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Philosophy of science—falsification

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Imagine you have some hypothesis. We’ll call it H.

Now imagine you have come up with some experiment to prove that H is false. So if you get a positive result for the experiment, (P) then we know that H is false. In logical notation, we would write this as the following:

P→¬H

It may help to have an example. Imagine that your hypothesis is that air has a refractive index of 1. So what you do is you build a machine that shoots a laser through a sample of air and then measures the laser beam as it comes out the other side to see if it was refracted at all. If there is refraction, we would say that you got a positive result, P, and so your hypothesis H is false.

Now imagine you do the experiment. You gather air samples from all over the world, and for all but one of them, you get a negative result. In one case, you get a major and significant departure from an index of refraction of 1.

Here’s the problem: Can you actually conclude that your hypothesis is incorrect?

It might be the case that by the time you got to the last measurement, the equipment was having problems, or maybe the sample case wasn’t clean, or you gathered a sample that had a lot of pollution.

There are a whole bunch of secondary assumptions that you make when you do an experiment. You assume that the equipment is clean and functioning properly; you assume that the sample is pure; etc. If any of these is not true, it might still be the case that the hypothesis is true, even though you got a result of P.

So if {T1, T2, T3, …} are the set of all the background assumptions that go into the experiment described above, the logical notation for the refutation of H would be something more like the following:

P→¬(H^T1^T2^T3^…)

It becomes really hard to devise a way to logically separate the H from all the T’s when you think about it.

This is a problem not only for philosophers of science, but also for other sorts of intellectual pursuits. Consider doomsday prophets like Harold Camping.

Imagine that the hypothesis you’re trying to test is that numerology is a good way to discover knowledge about the future. An experiment to test this would be to find a prediction made through numerology, and if the prediction isn’t accurate, then you can be satisfied that numerology is false. Easy right?

The problem here is the same as in philosophy of science. You’d think that Camping himself would have learned by now that numerology isn’t going to produce any true knowledge of the future. When there was not a literal physical earthquake, Camping changed his story, but only very slightly. He claimed that the hypothesis was true (beginning of the end of the world on May 21) but that one of the supporting secondary assumptions was false (it was a spiritual judgement, not a physical one).

Camping has been interviewed, and he almost apologises on television. Now he says that the apocalypse is happening for sure on October 21.

There should be a fine for doing things like this, and I don’t think such a measure would do violence to a person’s right to free speech, or to the liberty of people to spend their finances in the way they want: In the same way that there are legal repercussions for yelling “fire” in a crowded building if there is no fire, maybe there should be legal repercussions for yelling “apocalypse” on a crowded planet if there is no rapture.

You can yell “fire” if you want and even pull the alarm, but if there is no fire, you should be ready to pay a hefty fine, and you should be ashamed of yourself. The firefighters could have been saving other people while they came to save you. People have been crushed in the panic caused by false fire alarms. Similarly, the money spent by this doomsday cult could have been used to actually save people’s lives, if given to charity or science, and many people’s lives were destroyed by Camping’s false prediction.

On the upside, no one euthanised their children or killed themselves in this doomsday craze (that I know of), but I bet that a bunch of dogs and cats were put down. (I realise this will hold little moral weight among Christians, who do not see animals as moral patients.) Further, millions of dollars were wasted, and perhaps most sadly, there were millions of people who honestly thought they were going to heaven, who even made plans for it, and who were disappointed. Harold Camping’s actions were, and continue to be irresponsible to the point of cruelty.

Edit (11.05.27): http://www.livescience.com/14295-failed-doomsday-rapture-suicides.html


2 Responses to “Philosophy of science—falsification”

  1. Morty says:

    At first I thought taking away charitable organization status would do the trick. But I guess people don’t care about tax returns if they really think the world is going to end. On the other hand, maybe that is a good litmus test. “If you guys really think the world is ending I guess you won’t be needing your charitable status, KTHXBAI.”

    “I realise this will hold little moral weight among Christians, who do not see animals as moral patients.” Perhaps this is true of most Christians, but is that true of correct Christian theology?

  2. Murph E. says:

    I think there should be a fine for anyone who predicts the end of the world. The fine would be due 30 days after the date that the world is supposed to end. The fine would be proportionate to the influence of the person who makes the prediction.

    This fine would apply both to doomsday prophets like Camping and also to NASA scientists with meteor impact predictions.

    As for non-human animals and moral patiency, it all depends on whose account of “correct Christian theology” you go by. I think (among Christians at least) the position that non-human animals are outside the moral community is largely a hangover from Cartesian substance dualism, which isn’t a particularly Christian position anyway.

    As far as I can tell, the standard argument among conservative Christians goes as follows: “non-human animals have no souls, therefore you can treat them as cruelly as you like and it isn’t even slightly wrong.” That is, the thing that gives us humans moral status is that we share a second (spiritual) nature with God. Non-human animals, on this account, are just “very sophisticated automata.”

    My problem with such a position is that if your cat doesn’t have a soul, then there’s no hope for recompense in the next world, so it would make it even worse to treat it badly now, not better.

    The whole argument rests on a metaphysical supposition that a non-human animal has no subjectivity. That is, there is no “what it is like” to be a cat. These fine-grained metaphysical questions are outside of the scope of what the Bible was written to tell us. It would be somewhat anachronistic to take a very modern metaphysical agenda and read it back onto a text that was not written with that issue in mind.

    That said, it might be worth looking to see if there are any examples in Scripture of animals having subjectivity (Numbers 22:28) or being the proper object of moral concern (Jonah 4:11). If such examples could be found, you could make a plausible argument from the Bible that non-human animals deserve rights, quite apart from any discussion regarding whether or not dogs go to heaven.

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