Alan Chalmers, a British-Australian philosopher of science and best-selling author, suggests a common view of science by which scientific knowledge is ‘reliable’ and ‘objectively proven’ knowledge that is derived from facts of experience, experimental procedure and observations. This essay aims to discuss the problems that are likely to be highlighted by a Popperian hypothetico-deductivist when confronted with Chalmers’ adverse views on the validity of the scientific method. Both Alan Chalmers and Karl Popper – renowned for the development of hypothetico-deductivist/falsificationist account of science – represent the two major, contradictory theories (falsification and induction) regarding the functionality of science. I will be structuring my argument around these two models and the several complications surrounding the inductivist’s account of science that are seemingly solved by Popper’s alternative.
In order to gain a thorough understanding of the topic being discussed, let me provide an introduction to inductivism, the issues raised by this method and the falsificationist account that aimed to solve these issues.
Introduced by Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (5th century BC), induction is a process that begins with the observation of natural phenomena and ends with the assembly of a scientific law to describe the general regularity of said phenomena. This intuitive process was accepted within the scientific community for centuries yet the basis of Aristotle’s method relies entirely on human ability to simply observe natural phenomena, see a pattern and make observational statements. If there were to exist a large number of observational statements that were repeated under several varying circumstances in which no conflicting observation was made, these observational statements could then be promoted to universal or generalised statements that refer to all events of a particular kind given certain conditions (SCIE1000 Lectures Notes, 2014).
Now to address the problems associated with this account of the scientific method that might be pinpointed by hypothetico-deductivists when confronted with Chalmers’ view: the problem of induction, the questionable objectivity of this method and whether it can provide any certainty about laws that govern our universe.
Chalmers states that, “scientific knowledge is reliable knowledge because it is objectively proven knowledge (Chalmers, 1976).” Due to the fact that inductive inferences are based on observations of natural phenomena, a crucial assumption of the uniformity of nature – which cannot be proven – must be made, meaning that there is always room for contradictory evidence to arise. Similarly, the problem of induction refers to the inability to classify knowledge gained by inductive methods as either a priori (logical or mathematical reasoning, requiring no previous worldly experience) or a posteriori (requires some knowledge of worldly happenings) as the former would be an uninformed, irrational statement and the latter would require knowledge of every possible happening in the universe in order to justify the law at hand.
For this reason, there is absolutely no certainty provided by this process, as there is always the probability that future contradictory observations may deem any inductive inference invalid. The weakened principle of inductive inference then states that, at best, the inductivist method gives a probability of an event occurring given specific circumstances (SCIE1000 Lectures Notes, 2014). Chalmers also boldly claims that his common view of science is unquestionably objective and that speculative imaginings play no role in this process; however, there is obvious subjectivity evident in the discovery of scientific hypotheses. The subjectivity of speculative imaginings expressed by an individual experiencing a brief moment of intuitive thought processes allows consideration of an hypotheses that may have otherwise been overlooked.
As a response to inductivism and the problems recognized with this method, Karl Popper proposed a knew scientific method that aims to establish the best current ‘law’ available at a given time until it is falsified – hypothetico-deductivism or falsification. The name itself, hypothetico-deductivism, explains the process of stating bold, testable ‘laws’/hypotheses and drawing deductive inferences regarding the hypothesis’ ability to withstand exposure to rigorous testing and attempts to falsify it.
So, rather than attempting to prove the legitimacy of scientific laws fabricated by intuitive induction, falsificationism aims to deduce the best, current law to describe natural phenomena based on the inability to falsify it, therefore making the current provisional law acceptable until a time when it is falsified by conflicting evidence. Falsification effectively trumps the method of induction as it strives to provide information about the world and its ‘laws’ by outlining what they are not rather than making grand generalisations about universal happenings when acknowledging only a portion of the evidence that could possible be out there.
Unfortunately, due to the complex nature of science, similarly to inductivism, falsification is not a flawless method. In my opinion however, I find the method of falsification convincingly more rational and commonsensical than inductivism. Due to limitations of space, I will explain briefly one of the few issues associated with falsificationism. The issue at hand that is faced by the method of falsification is that, “Popper presents cases where one theory is being tested against our experimental data, but hypotheses are tested in groups. When we “test” a theory, we are assuming a lot of other theories in the background (SCIE1000 Lectures Notes, 2014).”
The issue then is that if anomalous data is encountered, should it be derived that the entire theory – consisting of several individual hypotheses – is rejected and if not, how is an individual hypothesis isolated from the rest? This rejection of a theory, in my opinion, doesn’t have detrimental affects to our understanding of science as this particular theory may be falsified yet the creation of a new, falsifiable theory is not out of the question. Also, unlike Chalmers, however, falsificationism does not claim any degree of certainty or ‘proof’ of their claims which compels me to believe that Popper had a greater grasp on the uncertainty that is the universe.
Conclusively, Popper’s response to Chalmers’ claim that science is reliable due to its objectively proven nature using inductivism would highlight three key issues and propose how his method of falsification solves these issues. The problem of induction that occurs within inductivism – the inability to classify inductive inference as either a priori or a posteriori – and also the assumption of uniformity of nature are abolished in Popper’s method where all scientific laws have the ability to be falsified upon the observation of new, contradictory evidence. Although falsification is unable to provide any degree of certainty, it does not make bold claims about the workings of the universe that are likely to be uniformed and incorrect. And lastly, objectification is dismissed in falsification, as the method by which a hypothesis was created is irrelevant to whether or not the claim can be provisionally accepted or rejected based on real-world observations.
Chalmers, A. (1976). What is this thing called science?. 1st ed. St. Lucia, Q.: University of Queensland
SCIE1000 Lecture Notes (2014). 7th ed. Brisbane: University of Queensland, pp.187-225.