In my last post (and also here) I pointed out the true context of several of Armstrong’s sources, demonstrating that she is actually just misrepresenting them. Armstrong fares no better when it comes to science and, in particular, Popper.
While Kuhn does seem share her views that science does not find an objective reality, this is the very point of Kuhn where Kuhn has been shown to have gotten it wrong. Though I am a big fan of Kuhn, his theory explains far less than Popper’s, and so known to be the inferior theory. (For discussion, see here, here, and particularly here.) Armstrong supports Kuhn on precisely his wrong conclusions.
Science makes progress precisely because it moves from one paradigm to the next, each one having greater verisimilitude then the last. Science is homing in on objective reality, even if perhaps it will never find it precisely.
And, contrary to Armstrong’s uses of Popper, this was Popper’s whole point!
Consider, for example, this quote from Armstrong supposedly paraphrasing Popper:
[Popper believed that science] moved forward when scientists came up with bold, imaginative guesses that could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other “belief,” because testing could show only that a hypothesis was not false. (p. 267)
This quote made me cringe. It leaves one with the false impression that Popper believed scientific knowledge was no better than any other type of ‘belief.’ It is difficult for me to believe Armstrong could so totally misunderstand Popper.
In this quote above Armstrong’s intermixes two concepts that do come from Popper. But she mixes them in an inappropriate way. The two concepts are:
- Popper showed that science (and all explanations) start with ‘conjectures’ that are — prior to being tested — no better than any other belief.
- Popper showed that our testing of our explanations could never verify that it was correct, it could only falsify it.
But these two points actually represent different ends of Popper’s epistemology, so they can’t be meshed together like Armstrong tries to do. To do so leaves one with the false impression that Popper thought our scientific knowledge was no better than any other belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Even Kuhn would disagree with Armstrong on this, by the way.)
Popper’s actual epistemology is that we creatively come up with conjectures to solve known problems and then we test out those conjectures via criticism and experiment. If they pass all tests plus fit the data better than the last best theory, than that conjecture will become the new prevailing theory. The process will then repeat. By doing this, we will never know the full truth because there is always the possibility that we’ll find a better theory. Our theories can, in that limited sense, never be‘verified’ only ‘falsified.’ But — and Popper is very insistent on this — we can also have confidence that we are getting increasingly closer to reality and that thus we are homing in on objective reality. Therefore not all explanations are equal.
So Armstrong’s paraphrased ‘quote’ of Popper is not correct. Popper would agree with her that ‘conjectures’ — the first step of a grand process — are no better than any other belief prior to testing. And he would also agree that we can’t verify a theory as correct via testing. But after you make a conjecture you are supposed to go on to test it. If it passes all tests via failure to be falsified, then by natural selection this conjecture will become the best prevailing explanation/theory. We can know that it’s superior to all the alternatives because this is the only surviving one that still fits all the data and failed to be falsified.
And while it’s true that Popper did say that we cannot ‘know’ anything, even this is an out of context quote. When Popper says we can’t ‘know’ anything, he is talking only about being certain about out theories. Since our theories can only be falsified, in this limited sense we can’t ‘know’ anything.
But Popper did believe we can know that we are getting closer to objective reality by continually improving on our explanations and theories through falsification. So in this sense we can know quite a bit.
Without all this context – and Armstrong gives you none of it – her quotes of Popper as so misleading as to very nearly mean the opposite of what he actually believed. How did Armstrong misunderstand Popper this severely?