It’s a truism that the favorite philosopher of every scientist is Karl Popper. (In my own experience, this truism is mostly true.) Popper, or so the story goes, stood up for empirical fact when the post-modernists were descending into Deleuze and Derrida and difference. His popularity among experimentalists is also a side-effect of simplicity, as his fundamental idea is easy enough for just about anyone to understand: Popper famously pointed out that science never proves things true, it merely proves things false (this is the falsifiability doctrine). In other words, scientists proceed in stuttering steps, advancing by saying what theories are wrong. The truth is just what (temporarily) survives.
At first glance, it’s easy to not notice how radical an idea this is. But look closer. For Popper, all discovery is really just criticism. Although we think of scientific truth as being somehow more stable than literary or cultural truth – literary fashions come and go, but gravity remains – the opposite is actually true. Scientific truth is true precisely because it is open to change, willing to reverse itself and admit its errors. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon will always be a magnificent painting, but a scientific idea that is no longer true…well, what good is that?
But here’s my question (and it’s a question that I really don’t know the answer to): If Popper’s model of science is reasonably accurate – and plenty of scientists think it is – then I’m a little worried about what this means for the distant future of science. After all, if our knowledge of everything emerges from criticism, from the falsification of yesterday’s truth, then the scientific process can only keep going by proving itself wrong. If our truths were ever perfect – if science could ever come up with a theory of everything that wasn’t flawed or couldn’t be improved upon – then those truths wouldn’t be scientific, for they wouldn’t be falsifiable. According to Popper, a science without limits or imperfections or fixable flaws isn’t science: it’s metaphysics. In this sense, the end goal of science – the construction of a perfect mirror to reality – isn’t just unrealistic: it’s also unscientific.
This isn’t directly related, but I love this quote from Richard Feynman: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” I happen to think that isn’t true – philosophers can actually be quite useful – but it’s still pretty pithy.