Philosophy of Science (according to Karl Popper)
What is ‘science’ anyway? What defines science? Who defines science?
In school we have ‘science’ class. You do experiments following the scientific method, you have a hypothesis and do tests to either confirm or debunk the hypothesis.
This post is going to focus on Karl Popper, a thought leader of the philosophy of science in the 20th century. His ideas were a starting block for defining science, making him one of the most important philosophers of science. To him science should be testable, refutable and falsifiable.
“All swans are white” Is this true?
Don’t know until find a black swan, so it is falsifiable, can be proven wrong.
Logically this idea is represented by the inference rule modus tollens which follows the form:
If Socrates is a god, then Socrates is immortal
But Socrates is not immortal
Therefore, Socrates is not a god
The first line is called a premise, so that would be our ‘theory’ and ‘prediction’ and the next two lines are proving how that if the prediction is false so is the theory. Important to note that you can’t prove the theory is true only that it is false.
Karl Poppers philosophy of science has this modus tollens logic at its core. If a scientific hypothesis can have this logic applied then it is a science, if not it is a pseudo-science. The process is a lot more complex for a scientific theory of course but follows the same structure. This falsifiability cannot be applied in practice it is just a theory, to apply this logic you need to use falsification.
To test falsification, you need a theory which is ‘testable’ to determine if it can be proven false.
For example, you see a black swan therefore all swans are not white.
Science is about falsification not confirmation of a hypothesis. Popper believed a good idea could be tested with the risk of being wrong, which lead to more knowledge than one which could not be tested but claimed to explain everything.
Essentially, we learn from our mistakes. Beliefs should change with gained knowledge, be tested and let it go if found to be unfalsifiable.
Popper valued falsification above induction/verification.
Induction and Verification:
Why was 6 afraid of 7? because 7 8 9. Why was 7 afraid of 8? Induction
Popper rejected verification since it relied on induction. We use induction in our everyday lives to make decisions from past experiences but Popper did not feel this was sufficient for the demarcation of science.
Science or Pseudo – Science?
Popper was concerned with demarcating science from pseudo-science.
For example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity to Popper was ‘proper science’: proposed in 1916 and tested in 1919 and made predictions which could be wrong. Compared to Freud’s psychoanalysis, which was applied to any circumstance to be true, Popper saw this and Marxism as ‘improper science’. They suffered from universal verification and had no chance to be proven wrong.
The field of philosophy of science is evolving and changing. Students of Popper, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend were great philosophers of science developing and diverging from the theories of Popper.
There are many great books (listed below) on this topic if you have enjoyed my brief introduction to Popper’s world of demarcation and the philosophy of science.
- “What is this Thing Called Science?” by Alan Chalmers
- “Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk” by Massimo Pigiucci
- “Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science” by Peter Godfrey
- “The Tyranny of Science” by Paul Feyerabend
- “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” by Karl Popper