A CRITIQUE OF POPPER’S STRATEGY FOR THE GROWTH OF SCIENCE
1.0 TOWARDS ESTABLISHING THE BACKGROUND OF
POPPERIAN PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE.
1.1 CAN FACTS CONSTITUTE THE TERMINUS A QUO OF SCIENCE? (THE PROBLEM OF INDUCTION)
It is one of the fundamental canons of the empiricists, the positivists of all sorts and in fact the entire circle of the inductivists, that the ladder of science can only be climbed through the collection and assembling of our experiences. Put in another way, it is the case that scientific knowledge requires primarily and basically the collection of protocol sentences. The principle of induction can be expressed in the following statement:
If a large number of A’s have been observed under a wide variety of conditions, and if all those A’s without exceptions possess the property of B, then all A’s have the property B.1
Thus if various forms of metal expanded when heated at various occasions, one can conclude that all metals expand when heated. This is essentially an inductive process, which until the time of Popper was in the eyes of its exponents, a non-optional extra for empirical sciences. This principle of induction, the principle that scientific knowledge grows through the progressive movement from the particular statements (i.e. statements about facts) to the general (universal) statements, which are essentially the form in which, scientific theories appear, is considered of supreme importance for scientific discovery and advancement. Hence, Reichenbach makes bold to assert that the elimination of this principle from the foundational structure of science is tantamount to divesting science of its power to determine the truth or otherwise the falsity of its theories. Science will, therefore, be in want of a veritable means by which the veracity of her theories is established. There is no longer any intellectual difference between the scientific posits and the fanciful, arbitrary inventions of the poetic genius.2
Yet, Popper despite the fact that the principle of induction is unreservedly accepted by the whole of science and acquiescing to the possibility of universal error maintained the untenable nature of this inductive procedure. This skeptical view was already found in Hume and Kant, but only as precursors, for there are remarkable differences between these and Popper’s. Popper contended that this principle of induction is a muddle and is superfluous. For him it is destitute of a strong basis as it is torpedoed by confusion and riddled with untold logical inconsistencies.3
Scientific laws are always cast in the form of what the philosophers term universal statements in the sense that they make reference to all events of a particular kind. The problem emerges in the face of the observation statements, which allegedly provide evidence for the general scientific laws. The former are specific claims about a state of affairs that are recorded at a particular time. They are what philosophers call singular (or basic) statements or protocol sentences. Popper noted that there is no logical justification for inferring the truth of the universal statements from the singular, the numerical strength of the later not withstanding. This is because there is no guarantee that the contrary will not be the case in the future. This is fundamentally an impossible endeavour for any account of experience can primarily and essentially be only a singular statement and not a universal one. General scientific laws invariably go beyond the finite amount of the observable evidence that is available to support them. The corollary is that these evidences can never be established as the efficient progenitors of the general scientific laws. It is impossible to logically deduce the later from the available evidence. Any link, therefore, between singular and the universal statements in which the former serve to authenticate the veracity of the later is an illogical connexion, which impinges on the acceptance of the inductive inference. This is the logical problem of induction and is made more complex by the fact that it is impossible to justify a law by observation or experience as highlighted above since it transcends experience; that science proposes and makes use of laws at every point and time despite the paucity of the observed instances upon which the laws are founded; and by the fact of the principle of empiricism which asserts that in science, only observation and experience may decide upon the acceptance or the rejection of scientific statements including laws and theories.4
But what is the raison d’ etre of this sort of inference. The issue raised here demands foremost that a principle of induction be established – a principle which provides “a statement by means of which we should be able to put inductive inferences into a logically accepted form.”5 How is the principle of induction to be vindicated? We have seen that this is impossible logically. What is left is an appeal to experience. Popper observed that any attempt to justify the practice of induction by an appeal to experience must lead to an infinite regress. The principle of induction must be a universal statement. Its justification is based on a number of individual instances of its successful application. Thus, use is made of inductive inference. Hence the justification of induction by an appeal to experience involves assuming what one is trying to prove i.e. begging the question. It is all about justifying induction by appealing to induction and so is totally unsatisfactory.6
Hume’s attempt to give a psychological basis of the principle of induction was in Popper’s estimation mistaken. It flies in the face of the principle of transference, for what is false in Logic as we already saw becomes true in psychology. Immediately Hume struck bargain with the psychological justification of induction, he became an exponent of an irrationalist epistemology. Popper was dissatisfied with his psychological explanation of induction in terms custom or habit. If we follow Hume, having established before now that inductive reasoning lacks any force as an argument to assert that this sort of reasoning dominates our cognitive life or our understanding, it means the exaltation of irrationalism for it is obvious then that argument or reason plays only a minor role in our understanding. Our knowledge is therefore not only depicted as being of the nature of belief but also of rationally indefensible belief- of irrational faith.7 It is bizarre, Popper argues to explain our propensity to expect regularities in terms of repetition. Events would continue to be isolated unless man has the categories that connect them. Popper submitted on logical reasons that repetition presupposes a point of view, ‘such as a system of expectations, anticipations, assumptions or interests.’8 It is only within this climate of thought that the questions of infinite regress or irrationalism are given a final blow. This, Popper maintains, depicts the scientific procedure.
1.2 THE VIENNA CIRCLE’S ATTACK ON METAPHYSICS
The logical positivists in the spirit of inductive tradition held that science is fundamentally based on the accumulation of facts. However they made a dogmatic extrapolation by holding a naïve and naturalistic view of meaning in their verification principle. For them, the genuine character and the meaningfulness of any alleged proposition is determined by its being a truth function of, or its being reducible to, elementary (or atomic) proposition expressing observations or perceptions. Carnap articulates this somewhat lopsided position of the positivists in a fascinating fashion:
It is certain that a string of words has meaning only if its derivability relations from protocol sentences (observation sentences) are given…that is to say, if the way to (its) verification… is known.9
The meaning of a statement is, thus, the method of its verification they concluded, to use the expressions of Waisman.10 The result of this unacceptable position of the Positivists is that the metaphysical sentences stand revealed, by logical analysis, as pseudo- sentences. The propositions of metaphysics are dismissed by them as non-sensical, and so lack any relevance and force in the ensemble of gnoseological acquisitions. This is indeed a calculated strategy towards a complete destruction of metaphysical principles. They have become ipso facto avowed worshippers in the temple of that Humean ideology in which metaphysics is viewed as ‘nonsensical twaddle, sophistry and illusion,’ requiring to be committed to the flames.11
Popper in his unpublished book entitled Die beiden Grund probleme der Erkenntnisthorie12, gave a fairly detailed criticism of this doctrine of elimination or overthrow (ueberwindung) of metaphysics through meaning-analysis. This anti-current action was done, not from a metaphysical framework, but from the springboard of one whose interest is in science, and its unhampered growth and advancement. Popper observed that this doctrine far from defeating the supposed enemy, brought the keys of the beleaguered city to the beck and call of the alleged enemy.13 The proponents were so much fixated in their determination to oust metaphysics from the circle of all informative discipline that they failed to realize that most of the scientific theories, which they purport to shield, have also fallen on the same scrap heap as the ‘meaningless’ propositions of metaphysics. Should this position of theirs be taken in the least lightly, their efforts towards the radical annihilation of metaphysics would also be an effort towards the eclipse of science as most of the postulations of the later which have metaphysical features would be destroyed simultaneously. It is an established fact that scientific laws and theories, which appear in the form of universal propositions, transcend experience and so are incapable of being logically reduced to the elementary statements of experience. Were we to hold credence to the Positivists’ criterion of meaning and apply such a criterion in a way that is consistent, we shall in the final analysis jettison the natural laws, which are, as Einstein says, the supreme task of the physicist,14 from the sphere of meaningful propositions. They can never be welcome into the community of all genuine or legitimate statements.
Since Bacon, the most widely held view was that science was characterized by its observational basis while pseudo-sciences and metaphysics were typified by their speculative method. Popper hardly accepts this view. The modern theories of physics especially Einstein’s theories were highly speculative and abstract. They were very far removed from what might be tagged their observational bases. All attempts to show the contrary were unconvincing, Popper concluded.15 Most scientific theories originate from myths. The Copernican system, for instance, was precipitated from a Neo-Platonic worship of light of the Sun who occupied the pride of place- the center because of his nobility. Copernicus, it must be noted studied in Bologna, under the Platonist Novara.16 Atomisms, corpuscular theory of light among others, are myths that have in no less a measure become vital for physical sciences. It makes no meaning to say, Popper noted, that these theories in one stage of their development were nonsensical expressions while they suddenly become meaningful in another.17 Parmenides of Elea seems to have captured this sequence when he opined that out of non-being comes non-being. No ‘sense’ can ever emerge from ‘non-sense’!
Furthermore, it is obvious that a lot of realities which science posits are no more observable than metaphysical entities. Should we have to talk about gravity, and various forms of forces, Newtonian mass points—Popper calls these ‘occult metaphysical substances’18 to depict their non-observable nature. Can we also observe time and space which have among others formed the fundamentals of scientific knowledge? Thus, if following the Positivists, we exclude these from all things meaningful, scientific boat would automatically be rocked and shattered.
We have seen that the broom of the anti-metaphysicist sweeps away too much. The anti-metaphysicist’s assertion that metaphysical propositions are sheer gibberish, if a little protracted, throws science into the wilderness of devastation. No wonder Popper had first to expose the antiques of this position with regard to science, for his maps for the growth of science would be irrelevant if the said science has been utterly extinguished.
1.3 POPPER SETS OFF AGENDA FOR THE THEORY-DEPENDENCE OF SCIENCE
Popper is not in the least undaunted in his conviction that the advance of science can hardly result from the accumulation of perceptual experiences in the course of time. No matter how dogged we are in gathering and sorting them, it is impossible, he thought, for science to emerge out of uninterpreted sense-perceptions. The canon of selection is ever utilized in the scientific observations. Hence, before any meaningful observation can be embarked upon, there is need for a choice of object, definite task—all of which presuppose interests, problems and points of view.19 In the light of this, all observations involve interpretation. Pure, unadulterated observational knowledge ‘would, if at all possible be utterly barren and futile.’20 Chalmers seems to share this view when he asserts:
How can we establish significant facts about the world through observation if we do not have some guidance as to what kind of knowledge we are seeking or what problems we are trying to solve?21
Observation statements cannot be statements expressing uninterpreted data. They are rather statements of facts in the light of theories. “How odd it is,” Darwin notes, “that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view….”22
Nature must be cross-examined on the basis of the experimenter’s theories, his ideas and his inspirations. Kant was after all correct when he says that it behoves on the experimenter to question nature and not wait until it pleases nature to make manifest her secrets.23 It must however be noted that unlike Kant who asserts that our theories are valid a priori, Popper maintains that they are only guesses, doubts, which must be tested empirically. This is an adumbration of what he calls hypotheticism, which is one of the cardinal points of his strategy. Hence he maintains that:
Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought are our only means for interpreting nature; our only organon, our only instrument, for grasping her.24
1 See A. Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science? (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999), p.47
2 See K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discover, (Great Britain: IJ International Ltd, 1999), p. 28
3 See F. Ndubisi, Epistemological Evaluation of Science (Lagos: Foresight Press, 2003), p. 1
4 K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 54
5 F. Ndubisi, Op. cit., p.2
6 A.F. Chalmers, Op. Cit., p.51
7 K. Popper, Objective Knowledge,(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 5
8 F. Ndubisi, Op.cit. , pp.44-45
9 See K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, p.261
10 See K. Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery, p.40
11 See F. Ndubisi, Op.cit., p.12
12 The English equivalent is The Two Fundamental Problems of Epistemology, C.f. K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, p.254
13 K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations,Loc. Cit.
14 See F. Ndubisi, Op. cit., p.14
15 K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, p. 255
16 Ibid., p.257
18 Ibid., p. 167
19 F. Ndubisi, Op.cit., p.46
20 K. Popper Conjectures and Refutations, p. 23
21 A. F. Chalmers, Op. cit., p. 13
22 K. Popper, Conjectures and refutations, p. 387
23 Ibid., p.181
24 K. Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery, p. 280