Trashing Popper, Balashov and Rosenberg 2002

Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings eds Yuri Balachov and Alex Rosenberg Routledge 2002

This 520 page book has 29 chapters grouped under Part I, Science and Philosophy (2 chapters), Part II Explanation, Causation and Laws (6 chapters), Part III Scientific Theories and Conceptual Change (3 chapters), Part IV Scientific Realism (4 chapters), Part V Testing and Confirmation of Theories (9 chapters), Part VI Science in Context: The Challenge of History and Sociology (5 chapters).

Surprisingly the bibliography only occupies four pages, suggesting that for all the ground covered, the pool of “essential” reading is not very large.

From the Popperians there is the Lakatos and Musgrave (eds) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, and Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery (as though he produced nothing new after 1934!).

At the end of each section there are suggestions for further reading but these only list items in the four-page bibliography.

Popper is mentioned several times and two pieces of his writing are included.

Chapter 17 is the first two sections, (six pages of 32) from “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”, Chapter 1 of Conjectures and Refutations.

Chapter 18 is two pages from Popper’s intellectual autobiography in The Philosophy of Karl Popper (1974), reprinted as Unended Quest.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that these selections are designed to note the existence of Popper but only in a way that makes his contribution appear to be minor and misguided.

The passage from Quest records that Popper at that time regarded Darwinism as a metaphysical research program “I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program – a possible framework for testable scientific theories”.

That is a position that has been frequently cited to demonstrate that Popper was out of touch, and it is a position which he subsequently rejected as a mistake (can’t recall where that is recorded). If the editors wanted to take account of Popper’s views in a fair and balanced way, compiling a book for publication in 2002 they should have recorded his change of position and also referred to his fuller treatment of metaphysical research programs in the third volume of The Postscript Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (1982).

The section of Conjectures and Refutations is almost as bad, by omission. They could have included the appendix to the chapter which lists a suite of live scientific problems that Popper was working on – (1) the frequency theory of probability, (2) propensity interpretations of probability in Quantum Theory, (3) the problem of the refutability of statistical statements, (4) problems in the interpretation of the formalism of quantum theory, (5) determinism, (6) problems of simplicity and content in theories, (7) the problem of avoiding ad hocness when revising theories to overcome adverse test results (8) the relationship between the layers of explanatory theories in complex and highly developed fields, especially the contradictions between Newton and his predecessors, and the contradictions between Einstein and Newton (9) a host of problems connected with operationalism, and instrumentalism, and the need for a general theory of measurement, (10) the problem of explanation itself, degrees of explanatory power, the relationship of explanation and prediction, (11) the relationship between explanation in the natural and human sciences (which may be analogous to the problem of explanation in the pure and applied sciences, (12) scientific objectivity and the sociology of knowledge.

That would have conveyed the idea of Popper as a man at work, not just a shadowy figure who challenged the positivists in the 1930s and then had funny ideas about Darwinism in the 1970s. That would have also indicated that Popper had moved on from Marxism and psychoanalysis (which were mentioned in the first two sections of the chapter). It is often reported that Popper rejected Marxism and psychoanalysis as the paradigms of non-science (and so of no account) but a nuanced reading reveals that Popper regarded some forms of Marxism as falsifiable (and falsified) and some Marxists responded by making their theories untestable. As for psychoanalysis, he thought there was much truth to be explored by more rigorous thinking. It is a great shame that he never encountered Suttie’s drastic revision and criticism of Freud, which appeared in the same year as Logic der Forschung (1936).

Going back to the beginning of the book, the first chapter is a 1931 lecture by Moritz Schlick “The Future of Philosophy” which spelled out the official program of the logical positivists and later the logical empiricists. The philosophers had to renounce any claim to genuine knowledge or investigation and should do conceptual analysis to sharpen up the terms in use by scientists. “All real problems are scientific questions, there are no others”.

This doctrine came from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Popper challenged that proposition when he faced Wittgenstein at the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, citing the problem of induction as a real problem for philosophy.

For Schlick …“Thus the fate of all ‘philosophical problems’ is this: Some of them will disappear by being shown to be mistakes and misunderstandings of our language and the others will be found to be ordinary scientific questions in disguise. These remarks, I think, determine the whole future of philosophy”.

Moving on to the second chapter by Alex Rosenberg “Biology and its Philosophy”, first published in 1985. He describes the rise and fall of Logical Positivism, which he says “has certainly been the most important movement in the twentieth-century philosophy of science”. [The  bibliography includes Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic and the collection of papers on logical positivism which he edited in 1959].

One could describe this as the rise and fall of LP and he would agree to a point, although he sees logical empiricism emerging from LP through the critical endeavours of the positivists. As to the motives, doctrines and difficulties of LP he wrote:

“The motives were laudable, the doctrines striking, and the difficulties insurmountable”. 

The most striking doctrines were the verification criterion of meaning and the radically revised role of philosophy, described by Schlick. Still, Rosenberg reports that

“Positivists were willing to bear the high cost of casting down philosophy from its throne as the queen of the sciences mainly because in doing so they were also ending the baleful effect of metaphysical speculation and pseudoscience on the real advance of knowledge”.

“For all its neatness and rigor, the Positivist’s program fell apart in the immediate postwar period. It did not come unstuck through the attacks of its opponents and detractors…The Positivists’ program came apart at the hands of the Positivists themselves and of their students. They found that its fundamental distinctions could not be justified by the Positivist’s own standards of accuracy. The collapse of Logical Positivism is best illustrated for our purposed by examining more closely the claim that scientific knowledge must be falsifiable. More than any other slogan, this has become the outstanding shibboleth of contemporary biological methodology”. (pp 27-28).  

Note that shibbolelth does not necessarily have perjorative connotation although that is the way I have mostly heard it used. According to Wik:

Today, in the English language, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any “in-crowd” word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.

Problems of Falsifiability. This is the heading of section 3 of the chapter.

“A proposition is scientific if and only if it is falsibiable…Falsifiability must be distinguished from falsity, of course.” A reference to Popper’s crucial distinction between falsifiability and falsification would be in order but it turns out that Rosenberg is not concerned with Popper, or Popper’s rejoinder to the positivists, or his problems, Rosenberg is setting out to show that falsifiablity cannot be used be demarcate science from specualitive philosophy. It may be suggested that talking about falsification without any mention of Popper is rather like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark! But of course the aim of the exercise is to show that both Popper and the falsification criterion can be put aside.

Rosenberg then describes a test that could be performed to check Ohm’s law that states the relationship between resistance, voltage and amperage of an electric current. The point is that the experiment assumes a large body of physical and electrical theory including assumptions about the function of the intruments that are used. If the meter does not read as the law predicts, is the law falsified? As Duhem pointed out, 100 years ago, the answer is “not necessarily” because the fault  may lie with any of the other assumptions that are involved in the experiment, including the possibility of malfunction of the equipment. Popper noted in LSD that scientific laws are “falsified” daily in laboratories simply through faults in the setup and misreadindg of the dials. To be significant, the falsifying result must be repeated, and not only in that laboratory.  Popper also pointed out that no apparent falsification can be decisive, simply because of the Duhem effect. This is sometimes described as demonstration of the failure of Popper’s demarcation criterion, and the irretrievable breakdown of his program.

Rosenberg again. “If any proposition can be surrendered as a result of a falsifying experiment, and if the actual history of science the most central and firmly held of our beliefs have sometimes been surrendered, then we cannot identify propositions as necessarily true…Similarly, any proposition, no matter how apparently factual, no matter how apparently vulnerable to falsification, can be preserved [by challenging one or more assumptions in the experiment].

He then turned to the developments in modern physics, where it seemed that quantum phenomena falsified metaphysical determinism. He concludes that metaphysical theories may be testable after all, and hence cognitively meaningful.

He then considers the philosophy of science without positivism, so philosophers are allowed to range across topics and issues including logic and methematics, metaphysics, and scientific theories of all kinds. So he has got back to the point that Popper reached in 1934/35, so that is progress of a kind!

In this brave  new world it is revealed that “the analysis of concepts is just metaphsics carried out under a different name” (31) and also “nothing can ever be established in science” (32, his emphasis). It is interesting to note the number of times that Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge has been subjected to criticism, even dismissed as not being a theory of knowledge at all!

It is very strange that the extracts of Popper’s work in this volume give no hint that all those issues were canvassed in Popper’s 1935/1959 and more fully in the essays in Conjectures and Refutations (1963).

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