Stirring the Popperian Possum.
How Important is Demarcation?
Popper identified the two major problems in the theory of knowledge as the problem of induction and the problem of demarcation between the empirical sciences on one hand and mathematics, logic and metaphysics on the other.
He wrote on demarcation “The problem was known to Hume who attempted to solve it. With Kant it became the central problem of the theory of knowledge. If, following Kant, we call the problem of induction ‘Hume’s problem’, we might call the problem of demarcation ‘Kant’s problem’.”
The two problems tend to merge because the usual criterion of demarcation used by the positivists at the time was the inductive method. The sciences used inductive methods to prove or justify scientific theories.
The question to be revisited is “Why bother about a demarcation criterion?”
Why not simply look for good or true scientific theories? Why not focus on “goodness” and “truthfulness” and not bother about “scientificness”.
Popper wrote an awful lot about demarcation and if that can be cut out of his condensed works than busy people will find it easier to get right though his books.
It is easy to see why Popper was attached to his criterion of demarcation because in his intellectual development the idea about falsification (instead of verification) opened the way to his solution to the problem of induction. Also it became the point of entry to a whole suite of problems in the theory of knowledge.
The inductivists don’t think that he really solved the problem of induction so they are still on the job, not helpfully in my opinion. Maybe Popper didn’t solve it, he just explained how scientists can get on with the job because induction is not the problem that inductivists thought it was.
It is also easy to see why people were looking for a criterion. As Bartley wrote in a paper that challenged the importance and coherence of Popper’s demarcation criterion:
“For some time two strident motifs of our intellectual life have been the efforts of scientists and non-scientists to come to terms with one another, and the efforts of scientists to state just what it is that makes what they do scientific.”
He went on to say that a whole lot of questions depend on the answer to those questions but in the spirit of the “check on the problem” I want to revisit the demarcation issue and find out if those questions are really good and helpful ones. Maybe they can be reformulated to shift the focus from demarcation to simply finding good answers to the questions.
The questions that Bartley listed are:
Is there any reasonably sure way to distinguish between a scientific and a non-scientific theory? What are the limits of scientific activity? Are these also the limits of rational activity? If there are any legitimate areas of non-scientific activity, where do these belong and how are they to be discussed and assessed?
It seems that the concept of science and its status have been over-rated, possibly due to the success of modern physics, so that “Science” has taken on a life of its own beyond the previous usage that applied to all areas of activity that are pursued in a purposeful and systematic way. This is the penetration of the theological and authoritarian attitude into science, Science with a capital S as Popper called it, with trepidation.
In an early piece I took the line that the demarcation criterion eliminated arguments about science vs other areas and shifted the focus to the question, whether evidence could be used to contribute to the discussion, regardless of the topic.
"Popper’s line of demarcation should affect the way the way we look at science in relation to other subjects because it cuts across the bounds that are supposed to exist between ‘the sciences’ and ‘the rest’. Statements in any subject such as history or literary criticism may be considered to be scientific if they can be supported or refuted by evidence. The convention applies to statements, not to areas of activity."
"It should not matter how a student defines the subject, because it is very much more important to be clear about the problem that is being investigated. A serious attempt to work on a problem should drive the student into a whole range of subjects or disciplines, thereby making nonsense of the narrow definition of subjects and over-specialisation. Too much focus on subjects and examinations can make the problems and themes invisible, but problems and themes should provide the backbone and the organising principles amidst the mass of information that confronts the student and the researcher."