The Contradiction of Solely Relying on Empiricism
by Nathaniel Bates
I want to dedicate this mini-essay to Jason Zarri, a founder of Scholardarity and friend of mine. It is thanks to Jason that I am decently educated on the philosophy of science. Any mistakes are mine not his.
I would like to point out the internal contradiction of relying solely on the “falsifiability” argument advanced by Karl Popper in any discussion of scientific reality. The argument holds that a theory is given credence only when it is predictive and falsifiable. Popper attempted to rescue science from what he considered the constraints of rationalist idealism. Most defenders of “New Atheist” reductionism will today rely on some form of the falsifiability argument.
Let me state that I personally consider the “falsifiability” argument to be indispensable in science. Ideally, science could not exist on the beauty of mathematics or the internal consistency of a theory alone. It should ideally rely on experimental evidence. We prefer that science rely on the ability of a theory to predict an outcome, and be falsifiable to the extent that a false outcome can then be ruled out.
The problem is that the actual history of science could not be predicted or falsified. If we began with Galileo, we could not have arrived at Einstein, Heisenberg, Darwin or Marie Curie. There was no way that the course of knowledge could have been predicted, or falsified. This is not a problem if we admit the Unknown, as we cannot predict what will be in 500 years. But it is a problem if we insist that all knowledge must be predictive. The claim that “all knowledge must be empirical” would imply a statement that is predictive and falsifiable when in fact it has no predictions and cannot be falsified.
Scientific reductionism has always claimed victory when its actual triumphs were often the triumphs of mystics, astrologers, rational idealists, and those who like Darwin or Marx were unable to test their theories by repeatable experiments and whose lack of trained specialization would be suspect in today’s academic world. Some like Marx were strict materialists, others like Darwin drifted in that direction, but still others maintained hermetic, Christian, Deist or pantheist views to the end. Even Carl Sagan wondered if mathematics could contain a code from a higher intelligence!
The fact that the actual history of science is not strictly indebted to empiricists is not the problem per se. The problem is one of honesty. The successes of science are seen as a success for strict empiricism when in fact the actual history of correct ideas is a meandering through the lives of scientists whose successful ideas were motivated by many world-views. Empiricist science was most successful when it was willing to test a theory even when the adherents of the theory were mystics, insane, or out of step with the scientific community. The rational empiricists who were the most successful experimentalists were tolerant personalities and not intolerant dogmatists.
Empiricism is necessary in science. But it must be tempered with humility. To do otherwise is to go beyond empiricism itself to a kind of capital “C” Certainty that cannot be falsified, and that relies on dogmatism. The self-contradiction of such a reliance would called out if it were held by any other philosophy of human knowledge than empiricism. I myself am an empiricist of sorts because I believe that experiments and not dogmas settle science. But I am only an empiricist because of an admission that my knowledge is limited. If someone knows more than I do, I salute them but if that same person claims certainty based on evidence then I demand certain evidence. But I suspect that “certain evidence” does not exist.