Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Imre Lakatos and Naive Falsificationism

Having read and concurred with Karl Popper's arguments in his Logic of Scientific Discovery, and having since encountered many a statement on the web to the effect that Popper's claims had been invalidated by either Thomas Kuhn or the Duhem-Quine Thesis, I'd long been interested in finding a concise overview of Imre Lakatos' response to the criticisms of falsificationism as proposed by Popper. It was therefore with some pleasure that I came across this particular overview of Lakatos' refinement of Popper's ideas that happens to fit the bill so perfectly. Of course, this is still no substitute for reading Lakatos' own works in the original, but for the casually interested, I think the link above ought to do, at least for a start.

Why is all of this important, you might ask? Certainly, at first glance the whole business seems of no interest to all but those who are interested in rarefied issues of epistemology, but in truth there is a great deal more at stake in the debate over Popper's arguments than is apparent to the casual observer. Popper's main intention in the Logic of Scientific Discovery was to lay out clear demarcating lines between science and pseudoscience, and in laying out that boundary, Popper happened to place two very fashionable schools of thought on what many felt to be the "wrong" side of the border - namely Freudianism and, most importantly, Marxism.

It was Popper's casting of Marxism out from under the veil of scientific respectability with which it had cloaked itself since the 19th century, to take its' place alongside other disreputable subjects like astrology and phrenology, that was the real motivating power behind many of the attacks launched on his work by other intellectuals, the idea being, if not to restore Marxism to its' former pretentions to scientific status, to at least blur the dividing line between science and non-science to the maximum possible extent, by discrediting Popper's programme as hopelessly idealized and/or confused. To say this much does not, however, suffice to refute the criticisms of Popper's claims, for an argument can be logically impeccable even when advanced by those whose motives one distrusts or disdains; no, criticisms must be evaluated on their own merits, rather than on the personal qualities of those who advance them, which is why I think it important to give the closest possible reading not just to Popper's actual arguments, but also to those of critics like Kuhn and Quine, as well as to refinements of Popper's original proposals like that put forward by Lakatos.