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Nothing to Do with Science

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Popper’s attempt to elevate the rules of deduction and formal logic above all else is the 20th century equivalent to the dictatorship of the Church’s one-sided and rigid caricature of Aristotle in the Middle Ages. Once again we have the attempt to force science into the straitjacket of a rigid and preconceived idealist schema, which lays claim to the status of an absolute truth to which everyone must bend the knee. Unfortunately, unruly, rebellious, contradictory nature will not submit meekly to such treatment. However self-consistent logic may be, it provides no ready-made answers about the world. Indeed, as we have seen, logic and mathematics in the 20th century has found it impossible to deal with contradictions even in its own house, as in the following sentences: "The next sentence is false. The previous sentence is true." Professional logicians cannot even agree among themselves whether this, and other "anomalies" have been resolved. Yet this did not prevent the likes of Sir Karl Popper from laying down the law for the whole domain of human thought.

The problem is that science, lives in the physical world, that crude world of contradictory, non-linear material reality. It is simply not good enough for the philosophy of science. Karl Popper is not a bit bothered about the discrepancy. If science does not match up to the stern criteria of the verification principle, so much the worse for science! Let us hear what the great man himself has to say on the subject:

"Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge (episteme): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability.

"Yet science has more than mere biological survival value. It is not only a useful instrument. Although it can attain neither truth nor probability, the striving for knowledge and the search for truth are still the strongest motives of scientific discovery.

"We do not know: we can only guess. And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover—discover. Like Bacon, we might describe our own contemporary science—’the method of reasoning which men now ordinarily apply to nature’—as consisting of ‘anticipations, rash and premature,’ and of ‘prejudices.’" (Quoted in Ferris, pp. 797-8, our emphasis.)

These few observations, delivered in a typically modest style quite in the tradition of Herr Dühring, were made in a lecture delivered to the Aristotelian society in Oxford in 1936. The lecturer later recalled with some irritation that "the audience took this for a joke, or a paradox, and they laughed and clapped." Evidently, they did not know their Karl Popper! There was no joke intended. He meant every word. For Popper and his disciples, the purpose of science is not to discover truths about the world, but merely a formal logical exercise, like chess or a crossword puzzle.

What is one to say about all this? At the end of the 20th century, when the discoveries of science have attained unheard-of peaks, we are informed that science cannot really know anything at all. On this issue, we completely concur with the following assessment:

"A distinction should be made between theories and facts. Scientists assume theories; they know facts to be true, within acceptable limits of confidence. As time advances, they replace one theory with another, arguably a better one. What should be beyond argument is that there is an accretion of known facts.

"On the whole, science is ‘true.’ To deny that man knows more about the workings of nature now than he did in the Middle Ages is perverse. Undoubtedly, some scientific discoveries are false and scientists are often a bit irrational in how they set about finding things out. But the alternative to accepting that there is a strong measure of truth in science is to go back to blaming a witch when the cow is sick." (The Economist, ibid., p. 103.)

The final refutation of Popperism and logical positivism in general is that, for all its bragging claims, it has nothing to do with the realities of science. This is shown by the attitudes of scientists, including, as we have seen, of those who could be expected to be sympathetic to it. This is what Niels Bohr had to say, after a conference of scientists and logical positivists held in Copenhagen about the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics:

"‘For my part, I can readily agree with the positivists about the things they want, but not about the things they reject. All the positivists are trying to do is to provide the procedures of modern science with a philosophical basis, or, if you like, a justification. They point out that the notions of the earlier philosophies lack the precision of scientific concepts, and they think that many of the questions posed and discussed by conventional philosophers have no meaning at all, that they are pseudo problems and, as such, best ignored. Positivist insistence on conceptual clarity is, of course, something I fully endorse, but their prohibition of any discussion of the wider issues, simply because we lack clear-cut enough concepts in this realm, does not seem very useful to me—this same ban would prevent our understanding of quantum theory." (Quoted in T. Ferris, op. cit., p. 822, our emphasis.)

The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli observed that the logical positivists merely used the term metaphysics as a kind of swearword, or at best, as an euphemism for unscientific thought. "I should consider it utterly absurd—and Niels (Bohr), for one, would agree—were I to close my mind to the problems and ideas of earlier philosophers simply because they cannot be expressed in a more precise language. True, I often have great difficulty in grasping what these ideas are meant to convey, but when that happens, I always try to translate them into modern terminology and to discover whether they throw up fresh answers." (Quoted in T. Ferris, p. 824.)

Finally, let us call as a key witness for the prosecution a man who might be expected to support the logical positivist line enthusiastically—Werner Heisenberg. In fact, he generally followed this line in the beginning, denying the independence of physical reality from the act of observation, insisting on the "indeterminateness" of processes at the sub-atomic level, and so on. However, as a scientist, involved in serious research, Heisenberg had to come to terms with the objective reality of the physical world. In the end, the absurd claims of the self-appointed philosophers of science were too much even for him.

"The positivists," he wrote, "have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can anyone conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear, we would probably be left completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies." (Ibid., p. 826.)

After decades of wandering in this arid desert, the most forward-looking scientists have finally turned their backs on a philosophy which taught them absolutely nothing either about the way nature works or how to understand it. The advent of the theories of chaos and complexity marks a decisive break with the narrow limitedness of the philosophy of science, and an approximation to a dialectical view of nature. The attitude of the new generation of scientists to the existing schools of thought is summed up in the following observations by the biologist Stuart Kaufmann on why he decided not to study philosophy:

"It wasn’t that I didn’t love philosophy. It’s that I distrusted a certain facileness in it. Contemporary philosophers, or at least those of the 1950s and 1960s, took themselves to be examining concepts and the implications of concepts—not the facts of the world. So you could find out if your arguments were cogent, felicitous, coherent, and so on. But you couldn’t find out if you were right." (M. Waldrop, Complexity, p. 105.)

There is an English proverb: "Little things please little minds." Those who place impossible demands upon science and then, when their demands are not met, draw the conclusion that science is not really "true" say nothing at all about science, but quite a lot about a trivial method which seeks simple answers to complex questions and complains when they are not forthcoming. The old claims to represent the philosophy of science are as dead as a doornail. To paraphrase what Marx once said about Matthew Arnold, the philosophy of science is too good for this world.

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