Karl Popper's notion of falsifiability

23 Mar 2015

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Sir Karl Raimund Popper,(28 July 1902 - 17 September 1994) was an Austrian and Britishphilosopherand a professor at theLondon School of Economics. He is known as one of the greatestphilosophers of science of the 20th century. He has written extensively on social and political philosophy.

Falsifiability, as defined by the philosopher,Karl Popper, defines the inherenttestabilityof any scientifichypothesis. In its basic form, falsifiability is the belief that for any hypothesis to have credibility, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as scientific proof. For example, say if a scientist asks, "Does God exist?" then this can not be described as a scientific proof in accordance with theory of falsifiability because it is a theory that cannot be disproved. We cannot claim to falsify this theory and hence it cannot be accepted as a scientific fact.

The basic idea here is that no theory is completely correct but if we are able to pass it through falsifiability test than it can be passed as correct and as a scientific fact. It is logically possible for us to show that an assertion made is false by using an observation or by the use of a scientific experiment. By doing this we have proved that the assertion given to us is falsifiable but it does not prove that it is altogether false. This shows us that if that assertion is indeed false we can show it by observation or experiment thus classifying it as falsifiable. Falsifiability is an important concept inscienceand thephilosophy of science. The term "testability" is related to it but it is more specific; it means that an assertion can be falsified through experimentation alone. This term 'Falsifiabilty' was made popular byKarl Popper. His assertion was that ahypothesis, proposition, ortheoryis scientific only if it is falsifiable. He saw it as a black and white definition, that if a theory is falsifiable, it isscientific, and if not, then it is unscientific. Whilst most 'pure' sciences do adhere to this strict definition,pseudo-sciencesmay fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Popper noticed that two types of statements are of particular value toscientists. The first are statements of observations, such as "this is a white swan". Logicians call these statementssingular existential statements, since they assert the existence of some particular thing. They can be parsed in the form:There is an x that is a swan, and x is white. The second are statements that categorize all instances of something, such as "all swans are white". Logicians call these statements universal. They are usually shown in the form:For all x, if x is a swan, then x is white.Scientific lawsare commonly supposed to be of this type.

To illustrate our concept of falsifiability as given by Karl Popper let us take the example of Newton's law of gravity. It was accepted as truth for centuries, because objects do not randomly float away from the earth. It appeared to fit the figures obtained by experimentationandresearch, but was always subject to testing. We can see here that Newton's law of gravity is a valid scientific theory because it is falsifiable; that is, the Law of Gravity is experimentally testable, and a measurement taken that violates Newton's law would falsify it, while a measurement that substantiates the theory would corroborate it, but more importantly, would not 'prove' it. However, later research has shown that, at quantum levels, Newton's laws break down and so the theory is no longer accepted as truth. This is not to say that his ideas are now useless, as the principles are still used by NASA to plot the courses of satellites and space probes. It is still considered as a scientific fact due to its passing the falsifiability test.

Claims about verifiability and falsifiability have been used to criticize various controversial views. Examining these examples shows the usefulness of falsifiability by showing us where to look when attempting to criticize a theory.

Non-falsifiable theories can usually be reduced to a simple uncircumscribed existential statement, such asthere exists a green swan. It is entirely possible toverifywhether or not this statement is true, simply by producing the green swan. But since this statement does not specify when or where the green swan exists; it is simply not possible to show that the swan does not exist, and so it is impossible tofalsifythe statement.

That such theories are unfalsifiable says nothing about either their validity or truth. But it does assist us in determining to what extent such statements might be evaluated. If evidence cannot be presented to support a case, and yet the case cannot be shown to be indeed false, not much credence can be given to such a statement. However, you can also look at this case from another perspective. Let's say that the statement is "all swans are not green". An attempt toverifythis positively would require a search for non-green swans, which you are sure to find. However, having rounded up and examined every known swan, there is always the possibility that there is at least one more swan but we will never know for sure until we find it and if we do, there may be yet, one more swan, and it may be green. On the other hand, we may say that "all swans are not green" but instead of attempting to positively verify this statement we attempt to falsify it by looking for a green swan. In that case, we need only find one swan (a green one), in the absence of which we can accept the original statement as a working hypothesis until such a swan is discovered.

Let us explain with yet another example; "all men are mortal" is unfalsifiable, since no finite amount of observation could ever demonstrate its falsehood: that one or more men can live forever. "All men are immortal," by contrast, is falsifiable, by the presentation of just one dead man. Not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice. For example, "it will be raining here in one million years" is theoretically falsifiable, but not practical.

Astrology did not pass the test. Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence-so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavorable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophesies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and prophesies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. It is a typical soothsayer's trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable.

Theories ofhistoryor politics which allegedly predict the future course of history have a logical form that renders them neither falsifiable nor verifiable. They claim that for every historically significant event, there exists an historical or economic law thatdeterminesthe way in which events proceeded. Failure to identify the law does not mean that it does not exist, yet an event that satisfies the law does not prove the general case. Evaluation of such claims is at best difficult.

The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted this soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations (for example in Marx's analysis of the character of the "coming social revolution") their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable. They thus gave a "conventionalist twist" to the theory; and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.

Now we come to the theory of evolution. If it were possible bydirectmeans to determine the lack of a common ancestor, it would involveproving a negative. As a result, it would be logically invalid to observe an actdirectlyfalsifying the existence of a common ancestor, just as it would be impossible to falsify the existence of an invisibleGod. Numerous examples of potential (indirect) ways to falsify common descent have been proposed amongst evolutionists. Richard Dawkinssaid that "If there were a single hippo orrabbit in the Precambrian that would completely blow evolution out of the water. None have ever been found.

Popper argued that the central virtue of science, as opposed to pseudo-science, is not that it puts forward hypotheses that are confirmed by evidence to some high degree, but that its hypotheses are capable of being refuted by evidence. That is, they genuinely face the possibility of test and rejection through not conforming to experience. The scientific method is not; therefore, the mechanical induction of generalizations from accumulated data, but the formation of bold hypotheses that are then subjected to rigorous test: a method of conjectures and refutations. It is no fault in a scientist to put forward an interesting conjecture that is subsequently refuted, but it would be a fault to put forward one which then permits no refutation, or to hold one in the face of refuting evidence.

Popper's idea found an enthusiastic following amongst working scientists, but philosophers of science have detected gaps and oversimplifications in the story. First, by removinginductionand confirmation entirely, Popper seems to give no account of the extent to which it is rational to rely upon scientific theory in practice (for having survived tests so far is no indication of likely truth). Secondly, the actual picture of acceptance and rejection of scientific hypothesis is more complex than Popper suggests, something that one scientist regards as a refutation another might regard as an anomaly, depending on such things as the momentum of the research programs that threw up the hypothesis and the availability of alternative explanations.

For many of the pure sciences, the idea of falsifiability is a useful tool for generating theories that are testable and realistic.

If a falsifiable theory is tested and theresults are significant, then it can become accepted as a scientific truth. The advantage of Popper's idea is that such truths can be falsified when more knowledge and resources are available. Even long accepted theories such as Gravity, Relativity and Evolution are increasingly challenged and adapted.

The major disadvantage of falsifiability is that it is very strict in its definitions and does not take into account that many sciences areobservationaland descriptive.

In order to see if we can asses the destiny model by using our falsifiability approach let us first explain the destiny model itself. Therefore I will first offer a description of what is called the Destiny model, in terms of which the notion of Destiny is elucidated. Destiny is defined as an ideal of transcendent unity towards which people strive in successive generations. This contrasts with the immanent Destiny realm of which the marketplace or the realm of political affairs is representative. There are four Destiny modes: the ethnic mode, which has to do with the various ethnic groups of which African Americans are representative; the national mode, pertaining to the nation-state, which has to do with an autonomous political organization, whose people are regarded as possessing a common heritage or language; the world mode that pertains to international practices or organizations as exhibited by such an entity as the UN, NATO, the International Red Cross, or the respective creeds of world religions; and, finally, the cosmic mode, the concerns of which pertain to the evolution of the entire physical universe investigated by physicists, chemists, biologists, anthropologists or social scientists. There are reciprocal interactions between these four Destiny modes. The ethnic modality manifest in the immanent Destiny realm allows the African American students or the students of any given ethnic group, to appreciate their cultural identity. Through the principle of reciprocity members of each ethnic group is enabled to value the experiences of those outside of one's own cultural or ethnic group, and the other way around. By contrast, the transcendent Destiny mode, characterized by unity, is all-inclusive and forward-looking. It informs the various ethnic groups that in spite of the historic differences of their cultures, such groups, by virtue of the transcendent ideal, can strive to seek unity among them. The transcendent ideal offers hope.

s we have seen it is clear form our examples that it is not possible to apply the falsifiability test on theories such as existence of God or the theory of evolution. Thesetheories cannot directly pass the falsifiability test. The destiny model suggests the working of various generations towards a common goal, but we cannot show by using falsifiability the concept of our evolution which doesn't help us to find a common ground for generations so that they can strive for the same goal. Also we can't show the existence of a God or of one common God a fact that might bring us a common ground.

Therefore I don't think that the falsifiability approach can be useful in assessing the adequacy of the Destinymodel.

References:

  • * The Destiny Model: A Basis for Cross-Cultural Exchange in Education By: Dr. Johnny Washington
  • http://www.xenodochy.org/article/popper.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper
  • Popper, K (1978). "Natural selection and the emergence of mind". Dialectica (32): 339-355
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).



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