College Philosophy, Scientific Methods and Progress, and Logical Deduction

Impracticability of Traditional Scientific Methods

Karl Popper realized that the practice of collecting all data without preconceptions as proposed by the traditional scientific method was impossible. Popper instead suggested the following alternative. First, a scientist must find a problem. A scientist has as a guide to problem-seeking his values, beliefs, and prior knowledge. Once a problem is identified, the scientist must literally create his hypothesis any way he can. Often the best hypotheses are created by non-rational ways like insight, inspiration, and intuition. However, this is as far as non-rational thinking can take the scientist. He must now subject his hypothesis to scientific tests and collect empirical evidence in an attempt to prove his theory. If a certain hypothesis were very complex and difficult to test, Popper would determine his experiment using the process of rational deduction, slowly and carefully working from one indubitable statement to its logical conclusions and repeating the process until enough information was gathered.

Logic Impeding Progress

According to philosopher David Hume, when presented with evidence that defies the known laws of the universe (e.g. a miracle), one should dismiss it as false. His reason for this is simple: our thousands of years of past experience overshadow the relatively tiny amount of evidence for the miracle. Therefore we should believe our past experiences and throw out the evidence for the miracle. There is a key flaw in his argument. In practice, the theory inhibits scientific progress. A revolutionary and innovative scientific theory might very well sound like a miracle when first published. Under Hume’s theory, an earth-shattering scientific breakthrough would be dismissed as false because it conflicted with our past experience.

Pragmatism and Science

The pragmatic theory of truth states that a statement is true if it works, if it has good consequences, or if it makes life easier for a person. For example, God exists for you if it benefits you to believe in him. The obvious flaw in this theory is that a statement can be true for one person and false for another. A scientist, dedicated to the search for scientific progress and new knowledge, cannot logically believe in the pragmatic theory of truth. Let’s say a scientist has formulated a hypothesis that proved that homosexuality was caused purely by genetics. If this theory were true, it would drastically change the way gays and lesbians are thought of in the United States. With the knowledge that homosexuality is a “born” trait, the hatred and prejudice that many people harbor towards gays would begin to subside. Realizing the good consequences of his theory, our pragmatic scientist accepts it as absolute truth. His experiments repeatedly disprove his theory, but the scientist overlooks this and publishes a report confirming the relationship between genetics and homosexuality. In doing this, the scientist has contradicted his goal of scientific progress by labeling as truth a theory that has been repeatedly disproved.

Idealism and Reality

The idealistic theory of perception states that when you experience an object, you are not experiencing an actual thing but a mental representation of that thing. Moreover, the objects that the mental images represent do not actually exist. Objects are merely names we give to bundled sense perceptions. The whole world to an individual is just a mental slideshow of countless numbers of mental representations. Finally, the idealistic theory states that objects can’t exist unperceived, since they are nothing more than sense perceptions, which can’t exist without someone to experience them.

There are at least two criticisms of the idealistic theory of perception. First, it leads to solipsism, the idea that nothing in the world exists but oneself. If one’s life consists of nothing more than a film about a world that doesn’t exist, what reason does one have to believe that the people I encounter in this film exist? Second, the theory cannot account for objects that do things while no one perceives them, like fires and ice cubes. One could light a fire, leave and prevent anyone from looking at the fire, and come back to find ashes where the logs once were. Similarly, an ice cube will melt whether it is perceived or not. This seems to disprove the idealistic theory of perception.

Rational Deduction in the Absence of Facts

Rene Descartes proposed that the one surefire way of getting absolute knowledge was through the process of rational deduction. This process requires starting with one universally accepted statement that no one can doubt (Descartes suggested Cogito ergo sum) and, using rational deduction, drawing logical conclusions that follow from that statement. If you know that spiders have eight legs and that a tarantula is a spider and conclude that tarantulas have eight legs, you are using deductive reasoning. The main flaw in rational deduction is the fact that one can’t derive knowledge of the existence of anything without facts. However, rational deduction does have some important uses, namely in mathematics. All mathematical knowledge is derived using rational deduction. If x + 3 = 5, we know through deductive reasoning that x = 2.

The Problem of Induction

The problem of induction can be summed up in a sentence: it does not logically follow from a finite amount of observations that each and every subsequent event of the same kind will happen in the same way as in the past. Hume calls this huge inductive leap from data to generalization the Uniformity of Nature. However, the Uniformity of Nature principle cannot be proved without using past experience, and to leap from past experience to the existence of the Uniformity of Nature requires the Uniformity of Nature principle itself, thus creating a circular argument.

One solution to the problem is the pragmatic solution. It states that we as human beings rely on inductive reasoning to live our lives, and even if it is invalid it seems to be working for us and, as yet, no philosopher has come up with a viable alternative. Also, it must be said that Hume’s argument is immune to any disproof. He has defined the word evidence to exclude any events that occur in the past. As soon as an observation is made it recedes into the past and is ineligible to become evidence.

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