Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Popper's Method Applied to the Humanities

Karl Popper's scientific method - that of conjecture and refutation - is applied to scientific inquiry. I have not read much of Popper, but I am very interested in whether he thinks his method could/should be applied to inquiry in the humanities. I will give an example:

I am writing a paper intending to refute Sterling McMurrin's statement in Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion that "Mormon theology is a modern Pelagianism"; he, of course, gives his reasons. My thesis is that Mormon theology is not a modern Pelagianism, and I give my reasons. This, I think, is a useful and productive interaction because the theses are given straightforwardly and unambiguously so as to expose them most easily to refutation.

Now let me give an example of an not-so-useful response to my argument: Mormon theology is like a modern Pelagianism. This is not useful precisely because Mormon theology is like a lot of things and there are so many ways that it is like other things that the questions about the real issue (whether Mormon theology is a modern Pelagianism or not) are lost in an attempt to argue for the sake of argument - in the words of Popper, these kinds of useless statements (at least insofar as they are intended to be responses to the first questions) say very little because they are not "bold" nor "falsifiable." I think that arguing for the sake of arguing impedes progress and wastes time. This kind of effort in science, Popper argues, leads to stagnation. I think that enaging in this kind of "ad hoc rescue" in the humanities has the same kind of stand still (at least insofar as real progress is concerned in light of the original problem.)

I understand that in the humanities we have slightly different objectives than the sciences, but even so, I am wondering more and more whether Popper's method should be applied more often; I think it would help us to say more in our sayings.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Scientific Inquiry Works

Pierre Duhem, the French physicist, wrote of the two parts involved in scientific experiments - that is, of the observation of phenomena and the interpretation of the observations - that what a scientist "transmits" to us is "not a recital of of observed facts" but rather "abstract symbols which accepted theories permitted him to substitute for the concrete evidence he had gathered."

What is interesting by this statement is that with each attempt at scientific inquiry the observation is actually accompanied with an already-in-place intepretation of the observation, which is based upon the system of science to which the scientist subscribes - that is, a physicist doing experiments within physics will intepret the data in accordance with the system upon which he stands.

Furthermore - and this is Duhem's striking statement - according to the logic of theory testing, if a new theory test fails, the whole system or any part of it is subject to being erroneous.

Typically, the work of scientific inquiry seems to be one of exactitude. Duhem argues, however, that the "demonstrative value of experimental method is far from being so rigorous or exact." He goes on to say that the scientist can "never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses."

In other words, scientific inquiry is inherently bound up in itself.

Why, then, do we seem to advanced so far in different sciences? What of huge successes and redefinitions of the world around us?

Duhem's answer to his problem is that scientists must rely on convention, that is, they rely on their own "good sense" in the determination of which theories to include and which to throw out.
So, we have huge successes and great advancements because we agree to have them? The answer seems counter-intuitive.

My thought on the matter is this: With regard to scientific experiments and inquiry, in study and observation, scientists have hunches about where to go and what to do next. They press further than the logic allows - literally. They do so with trust that advancements have indeed been in accordance with correct scientific principles. How did these principles come to be?

I think these hunches are inspired by God. The "good sense" is the light of Christ found in every person - believer or non-believer. The rain falls on the just and on the unjust.

So, God is the author of progress and He is liberal in His mercies - and, indeed, the progress has sped up in this dispensation, ever since the veil was pulled back and He and His Son appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in 1820.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Knight of Faith

Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling presents us with a powerful concept, one with which some may be altogether unfamiliar. The concept is that of the complete subjectivity of personal spiritual experiences. For all persons looking at the experience of the Knight of Faith from the outside, the spiritual is absurd and irrational. For the person looking from the inside out, the spiritual experience, while not to be articulated exactly in words, nevertheless knows God. 

This is the miracle of a witness. To the atheist, their is no proof, no sign. To the theist with a witness of God, there is no need of proof, for the proof is inherent in the experience. It is as if one has never not known God. The sanctity of the experience is completely hidden from the unbeliever and totally reassuring for the believer. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Birth of Plenty

In The Birth of Plenty by William J. Bernstein, he writes that apparently "something happened" at some point in the early nineteenth century. He is referring to a measurable rate of improvement from that time on. Further in the introduction he says that "[u]ntil approximately 1820, per capita world economic growth - the single best way of measuring human material progress - registered near zero." And again, "not long after 1820, prosperity began flowing in an ever-increasing torrent; with each successive generation, the life of the son became observably more comfortable, informed, and predictable than that of the father." (For more on this see the google book interview with the author at

Profound? I think so. Why? Well, consider the comments of a man who said that early in the spring of 1820 he entered a grove of trees near his humble home in upstate New York to inquire of God about which church he should join :

"After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

"But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

"It no sooner appeared than I found myself adelivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I bsaw two cPersonages, whose brightness and dglory defy all description, estanding above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My fBeloved gSon. Hear Him!

"My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.

"I was answered that I must join none of them." (Pearl of Great Price | JS-History 1:15 - 19)

It was this same man, who months before his martyrdom wrote these remarkable words which, especially when considering the remarkable findings of Mr. Bernstein (who used much research from Angus Maddison), are profoundly prophetic:

"I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world."

These are the words of Joseph Smith. Were they prophetic? The promise is always given: "Ask and ye shall receive."

The confirmation of the prophetic words of this remarkable man will continue to be found in discoveries of science, art, and anthropology for they are all inclusive under the umbrella of truth.