The Failure Of Falsifiability

Is the principle of falsifiability a truly good principle to base consideration or acceptance of scientific theories on? A theory must be susceptible to conceivable scientific experimentation. If a theory satisfies the principle, then it can be either granted further tests or it is ruled out altogether. If a theory cannot be empirically investigated in any conceivable manner, then it is not falsifiable and therefore is not considered viable.

On the surface, this seems commonsensical when viewing it from a scientific standpoint. We cannot have invisible elves dancing around causing water to boil or speak of the spirit that moves all things.

There is no way to test for these hypotheses. Yet when one probes deeper into the history of scientific theories or philosophies, one finds that which theories we consider falsifiable or not depend on the technology of the times.

Thus, how we conceive “metaphysical statements, ” those statements which are not falsifiable, and “scientific statements, ” those statements which are falsifiable, transforms over time. Our conceptions are strongly influenced by technological limits.

For instance, Democritus proposed an atomic theory over two millennia ago. These atoms could not be observed or conceivably tested by experiment in any way. Why should one have believed in these invisible entities that were supposed to be the constituents of the universe?

In those times, the atomic theory was unfalsifiable. Even Ludwig Boltzmann faced immense criticism for his belief in atoms in the late 19th century, but with the emergence of new technologies, the theory became falsifiable.

If one were to hold to the principle of falsifiability in the time of Democritus, then one would have had to hold this theory as not being worth any more precious time. Of course, atomic theory exploded in the 20th century, and unto this day there is a lot of speculation on new particles waiting to be discovered in the massive accelerators.

A second instance of the failure of falsifiability has to do with the heliocentric theory in either the time of Aristarchus or even later with Copernicus. The stars in the sky should move relatively as the year advances and one should be able to calculate the stellar parallax from one point in the year to another point months later.

This theory was seemingly falsifiable in the time of Copernicus. It was said that stellar parallax would be observed, but the results were null. No stellar parallax was observed, and thus this theory was ruled out . It has since then turned out that the stars are very far away and helocentrism is the accepted theory today.

Therefore, falsifiability as a criterion can fail in at least two ways: (1) A theory can be deemed unfalsifiable and yet turn out falsifiable at a later time. (2) A theory can be deemed falsifiable and be ruled out by observation, but at a later time it can be observed to be the case.

The commonality between these two cases has to do with the technologies of the their respective times. Technology is important because our conceptions of what a conceivably falsifiable theory is are influenced by our technological environment.

These conceptions based on technology lead us to change the line of demarcation between “metaphysical statements” and “scientific statements” depending on which conceptions we are relying on. Our future conceptions will most likely be different.

We don’t know what future technologies will reveal to us about the world. Insufficient technology can lead us to say “no, that particular theory is not falsifiable and must be trashed” or “yes, that particular theory is falsifiable,” and if this particular ” falsifiable” theory is not confirmed by the observations, then it gets thrown out.

Thus, the trouble with the principle of falsifiability is that sometimes technology can lead us to exile a theory that has no business being exiled, as examples show, because more accurate technology changes our conceptions of falsifiable theories. Also, theories cannot be held as falsified for all times for the same reason.

Following this principle presents us with a danger of closing off creative speculation and destroying scientific progress. If the ancient Greeks held onto the principle of falsifiability, then atomic theory would not have been considered falsifiable and should not have been ever brought up again.

If one were abiding by the principle of falsifiability at the time of Copernicus, the heliocentric theory would have had no business re-entering scientific discourse because it would have been falsified.

Falsifiabalists would not have considered the micro-organism theories of disease falsifiable either before the invention of the microscope; these ideas were as good as the idea of invisible demons causing disease.

In summation, the contingency of invention does not seem like a good arbiter of the nature of the universe; in fact, it’s rather arbitrary to believe that our current technology will banish or uphold theories against the whims of time. Timeliness clearly cannot factor in when considering scientific theories or theories in any other area of life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *