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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.

The Metaphysics of Inception – Engaging Ontological Uncertainty

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.

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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.

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Neither conditional nor unconditional predictions can be based upon trends, because these may change or be reversed with a change in the conditions which gave rise to them in the first instance. Popper does not, of course, dispute the existence of trends, nor does he deny that the observation of trends can be of practical utility value—but the essential point is that a trend is something which itself ultimately stands in need of scientific explanation, and it cannot therefore function as the frame of reference in terms of which anything else can be scientifically explained or predicted.

A point which connects with this has to do with the role which the evolution of human knowledge has played in the historical development of human society. It is incontestable that, as Marx himself observed, there has been a causal link between the two, in the sense that advances in scientific and technological knowledge have given rise to widespread global changes in patterns of human social organisation and social interaction, which in turn have led to social structures e. In short, the evolution of human history has been strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge , and it is extremely likely that this will continue to be the case—all the empirical evidence suggests that the link between the two is progressively consolidating.

However, this gives rise to further problems for the historicist. Moreover, he argues, it is logically demonstrable by a consideration of the implications of the fact that no scientific predictor, human or otherwise, can possibly predict, by scientific methods, its own future results. The Poverty of Historicism , vii.

The English version of the Cambridge Philosophical History 1870-1945

Thus, while the future evolution of human history is extremely likely to be influenced by new developments in human knowledge, as it always has in the past, we cannot now scientifically determine what such knowledge will be. From this it follows that if the future holds any new discoveries or any new developments in the growth of our knowledge and given the fallible nature of the latter, it is inconceivable that it does not , then it is impossible for us to predict them now, and it is therefore impossible for us to predict the future development of human history now, given that the latter will, at least in part, be determined by the future growth of our knowledge.

Thus once again historicism collapses—the dream of a theoretical, predictive science of history is unrealisable, because it is an impossible dream. Accordingly, recognition that there are no such laws, and that unconditional predictions about future history are based, at best, upon nothing more substantial than the observation of contingent trends, shows that, from a purely theoretical as well as a practical point of view, large-scale social planning is indeed a recipe for disaster.

In summary, unconditional large-scale planning for the future is theoretically as well as practically misguided, because, again, part of what we are planning for is our future knowledge, and our future knowledge is not something which we can in principle now possess—we cannot adequately plan for unexpected advances in our future knowledge, or for the effects which such advances will have upon society as a whole. The acceptance of historical indeterminism, then, as the only philosophy of history which is commensurate with a proper understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge, fatally undermines both historicism and holism.

This part of his social philosophy was influenced by the economist Friedrich Hayek, who worked with him at the London School of Economics and who was a life-long friend. This, of course, parallels precisely the critical testing of theories in scientific investigation. For this reason, in a genuinely open society piecemeal social engineering goes hand-in-hand for Popper with negative utilitarianism the attempt to minimise the amount of misery, rather than, as with positive utilitarianism, the attempt to maximise the amount of happiness.

The state, he holds, should concern itself with the task of progressively formulating and implementing policies designed to deal with the social problems which actually confront it, with the goal of eliminating human misery and suffering to the highest possible degree.

The positive task of increasing social and personal happiness, by contrast, can and should be left to individual citizens who may, of course, act collectively to this end , who, unlike the state, have at least a chance of achieving this goal, but who in a free society are rarely in a position to systematically subvert the rights of others in the pursuit of idealised objectives.

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Thus in the final analysis for Popper the activity of problem-solving is as definitive of our humanity at the level of social and political organisation as it is at the level of science, and it is this key insight which unifies and integrates the broad spectrum of his thought. While it cannot be said that Popper was a modest man, he took criticism of his theories very seriously, and spent much of his time in his later years trying to show that such criticisms were either based upon misunderstandings, or that his theories could, without loss of integrity, be made compatible with new and important insights.

The following is a summary of some of the main criticisms which he has had to address. Schilpp ed. Bartley III.

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Rather they are descriptions of what is observed as interpreted by the observer with reference to a determinate theoretical framework. He accordingly asserts that basic statements themselves are open-ended hypotheses: they have a certain causal relationship with experience, but they are not determined by experience, and they cannot be verified or confirmed by experience. But how can this be known, if such basic statements cannot be verified by experience? Logic of Scientific Discovery , Popper himself is fond of citing, as an example of such a critical test, the resolution, by Adams and Leverrier, of the problem which the anomalous orbit of Uranus posed for nineteenth century astronomers.

Both men independently came to the conclusion that, assuming Newtonian mechanics to be precisely correct, the observed divergence in the elliptical orbit of Uranus could be explained if the existence of a seventh, as yet unobserved outer planet was posited. Yet Lakatos flatly denies that there are critical tests, in the Popperian sense, in science, and argues the point convincingly by turning the above example of an alleged critical test on its head.

What, he asks, would have happened if Galle had not found the planet Neptune? Such theories are, it is now generally accepted, highly resistant to falsification. They are falsified, if at all, Lakatos argues, not by Popperian critical tests, but rather within the elaborate context of the research programmes associated with them gradually grinding to a halt, with the result that an ever-widening gap opens up between the facts to be explained, and the research programmes themselves Lakatos , passim.

The existence of such anomalies is not usually taken by the working scientist as an indication that the theory in question is false; on the contrary, he will usually, and necessarily, assume that the auxiliary hypotheses which are associated with the theory can be modified to incorporate, and explain, existing anomalies.

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Scientific laws are expressed by universal statements i. In themselves they are not existential in nature. Since scientific laws are non-existential in nature, they logically cannot imply any basic statements, since the latter are explicitly existential.


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The question arises, then, as to how any basic statement can falsify a scientific law, given that basic statements are not deducible from scientific laws in themselves? This reply is adequate only if it is true, as Popper assumes, that singular existential statements will always do the work of bridging the gap between a universal theory and a prediction. The working scientist, Putnam argues, always initially assumes that it is the latter, which shows not only that scientific laws are, contra Popper, highly resistant to falsification, but also why they are so highly resistant to falsification.

Hence his final concern is to outline conditions which indicate when such modification is genuinely scientific, and when it is merely ad hoc. It is now condemned as unscientific by Popper because the only rationale for the modifications which were made to the original theory was to ensure that it evaded falsification, and so such modifications were ad hoc , rather than scientific. This contention—though not at all implausible—has, to hostile eyes, a somewhat contrived air about it, and is unlikely to worry the convinced Marxist.

Life 2. Backdrop to his Thought 3. The Problem of Demarcation 4. The Growth of Human Knowledge 5. Probability, Knowledge and Verisimilitude 6. Scientific Knowledge, History, and Prediction 8. Immutable Laws and Contingent Trends 9. Life Karl Raimund Popper was born on 28 July in Vienna, which at that time could make some claim to be the cultural epicentre of the western world.

The Problem of Demarcation As Popper represents it, the central problem in the philosophy of science is that of demarcation, i. The Growth of Human Knowledge For Popper accordingly, the growth of human knowledge proceeds from our problems and from our attempts to solve them. Probability, Knowledge and Verisimilitude 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.

In this connection, Popper had written: Ultimately, the idea of verisimilitude is most important in cases where we know that we have to work with theories which are at best approximations—that is to say, theories of which we know that they cannot be true. This is often the case in the social sciences. In these cases we can still speak of better or worse approximations to the truth and we therefore do not need to interpret these cases in an instrumentalist sense.

Immutable Laws and Contingent Trends 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. Critical Evaluation While it cannot be said that Popper was a modest man, he took criticism of his theories very seriously, and spent much of his time in his later years trying to show that such criticisms were either based upon misunderstandings, or that his theories could, without loss of integrity, be made compatible with new and important insights.

Dissertation, University of Vienna, unpublished, The Poverty of Historicism 2nd edition, London: Routledge, Eccles, London: Springer International, Bartley III ed.


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