Tag Archive: problems

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]

How to get acquainted with a problem

We start, I say, with a problem – a difficulty. It is perhaps a practical problem, or a theoretical problem. Whatever it may be, when we first encounter the problem we cannot, obviously, know much about it. At best, we have only a vague idea what our problem really consists of. How, then, can we produce an adequate solution? Obviously, we cannot. We must first get better acquainted with the problem. But how?

My answer is very simple: by producing a very inadequate solution, and by criticizing this inadequate solution. Only in this way can we come to understand the problem. For to understand a problem means to understand why it is not easily soluble – why the more obvious solutions do not work. We must therefore produce these obvious solutions and try to find out why they will not do. In this way, we become acquainted with the problem. And in this way we may proceed from bad solutions to slightly better ones – provided always that we have the ability to guess again. [97-8]

Science: learning from our mistakes

The tension between our knowledge and our ignorance is decisive for the growth of knowledge. It inspires the advance of knowledge, and it determines its ever-moving frontiers.

The word ‘problem’ is only another name for this tension or rather, a name denoting various concrete instances of it.

As I suggested above, a problem arises, grows, and becomes significant through our failures to solve it. Or to put it an­other way, the only way of getting to know a problem is to learn from our mistakes.

This applies to pre-scientific knowledge and to scientific knowledge.

My view of the method of science is, very simply, that it systematizes the pre-scientific method of learning from our mis­takes. It does so by the device called critical discussion.

My whole view of scientific method may be summed up by saying that it consists of these three steps:

1. We stumble over some problem.
2. We try to solve it, for example by proposing some theory.
3. We learn from our mistakes, especially from those brought home to us by the critical discussion of our tentative solutions – a discussion which tends to lead to new problems.

Or in three words: problems – theories – criticism.

I believe that in these three words the whole procedure of rational science may be summed up. [100-1]

Science: a growing system of problems

It seems to me that most philosophers of science use the term ‘accepted’ or ‘acceptable’ as a substitute for ‘believed in’ or ‘worthy of being believed in’. There may be a lot of theories in science that are true and therefore worthy of being be­lieved in. But according to my view of the matter, this worthiness is no concern of science. For science does not attempt positively to justify or to establish this worthiness. On the contrary, it is mainly concerned with criticizing it. It regards, or should regard, the overthrow of even its most admirable and beautiful theories as a triumph, an advance. For we cannot overthrow a good theory without learning an immense amount from it and from its failure. As always, we learn from our mistakes.

The overthrow of a theory always creates new problems. But even if a new theory is not yet overthrown, it will, as we have seen from the example of Bohr’s theory, create new problems. And the quality, the fertility, and the depth of the new problems which a theory creates are the best measures of its intrinsic scientific interest.

To sum up, the question of the acceptance of theories should, I propose, be demoted to the status of a minor problem. For science may be regarded as a growing system of problems, rather than as a system of beliefs. And for a system of problems, the tentative acceptance of a theory or a conjecture means hardly more than that it is considered worthy of further criticism. [103]

Older posts «

» Newer posts