“Our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge
The work of Karl Popper is indispensable for any treatment of the Philosophy of Science. Popper’s most significant contribution is in the concept of falsifiability. According to Popper, in order for any theory to claim a scientific basis, it must be possible for the theory or hypothesis to be proven wrong by disconfirming data. This means that a scientific claim is never proven correct; it is only not proven false. In other words, given the existing data, one formulates a theory or hypothesis and that claim is evaluated against observations that would possibly prove it false. This notion helps us distinguish scientific claims from faith or intuition based claims, which hold no similar standard.
As a young student of philosophy with a rationalist sensibility, I found Popper’s work well reasoned. Taking a course in Philosophy of Science was a practical endeavor. It certainly seemed to me that the world at large would benefit from a concrete criteria of what is and is not a scientific claim and benefits from having a scientific approach to problem solving and forming questions in general.
I had no idea that falsifiability would come to my aid during a much less rational point of my life.
As I have written about before, after college I entered a PhD program, studying political philosophy. After just one semester, I found myself to be as profoundly unhappy, dissatisfied, and depressed as I have ever been. I knew that I had to leave the program. I would not have lasted another semester; this was not based on academics, but personal survival.
Leaving that program shook me to my core. I had long formulated an identity around being an intellectual and getting a PhD was an essential component to that identity. Thinking and writing about practical problems of philosophy was to be my life’s work. Who was I going to be if not that? What was I going to do?
During the dark period of unknowing that followed, I had one conversation with my father that was particularly helpful and quite freeing. After a soliloquy of dread about my thenstate of loss of purpose and how would I ever find an alternative, my father, who is a doctor, stated, “I think of it like the practice of medicine, you can’t know you are making the right decision. You can only look at the best available data, apply your training, and make a decision. You made a decision. Based on how you did in school, it was a reasonable decision, but it didn’t work out. It’s been falsified. Now you have to try and find something else.”
The logic of this reasoning hit me hard in the best sort of way. Of course this was true. This was the only scientific way to look at life. While we certainly want to make the correct choices in life, life’s decisions are made without any sort of perfect knowledge. You can only make a best attempt with the data available and see if the experiment is successful. If the theory is tested and proven invalid, you go back to the drawing board. There is no value judgement based on a lack of success because we can never really know what is ultimately successful, we can only know what hasn’t been proven wrong yet. My escape from the “dark period of unknowing” wasn’t fueled by “finding the answer,” it was by realizing that we cannot know. Life is experimental. Life is only falsifiable.