Back when he was young, Karl Popper said the difference between scientific theories and unscientific ones was that the first were falsifiable. That it was possible to prove them wrong. In other words, that a scientific theory should be a body of ideas with clear and specific implications, so that if we came to experience anything contrary to those implications we consider this theory false.
And then someone correctly pointed out to him that this implies that there is no truth, and he panicked, and to avoid this obvious argument he came up with the theory of spiral truth.
The thing is, implications we actually experience do not prove the theory true, no matter how many times they happen. They just do not disprove it. One single counterexample is enough to disprove, so that a theory that has withstood lots of disproving attempts is very sound. This is akin to the imbalance between induction and deduction: the correctness of deduction depends only on it’s logic, but the correctness of induction depends on the validity of the samples collected.
What you will rapidly see, if you follow the argument honestly, is that scientists do not find truth, ever. They just recognize when they find untruth.
Which i find a comfortable system, but not Popper. No! He couldn’t stand for his own ideas. He couldn’t bear the consequences of his system. He couldn’t face it. He wasn’t willing to put his money where his mouth was.
Incidentally, this is the dilemma between Niels Bohr’s instrumentalism and Albert Einstein’s realism. Popper wanted to be a supporter of realism, even if his criteria of falsifiability was the apex of all the instrumentalist philosophy that the world had known till then. He wanted. So he had a fit and wrote books and books about such nonsense as spiral truth and everything being problem solving and so on and so forth.
Basically, he states that, well, OK, we never actually find truth, but that truth nevertheless exists, and that we are always coming closer to it, just like a true spiral is always coming closer and closer to a centre, but never actually touches it.
Now i ask you to suspend disbelief for a minute and disregard the fact that spiral truth is not falsifiable AT ALL (and therefore according to Popper’s own criteria is poor and unscientific) so that i can argue a bit about it. After all, i still have to talk about something in this blog…
[If you are so much a fan of Popper as to not see how obvious the last paragraph is, consider that, if we never find truth, we can not measure our current distance to it, and therefore we can’t compare two different points in the history of science as regards their proximity to truth, and therefore we can’t disprove the theory. If you find any means whatsoever to measure the “distance to truth” without actually finding truth, it also means that you can predict where science was going by analysing it’s past “trajectory”, and most progresses in science did go in directions no one expected.]
The spiral truth idea basically tries to model the progression from Aristotelian physics to Galilean mechanics to Newtonian to Einsteinian. It proposes that, well, Aristotle was not so bad, but Galileo was much better, almost perfect, but then Newton got a bit closer and Einstein even closer. What’s more, each of these theories is a subset of the ones that supersede it.
Obviously, most other scientific fields do not have any form of sequence like this, to begin with. Psychology has a multitude of concurrent theories and sub-fields. Social sciences actually subdivide themselves into Sociology and Anthropology. And so on, and so forth. None of them seem to be superseding the others, or proceeding into a path leading closer and closer to … whatever. What they seem to do is enhance the breadth of our comprehension, which has nothing to do with truth whatsoever.
Consider for example Maxwell’s equations. They are like a milestone in electromagnetism theory. They define more or less all that we know about electricity. You can say that they describe all that matters about, for example, electronic circuitry. And so, computers. And so, the internet. Therefore, computer science should be said to bring us a little closer to truth. It should be, like, a wrong detail in a bigger canvas that we are fixing. This big canvas is our “model” of reality, our description of “truth”.
But is it adequate to say that we are just “coming closer” to something, to some essence of all? A quintessential knowledge of life the universe and everything else?
I feel this depiction of coming closer and closer extremely unfair. I feel it implies that things are becoming easier and easier to understand. Or that it SHOULD mean that things are easier to understand, when all around me i just see the opposite happening. Not only in a collective sense, that our society is more complex, but also on a personal level.
As my understanding of the world is enhanced through study and experience and life, i feel that i am getting farther and farther into the unknown. That my possibilities are closer and closer to the infinite. That the questions of life become more undecidable.
If knowledge was just an approach to truth, it should become less complex over time. It should have to be as complex as the world and stop there (i’m taking that as an unclear consequence of Ockam’s). But understanding itself makes the world more complex. Understanding the human brain is harder than understanding the stars above, despite them being unbelievably numerous.
And what to say, for example, that a few equations in a brief paper like the special relativity needed years and years to be understood enough to guess even their main implications? If the objective was just “coming closer to truth”, what would be the interest in “solving the equations for the case of supernovas”? We should be happier with just the equations.
But our quest is not towards truth. It is just about learning new tricks. And tricks are not an horizon or an untouchable centre or anything.
Finally, truth as a tool (otherwise know as instrumentality) is a betterment of our own comprehension, the last (but not final) stage in a sequence that includes truth as God » truth as description » truth as sincerity » truth as not-opinion » truth as reliability and so on, and so forth. Which, on the other hand, would seem to be alike the progression of physical theories, and therefore to the spiral truth. But anyway, that is OK. Desacralization of truth is OK. It will happen in due time. Even the folks that have an unjustified fear of it will come to understand. It is just plainly sound.