Popper: Falsifiability and the Realism/Idealism/Instrumentalism Problems

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in. 

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week.  Among the themes of class discussion was Popper's move from positivism to falsifiability, his objections to idealism and instrumentalism, and his insistence on realism.

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Paul Grobstein's picture

Relocating Popper: the place of truth and reality in science

It definitely pays (me at least) to revisit not only Popper but the context within which he was working. And, on this occasion to have not only the logical positivists but also the instrumentalists as context. As MK pointed out, Popper and the positivists shared a common commitment to the concept that scientific statements, statements about the world, needed to be unequivocably "true" or "false", ie they shared a commitment to an understanding of science in terms of a "correspondence theory": there is a world out there, there are statements about it, and the problem of science is to have a way of judging establishing which statements about the world are true or false.

What's worth noticing is that there was an available alternate perspective on science, representing by the instrumentalists (Pierre Duhem, whom I had not known about and should have; see Duhem-Quine thesis) and by the American pragmatists. This alternate perspective does away the "correspondence" approach and the problems of establishing it by asserting that scientific statements need not be at all descriptions of a "word that exists independent of an observer" but may instead simply by statements that "work" (in some practical sense or context).

What's worth thinking more about is why Popper would have declined that option, particularly since it was being actively entertained in phyics at the time Popper was working (Bohr: "Its wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature"). My current guess is that Popper actually had an underlying moral/political concern, ie he was worried that instrumentalism wasn't strong enough to preserve science as a healthy social force (which would be interesting, of course, given our earlier conversations about science as ontology/epistemology cut off from morality/esthetics and about the distinction between elucidation and edification).

Popper may have the same same concerns about "idealism", that it was too close to solipsism to provide a useful framework for social progress, and so prefered "realism", even though it was a "metaphysical" rather than scientific concept and so not falsifiable. We'll have more to talk about later in the course about both instrumentalism and idealism (the class was skewed toward realism along a realism/idealism axis).

For the moment, it is worth noting though that we have already three explicit arguments for believing there is in fact a "world out there". One is that things we observe exceed our imaginative capacities (but "The brain is wider than the sky"?). A second is our common sense practice of distinguishing between "appearance" and "reality" (which may or may not be misleading but needs in any case to be accounted for). And a third is that its hard to imagine making a falsifying observation unless there is a world out there. Notice though that "world out there" leaves open the question of whether it is in principal describle, singularly or otherwise.

MK usefully distinguished between Popper's metaphysics, as above, and his characterizationn of scientific methodology. And this seems to me further interesting/important in that Popper didn't regard non-science as "meaningless" but only different. To put it differently, Popper had a "frame dependence" (mor on this later in the course) for his characterization of science that was not scientifically justifiable (or refutable). A similar awareness of frame-dependence turns up in Popper's "conjectural nature of hypotheses", ie that these don't follow necessarily from the observations (see Duhem-Quine thesis). There is an important opening for multiplism here.

To further anticipate a bit, its interesting that Popper's theory of education is actually in many ways constructivist rather than realist (make conjecture, attempt to unseat, and conjecture anew ... similar to Lakatos: stick your neck out, have it chopped off, grow another one ... and to Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better" ... and to "getting it less wrong"). And that Popper resiste a sharp distinction between logic and philosophy. And, in the last analysis, took "It is fruitful" as the measure of science.

The elucidation/edification confusion again? And an opening to do away with the demarcation problem, ie science and art are to be similarly evaluated in terms of "fruitfulness"? (consistent with Rorty's critique of the "mirror of nature" understanding of science).

Interesting, perhaps, to explore this further in a still broader context (as MK and I did briefly after class). Perhaps science is more "collaborative" than Popper was inclined to give it credit for needing to be? And perhaps "Truth" is less "transformative" than Popper thought. Its a term used, of course, a lot in relation to science, perhaps less progressively in relation to psychonanalysis, history, and art. One can make an argument though that it proves less transformative than usually though in the first three, and that perhaps "fruitfulness" or "generativity", as used in art, is the common concern of all four?

 

 

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