Popper’s Philosophy of Science and Falsification


The great philosopher of science in the 20th century, Karl Popper developed his thought from his love for music and that resulted in the interpretation of relation that distinguishes dogmatic and critical thinking. The critical spirit in Einstein influenced him as it is nearer to the falsification theory he proposed in his future life. The important aspect Popper observed in Einstein’s theory is that it had testable implications that are capable of making theory false if they are false.

Popper wanted those types of testable implications for every theory and development in science and that resulted in rejecting induction. Moreover, Popper is critical of logical positivism and framed a theory based on his view of science that is included of criticisms and positivists. The reason is that the happenings and inventions in physics during his development of thought regarding scientific structure have driven him away from induction and logical positivism.

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It resulted in the development of revolutionary thought that talks about falsification and experience that develops newer theories on factual thoughts and experiences. Hence, he proposed demarcation as a central problem in the philosophy of science that distinguishes between science and nonscience.

Demarcation and Falsification

In that course of demarcation, he goes beyond induction and opposes it by stating that it cannot be used actually by a scientist thus paving the way for the opposing normal science of Kuhn. It does not mean that he supports the skepticism in Hume’s theory. His opposition is for selective observation in induction. Hence, he rejects to recognize the observation as experience as it is not comprehensive. Consequently, he rejects induction as the substitute for falsifiability and supports obtaining evidence in favor of every theory. His theory of falsification talks about the criterion for deciding whether or not a theoretical system belongs to empirical science.

Popper used falsification to demarcate science from non-science. It is refutability, which is a logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or through a physical experiment. However, a thing that is proved as falsifiable cannot be termed as false universally. A context, ‘if it is false’, arises and talks about the consequences. It can also be termed as testability and states that the only way to make an assertion false is experimentation.

It considers that confirmation is impossible and falsification is possible. However, the problem with falsification is the problem with the general scientific method as it is necessary to make assumptions regarding observation, quantification, and analysis of data. Popper points out that if any of the above-mentioned assumptions are at fault, the confirmation will be false. The above fact comes from the argument that science is a set of behaviors.

Making decisions about how and when to observe the data also is part of the set of behaviors mentioned above. The important argument in the theory of falsification is that it can occur without observation as it depends on probability and is based on decisions, which are not scientific. For example, let us test a thing for 50 years and can find that it has never been falsified. Take a brand new thing and know that it too has never been falsified. Hence, one can understand that there is a difference between the two things regarding their capacity and working. However, according to Popper, there is no difference between them, and the theory of falsification does not recognize the wear and tear of the object in the usage.

Hence, the problem of the conception of scientific confirmation arises. Consequently, the method of demarcation is necessary to differentiate the works into two. The first ones come under the theory of falsification and the next ones do not. As every theory cannot be proved false because they are never exposed to the risk of falsification, Popper brings some theories out of the theory of falsification and Freudian theory is such a theory. He explains that Freudian theory can be handled as a priori philosophy but not subjected to observation and falsification (Karl Popper, 1959).

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Apart from Falsification, Popper talks about the structure of scientific doctrines that are already in existence and problem-situation that is generally accepted in scientific doctrines. In this context, Popper’s view is that the position of scientist and philosopher is not the same. He quotes Kuhn’s theory of the normal situation of a scientist that fits into the organizational structure of science, which is not the one proposed by Popper. Popper talks about criticism in the current organizational structure of science in case of understanding or discovering new theories or works.

He quotes that the student in Kuhn’s model of normal science cannot challenge the existing one though it is not in line with his new findings. Consequently, according to Popper, there is every chance to reject the evolutionary theory due to the nonacceptance of it by existing theories or rules framed to work on scientific observations. Popper’s theory is that education regarding science should not indoctrinate a scientist and that limits him/her in being only an applied scientist. Though Kuhn’s theory seems to be successful, according to Popper, it is successful as long as the problem the scientist is facing falls under the circumstances of the organization of science he is working and trained under.

However, it is not possible for a ‘normal scientist’ (the scientist Popper terms that Kuhn’s theory produces) to find revolutionary theories or to accept them though they are true. For him, all the theories and inventions should be under the present framework from which he/she emerged and as a result, the revolutionary ideas are not possible within the scope of normal scientists (Imre Lakatos, Alan Musgrave, 1970).

After the above description of Popper about normal science and normal scientist of Kuhn, it is important to mention Kuhn’s views on Popper’s theory. Kuhn talks about the utility of confrontations and suggests that normal science and Popper’s critical method are identical in many aspects. However, Kuhn’s process and Popper’s theory are united in opposing classical positivism’s most characteristic theses.

The important aspect that Kuhn disagrees with Popper is the term falsification. Instead of that Kuhn proposes the commitment to tradition that is against the falsification method and view. The important ambiguity in Popper’s theory is regarding the assumption that a scientist puts forward ‘statements’ or ‘theories’ against his experience. He mentions that it is against the experience when he proposes the theory by observation and experiment.

Consequently, if one has to understand Popper, it is impending to agree that observation and experiment cannot be an experience. Hence, as long as science depends on the personal experience of scientists one cannot move farther and faster in a scientific investigation. Astronomy can help to understand the above point astronauts are not scientists and vice versa. In the above example, the experience is for astronauts and the experiment is for a scientist.

The theory cannot be proposed by astronaut and according to Popper, on cannot recognize if scientist proposes by experiment. As a result, Popper fails here to recognize the observation and result found by scientists through experiment as an experience and Kuhn recognizes it and exposes the ambiguity in Popper’s opinion about observation and experiment. Moreover, according to Popper, the connection of a scientist’s best guesses to the accepted scientific knowledge is not possible as the guess is not an experience. Hypothesis in a scientific theory as well as the system and organization for scientific investigations helps the scientist to pass a result through stringent enough tests.

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If not, it may result in abandoning the result. As the overwhelming majority of the basic science has been a result of the current theory, the denial of that theory and acceptance of Popper’s theory for the whole of the science may result in denial of the present theories and delay in the framing of new theories. If the scientist uses his personal experience that is not suitable to the situation of science, it may result in impugnation of current science. Hence, Karl Popper’s test is regarding a situation that makes science to be above all the concerning procedures in the normal science, which can result in growth by the revolutionary overthrow.

One has to recognize that the episodes of revolutionary activities that result in the growth of science are very rare and normal science depends on those revolutionary changes. As the revolutionary activities, discoveries and inventions are part of the history of science, the denial of ‘normal science’ by Popper may result in the stagnation of science as it may not be in a position to create a situation that is capable of giving rise to a revolutionary discovery or invention (Thomas S. Kuhn, 1965).

Popper’s Thoughts Regarding Actions of Scientists

As a single counter instance can disprove a universal law, according to Popper’s view, every scientific theory is prohibitive as it forbids by implication. The above fact made Popper not accept induction as the method universalizes a law and according to his view, nothing is universal as every theory is superseded by a better theory as Einstein’s relativity superseded Newtonian mechanics when the circumstances in physics changed.

Hence, based on the above context, falsifiability can be mentioned criterion of demarcation for science as that allows the separation of normal science with that of the revolutionary methods, discoveries as well as inventions. The strength of the falsification theory lies in Popper’s argument that a single conflicting or counter instance is never sufficient to falsify a theory. Simultaneously, he stresses that induction cannot be a universal method. In the above context, he quotes Einstein, who stated that there is no logical path leading to highly universal laws of science. As a result, Popper opines that science starts with problems rather than observations as the former leads to the latter.

In the first step, he wants to test the extent to which a given theory functions satisfactorily. However, the main problem is that some theories and sciences like psychoanalytical theories cannot attain scientific status according to Popper as the falsifiable theory cannot be applied to them. Hence according to Popper’s thought scientists have to act according to experience but not purely based on observation or pre-organized structure of science (Stephen Thomton, 2008).

Scientists and Popper’s Theory

In contrast to Popper’s thought, the views of normal scientists will be regarding the nature of scientific progress. The important contrast between the thoughts of scientists and that of Popper is that the latter tries to guide the way science has to be. However, scientists try to view the nature of scientific progress as it is based on the results of normal science. However, Popper talks about the universality of a theory rather than accepting it for a section of conditions.

He does not consider the role of every new paradigm in problem-solving activities of science. Hence, Popper gives less importance to a new paradigm in science in solving the problems. The rejection of a new paradigm by Popper does not help scientists to solve the new problems using the existing theories. Instead of paradigm, Popper tries to establish the universality of the theories like that of Einstein’s theory, which is against Newtonian mechanics.

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Hence, instead of a paradigm, Popper prefers a new theory that has universal acceptability and demarcation from earlier theories. In that course of action, the theory cannot be proved wrong by showing a single counter-example and thus passes the falsifiability test. However, Kuhn’s theory holds good as new paradigms are possible within the Newtonian mechanics and within quantum mechanics. Hence, Popper’s thought finds its place as long as a scientific theory is based on experience rather than observation and demarks itself from the theories that are disproved with a counterexample (Thomas Kuhn, 1962).

Criticism of Popper’s Theory

Though Popper differentiates the Newtonian mechanics and Quantum mechanics, the important aspect that is prone to criticism is ambiguity regarding the guarantee of correct evaluations. Moreover, many philosophers feel that Popper’s theory points out errors rather than extending scientific investigations. Hence, it can be used as a tool to correct the present structure and nature of scientific investigations but not as a comprehensive method that guides the way of science.

The foundation of Popper that science grows by criticism is itself prone to criticism. His proposition that the scientific theories are the ones that are not true, but helps to get closer to the truth. As result, Popper talks about true theories that are universal, but simultaneously rejects the way that leads humans closer to the truth. He proposes that the material reality of science cannot be guaranteed by knowledge of the truth of the theories as the scientific community establishes objectivity by mutual criticism and mutual correction of errors. As a result, the truth of the theories of normal science is different from Popper’s theory that differs from traditional practices of science.

As a result, Popper’s theory does not recognize the truths established by traditional science and the experiences of those truths need to be considered false. Popper states that the theories and experiments of one scientist need to be gone over or repeated by another scientist, which states that there will be no end to the investigations to establish the truth and the way that leads to the truth can be an un-ending process.

Though mutual criticism and discovery of mistakes can enable the scientific community to be objective, there should be a system for it. However, total rejection of the present system does not guarantee that mutual discovery of errors and discovery of mistakes can lead to ultimate truth or objectivity in science. As the mutual correction has happened even before the Popper’s theory and scientists are free to discover the mistakes in another theory, the process of mutual discovery of errors and mistakes as well as correcting them cannot be ignored. Hence, it can be termed that Popper’s falsibilist theory of learning is not consistent and instead of that theory of material reality (objectivity) can be preferred for developing the rationality in science (John R. Wettersten, 1978).

References

Karl Popper, 1959, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, New York, USA: Basic Books.

Mire Liatos, Alan Musgrave, 1970, Normal Science and its Dangers, in ‘Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge’, 282 pages, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas S. Kuhn, 1965, Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research, in ‘Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge’, 282 pages, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stephen Thomson, 2008, Karl Popper, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume information not available. Web.

Thomas Kuhn, 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Chicago, USA: Chicago University Press.

John R. Waterston, 1978, Traditional Rationality Vs. A Tradition of Criticism: A criticism of Popper’s Theory of the Objectivity of Science, Dordrecht, Holland, D. Reidel Publishing Company.

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