|THE DUHEM-QUINE PROBLEM
Submitted for an M Sc
In History and Philosophy of Science
At the University of Sydney
Supervised by Alan Chalmers
Since the time of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century science has depended heavily on an empirical base of observed evidence or 'matters of fact'. Thus in Western science, empiricism in some form or other has for the most part claimed the field from magical/mystical, traditional or rationalist/intellectualist epistemologies.
A strong form of empiricism sought for positively justified or certain foundations of belief, by way of inductive proof derived from observations. This line of thought was harshly treated by Hume's critique of induction, a critique revived in modern times by Duhem and Popper. The logic of the situation is that repeated observations of white swans do not preclude the possibility of the existence of black swans.
The philosophy of science appeared to circumvent the problem of justification by shifting its aim to progress and the growth of knowlege. This revised aim calls for the formation of critical preferences between rival theories, in the light of evidence and arguments available at the time. Thus preferences can shift as the new evidence or arguments arise. In this context the logic of falsification (the modus tollens) appeared to provide an empirical base of a kind, albeit a critical kind, capable of error identification if not verification. The observation of a single black swan refutes the general proposition that all swans are white.
The high point of falsification is the crucial experiment, which may be performed if two rival hypotheses predict different consequences in some concrete situation. When that situation comes about, whether by experimental manipulation or by the fortunate conjunction of some natural phenomena, then the result may in principle decide one way or the other between the competitors.
The Duhem-Quine thesis casts doubt on the logic of falsification and thus on the decisive character of the crucial exeriment. Duhem pointed out that the outcome of an experiment is not predicted on the basis of one hypothesis alone because auxiliary hypotheses are involved as well. These are not usually regarded as problematic, and they are not generally perceived to be under threat when the hypothesis of interest is tested. However, if the outcome of the test is not that predicted, it is logically possible that the hypothesis under test is sound and the error lies in one or more of the auxiliaries.
These considerations destroy the logically decisive character of the crucial experiment. The outcome of such an experiment is supposed to provide support for one hypothesis by demonstrating the falsity of its rival. But, as was the case with a possible falsification, the rival cannot be so easily put aside if the defect conceivably lies elsewhere in the complex of hypothesis used to predict the effect. The Duhem-Quine problem raises the question "Can theories be refuted?".
The problem which Duhem identified at the turn of the century did not make a great impact for some time due to the long-running obsession in the philosophy of science with the problems of induction and demarcation. It assumed a new lease of life as the Duhem-Quine problem following a challenging paper by Quine, published in 1953. Subsequently a considerable volume of literature has accumulated, augmented by something of a revival of interest in Duhem's contribution generally.
The problem, as it is widely understood, has attracted the attention of the strong program in the sociology of science, also of the resurgent Bayesians. An especially interesting contribution to the debate comes from the 'new experimentalism' and it has been suggested that this has rendered irrelevant many of the concerns of traditional philosophy of science, among them the Duhem-Quine problem.
This thesis will examine various responses to the Duhem-Quine problem, the rejoinder from Popper and the neo-Popperians, the Bayesians and the new experimentalists. It will also describe Duhem's own treatment of hypothesis testing and selection, a topic which has received remarkably little attention in view of the amount of literature on the problem that he supposedly revealed.
THE DUHEM-QUINE THESIS
Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) was a dedicated theoretical physicist and a university teacher with special expertise in mathematics and wide-ranging interests in the history and philosophy of science. He primarily regarded himself as a physicist and his immense mathematical skills were applied to the theory of heat and its application in other parts of physics, also to the theories of fluid flow, electricity and magnetism.
He developed his philosophical views in a series of articles which are consolidated in his classic work La Theorie Physique: Son Objet, Sa Structure (1906), translated as The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1954). The stated purpose of the book is 'to offer a simple logical analysis of the methods by which physical sciences make progress.' Part I of the book addresses the aim or object of physical theory and Part II treats the structure of physical theory.
Throughout Duhem's account it is necessary to keep in mind the overall aim of the enterprise, namely the representation and classification of experimental laws.
The aim of all physical theory is the representation of experimental laws. The words "truth" and "certainty" have only one signification with respect to such a theory; they express concordance between the conclusions of the theory and the rules established by the observers...Moreover, a law of physics is but the summary of an infinity of experiments that have been made or will be performable. (Duhem, 1954, 144)
An example of an experimental law is that which applies to the refraction of light, expressed in the equation:
sin i/sin r = n
where i is the angle of incidence, r is the angle of refraction and n is a constant for the two media involved. Another is Boyle's law relating the pressure and volume of gases at constant temperature.
For Duhem, a good theory provides a satisfactory representation of a group of experimental laws. 'Agreement with experiment is the sole criterion of truth for a physical theory' (ibid p. 21, italics in the original).
Duhem identified four successive operations in the development of physical theory.
1. The definition and measurement of physical magnitudes. The scientist identifies the simplest properties in physical processes and finds ways to measure them so they can be depicted in symbolic form in mathematical equations.
2. The selection of hypotheses. The scientist builds hypotheses to account for the relationships formulated in the previous stage. These are the grounds on which further theories are built, 'the principles in our deductions' (ibid, 30).
3. The mathematical development of the theory. This stage is regulated purely by the requirements of algebraic logic without regard to physical realism.
4. The comparison of the theory with experiment.
Duhem, as a teacher and working physicist, had an intimate understanding of the time-consuming and laborious task of experimentation. This kind of understanding may have faded for many philosophes of science when the discipline became institutionalised in philosophy departments, far removed from working laboratories.
In Part II, 'The Structure of Physical Theory', Duhem addressed the relationship of theory and experiment as follows:
1. An experiment in physics is not simply the observation of a phenomenon; it is, besides, the theoretical interpretation of this phenomenon.
2. The result of an experiment in physics is an abstract and symbolic judgement.
3. The theoretical interpretation of a phenomenon alone makes possible the use of instruments.
4. Experiment in physics is less certain but more precise and detailed than the non-scientific establishment of a fact.
Thus Duhem provided an early account of the theory-dependence of observation.
Experiments depend on theory and not just one theory but a whole corpus of theories. Some of these are assumed in the functioning of the instruments, others are assumed in making calculations on the basis of the results, and others are used to assess the significance of the processed results in relation to theoretical problem which prompted the experiment.
THE CORE OF THE THESIS
With the case for the theory-dependence of observations in place, Duhem proceeds to the kernel of the ‘Duhem-Quine thesis’ in two sections of Chapter VI. These are titled 'An experiment in physics can never condemn an isolated hypothesis but only a whole theoretical group' and 'A "crucial experiment" is impossible in physics.'
He describes the logic of testing:
A physicist disputes a certain law; he calls into doubt a certain theoretical point. How will be justify these doubts? From the proposition under indictment he will derive the prediction of an experimental fact; he will bring into existence the conditions under which this fact should be produced; if the predicted fact is not produced, the proposition which served as the basis of the prediction will be irremediably condemned. (ibid, 184)
This looks like a loose formulation by Duhem, because the thrust of subsequent argument is that a single proposition cannot be irremediably condemned; perhaps he is simply using the accepted language of falsification at this stage, to be modified as his argument proceeds.
The example which Duhem uses here is Wiener's test of Neuman's proposition that the vibration in a ray of polarised light is parallel to the plane of polarisation. Wiener deduced that a particular arrangement of incident and reflected light rays should produce alternatively dark and light interference bands parallel to the reflecting surface. Such bands did not appear when the experiment was performed, and it was generally accepted that Neuman's proposition had been convincingly refuted. But Duhem went on to argue that a physicist engaged in an experiment which appears to challenge a particular theoretical proposition does not confine himself to making use of that proposition alone; whole groups of theories are accepted without question. A partial list of these in the Wiener experiment are the laws and hypotheses of optics, the notion that light consists of simple periodic vibrations, that these are normal to the light ray, that the kinetic energy of the vibration is proportional to the intensity of the light, that the degree of attack on the gelatine film on the photographic plate indicates the intensity of the light.
If the predicted phenomenon is not produced, not only is the proposition questioned at fault, but so is the whole theoretical scaffolding used by the physicist. The only thing the experiment teaches us is that among the propositions used to predict the phenomenon and to establish whether it would be produced, there is at least one error; but where this error lies is just what it does not tell us. The physicist may declare that this error is contained in exactly the proposition he wishes to refute, but is he so sure it is not in another proposition? (ibid, 185)
In symbolic form, let H be a hypothesis under test, with A1, A2, A3 etc as auxiliary hypotheses whose conjunction predicts an observation O.
H.A1.A2.A3... -> O
Let -O be some observation other than O.
H.A1.A2.A3... -> -O
In this situation logic (and this experiment) do not tell us whether H is responsible for the failure of the prediction or whether the fault lies with A1 or A2 or A3 ...
THE LOGIC OF MODUS TOLLENS
This situation described above arises from the logic of the modus tollens:
The falsifying mode of inference here referred to - the way in which the falsification of a conclusion entails the falsification of the system from which it is derived - is the modus tollens of classical logic. It may be described as follows:
Let p be a conclusion of a system t of statements which may consist of theories and initial conditions (for the sake of simplicity I will not distinguish between them). We may then symbolize the relation of derivability (analytical implication) of p from t by 't -> p' which may be read 'p follows from t'. Assume p to be false, which may be read 'not-p'. Given the relation of deducability, t -> p, and the assumption not-p, we can then infer 'not-t'; that is, we regard t as falsified...
By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification. (Popper, 1972, 76)
Duhem noted Poincare's suggestion that Neuman's hypothesis could be saved if another hypothesis is given up, namely that the mean kinetic energy is the measure of the light intensity. Instead of the kinetic energy, the potential energy could conceivably be the chosen measure.
We may, without being contradicted by the experiment, let the vibration be parallel to the plane of polarization, provided that we measure the light intensity by the mean potential energy of the medium deforming the vibratory motion. (Duhem, 1954, 186)
The details of this case do not need to be pursued because it is the principle that matters. Duhem illustrates his point with another example, the experiments carried out by Foucault to test the emission (particle) theory of light by examining the comparative speed of light in air and water. The experiment told against the particle theory but Duhem argues that it is the system of emission that was incompatible with the facts. The system is the whole group of propositions accepted by Newton, and after him by Laplace and Biot.
In sum, the physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses; when the experiment is in disagreement with his predictions, what he learns is that at least one of the hypotheses constituting this group is unacceptable and ought to be modified; but the experiment does not designate which one should be changed. (ibid, 187)
Duhem pressed his analysis to show that a 'crucial experiment' of the classic kind is impossible in physics. The concept of the crucial experiment was inspired by mathematics where a proposition is proved by demonstrating the absurdity of the contradictory proposition. Extending this logic into science, the aim is to enumerate all the hypotheses that can be made to account for a phenomenon, then by experimental contradiction (falsification) eliminate all but one which is thereby turned into a certainty.
To test the fertility of this approach, Duhem examined the rivalry between the particle and wave theories of light, represented respectively by Newton, Laplace and Biot; and Huygens, Young and Fresnel. He described the outcome of an experiment using Foucault's apparatus which supported the wave theory and apparently refuted the particle theory. However he concluded that it is a mistake to claim that the meaning of the experiment is so simple or so decisive.
For it is not between two hypotheses, the emission and wave hypotheses, that Foucault's experiment judges trenchantly; it rather decides between two sets of theories each of which has to be taken as a whole, i.e., between two entire systems, Newton's optics and Huygens' optics. (ibid, 189)
In addition, Duhem reminds us that there is a major difference between the situation in mathematics and in science. In the former, the proposition and its contradictory empty the universe of possibilities on that point. But in science, who can say that Newton and Huygens have exhausted the universe of systems of optics?
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE DUHEM THESIS
Given the foregoing argument on falsification and the problems of allegedly crucial experiments, what are the implications for science and scientists? Duhem himself identifies two possible ways of proceeding when an experiment contradicts the consequences of a theory. One way is to protect the fundamental hypotheses by complicating the situation, suggesting various causes of error, perhaps in the experimental setup or among the auxiliary hypotheses. Thus the apparent refutation may be deflected or changes are made in other places. Another response is to challenge some of the components that are fundamental to the system. It does not matter, so far as logical analysis is concerned, whether the choice is made on the basis of the psychology or temperament of the scientist, or on the basis of some methodology (such as Popper's exhortation to boldness). There is no guarantee of success, as Duhem pointed out (followed by Popper). Furthermore Duhem conceded that each of the two responses described above may permit the respective scientists to be equally satisfied at the end of the day, just provided that the adjustments appear to work.
Of course Duhem was not content with an outcome where workers can merely declare themselves content with their work. He would have hoped to see one or other of the competing systems move on, to develop by modifications (large or small) to account for a wider range of phenomena and eliminate inconsistencies - to 'adhere more closely to reality'. His views on the growth of knowledge and the role of experimental evidence in that growth are described in a later chapter.
Duhem's thesis on the problematical nature of falsification has taken on a new lease of life in modern times as the 'Duhem-Quine thesis' due to a paper by W. V. O. Quine (1951, 1961). In the same way that Duhem confronted the turn-of-the-century positivists, Quine challenged a later manifestation of similar doctrines, promulgated by the Vienna Circle of logical positivists and their followers. The first of the two dogmas assailed by Quine is the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths, that is, between the propositions of mathematics and logic which are independent of fact, and those which are matters of fact. The second dogma, more relevant to the matter in hand, is 'the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.' (Quine, 1961, 39). His target is the verifiability theory of meaning, namely that the meaning of a statement is the method of empirically confirming it. In contrast, analytical statements are those which are confirmed ‘no matter what’.
The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation [sic] at all. My counter-suggestion, issuing essentially from Carnap's doctrine of the physical world in the Aufbau, is that our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. (Quine, 1961, 41)
Quine refers to Duhem's 1906 French version of The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory and proceeds to argue that the unit of empirical significance, the corporate body, is no less than the whole of science. He then briefly expounds the notion that has become known as 'the web of belief' whereby the total field of interconnected beliefs is so underdetermined by experience which only impinges at the edge of the field, so that ‘No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.’ (ibid, 43)
Further, he writes in reference to the boundary between synthetic statements (based on experience) and analytic statements (which can be held come what may):
Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision. (ibid, 43)
A that point, Quine had taken the Duhem problem as a launching pad for a full-blooded holism in the theory of knowledge. As he explained elsewhere - ‘Holism at its most extreme holds that science faces the tribunal of experience not sentence by sentence but as a corporate body: the whole of science’ (Quine, 1968, 620). This version of Quine's thesis does not appear to acknowledge any limit in the magnitude of the group of hypotheses which face the test of experience.
In contrast, Duhem insisted that systems rather than individual hypotheses were the unit under test, but systems, however large, fall vastly short of the scope defined by Quine.
Newton's first law cannot, taken in isolation, be compared with experience. Adams and Leverrier, however, used this law as one of a group of hypotheses from which they deduced conclusions about the orbit of Uranus....Now the group of hypotheses used by Adams and Leverrier was, no doubt fairly extensive, but it did not include the whole of science...We agree, then, with Quine that a single statement may not always be (to use his terminology) a 'unit of empirical significance'. But this does not mean that 'The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science'. (Gillies, 1993, 111-112.)
GRUNBAUM AND THE QUINE RETRACTION
A persistent critic of the Duhem-Quine thesis has been Adolph Grunbaum. In "The Duhemian Argument" (1960, 1976) Grunbaum set out to refute the thesis that the falsifiability of an isolated empirical hypothesis is unavoidably inconclusive. He distinguished two forms of the Duhem thesis:
(i) the logic of every disconfirmation, no less than of every confirmation, of a presumably empirical hypothesis H is such as to involve at some point or other an entire network of interwoven hypotheses in which H is an ingredient rather than the separate testing of the component H,
(ii) No one constituent hypothesis H can ever be extricated from the ever-present web of collateral assumptions so as to be open to decisive refutation by the evidence as part of an explicans of that evidence, just as no such isolation is achievable for purposes of verification. This conclusion becomes apparent by a consideration of the two parts of the schema of unavoidably inconclusive falsifiability, which are:
(a) it is an elementary fact of deductive logic that if certain observational consequences O are entailed by the conjunction of H and a set A of auxiliary assumptions, then the failure of O to materialise entails not the falsity of H by itself but only the weaker conclusion that H and A cannot both be true,
(b) the actual observational findings -O, which are incompatible with O, allow that H be true while A is false, because they always permit the theorist to preserve H with impunity as a part of the explicans of -O by so modifying A that the conjunction of H and the revised version RA of A does explain (entail) -O. This preservability of H is to be understood as a retainability in principle and does not depend on the ability of scientists to propound the required set RA of collateral assumptions at any given time. (Grunbaum, 1976, 118)
Grunbaum accepts that (a) is valid but he does not accept that it is sufficient to prove that attempted falsifications of single hypotheses are unavoidably inconclusive. He directs his argument at the notion that non-trivial sets of revised auxiliary assumptions can be invoked virtually at will to account for -O and so protect H.
For neither (a) nor other general logical considerations can guarantee the deducibility of -O from an explanans constituted by the conjunction of H and some non-trivial revised set of the auxiliary assumptions which is logically incompatible with A under the hypothesis H.
How then does Duhem propose to assure that there exists such a non-trivial set of revised auxiliary assumptions for any one component hypothesis H independently of the domain of empirical science to which H pertains. It would seem that such assurance cannot be given on general logical grounds at all but that the existence of the required set needs separate and concrete demonstration for each particular case. (ibid, 118-19)
Grunbaums point is a good one. The key to his argument is the demand for a guarantee that certain types of revised auxiliary hypotheses can always be found to protect H (a demand which appears to contradict the italicised concluding sentence of (b) above). However it was never Duhem's main concern to save H, merely to indicate the element of uncertainty regarding which, among H and the auxiliary hypotheses, is invalidated by falsifying evidence. The degree of uncertainty would need to be established in each situation where alleged falsification occurs. This is Grunbaums valid point and it is not one that Duhem, as a working scientist, would have resisted.
Nor is it a point that Quine was prepared to resist, in his capacity as a pragmatist. Grunbaum's arguments elicited a remarkable retraction in a letter to Grunbaum, dated June 1, 1962 and printed in Harding (1976).
Dear Professor Grunbaum:
I have read your paper on the falsifiability of theories with interest. Your claim that the Duhem-Quine thesis, as you call it, is untenable if taken non-trivially, strikes me as persuasive. Certainly it is carefully argued.
For my own part I would say that the thesis as I have used it is probably trivial. I haven't advanced it as an interesting thesis as such. I bring it in only in the course of arguing against such notions as that the empirical content of sentences can in general be sorted out distributively, sentence by sentence, or that the understanding of a term can be segregated from collateral information regarding the object. For such purposes I am not concerned even to avoid the trivial extreme of sustaining a law by changing a meaning; for the cleavage between meaning and fact is part of what, in such contexts, I am questioning.
Actually my holism is not as extreme as those brief vague paragraphs at the end of "Two dogmas of empiricism" are bound to sound. See sections 1-3 and 7-10 of Word and Object.
W. V. Quine
Another point of Quine's early statement that has elicited a critical response is the notion that certain statements may be maintained against refutation ‘come what may’. This view would appear to lend support to the various ways of deflecting criticism that Popper has stigmatised as ‘conventionalist stratagems’ (1972, 82-84). In response to a paper by Vuillemin (1986), Quine expanded on the topic of the vulnerability of supposedly established knowledge in the face of efforts to accommodate some recalcitrant fact. On legalistic principles he holds to a total vulnerability theory so that even a truth of logic or mathematics could be thrown aside to maintain some statement of . However he also considers that vulnerability is a matter of degree and is in fact least in logic and mathematics where disruptions would ripple widely through science. Vulnerability increases as we move towards the observational periphery of the 'web of belief', or the 'fabric of science'.
Holism at its most extreme holds that science faces the tribunal of experience not sentence by sentence but as a corporate body: the whole of science. Legalistically this again is defensible. Science is nowhere quite discontinuous, since logic and some mathematics, at least, are shared by all branches. We noted further that logic and mathematics are vulnerable, according anyway to a legalistic holism, along with the rest of science. But the connections between areas of science vary conspicuously in degree of intimacy...Thus it is that widely separate areas of science can be assessed and revised independently of one another. Hence the compartmentalisation that Vuillemin rightly stresses. These practical compartments variously overlap and are variously nested, as well as varying in sharpness of outline. Smallness of compartment goes with a higher degree of practical vulnerability of each of the sentences. Smallness of compartment, high vulnerability, proximity to the observational periphery of science: the three go together. An observation sentence, finally, is in a compartment by itself. It, at least, has its own separate empirical content. (Quine, 1986, 620)
Quine goes on to say that compartmentalisation has been essential for progress in science, also the vulnerability of the smaller compartments. Then, in what appears to be a radical departure from the Duhem-Quine thesis, he writes, on experimental falsification:
For the experimenter picks in advance the particular sentence that he will choose to sacrifice if the experiment refutes his compartment of theory...The experimenter means to interrogate nature on a specific sentence, and then as a matter of course he treats nature's demurral as a denial of that sentence rather than merely of the conjoint compartment. (Quine, 1986, 620-21, my italics)
This stands as an explicit rejection of the Duhem-Quine problem, a remarkable stance for a co-proprietor of it. In any case, the problem persists in its less extreme form independent of Quines shift in perspective upon it.
THE SCOPE OF THE DUHEM-QUINE PROBLEM
Having established that the unit of knowledge affected by the uncertainty of falsification is less than the whole of science, there remains a question of the range of scientific disciplines that are affected.
Duhem only pressed the argument for uncertain falsification in sciences which have reached a stage of development where their theories are highly abstract and experimentation is complex. He was concerned with physics, he did not nominate other examples and he explicitly stated that the problem of falsification did not apply to physiology and parts of chemistry. Duhem's thesis has a limited and special scope not covering the field of physiology, for Claude Bernard's experiments are explicitly acknowledged as crucial. (Vuillemain, 1979, 559).
Gillies quite reasonably suggests that Duhem's thesis should be extended beyond physics to any hypothesis which cannot be compared with experience or experiment in isolation but must be taken in conjunction with other hypotheses. He argues that Duhem was correct to limit the scope of this thesis, but that he drew limit in the wrong place, taking physics and part of chemistry to be affected by his concerns. But the highly theory-dependent nature of falsification is not specific to particular disciplines (such as physics) but can occur in any branch of science. Thus in parts of physics, falsification may be relatively unproblematic, while in other subjects such as biology, there may develop so much theoretical depth (or such sophisticated experimentation may be involved) that the Duhem problem arises.
Such would be the case in experiments exploring the mechanisms regulating the movement of chemicals through the membranes of cells, or the kinetics of uptake and metabolism of drugs in various body tissues. In each case, and many other like them, long chains of deductive and mathematical reasoning are used to make predictions about the phenomena, and immensely sophisticated equipment is required to measure the results. These conditions mimic the situation in physics experiments which Duhem used to make his case for the 'Duhem problem'.
The Duhem-Quine problem, firmly based in the logic of the modus tollens, stands as a reproach to positivists and naive falsificationists alike. The logic of the situation is that the conjunction of several hypotheses in any logical deduction preclude the unambiguous attribution of error to any one of them if a prediction fails.
Quine promulgated a more radical version of the thesis which threatened to introduce an element of unrestrained conventionalism into science but he subsequently returned to a more orthodox and pragmatic view of experimental testing.
Duhem restricted the scope of his thesis to parts of physics and chemistry but it appears, following Gillies, that any and indeed all sciences will be liable to the problem as their theories become more abstract and their experimental equipment becomes more sophisticated.
POPPER AND SOME NEO-POPPERIANS
This chapter deals with Popper's response to the Duhem-Quine problem and the evolving efforts of the Popperian school, especially Lakatos, to come to grips with this problem. It also reports the helpful comments by Mayo which correct some of Popper's more flambouyant and unhelpful rhetoric along the lines of 'anything may go'.
When Popper started work the philosophy of science was dominated by the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who were immersed in the strong empiricist programme set on foot by Russell and Wittgenstein (in his first phase) between 1910 and 1920. The main concerns of the Circle members were the problems of induction and demarcation.
For the logical positivists (subsequently known as logical empiricists in the US) the purpose of induction was to justify scientific beliefs using empirical evidence. On this account induction was the characteristic method of science and so provided a criterion of demarcation to separate science from non-science. At the same time, verifiability was supposed to be the criterion of meaningful statements (outside the domain of methematics and logic). Thus non-verifiable statements were relegated to a domain of meaningless nonsense.
In the absence of a solution to the problem of induction the rationality of science (and indeed rationality generally) was perceived to be at risk. As Russell put it, writing on Hume's critique of induction:
It is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority (Russell, 1946, 698) .
And ‘The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume's destruction of empiricism’ (ibid, 699). And so, according to Lakatos, the early mission of Popper and his followers was to save science (and civilisation) from the spectre of the unsolved problem of induction (Lakatos, 1972, 112-13).
Popper offered linked solutions to the problems of induction and demarcation. He suggested that science is not usefully described as a body of justified beliefs, instead scientific knowledge should be regarded as conjectural or fallible. The demarcation criterion should be 'falsifiability in principle', that is, statements which are in principle capable of being falsified by evidence may be deemed scientific. This is a logical relationship and should not be confused with the matter of empirical falsification which raises issues such as the reliability of evidence, the theory-dependence of observations, the Duhem-Quine problem and the like. If these concerns can be settled in a satisfactory manner then falsification provides the potential for elimination of error, also the possibility for critical experiments. On this account, scientific knowledge does not progress by accumulation or by increasing its degree of objective probability, instead it progresses through an imaginative and critical process of trial and error as scientists generate theories of ever-increasing depth and explanatory power.
POPPER ON DUHEM
Popper's response to Duhem is confusing. He hardly addresses Duhem at all though in the account provided by Lakatos (1972) the main stream of the modern philosophy of science is the attempts of Popper and Duhem to overcome the challenge to falsification (and positivism) set by Duhem himself.
In summary, it seems that Popper largely accepted Duhem's critique of falsificationism but, from time to time, directed misplaced critical comments at Duhem and his ideas. In view of these critical comments it is a little surprising to find that Duhem is in Popper's short list of major or influential philosophers (with Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Poincare, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill and Russell (Popper, 1972, 19).
In The Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper had little to say on the Duhem problem though he referred to Duhem as a chief representative of a school of thought known as conventionalism (ibid, 178), thereby promulgating the unhelpful stereotype of Duhem which is further corrected in Chapter 5.
In Logic Popper gave an account of the modus tollens which essentially amounts to a restatement of the Duhem problem. Part of Popper's text on this topic was quoted in the previous chapter. Popper continued:
By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification.
At this point there is a lengthy footnote as follows
Thus we cannot at first know which among the various statements of the remaining subsystem (of which p is not independent) we are to blame for the falsity of p; which if these statements we have to alter, and which we should retain. It is often only the scientific instinct of the investigator (influenced, of course, by the results of testing and re-testing) that makes him guess which statements he should regard as innocuous, and which he should regard as being in need of modification (ibid, 76).
The similarity between this formulation and Duhem's statement of the ‘Duhem problem’ is overwhelming. As Duhem put it:
The only thing the experiment teaches us is that among the propositions used to predict the phenomenon and to establish where it would be produced, there is at least one error; but where this error lies is just what it does not tell us. (Duhem, 1954, 185)
Note the emphasis that Popper himself provides ‘we falsify the whole system...Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification’. This applies unless p is independent of some part of the system in which case that part of the system is thereby exempted from responsibility for the falsification. But how often is it possible to isolate parts of a system from the impact of a falsification? In any case, the uncertainty as to the location of error persists within the complex of theories that constitute the non-independent part of the system.
In Conjectures and Refutations Popper embarked on a critique of instrumentalism which also touched on the Duhem problem.
A theory is tested not merely by applying it, or by trying it out, but by applying it to very special cases - cases for which it yields results different from those we should have expected without that theory, or in the light of other theories...Such cases are "crucial" in Bacon's sense; they indicate the crossroads between two (or more) theories...But while Bacon believed that a crucial experiment may establish or verify a theory, we shall say that it can at most refute or falsify a theory. (Note 26. Duhem, in his famous criticism of crucial experiments succeeds in showing that crucial experiments can never establish a theory. He fails to show that they cannot refute it). (Popper, 1963, 112)
Is this fair comment on Duhem; that he failed to establish that valid experimental results cannot refute a theory? It is important at this point to accept that the experimental result is not in question; we are concerned with the logic of the situation. Popper has clearly stated (above) that the refutation does not hit a particular theory by itself, it strikes the theory along with background knowledge and supporting theories. This agrees with Duhem (as shown above). So in what sense has Duhem failed to show that experiments cannot refute a theory? They cannot refute a theory by itself, as Popper concedes, but Duhem similarly accepted that the refutation hits home at the system: there is a problem, something has been refuted. What is the point that Popper is trying to make against Duhem in the paragraph quoted above?
Popper obligingly responds to this question on the same page.
...one might be tempted to object (following Duhem) that in every test it is not only the theory under investigation which is involved, but also the whole system of our theories and assumptions - in fact, more or less the whole of our knowledge - so that we can never be certain which of all these assumptions are refuted. But this criticism overlooks the fact that if we take each of the two theories (between which the crucial experiment is to decide) together with all this background knowledge, as indeed we must, then we decide between two systems which differ only over the two theories which are at stake. It further overlooks the fact that we do not assert the refutation of the theory as such, but of the theory together with that background knowledge; parts of which, if other crucial experiments can be designed, may indeed one day be rejected as responsible for the failure. (ibid, 112)
Again one has to ask how this amounts to a criticism of Duhem who also hoped that further work would probe for weak spots in the background knowledge to find the source of a refutation.
Popper claims in the passage above that two things are overlooked in the Duhem-type critique of falsification: the first is that we may isolate a difference between two systems at one theory. He has pursued a similar line in a formal consideration of axiomatised systems (ibid, 239) . It must be said that this is a possibility, and it is a possibility that may be realised on some occasions in science. One of these occasions (described in Chapter 4) was used by Franklin to demonstrate a solution to the Duhem-Quine problem in connection with the non-conservation of parity. In that case the crucial experiments decided between two sets of theories; one set assuming parity conservation, the other parity non-conservation. The experiments promptly delivered a verdict which carried immediate conviction in the scientific community. Conviction in this instance was achieved by the fact that the novel idea solved an awkward problem, it was confirmed by several lines of investigation (not just one) and it rapidly promoted fundamental advances in the field.
A very different situation obtains when two rival systems are divided by many assumptions, at all levels, from the simple matter of what is being observed in an experiment to the criteria for an adequate solution to a problem. This is the kind of potentially revolutionary situation described by Kuhn's paradigm theory and examples are provided by the overthrow of the phlogiston theory of combustion and the rise of relativity to supplant Newtonian physics. These situations are probably rare and they are probably not as revolutionary as many followers of Kuhn suppose because large tracts of knowledge, even in the vicinity of the revolution, remain intact. They are the kind of situations where considerable time, even decades, may be required to work out the implications of the rival systems until a point is reached where one appears to be overwhelmingly superior to the other. Lakatos attempted to provide a rational decision procedure for these situations (see later in this chapter).
One can envisage two extreme situations - one where crucial experiments rapidly produce decisive confirmations and the other where a long period of uncertainty prevails in a dispute between rival systems. Between these extremes there is presumably a spectrum of complexity or difficulty in finding a resolution.
As for Popper's second point, that we assert the refutation of the theory as such, together with background knowledge: this is precisely the point of the Duhem-Quine problem and as such hardly provides a rejoinder to it. Elsewhere in Conjectures Popper writes about background knowledge and scientific growth.
Yet though every one of our assumptions may be challenged, it is quite impractical to challenge all of them at the same time. Thus all criticism must be piecemeal (as against the holistic view of Duhem and Quine)...We can never be certain that we shall challenge the right bit; but since our quest is not for certainty, this does not matter. It will be noticed that this remark contains my answer to Quine's holistic view of empirical tests; a view which Quine formulates (with reference to Duhem), by asserting that our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. Now it has to be admitted that we can often test only a large chunk of a theoretical system, and sometimes perhaps only the whole system, and that, in these cases, it is sheer guesswork which of its ingredients should be held responsible for any falsification; a point which I have tried to emphasise - also with reference to Duhem - for a long time past (see LSD sections 19 to 22). Though this argument may turn a verificationist into a sceptic, it does not affect those who hold that all our theories are guesses anyway. (Popper, 1963, 238-39, my italics)
Popper's assertion about the piecemeal nature of criticism anticipates some illuminating comments by Mayo which will be described below. However Popper has unfortunately conflated the ideas of Duhem and Quine which are far from identical, as shown in Chapter 1. Admittedly Popper was not in a position to note Quine's retraction of his more extreme views (in a private letter to Grunbaum, dated mid 1962 and reproduced in Chapter 1 of this thesis). It must be noted that Popper concedes all that Duhem or Quine (after his retraction of his initial radically position) would desire: we test chunks of a system or even whole systems, but nothing like the whole of science. He then talks about the ‘sheer guesswork’ involved in identifying the source of the problem. When a problem is first identified then a significant element of guesswork may be involved in searching for the weak links but one would expect the focus to narrow as our background knowledge builds up in the course of ongoing testing and discussion. Unfortunately Popper appears to be hooked on the rhetoric of guesswork and this is one of the places where Lakatos sought to make his mark with rational principles for pursuing research in the face of refutations. The matter of strategies to pursue post-refutation is discussed later.
Popper's last words on the matter appear to be in Realism and the Aim of Science, where he discussed the procedure for empirical testing of hypotheses.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this procedure is that we always try to discover how we might arrange for crucial tests between the new hypothesis under investigation - the one we are trying to test - and some others. This is a consequence of the fact that our tests are attempted refutations; that they are designed - designed in the light of some competing hypothesis - with the aim of refuting, if possible, the theory which we wish to test. And we always try, in a crucial test, to make the background knowledge play exactly the same part - so far as this is possible - with respect to each of the hypotheses between which we try to force a decision by the crucial test. (Duhem criticized crucial experiments, showing that they cannot establish or prove one of the competing hypotheses, as they were supposed to do; but although he discussed refutation - pointing out that its attribution to one hypothesis rather than to another was always arbitrary - he never discussed the function which I hold to be that of crucial tests - that of refuting one of the competing theories.)
All this, clearly, cannot absolutely prevent a miscarriage of judgement: it may happen that we condemn an innocent hypothesis. As I have shown...an element of free choice and of decision is always involved in accepting a refutation, or in attributing it to one hypothesis rather than to another.
...Thus there is no routine procedure, no automatic mechanism, for solving the problem of attributing the falsification to any particular part of a system of theories - just as there is no routine procedure for designing new theories. The fact that not all is logic in our never-ending search for truth is, however, no reason why we should not use logic to throw as much light on this search as we can, by pointing out both where our arguments break down and how far they reach. (Popper, 1983, 188-89)
Here Popper repeats his misleading comment on Duhem which was criticised above, and concedes the central features of the Duhem problem. Logic alone provides no way out of the dilemma; there is no automatic method, no routine procedure, just more work aided by some lucky guesses. This is about the point that Duhem reached when he began to develop his ideas on the need for ‘good sense’ in pursuing a program of research.
What emerges from this comparison of Duhem and Popper? There is little to choose between them in their depiction of the Duhem problem, indeed, despite Popper's best efforts to distance himself from Duhem, it might well be called the Duhem-Popper problem.
Thus the question arises: how does science progress in the face of the ambiguity of refutation? Neither Popper nor Duhem despaired of progress, far from it, Duhem's book aimed to explain how progress occurred and Popper, for his part, argued that the very rationality of science depends on it.
I suggested that science would stagnate, and lose its empirical character, if we should fail to obtain refutations ...for very similar reasons science would stagnate and lose its empirical character, if we should fail to obtain verifications of new predictions. (Popper, 1963, 244)
In view of the Duhem-Popper problem the main concern for scientists faced with a refutation is to work out where to look for the problem, how to focus, and economise their efforts to locate and correct weak spots in the complex of theories which has come under suspicion. For Duhem, this was very much a matter of further work aided with ‘good sense’ as described in chapter 5. For Popper, similarly, the situation calls for continued effort, aided by lucky guesses and a nice mix of refutations and confirmations. He did offer some principles, notably that criticism should focus on the major theory rather than auxiliary hypotheses.
For Popper, three conditions need to be met for one theory to replace another (bearing in mind that these are major theories): First:
The new theory should proceed from some simple, new and powerful, unifying idea about some connection or relation (such as gravitational attraction) between hitherto unconnected things (such as planets and apples) or facts (such as inertial and gravitational mass) or new 'theoretical entities' (such as field and particles).
Secondly, we require that the new theory should be independently testable...it must lead to the prediction of phenomena which have not so far been observed...(ibid, 241)
Thirdly, it should pass some new and severe tests.
Popper's contribution has been somewhat distorted by his preoccupation with what he called 'great science', and by his rhetorical understatement of the role of confirmations.
It is the working of great scientists which I have in my mind as my paradigm for science...The great scientists, such as Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein and Bohr (to confine myself to a few of the dead), represent to me a simple but impressive ideal of science...I am prepared to consider with them many of their less brilliant helpers who were equally devoted to the search for truth - for great truth. But I do not count among them those for whom science is no more than a profession, a technique...It is science in the heroic sense that I wish to study. As a side result I find that we can throw a lot of light even on the more modest workers in applied science. (Popper, 1974, 977-8)
The distortion that tends to flow from this grand, heroic or revolutionary view of science is corrected by Mayo (below), supported by a comment from Medawar
To be a first-rate scientist it is not necessary (and certainly not sufficient) to be extremely clever, anyhow in a pyrotechnic sense. One of the great social revolutions brought about by scientific research has been the democratization of learning. Anyone who combines strong common sense with an ordinary degree of imaginativeness can become a creative scientist, and a happy one besides, in so far as happiness depends upon being able to develop to the limit of one's abilities. (Medawar, 1972, 106-7).
Popper's obsession with grand science and his 'anything may go' mentality inclined him to hunt for ‘big game’, that is, in the event of a refutation, to look for the error in the major theory. Hence his aversion to ‘conventionalist stratagems’, or ‘immunising tactics’ such as the proliferation of ad hoc hypotheses which are designed to protect the major theory (the conventional wisdom). However, as Bamford pointed out with regard to ad hoc hypotheses, such attacks on defensive manoeuvres can be overdone (Bamford, 1993). Similarly, Worrall noted 'Popper does seem to have made the mistake - both in 1934 and later - of thinking that auxiliary assumptions are only ever introduced in order to "save" a theory' (Worrall, 1995, 87).
However auxiliary hypotheses (or ad hoc speculations about initial conditions etc) can be quite legitimate, even for Popper, if they can be tested independently of the theory they were introduced to ‘save’. This turned out to be the case with the planet Neptune, whose existence was postulated to account for irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. This might have been described as an ad hoc hypothesis but the location of the hypothetical entity was predicted with sufficient precision for the body itself to be rapidly located by two independent observers. Thus a serious problem was converted into a triumph for Newtonian theory by confirmation of the existence of Neptune.
The role of confirmation or verification has been played down in the Popperian rhetoric, despite occasional locutions of the kind quoted above, to the effect that science would lose its empirical character in the absence of 'verifications of new predictions' (Popper, 1963, 244). It is important in the context of the Duhem-Quine problem to understand the potential for progress that is signalled by successful predictions (whether they are described as verifications, confirmations or corroborations). This is a feature that Lakatos made central to his methodology and it is also a point that is well explained by Mayo.
Mayo emphasises the importance of piecemeal criticism and she challenges the perception that normal science does not involve criticism. This perception is hightened by her invocation of Kuhn's locution ‘it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science’ (Mayo, 1995, 274). This view of Kuhn is apparently based on the assumption that Popperian criticism involves relentless challenges to first principles, clearly an unhelpful activity for most scientists most of the time. In this vein Mayo writes ‘Seen though our spectacles, what distinguishes Kuhn's demarcation from Popper's is that for Kuhn the aim is not mere criticism but constructive criticism’ (ibid 283). This is a little unfair on Popper who hardly demanded 'mere criticism' but the valid point of Mayo's comment is to keep the scope of investigation at a level where we can learn from mistakes as against the situation in astrology which made predictions without being able to convert failures into problem-solving (learning) experiences. This line of argument has some support from Medawar's description of science as ‘the art of the soluble’, and his comment that scientists do not get credit for grappling heroically with problems that are too difficult to solve (Medawar, 1967, 7).
According to Mayo's gloss on Kuhn (1970), astrologers routinely made predictions which were falsified; in addition they indulged in furious criticisms of each others' systems. But neither the falsification nor the criticism resulted in progress and astrology never became a science. According to Kuhn/Mayo an essential element was lacking; that is, soluble puzzles and so astrologers never developed the routine puzzle-solving activities which characterise science (between revolutions). The obvious comparison (drawn by Kuhn) is between astrology and astronomy. Astronomers always had something potentially constructive to do, even when the subject was submerged in difficulties - they could re-examine old observations, modify their instruments, manipulate epicycles, eccentrics and equants, look for new heavenly bodies.
Failures of prediction in astrology manifested the Duhem-Quine problem in its most vicious form - there were too many places to locate the error.
The occurrence of failures could be explained [by imperfect knowledge of the multitude of relevant variables] but particular failures did not give rise to research puzzles, for no man, however skilled, could make use of them in a constructive attempt to revise the astrological tradition. There were too many possible sources of difficulty, most of them beyond the astrologer's knowledge, control, or responsibility. (Kuhn, 1972, 9).
The implication of Mayo's correction to Popper is that Popperian criticism may be too 'large' to permit learning experiences to follow from refutations. If a whole system is refuted without an alternative system available then there is nowhere to go except to ignore the problem or attempt to solve it internally to the system (as a normal research project).
On the role of criticism in normal science, Mayo corrects the critics who claim that normal science is a mindless, technical exercise. She points out that normal science involves continual testing (to find if problem-solutions actually work) and if they do not, then sooner or later the failure will signal that there is a problem at some deeper level than was originally suspected. One does not know, at the first recognition of a refutation, where the trail will lead, whether to a modification of auxiliary hypotheses (discovery of the planet Neptune) or to a rethinking of first principles. This is a point made by both Duhem and Popper in their better moments.
Lakatos took up the story at the point where Popper resorted to guesses, arbitrary decisions, instinct of the scientist etc. Lakatos wanted to introduce some rational decision procedure into handling the ambiguity of falsification, and the problem of pursuing research programs in an ocean of anomalies. It should be noted that the Duhem-Quine problem (and also the problem of induction) has been aggravated by the tendency to demand a prompt and firm commitment to a theory - to form a justified belief in one or other of the available options. Popper and the neo-Popperians have generally resisted this tendency and Lakatos in particular resiled from the demand for 'instant rationality' in theory choice. Instead he was concerned to allow several imperfect theories or systems to coexist, albeit with the hope that one or the other would grow while others would be undermined so that eventually winners and losers would be revealed by the use of his methodology.
In "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes" (1970) he did not initially address the Duhem-Quine problem, rather he began with the rescue of falsificationism, rationality and empiricism from justificationism, irrationalism and scepticism. In the light of this piece by Lakatos one might say (contra to Russell's view that the problem of induction was a skeleton in the cupboard of western philosophy) that the real skeleton in the cupboard is the Duhem-Quine problem. However Lakatos was confident that both problems (and many others) would yield to the work of Popper and himself.
Lakatos had the dual aim of helping live scientists (normative orientation) while doing justice to the activities of previous scientists (descriptive orientation). The key to his scheme is the use of corroborations to keep research programs alive, even while they may appear to be subject to refutations.
The essential elements of the Lakatosian scheme are as follows:
The methodology of scientific research programmes is a new demarcationist methodology (i.e. a universal definition of progress which I have been advocating for some years...
First of all my unit of appraisal is not an isolated hypothesis (or a conjunction of hypotheses): a research programmme is rather a special kind of 'problemshift'. It consists of a developing series of theories. Moreover, this developing series has a structure. It has a tenacious hard core, like the three laws of motion and the law of gravitation in Newton's research programme, and it has a heuristic, which includes a set of problem-solving techniques. (This, in Newton's case, consisted of the programme's mathematical apparatus, involving the differential calculus, the theory of convergence, differential and integral equations). Finally, a research programme has a vast belt of auxiliary hypotheses on the basis of which we establish initial conditions. The protective belt of the Newtonian programme included geometrical optics, Newton's theory of atmospheric refraction, and so on. I call this belt a protective belt because it protects the hard core from refutations: anomalies are not taken as refutations of the hard core but of some hypothesis in the protective belt...
I now lay down rules for appraising programmes. A research programme is either progressive or degenerating. It is theoretically progressive if each modification leads to new unexpected predictions and it is empirically progressive if at least some of these novel predictions are corroborated...The supreme example of a progressive programme is Newton's. It successfully anticipated novel facts like the return of Halley's comet, the existence and the course of Neptune and the bulge of the earth.
A research programme never solves all its anomalies. 'Refutations' always abound. What matters is a few dramatic signs of empirical progress...
One research programme supersedes another if it has excess truth content over its rival, in the sense that it predicts progressively all that its rival truly predicts and some more besides. (Lakatos, 1978, 178-9)
Seven elements can be identified here.
1. The ‘scientific research programme’, in place of disconnected chains of conjectures and refutations.
2. The ‘hard core’ of the programme, a cluster of ideas which are protected from criticism as long as possible, that is, as long as the programme is being actively pursued.
3. A ‘positive heuristic’ or game plan to progress and build the programme.
4. A ‘negative heuristic’ which protects the core of the programme in two ways; by diverting refutations into a ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary hypotheses, and by limiting the field of search for new ideas.
5. ‘Progressive problem shifts’ signal success for the programme, resulting in increased content of confirmed conjectures and the resolution of what appeared to be anomalies.
7. ‘Degenerative problem shifts’ signal that a programme is in trouble and is liable to be supplanted by a rival programme. Degenerative problem shifts involve the proliferation of ad hoc hypotheses designed to fit data, rather than hypotheses which draw attention to novel facts and so provide ‘surplus content’.
In his account of the philosophy of science in modern times, Lakatos claimed that a debate about the capacity of theories to assimilate and neutralise inconvenient evidence gave rise to two rival schools of revolutionary conventionalism; these were Duhem's simplicism and Popper's methodological falsificationism.
Duhem accepts the conventionalists' position that no physical theory ever crumbles under the weight of 'refutations', but claims that it still may crumble under the weight of 'continual repairs, and many tangled-up stays' when 'the worm-eaten columns' cannot support 'the tottering building' any longer; then the theory loses its original simplicity and has to be replaced. But falsification is then left to subjective taste or, at best, to scientific fashion, and too much leeway is left for dogmatic adherence to a favourite theory. (Lakatos, 1972, 105)
The term 'simplicism' applied to Duhem appears to be misplaced because Duhem by no means reverted to simplicity as a criterion for theory choice. On the contrary, he thought that progress meant more complexity, not more simplicity. Similarly there is no emphasis in Duhem on taste or fashion, more on the need for continued work to clarify a confused situation. Indeed Lakatos adds in a note that Duhem was not a consistent revolutionary conventionalist.
Very much like Whewell, he thought that conceptual changes are only preliminaries to the final - if perhaps distant - 'natural classification': 'The more a theory is perfected, the more we apprehend that the logical order in which it arranges experimental laws is the reflection of an ontological order'. (ibid, 105)
Later Lakatos proceeds to set Popper and Duhem head to head.
The vague notion of Duhemian "simplicity" leaves , as the naive falsificationists correctly argued, the decision very much to taste and fashion...Can one improve on Duhem's approach? Popper did. His solution - a sophisticated version of methodological falsificationism - is more objective and more rigorous. Popper agrees with the conventionalists that theories and factual propositions can always be harmonized with the help of auxiliary hypotheses: he agrees that the problem is how to demarcate between scientific and pseudoscientific adjustments, between rational and irrational changes of theory (ibid 117).
Leaving aside the proposition that naive falsificationists argued ‘correctly’ against a position that Duhem did not hold, what principles are offered by the more sophisticated falsificationism of Lakatos?
As noted above, Lakatos shifted the focus from individual theories to the series of theories. 'Sophisticated falsificationism thus shifts the problem of how to appraise theories to the problem of how to appraise series of theories.' (ibid 119)
The thrust of Lakatosian thought from this point may be said to address and correct Popper's claim that it is merely guesswork where we look for the source of error in a system that his been apparently falsified. Lakatos aimed to show how scientists (legitimately) protect certain parts of the system (the hard core of a research programme) from the impact of falsifications and deflect 'the arrow of modus tollens' into a 'protective belt' of hypotheses which are effectively sacrificed to save the main line of advance of the research program. He then deploys his conception of progressive and degenerative problem shifts. 'Thus the crucial element in falsification is whether the new theory offers any novel, excess information compared with its predecessor and whether some of this excess information is corroborated' (ibid 120)
Lakatos allows that his ‘hard core’ will have to be abandoned if and when the programme ceases to anticipate novel facts. In this respect the situation is different from the conventionalism of Poincare (at least as depicted by Lakatos).
our hard core, unlike Poincare's, may crumble under certain conditions. In this sense we side with Duhem who thought that such a possibility must be allowed for; but for Duhem the reason for such a crumbling is purely aesthetic, while for us it is mainly logical and empirical. (ibid 134)
It is a red herring to claim that Duhem leaned to aesthetic considerations in appraising the state of play in a troubled research program. It could be argued that for Duhem the reasons for crumbling, over a period of time, are essentially logical and empirical. Had he been more helpful in his depiction of ‘good sense’ then some ill-directed criticism may have been avoided.
Returning to the positive features of Lakatos, the programme will persist as long as some novel predictions are confirmed, and as long as most if not all refutations can be deflected from the hard core. The Lakatos scheme is widely regarded as a more realistic depiction of the scientific enterprise than that provided by Popper himself. However there still remains a great deal of scope for interpretation of the state of the programme, that is, for what Duhem might call ‘good sense’ to work out when the programme has reached a stage of degeneration that calls for a switch. Of course Lakatos was not attempting to furnish ‘instant rationality’ in theory choice and his aim was to keep a programme alive to find how much it might offer if it was given a fair go.
What have Popper and his colleagues achieved to resolve the Duhem-Quine problem? One of their most helpful contributions has been to unhook the notion of working on theories from the notion of commitment or justified belief in them. The ambiguity of falsification calls for time to work on different aspects of a theoretical system but the demand for choice creates unhelpful pressures to hasten a process of deliberation and experimentation which may need to be prolonged for decades.
Popper's scattered comments on the Duhem-Quine problem are disappointing in confusing Duhem's formulation. At bottom Popper's depiction of the modus tollens and its implications for falsification place him so close to Duhem that one is tempted to speak of the Duhem-Popper problem. Surprisingly, for an arch-falsificationist, Popper pointed up the importance of confirmations. Mayo consolidated this insight, showing how science can usually handle anomalies by drawing on a background of well-tested and thus relatively reliable knowledge - knowledge which is routinely subjected to testing in normal science.
Lakatos did not live to fully develop his ambitious scheme to rescue the most viable elements of the Popper programme with his complex methodology of scientific research programmes. One of his central concerns, following Popper, was to eschew 'instant rationality' and with it the forced choice between rival systems. Instead there should be tolerance of rival systems so that each may have the opportunity to develop fully. This approach inspired some meticulous historical research by his followers but it has not become popular with working scientists who often prefer the rough-hewn simplicities of falsificationism.