Re: PHIL: Justificationalism

From: Menno Rubingh (
Date: Tue Jan 18 2000 - 05:46:19 MST

In a message dated Sun, 16 Jan 2000 20:24:23 EST, writes:

> In the first case a very specific prediction was made (a comet will return in
> December 1758, in a certain sky location) that if did not come true, that
> would have crippled if not destroyed orbital calculation using Newtonian
> mechanics, but instead the comte returned and destroyed the proviously
> allegedly "true" theory of Ptolomy/Aristotle/.

So this observation DID destroy the theory of Ptolomy/Aristotle; but at the
same time the observation SUPPORTED the new theory of Newton. You say
yourself that Newton's theory's prediction as to this comet was very specific
-- well, when a very specific prediction turns out to be true, then that
sounds like supportive evidence to me. Aren't you deluding yourself here by
believing that it was the falsification by this evidence of the theory of
Ptolomy/Aristotle that was the thing that made knowledge grow here ? I think
that here, at the same time as the Ptolomy/Aristotle theory is falsified,
another, new, theory is being justified. If the new observation didn't
support the new theory, then we would NOT have had growth of knowledge here,
only a decrease of knowledge.

> In the second case, Einstein's theories could have been destroyed, but the
> idea of universal quantity call "time" was destroyed instead. Later this
> happened with mass and velocity no longer beeing thought of a changeless.

You therefore give me here an example of how an observed fact can destroy a
theory, i.e., how falsification can dimimish the amount of 'sure' knowledge in
one's head. This is not an example of growing knowledge, but an example of
diminishing knowledge. (Or do I interpret you wrongly ?)


> There are many such example where the new theory is not proven, yet the old > theory is destroyed and knowledge increases: Koch's postulates vs. > spontaneous generation, Darwinism vs. Creationism, Astronomy vs. Astrology, > (Is this not happening with science in general vs. religion in general?).

Ah !, now this I understand better. *This* is interesting, thank you !!

So these are examples of how, it seems, science is advanced not by increasing the amount of 'sureness' people attribute to a set of theories, but instead by DECREASING this 'sureness'.

I concede that the dogmaticism which people/scientists attribute to the theories they 'believe' in HAS decreased at the same time that science HAS advanced.

So what you non-justificationalists are saying is that it is an advance of science to be LESS sure of yourself and thereby to open up your eyes better to conflicting evidence, right ?

I say that this opening-up-of-eyes IS indeed very useful and necessary, but that the bare fact only of opening up your eyes is not enough to advance to better scientific theories. This opening-up-of-eyes is very probably utterly necessary as a precondition to enable ANY advance to be at all possible; but after this enablement of a possible advance, you then still have to execute the action of advancing !! otherwise you will still be stuck where you are.

Decreasing your trust in e.g. the theory that you are enclosed all around by walls and that there is no escape out of the room, may then incite you to go look for doors in the wall. Having found a door and having tried a few times to walk through the opened door, you then use this new evidence to falsify the old theory 'there are only walls'. But that's not all: you also REPLACE your old theory by the (maybe less dogmatic) theory 'walls can have doors', plus the additional theory 'doors lead to other rooms' -- that is, you immediately use the evidence that falsified the old theory to SUPPORT replacement theories. If you had used the new evidence ONLY to falsify the old theory, and had not started believing in the new replacement theories (where you use the new evidence as justificational evidence), then you would have had no advance in knowledge.

In the examples you mentioned in your mail, people first believed dogmatically in creationalism and astrology; so then they opened their eyes, and dropped their confidence in creationalism and astrology. At the same time, however, people REPLACED their old theories by new ones, Darwinism and astronomy. The same old evidence, increased by the new evidence which conflicts with the old theories, is used there to *SUPPORT* the new successor theories.

Suppose that people did not make this second step of replacing the old theories immediately by new ones. In that state, people now believe NOTHING, they have NO theories to help them to make sense of the world. Being a Buddhist monk who has succeeded in eliminating everything from his mind and in reaching Nirvana, does not help that monk in giving him theories/tools which can help him grow food or build spaceships. Only shredding the theories you believe in without ever replacing them by something else does NOT make you more effective.

Indeed, a man believing in a theory that predicts the repetitive succession of the seasons in a very dogmatic and religious way, is very much better off as a farmer than a man who has NO theory whatsoever that helps him plan when to plant/sow his crops.

To make sense of the world and to be able to live in that world it is, maybe unfortunately, not possible to do without believing in theories that you use as models for how the world works. You can replace this 'believing' by 'temporarily and critically trusting or preferring', but that doesn't change the functionality of things: even when you decrease the dogmatism with which you adhere to your beliefs, you still USE theories in the same old way, and you still cannot do without theories. If I need a theory A to help me to gather food and stay alive, and if I then scrap that theory, then I will die lest I replace my believing in theory A by believing in another theory B which performs the same function at least as effectively.


I begin to suspect that maybe it is of limited usefulness to say that non-justificationalists or justificationalists are right or wrong: the difference probably lies mainly in the way they look at the world, and in the way they look at the very SAME ideas, phenomena and evidence. Non-justificationalists are the pessimists who say that the observation that a bottle is already half empty is a very positive and useful observation that helps them. They just prefer to think in concepts that are more negative than the concepts other people claim are necessary for thinking. I mean, to get along in life they rather use theories that express things in negative terms than in positive terms -- but any statement can be reformulated negatively without changing its meaning (just put 'not' before everything). Well, it's impossible to argue about tastes. Maybe anything from the non-justificationalist world view can be reformulated in justificationalist terms and vice versa without this reformulation changing any functionality of the things expressed.

Best greetings, Menno (

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