Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Falsificationism and Inductivism

After posting an essay criticizing falsificationism, I received a request for a definition of it. You gotta laugh! Anyways, because I don't want to fall asleep on the job... again... this post will also briefly cover inductivism. My reply:

Falsificationism is a specific form of empiricism; as an epistemological position, it presupposes the tenets of empiricism (reliability of sensation &c.). Falsificationism has been, in the history of science, stated opposite inductivism. One could say that the difference between the two positions is as follows:

Inductivists utilize induction: they infer universal properties on the grounds of a finite amount of observations. Example: swans A, B, C,..., Z are all white. “Therefore,” says the [epistemological] inductivist, “all swans are white.” Induction, however, is always tentative; in the future, I could conceivably observe a black swan. Thus, inductivists often admit they are only interested in "progress" (not knowledge, per se): one scientifically “progresses” insofar as one’s belief that all swans are white increases in rationality with every new observation of a white swan (with no contrary cases).

This is fine so far as it goes, but falsificationists, perceiving the problem of induction to empirical epistemology, hope[d] that by discarding the inductivist methodology, they could achieve true knowledge. Rather than moving from specific observations to universal conclusions (per inductivists), falsificationists "falsify" universal conclusions by specific observations. A falsificationist would, for example, say "I observe this swan is white. Therefore, not all swans are black." Falsificationists, unlike inductivists, purport valid arguments.

The points I am making in my previous post are intended to show that, be that as it may, the arguments of falsificationists are unsound (I assume the reader knows the difference between a “valid” argument and a “sound” argument). The first few points are intended to show that falsificationism, because it presupposes empiricism, is likewise suspect to the errors of empiricism. When I state that "I observe this swan is white" is true, I am assuming answers to a number of epistemic questions empiricism is ill-equipped to handle – in this case, at least the subjectivity of sensation, problem of unknown variables, and, relatedly, the lack of an answer to the question of the contingency of knowledge.

These are problems falsificationism does not solve, so it fails in its endeavor to escape the end of inductivism: skepticism. On top of these unsatisfied questions, falsificationism leaves one without knowledge of which of the contradictory propositions (viz. the observation statement and the universal proposition) has been falsified, falsificationism is a relatively easily satisfied criterion to denote what "is" science (hence, less meaningful), and falsificationism would have, if it were adopted by 17th century empiricists, stifled many hypotheses which are [con]temporarily (!) favor (i.e. falsificationism is, on an empiricist's own grounds, historically untenable).

These considerations compelled its decline in favor amongst empiricists over the past half century or so. If nothing else, I hope this post is illustrative of how many philosophies of science have so quickly risen and fallen. The only constant seems to be that empiricism is constantly uncertain of its ground. Soli Deo Gloria, friends.


Ousia said...

"This is fine so far as it goes, but falsificationists, perceiving the problem of induction to empirical epistemology, hope[d] that by discarding the inductivist methodology, they could achieve true knowledge."

Which falsificationist make this claim of "true knowledge"? Have you a quote?

Ryan said...

Followers of Popper. This post is actually a modified essay I wrote for my philosophy of science class last year on Chalmers' book: