What is going on out there?

Another very unsatisfactory introduction to the philosophy of science.

So far Popper’s critique of inductive logic has not been effectively answered, although some people like to use the term to apply to (1) the process of forming a hypothesis or (2) the expectation that the world behaves in regular or consistent way. Popper denied (1), insisting that there is no “logic” or algorithm for discovery, and he accepted (2) not as a form of induction but as a metaphysical theory about the nature of the universe (to behave in a consistent and regular manner, even if underlying regularities or patterns are hard to find).

A lot of space is devoted to Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “unquestionably the most influential work of philosophy of science in the last 50 years.” Okasha correctly pointed out that this created a huge stir at a time when the movement of logical empiricism was decaying. However this impact had nothing to do with the merits of Kuhn’s ideas because positivism and logical empiricism were intellectually dead in the water after Popper developed and published his ideas in the 1930s. Okasha wrote that the positivists paid little attention to the history of science but that did not apply to Popper who always urged the historical approach, for example in the Preface to the The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959).

“Why did Kuhn’s ideas cause such a storm?” One reason was the failure of positivism/empiricism to solve its problems: to find a theory of meaning that worked, and to make inductive logic credible. It was stale and boring. The thrill of its iconoclastic attack on all and any school of thought that did not use the correct scientific method was exhausted. Red-blooded students in the swinging sixties needed something more exciting and the concept of scientific revolutions was just the thing to capture the spirit of the age. In fact paradigm theory itself became boring when Kuhn recanted most of his early views.

There is some talk about Kuhn’s “highly controversial philosophical theses” like the turn to history (anticipated by Popper) his insistence on the “theory-dependence of facts” (also anticipated by Popper) and his focus on the social context of science. Actually Popper anticipated that as well, in chapter 23 of The Open Society and its Enemies (1945).

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4 Responses to What is going on out there?

  1. Steve says:

    Okasha probably got it from this book:


    Hacking goes as far as to hyphenate “Carnap-Popper”, listing some of their alleged shared assumptions:

    “Both think there is a pretty sharp distinction between observation and theory. Both think that the growth of knowledge is by and large cumulative… Both think that science has a pretty tight deductive structure. Both held that scientific terminology is or ought to be rather precise. Both believed in the unity of science. That means several things. All the sciences should employ the same methods, so that the human sciences have the same methodology as physics. Moreover, at least the natural sciences are part of one science, and we expect that biology reduces to chemistry, as chemistry reduces to physics. Popper came to think that at least part of psychology and the social world did not strictly reduce to the physical world, but Carnap had no such qualms.”

    Guess we’re lucky Kuhn came along to enlighten us…


  2. Rafe Champion says:

    Thanks Steve, Hacking’s book will be on the list of annotations!

    The more you look the bigger the scandal…I wonder how they think they can get away with it…Well it has worked for several decades so I guess they think they are just about home free – slithering towards retirement as someone said.

  3. Bruce Caithness says:

    Enough praise has been heaped on Thomas Kuhn’s influential opus over the years but praise, as Rafe points out, doesn’t remove lots of room for criticism.

    We should recall that falsifiability is based on the the “modus tollens” deductive argument.

    If the theory is true then the inference is true.
    The inference is not true.
    Therefore, the theory is not true.

    As Rafe clarified in an earlier post, falsifiability is thus a logical property of a proposition that is vulnerable to refutation by a true existential statement. The propositions of concern to Karl Popper were universal laws in the form: all swans are white. This is falsified by the statement (if true): here is a black swan.

    Falsification is the practical demonstration that a proposition has been falsified. Unlike the decisive logic of the modus tollens, the real-world process of falsification can never be decisive due to the Duhem problem, the uncertainty of observations and sheer avoidence of testing.

    Induction in contrast tries to generalize from the premises to a conclusion. There is no logic in this process,it is akin to perceiving a pattern and extrapolating. The classic example that demonstrates the invalidity of inductive argument is that no matter how many swans one sees that are white it cannot prove that there will never be a black swan.

    Somehow justificationism (inductivism) is a very powerful psychological impulse and an inductive basis to science is still propagated in the textbooks. It is a subtle error. One could talk of a paradigm of justificationism!

    When Kuhn talks about “uncritical” acceptance of a paradigm and divides scientific enquiry into normal science and extraordinary science he begins to describe something other than critical “science”. He may have misread but certainly severely misquoted Karl Popper with respect to falsification. Popper was not a naïve falsificationist as Kuhn claimed.

    Kuhn is making a risky assumption when he says competing paradigms are incommensurable. They are linguistic frameworks that are potentially translateable. There is the potential to reach a change of attitude, albeit not easily. Fruitful discussions may arise from culture clash. We need the Tower of Babel, after all the goal is not certainty or justification but truth.

    Yes truth may be impossible to reach in an absolute sense but it is “objective”. It is a regulative principle and any tendency to relativise it should be resisted. Knowledge in the objective sense is independent of anybody’s claim to know.

    Tarski said a statement is true and is only true if it corresponds to the facts. What is true and and how we come to establish something as true are distinct. The statement “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. We can never “verify” our theories and facts but we can make an honest attempt to phrase them in such a way that they are falsifiable. Science is a system of controlled guesswork, where controls are to be found through the successful merger of logic and experience.

    When Kuhn maintains that scientific inquiry begins where criticism leaves off, and that it is not criticism but the abandonment of critical discourse for faith in a paradigm that marks the transition to science he is actually writing a script for a closed society. This view drifts towards a justificationist view of knowledge based on institutional foundations rather than a perpetually critical one.

  4. Bruce Caithness says:

    Ivor Grattan-Guinness was 25 in 1966 when he took an MSc (Econ) in Mathematical Logic and the Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics in Karl Popper’s department.

    In “Corroborations and Criticisms: Forays with the Philosophy of Karl Popper” (2010) he makes a point that contextualizes aspects of Kuhn’s “normal science”. In Popper’s view science is a risk-taking enterprise, where theories are formed and tested as severely as possible. Now science and technology have a very close relationship, and yet technology requires reliability in the performance of its product. Thus science is risk and technology is safety – a paradox of which the resolution requires careful attention to be paid to corroborations. Reliability theory is a wide-ranging subject, that takes due note of unreliability i.e. failures in technology which involve falsifications of theories. Examples are the rapid collapse of the World Trade Centre buildings and the sinking of the Titanic.

    He uses a novel descriptor, desimplification, more or less as a synonym for Popper’s “ad hoc” hypotheses. He sees desimplification as a way of describing aspects of Kuhn’s theory of normal science i.e. coping with small or not so small effects, extending the detailing, applicability of theories to special cases, checking on the size an effect of omitted factors. While such normal science is routine to a fault it can involve the creation of difficult new theories and experimental techniques. On a side note, I suspect that the application of Bayes Theorem could be construed as an example of normal science. When moves to desimplify are patently unsuccessful, grossly contrived, or impossible a more radical kind of theory is required.

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