He then seeks a decision as regards these and other derived statements by comparing them with the results of practical applications and experimentation. If the new predictions are borne out, then the new theory is corroborated and the old one falsified , and is adopted as a working hypothesis.
If the predictions are not borne out, then they falsify the theory from which they are derived. Thus Popper retains an element of empiricism: for him scientific method does involve making an appeal to experience. But unlike traditional empiricists, Popper holds that experience cannot determine theory i.
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Moreover, Popper also rejects the empiricist doctrine that empirical observations are, or can be, infallible, in view of the fact that they are themselves theory-laden. Popper eliminates the contradiction by rejecting the first of these principles and removing the demand for empirical verification in favour of empirical falsification in the second. Scientific theories, for him, are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical —we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely provisionally confirm or conclusively refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation.
Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.
It is precisely this kind of critical thinking which is conspicuous by its absence in contemporary Marxism and in psychoanalysis. In the view of many social scientists, the more probable a theory is, the better it is, and if we have to choose between two theories which are equally strong in terms of their explanatory power, and differ only in that one is probable and the other is improbable, then we should choose the former.
Popper rejects this. But if this is true, Popper argues, then, paradoxical as it may sound, the more improbable a theory is the better it is scientifically, because the probability and informative content of a theory vary inversely—the higher the informative content of a theory the lower will be its probability, for the more information a statement contains, the greater will be the number of ways in which it may turn out to be false. Thus the statements which are of special interest to the scientist are those with a high informative content and consequentially a low probability, which nevertheless come close to the truth.
Informative content, which is in inverse proportion to probability, is in direct proportion to testability. Consequently the severity of the test to which a theory can be subjected, and by means of which it is falsified or corroborated, is all-important. For Popper, all scientific criticism must be piecemeal, i. More precisely, while attempting to resolve a particular problem a scientist of necessity accepts all kinds of things as unproblematic.
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However, he stresses that the background knowledge is not knowledge in the sense of being conclusively established; it may be challenged at any time, especially if it is suspected that its uncritical acceptance may be responsible for difficulties which are subsequently encountered. Nevertheless, it is clearly not possible to question both the theory and the background knowledge at the same time e.
How then can one be certain that one is questioning the right thing? The Popperian answer is that we cannot have absolute certainty here, but repeated tests usually show where the trouble lies. Even observation statements, Popper maintains, are fallible, and science in his view is not a quest for certain knowledge, but an evolutionary process in which hypotheses or conjectures are imaginatively proposed and tested in order to explain facts or to solve problems.
Popper emphasises both the importance of questioning the background knowledge when the need arises, and the significance of the fact that observation-statements are theory-laden, and hence fallible. For while falsifiability is simple as a logical principle, in practice it is exceedingly complicated—no single observation can ever be taken to falsify a theory, for there is always the possibility a that the observation itself is mistaken, or b that the assumed background knowledge is faulty or defective. Popper was initially uneasy with the concept of truth, and in his earliest writings he avoided asserting that a theory which is corroborated is true—for clearly if every theory is an open-ended hypothesis, as he maintains, then ipso facto it has to be at least potentially false.
Popper offered two methods of comparing theories in terms of verisimilitude, the qualitative and quantitative definitions. On the qualitative account, Popper asserted:. Conjectures and Refutations , On the quantitative account, verisimilitude is defined by assigning quantities to contents, where the index of the content of a given theory is its logical improbability given again that content and probability vary inversely.
Thus scientific progress involves, on this view, the abandonment of partially true, but falsified, theories, for theories with a higher level of verisimilitude, i.
In this way, verisimilitude allowed Popper to mitigate what many saw as the pessimism of an anti-inductivist philosophy of science which held that most, if not all scientific theories are false, and that a true theory, even if discovered, could not be known to be such. With the introduction of the new concept, Popper was able to represent this as an essentially optimistic position in terms of which we can legitimately be said to have reason to believe that science makes progress towards the truth through the falsification and corroboration of theories.
Scientific progress, in other words, could now be represented as progress towards the truth, and experimental corroboration could be seen an indicator of verisimilitude. In this connection, Popper had written:. Commentators on Popper, with few exceptions, had initially attached little importance to his theory of verisimilitude.
However, it is worth emphasising that his angle of approach to these fields is through a consideration of the nature of the social sciences which seek to describe and explicate them systematically, particularly history. It is in this context that he offers an account of the nature of scientific prediction, which in turn allows him a point of departure for his attack upon totalitarianism and all its intellectual supports, especially holism and historicism.
Historicism, which is closely associated with holism, is the belief that history develops inexorably and necessarily according to certain principles or rules towards a determinate end as for example in the dialectic of Hegel, which was adopted and implemented by Marx. The link between holism and historicism is that the holist believes that individuals are essentially formed by the social groupings to which they belong, while the historicist—who is usually also a holist—holds that we can understand such a social grouping only in terms of the internal principles which determine its development.
Popper thinks that this view of the social sciences is both theoretically misconceived in the sense of being based upon a view of natural science and its methodology which is totally wrong , and socially dangerous, as it leads inevitably to totalitarianism and authoritarianism—to centralised governmental control of the individual and the attempted imposition of large-scale social planning.
Against this Popper strongly advances the view that any human social grouping is no more or less than the sum of its individual members, that what happens in history is the largely unplanned and unforeseeable result of the actions of such individuals, and that large scale social planning to an antecedently conceived blueprint is inherently misconceived—and inevitably disastrous—precisely because human actions have consequences which cannot be foreseen. Popper, then, is an historical indeterminist , insofar as he holds that history does not evolve in accordance with intrinsic laws or principles, that in the absence of such laws and principles unconditional prediction in the social sciences is an impossibility, and that there is no such thing as historical necessity.
More specifically, the open society can be brought about only if it is possible for the individual citizen to evaluate critically the consequences of the implementation of government policies, which can then be abandoned or modified in the light of such critical scrutiny—in such a society, the rights of the individual to criticise administrative policies will be formally safeguarded and upheld, undesirable policies will be eliminated in a manner analogous to the elimination of falsified scientific theories, and differences between people on social policy will be resolved by critical discussion and argument rather than by force.
In Defense of Plato , As such, Popper holds, it is not a utopian ideal, but an empirically realised form of social organisation which, he argues, is in every respect superior to its real or potential totalitarian rivals. But he does not engage in a moral defence of the ideology of liberalism; rather his strategy is the much deeper one of showing that totalitarianism is typically based upon historicist and holist presuppositions, and of demonstrating that these presuppositions are fundamentally incoherent.
This dream was given further impetus, he speculates, by the emergence of a genuine predictive capability regarding such events as solar and lunar eclipses at an early stage in human civilisation, which has of course become increasingly refined with the development of the natural sciences and their concomitant technologies. The kind of reasoning which has made, and continues to make, historicism plausible may, on this account, be reconstructed as follows: if the application of the laws of the natural sciences can lead to the successful prediction of such future events as eclipses, then surely it is reasonable to infer that knowledge of the laws of history as yielded by a social science or sciences assuming that such laws exist would lead to the successful prediction of such future social phenomena as revolutions?
Why should it be possible to predict an eclipse, but not a revolution? Why can we not conceive of a social science which could and would function as the theoretical natural sciences function, and yield precise unconditional predictions in the appropriate sphere of application? These are amongst the questions which Popper seeks to answer, and in doing so, to show that they are based upon a series of misconceptions about the nature of science, and about the relationship between scientific laws and scientific prediction.
Contrary to popular belief, it is the former rather than the latter which are typical of the natural sciences, which means that typically prediction in natural science is conditional and limited in scope—it takes the form of hypothetical assertions stating that certain specified changes will come about if particular specified events antecedently take place.
However, Popper argues that a these unconditional prophecies are not characteristic of the natural sciences, and b that the mechanism whereby they occur, in the very limited way in which they do, is not understood by the historicist. What is the mechanism which makes unconditional scientific prophecies possible?
The answer is that such prophecies can sometimes be derived from a combination of conditional predictions themselves derived from scientific laws and existential statements specifying that the conditions in relation to the system being investigated are fulfilled. Schematically, this can be represented as follows:. The most common examples of unconditional scientific prophecies in science relate to the prediction of such phenomena as lunar and solar eclipses and comets.
Given, then, that this is the mechanism which generates unconditional scientific prophecies, Popper makes two related claims about historicism: a That the historicist does not in fact derive his unconditional scientific prophecies in this manner from conditional predictions, and b the historicist cannot do so because long-term unconditional scientific prophecies can be derived from conditional predictions only if they apply to systems which are well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent like our solar system. Such systems are quite rare in nature, and human society is most emphatically not one of them.
This, then, Popper argues, is the reason why it is a fundamental mistake for the historicist to take the unconditional scientific prophecies of eclipses as being typical and characteristic of the predictions of natural science—in fact such predictions are possible only because our solar system is a stationary and repetitive system which is isolated from other such systems by immense expanses of empty space. The solar system aside, there are very few such systems around for scientific investigation—most of the others are confined to the field of biology, where unconditional prophecies about the life-cycles of organisms are made possible by the existence of precisely the same factors.
Thus one of the fallacies committed by the historicist is to take the relatively rare instances of unconditional prophecies in the natural science as constituting the essence of what scientific prediction is, to fail to see that such prophecies apply only to systems which are isolated, stationary, and repetitive, and to seek to apply the method of scientific prophecy to human society and human history. In the most fundamental sense possible, every event in human history is discrete, novel, quite unique, and ontologically distinct from every other historical event.
For this reason, it is impossible in principle that unconditional scientific prophecies could be made in relation to human history—the idea that the successful unconditional prediction of eclipses provides us with reasonable grounds for the hope of successful unconditional prediction regarding the evolution of human history turns out to be based upon a gross misconception, and is quite false.
This argument is one of the strongest that has ever been brought against historicism, cutting, as it does, right to the heart of one of its main theoretical presuppositions. An additional mistake which he detects in historicism is the failure of the historicist to distinguish between scientific laws and trends , which is also frequently accompanied by a simple logical fallacy.
The fallacy is that of inferring from the fact that our understanding of any past historical event—such as, for example, the French Revolution—is in direct proportion to our knowledge of the antecedent conditions which led to that event, that knowledge of all the antecedent conditions of some future event is possible, and that such knowledge would make that future event precisely predictable.
For the truth is that the number of factors which predate and lead to the occurrence of any event, past, present, or future, is indefinitely large, and therefore knowledge of all of these factors is impossible, even in principle. This failure makes him think it possible to explain change by discovering trends running through past history, and to anticipate and predict future occurrences on the basis of such observations.
Here Popper points out that there is a critical difference between a trend and a scientific law, the failure to observe which is fatal. For a scientific law is universal in form, while a trend can be expressed only as a singular existential statement. This logical difference is crucial because unconditional predictions, as we have already seen, can be based only upon conditional ones, which themselves must be derived from scientific laws.