Science and the Problems of Falsifiability

Regarding my previous post about falsifiability, here are some logical and philosophical problems with falsifiability as a criterion of knowledge (science).

1) Historical problems: The first problem with falsifiability is with what scientists actually do: Falsifiability does not explain what scientists have done, or do, when they are presented with tests that falsify their theories. Scientists have shown a strong tendency to keep their theories intact (in short term that is). They do not tend to, rightfully, throw away a theory because of one test.

This happens to be true about Newton and Einstein, that decided to keep their theories even when a test showed the theory appeared to be false. And obviously, it was the test that was false, not the theory. We can clearly see that this was the right thing: Imagine if Newton had thrown away his theory just because some tests about the moon had shown unpredicted results.

The answer of an advocate of falsifiability to this historical problem is fairly simple, and I think acceptable to some extent. Firstly, the test must be repeatable, which means it’s not just one test, but one test that repeatingly keeps showing abnormal results. It’s still the same test, but here we could be fairly sure that we are not doing anything rush. Also, another answer is falsifiability is not a historical method, but an imperative methodology: It’s saying what scientists should be doing, not what they have done.

2) The practical problem of Duhem – Quine thesis: The thesis itself is simple, we cannot test any theories without testing assumptions and other theories that have made them in the first place. Take for example theory T which is made of other assumptions and theories t1, t2 and t3. When we test T, we are also testing t1, t2 and t3. This is not so much of a problem for other methodologies as it is for falsification. The question is, what has been falsified? T itself, or any of t1, t2 or t3?

Let’s logically formulate this:

T=(t1 ∧ t2 ∧ t3)

We should remember that in order to falsify T, we either need to have falsified T itself, or any other one of t1, t2 or t3. The problem here is more likely practical: How do we know which is actually falsified? Assuming that we can know all of t1, t2 and t3.

The advocate of falsifiability here will have an answer, which seems logically plausible, but in practice turns out very hard or even impossible (if we take Quine seriously): As long as the theory is not falsified, we continue testing it. When it does falsify, well there is no other way and we have to test our other sub theory-assumptions as well.

So, falsifiability as a methodology is not likely to be practical. But then rises a logical problem from Duhem-Quine thesis, which is very problematic for falsifiability as a criterion of knowledge.

3) The logical problem of Duhem-Quine thesis: The formulated theory T above still works here, let’s look at it again:

T=(t1 ∧ t2 ∧ t3)

What will happen if t1 is non-falsifiable? As we can see above, T is still falsifiable. It will be falsified if T or t2 or t3 are falsified. So, what happens to the idea of falsifiability being a criterion of knowledge (science)?  If “any” of the pre-assumptions that we had in order to reach to T turn out to be non-falsifiable, it will show that science is not all falsifiable.

The most fundamentals of science turn out to be non-falsifiable: “The world is real” or maybe better “We can know objective things about the world”. If we can know that we cannot know, then we can know, therefore this statement is not falsifiable. It always has to be true, since if it is not true, it is true.

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In the end, falsifiability by itself will not be enough. It has been suggested that we add things to it, or abandon it and take a whole other rout. In any case, although it may be a good way to show what is “not” scientific, it is not a good way of showing what is. And although it can work about some areas of knowledge which are somehow obviously not scientific, about those grey areas is not as useful.

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A Libertarian – Utilitarian Rejection of a Socialist Economic System

One may not consider oneself a Liberatarian, but that is not to say an economic system cannot be judged by Libertarian means for its extreme anti-Liberal presence. One can be a Libertarian in a specific framework, such as the one providid by John Rawls. This enables us to judge other economic systems that happen to be outside such framework, by Libertarian measures. One of these extremes is the Socialist economic system.

What is a socialist economic system? We can define a socialist economic system based on two important factors, and those are the idea of 1) social ownership with elimination of personal ownership, and 2) Vertical redistribution of wealth and resources (or rejection of market economy and accepting planned redistribution) (Gregory, Stuart, 2004).

It is self evident that this article is not about welfare states (such as Scandinavian countries economic system), but about the economic system of The Soviet Union in the past and North Korea or Cuba in present.

First principle: It is very obvious that how, on Libertarian grounds, we reject the first principle of such socialist economic system. On Libertarian grounds, any form of taxation is coercion, even theft or slavery, and is objectionable on the grounds that no state has the right to seize one’s property, and no thief or slave master has the right to steal or enforce his will on another human being (Sandel, 2009).

There are also notable Utilitarian rejections of the first principle, notably those of Ludwig von Mises and Friederick Hayek.  Mises mainly argues that individuals are motivated by their desire to self-betterment and this desire cannot be translated from individuals to the group. And since the resources are owned by the state and not individuals, therefore the profits will be for the state and the motivation for efficiency will be lost (Gregory, Stuart, 2004).

These objection are powerful: They target both the merits and the outcome of the system choosing the first principle, and history shows that they have been correct in a practical way, particularly Mises and the Utilitarian objection.

Second principle: The objection to this principle is solely from a Utilitarian point of view, and by using Pareto’s principle of efficiency (as John Rawls formulates in section 12 of A Theory of Justice): An efficient distribution is the one that there can be no redistribution that makes one person better off without making the others worse. In other words, if we can make one person off without making the others worse, that is an inefficient distribution of wealth.

For a vertical redistribution to be efficient, all individuals have to be satisfied to the extent that the need for any market is no more. But in reality, the mere existence of the so called black markets in the Soviet Union shows otherwise. If the system was efficient enough without a market, there would have been no market, legal or not.

Therefore from a purely Utilitarian view, this system is unjust because it does not bring out the greatest good for the greatest numbers, and in fact falls much shorter than that.

References:

Georgy, P. R., R.C. Stuart. 2004. Comparing Economic Systems In the Twenty First Century. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, New York.

Rawls, J. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Oxford University Press. New York.

Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.

Sam Harris’ “Free Will” Book Review: A Kantian Critique of the Scientific Notion of “No Free Will”

In his recent book, Sam Harris (neuroscientist and the author of “The End of Faith”) has officially declared the notion of free will to be an illusion (Harris, 2012). He mentions studies that have shown one’s action can be determined some seconds before one is actually aware of them, and this goes against our notion of free will.

Needless to say, this has severe implications for judging people’s actions: If there is no free will, how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions? After all, if they have not freely chosen to do wrong (or right) holding them responsible will become meaningless. (This is not the basis of my argument in rejection of what Harris puts forward against free will)

Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion.

We could make two types of objection to this notion: One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action. Thinking about “how” a person has come to do a wrong doing does not change or reduce the wrongness of that action; it can only change the amount of responsibility of that person (Whyte, 2004). But of course Harris does not completely abandon this, as he argues that “Some criminals need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people” (Harris, 2012). If harming people is wrong, then regardless of responsibility we incarcerate criminals.

The other objection, the more important one in my opinion, is purely from philosophical ground, particularly from a Kantian perspective. Kant argues that we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that. Ironically, Sam Harris’ thinking about free will is by itself evidence for his autonomous existence, not his heteronomy (i.e. being a slave to the nature). Mere object are incapable of abstract thoughts, and therefore there is no decision making for them, no argument, no responsibility and no morality.

To understand this better, we can have one good example based on one of the most famous philosophical statements of (probably) all times: Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”.

By reading the simplest introductions to logic (for example “42 Fallacies” by Michael LeBossiere, 2011) we immediately seem to recognise there is an obvious case of begging the question here: If we want to prove that “I” exist, we should not have assumed the existence of “I” in our assumptions. If there exists an “I” to think, then we are going in circles trying to prove that the same “I” exists.*

But here we can have a defence of Descartes from that Kantian point of view: If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question. The second “I” is the one with both aspects of being: Both physical and rational. It is only obvious that only the rational I is capable of thinking about the physical I, however they may be inseparable.

Back to our subject, let’s consider the case of two murderers: One abused 12 year old boy that has been abused his entire life kills someone that has ridiculed him. And the case of a 40 year old man who murders his wife in order to marry his mistress. The difference between these two cases is the second “I”, capable of rational thought. The boy is almost without an autonomous “I”, acting only what was dictated to his mind based on his lifelong torture. But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.

In the end, the argument becomes something like “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum (I understand, therefore I am free).” **

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* It has been said (Warburton, 1998) that Descartes was completely aware that “I think therefore I am” is in form of begging the question. The argument in fact is not supposed to be a logical argument, but a psychological fact: It is hard to think that there is no I that thinks. This criticism therefore is a straw man.

** Translation by a dear commenter (Karl) below.

 

References:

Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. Kindle ed. Free Press (A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.). New York.

LaBossiere, M. 2011. 42 Fallacies. eBook. Amazon Digital Services. [Accessed on 14th March 2012].

Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.

Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking from A-Z. 2nd ed. Routledge. USA.

Whyte, J. 2004. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. McGraw Hill Professional.