06 November, 2010

Pop goes the weasel

"The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base: and if we stop driving piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being." [Emphasis added]

Popper, K. (1959) The logic of scientific discovery. London: Hutchinson Education (p.111)


  1. all this is fine, please draw some conclusions based on that passage, might lead to lively debate ! :-)

  2. Do you see the emphasis on the last line? What we might consider knowledge or truth, is never (and can never be) the absolute truth. According to Popper, in our search for knowledge the place (however shifty) where our assumptions and observations find a base to rest upon, is what we take as our 'philosophy of knowledge'. In debates about knowledge and research methods one comes across the science (positivist, fact-based, reality is out there to be observed) vs social science (interpretivist, we are also part of the reality and it exists only because of our understanding of it) argument. Popper explains that even science, with its experiments and strong observational pattern, can never have absolute truths. We don't 'prove'. We can, at best, 'tentatively conclude'.

  3. of course. We tentatively predict, based on models which we think are approximately correct based on past predictions that have been verified :-)

    they (our models, explanations) ALWAYS contain some grain of truth. otherwise they could not predict.

    the social sciences, they devolve too often and too easily into nonsense. Sokal anyone ?

  4. I am not taking sides here, just saying that the certainty that characterizes science as opposed to the social sciences is not all that certain. There is always the element of 'shiftiness'. And yes, the social sciences often digress into defining definitions till you forget what it was you were trying to explain! Check out The Foundations of Social Research by Michael Crotty. Its a good read, and not necessarily for only those in research.

    The Sokal incident is very interesting. Thanks!

  5. Im not taking sides either :P I agree with him (popper) (and you) about science.

    just wanted to point out that science is the closest we get to "truth".

  6. Science is the closest we get to "truth". Not necessarily.
    As miss Bumbles points out that Science is based on experiments and strong observational pattern. Now our experiments and observations can be done locally. From the local observations we try to predict the theory to explain everything. Suppose in a town everyone is wearing a black goggles. So, based on the observations and experiments people conclude that the world is black and white. Now that is not the "truth".
    I have always wondered, whether the ultimate goal of a scientist it to attain the ultimate truth. If there is an ultimate truth, and a theory to explain everything then the world would be so uninteresting...

  7. fair enough, but then, after drawing the conclusion that everyone is wearing black goggles, you design an experiment sensitive enough to stare into the eyes of people in random towns across the world (people look at galaxies and proto galaxies billions of light years away) and they seem to be wearing black goggles too ! then you have good reason.

    basically, scientists assume that "we dont live in a special town" and that the laws of the universe are the same everywhere. That MAY not be the case, but as far as we can tell so far, it is.

    people differ about whether there is an ultimate truth and whether science will get there. But it is certainly true that science captures ever more refined and accurate pictures of "reality". maybe that process is infinite, does not change the fact that science is the only way (almost by definition) that we have, to come to these approximate explanations/models of reality.

    bottom line, it works :-) that never ceases to amaze me.

  8. Not completely accurate. Only empirical science is based on immutable axioms. There are still, many aspects of the same that are very much absolute and not subject to change. The only axioms these branches base themselves on are the definitions themselves. As for digging deeper, again non-empirical sciences build on definitions and follow a ground up approach instead of the top-down for their counterparts.

    Strictly speaking, empirical sciences are merely instantiation of the theoretical model and are only susceptible to the inaccuracies of observation.



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