Falsification: Rationalist’s second attempt at Science

Daniel Miles

It took many centuries before empiricists were finally allowed to dictate the direction of science.  Why are scientists are still under the influence of rationalism. Why can’t we just let it go?

Aristotle is often regarded as the father of science, with his ideas having a profound effect on how science was conducted for the following 2000 years. Like many philosophers, Aristotle felt that the universe could be understood by using both empirical  evidence and a priori reasoning. In fact, Aristotle was so revered and almost deified by academics for centuries that many of his theories were treated as canon, meaning that few dared challenge his authority. If Aristotle was the ultimate example of reason, how could people disagree with him? It wasn’t until the dawning of the age of enlightenment that the legitimacy of Aristotelian science was questioned.Even then it took a substantial effort from many academics to change the views of a stiff-necked establishment. A prime example of this feud is Galileo’s conflict with the church and the scientific community. By demonstrating that the earth revolved around the sun, he defied Aristotle’s theory of celestial spheres centred on the Earth. It was his ideas, along with others like those of Francis Bacon and Copernicus, that finally crushed the rationalism in science that had philosophically blinkered and crippled the progress of scientific discovery for centuries.

Since then, empiricism has dominated the scientific method and has led to infinitely more discoveries than the 2000 years that preceded it. It is now widely accepted that empiricism in science is a superior tool of discovery than rationalism ever could be, with only one key objection: falsification. This philosophical principle has been the only prominent rationalist rebuttal to the scientific method and has influenced the way we look at modern science. But does it deserve this prominence? The Aristotelian method of science serves as a stark reminder of the appalling threat rationalism can have on the scientific method. So should we be returning so swiftly back to those dark ages? In my opinion it would be beyond stupidity, but before we continue into reasons why, we must first address the thorny issue of falsification.

Falsification is a philosophy of science introduced by Karl Popper in the mid-19th century. He developed this theory after he perceived a problem with the empirical scientific method. His problem was an asymmetry he saw in proving scientific theories. Even with multiple pieces of evidence a scientific theory isn’t wholly proved, but one piece of evidence that contradicts a theory disproves it instantly. He therefore introduced falsification, which states that for a theory to be scientific it must be logically capable of being proven false.

At first glance this may seem like a fairly innocent assertion. It highlights a fundamental property of evidence-led science. However, it leads to a damaging method of science and in the extreme makes leaving through the second-floor window just as logical as leaving through the front door.

Instead of creating theories to explain evidence already obtained, falsification creates a theory and sets out to disprove it. The irony is that falsification  is ultimately just as asymmetric as the Baconian (empirical) method, with hundreds  of failed attempts to disprove a theory still unable to prove a theory. It works the same way, only backwards!

Backwards here is the operative word for a backward theory. If empirical evidence was completely ignored apart from its use in disproving theory, which is what falsification in its purest form is, then there would be no real way of differentiating between a disproven theory and a faulty error-ridden experiment. On top of this, a theory that is not informed by evidence is simply a guess, just like Aristotle’s original theories were. This means the only thing dalsification succeeds in doing is slowing down an informed process and confusing the wider community as to how science should be done. This ultimately brings the scientific method into disrepute amongst leyman.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against Falsification lies in its own lack of self-consistency. With any argument, particularly arguments that claim to have objectivity like all rationalist arguments, if a premise is self-defeating in nature it cannot be true. To give an example the statement: ‘There is no such thing as truth.’ This statement must be false since it is claiming to be true and yet refutes the existence of truth. In the same way falsification in its most general form states that if a theory cannot be falsified it is meaningless and therefore falsification itself must be meaningless by its own definition.

Using reason is still, and always will be, a very important part of the development of knowledge. Logic and reason is how we make any assertion, whether deductive or inductive,. What I do call into question though, particularly in rationalism, is the arrogance of humanity to create an idea or a conjecture and call it rational simply because it came from their brains. No! We are people with faulty ideas, concepts and biases. To fail to inform our decisions and theories with empirical evidence is foolish. It is like a blind man saying he can see because he understands the concept of sight. In fact it’s only when he sees, that his concept of sight can be improved. To be truly logical we need to consider all areas of truth with an open, yet critical, mind. Philosophers need to stop treating empirical evidence like an inferior runt and value it for what it is. After all, the ‘father of philosophy’ Socrates said ‘follow the argument wherever it leads’ and that includes following the evidence.

The Empiricist philosopher David Hume famously said that if a theory or a concept contained no deductive or inductive reasoning we should, ‘commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’ Although I ultimately disagree with this, as we would also need to commit Hume’s philosophy to the fire, when I study topics such as falsification I can understand why Hume was so eager to burn the Rationalists of his day. There are many areas of reason and rationalism that should be left intact, however I think ultimately it would be for the good of all humanity if falsification was finally condemned to those infernal flames.

Falsification: Rationalist’s second attempt at Science

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