The author took his first degree in Sydney and is a Distinguished Professor in Philosophy in the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York. His book Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection won the 2010 Lakatos award. This book is an ambitious introduction to the philosophy of science and a platform for his own “naturalistic” program. It is based on lectures delivered at Stanford University over the last 11 years.
“It also bears the influence of innumerable comments, questions, and papers by students over that time, together with remarks made by colleagues and friends. ” (xi)
He acknowledged a dozen people in the Preface, plus two anonymous referees for the University of Chicago Press, three more people for “detailed and exceptionally helpful comments”, and four fundamental mentors.
It seems that the misreading of Popper that occurs in this book, and errors based on apparent neglect of most of his books, passed without attracting any critical comment through a decade of lectures and the production process.
The bibliography lists Logik der Forschung, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations, and Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds Lakatos and Musgrave).
Missing are Objective Knowledge, The Library of Living Philosophers (ed Schilpp) volumes, Unended Quest, The Self and its Brain and the three volumes of Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.
The book provides a chronological account of the philosophy of science in the 20th century after a brief survey of the various ways that science can be studied. He drew a distinction between epistemologicval and metaphysical issues.
“Epistemology is the side of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge, evidence and rationality. Metaphysics…deals with more general questions about the nature of reality.” (9)
It is noteworthy that the most dominant school in the philosophy of science in the 20th century completely banned metaphysics on the ground it is meaningless nonsense.
Another division of interests in the last century has been to look for (1) a proper form of a the philosophy of science; (2) to identify the scientific way of thinking; (3) a logical theory of science; (4) a methodology (rules and procedures) and in recent times (5) a general theory of scientific change. To which one could add (6) the study of the institutions of science.
He devoted two chapters to Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism with special attention to ”The Mother of All Problems” – “a very important and difficult problem, the problem of understanding how observations can confirm a theory.” (39) In his pursuit of confirmation he was not deterred by Popper’s skepticism about the prospects of success or the failure of the project up to date.
Moving on to his chapter on Popper, he noted that Popper is the only philosopher treated in the book who is regarded as a hero by many scientists, despite criticism from many philosophers over the years. He wrote “I agree with many of these criticisms and don’t see any way for Popper to escape from their force”. (57)
In his biographical introduction to Popper he mentioned his stay in New Zealand but not the two very important books that he wrote while he was there. Godfrey-Smith described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme along with the demand that scientific theories should take risks and offer the possibility of falsification.
“As I said above, Popper held that Marx’s and Freud’s theories were not scientific in this sense. No matter what happens, Popper thought, a Marxist or Freudian can fit it somehow into his theory.”
On a point of detail, that does not do justice to Popper’s take on Marx than that. He was alarmed by the true believers in Marxism who aroused his concern about unfalsifiable theories, but he took Marx seriously as a social scientists and he devoted hundreds of pages in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies to sort out the valuable parts of Marx from the dangerous parts which resulted in the ruin of Russia.
Another nuance that Godfrey-Smith did not pick up is the distinction between falsifiability and falsification [SE3]. This is apparent from his account of Popperian testing “If the prediction fails, the we have refuted, or falsified, the theory.” ( 59) The deductive logic of falsifiability is decisive, given a true observation, but we do not have access to (certainly) true observation statements.
Because G-S thought that Popper was looking for decisive refutations (something that Popper always rejected) he suggested that Popper got into trouble when he addressed the problem of comparative probabilities were the raw data are scatter relations and not single points. “But in making this move, Popper has badly damaged his original picture of science. This was a picture in which observations, once accepted, have the power to decisively refute theoretical hypotheses [SE 2]. That is a matter of deductive logic, as Popper endlessly stressed. Now Popper is saying that falsification can occur without its being backed up by a deductive logical relation between observation and theory” (67).
What has happened is that the theory has been made problematic, so there may be an anomaly that needs to be taken seriously. That is important to generate new research problems and it does not (and cannot) involve decisive refutation.
He described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme although Popper himself was not happy with the label “falsificationist” and he considered that the critical approach was the central pillar of his work. The six themes provide a more satisfactory account of the interesting and important features of Popper’s work but placing the focus on falsification is convenient for teachers who want to start with the logical positivists and then treat Popper as an eccentric contributor to the same project (the Legend described by Kitcher). It is convenient but it is also very misleading unless the Popperian “themes” are spelled out to signal the major differences between Popper and the positivists and the logical empiricists. How many of the themes did Godfrey-Smith identify in Popper’s work?
He disagreed with Popper on confirmation but he did not introduce the language of justification and non-justification to explain the roots of Popper’s conjectural theory of knowledge.
He did not engage with the theme of objective knowledge which was closely linked with Poppers “biological and evolution turn” of the 1960s. [Though the evolutionary approach was clearly present from the beginning. when he wrote “Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the
fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.” (Popper,
1958, 42).] He compared the two stages of conjecture and refutation with Darwinian variation and selection but did not refer to the four-stage scheme that was a dominant motif in the collection of papers in Objective Knowledge, or the work on evolutionary epistemology by Popper and others (Bartley and Radnitzky, eds, 1987).
He did not report Popper’s revival of metaphysics in the form of metaphysical research programs. He gave Lakatos the credit for the idea of research programs. He wrote:
“Lakatos’s main contribution was the idea of a research program… It should be obvious from the previous chapters that this was an idea waiting to be developed.” (102)
Indeed the idea was developed by Popper in the late 1940s and 19590s and it was written up in the Postscript in the 1950s. The manuscript and galleys were available to Popper’s colleagues, including Lakatos. The signal contribution from Lakatos was to decide as a matter of fiat that the metaphysical “hard core” of the program should be protected from criticism, thereby subverting the salient feature of Popper’s critical approach.
Finally he did not engage with Popper’s social/institutional ideas including the “rules of the game” and the way Popper wrote about the social nature of science.
He inverted one of Popper’s points on the importance of the social nature of science. On the function of criticism in the scientific community, Godfrey-Smith wrote “In contrast to Popper, Hull argues that there is no need for individual scientist to take a cautious and sceptical attitude towards their own work: others will do this for them” (165). Where is the contrast, when we find that Popper wrote “A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them; they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities”. (OSE Vol 2, 218)?
Moving on to Popper’s skepticism about induction and confirmation:
In the opinion of most philosophers Popper’s attempt to defend this radical claim was not successful, and some of his discussions of this topic are rather misleading to readers. As a result, some of the scientists who regard popper as a hero do not realize that Popper believed that it is never possible to confirm a theory, not even slightly, and no matter now many observations the theory predicts correctly. (59)
The problem for Godfrey-Smith and most philosophers is that the various programs to pin down the confirmation of theories or to attach numerical probabilities to theories have yet to deliver, but science proceeds anyway, on broadly Popperian lines. That is apparent from the testimonials of scientific stars like Einstein, Medawar, Monod and Eccles, from the practice of Watson, Crick and Feynman who were clearly practicing Popperians without citing Popper, and the effect on normal working scientist like the agronomists who attended Poppers Adult Education courses in New Zealand.
Godfrey-Smith finds it odd that an exponent of conjectural knowledge should be in search of true theories and he uses a Holy Grail analogy to lampoon the idea of conjectural knowledge. He invites us to imagine a community of people in search of the eternally glowing “Holy Grail”. A person in this community may “carry” an unrefuted theory, like a glowing Grail, all his life without knowing if it is the real thing (the real Grail will lglow for ever).
He compared this with Popper’s conception of the community of scientists who are searching for truth. A theory that we have failed to falsify up till now might, in fact, be true, but even if it is, we will never know this or have reason to increase our confidence that it is true. This is an ingenious exercise in missing the point of Popper’s ideas and also the real-world practice of scientific research.
Godfrey-Smith apparently thinks of truth like a Terminus of inquiry (the eternally glowing grail). But in the real world all significant theories have both anomalies and rivals so there is no useful analogy with the Holy Grail.
Scientists are concerned with the growth of knowledge as theories are elaborated or superseded with the aim of inventing theories whichsolving deeper problems and standing up to more demanding tests. You could think in terms of ever brighter Grails perhaps. In this context the correspondence theory of truth functions as a regulative principle and the truth it is not regarded as a Terminus at the end of the road. Scientists can function without the need to think that they have found the epistemological equivalent of the Holy Grail, and if they are engaged at the frontier of knowledge they will know quite well that they have not found it.
Objections to Popper on Confirmation
“In the previous section I discussed problems with Popper’s views about falsification. But let us leave those problems aside now, and assume in this section that we can use Popperian falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories.” (67)
This is a strange assumption to make because Popper explained that that we cannot use falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories, so why assume that we can? The author went on “If we make this assumption, is Popper’s attempt to describe rational theory choice successful? No, it is not.”
What if we do not make that false assumption and reconsider the question of rational theory choice?
“Here is a simple problem that Popper has a very difficult time with. Suppose we are trying to build a bridge…”. We use a lot of theories, presumably theories that the scientists and engineers regard as well tested “tried and true” methods. Empiricists say that this is a rational way to go, but why this this so? “Let us focus on Popper, who wants to avoid the need for a theory of confirmation. How does Popper’s philosophy treat the bridge building situation”. (67)
He poses a strange situation where Popper has to choose between a theory that has been tested (and passed) many times and a theory which has just been conjectured and has never been tested. Neither has been falsified. Which to choose? The usual thing would be to pick the well tested theory. “But what can Popper say about this choice?
Of course Popper has said that for practical purposes it is rational to use the best tested theory that is available. What is the point that the author is making? He wants to suggest that Popper would have some difficulty in explaining why a well tested (and unrefuted theory) should be selected ahead of a new theory that has not been tested but has also not been refuted. The answer is that Popper is not betting on the truth of the tried and unrefuted theory, he is betting on the same results, that is to say, on the existence of regularities in the world, and the stability of a complex structure or instrument that incorporates many theories and technologies that have been tested in practice.
Like the analogy of the holy Grail, th bridge-building example is not relevant to scientific research because the bridge is an instrument and the theories that are used in its design could be known to be false, but good enough for the purpose (given the testing and safety factors that are built into bridges and other structures). The analogy is unhelpful because it does not make the distinction between testing theories in the interests of scientific research (the unended quest for truth) and the instrumental task of building structures that are safe and secure for human use. [Cite Gordon on structures and safety factors]
Godfrey-Smith’s limited treatment of Popper’s ideas is underlined in the final section of book on the key issues for the philosophy of science in the near future. The first of these is the role of frameworks, paradigms and similar constructions. Here some consideration of Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programs is required but the bibliography does not list the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, nor the works of Popperians such as Agassi and Watkins who have contributed to the study of metaphysical ideas in science. The second is the reward system in science which is a subsection of the social and institutional approach to science that Jarvie identified in Popper’s works, including The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism that are not cited in this book.