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Are there examples of when verificationism doesn't hold in the context of Physics?

I intend to relate this to some discussion of Einstein's use of verificationism to discard Ether in the magnet conductor thought experiment.

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    Physicists like universal statements, e.g. about äll electrons, which are not verifiable in reality. So Falsifiabilty was promoted and reading about it could perhaps answer your question. – sand1 Oct 29 '18 at 18:18
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    If by "verificationism" you mean the logical positivist version the consensus is that it never holds in physics at all. Einstein's discarding of ether certainly was a lot more complex than that. What he told Heisenberg pretty much rejects verificationism's principal premise:"Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed." See Do theories come from observations or do they determine what is observed? – Conifold Oct 30 '18 at 2:15
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Before looking for examples when verificationism doesn't hold in the context of Physics, let's consider Wikipedia's description of it:

Verificationism, also known as the verification idea or the verifiability criterion of meaning, is the philosophical doctrine that only statements that are empirically verifiable (i.e. verifiable through the senses) are cognitively meaningful, or else they are truths of logic (tautologies).

Verificationism thus rejects as cognitively "meaningless" statements specific to entire fields such as metaphysics, spirituality, theology, ethics and aesthetics. Such statements may be meaningful in influencing emotions or behavior, but not in terms of truth value, information or factual content.

This would make one wonder how universal claims could be verifiable by specific use of the senses? The following might be examples where verificationalism doesn't hold in the context of Physics:

  1. The existence of laws of nature
  2. The existence of determinism
  3. The existence of physical constants such as big-G or the speed of light in a vacuum

How are these ideas "cognitively meaningful" under verificationism?

Karl Popper provided falsificationism as an alternative to verificationism as the Wikipedia article noted:

Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery proposed falsificationism as a criterion under which scientific hypothesis would be tenable. Falsificationism would allow hypotheses expressed as universal generalizations, such as "all swans are white", to be provisionally true until falsified by evidence, in contrast to verificationism under which they would be disqualified immediately as meaningless.

If a scientific belief cannot be falsified this might also be a way to find an example when verificationionism doesn't hold either in the context of Physics. A belief that cannot be falsified may also be one that cannot be verified. Examples of these beliefs might be

  1. The belief in string theory
  2. The belief in the existence of many worlds
  3. The belief in the existence of black holes and dark matter

One of the initial advantages of verificationism was that it could dismiss as cognitively meaningless "statements specific to entire fields such as metaphysics, spirituality, theology, ethics and aesthetics". The verificationist does not even have to bother verifying that they do not exist.

However, what if someone conducts an experiment that verifies the existence of something that a physicist thinks should not be there? In particular, do physicists generally accept psi research such as that listed by Dean Radin? How would verificationism or even falsificationism help? One could view this psi research as someone finding that black swan that wasn't supposed to be there.

There may also be an issue with realities that many physicists have no problem accepting, but are not directly verifiable such as electromagnetic fields. Marc Lange raises this issue in An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics. Fields help the physicist avoid action at a distance, but are they real? Not every physics text accepts them as real according to Lange who quotes one as claiming (page 42)

The assertion [of the field's reality]...is merely the physically irrelevant statement of a metaphysical conviction.... This is certainly not a legitimate physical theory at all; it is the confusion of metaphysical belief with metrical physics...

Although these last two examples may not be examples where verificationism doesn't hold, they may be examples where verificationism (or falsificationism) doesn't help either.


Reference

Lange, M. (2002). Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Radin, D. "Selected Psi Research Publications" http://deanradin.com/evidence/evidence.htm

Wikipedia, "Verificationism" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verificationism

  • Thank you, very helpful. Could you please explain the relation of Einstein's brand of verificationism with the Occam's razor and Leibnitz's identity of indiscernibles? Thank you. – Maths Nov 4 '18 at 14:49
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    @AnmolGrover I can only guess how Einstein's verificationism fits with Occam's razor or Leibnitz's view. My suspicion is Occam's razor is over-used in general. However, an interesting interpretation of how Einstein's view changed from supporting Ernst Mach to disagreeing with him in conversations with Heisenberg is present in Shimon Malin's Nature Loves to Hide which reviews quantum physics from the perspective of Whitehead and Plotinus. That may provide some clues. – Frank Hubeny Nov 4 '18 at 18:12

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