MandM header image 2

False Alarm: Falsificationism and its Misapplication

January 4th, 2011 by André Z

A fair number of people are fond of the claim that if one is to be able to take a claim seriously, it really ought to be falsifiable. One easy response is that it’s difficult to see how this particular claim, about how we are to go about accumulating knowledge and believing stuff, is itself falsifiable; but if that seems a bit too quick a dismissal, there are other fairly well documented reasons to be dubious of ‘falsificationism’ and its claims to epistemological kingship.

Some ideas can be tested reasonably well e.g. with this early electron microscope. Others await the examination of evidence in different ways.

The idea is commonly associated with the scientific method; a purportedly precise way of doing things that many (perhaps particularly scientists, surprisingly enough) are pretty sure everyone should be keen on. If you want to know something, use science – it works. Indeed, the requirement of falsifiability is sometimes seen as a shibboleth for rationality, or at least orthopraxy amongst ‘reasonable’ people. In the discipline of the philosophy of science itself however, it would appear to be considerably less popular than among certain popularisers of science; an intriguing sociological fact. Falsificationism is a dumbed-down version of the views of method which Karl Popper offered the scientific community. Yes, science involves testing claims against the evidence, but there is more to it than that. A requirement of falsifiability may be seen as a suitably sceptical approach; even (as I’ve seen) contrasted with the blind faith apparently invested by religious people in their beliefs. This is problematic for a number of reasons, some of which will become clear. Lying behind it is a conveniently selective scepticism which puts aside the complexities of science and assumes or pretends that the project of explicating the order in the universe is a natural fit with naturalism. If you want to know why science works, it’s not science and it may not be falsifiable theories which will give good answers.

Perhaps the most pressing issue behind this post is widespread allegiance amongst many naïve people to some form of ‘scientism’. I and other Christians who decry this trend away from genuine rationality and accompany the hand-wringing with good arguments are often assured that it does not in fact exist; that no atheist, for example, truly could be so stupid or ignorant as to believe that naked science literally holds all the answers and provides the ultimate benchmark for rationality. I can only suggest, sadly, that such nay-sayers visit the internet again; search forums, for example where naturalists interact with Christian apologists and this attitude won’t take long to rear its ugly head. Science is great; I intend to make at living for a while from this enterprise and I think humanity is blessed to be able to engage in the project. But like most good things, it also comes with limits – the most important of which for me being the assumptions and foundations on which the project rests. This basis; in logic and mathematics, along with assumptions about human nature/rationality (required for a ‘scientific community’) and the metaphysics of existence is not itself derivable from the scientific method, though its success is one reason to suspect e.g. the physical sciences are, as it were, getting near the truths of matter. How we can justify beliefs fundamental to this project, particularly if we are to dogmatically insist on naturalism and its corollary the fluke-universe, is an interesting question.

Yet scientism and self-referential problems aside, the claim that everything must be falsifiable before it shall be admitted in our discourse soon becomes ludicrous. Even in natural science, holding to falsificationism as the demarcation criterion hinders progress. If modern science is a fruitful search for knowledge about the real world, then falsificationism is false. “The criterion of falsifiability excludes the search for the positive existence of some entity or property.”[1] It also excludes many historical theories deemed as scientific and claims that lie outside of a human capability or timeframe to test, such as the impossibility of perpetual motion machines. Many hypotheses are falsifiable, when we assume that background theories are essentially correct, but the significance of this fact is questionable. Due to the complexity of scientific theories, from the fact that a concept has consequences which are inconsistent with the evidence little can be conclusively established. Slight modification of the hypothesis may render it in complete accord with the facts thus far accumulated; similarly, future changes in background theories or auxiliary hypotheses (perhaps previously unposited entities caused the problematic consequences) could put once-dead theories back on display. In general, popular but probably false theories can take a long time to die and can remain hanging on in the teeth of the evidence as scientists hope that their pet theory may yet be revived with more information or as they wait for a more coherent explanation. Conflict between theories and facts helps to drive science forward – while we ought to aim for the truth in science and beyond, the most important aspect of a theory is arguably its fruitfulness in producing new research and new understanding, regardless of whether it fits in fully with other theories which are also proving productive. It may be that the other theories are what need to change in order to better approximate reality.

Finally, let’s talk about God. It has not infrequently been suggested that as God is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, He ought not be allowed into the avowedly secular space of our reasoning. This strikes me as rather similar to the – temporarily fairly successful – attempts to banish talk of God as meaningless in the academy by logical positivists and verificationists early last century. The collapse of that school reopened the philosophical doors to speculative metaphysics and the philosophy of religion and perhaps a parallel post-falsificationist reassessment of science and knowledge by scientists could open the door to an acknowledgement of the astonishing nature of the scientific project on this little planet. Interestingly, there are elements of the Christian religion that actually strike me as being quite open to falsification; as open as other historical claims in any case. Either demonstrate the existence of historical facts inconsistent with Christianity’s truth, or show that Christian claims do not plausibly fit their historical context. Dare to interact with the person and claims of Jesus. Logical contradiction in the more obviously philosophical claims is another theistic flank open for attack by keen naturalists; albeit one that has not yielded much fruit for them.

A requirement that hypotheses be falsifiable comes with some merits as one tool in the reasoner’s belt. Let’s use it where appropriate in scientific contexts and do our best to continually test what is good and true and what is not. Let’s also be honest sceptics and also prepared to lay it aside when dealing with some existential claims (e.g. ‘dark matter exists’) and instead assess these claims on their explanatory merits and the way they fit with related evidence; both new and old, that the human race continues to gather up. Try and remember too that the ‘evidence’ includes not only any individual empirical facts collected, but the nature of the scientific, historical, philosophical, etc, projects involved and the astounding fact that we can fit it all together and ponder how and why it came to be this way and what kind of foundations may be required to make it so.



[1] Friedel Weinert – Copernicus, Darwin and Freud – Revolutions in the History and Philosophy of Science (2009) p. 156.

Tags:   · · · · · 21 Comments

Leave a Comment


− 3 = three


21 responses so far ↓

  • I’m not sure why questioning that claim might be considered rash or dismissive. It’s stated as an at least implicit universal, “a claim” equaling all claims.

    But aside from that, the self-referential issue needs to be fleshed out in much the same way as for reason itself. I can’t *logically* defend reason without thereby committing the basic fallacy of assuming reason in the premises. But if I make reason an exception to its own requirements, then I have the problem of it not being truly universal after all, as I claim it is. And it won’t do for me to try to say that reason includes that self-exception in the nature of the case, because that self-exemption becomes yet another logically indefensible claim in addition to my view of reason itself per se.

  • Machine Philosophy, doesn’t that only show that you can’t provide a non circular defence of reason.

    If you assume that every source of knowledge needs to be proven or its reliability esthablished before you can trust it as a source then that would be a problem, but it seems fairly obvious to me that this assumption is false.

  • “I’m not sure why questioning that claim might be considered rash or dismissive. It’s stated as an at least implicit universal, “a claim” equaling all claims.”

    It is rash and dismissive and overused because:

    It is a claim about the state of the external world. NOT a claim about claims.

    No one is claiming it is a universal claim that applies to all statements.

  • “..it’s difficult to see how this particular claim, about how we are to go about accumulating knowledge and believing stuff, is itself falsifiable..”

    I think it IS falsifiable. Certainly ‘reason’, in the sense of knowing by reasoning alone is. Just go and take a look.(Observation, data collection, that kind of thing.)

    If through pure reasoning, you come up with something unfalsifiable, simply for the reason that you can add more ‘reasoning’ to it, that’s when you know that you’re so full of it that you’re eyeballs are floating, yes?

  • More precisely Max, it seems to be a claim about the kind of reasoning we ought to use in claiming knowledge about particular things. Perhaps these ‘particular things’ are limited to empirical matters, or more broadly, ‘the external world'; but it is a claim about beliefs (what kind of claims we (should) hold true) and belief formation rather than the external world per se. I suggest it is ‘meta-scientific’.

    In any case, falsificationism is the kind of claim that should probably be argued for rather than just asserted as the self-evident ‘scientific method’ or such. While I’m no expert on scientific explanation, I hint in the post that there are other, better, ways to assess claims about positive entities. There are unfalsifiable claims that ought not be held, due to lack of evidence and/or explanatory idleness – but I don’t think God, for instance, falls into this category at all.

  • “I suggest it is ‘meta-scientific’.”

    I guess I was precisely saying that when people make this sort of claim it is NOT meta-scientific.

    It is like when someone says “you can’t believe anything without evidence” and some wag replies”where is your evidence for that?”

    The replier misses the point entirely. It sounds clever -and in a debate it is a clever reply – but if the first speaker is allowed the opportunity to clarify what they meant then it quickly comes clear that no contradiction really exists. Old Berty addressed many of these issues.

    “….God, for instance, falls into this category at all.”

    I don’t see this as a scientific claim at all.

  • Perhaps, Max, I should have said “I’m no expert on explanation” (in general) – I didn’t mean to imply that God is a strictly scientific hypothesis, though I do think the probability of God’s existence can be discussed and weighed, making good use of reason and evidence.

    By saying that falsificationism is meta-scientific, I mean it is a claim about the nature of science (and as sometimes applied, reasoning more generally) and is not able to be justified using scientific methodology, as lower-level claims about the natural world can be. If you think that God is not a scientific hypothesis, surely you can see that falsificationism is even more obviously not a scientific claim.

    Actually, I am sympathetic to the response of your “wag”. I think Matt has pointed out at this blog before some difficulties which evidentialism faces. As I understand it, it’s difficult to find independent evidence for a number of claims, including the existence of the external world. If some beliefs (including perhaps beliefs about the kind of beliefs we should hold) are not able to be conclusively shown with evidence, then it will be an interesting project to work out how far our dogmatism concerning a requirement for evidence can reach without bringing itself into question.

    I assume you mean Bertrand Russell (?) I have no idea what he’s said on the topic of falsificationism or evidentialism more generally; feel free to provide a link or a reading list.

  • Matt, I don’t believe there is any *logically* prior defense of reason possible. It’s merely a package-deal that is assumed, including the “necessity” of that assumption itself.

  • If it’s a claim about the external world, then I’m not talking about that claim. The claim as stated is presumably about all claims, in the absence of any qualification. Otherwise, it would be difficult to prevent someone from saying, not only does it mean claims about the external world, but that there is also a qualification on the term “external”, and then a qualification on the qualification etc., without any prior indication from the terms themselves in the original statement of the claim.

  • “I do think the probability of God’s existence can be discussed and weighed, making good use of reason and evidence.”

    … good ;luck! The problem with any such endeavor is that the probabilities weighed up are inevitably subjective probabilities – and so the atheist will assign them low values and the Christian will assign them high values. As such these sort of probability games are doomed to failure.

    “By saying that falsificationism is meta-scientific, I mean it is a claim about the nature of science (and as sometimes applied, reasoning more generally) and is not able to be justified using scientific methodology, , as lower-level claims about the natural world can be.”

    Exactly my point! Which is why I say that the “yes but how do you justify THAT claim” response – which is common – is so cheap.

    “If you think that God is not a scientific hypothesis, surely you can see that falsificationism is even more obviously not a scientific claim.”

    I never said it was. Which was my point in the first place. I think you are not getting what my point was!

    “I assume you mean Bertrand Russell.”

    Yes I did. Actually it is his set theory stuff which is interesting. The so called paradoxes concerning sets or all sets and so on.

  • I seem to have missed a boat or two, but I’ll try to keep on keeping on. A point I make in the post is that as a claim about the nature of science, falsificationism is actually false – it’s not sufficient as a demarcation criterion anyway and it doesn’t cover a lot of what we believe to be science. I make this point as an argument against a practice I consider highly problematic – when the name of science or scientific methodology is taken in vain and people insist on applying falsificationism (and the same goes for some other scientific processes) outside of science.

    As far as the whole God debate goes, I think the atheist will often believe in certain things, like the comprehensibility of the universe, moral facts, the trustworthiness of our rational faculties and such quite strongly and also independently of his/her atheism. If it turns out (as I suspect) that these can be shown to be unlikely on naturalism, but inscrutable or even quite high on theism, the atheist may decide to be more open to dropping his/her ‘a’.

    Going back to the different levels of belief: if someone tells you that your beliefs (whether as a whole or, for some reason, just about things other than the status of claims about other beliefs or belief-forming processes) should be falsifiable, it seems quite reasonable, regardless of whether it is a scientific hypothesis they’re proposing (as you acknowledge, it isn’t), to ask them why you should believe their claim.

    An upcoming post by Andrew should explore some related issues a little more.

  • So the first speaker has no responsibility to make a clear statement in the first place, and anyone who points out a self-referential error in the statement *as formulated* is simply trying to be clever. I’m sure glad there’s no responsibility to appropriately qualify an initial statement in the first place. That way I can dismiss any criticism in advance by imputing mere cleverness to my critics! And if they can’t understand this, then it should be obvious to everyone that no one could possibly explain it to them, by the mere fact of my lack of prior qualifications, which only those posturing as clever are too blind to understand! I think I’ve got it! Now if I can just apply this technique to everything I write…

  • Machine:

    If you want to reply to what I actually said rather than making snide sarcastic comments I would love to hear your views. As it is I can’t be bothered. I hope your upcoming posts as a new contributor on here have a less aggressive, and a more insightful tone to them.

    Andre:

    I guess i don’t see falsification or ‘reason’ however defined as a fact about the world. I see if more as a tool used to find out facts about the world. It is a framework within which facts about the world can be discovered. I see most ‘word views’ in this way – they cannot be determined with certainty, but once they are taken as the starting point many facts about the world can be determined. I suppose I see ‘falsification’ and ‘apples are green’ as very different sorts of things, and not requiring the same sorts of justification.

  • Max, It is like when someone says “you can’t believe anything without evidence” and some wag replies”where is your evidence for that?”

    The replier misses the point entirely. It sounds clever -and in a debate it is a clever reply – but if the first speaker is allowed the opportunity to clarify what they meant then it quickly comes clear that no contradiction really exists. Old Berty addressed many of these issues.

    I kind of agree with you here, but I see it a bit difference the person who says “don’t believe anything without evidence” cannot coherently mean this to apply to all claims. The retort you mention is useful because it forces a clarification, it forces the question (a) what type of claims require evidence and (b) what do not and (c) which one do religious claims like the existence of God fall into.

    and then we can asses the plausibility of the epistemology at this level.

  • I agree Matt. As long as the discussion is allowed to advance to the next level!

  • Max, I agree, I think thats how Plantinga’s critique of evidentialism functions. He starts with the obvious regress problem of saying a belief is rational only if there is a good argument for it. Then points out the distinction between basic and non basic belief, asks why God is non basic and then addresses those arguments, and so on.

    The problem is a lot of people simply assert the evidence slogan and haven’t really thought through these issues, and so you need to start with the problems of taking it universally to begin with.

  • If the fault lies in the person who takes the statement as it is, then, short of being psychic about invisible qualifying cognitive friends, I have no idea what else to do with the view that a statement using universal quantifiers cannot be challenged without the challenger being accused of sounding clever, being a wag, etc. It’s like having a debate, and when it comes my turn, saying “I’ll begin my response by allowing my opponent to qualify all of their statements and terms, since to respond to their statements now would mean that I’m merely wagging or trying to appear clever”.

  • Well machine. If you are uncertain what someone means by something, why NOT ask them what they meant. You don’t need to be psychic. You can ask!Seems simple to me – unless your goal is to ‘win’ a debate rather than actually arrive at a conclusion and learn something.

    The fact that you refer to a person you are having a discussion with as an ‘opponent’ is quite revealing I think.

  • I’m not interested in the tabloid revelations about people who post here.

    If I make a statement or argument and someone calls me on it, I don’t shift responsibility or impugn the motives of the challenger. I either admit the statement or argument is faulty and revise, or else show why the criticism of the position *as stated* is unfounded or otherwise mistaken.

    If I say all statements are false and someone calls me on the universal quantifier given the definition of the subject term in relation to what I said, how is that supposed to reflect negatively on the thought of the challenger, when I’m the one who made the self-referentially inconsistent statement? Is everyone else supposed to give me slack, yet if they criticize me then immediately impugn their motives?

    No one *owes* me an opportunity to clarify or qualify. I have that already when I make initial statements of a position or argument. And if either are faulty, I want the most forceful criticism possible without someone being distracted from attacking my position fully by wondering whether I’m going to somehow proclaim or insinuate judgments about their motives or some other personal factor.

  • “Is everyone else supposed to give me slack”

    Sounds like a good way to get to the real issue.

    “No one *owes* me an opportunity to clarify or qualify. ”

    Sure – but probably;ly a better option than snide sarcastic responses.

    But whatever – you reply how you want. End of discussion. Good day sir.

  • Once back from exploring possible philosophy bootcamp locations, I’m going to address everything actually said here, and then turn it into a nascent Guide for Aspiring Trolls, so that others can just follow the list of if-thens and respond in the exact same way. Should work for any issue on any forum, and retain the most attractive feature: never having to read anything in philosophy or precisely analyze a single issue in detail. It should also be easy to integrate the material into a Troll Script that can run completely unattended.