From the point of view of philosophy, the mind is no longer anything but delirium and madness. There is no complete system, synthesis, or cosmology that is not imaginary… The system is a mad delirium. Hume shows in the hypothesis of an independent existence the first step toward this delirium. Subsequently, he studies the manner in which independent existence is formed in ancient and modern philosophy. Ancient philosophy forges the delirium of substances, substantial forms, accidents, and occult qualities – “spectres in the dark.” But the new philosophy has also its ghosts. It thinks it can recuperate reason by distinguishing primary from secondary qualities, but in the end it is no less mad than the other. – Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, p. 83.

Let epistemic verificationism be the view that no knowable proposition is knowable except via a specific method M, e.g. the scientific method. This is frequently combined or conflated with either semantic verificationism, according to which the meaningfulness of is a function (in some sense) of its knowability via M, and ontological verificationism, according to which there is no X such that X (or any proposition p about X) is unknowable via M. By ‘verificationism’ I intend the conjunction of epistemic and ontological verificationism.

As Ladyman et al observe (2007: 61), verificationism “is promoted as a bar against seeking explanation where we have good reason to doubt that it promises anything but temporary psychological satisfaction at the expense of truth.” (Their definition of ‘verificationism’ on p. 29 is a little different to mine, but never mind.) My question in this post will be: where does this “good reason” come from? As they note, verificationism is historically associated with empiricism, and thus really with the quintessential Aristotelean gesture of bringing the Platonists back down to Earth. This is a fascinating gesture, but I have always thought that it was philosophically underdetermined to a certain extent. Be this as it may, these days verificationism is typically read right off of the content of science itself, so we’d better take a look at how this is meant to work. The most common way of doing it, as far as I can see, is in terms of evolutionary theory broadly construed, and/or neuroscience broadly construed. Thus for example witness Lakoff’s and Nuñez’s recent application of cognitive science to mathematics. Somewhat different from this but falling under the same umbrella, witness Krauss’ plea to replace the traditionally philosophical question of nihilism (i.e. why is there something rather than nothing?) with a scientifically tractable surrogate (how does the universe emerge from a primordial quasi-vacuum-like soup?).

Instead of beginning (as Ladyman et al do) with a stark contrast between bad, domesticating metaphysics, and good, science-respecting metaphysics, it is more heuristically apt – because more neutral – to imagine a continuum of strategies each of which attempts to calibrate the heterogenous and incompatible inputs X, Y, Z, etc. into a congruent whole A. This is done either by establishing relations of reductive asymmetry between e.g. X on the one hand and Y and Z on the other; or else by e.g. establishing reductive asymmetry between X and Y whilst eliminating Z altogether. To reiterate, we gently massage the pieces of the puzzle we are given, and then cut off what remains afterward. This involves deciding how to weight the various inputs, so that we know which way to go whenever we reach a fork in the road, as well as whether the fork is merely reductive, or fully eliminative in nature.

Note: Ladyman et al reject the dichotomy of reduction and elimination (p. 253). But they do offer a partially isomorphic distinction between real and non-real patterns, whereby elimination is associated with the latter (either construed as “mere” patterns, as on p. 254, or as not-even-mere-patterns, as on p. 231), and reduction is transmogrified into the “primacy of physics constraint”, which is at least reductive in the sense that sciences other than physics cannot posit real patterns incompatible with physics.

Given this framework, here is the general matter I wish to explore. Typically science-inspired verificationism has two central commitments: to something like the fundamentality or “primacy” of physics (p. 38), and to the critical force of evolutionary biology and neuroscience for buttressing the thesis of verificationism itself and launching periodic raids upon the still succulent villages of luddite philosophy and folk superstition. Thus, specifically, many advocates of scientism and verificationism want to weight the sobering data of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology heavily enough that common sense loses its place at the dinner table altogether. We end up with a sort of error theory of the very concepts of everyday thinking.

However, it is possible to push even further then this, as in the argument between Sheldon and Amy Farrah Fowler (i.e. The Big Bang Theory) about whether physics explains cognitive neuro-biology or vice versa. Again, by focusing on the basic gesture of explanatory asymmetry, which is characteristic of reductionism (as standardly understood) – asymmetry both in the sense that X explains Y but not vice versa, and also in the sense that X subtends (as it were), or underwrites Y, but not vice versa – we are able to tease out an interesting passageway along which critique may venture. Start by distinguishing between the following:

    1. Arguing over whether science as a whole trumps non-science.
    2. Arguing over which part of science is wearing the pants.

It is clear that Ladyman et al take their cue from physics, and their answer to A is ostensibly based upon this. However, it is not clear how verificationism might be exclusively supported by the project of unifying the sciences in terms of the fundamental priority of physics. That is why I said that verificationism has two fundamental commitments. To get such support for verificationism, one either needs some sort of philosophically motivated reductionism (which I said above has always struck me as underdetermined), or else reductionism motivated from within a different part of science, e.g. evolutionary biology or neuroscience. That is where comes in. What is intriguing, then, is the way in which allowing the life and brain sciences to wear the pants can, when pursued consistently and pushed to its logical conclusion, create friction within science.

physical meta-chemistry → chemical meta-biology → biological meta-cognitive science → cognitive meta-physics?

To wit: physicists and mathematicians do not like being told that the content of their disciplines is comprehended by something else that usurps their claim to fundamentality through a combination of reduction and elimination. Indeed it will probably strike any real enthusiast of the former that the latter is deeply anti-scientific (cf. p. 45), i.e. that cognitive science better restrict itself to explaining how e.g. mathematicians are able to do what they take themselves to be doing, and not some other thing. Clearly this is a bridge too far for Ladyman et al – indeed, they are prepared to go quite far in the opposite direction, as is evident when they write (p. 236):

We think there is much attractiveness in the idea that good metaphysics can best ensure its liberation from anthropocentric myths by accepting a requirement for formal articulation, leaving natural languages behind.

This may turn out to be too sanguine. The disconcerting alternative is that we seem to be reaching a point where science is developing its own correlationism, i.e. that it is internalising what was hitherto a largely philosophical debate about the nature of scientific knowledge. That is, we seem to be reaching a point within the development of science akin to the emergence of the meta-critical problem in the years after the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.


  • Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas, (Columbia University Press: 1991).
  • James Ladyman et al, Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, (OUP: 2007).
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4 Responses to verificationism

  1. terenceblake says:

    Deleuze talks about such struggles for primacy in terms of the aspiration to become “the official language of a Pure State” (DIALOGUES, 13). Thus in the French context the ancient supremacy of philosophy has been superseded by new contenders: psychoanalysis, linguistics, and cognitive science (Deleuze doesn’t mention physicalist reductionism because this has far less impact in the visible battle for hegemony in France). In each case we have a new “interiority”, ie the very opposite of the transversality that combines various disciplines on an equal footing to produce new ideas and new explanations. Instead we have the same form of an autonomous discipline (interiority) staking a claim for explanatory primacy over its fellow disciplines. But this self-promotion to primacy and universality is accompanied by a desperate endeavour to formalise and unify the hegemonic discipline, to give it explicit and coherent structure, canonical method, apodictic force. From a fruitful heuristic messiness and multiplicity (diverse partially incompatible hypotheses producing only partially overlapping results) the hegemonic will imposes a unified paradigm or system of judgement. This unificatory interiorisation then functions as what Deleuze calls a “represser of thought”, a rulebook for producing (politically) correct ideas. No wonder mathematicians and physicists resent the incursions of cognitive science – they are too comfortable with their supposed intellectual primacy and academic prestige. Behind the epistemological babble about disinterested research and objectivity as a bulwark against “irrationalism” and “relativism” there is a combat for power, posts, resources, status and funding.

    Personally I do not like to talk in terms of “correlationism” as I believe it to be an ill-formed concept (allying maximum extension with minimum intension). However, if one is going to talk about correlationism in the case of cognitive science’s pretentions to account for science itself, its nature and legitimacy, this can only be the case under an extended acception that I would call “structural correlation”. This nicely captures a little-noticed fact: whenever a physicist leaves off his equations and experiments to declare that everything is made of and reducible to sub-atomic particles (or strings, or spacetime, or whatever) and that all disciplines are ultimately explained by his own he is no longer making a scientific claim inside his discipline but is himself guilty of structural correlationism.

    • JTH says:

      You have highlighted a narrative in Deleuze that I feel ambivalent towards – the “struggle for primacy” between philosophy and its rivals (psychoanalysis, linguistics/logic, cognitive science) read in non-epistemic terms, i.e. without reference to who is right. For Ladyman et al, at least, unity (of the sciences) requires primacy – and since we want the former (i.e. we continuously strive to bring diverse phenomena under the same explanatory scheme), we need the latter. This is the view I tend towards as well, though not without reservation. Perhaps we don’t need unity or primacy – perhaps all we need is real patterns and mathematical models. In any case, I take it that you reject unity. Ladyman et al do discuss this move, but in general they want to enjoy the benefits of honest disunity without the corresponding toil.

      Regarding correlationism, I am sympathetic to the charge that it is an ill-formed concept. Perhaps as a consequence of this, my original observation is unclear. I did not mean to say that the process of/demand for unification itself is correlative, which seems to be where you are going with your notion of “structural correlation”. Nor would I accept that e.g. the physicist must take off his scientist’s hat in order to issue reductive pronouncements (not because I think this is false but because I think it is too easy to assert in this context). As a general point, I believe it is a confusion to think that correlationism is any view that asserts with Meillassoux that the only truths are knowable truths. Better not to classify rationalism for ideal beings (e.g. God) as a species of correlationism, I say. Putting this aside, I think the real issue with correlationism is this: how exactly does the correlationist defeat the subjectalist? More accurately, how does the correlationist prove or demonstrate that subjectalism is false? The more I work on this question (and I have gone through countless confused drafts trying to make sense of it), the more I am resigned to the impossibility of such a proof.

      Thanks for you comment.

  2. terenceblake says:

    Thanks for your very fair and open-minded reply. I too am ambivalent about Deleuze and Guattari’s primacy narrative, in the sense that it still gives philosophy a meta-function of being able to form concepts based on the functions of science and the percepts of art. However, I think they come closest to undoing the primacy of philosophy, that for example Badiou still maintains. Also it excludes the transversality that they defended in earlier works. I do not worry like you about “which is right”, as if we subtract the primacy claim and its reductionism they are all right in that each explains important aspects of the other, and must do so to be complete eg cognitive science must explain, without reduction, scientific cognition and not just error.

    I think that Meillassoux’s use of “correlation” leads to a comic book version of the history of philosophy, and in the strict sense very few important philosophers of the last 100 years have been correlationist. They often consider something like correlationism and eliminate it as a mere preliminary to the serious work. Popper’s critique of the bucket theory of knowledge is a good example, as is Althusser’s critique of the “problematic of the subject” (and this is where the normalien Meillassoux probably got the concept despite rebaptising it and avertising it as new). I try to give a more extended concept of correlation as a positvie overcoming of subjectalism in 4 posts taking off from Katerina Kolozova’s Laruellian analysis:


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