Popper’s Formulation of Scientific Knowledge: A shift from an inductivist account.by Christopher_NW // January 14, 2017
Recently William Godfrey and I had our philosophy of science paper accepted for publication in The Philosopher. The article is coming out officially later in 2017, and so we thought we would share it early for our Mostly Science fans.
This essay will critically examine A. F. Chalmers’ inductivist description of science (Chalmers, 1976, 1) in light of Karl Popper’s hypothetico-deductivist account. Inductivist claims state that science has epistemic superiority because it utilizes a rigorous and specifically applied method, based on sensory experience, with intellectual detachment (Chalmers, 1976); this is not an accurate formulation in a descriptive or normative sense of how scientific knowledge is attained or how science is conducted (Popper, 2002, 3-27 & 74-80). In this instance one would be presented with a set of objects in the material world and a description which would be derived through observation using one’s faculties of perception, and once these facts are established a theory which takes into account the existence of these facts is formulated. This formulation from the specific observations to the more general theory, are typically only possible due to the shared characteristics each object has with other objects insofar as they can form a class of objects. Further the relationship and interaction between each object or class of objects with other objects which are not of the same class, would also inform the formulation of any general theory concerning facts about the objects in question. This prima facie would account for the methodological naturalism (Jones J, 2005) which informs the ‘act’ of science, where one conducts an experiment by isolating a specific object in a certain condition noting the factual outcome, and then performing the same experiment but exposing the object in question to a different condition and then observing the facts in that instance and then compare it to the facts in the former instance.
One would then repeat the experiment multiple times in order to find a pattern of observable phenomena from which a pattern of facts can be derived and then a generalization be made, using the pattern of facts as proof of the theory. However, this is problematic – it does not follow the form of a logical argument, where the truth of the conclusion must follow from and is dependent on the truth of the premise(s). The most one can say about the same outcomes and facts arising in each instance of the repeated experiments is that that outcome has occurred in that instance only, it says nothing about whether the same outcome will occur in the next instance even with the same set of conditions, it does not necessarily follow as a logical argument, it is temporally narrow the consequence of which is that it has no predictive power which one would expect from an account of scientific knowledge.
The notion that the same outcome will occur again based on previous experience is a psychological fiction highlighted in the example of Russell’s chicken (Deutsch, 1997, Ch. 3), where a chicken is the subject of a routine in which it is fed at the same time every day, this psychologically imprints a mental reflex action on the chicken where it has become so accustomed to the regimen that it starts to associate that particular time each day to the outcome of receiving food, only to meet its end one day when instead of being fed it becomes the subject of the main course. The recurrence of the observation of the farmer delivering food at the same time each day led the chicken to believe incorrectly that this would occur ad infinitum, until one day it did not. Through its previous experience, there was no way the chicken would have predicted its demise – mere repetition is not sufficient to sustain the conclusion.
The Popperian hypothetico-deductivist account of scientific knowledge rejects proof as forming a necessary component of science (Popper, 1957, 79 & 155). Popper disregards the notion that the central purpose of science was to reach theories backed by observation and evidence (Popper, 1957, 79), as supporting observational statements are too easily attained as they are just interpretations in light of an epistemological predisposition (for example – an already established theory which may not be necessarily correct or complete). Rather, Popper took into consideration that science is inherently a human endeavor, and therefore exposed to the shortcomings of humans themselves, such as bias and prejudice (Popper, 1957, 74-80).
What Popper offers instead is that scientific knowledge should, if formulated correctly, be falsifiable, to be fallible to a counter example (Popper, 1957, 57-70, 95-110 & 159). In this formulation we assume a current theory to be true in the broad sense and continue to conduct science based on this assumption, whilst strictly acknowledging that a current theory may in fact prove to be false or incomplete at the presentation of evidence or observation for which that theory failed to sufficiently account for. Therefore, our knowledge is merely provisional and conditional on new facts and new (although logically coherent) interpretations, we suspend judgment as metaphysical certainty can never be attained in an epistemic sense, thereby ridding the requirement of proof as a component of scientific knowledge. This permits both an intellectually honest and rigorous pursuit of any scientific endeavor.
In contrast to the inductivist account, Popper shifts the source of the epistemic authority of science to a self-corrective mechanism based on a social account of scientific inquiry. The notion of authority from ‘objectivity’ is not derived from rigid methodological scientific practice as Chalmers describes but through inter-subjective critical interactions with others where conjectures are postulated, which are then subjected to the rigorous scrutiny and criticism which comprise refutation – successful theories continue until they are refuted, in which case a new theory displaces the previous, less accurate one or is itself modified to accommodate new observations and evidence.
Popper offers a stronger account of scientific inquiry and knowledge. Occam’s razor favors Popper’s view in that it eliminates of the problem of induction because it need not be considered at all, and in Popper’s formulation, the assumptions of causation are removed. During scientific inquiry, Occam’s razor can be employed as a heuristic technique to facilitate the development of theoretical models. Whilst it is true that Occam’s razor is not on its own a proof against a given hypothesis or theory, it does allow for enhanced testability and therefore simpler falsifiability. This of course means that Popper’s formulation is not necessarily correct; however it does makes his formulation safer.
Further Popper’s formulation is more acceptable because it is epistemically modest, it limits knowledge by temporal means by constraining what one can know to the present, what follows is a rejection of certainty which leads to a conclusion that a scientific theory is just ‘more true’ or ‘less false’ than other theories, a strict result which accurately describes the development of scientific knowledge, and satisfies the philosophical principle of being conscious of the great extent of one’s own ignorance.
Popper’s formulation rightly dismisses the inductivist fictions based on unattainable ideals of the psychological states of human beings (pure objectivism, detachment, and absence of opinion). These unsafe assumptions undermine the inductivist position, because any conclusions which follow from these unattainable ideals are themselves unattainable; they are not grounded in reality in either the inductivist or the Popperian hypothetico-deductivist account of science, therefore denying that inductive reasoning forms the basis of scientific knowledge. Popper gives a more accurate account of reality than the inductivist does which strengthens his case. He accounts for what the inductivist overlooks – that scientific knowledge and science itself is muddled through the prism of personality.
Another strength of Popper’s formulation is that it exposed the permissiveness of inductivism in relation to the problem of demarcation – how to differentiate between legitimate science and what is either non-science or an illegitimate pseudoscience. Induction is merely an operation of thought and, strictly speaking practitioners of the pseudosciences such as phrenology and astrology do utilize inductive process, they fit data and make conclusions as to how their current theory dictates. In this sense they are not precluded from making truthful claims in the same sense that a broken clock with its hands fixed are correct twice a day. In fact, phrenology did in fact predict the phenomenon of the localization of brain function (Cooter, 1984), but failed to correctly categorize the precise nature of each region to the level of accuracy one attains from modern neuroscience. Astrology does account for the various spatial movements of celestial bodies in relation to one another, but fails to show why these phenomena affect human affairs (Cover & Curd, 1998).
In both instances the truthful claims derived from the use of experience whether it be intervening in neuroanatomy of mammals or using telescopes and mathematical calculations whilst observing the night sky. This accumulation of observable data would not seem out of place in university laboratories, when presumably what we call ‘legitimate’ science is being done. The truth claims whilst legitimate in themselves, are muddied by the ad hoc indiscriminate confirmations of the particular narrative (which one must accept as a phrenologist or astrologist) based on conclusions drawn from the ‘data’ accumulated when doing phrenology or astrology. Any observation or fact which can confirm the pervading narrative is seen as proof of the narrative’s legitimacy, on the other hand the narrative cannot be falsified by anything since any objection can be explained away by the ad hoc operation of the narrative itself. The formation of a body of data is itself insufficient to give an account of a theory, it only gives a trivial veneer of epistemic authority.
In contrast, Popper’s formulation is able to exclude the pseudosciences, their epistemic authority is eliminated because their hypotheses are not even testable, they occupy the lowest rung of the epistemic hierarchy insofar as they relate to scientific claims, in that they are ‘Not even wrong’ (that is, a statement which can be neither correct nor incorrect as the idea posited failed to even meet the criteria by which correctness or incorrectness, is determined ) (Peierls, 1960, 174-192). Current pseudoscientific fields such as astrology, homeopathy and alchemy were once what could be called ‘protosciences’. Here we shall define a protoscience as a field which emerged before the scientific method was developed, and thus due to the scientific method and Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem, have now been relegated as pseudosciences. The currently understood foundations of fields such as alchemy and astrology have been proven wrong and thus when one tries to add actual science to their reasoning for their perceived validity of these fields they often find themselves being ‘not even wrong’.
Ideas that are proven incorrect are useful, progress can be made by virtue of constructing a theory, challenging it and demonstrating it is incorrect or incomplete. Pseudoscience is illegitimate because it is useless, no advance or improvement of knowledge can be drawn from its operation (Popper, 1957, 162-165); in other words it is not able to predict or react to corrections or new observations which challenge its legitimacy, resulting in pseudoscience being conceptually fixed and epistemically inward. This lack of intellectual agility inherent in pseudoscience manifests itself in its absorption of unfalsifiable claims, taking it beyond the bounds of knowledge, in terms of what can and cannot be known about the universe whereas a Popperian scientific theory being dynamic in nature avoids this default altogether. Therefore, Popper’s formulation is able to make this crucial distinction between science and pseudoscience which inductivism cannot highlighting its superior utility.
Falsifiability is in a sense a fragile criterion in terms of determining what one needs to falsify a theory – one need only find a legitimate counter example or phenomena for which the theory did not predict in order for a reevaluation or total replacement of the current theory to occur. This makes current theories acutely sensitive to even the slightest challenge, which counter-intuitively elevates the epistemic authority of current theories which persist and ones the ones which legitimately replace them. This ability to identify what is needed to challenge an idea is a strength in the Popperian formulation. Further, what follows from this is that there is a democratization of knowledge in which anybody can participate in scientific inquiry although only legitimate conjectures are considered; this balancing of factors in Popper’s formulation allows challenges from within the area of knowledge that that theory is founded on as well as those from another area of science the ability exploit isomorphisms in nature through heuristics they have already acquired elsewhere and laterally apply their expertise in another field, allowing novelty, creativity and collaboration to form part of scientific inquiry.
This accounts for the multidisciplinary character of modern scientific research. Take for example the determination of the structure of DNA by two people who trained as physicists (Crick and Wilkins) working with a molecular biologist (James Watson), where they used the physical and chemical principles and methods of X-ray crystallography to derive the double helix. In the 21st century, neuroscience necessitates the need for knowledge at different levels of abstraction, therefore in order to form a comprehensive account of brain function at each scale one must engage in principles and methods from a suite of scientific disciplines.
However, it should be noted that exposing the theory to a wider intellectual audience for scrutiny and therefore potential legitimate methods of falsification does not necessarily make falsifying the claims any easier, as a potential challenger would have to be familiar with the field in order to be well acquainted with the minutiae of the corpus of knowledge which makes up the theory.
Karl Popper’s formulation provides the most accurate descriptive and normative account of how scientific knowledge is reached and how science is and should be conducted. He has given a novel solution to the problem of induction (denying its utility altogether) by challenging old assumptions and theories and has also given an accurate account of the social, creative and inventive elements of science, which is elegantly analogous to Popperianism itself. Future work will further explore the issue of the demarcation of science and pseudoscience, by way of comparing and contrasting Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and their approaches to explaining and solving this problem.
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