Falsifying the Eternal Sunshine of Jonah Goldberg's Erudition

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

November 21

Why Popper Is Wrong on Induction

Karl Popper is famous for declaring that theories can never be confirmed, only falsified. It seems to me he is wrong about this, and his error turns on viewing falsification and confirmation as all or nothing affairs.

But they are not. As pointed out by Duhem, Quine, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and others — others sometimes including Popper! – no theory is ever so thoroughly falsified that there is no way to rehabilitate it. The Duhem-Quine thesis notes that, given an experimental result that apparently refutes a theory, one can always change an auxiliary hypothesis instead of the central tenet of the theory, and so rescue the theory. For example, Copernicus did not regard the absence of observed parallax in the stars, a very damning piece of evidence "falsifying" Copernicanism, and the chief reason heliocentrism was rejected by many leading astronomers of the sixteenth century, as refuting his heliocentric theory. Copernicus handled that problem in a distinctly un-Popperian fashion: he generated an entirely ad hoc hypothesis, not called for by any other part of his theory, and declared that the sphere of the stars was ten times farther from the earth than had previously been believed. Not only was the hypothesis ad hoc, it was also unfalsifiable: there were no instruments available at the time to measure a parallax as small as the new distance implied. (The fact that several centuries later such instruments would become available does not help the Popperian, for it implies that it is not until that time that heliocentrism became scientific!) And if a geocentric astronomer had developed a device capable of measuring such a slight change in observed position, Copernicus could (and plausibly would) have simply moved the stellar sphere ten times farther away still.

And so it is for confirmation. It is true that no theory is ever completely confirmed. But each piece of evidence supporting the theory raises the degree to which it is confirmed. Let’s look at a hypothetical example from historiography to see how the Popperian view fails to capture the true state of our knowledge of the world. Imagine that two historians present you with two theories: One of them tells you that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in a deliberate act of defiance of the Roman Senate and constitution. The second says that King Arthur took on a dozen wives in order to cement diplomatic relationships with neighbouring kingdoms.

From a Popperian point of view, we have no cause to consider either theory more or less confirmed than the other. Confirmation is impossible. All we can say is that neither theory has been falsified. But this is clearly absurd: there is abundant, indeed, overwhelming evidence that leads us to believe the first historian’s theory, while no one is even sure if King Arthur was a real person. (And, not knowing if he ever existed, we certainly cannot falsify a theory that says he had a dozen wives as of yet.)

One need not be a naïve or even a strict Bayesian to suspect that Bayesians are on the right track in holding that hypotheses are more or less confirmed, and that positive evidence rightly up our degree of belief in them. Scientists may not really formulate numerical estimates of the prior probability of different hypotheses. It is enough, as noted by Paul Horwich, that we can use an idealized model of how they might do so to dispel certain common errors, such as the failure to recognize that different hypotheses are held with different degrees of belief, that those degrees are not merely a psychological fact but are scientifically founded, and that different pieces of evidence do offer varying degrees of confirmation for a theory. Per Horwich, if Bayesianism can help in that process, it simply does not matter if it offers a complete, or even a very realistic, account of how scientists operate. Furthermore, if other models can also help to clear away the fog, there is no reason not to supplement Bayesianism with such models.

It might — and has — been objected that the above ignores the "situational logic" by which Popper supposedly demolished inductivism. But Popper's logical analysis relies on a mistaken view of the role induction plays in the physical sciences. The regularity of physical events, and therefore the ability to induce causes from effects, is not a conclusion of the physical sciences, but, rather, a premise of them. But logic can never be employed to "refute" premises: it can only refute the conclusions drawn from them. Once inductivism is recognized as postulated, and not concluded, by the physical sciences, the Popperian case against confirmation is utterly dissolved.

November 22

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I recently rented and watched the above-named movie. It is a great film. I once thought very little of Jim Carrey, who plays the lead in the film, but I’ve come to believe he is an excellent actor when a director keeps him sufficiently under control. (See The Truman Show for another example of my contention.)

Susanne Langer was, in my opinion, one of the most under-rated philosophers of the 20th century and probably the greatest philosopher of aesthetics. She held that each major art form had its own, distinct primary effect, although works could also generate secondary effects characteristic of a different form. For instance, the primary effect of literature is to create “virtual memory” — a novel exhibits the same form as do our recollections of past events. Paintings create “virtual spaces,” and pieces of music create “virtual time.” Movies, she said, create "virtual dreams." If anyone wants to understand what she meant by that, I can’t think of a better movie to watch than Eternal Sunshine.

Also highly recommended: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. It just premiered on HBO in the US, so it should be on DVD in a few months. It's often quite painful to watch, but it's worth the discomfort you will feel.

November 24

Another Police Tale

After reading my blog post about the police looking for the Colindale station, my friend Jasmine El-Mulki sent me the following story, which I share with her permission:

“I was reminded of a phonecall I received when I was working for a Swiss insurance company this summer. A policeman from the Federal Traffic Office called me one day, giving me a plate number from Bern, wanting me to check the corresponding car for insurance, a routine request. I couldn’t find any customer of my company with that plate number, so I apologised to the officer. He then asked me if it was possible for me to check among all Swiss insurance companies.

“‘But don’t I need to call the Federal Traffic Office to do that? And isn’t that where you are calling from?’

Yes, he said, he was fairly new on the job and had forgotten that point.

November 25

Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction

I’m reading an excellent new book by Paul Franco with the above title. Since I am commissioned to review it, and I can’t say too much about it here, but I’d like to share a few choice passages:

In describing Oakeshott’s philosophical influences, Franco mentions F.H. Bradley. He says that Bradley “lived a fairly reclusive life in Oxford, never teaching, but occasionally coming out at night to shoot cats in the college precincts.”

Well, I suppose everyone needs a hobby!

A bit later, he quotes Richard Rorty:

“Since the anti-empiricism and the anti-foundationalism on which analytic philosophers now pride themselves was taken for granted by nineteenth-century Anglophone philosophers such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, one might be tempted to say that analytic philosophy was a century-long waste of time.”

Ouch!

November 26

Jonah Goldberg Shows Off His Erudition

I hadn’t looked in at any neocon sites see updates of how “well” the war in Iraq was going in some time, so I stopped by a site I used to write for, National Review Online. There, I found Jonah Goldberg writing:

“The scientific method, which has been part of our culture for more than a century, systematically roots out flaws and seeks new insights.”

Well, yes, four centuries ago — the time of Bacon, Galileo, and Kepler — is certainly more than a century ago! And four centuries is really a rather conservative timeframe for science entering our culture. One could plausibly argue that science dates to Aristotle, Archimedes, Galen, Ptolemy, and so on – making the correct figure over two millennia. Of course, that’s more than a century as well, isn’t it?

November 30

Heard on the News

In an interview with an American officer in Iraq – I quote from memory, but the one word that really caught my ear I’m sure I recall correctly: “We found a cachet of arms, including chemical weapons, in a house used by the resistance in Fallujah.”

It’s nice that the resistance is using such distinctive, high quality weapons!

An interview with a “terrorism expert” – again, from memory: “The likelihood of a nuclear terror attack is more likely than not.”

Well, we now know that it is probable that there is some measure of the probability of such an attack. Now, I wish he’d tell us what that probability is.

What Playing Occupying Power Does to People

Jim Henley details what’s happening to US soldiers in Iraq.

War? What War?

AP story:

“WASHINGTON – Fueled by fierce fighting in Fallujah and insurgents’ counterattacks elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military death toll for November is approaching the highest for any month of the war.”

There’s a war in Iraq? A war? Didn’t the US win that war like a year-and-a-half ago? Then how could it still be going on?

Explanations sought.

December 2

Those Dirty Non-Lawbreakers!

Some English doctor was on the news this morning, complaining that the government has not been helping her enough with her duty to harass smokers. She said that it has been “too lenient” on them.

Smoking is legal in the UK. What does it mean when someone says the State is being “too lenient” on people who are not breaking the law? I believe she thinks that everything a person does is subject to government meddling, whatever the law happens to be.

December 7

St. James Park and Buckingham Palace

A flower and shrub border in St. James Park.

The birdman of London.

A view across the water in the park.

Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Memorial, from the entrance to the park.

December 9

What I Saw Inside the UFO

A Coordination Failure

I was at an academic conference sitting with a friend, who commented to me that “I’m tired of hearing Professor X" — who had addressed the conference earlier that day — "talk on conservatism. Can’t they come up with a new topic?”

A couple of months ago, about a year after that conference, I happened to sit next to Professor X during a dinner. While we were eating, he remarked to me, “I just recently went to country Y, where they had asked me to present a talk on conservatism. I wish they would ask me to talk on something else, as I’m so tired of talking about conservatism.

December 11, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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