Friday, November 26, 2004

Falsification Falsified: The Case of Copernicus

An anonymous commentator, whose intials might be JCL, responded to my criticisms of Popper at some length. I am partially responding with this post, although I am also using it to start work on a paper I have to write on the philosophy of science.

Note, this post will not be completed in one swoop, but will probably take several days to finish. On to the argument:


I wish to suggest that the history of the Copernican Revolution falsifies falsificationism. The basic idea of Popper's doctrine is that no amount of positive evidence can confirm a universal theory, but a single negative piece of evidence refutes it.

The main problem with his theory is that this is not how science works. The first point to address is whether that is a valid criticism of a philosophical theory. It could be said that the actual practice of scientists may be flawed, and it is the role of philosophy to mend the error of their ways. But such a view relies on a misunderstanding of what philosophy can and can't do. As noted by Oakeshott in On Human Conduct, a key error of Plato's was to believe that because the philosopher's "platform of understanding" might be superior to the platform of someone who hasn't ascended fully out of the cave – such as the practical man, the historian, or the natural scientist -- that therefore it was a substitute for them. But the philosopher is no more in a position to inform a scientists of how he really should be working, simply because he has examined the scientist's own postulates, than he is to instruct Michael Jordan on how he really should play basketball because he has conducted a philosophical study of the game. As Franco puts it, “The postulates in which a theorist understands the identities of a conditional platform of understanding are not principles from which correct performances may be deduced. To use theoretical knowledge in this way to direct practical activity is the spurious engagement of the ‘theoretician.’”

The philosopher's true role is to make more clear what the scientist is doing -- as Collingwood put it, he does not seek to rationalize human activities, but to find the rationality that is already in them and clarify its presence.

Furthermore, if a philosopher of science puts forward a theory of how science should proceed that would result, if put into practice, in a cessation of progress in science, that's a good sign there is something wrong with his theory. In fact, we might say it has been falsified.

Now, to examine the case of Copernicus at greater length. The first thing that is important to note here is that Ptolemy’s theory did not suffer from nearly the number of problems as did that of Copernicus as soon as it came out. For example, Copernicus “was puzzled by the variations he had observed in the brightness of the planet Mars. [But] Copernicus’s own system was so far from answering to the phenomena in the case of Mars that Galileo in his main work on this subject praises him for clinging to his new theory though it contradicted observation...” (Butterfield, 1949, p. 23).

Copernicanism also was violated many of the principles of the Aristotelian physics of his time. Copernicus could not explain why objects didn’t fly off the rotating earth, why the earth didn’t spin itself apart, or what kept celestial objects going in there orbits if not the motion transmitted from sphere to sphere in the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian view. As Butterfield writes:

“In fact, you had to throw over the very frameboard of existing science, and it was here that Copernicus clearly failed to provide an alternative. He provided a neater geometry of the heavens, but it was one which made nonsense of the reasons and explanations that had previously been given to account for the movements in the sky” (1949, p. 27).


  1. Anonymous10:44 PM

    Hello Gene!

    A friendly suggestion, from a fellow "Austrian". Be careful in writing criticism of Popper's epistemology until you have grasped the distinction that Popper drew between falsifiability and falsification.

    Falsifiability is a matter of logic, so a general proposition is falsifiable if it, or deductions from it, can in principle clash with a singular observation statement.

    Falsification is claimed when a singular observation statement appears to have falsified a general proposition. However this can never be devisive, it is conjectural for the reasons advanced by Duhem and repeated by Popper. Observation statements are theory dependent, and observations depend on other theories in addition to the one under test.

    None of these considerations undermine Popper's epistemology or his methodology, they are incorporated in his conjectural theory of knowledge and his proposals for the conduct of problem solving, including creative science and other entreprenneurial activities.
    For more on Popper's proposals, see Jarvie's book on Popper's "social turn".

    Incidentally when Popper's ideas are better understood they will be seen to lend huge support to the Austrian approach to economics and political economy. See this draft paper

    Similarly, Jan Lester has shown how ideas from Popper and Bartley help the libertarian creed (see Escape from Leviathan). For my review see

    Rafe Champion

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Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews