Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,
…we cannot prove theories and we cannot disprove them either. The demarcation between the soft, unproven 'theories' and the hard, proven 'empirical basis' is non-existent: all propositions of science are theoretical and, incurably, fallible.
…even if there were a natural demarcation between observation statements and theories, and even if the truth-value of observation statements could be indubitably established, dogmatic falsificationism would still be useless for eliminating the most important class of what are commonly regarded as scientific theories. For even if experiments could prove experimental reports, their disproving power would still be miserably restricted: exactly the most admired scientific theories simply fail to forbid any observable state of affairs.
To support this last contention, I shall first tell a characteristic story and then propose a general argument.
The story is about an imaginary case of planetary misbehaviour. A physicist of the pre-Einsteinian era takes Newton's mechanics and his law of gravitation, (N), the accepted initial conditions, I, and calculates, with their help, the path of a newly discovered small planet, p. But the planet deviates from the calculated path. Does our Newtonian physicist consider that the deviation was forbidden by Newton's theory and therefore that, once established, it refutes the theory N? No. He suggests that there must be a hitherto unknown planet p' which perturbs the path of p. He calculates the mass, orbit, etc., of this hypothetical planet and then asks an experimental astronomer to test his hypothesis. The planet p' is so small that even the biggest available telescopes cannot possibly observe it: the experimental astronomer applies for a research grant to build yet a bigger one. In three years' time the new telescope is ready. Were the unknown planet p' to be discovered, it would be hailed as a new victory of Newtonian science. But it is not. Does our scientist abandon Newton's theory and his idea of the perturbing planet? No. He suggests that a cloud of cosmic dust hides the planet from us. He calculates the location and properties of this cloud and asks for a research grant to send up a satellite to test his calculations. Were the satellite's instruments (possibly new ones, based on a little-tested theory) to record the existence of the conjectural cloud, the result would be hailed as an outstanding victory for Newtonian science. But the cloud is not found. Does our scientist abandon Newton's theory, together with the idea of the perturbing planet and the idea of the cloud which hides it? No. He suggests that there is some magnetic field in that region of the universe which disturbed the instruments of the satellite. A new satellite is sent up. Were the magnetic field to be found, Newtonians would celebrate a sensational victory. But it is not. Is this regarded as a refutation of Newtonian science? No. Either yet another ingenious auxiliary hypothesis is proposed or…the whole story is buried in the dusty volumes of periodicals and the story never mentioned again.
This story strongly suggests that even a most respected scientific theory, like Newton's dynamics and theory of gravitation, may fail to forbid any observable state of affairs. Indeed, some scientific theories forbid an event occurring in some specified finite spatio-temporal region (or briefly, a 'singular event ') only on the condition that no other factor (possibly hidden in some distant and unspecified spatio-temporal corner of the universe) has any influence on it. But then such theories never alone contradict a 'basic' statement: they contradict at most a conjunction of a basic statement describing a spatio-temporally singular event and of a universal non-existence statement saying that no other relevant cause is at work anywhere in the universe. And the dogmatic falsificationist cannot possibly claim that such universal non-existence statements belong to the empirical basis: that they can be observed and proved by experience.
Another way of putting this is to say that some scientific theories are normally interpreted as containing a ceteris paribus clause: in such cases it is always a specific theory together with this clause which may be refuted. But such a refutation is inconsequential for the specific theory under test because by replacing the ceteris paribus clause by a different one the specific theory can always be retained whatever the tests say.
If so, the 'inexorable' disproof procedure of dogmatic falsificationism breaks down in these cases even if there were a firmly established empirical basis to serve as a launching pad for the arrow of the modus tollens: the prime target remains hopelessly elusive. And as it happens, it is exactly the most important, 'mature' theories in the history of science which are prima facie undisprovable in this way. Moreover, by the standards of dogmatic falsificationism all probabilistic theories also come under this head: for no finite sample can ever disprove a universal probabilistic theory; probabilistic theories, like theories with a ceteris paribus clause, have no empirical basis. But then the dogmatic falsificationist relegates the most important scientific theories on his own admission to metaphysics where rational discussion – consisting, by his standards, of proofs and disproofs – has no place, since a metaphysical theory is neither provable nor disprovable.
Lakatos, I., Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, J. Worrall & G.Currie Eds., Philosophical Papers Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, pp. vi+250, 1978
last updated 9th February, 2018