Tag Archive: theory

More falsificationism strawmen going up in flames

A second familiar approach from the same period is Karl Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ criterion, which fares no better. Apart from the fact that it leaves ambiguous the scientific status of virtually every singular existential statement, however well supported (e.g., the claim that there are atoms, that there is a planet closer to the sun than the Earth, that there is a missing link), it has the untoward consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just so long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came to pass) would cause them to change their minds. [121]

Popper on Duhem–Quine’s naive falsificationism

The falsifying mode of inference here referred to—the way in which the falsification of a conclusion entails the falsifi­cation of the system from which it is derived—is the modus tollens of classical logic. It may be described as follows:

Let p be a conclusion of a system t of statements which may consist of theories and initial conditions (for the sake of simplicity I will not distinguish between them). We may then symbolize the relation of derivability (analytical implication) of p from t by ‘t ➙ p’ which may be read: ‘p follows from t ’. Assume p to be false, which we may write ‘p’, to be read ‘not-p’. Given the relation of deducibility, t ➙ p, and the assumption p, we can then infer t  (read ‘not-t ’); that is, we regard t as falsified. If we denote the conjunction (simultaneous assertion) of two statements by putting a point between the symbols standing for them, we may also write the falsifying inference thus: ((t ➙ p).p) ➙ t , or in words: ‘If p is derivable from t, and if p is false, then t also is false’.

By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification.* With this is connected the following possibility: we may, in some cases, perhaps in consideration of the levels of universality, attribute the falsification to some definite hypothesis—for instance to a newly introduced hypothesis. This may happen if a well-corroborated theory, and one which continues to be further corroborated, has been deductively explained by a new hypothesis of a higher level. The attempt will have to be made to test this new hypothesis by means of some of its consequences which have not yet been tested. If any of these are falsified, then we may well attribute the falsification to the new hypothesis alone. We shall then seek, in its stead, other high-level generalizations, but we shall not feel obliged to regard the old system, of lesser generality, as having been falsified.

* Thus we cannot at first know which among the various statements of the remaining sub-system t ′ (of which p is not independent) we are to blame for the falsity of p; which of these statements we have to alter, and which we should retain. (I am not here discussing interchangeable statements.) It is often only the scientific instinct of the investigator (influenced, of course, by the results of testing and re-testing) that makes him guess which statements of t ′ he should regard as innocuous, and which he should regard as being in need of modification. Yet it is worth remembering that it is often the modification of what we are inclined to regard as obviously innocuous (because of its complete agreement with our normal habits of thought) which may produce a decisive advance. A notable example of this is Einstein’s modification of the concept of simultaneity. [55-6]

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]

The mistaken theory of objectivity

No doubt the idea which inspires the inductive style—the idea of adhering strictly to the observed facts and of excluding bias and prejudice—is laudable. And no doubt those trained to write in this way are unaware that this laudable and apparently safe idea is itself the mistaken result of a prejudice—worse still, of a philosophical prejudice—and of a mistaken theory of objectivity. (Objectivity is not the result of disinterested and unprejudiced observation. Objectivity, and also unbiased observation, are the result of criticism, including the criticism of observational reports. For we cannot avoid or suppress our theories, or prevent them from influencing our observations; yet we can try to recognize them as hypotheses and to formulate them explicitly, so that they may be criticized.) [48]

Slaying the hydra of verisimilitude

In my view, trying to measure verisimilitude by counting a theory’s true or false consequences always missed the point. Every false theory has the same number (if we can really talk this way) of true and false consequences as every other. This is a consequence of the truth-functional nature of our logical connectives and the truth-functional definition of validity. But some false statements are still closer to the truth than others. [411]

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]

Critical discussion is always comparative

It is most important to see that a critical discussion always deals with more than one theory at a time. For in trying to assess the merits or demerits even of one theory, it always must try to judge whether the theory in question is an advance: whether it explains things that we have been unable to explain so far – that is to say, with the help of older theories. [160]

A Kuhnian invasion of creeps and incompetents

Kuhn’s ideas are interesting but, alas, they are much too vague to give rise to anything but lots of hot air. If you don’t believe me, look at the literature. Never before has the literature on the philosophy of science been invaded by so many creeps and incompetents. Kuhn encourages people who have no idea why a stone falls to the ground to talk with assurance about scientific method. Now I have no objection to incompetence but I do object when incompetence is accompanied by boredom and self-righteousness. [68]

[Paul Feyerabend: ‘How to Defend Society against Science’]

Kuhnian success

In the last twenty years, however, a new generation has come to dominate the history, philosohpy and sociology of science. They take Structure as the unproblematic foundation for its inquiries – as if the original criticisms had never been made. Certainly Kuhn never answered the criticisms, and the current generation of science studies practitioners is sufficiently beholden to Structure not to want to answer them. One thing must be said in Kuhn’s behalf: he succeeded according to the terms set out by his own theory. [40−1]

Without criticism no progress

But the most important misunderstandings and muddles arise out of the loose way in which dialecticians speak about contradictions.

They observe, correctly, that contradictions are of the greatest importance in the history of thought—precisely as impor­tant as is criticism. For criticism invariably consists in pointing out some contradiction; either a contradiction within the theory criticized, or a contradiction between the theory and another theory which we have some reason to accept, or a contradiction between the theory and certain facts—or more precisely, between the theory and certain statements of fact. Criticism can never do anything except either point out some such contradiction, or, perhaps, simply contradict the theory (i.e. the criticism may be simply the statement of an antithesis). But criticism is, in a very important sense, the main motive force of any intellectual development. Without contradictions, without criticism, there would be no rational motive for changing our theories: there would be no intellectual progress. [424]

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