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Falsifiability Take Two, 2001/05/13:01:07

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I posted again to the psychology list. There seems to me to be a bit of guilt by association and over-generalization going on: some people who use the falsifiability criterion to evaluate theories also subscribe to the analytic/synthetic dichotomy or some of its manifestations, and therefore, the falsifiability criterion is just a manifestation of this fetid dichotomy, and anyone who thinks falsifiability is a useful concept needs to Go ReRead Rand, or Peikoff, on the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. There will be excommunications at noon.

One particularly distressing aspect of this is that, despite my preceeding post and Tom Radcliffe's regarding faith, people have latched onto the idea of imaginability and won't be shaken loose. I guess it is just unfalsifiable, for them, that falsifiability and random imaginative excursions are inextricably bound together.
So on I forged:
Abstract: I attempt to thwart this unfortunate detour into imagination and the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, and answer Adam Reed and Andrew Schwartz on another round of objections to this useful criterion.

Adam Reed wrote:
> I would like to thank James Lett for his clarification on > falsifiability. His response pretty much confirms my initial > impression: the principle of falsifiability is derived, like all of > positivism, from the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, and specifically > depends on one's subjective ability to conceive of contingent > observations outside the context of reality.

After my initial post on this subject, I immediately pasted the text of that post in my online journal, and prefaced it with this thought:

"One thing I didn't say in my post to the list but thought of afterwards, is that the aversion to this criterion might be due to a common bad practice in the use of thought experiments. I talk about this bad practice in my dissertation. The problem is that some people try to use fantasy thought experiments to discount empirically-supported theories: if one can conceive, without self-contradiction, disconfirming evidence, then the theory might be false. This same language, I gather, is now being used to show that a theory is good because it is falsifiable: if I can't conceive of disconfirming evidence, then the theory holds up under the
falsifiability criterion. It's very twisted language and hard for
laypeople to follow, and hard for objectivists to swallow..."

The reason I'm quoting, Randlike, from my own writing, is that I had to laugh when Lett's post, to which Reed refers above, landed in my box shortly after I wrote the above. I got another note privately, in which falsifiability was condemned on the very grounds that Lett was using to defend it.

Well, at least we are all predicting the same thing, but I for a very
different reason than others, apparently.

We should keep firmly in mind that, while there are people who accept the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, logical possibility, "conceivability," definition by biconditional (instead of by genus and differentia--I talk about all these things in my tirade against science fiction thought experiments in identity theory), etc, and will of course put everything in these terms, there are people like me. I don't fit in that box. Please see Chapter Two:

"The Things That Are Not: Against Science Fiction Counterexamples"
of my dissertation, for the discussion of these inter-related issues; definition by biconditional, and necessary and sufficient conditions as criteria of identity, are discussed throughout. It's on the Enlightenment web site.

There are people who would defend the virtue of honesty as being what God wants for us. There are people who condemn murder because it is selfish. Merely using these kinds of terms does not mean that the virtue of honesty is invalid because it is rooted in religion, or that classical liberal law is invalid because it is rooted in altruism. I think this is similar to Reed's earlier contention that behaviorism is no longer the current trend in psychology, and that blasting the entire discipline on the basis of behavioristic premises is beating a dead horse. I feel I'm in the same position here; while I admit that there is a lot of conceivability/logical possibility stuff still going on in philosophy, I really must insist that the mere fact that someone uses logical possibility to defend falsifiability doesn't mean that there is no other defense of it.

Despite the way Lett has defended the application of the falsifiability criterion, I defended it quite differently in my post. My defense stands unaddressed.

As I pointed out in that post, the point is not to sit around trying to dream up nutty counterexamples. The point is your attitude toward reality: if you were to be presented with disconfirming evidence, would you consider it, or would you ask not to be bothered with facts because you had made up your mind? A coherent mind is one that is always open to evidence, always open to facts; an incoherent one holds onto a theory for dear life, because it doesn't really understand causality, doesn't understand how the theory was arrived at in the first place, and is afraid that the article of faith will be yanked out from under it leaving it with nothing to sit upon.

That's my theory, I know it to be certain and absolute, and I refuse to consider any counterarguments or disconfirming evidence. :-|

Andrew Schwartz followed up with this question:
> Here is my question: instead of requiring a claim to be
> "falsifiable," why not simply require it to be evidential? For
> purposes of acquiring knowledge, in what way is the concept
> "falsifiable" superior to the concept "evidential"?

Karl Popper coined the term, I believe. The term he chose was 'falsifiable,' and the reason that he chose that term was the direction from which he was coming: he was attempting to provide a criterion for distinguishing a scientific theory from an unscientific one, and he thought that one distinguishing mark of an unscientific idea was that its proponent would be unwilling to even _state_ (or acknowledge a statement of) conditions under which she might reject the theory. The concept that the word represents is the one I've been trying to explain: that when there is valid counter evidence, it is not evaded, ignored, suppressed, or worked-around--it is taken into account, and if the theory needs to be adjusted, then so be it. If this is what one means by 'evidential', then these two _words_ refer, for that person, to the same _concept_ and the same methods. But I use them to refer to slightly different things. It's not that one concept is superior to the other; it's that each is useful in its context.

One may say that the word 'falsifiable' is unfortunate because it is so easily misunderstood by lay-people, and because it is now being used by people who are committed to logical possibilism and the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. But then again, one may say similar things about the word 'selfishness'.
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