

Both the ‘it-from-bit’ doctrine and verificationism, at heart, are deeply antimetaphysical views.  For Wheeler, physical objects have the status of ‘theory’ because they are the result of an interpretation of a binary item in our perceptual experience.  Because reality is theoretical, we ought not make metaphysical claims about it and, moreover, at any rate, such claims will be meaningless.  Likewise Schlick, in explaining the given, emphasizes his avoidance of any commitment to an internal or external world — for such concepts are meaningless.  Metaphysical statements are not verifiable, and so not meaningful; whence the antimetaphysicalism.  But if we take physical objects to be objects in the external world, then Schlick will see physical objects as the same sort of ‘convenient’ myth as Wheeler and Quine (for, for Schlick, there is no external world — any talk of the [objects of] the external world can only be taken as heuristic).

The differences between Wheeler and Schlick primarily revolve around (1) space and time, and (2) meaning.  For Schlick, space and time will be features of the given, their reality easily ‘verified’ by the mere fact of the given at all.  In contrast, Wheeler sees space and time as modes of thought, not part of reality.  If space and time are modes of thought, then there must be something that we are thinking about.  This seems to imply that there is something external to us or mind-independent that our thoughts try to ‘reach out and grasp,’ or represent — but this kind of talk is forbidden on Schlick’s account.

For Wheeler, meaning is the joint product of all the evidence available to communicators.  For Schlick, meaning is identical with method of verification in the given.  Prima facie, these views are rather similar.  But for Schlick, all meaningful statements must be reducible to some concatenation of atomic words, directly referring to the immediately apprehensible features of the given.  Wheeler doesn’t explicitly commit himself to such reductionism (to atomic words).  Rather, evidence is more broadly construed so that we can actually talk about theoretical entities without talking about only our phenomenal experience. For Wheeler, to say that there is a forcefield is to infer a theoretical fact about reality from a set of registrations on some device.  Schlick, in contrast, maintains that just to say that there is a forcefield is to say that such-and-such a device registers so-and-so in a particular way — and does not ascribe reality to the forcefield itself.  The differences in their respective accounts of meaning will be important going forward.

  1. The truth or falsity of the reality of the external world has no impact on your perceptual experience.  If we are all in the internal world and this should be some fantastic dream, there is no empirical matter of fact you could ever come across which would verify that you are in an internal or an external world. 
  2. For such a description of pain can only amount to something like, ‘pain hurts,’ ‘pain is the opposite of pleasure,’ or ‘pain is what makes you recoil.’  The first is a tautology, the second is almost as trivial, the third overbroad and not necessary, and none of them convey any nontrivial knowledge about what pain actually is to the person who has never experienced it. 
  3. For such a statement to be verified re vera, is for there to be consistent agreement in the reactions of a sufficient number of persons to a given stimulus — an agreement that under certain conditions, certain data appear.  (In this way, hallucinations and illusions will not be verifiable.) 

One thought on “Informationism and Verificationism – A Comparison

  1. Pingback: Objections to Verificationism and ‘It-From-Bit’ | Reflecting Light

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