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I am a huge fan of Dr. Popper's work, and particularly his theory that the property of falsifiability separates the scientific from the non-scientific.

However, it struck me that this theory does not meet the conditions it sets out to impose on others; in short, it does not appear to be falsifiable itself.

My questions are:

  1. Is it correct that Popper's theory of falsifiability is not falsifiable? (That is, "could it be argued" that his theory does not meet its own standards?)

  2. If #1 is true, is it a problem?

  3. Does/has anyone raised this objection, including Popper himself?

  • Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/22560/… – SAH Apr 3 '15 at 2:27
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    As the questioner of the link above, Popper's way is in sort, to me fell into the "theory for the theory itself about which itself is exception from anything.Since he thought he should consider it as a "true science" only if the subjective theory can endure his test as many as possible ( here is the trick ), to me consequently there is no end since he did not formulate how many times should the theory endure his test. Ultimately his theory itself ended up in the no-end oriented theory which we can not conduct hist test on his theory. – Kentaro Tomono Apr 3 '15 at 2:35
  • It may be that this essay is discussing my question-- among other potential problems with critical rationalism, many of which it seems to argue are not actual problems: scielo.org.co/… – SAH Sep 13 '18 at 5:34
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    Something not dealt with so far is the problems around "self-reference". It is delightfully illustrated in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and famously instantiated in Russel's Paradox. The common thread in self-referential issues are that a secondary vantage is needed to resolve them. I.e. In order to judge, whether a theoretical framework could judge a certain aspect of itself, an agency from without the framework is needed. – christo183 Sep 17 '18 at 10:02
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Popper himself believed that Darwin does not fit his criterion, but that it appears to be useful scientifically. Today it is basically invaluable to several important subfields of biology. He admits this cannot be explained on his proposed basis, and is not crushed. (So your answers are 'yes', 'no', and 'yes'. To the extent it is falsifiable, it has been disproven by his own observation. And to the extent he kept supporting it as valuable anyway, it must not have been meant to be falsifiable.)

So, evidently, the proposition has exceptions, and there are other ways of providing scientific value, even in Popper's own estimation.

Lakatos, coming immediately after Popper, emphasized that Popper's criterion is good in spirit, but that theories can abide a certain limited range of exceptions as long as nothing truly better and equally simple comes along. In fact, he gave historical examples of theories that continue to protect themselves from known counterexamples almost indefinitely, without becoming truly compromised. There is a difference between admitting a range of exceptions and admitting tortured constructions that continually rescue the theory.

Popper's main objection was to things like Marxism and Freudianism or religious impositions of Idealism on physics. We can accept his criterion as a 'smell' that makes us look for these distortions without simplifying the procedure of science into a mechanism that uses clean, potentially falsifiable hypotheses as its lynchpin.

To my mind, we need to see Popper's criterion itself in slightly less rigid terms. It has become something one teaches dogmatically in schools, which is sad. Because it has come to pass that the view is held more tightly by Popper's adherents, including too many teachers of basic science, than Popper seems to have held it himself.


Elaboration of personal theory

My approach is to relativize Kuhn's notion of productive periods, and to apply Popper as a criterion for the 'period' he refers to as normal science, and something more like Lakatos to the 'period' he refers to as revolution (leaving someone like Feyerabend to rule over pre-science...).

But each discipline is actually made up of sub-disciplines, and each of those has definite periods of its own, where its relationship to the larger theories of its embracing discipline can be in a posture which is 'prescientific' (Whatever we are doing works, so it must fit with their work, but we don't really care how the two harmonize, because we are happy for now), 'revolutionary' (Their theories challenge our groundwork, and we create a succession of bridges to or walls around our work) or 'normal' (We leave off developing our own internal theories and solve specific gaps between our sub-domain and the larger theory).

This nesting of smaller and smaller subdomains like a kind of self-similar fractal scaling, extends down to the day-to-day operations of real scientists. They might successively, on an hour-by-hour basis ignore discrepancies, bridge or isolate from them, or work out details in hopes of resolving them.

If you reach a point at any level of reconciliation with your including domain where transition back into a normal/'Popper' mode is impossible, and you are stuck in a 'revolutionary' mode, you are either still in a real (mini-) revolution, or you are not really in a 'revolutionary' mode at all, but in a pre-scientific one -- you are keeping your faith and no longer doing science.

If you are permanently stuck in a normal/'Popper' mode, your science is dead and you are doing engineering.

As change becomes quicker, we find ourselves in 'revolutionary' periods of great length or recurring with great frequency. To the degree Popperianism wants to put the brakes on this, it will thwart progress.


I would contend that the 'smelly' non-Popperish theories that rescue themselves instead of accounting risk have this quality, they begin as revolutions and retreat to applying puzzle-solving skills to a set of idees fixes which lets them backslide into permanently pre-scientific devotion.

To me this is the right way to view Popper: as the criterion for when science is being 'normal' in Kuhn's sense along with a dedication to keeping it Kuhnian 'normal' a norm, though not a rule.

  • Popper's opinion on Darwin's theory was based on misunderstanding. What Popper said was that "natural selection" or "survival of the fittest" is an unfalsifiable concept. This is true, because "fittest" is just another label for "able to survive better". However, Darwin proved not that natural selection exists, but that it is a force responsible for making new species. That, on the contrary, is a falsifiable claim ("rabbits in the Precambrian"). – IMil Apr 3 '15 at 15:25
  • Right! Genetics and other incorporations have basically solved this problem, and rendered evolution relatively testable. My point was not whether Popper was right about the science itself, but how Popper himself thought problems like this should be addressed. Super-Popperians (people more Popperian than Popper) would say the theory needs to be set aside and not used until it becomes falsifiable. But then we would not have gotten where we are today. – jobermark Apr 3 '15 at 15:33
  • Yes, genetics made biology a far more exact science. However, even at Darwin's level of knowledge, falsification was conceivable. If, for example, kangaroos turned out to have clockwork brains, this could have no explanation in Darwin's theory. I know, this is a stupid example, but it shows at least a potential for falsification. The theory of creation, on the other hand, may not be falsified, because for an omnipotent creator, clockwork is as easy to make as neurons :) – IMil Apr 3 '15 at 15:44
  • How would that contradict the idea that the clockwork itself had arisen by successive modification, and that the earlier versions somehow cannibalized all the parts of the earlier versions leaving no trace. (Or at the other extreme the idea that kangaroos are not really animals, but were put here by visiting extraterrestrials...) Without genetics and geological precision Darwin did not have, Darwinism really is as slippery as Freud. (Ask a Jahovah's Witness with training in medicine or biology... Many can explain this at insanely great length.) – jobermark Apr 3 '15 at 15:48
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    And you are ignoring my point. It is not important whether Popper was right about specific articles of science, this is not a board on science or its history, it is on philosophy. What matters is how Popper dealt with the idea that there was an exception to his characterization. His answer was not to dismiss the theory, despite his belief that it was not falsifiable. – jobermark Apr 3 '15 at 17:49
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Popper proposed falsifiability as a demarcation criterion for science, not all knowledge. In his work he never declared that all truth claims needed to be falsifiable. Thus there is no issue since the principle of falsifiability is not a scientific claim, it is a claim about science.

He referred to these non-scientific, but coherent, claims as "metaphysical"; the principle of falsifiability is one example.

  • Dave, these answers are very useful, but then I'm wondering what he means by "science." How is "science" distinct from "truth claims"? – SAH Apr 7 '15 at 14:25
  • @SAH -- definitely better asked as a separate question. – Dave Apr 7 '15 at 15:12
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Popper said that to be a scientific a theory had to subject to experimental test. He explicitly said on many occasions, e.g. - "Realism and the Aim of Science" Chapter III, that non-testable theories could have value. So his position was not that an untestable idea is rubbish, just that it wasn't scientific.

Popper also pointed out that methodology could not be scientific. The point of methodology is to say what people ought to be doing, not what they are doing. If people are doing the wrong thing then they ought to stop. See chapter 2 of "Logic of Scientific Discovery".

Some of the answers above are awful and should not be accepted since they show a lack of knowledge of Popper's positions. For example:

Lakatos, coming immediately after Popper, emphasized that Popper's criterion is good in spirit, but that theories can abide a certain limited range of exceptions as long as nothing truly better and equally simple comes along. In fact, he gave historical examples of theories that continue to protect themselves from known counterexamples almost indefinitely, without becoming truly compromised. There is a difference between admitting a range of exceptions and admitting tortured constructions that continually rescue the theory.

This is a very bad idea. As Popper pointed out if an experiment seems to contradict a theory you have two options: ditch the theory or reinterpret the result. In either case, as long as your fix can be tested independently of the problem it was originally intended to solve, it doesn't matter much which option you take. (See "Logic of Scientific Discovery", section 29.) For example, if you think your telescope has a fault that caused you to miss some predicted astronomical event, then you could test the lenses or their alignment by looking at known targets, shining a laser beam through the telescope to see where it goes and there may be other better ideas. But you shouldn't take the attitude that it is okay to have experimental results that contradict your theory since that will block progress to better ideas.

The quote below is wrong as Popper was explicitly against what Kuhn described as normal science:

If you reach a point at any level of reconciliation with your including domain where transition back into a normal/'Popper' mode is impossible, and you are stuck in a 'revolutionary' mode, you are either still in a real (mini-) revolution, or you are not really in a 'revolutionary' mode at all, but in a pre-scientific one -- you are keeping your faith and no longer doing science.

Another mistake:

Popper himself believed that Darwin does not fit his criterion, but that it appears to be useful scientifically.

Popper said something along the lines that evolution is untestable in "Unended Quest" Section 37. He changed his mind in "Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach" Chapter 7 in which he said it had been refuted and proposed what he described as an alternative. I think he didn't understand the theory of biological evolution very well and that his views on it are wrong. For a good discussion of the testability of evolution, see "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, Chapter 4.

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I think its a reasonable criteria; so long one is not wedded to it.

The Atomic Theory was revived in the 16th C by Gassendi and others like Liebniz, Descarte and Newton; it wasn't falsifiable then but still proved useful; and now when it is falsified - in the strict sense - it still proves useful.

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Popper denied that philosophy was empirical science. Thus it is exempt. When it comes to complete epistemological theories, on the other hand, many Popperians argue that it will be invariably circular or self-refuted. (Circular if it instantiates itself, self-refuted if it appeals to a distinct justification.) I show why this is wrong. If interested, see errorstatistics.com (Popper, circular justifications)

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