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srdiamond comments on Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences) - Less Wrong

110 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 July 2007 10:59PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 05 February 2012 07:27:32AM *  2 points [-]

How can I believe in the principle of falsifiability that is itself unfalsifiable?! I feel as though something has gone wrong in my thinking but I can't tell what.

You have just refuted the contention that all warranted beliefs must be falsifiable in principle. Karl Popper, who introduced the falsifiability criterion and pushed it as far if not further than it can go, never advocated that all beliefs should be falsifiable. Rather, he used falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation between science and non-science, while denying that all beliefs should be scientific. His contention that falsifiability demarcates science does imply, as he recognized, that the criterion of falsifiability is not itself a scientific hypothesis.

Rational beliefs are not necessarily scientific beliefs. Mathematics is rational without being falsifiable. The same is true of philosophical beliefs, such as the belief that scientific beliefs are falsifiable. But rational beliefs that are not scientific must be refutable, and falsifiable beliefs are a proper subset of refutable beliefs. Falsifiable beliefs are refutable in one particular way: they are refutable by observation statements, which I think are equivalent to EY's anticipations. Science is special because it is 1) empirical (unlike mathematics) and 2) has an unusual capacity to grow human knowledge systematically (unlike philosophy). But that does not imply that we can make do with scientific beliefs exclusively, one reason being the one that you mention about criteria for the acceptance of scientific theories.

The broader criterion of refutability doesn't necessarily involve refutation by observation statements. How would you refute the falsifiability criterion? It would be false if science it were the case that scientists secured the advance of science by using some other criteria (such as verification).

It's a mistake to conflate the questions of whether a theory is scientific and whether it's corroborated (by attempted falsifications). Or to conflate whether it's scientific or it's rationally believable. Theories aren't bad because they aren't science. They're bad because they're set up so they resist any form of refutation. Rational thought involves making your thinking vulnerable to potential refutation, rather than protecting it from any refutation.In science, the mode of refutation is observation, direct connection to sensory data. But it won't do (as you've realized by trying to apply falsifiability to itself) to limit one's thinking entirely to that which is falsifiable.

You later ask (in effect) whether the refutability criterion is itself even refutable. Would EY be willing, ever, to give it up? He should be, were someone to show that sheer dogmatism conduces to the growth of knowledge. That I can't conceive of a plausible argument to that end doesn't obviate the refutability of the contention

I think that resolves your confusion, but I don't want to imply that Popper uttered the last word—there are problems with neglecting verification in favor of strict falsificationism.

Comment author: Ab3 09 February 2012 06:30:24PM 0 points [-]

Thank you for your thoughts.

What are the criteria that we use for accepting or refuting rational non-empirical beliefs? You mention that falsifiability would be refuted if some other criteria “secured the advance of science.” You also mention that we should give up the refutability criterion if “sheer dogmatism conduces to the growth of knowledge.” It sounds like our criteria for the refutability of non-empirical beliefs are mostly practical; we accept the epistemic assumptions that make things “work best.” Is there more to it than this?

Comment author: [deleted] 10 February 2012 03:57:13AM *  1 point [-]

To be pedantic and Popperian, I'd have to correct your use of "empirical beliefs." The philosophical positions at issue aren't scientific but they are empirical. "Empirical"--to be the basis for scientific observation statements-- must be expressible in low-level observation sentences that all competent scientists agree on.

The belief in question is that science's crucial distinguishing feature allowing it to advance is the subjection of science's claims to empirical testing, allowing strict falsification. We can't run an experiment or otherwise record observation statements, so we resort to philosophical debate aimed at refutation. Refutation is obtained by plausible argument. For instance, in the discussion about demarcation, an example of a potentially plausible argument goes if we relied on falsification exclusively, we would never have evidence that a claim is true, only that it isn't false. But we rely on scientific theories and consider them close to the truth (or at least as probably so). Therefore, falsifiability can't explain the distinctiveness of science.

This involves highly plausible claims, based on observation, about how we in fact use scientific theories. But although the result of observation, it can't be reduced to something everyone agrees on that is closely tied to direct perception, as with an observation statement.