Conjectures and Criticisms, pt. 2

In critical rationalism, duhem, empiricism, experiments, popper, quine on 11/07/2011 at 12:03 am

Teacher: Previously, we touched on how non-scientific statements play a bigger role than Popper first acknowledged. Gamma, you said yesterday that you disagreed with Sigma’s description of the scientific process?

Gamma: Yes, I was getting at that there is a significant problem in Popper’s methodology of scientific progress, namely the very act of falsifying a theory. As we know from Duhem, no scientific theory can ever be conclusively refuted —
Sigma: — of course, that very problem took up a considerable portion of Popper’s first book —
Gamma: — yes, yes, I’m getting to that. But first, we should see if we agree on Popper’s solution in response to Duhem, which does not, at least as I see it, agree with his original solution to the demarcation problem. For instance, throughout his writings, he explicitly apes some aspects of Poincare’s conventionalism regarding which scientific theories we ought to adopt, but he transfers this decision-making process to which observation reports (or ‘existential statements’, they’re all the same to me) we ought to adopt.
Sigma: You and I both know that. What is your point?
Alpha: While I may be a bit Quineian at heart, I’ll still do my best to defend Popper’s own work on scientific methodology and behavior, but only by making it as strong as possible. I conjecture that he leans towards reformulating the demarcation problem as one of scientific vs. pseudo-scientific behavior: First, the scientist attempts, as best she can, to propose a scientific theory that is testable (that is, it may contradict some existential state of affairs) and then do their best to bring about this state of affairs, or falsifying instance. (Personally, I do not think this is possible, but bear with me; I’m only sketching out his reformulation of the problem).
Sigma: Wait. Before we go any further, I think we best discuss whether or not Quine or Popper is correct.
Alpha: That can wait until later. Assume that Popper is correct, I will give it my best defense, and then demolish it in due time. Where was I? Second, when encountering this falsifying instance, the scientist may do their best to determine if the falsifying instance was mistaken in some way (for example, the experimental setup may have been poorly calibrated), but under no circumstances should the scientist redefine her terms so as to engage in monster-barring. The pseudo-scientist, on the other hand, engages in monster-barring, or refuses to admit the falsifying instance as reputable. We now have a program that is far more advanced than the naive Popperianism we started out with. It involves social mores — and places science within the social realm, involving ethical values of honesty and admissions of fallibility, and is far more well-rounded.
Delta: So Popper’s original solution has then shifted from a quasi-positivist solution that focuses on the essential characteristics of sentences to how we behave in relation to our theories. I will gladly accept this stronger restatement and defense as Popper’s new solution to the demarcation problem. In fact, I think it superior to Gamma’s position while incorporating the social life into epistemology. History is already clouded by the present; we shouldn’t look for any deeper meanings in the past, since, if Kuhn demonstrated anything, it’s that history is rife with enough examples to support any philosophy of science.
Gamma: I disagree, but that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, I think we better turn back to Alpha’s critique of this new and improved Popperianism.
Alpha: I was planning on giving the Quineian objection, rather than the Duhemian objection, to observation reports. Or existential statements, or individual synthetic statements, what have you. They’re all the same to me: their meaning is fixed in a web, so that any observation report cannot be understood in isolation. When an individual synthetic statement contradicts a theory, we cannot know at the time if there is some auxiliary hypothesis or assumption that was wrong. They face the tribunal as a group, not as individuals.
Delta: What you’ve said is perfectly compatible with your new and improved Popper. I decide, provisionally, of course, to adopt the results of an experiment. If I cannot find something wrong with the experimental setup, and I try my hardest to criticize the experiment and come up short, then what is there stopping me from tentatively rejecting the theory as false? The scientist cannot by definition be Quineian, since if she should make ad hoc adjustments to his theories, she would behave just like the pseudo-scientists she’s just decried. She’s willing to dogmatically hold on to any theory come what may be redefining their terms so that they do not face any tribunal!
Sigma: Well I find something deeply problematic with this reformulation: we’ve lost the cut-and-dried process of conjecture and refutation. With your conventionalism there’s no way to determine if we’ve correctly falsified our theories!
Teacher: You may not like this outcome, but the other students require more than just your dissent. Do you see a way to salvage your position?
Sigma: I think so. Quine is elucidating on a thoroughly unenlightening truism. If someone were to put forward the false theory that “Black Label beer is highly toxic to humans,” this theory could be saved from refutation in the face of the thousands of people that routinely partake in the bubbly, but slightly metallic-tasting, beverage by making a drastic adjustment in our system: changing the rules of English so that the term ‘Black Label beer’ is instead that of the term ‘cyanide’. When you say ‘Black Label beer’, you really mean ‘cyanide’.
Alpha: But if holism were false, then one ought to be able to arrive at an acceptable theory of confirmation for individual synthetic statements. Since we’re unable to accomplish this task, Quine’s reductio is complete.
Delta: But it’s not a proper reductio: from what I can tell, your argument is intended to go both ways. His rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction establishes his holism … and adopting his holism establishes the rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction. It’s little more than arguing in a vicious circle!
Alpha: Please, it all hinges on the failure to segregate sentences of theories into analytic and synthetic boxes, when the boundary is not so hard and fast: if synthetic statements are supposedly held contingently on experience and analytic statements are held come what may, what of the fact that any statement can be held true come what may? We need only make a drastic adjustment somewhere else in the system.
Sigma: Yes, but you’re now presupposing the truth of Quine’s holism!
Alpha: No, we’re running in circles now. Quine’s holism may be based on his rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction and his rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction may rest on his holism. I’ll grant that for now, but both rest on the failure of any acceptable theory of confirmation of individual synthetic statements. Thus, even though you may dislike my conclusions, I am perfectly able and willing to adopt Quine’s alternative system, unless you can provide an acceptable theory of confirmation of individual synthetic statements …
Delta: Why not just adopt your earlier elaboration on, and strengthening of, Popper’s original work? I think it best that when we intersubjectively agree on the status of individual synthetic statements, we tentatively adopt these individual synthetic statements. Don’t focus on the ‘I’, since I am blind to the existence of my own blind-spots, but focus on the ‘we’! If this doesn’t facilitate criticism, what will? If someone disagrees with the group’s findings, they’re more than welcome to state their case in an open place of assembly, or a published book, or on the radio, no? While this agreement may not be correct, it certainly is better than adopting its negation. And since it’s not committed to come what may, if a dissident thinks they’ve found something wrong with it, the discussion can then resume. Do you anything wrong with this proposal?
Alpha: You’ve made it a matter of social convention. Or, if I were to rephrase it a different way, a conclusion based on the tyranny of the majority. You’re dangerously close to Kuhn’s dogmatic commitment of the community of scientists.
Sigma: I see nothing of the sort. It’s only contingent on people following the process of conjecture and (sigh) tentative refutation. You’ve just inserted the social relations of science into epistemology — and that only complicates things.
Delta: No, it’s the normative aspects that keep the tyranny of the majority in check. We’ve moved on from the logical to the methodological — or social (perhaps even ethical?) — aspect of science. It’s not about commitment; it’s about criticism!
Gamma: But what of the progress of science? By stressing the social aspects, we’ve neglected progressive or degenerative research programs. This answers Quine by examining how ad hoc our theories become when confronted with monsters. The more ad hoc, the more regressive, and therefore the less scientific they become. It’s perfectly permissible to redefine — no, clarify — our terms as long as our theories continue to be progressive in increased content. … But enough! Perhaps we’ve been spiraling out from the center, and should focus back on the original problem: I think that we’ve reached the point that I can safely say that Popper’s solution is irrelevant because the problem is irrelevant, and I can demonstrate this with ease.
Teacher: I’m sure you can, but by my watch we have fifteen seconds to go before the period ends. We’ll meet tomorrow and see if Gamma’s conjecture can withstand the pressure.

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