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Criticisms of falsifiability


(Scientific method in the three worlds.
Credit: Dominic Mayers, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

(Scientific method in the three worlds. )

To introduce this section, it is useful to recall the central points of Popperian philosophy which are conducive to a critical analysis of refutability. For Popper, falsifiability concerns only the logical relationship between statements: it is part of the logical aspect of the scientific method. For Popper, this logical aspect, including the conjectures and the languages ​​in which they are written, belongs to a partially autonomous objective knowledge, separated from the subjective world. On the other hand, even if falsification belongs to logic, conjectures are not logically inferred, for that would create an endless regress—the Hume problem. For Popper, conjectures and languages ​​are rather the result of a creative process which takes place partly in the subjective world of biological predispositions in response to a problem. Popper considers that subjective knowledge in world 2 and objective knowledge in world 3 are in interaction, world 3 being the most important for science. Among other things, world 3 includes metaphysical programs that play an important role in creativity. Popper explains this process with an evolutionary philosophy in which world 3 emerges from world 2 of mental states which itself emerges from world 1 of physical states. In a discussion with Eccles about the emergence of self-awareness, Popper expresses that he is aware of the limitations of this model, in particular, that it does not constitute an explanation of Darwin’s theory.

The basic statements, expressible in the language of theory, must have an intersubjective empirical interpretation. This is the material requirement of refutability. Since the empirical aspect of the basic statements is laden with theories, one faces, on this side too, a problem of endless regress—a consequence of Duhem’s thesis. For this reason, Popper says that science does not rest on solid ground, but rather on pilings sunk in a swamp. The division between the theory whose refutation is in question and the other theories behind the observation exists within objective knowledge. However, these other theories only serve for empirical interpretation and can be ignored at the level of the logic of refutability. The decision can be taken to consider that they belong to the swampy world of subjective knowledge. For this reason, as Thornton says, the logic of refutability is very simple. The swampy foundation of basic statements is such that methodological decisions are required to accept or reject a basic statement. For Popper, intersubjectivity makes admissible into the world of objective knowledge fallible methodological decisions that would otherwise be considered subjective.

Acceptance or rejection of basic statements results in logical refutations or corroborations of conjectures. These corroborations and refutations are important in the scientific process, but they exist at the logical level. They are not used to reject or accept a conjecture directly, because their basis is fallible. Rather, they are taken into account in a critical discussion.

Naive refutability

As Lakatos defines it, the naive refutationist is one who uses logical refutation directly as a criterion for rejecting a theory, or said otherwise, one who does not distinguish between a logical refutation of a theory and its rejection. According to Kuhn, Popper gave nothing but “procedural maxims” for determining when to reject a theory. Since Popper nevertheless advocates the use of logical refutation in critical discussion, for Kuhn, even if Popper is not a naive refutationist, he may as well be considered one. Giving rigorous criteria for managing guesswork is difficult because:

  • It is always possible to add an ad hoc hypothesis to the theory to take into account the observation.
  • The observer may have made a mistake (e.g. the white crow was actually black), or the inaccuracy of the measurements is sufficient to account for the result.
  • The premises of the experiment may be false (e.g. the white crow was not a crow).
  • Any observation must be based on one or more scientific theories, for example for the operation of measuring instruments. As such, they are therefore rebuttable. The observation may therefore be due to the falsity of another theory than the one tested.

Popper believes in the rational use of logical refutation despite the absence of these rigorous criteria: the absence of definitive logical criteria does not mean the absence of rationality. Like Kuhn, Lakatos knows that Popper is not a naïve refutationist, but he is dissatisfied with the absence of rigorous and definitive criteria. Popper had previously proposed the notion of a metaphysical research agenda to provide the context in which conjectures are handled, but still without rigorous criteria for rejecting or accepting a theory. This was not enough for Lakatos. Lakatos was aware that the criterion he was looking for corresponded to a rule of induction and he hoped that Popper would agree to find an inductive principle, at least for evaluating research programs. Popper does not believe in the possibility of such criteria, both for theories and for research programs. According to Chalmers, Lakatos failed to find an objective criterion.

The incommensurability of paradigms

Kuhn’s main criticism of Popper is that scientific theories cannot be refuted by the method of critical rationalism advocated by Popper, since they would be “immeasurable”. Karl Popper responded to this criticism, notably in an article entitled The Myth of the Framework. He argues that it is always possible to at least logically compare two theoretical systems in relation to their logical consequences, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, in relation to their empirical consequences, and that then the question is to know if it is possible to envisage tests making it possible to decide between two competing theoretical systems in terms of their testable consequences, knowing that it is the system which would have the fewest unacceptable consequences which, by methodological decision would be preferable or accepted, after discussion, by a community of researchers.

Imre Lakatos attempted to explain Popper’s work by asserting that science progresses through refutations within research programs rather than large “crucial refutation experiments” between two research programs. Following Lakatos’ approach, a scientist works within the context of a research program that roughly corresponds to what Kuhn calls a paradigm. While Popper views ad hoc hypotheses as unscientific, Lakatos accepts them in the development of new theories.

The crucial experience

Imre Lakatos defends Karl Popper’s research program against that of Kuhn, by affirming that the latter is not admissible for understanding the evolution of scientific knowledge to the extent where Kuhn defends the idea of ​​an irrational change of scientific paradigms, because of their incommensurability. Furthermore, one of the main criticisms made by Lakatos of Popper is that there would be no “crucial grand experiments” of refutation between two competing research programs, contrary to what affirms Karl Popper, but that a research program would supplant another by the fact that its positive heuristic would support the modus tollens better than the other (confrontation with experimental tests), by means of its auxiliary hypotheses. Or, in Lakatos’ words, a program of scientific research would end up being “refuted” because its positive heuristic would “degenerate”: it would gradually become unable to produce novel, content-rich hypotheses that are susceptible to be tested and substantiated.

Regarding the “crucial refutation experiments”, the existence of which is disputed by Imre Lakatos but affirmed and exemplified (substantiated) by Karl Popper, notably in his work Realism and the Aim of Science, one of his disciples, Carl Hempel, supports, arguing from examples – such as those of Foucault, Fresnel and Young (on the nature of light); Einstein, Lenard, Maxwell and Hertz (on quantum theory), or even Galileo – that two hypotheses being given, testing them in the most thorough and extensive way cannot allow us to reject the one and prove the other; thus, a crucial experiment, stricto sensu, is impossible in science. But, in a broad sense and for convenience, an experiment like Foucault’s or Lenard’s may be said to be crucial: it may reveal that, of two opposing theories, one is seriously inadequate. However, Karl Popper always defended the thesis that no refutation or even no corroboration could be perfectly precise and therefore definitive or absolute in science, which is to say “crucial”, stricto sensu. He writes, for example, in The Two Fundamental Problems of Theory of Knowledge that the series of attempts to falsify a theory is in principle unlimited. (There is no attempt at falsification which would be distinguished in that it would be the last.)

Popper argues for the existence of crucial experiments in the history of science, because scientists must make “methodological decisions” to decide the conclusive (but relative) character of a refutation or corroboration (and so do advancing scientific knowledge), but always accepting the inevitable fallibility of any type of scientific test: a theory is “rejected” (disproved) or “proved” (corroborated) only on the basis that is always potentially questionable and relatively imprecise of tests whose results are finally accepted by a community of scientists. It is impossible to define as far as one wishes the thoroughness or extent of a test, or series of tests, for logical reasons demonstrated by Popper. For Karl Popper this means that a scientific theory is never refuted or corroborated stricto sensu or in an absolute way, although it is possible to affirm that a theory refutes a previous one thanks to tests demonstrating that its powers of description and explanation are richer in content (as was the case, for example, for Albert Einstein’s theory compared to that of Isaac Newton). Finally, and in response to another criticism made by Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper writes that, as regards both the falsifiability and the impossibility of conclusive proof of the falsification of a hypothesis, as well as the role that refutations have played in the history of science and particularly that of scientific revolutions, it does not appear that there is, between Kuhn and Popper, the slightest significant difference.


Paul Feyerabend considers that Kuhn’s work shows that there are social factors, rather than adherence to a rational method, that decide which theories are generally accepted. Kuhn disputes this view.

Feyerabend has chosen to expose a radical point of view, often qualified as an extremist point of view, consisting in rejecting any prescriptive methodology. According to him, science has historically progressed by making use of all available methods to impose one theory or another and if one wishes to establish a universally valid methodological rule, the only one that is likely to be suitable is epistemological anarchism or designated Dadaism. again by the formula “everything is good”.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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