Conjectures and Criticisms

In critical rationalism on 02/07/2011 at 2:02 pm

Teacher: I will give a quick recap of our last lesson: We discarded the Logical Positivist solution to the demarcation problem as leaving far too many statements in that would qualify as ‘science’ and leaving out strictly universal statements as ‘meaningless’. We moved on to Popper’s original solution to the demarcation problem. It attempts to cleave scientific statements from non-scientific (or pseduo-scientific) statements by proposing that scientific statements are falsifiable, while non-scientific statements are not. Has anyone found a problem with this solution?

Pupil Sigma: Of course not. It’s quite elegant in its formulation, and I cannot find any obvious problem with it: does it leave anything out? I cannot see anything. Does it allow too much in? Of course not. Even some supernatural claims are allowed, but this agrees with the behavior of many a skeptic today: they’ve routinely weighed religious myths and found them wanting. The Earth is not 6,000 years old, of course. Is it self-contradictory, like the Logical Positivist definition of meaning? Clearly not: it neatly separates what is science from pseudo-science, but it does not separate meaningful from meaningless sentences. It’s superior to the Logical Positivist solution in every way!

Pupil Delta: Then you should call it a ‘definitive and final solution,’ not a ‘proposal.’

Teacher: While ‘definitive and final’ does imply superiority, superiority does not imply ‘definitive and final’. Perhaps we should hold off on claiming that Popper’s solution is the conclusion. Endings are just another form of beginnings: Think of it as a conjectured proposal, a jumping-off point for us to discuss its relative merits and demerits.

Delta: In that case, since no historical counterexample could refute Popper’s theory, what would suffice a ‘demerit’?

Pupil Alpha: I think I have one. Later Popper, along with Lakatos, allowed for non-scientific statements into the scientific oeuvre by introducing his metaphysical research programs (Lakatos’s scientific research programs is a mutated strain of Popper’s): specific non-scientific statements may provide immense use to scientists, open up new vista for exploration, imply new theories that may be tested, and yet may not be directly testable. Why, then, would Popper add something so ‘inelegant’ to something so elegant?

Sigma: He must have fallen sway to the historicism inherent in Lakatos’s work. He did make mistakes, after all. I will stay with Popper’s original formulation unless you present a good argument as to why I should abandon it, Alpha.

Alpha: With pleasure. I am making a conjecture of Popper’s mindset later in life, but it appears that he saw that non-scientific statements were extremely important in the history of science. Determinism and indeterminism, for instance, were important scientific frameworks, or metaphysical research programs, as is early Greek atomism. All three gave birth to some of the most revolutionary theories in the history of science. The falsifiability criterion is too restrictive, in the sense that it forbade specific sentences from admission to the fold.

Delta: You’re just complicating things, and I’m suspicious of this Lakatosian turn.

Teacher: Suspicion is not criticism.

Delta: Then is reducing the Lakatosian counter-proposal to the Popperian proposal sufficient?

Teacher: Certainly.

Delta: Look at the original formulation: you’ll see that it does not forbid scientists from believing whatever they wish. They could be influenced by any number of things, including vague frameworks of the nature of the universe. The universe ‘operates like clockwork’, or ‘like a large buzzing cloud of gnats’, etc. These frameworks — excuse me, ‘metaphysical research programs’ — were certainly important stepping-stones for the formulation of later scientific theories, but they’re clearly not scientific; they’re just the biases of individual scientists. They’re delegated to philosophy, where nothing can be resolved. I say we should cast them into the flames, or at least the scientist should not pay attention to them.

Alpha: Recall during the 20th century the emergence of the philosopher-scientist debating how probability should be interpreted: Einstein, Durac, Schrödinger —

Delta: — yes, a brief foray for scientists into wasting their time pontificating in armchairs. They accomplished nothing of importance besides producing a constantly-proliferating group of interpretations of QM.

Alpha: Debatable, but I think we’ve been sidetracked: we shouldn’t address the psychological makeup of the individual scientist; we should focus on what amounts to scientific progress. In that case, we should pay close attention to whether or not metaphysical statements, even when held implicitly, have been integral to progress in science. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at half the picture with the other half obscured.

Sigma: Scientific progress can be reduced to replacing our falsified theories with new theories that correct the errors in the falsified theory, and have a greater logical content than the falsified theory.

Pupil Gamma: I see a problem with your formulation, but … maybe we should address this tomorrow. As you were saying?

Sigma: Well, if I am correct, then progress is explained by increasing content. Extraneous additions like ‘metaphysical research programs’ add nothing but objectifying the biases of individual scientists in Popper’s formulation while simultaneously not providing a significant ‘demerit’ to it.

Gamma: Of course, the later Popper’s revision is not the end to the early Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem, since metaphysical theories, while permitted in science, are still not directly testable. They function like Polanyi’s ‘heuristics’, useful modes of thinking about the world. However, this solution weakens the falsifiability criterion far too much. Some non-scientific sentences are permitted, but not others. How can we determine which is permitted? Whichever one is useful at the time? How uninformative; how arbitrary!

Pupil Kappa: It does not look arbitrary to me. Metaphysical statements do not wish to adopt the mantle of ‘scientific theory’; they’re conceptual hangers-on to scientific theories, like riders to a bill: if the bill is passed, the rider is passed as well, and is integrated into our conceptual framework; or maybe they’re like oxpeckers on a rhinoceros: they form a symbiotic relationship, where as long as they survive they open up new avenues for scientists to explore!

Sigma: I still haven’t heard an argument from either of you as to why these statements constitute anything but the imaginative aspect behind the creation of theories.

Gamma: Then think of Lakatos: I’ll go beyond Alpha and assert that these ‘imaginative aspects’ or frameworks have historically played central roles to scientific discussions. In fact, they appear to be at the ‘core’ of these satellite theories: the theories orbit this central concept; smaller theories about existential statements orbit the satellites; with even smaller theories about our experimental setup, our biased observations, and auxiliary hypotheses orbit them as well; and so on. There’s something important going on in these discussions, and you are downplaying them. They’re at the heart of scientific criticism, and should not be relegated to the periphery.

Sigma: That is because they are unimportant to scientific progress: You say that we’ve been obscuring half of the picture, but really it’s just the frame(work) that surrounds the picture. When in the museum, you don’t spend your time looking at frames, now do you? You shut out everything around the painting: the color of the walls, the EXIT signs, the people milling about. All that matters in the history of science is the replacement of theories over time through trial and error, and this only requires a never-ending process of conjecturing falsifiable theories and attempts at empirical refutation. All that matters is the picture.

Alpha: Are you sure you’re not a positivist in Popperian clothing?

Teacher: Put these problems aside for the moment. We seem to be running in circles about the importance of the history of science. I think we — Oh, there’s the bell. We can pick up the problem from where we left off tomorrow.


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