Tag Archive: falsification

Corroboration and refutation

Well, Popperians might speak of a theory being the best available for use in practice, given a certain problem-situation. And the most important features of a problem-situation are: what theories and explanations are in contention, what arguments have been advanced, and what theories have been refuted. ‘Corroboration’ is not just the confirmation of the winning theory. It requires the experimental refutation of rival theories. Confirming instances in themselves have no significance. …

Under inductivism, observation was supposed to be primary. One imagined a mass of past observations from which the theory was supposed to be induced, and observations also constituted the evidence which somehow justified the theory. In the Popperian picture of scientific progress, it is not observations but problems, controversies, theories and criticism that are primary. Experiments are designed and performed only to resolve controversies. Therefore only experimental results that actually do refute a theory – and not just any theory, it must have been a genuine contender in a rational controversy – constitute ‘corroboration’. And so it is only those experiments that provide evidence for the reliability of the winning theory. …

And even then, the ‘reliability’ that corroboration confers is not absolute but only relative to the other contending theories. That is, we expect the strategy of relying on corroborated theories to select the best theories from those that are proposed. That is a sufficient basis for action. We do not need (and could not validly get) any assurance about how good even the best proposed course of action will be. Furthermore, we may always be mistaken, but so what? We cannot use theories that have yet to be proposed; nor can we correct errors that we cannot yet see. [148-9]

On superior explanations

If a theory about observable events is untestable – that is, if no possible observation would rule it out – then it cannot by itself explain why those events happen in the way they are observed to and not in some other way. For example, the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phe­nomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior. This rule is often cited as distinguishing science from other types of knowledge-creation. But if we take the view that science is about explanations, we see that this rule is really a special case of something that applies naturally to all problem-solving: theories that are capable of giving more detailed explanations are automatically preferred. They are preferred for two reasons. One is that a theory that ‘sticks its neck out’ by being more specific about more phenomena opens up itself and its rivals to more forms of criticism, and therefore has more chance of taking the problem-solving process forward. The second is simply that, if such a theory survives the criticism, it leaves less unexplained – which is the object of the exercise. [66]

The power of logic

Most people think that the purpose of an argument is to justify its conclusion — and to thereby establish its certainty — and that the problem with inductive arguments is that they fail to establish their conclusions with objective certainty since their conclusions may be false even if all of their premises are true. But this entirely confuses the issue, and it has even enabled inductivists to take the high ground in the debate, arguing that objective certainty is an impossible dream, and that inductive arguments are not, as a consequence, at fault for failing to achieve it.

But if the uncertainty of their conclusions were the problem with inductive arguments, then we would also have a similar problem with deductive arguments. For the premises of a deductive argument may be false. And the conclusion of a deductive argument may be false as well.

Contrary to what most people think, logical arguments cannot establish the truth, let alone the certainty, of their con­clusions. And so contrary to what most people think, the problem with inductive arguments has nothing to do with the uncertainty of their conclusions.

The best that a logical argument can do is test the truth of a statement. But it can do this only by showing that its falsity is inconsistent with the truth of other statements that can only be tested and never proved. Our so-called ‘proof’ methods are really techniques for testing consistency. And the demonstration that a ‘conclusion’ follows from a ‘premise’ shows only that the falsity of the ‘conclusion’ is inconsistent with the truth of the ‘premise.’

That is all that is involved.

But so long as we regard contradictions as unacceptable, it is really quite a lot.

The inconsistency that marks a valid deductive argument — the inconsistency, that is, between the truth of is premises and the falsity of its conclusion — cannot force us to accept the truth of any belief. But it can force us, if we want to avoid contradicting ourselves, to reexamine our beliefs, and to choose between the truth of some beliefs and the falsity of others — because the falsity of the conclusion of a valid argument is inconsistent with the truth of its premises. …

And this is just another way of saying that what we call a proof actually presents us with the choice between accepting its conclusion and rejecting its premises. …

We construct logical arguments in order to persuade others of our beliefs. But the best we can do is to clarify a choice that they have to make. Inductive arguments, however, cannot even do this. [86-7]

Respecting others’ opinions

The aim in an open society is not to put up with ideas with which we disagree. It is to take them seriously and to criticize them—not necessarily as a way of condemning them, but as a way of trying to understand them, and of testing whether or not they are true, and learning from them, even if learning from them means learning how and where they go wrong.

This is what Popper meant when he said that open society is ‘based on the idea of not merely tolerating dissenting opinions but respecting them.’ Open society is based on respect for other people, for their freedom and autonomy as rational agents—or, as Kant would have put it, for people as ends in themselves. It is not that we regard their ideas as evils that we have to tolerate for civility’s sake. And it is not even that we regard them as the ideas of other people who have just as much right to ideas as ourselves. That, at best, would be paternalism. And it would have nothing at all to do with a recognition of our own fallibility. Respect, on the contrary, means that we take the dissenting opinions of others seriously, and that we regard them as possibly true. It means, in fact, that we treat them as potentially our own—since we want to discover the truth and since we recognize that we may be in error—and it means, for this reason, that we try to do everything in our power to criticize them and to show that they are false. [33]

The dragon delusion

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. [171]

Science: the prototypical tool of human progress

I think that science works by a careful balance of two apparently contradictory impulses. One, a synthetic, holistic, hypothesis-spinning capability, which some people believe is localized in the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, and an analytic, skeptical, scrutinizing capability, which some people believe is localized in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. And it is only the mix of these two, the generating of creative hypotheses and the scrupulous rejection of those that do not correspond to the facts that permit science or any other human activity, I believe, to make progress. [248]

Feynman’s philosophy of science

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. [212]

When can an opinion be relied on?

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for con­testing it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right. [ch. II, 26]

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