Strict logical analysis only gets you nowhere

I am quite ready to admit that there is a need for a purely logical analysis of theories, for an analysis which takes no account of how they change and develop. But this kind of analysis does not elucidate those aspects of the empirical sciences which I, for one, so highly prize. A system such as classical mechanics may be ‘scientific’ to any degree you like; but those who uphold it dogmatically—believing, perhaps, that it is their business to defend such a successful system against criticism as long as it is not conclusively disproved—are adopting the very reverse of that critical attitude which in my view is the proper one for the scientist. In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be pro­duced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable, or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding. (In the struggle against Einstein, both these arguments were often used in support of Newtonian mechanics, and similar arguments abound in the field of the social sciences.) If you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are.

If therefore we characterize empirical science merely by the formal or logical structure of its statements, we shall not be able to exclude from it that prevalent form of metaphysics which results from elevating an obsolete scientific theory into an incontrovertible truth.

Such are my reasons for proposing that empirical science should be characterized by its methods: by our manner of dealing with scientific systems: by what we do with them and what we do to them. Thus I shall try to establish the rules, or if you will the norms, by which the scientist is guided when he is engaged in research or in discovery, in the sense here understood. [28-9]

1 comment

  1. Two things. 1. The situation in mathematics and logic with respect to “conclusive (dis)proof” is in no way dif­ferent. 2. Cf. Notturno’s The power of logic: logic can never dictate a choice; a choice is at the heart of any judgment. This refers to what Popper meant when he talked about “common purpose”.

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