Popper and Peirce; The Logic of Science

Karl Popper (1959) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1974) had equally been interested in science as well as the truth and the logic of science. Both (Popper, 1959; Peirce, 1974) focused on the importance of the probability of being wrong, as a basic premise for science to be right in the long run. However, both of these philosophers (Popper, 1959; Peirce, 1974) travelled different and to some extent, opposite paths. Their similarity of thought ends with their interest in science. Peirce (1974) and Popper (1959) realised the inadequacies of scientific tools such as induction. However, Peirce accepted the rationale of having these useful scientific tools, with being fully aware of all their inadequacies, for the sake of the progress of pragmatism, and truth in the long run, in his theorization. He accepted abduction as a valid method to start the journey towards truth while Popper wanted a more solid scenario where any hypothesis is not acceptable but only those that are falsifiable and hence provable.

Karl Popper had investigated the question, which theories can be called scientific and which not, or in other words, what could be criterion of being scientific (Popper, 1959, p.27). What prompted him to undertake this inquiry is the key difference he saw between two sets of theories. One the one side, he (Popper, 2002) had Marxism, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Alder’s individual psychology that he saw were seemingly irrefutable and conceived popularly as scientific (p.45-47). For example, any social phenomenon could be interpreted in such a way as to approve with Marxism, any kind of human behaviour could be interpreted in such a way as to suit psycho analysis or Alder’s theory of individual psychology (p.45-47). This nature made these theories un-testable and hence irrefutable yet un-provable too. On the other side, Karl Popper saw theories of science like Einstein’s theory of relativity, against which one can think up a logical test to prove it wrong, which means there can be a test that can either falsify it or prove it (p.45-47). From this line of thought, Popper had derived the major conclusion that what suggests if a theory is scientific or not, is the fallibility of the theory (47-51).

The whole argument of Popper (1959) is also against the use of induction in arriving at scientific inferences. Citing the simple example that even if all the swans one has seen in one’s life are white, one cannot conclude all swans are white, Popper (1959) refuted the universalization of empirical evidence, done through the method of induction (27). Popper (1959) is of the opinion that science is a deductive process, positive evidence (confirmation and verification) do not count, and only lack of negative evidence when put to test and proven, can be considered as a valid scientific inference (p.27-34). This thought process led Popper (2002) to refute the popular claims that Marxism, psycho-analysis and individual psychology are science (p.49-51). He (Popper, 2002) in the process of discarding induction as a scientific tool was also refuting the notion that history can be used to predict future (as in Marxism) and clinical observations can be used to predict human behavior (as in psycho-analysis and individual psychology). Popper (2002) through this logical reasoning, classified these disciplines as myth rather than science but also agreed that myths can be good starting points for future scientific inquiries (p.50-51).

Charles Sanders Peirce(1974) also kept wondering what could be the validity of induction as a scientific tool. He has observed, “How magical it is that by examining a part of class, we can know what is true of the whole of the class, and by study of the past can know of the future; in short, that we can know what we have not experienced!” (p.212). Peirce (1974) further argued one cannot say “the generality of inductions are true, but accepted that in the long run, they approximate to the truth”(p.213). What he (Peirce, 1974) concluded was that induction could not deliver truth but “by accepting inductive conclusions, in the long run, our errors balance one another” (p.213) Peirce (1974) has also dealt with the question why people do not often end up with “deceptive” inductions and used this as an argument in favor of adopting induction as a practical tool (p.214).

While Popper (1959) preferred deduction to induction and refuted the validity of induction completely, what Peirce (1974) argued is, science with its three tools, abduction, induction and deduction, can attain an ability of self-correction. So while in Popper (1959, 2002), the infallibility is the question under scrutiny, in Peirce (1974), notwithstanding whether a theory is fallible or infallible, the question is whether the process of inquiry has an inherent self-correcting mechanism. Peirce (1974) did not imagine a method, for that matter, any method, devoid of errors but he looked forward to something that can go on self-correcting and progressing towards truth (215). So it can be seen that Peirce (1974) did not rule out the validity of empirical inquiry and he did not put one method above the other. Rather than considering induction as something that leads to truth, Peirce (1974) only saw it as useful in that it is also a self-correcting mechanism. According to Peirce (1974), the strength of induction lied not in that it gives one the truth but it is modifiable in the long run. He (Peirce, 1974) said,

Inquiry of every type, fully carried out, has the vital power of self-correction and of growth. This is a property so deeply saturating its inmost nature that it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true. If you really want to learn the truth, you will, by however devious a path, be surely led into the way of truth, at last. (p.582)

For the above discussion, it is evident that the similarity between the thoughts of Karl Popper and Charles Sanders Peirce is only skin deep. There are areas where they almost converge, like when defining truth and understanding that any given data have their own premises (Popper, 1959, 2002; Peirce, 1974). However, the basic theoretical propositions they put forth are entirely different and hence it will be a mistake to be led by the similarities, while trying to understand their arguments.

References

Peirce, C.S. (1974) Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Cambridge: Harvard University

Popper, K. (2002) Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge, London:

Popper, K. (1959) The logic of scientific discovery, New York: Basic Books.

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