Tag Archive: problems

What aims we pursue

What is the characteristic difference between a scientific theory and a work of fiction? It is not, I hold, that the theory is possibly true while the descriptions in the story are not true, although truth and falsity have something to do with it. The difference is, I suggest, is that the theory and the story are embedded in different critical traditions. They are meant to be judged by quite different traditional standards (even though these standards might have something in common.)

What characterizes the theory is that it is offered as a solution to a scientific problem; that is, either a problem that has arisen before, in the critical discussion of earlier tentative theories, or (perhaps) a problem that discovered by the author of the theory now being offered, but being discovered within the realm of the problems and solutions belonging to the scientific tradition. [289]

Against the autonomy of World 3

Popper (1972, 107-108) presents one of his “standard arguments for the independent existence of the third world” with the help of a thought experiment. Compare the following two situations: (a) All our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our knowledge of them. But books and our capacity to learn from them survive; and (b) all our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our knowledge of them. All books are destroyed, too.

In the second case, Popper argues, it would take much more time for the world to reemerge. I think that this hypothesis is quite plausible. Let us assume it is true. What follows from this? According to Popper (1972, 108), his thought ex­periment demonstrates the “reality, significance, and degree of autonomy of the third world.”

This, however, does not follow from the premises of the thought experiment. Strictly speaking, this thought experiment only demonstrates the significance of books. We may conclude that books, at least some of them, are significant things, which could, under special conditions, decisively influence how the world goes on. If we presuppose, in addition, that books are world 3 objects, then it follows that some world 3 objects are significant things. But the thought experiment itself does not tell us that there is a world 3, and that books are world 3 objects. Books could have great impact yet be physical things. After all, physical things can also significantly change the world, and our life (e.g., the impact of a meteorite).

Popper further illustrates the reality and influence of world 3 by referring to problem situations in science and mathe­matics. As an example, he presents Brouwer’s invention of his theory of the continuum. He cites the following statement by Heyting about Brouwer’s invention: “If recursive functions had been invented before, Brouwer would perhaps not have formed the notion of a choice sequence” (Popper 1972, 109).

The details of this example do not matter. The example illustrates the point in question. Quite plausibly, problem situa­tions may greatly influence the thinking of scientists. But here, too, we have to distinguish between two questions. The first is whether problem situations exert an influence on world 2, and perhaps on world 1. It is quite another question what problem situations are ontologically. They might be world 3 objects, but they might also belong to worlds 1 or 2. Popper’s example teaches us nothing about this question. It only illustrates the impact of problem situations, not their ontological character. [291]

The independence of World 3

Among the inmates of my ‘third world’ [World 3] are, more especially, theoretical systems; but inmates just as important are problems and problem situations. And I will argue that the most important inmates of this world are critical argu­ments, and what may be called—in analogy to a physical state or to a state of consciousness—the state of a discussion or the state of a critical argument; and, of course, the contents of journals, books and libraries. …

Let me repeat one of my standard arguments for the (more or less) independent existence of the third world [World 3].

I consider two thought experiments:

Experiment (1). All our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But libraries and our capacity to learn from them survive. Clearly, after much suffering, our world may get going again.

Experiment (2). As before, machines and tools are destroyed, and our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But this time, all libraries are destroyed also, so that our ca­pacity to learn from books becomes useless.

If you think about these two experiments, the reality, significance, and degree of autonomy of the third world [World 3] (as well as its effects on the second and first worlds [Worlds 2 and 1]) may perhaps become a little clearer to you. For in the second case, there will be no re-emergence of our civilization for many millenia. [107-8]

No such thing as a scientific “discipline”

Neunte These: Ein sogenanntes wissenschaftliches Fach ist nur ein abgegrenztes und konstruiertes Konglomerat von Problemen und Lösungsversuchen. Was es aber wirklich gibt, das sind die Probleme und die wissenschaftlichen Traditionen. [84]

Better problems, closer to the truth

[T]heories are steps in our search for truth – or to be both more explicit and more modest, in our search for better and better solutions of deeper and deeper problems (where ‘better and better’ means, as we shall see, ‘nearer and nearer to the truth’). [154-5]

Working with false theories

Whether we should work with a theory that we know to be false or eliminate our error will depend almost entirely on our alternatives, and on the problem that they are supposed to solve. [406]

The primary task of science

The primary task of science is not to differentiate the true from the false—it is to solve scientific problems. [406]

Aping the physical sciences

Some of the things which put me out of step and which I like to criticize are:

(1) Fashions: I do not believe in fashions, trends, tendencies, or schools, either in science or in philosophy. In fact, I think that the history of mankind could well be described as a history of outbreaks of fashionable philosophical and religious maladies. These fashions can have only one serious function—that of evoking criticism. Nonetheless I do believe in the rationalist tradition of a commonwealth of learning, and in the urgent need to preserve this tradition.

(2) The aping of physical science: I dislike the attempt, made in fields outside the physical sciences, to ape the physical sciences by practising their alleged ‘methods’—measurement and ‘induction from observation’. The doctrine that there is as much science in a subject as there is mathematics in it, or as much as there is measurement or ‘precision’ in it, rests upon a complete misunderstanding. On the contrary, the following maxim holds for all sciences: Never aim at more precision than is required by the problem in hand.  [7]

The recklessly critical quest for truth

With the idol of certainty (including that of degrees of imperfect certainty or probability) there falls one of the defences of obscurantism which bar the way of scientific advance. For the worship of this idol hampers not only the boldness of our questions, but also the rigour and the integrity of our tests. The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.

Has our attitude, then, to be one of resignation? Have we to say that science can fulfill only its biological task; that it can, at best, merely prove its mettle in practical applications which may corroborate it? Are its intellectual problems insolu­ble? I do not think so. Science never pursues the illusory aim of making its answers final, or even probable. Its advance is, rather, towards an infinite yet attainable aim: that of ever discovering new, deeper, and more general problems, and of subjecting our ever tentative answers to ever renewed and ever more rigorous tests. [281]

Science begins with problems

Science begins with observation, says Bacon, and this saying is an integral part of the Baconian religion. It is still widely accepted, and still repeated ad nauseam in the introductions to even some of the best textbooks in the field of the physical and biological sciences.

I propose to replace this Baconian formula by another one.

Science, we may tentatively say, begins with theories, with prejudices, superstitions, and myths. Or rather, it begins when a myth is challenged and breaks down – that is, when some of our expectations are disappointed. But this means that science begins with problems, practical problems or theoretical problems. [95]

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