Karl Popper: Distinctions Between Science & Pseudoscience

“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” — Karl Popper
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Karl Popper is most famously known for his work on “Conjectures and Refutations.” In it, he sought to replace the popular Inductionist view on science. Induction, as will see, is not a posteriori (and empirical). Science, as we know it today, however, is empirical. Simplified, this was known as The Problem of Induction, formulated by David Hume.

Popper is perhaps among the most famous philosophers of science. Before Karl Popper, no one set out to set a philosophical understanding of what constitutes a scientific or a non-scientific claim. For us today, many of the things Popper says seem common knowledge. Even Popper himself says that his solution is rather “obvious.” The state of our current common knowledge is always dependant upon the thought of those that came before and we owe our understanding to him.

Popper argues that everyone has preconceived ideas about certain phenomena. Popper’s understanding of Sigmund Freud here is particularly helpful to elaborate on Popper’s emphasis on confirmation vs. falsifiability.

Popper believes that Freud commits pseudoscientific research and conclusions, mainly due to the fact that he sets out to confirm beliefs rather than disprove them. If we are to find evidence that Jesus Christ is the son of God, then we are very likely to be able to confirm that he is the son of God.

“It is easy to find confirmation of a theory if you are looking for it.” — Karl Popper

Every good scientific theory, in Popper’s mind, therefore, is “prohibitive” in the sense that we are attempting to falsify it — it has to be open to revision and refutation. Simply put, Popper believes that irrefutable theories are impossible to justify.

The modern understanding of science is one which fits all of Popper’s criteria. They are meant to be: testable, falsifiable (what Popper calls “The Problem of Demarcation” — which is falsifiability in other words. In other words the criterion of falsifiability is Popper’s response to the Problem of Demarcation), & refutable. Justified belief is that which is most probable based on what data is available to us.

The Problem of Induction

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The Problem of Induction (introduced by Empiricist & Scottish philosopher David Hume), one that is closely related to the Problem of Demarcation and is also very important for our discussion of the Philosophy of Science, is that it is impossible to deduce from particular instances what a universal law is, this is what Hume called, “The Uniformity of Nature.” If we expect there to be only white swans based on many observations of swans, but then we notice that black swans are not rare exceptions. This to Hume is a clear indication that induction is flawed and that a posteriori knowledge changes.

Hume thus believes that “our habit of believing in laws is the product of frequent repetition.”

Karl Popper believed that Hume never fully realized the logical conclusion of his arguments, if induction is not a proper method of obtaining knowledge, being both “logically invalid” & “rationally unjustifiable.” In Hume’s view, then, all knowledge is a kind of a belief — “belief based on habit.” This then naturally implies that all scientific knowledge is fallacious.

“The demand for rational proofs in science indicates a failure to keep distinct the broad realm of rationality and the narrow realm of rational certainty: it is an untenable, an unreasonable demand.”

If we are to properly live in this disorderly world, Popper argues, then we can not resort to a more rational method than that of trial and error — “of conjecture and refutation.”

Karl Popper’s Conclusion

“Doubt is an unpleasant condition. But certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire

In conclusion, Popper views the problem of Induction puts us into a predicament where every theory is only true until it is refuted. This view has of course not been well received.

Popper thought that the problems with attempts to develop a theory of confirmation were too difficult, so he became an inductive skeptic, like Hume.

“Confirmation is a myth.” — Karl Popper

Some would say that this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Michel Foucault and other post-modernists would say that truth is unattainable. Logical positivists would say that can only be in analytic (logical definitions [A = A] or mathematics) and synthetic form (based on experience). Quine would argue that the positivists’ view is flawed mainly because many analytic statements rely on definitions (using synonyms), which in turn rely on observation (“All bachelors are unmarried.” We have to observe this statement to be true by relying on the senses, which by definition is not an analytic statement. We have to rely on a priori commitments which by definition are not synthetic).

A good response to this, as I see it, is pragmatism. I will write about that and my understanding of knowledge and whether it’s attainable by next week, Friday.

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