allzermalmer

Truth suffers from too much analysis

Hume and The Impossibility of Falsification

Posted by allzermalmer on May 5, 2013

Hume’s logical problem of induction as Hume presents it and Popper presents it, deals with contingent statements. The affirmation or the negation of the same contingent statement is possible. Take the contingent statement that “All Swans are White”: It is both possible that “All Swans are White” and it is also possible that  not “All Swans are White”. Logic alone cannot decide if “All Swans are White” is either true or false. So it would be decided by some other way as to wither its affirmation or negation to be true. Hume, and Popper, say that experience cannot show the truth of the contingent statement “All Swans are White”.

“Hume’s argument does not establish that we may not draw any inference from observation to theory: it merely establishes that we may not draw verifying inferences from observations to theories, leaving open the possibility that we may draw falsifying inferences: an inference from the truth of an observation statement (‘This is a black swan’) to the falsity of a theory (‘All swans are white’) can be deductively perfectly valid.” Realism and The Aim of Science

(H) Hypothesis: All Swans are White
(E) Evidence: This is a Black Swan

Hume, as Popper takes him in his problem of induction, showed that we cannot show that (H) is true, no matter how many individual swans that are white we have observed. To show that (H) is true, we must verify every case of (H). (H) is a Universal statement, its scope is that of all times and all places. The universal statement is both omnipresent and omnitemporal in its scope. It makes no restriction on temporal location and spatial location. (E) makes a Singular statement, its scope is of a particular time and a particular place. It makes a restriction on temporal location and spatial location. Popper held that we can know (E) is true, ‘This is a Black Swan’. Thus, we cannot know (H) All Swans are White but we can know (E) This is a Black Swan.

Hume’s logical problem of induction, as Popper takes it, goes something like this:

(i) Science proposes and uses laws everywhere and all the time; (ii) Only observation and experiment may decide upon the truth or falsity of scientific statements; (iii) It is impossible to justify the truth of a law by observation or experiment.

Or

(i*) Science proposes and uses the universal statement “all swans are white”; (ii*) Only singular observational statements may decide upon the truth or falsity of ‘all swans are white’; (iii*) It is impossible to justify the truth of the universal statement ‘all swans are white’ by singular observational statements.

It is taken as a fact that (i) or (i*) is true. So there is no question about either (i) or (i*). So the conflict of Hume’s logical contradiction arises between (ii) and (iii) or (ii*) and (iii*). Popper accepts (iii) or (iii*). So the only way out of Hume’s logical problem of induction is to modify or reject (ii) or (ii*) to solve the contradiction.

Popper thus solves Hume’s logical problem of induction by rejecting (ii) or (ii*) and replacing it with a new premise. This new premise is (~ii).

(~ii) Only observation and experiment may decide upon the falsity of scientific statements
Or
(~ii*) Only singular observation statements may decide upon the falsity of ‘all swans are white’.

Popper rejects (ii) or (ii*), which basically said that only singular observation statements can show that either universal statements are true or false. Popper rejects this because of (iii), and says that Singular observation statements can only show that universal statements are false. Popper believes, as the quote at the beginning of the blog says, that Hume’s logical problem of induction doesn’t show that we can’t show that a universal statement is false by a singular observational statements. But is this what Hume showed to be true?

It does not appear that Hume’s logical problem of induction even allows Popper to escape with the modification of (ii) to (~ii). It appears that Hume’s logical problem of induction does not allow Popper to escape from “fully decidable” to “partially decidable”, i.e.  decide both truth or falsity to cannot decide truth but only falsity.

Take the singular observational statement that Popper gives in the quote, i.e. ‘This is a black swan’. It is a singular statement, but the statement contains a universal within it, it contains “swan”. “Swan” are defined by their law-like behavior, which are their dispositional characteristics, and is a universal concept. These dispositions are law-like, and thus universal in scope as well. And by (iii) we cannot determine if something is a “swan” because of that. The concept “swan” is in the same position as “all swans are white”. They are both universal, and because of (iii) cannot be shown to be true.

“Alcohol” has the law-like behavior, or disposition, or being flammable. So if we were to say that ‘This is alcohol’. We would have to check all the alcohol that existed in the past, present, future, and all places in the universe in which it was located. We would have to light them to see if they catch fire, and thus flammable. Only than could we say that “This is alcohol”, and know that it is alcohol. But to do so would be to verify a universal through singulars, which is impossible by (iii).

In fact, Hume even talks about dispositions and law-like behavior in his talks about the problem of induction. For example, Hume says that “we always presume, when we see like sensible qualities, that they have like secret powers, and expect that effects, similar to those which we have experienced, will follow from them.” Hume is specifically attacking dispositions as well, which means he is attacking universal concepts and universal statements.

“Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of bread; but neither sense nor reason can ever inform us of those qualities which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human body…The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?” Enquiry’s Concerning Human Knowledge

From Popper’s point of view, science can only show the falsity of a universal statement through the truth of a singular statement. The singular statement would have to contradict the universal statement and the singular statement would have to be true.

(h) If it rained then wet ground.
(e) Not a wet ground
(c)Thus, it didn’t rain.

If we assume that both (h) and (e) are true, then we accept a contradiction. Contradictions can’t possibly be true. So we know that at least one of these two must be false. But which one is false and which one is true, (h) or (e).

But how can we show the truth of a singular observational statement when it relies on a universal concept, and universal concepts fall for (iii) just as much as universal statements? Hume’s position of the logical invalidity of of induction, i.e. (iii), also holds not only with universal statements but also universal concepts, i.e. law-like behavior/ dispositional characteristics. How does Popper respond to this?

Popper accepts the invalidity of reaching universal statements through experience, but takes it that we accept singular observational statements based on conventions. We conventionally accept the singular observation statement as true.

Hume’s logical problem of induction shows this:

(H) All Swans are White
(E) This swan is black

Now we may either accept (H) as a convention or accept (E) as a convention, or both as conventions. Popper rejects accept (H) as a convention, because you cannot show that a convention is false. Showing something false is what (~ii) was used to solve the original problem of induction. He wants to show that (H) is false, which is consistent with (~ii), but the only way to do that is if (E) can be shown true. But (E) contains a universal concept and (iii) prevents us from experiencing dispositions or law-like behaviors, i.e. Swan or Alcohol. (iii) applies just as much to universal statements as it does to universal concepts. (E) is based on universal concepts and so has to be accepted as a convention, to escape (iii), in order to show that (H) is false and be consistent with (i) and (~ii). (H) has to have the ability to be shown false to be falsifiable, and not being a convention means it has the ability to be shown false.

Contrary to what Popper thinks, Hume’s logical problem of induction doesn’t even allow you to show a falsifying instance. Thus, following full implications of Hume’s logical problem of induction, we can neither show the truth of a universal statement or show the falsify of a universal statement.

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