Saturday, July 04, 2009


Scientists and Philosophy

Francisco Ayala is an unrepentant Popperian.

From Ayala's recent contribution to the Sackler Colloquium: In the light of evolution III: Two centuries of Darwin, entitled "Darwin and the scientific method":

The requirement that a scientific hypothesis be falsifiable has been appropriately called the criterion of demarcation of the empirical sciences because it sets apart the empirical sciences from other forms of knowledge (13, 14). A hypothesis that is not subject to the possibility of empirical falsification does not
belong in the realm of science.

The requirement that scientific hypotheses be falsifiable rather than simply verifiable seems surprising at first. It might seem that the goal of science is to establish the ''truth'' of hypotheses rather than attempt to falsify them, but it is not so. There is an asymmetry between the falsifiability and the verifiability of universal statements that derives from the logical nature of such statements. A universal statement can be shown to be false if it is found to be inconsistent with even 1 singular statement, i.e., a statement about a particular event. But, a universal statement can never be proven true by virtue of the truth of particular statements, no matter how numerous these may be.

This is a straightforwardly Popperian account of science, which is fairly surprising, given that it is generally accepted within the philosophy of science that Popper's "demarcation criteria" was a failure and that, in fact, science does not exclusively proceed by attempting to falsify hypotheses. Even Popper, during his life, backed away from being a strict falsificationist.

John, I haven’t read the rest of Ayala’s paper but he could be right whilst not contradicting your claims! Despite all criticisms of Popper, falsification remains a primary criterion for the formulation of scientific statements although it is now regarded as necessary but not, as Popper seemed to think originally, sufficient.
I know and, in fact, Ayala may be more sloppy than wrong here. His main focus is on the need for a "critical test" and the impossibility of any account that can accommodate any result being science. But to call falsifiability a "criterion of demarcation," which "sets apart the empirical sciences from other forms of knowledge" is to endorse an idea that has definitly been discredited. There are many things we deem to be science that do not meet the falsifiability criterion.
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