Popper on paradigms in 1932

While Popper was writing the original German version of The Logic of Scientific Discovery during the early 1930s one of the issues on his mind was the rearguard action of Newtonians to resist the scandalous novelty of Einstein’s new theory. He used the term “conventionalism” to describe the attempt to retain an established theory against interloping novelties. This indicates that he was addressing the matter of paradigms (and the difficulty to challenge them) long before Kuhn entered the fray.

He saw that theories can be “immunized” against criticism in several ways – by means of ad hoc hypotheses, by shifting definitions, ignoring inconvenient observations and even by challenging the competence of rival investigators. Kuhn added the string of incommensurability to the conventionalist’s bow and another one is the charge of ideological or political bias.

These conventionalist strategies raised the issue of the social nature of science and the norms, traditions and conventions of the scientific community which he touched without elaboration in chapter 23 of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism.

“Thus I was led to the idea of methodological rules and…of an approach which avoided the policy of immunizing our theories against refutation.”

The next step in the evolution of his ideas in 1932/33 came as he applied the critical approach to the test statements of the empirical basis and he recognised the conjectural and theoretical nature of observation statements. That in turn led to the recognition that all languages are theory-impregnated (the theory-dependence of observations) thus calling for a fundamental change in our perception of empiricism which hitherto had sought the solid foundations of knowledge in the data of observations or inputs from sensory organs.

“It also made me look upon the critical attitude as characteristic of the rational attitude; and it led me to see the significance of the argumentative (or critical) function of language; to the idea of deductive logic as the means of criticism…And it further led me to realize that only a formulated theory (rather than a believed theory) can be objective, and to the idea that it is this formulation or objectivity that makes criticism possible; and so to my theory of a ‘third world’.”

That evolution of thinking is sketched in the final section of chapter 2 in Objective Knnowledge (1970) moving from demarcation and induction to the rules of the game, to theories of language and the ideas of objective knowledge and the evolutionary link between language and critical thinking. As Jarvie demonstrated in The Republic of Science, all those themes were present in Popper’s first published work and it took a lifetime to draw out some of their implications.

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15 Responses to Popper on paradigms in 1932

  1. BrettW

    I won’t even pretend I have any idea what this is about.

  2. Combine Dave

    The bottom line is if you can’t refute or disprove an assertion it’s not scientific.

  3. Louis Hissink

    Paradigms are not scientific structures but authoritarian structures defining the extent and limits of permitted thoughts or ideas. They are consensus structures where all participants agree on certain ideas.

    The modern example is gravitational theory that is deemed fundamental. So astronomical spiral galaxies do not behave according to Newton’s law of gravitation. As Newton’s law is paramount theory is adjusted on an ad hoc basis to make the data fit the gravitational paradigm. In other words Newton’s Law cannot be challenged. It is essentially religion where all action is determined by the limits imposed by religious, or here, scientific authority.

    But as we all know, or at least some of us, all scientific theories are incomplete and false and as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “when the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do Sir?”

    Keynes was quite prepared to change his theories, or paradigms, in light of new data. Keynes was being scientific.

    But religions cannot change their authorities as set out in their codes and holy books. Which is why Kuhnian paradigm shifts occur – one religion is replaced by another by the passing of the old guard defending their religion/science.

    And it ultimately settles on how and why humans think in the first place. Religion and science are artefacts of the human brain, and the process of thinking can be as habituating as any other physical activity. Religion is the intellectual character of habituated thinking patterns. Which makes science the other way of thinking in which a scientist believes what he sees (a scientific theory) while the priest only sees what he/she believes, since the priestly mind is by definition only allowed to think in terms of holy authority.

    It’s when religious minds involve themselves in science that much mischief occurs.

  4. Leo G

    I won’t even pretend I have any idea what this is about.

    Popper is still popular to those not keen about Kuhn?

  5. Wozzup

    “He saw that theories can be “immunized” against criticism in several ways – by means of ad hoc hypotheses, by shifting definitions, ignoring inconvenient observations and even by challenging the competence of rival investigators.”

    Where have we seen this recently? Oh yes, climate change theory. A movable feast of a theory if ever there was one. Global warming yesterday, climate change today, who knows what tomorrow? And as for ignoring inconvenient observations – well, don’t get me started.

    You see I am from the old school which was taught that the essence of a scientific theory is that it must be supported by all the evidence and contradicted by none of it. And that if this was not so, you abandoned the theory in favor of the evidence. Whereas “climate change” abandons the evidence in favor of the theory. This is not science by definition – it is hocus pokus.

  6. Leo G

    Whereas “climate change” abandons the evidence in favor of the theory

    “Climate Change” is like a flag of convenience used by pirates.

  7. Dr Faustus

    He saw that theories can be “immunized” against criticism in several ways – by means of ad hoc hypotheses, by shifting definitions, ignoring inconvenient observations and even by challenging the competence of rival investigators. Kuhn added the string of incommensurability to the conventionalist’s bow and another one is the charge of ideological or political bias.

    And this observation isn’t just a Popper paradigm.

    The history of science is filled with these ‘immunisations’ and demonstrates that paradigms defended by the authority of political belief always retard (and often reverse) the development of knowledge. Heliocentrism and the entirely unnecessary relationship between Church and astronomy is a particular example.

  8. But religions cannot change their authorities as set out in their codes and holy books.

    This is obviously false given that the first Christians, for example, were once Jews or pagans.

  9. But religions cannot change their authorities as set out in their codes and holy books.

    This is obviously false given that the first Christians, for example, were once J_ws or pagans.

  10. The history of science is filled with these ‘immunisations’ and demonstrates that paradigms defended by the authority of political belief always retard (and often reverse) the development of knowledge. Heliocentrism and the entirely unnecessary relationship between Church and astronomy is a particular example.

    I doubt you’ll find that the Galileo affair retarded the development of astronomical knowledge to any significant extent.

  11. Dr Faustus

    I doubt you’ll find that the Galileo affair retarded the development of astronomical knowledge to any significant extent.

    The heliocentric problem began with Nicholas Copernicus about 100 years before Galileo’s run in with the Inquisition. I’m certainly not saying the Churches actively supressed Copernican theory for the whole period, but for a observant person of the time, it was religiously and hence socially risky to accept (and importantly, teach) a theory that apparently contradicted scripture.

    In the Catholic Church at least, this situation lasted formally until the mid-18th century – so, all up, about 250 years of various degrees of active and passive ‘friction’.

  12. The heliocentric problem began with Nicholas Copernicus about 100 years before Galileo’s run in with the Inquisition. I’m certainly not saying the Churches actively supressed Copernican theory for the whole period, but for a observant person of the time, it was religiously and hence socially risky to accept (and importantly, teach) a theory that apparently contradicted scripture.

    In the Catholic Church at least, this situation lasted formally until the mid-18th century – so, all up, about 250 years of various degrees of active and passive ‘friction’.

    But from what I’ve read of the controversy, including that following the publication of the Copernican theory, it is that certain aspects of the theory were criticized for philosophical, scientific, and theological reasons. To my mind, criticism doesn’t hold up theories, and some of those criticisms were in fact right or at least justified at the time. Here is list of posts, some of which are apposite.

  13. Dr Faustus

    DB: Thanks for the link to Quodibeta, that is an interesting resource.

    Firstly, I certainly don’t view Copernicus, or his critics as “‘sky fairy’ worshipping simpletons“. I’m well aware of the significant limitations in the knowledge of basic physics at the time and I understand Church opposition to Copernican theory as political more than a matter of faith.

    The author of the Quotibeta piece (Humphrey Clarke) nicely illustrates the topic of this thread:

    In all likelihood, had you been alive at the time of Copernicus, you would also have rejected the Heliocentric model as an interesting but silly mathematical fiction, for the simple reason that this was the opinion of the overwhelming majority of astronomers at the time.

    Copernicus didn’t have the physics to fully argue his thesis (and neither did his scientific critics) – he also inconveniently died shortly after his work was published. But, even in the raw, his theory had the overwhelming advantage over the ‘majority view’ of far greater simplicity, less metaphysics, and a major improvement in describing planetary movements.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Clarke realises the significance of this when he neatly dismisses Copernicus with: “The sole advantages of the model were in the elusive realms of beauty, theoretical elegance and intelligibility.”

    I agree completely with your observation that “criticism doesn’t hold up theories”. My point is that suppression of criticism holds up theories – and my argument in my original comment is that clerical authoritarianism suppressed the discussion and criticism of Heliocentrism in support of the demonstrably incorrect ‘mainstream’ geocentric theory.

    As an employee of the Church Copernicus struggled with self-censorship for about 30 years from his early manuscript until he published in 1543. Following his death, his work and subsequent important publications supporting Heliocentrism were then proscribed by the Catholic Church until 1758.

    I’m open to it, but I can’t see any real argument that this proscription did not suppress, or retard general criticism and the consequent improvement of astronomy and mathematics. It was an intended outcome of a powerful organisation.

  14. I agree completely with your observation that “criticism doesn’t hold up theories”. My point is that suppression of criticism holds up theories – and my argument in my original comment is that clerical authoritarianism suppressed the discussion and criticism of Heliocentrism in support of the demonstrably incorrect ‘mainstream’ geocentric theory.

    As an employee of the Church Copernicus struggled with self-censorship for about 30 years from his early manuscript until he published in 1543. Following his death, his work and subsequent important publications supporting Heliocentrism were then proscribed by the Catholic Church until 1758.

    Humphrey again:

    As the historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers wrote, in a jointly authored article:

    White’s picture of unremitting religious hostility to heliocentrism is no longer defensible-if, indeed, it ever was. If Copernicus had any genuine fear of publication, it was the reaction of scientists, not clerics, that worried him. Other churchmen before him- Nicole Oresme (a bishop) in the fourteenth century and Nicholas of Cusa (a cardinal) in the fifteenth-had freely discussed the possible motion of the earth, and there was no reason to suppose that the reappearance of this idea in the sixteenth century would cause a religious stir. Indeed, various churchmen, including a bishop and a cardinal, urged Copernicus to publish his book, which appeared with a dedication to Pope Paul III. Had Copernicus lived beyond its publication in 1543, it is highly improbable that he would have felt any hostility or suffered any persecution. The church simply had more important things to worry about than a new astronomical or cosmological system. Although a few critics noticed and opposed the Copernican system, organized Catholic opposition did not appear until the seventeenth century.

    In time Copernicanism would be considered controversial and heretical for reasons we will look at in a future instalment, but within the lifetime of the great astronomer the atmosphere was greatly different. At the time of his death in 1543 the Catholic Church was in the early stages of the Reformation and had not yet adopted the fortress mentality it would later fall into. Not until 1616 and the actions of Galileo was Copernicus’s book to be suspended until corrected and only after the Galileo affair ended in 1633 would Copernicianism be actually declared heretical.

    Dr Faustus again:

    Following his death, his work and subsequent important publications supporting Heliocentrism were then proscribed by the Catholic Church until 1758.

    This is not correct. All that was required were nine corrections:

    On 5 March, 1616, the work of Copernicus was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index “until corrected”, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed. This done, the reading of the book was allowed.

  15. Dr Faustus

    If Copernicus had any genuine fear of publication, it was the reaction of scientists, not clerics, that worried him.

    Historian Edward Rosen (Copernicus and his Successors) differs. Specifically addressing the dangers of the religious climate in early 16th century academia, Rosen wrote:

    [Copernicus] steered a middle course. Avoiding complete silence on one side, and unrestricted publication on the other side, he distributed handwritten (anonymous) copies of his treatise to a few trusted professional friends.

    _______________________________________

    Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed. This done, the reading of the book was allowed.

    Nevertheless, Galileo’s Two World Systems and Copernicus’ and Kepler’s work remained on the List of Prohibited Books until 1758 (and actually later than that).

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