Category Archives: Science

Lakatos, Popper, and Feyerabend: Some Personal Reminiscences | Donald Gillies

On 28 February 2011, Donald Gillies presented memories of meeting and working with some of the heroic personalities in philosophy of science, including Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend. This podcast records his presentation.



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Random Refutations

“(1) Parmenides-Leucippus: Leucippus takes the existence of motion as a partial refutation of Parmenides’s theory that the world is full and motionless. This leads to the theory of ‘atoms and the void’. It is the foundation of atomic theory.

(2) Galileo refutes Aristotle’s theory of motion : this leads to the foundation of the theory of acceleration, and later of Newtonian forces. Also, Galileo takes the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus as a refutation of Ptolemy, and thus as empirical support of the rival theory of Copernicus.

(3) Toricelli (and predecessors) : the refutation of ‘nature abhors a vacuum‘. This prepares for a mechanistic world view.

(4) Kepler’s refutation of the hypothesis of circular motion upheld till then (even by Tycho and Galileo), leads to Kepler’s laws and so to Newton’s theory.6

(5) Lavoisier’s refutation of the phlogiston theory leads to modern chemistry.

(6) The falsification of Newton’s theory of light (Young’s two- slit experiment). This leads to the Young-Fresnel theory of light. The velocity of light in moving water is another refutation. It prepares for special relativity.

(7) Oersted’s experiment is interpreted by Faraday as a refutation of the universal theory of Newtonian central forces and thus leads to the Faraday-Maxwell field theory.

(8) Atomic theory: the atomicity of the atom is refuted by the Thomson electron. This leads to the electromagnetic theory of matter, and, in time, to the rise of electronics. See Einstein’s and Weyl’s attempts at a monistic (‘unified’) theory of gravitation and electromagnetics.

(9) Michelson’s experiment (1881-1887-1902, etc.) leads to Lorentz’s Versuch einer Theorie der electrischen und optischen Erscheinungen in bewegten Körpern (1895: see §89). Lorentz’s book was crucially important to Einstein, who alluded to it twice in §9 of his relativity paper of 1905. (Einstein himself did not regard the Michelson experiment as very important.) Einstein’s special relativity theory is (a) a development of the formalism founded by Lorentz and (b) a different—that is, relativistic—interpretation of that formalism. There is no crucial experiment so far to decide between Lorentz’s and Einstein’s interpretations; but if we have to adopt action at a distance (non-locality: see Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, Vol. III of the Postscript, Preface 1982), then we would have to return to Lorentz.

Incidentally, it took years before physicists began to come to some agreement about the importance of Michelson’s experiments: I do not contend that falsifications are usually accepted at once (see the preceding section) not even that they are immediately recognised as potential falsifications.

(10) The ‘chance-discoveries’ of Roentgen and of Becquerel refuted certain (unconsciously held) expectations; especially Becquerel’s expectations. They had, of course, revolutionary consequences.

(11) Wilhelm Wien’s (partially) successful theory of black body radiation conflicted with the (partially) also very successful theories of SirJames Jeans and Lord Rayleigh. The refutation by Lummer and Pringsheim of the radiation formula of Rayleigh and Jeans, together with Wien’s work, leads to Planck’s quantum theory (see L.Sc.D., p. 108). In this, Planck refutes his own theory, the absolutistic interpretation of the entropy law, as opposed to a probabilistic interpretation similar to Boltzmann’s.

(12) Philipp Lenard’s experiments concerning the photoelectric effect conflicted, as Lenard himself insisted, with what was to be expected from Maxwell’s theory. They led to Einstein’s theory of light-quanta or photons (which were of course also in conflict with Maxwell), and thus, much later, to particle- wave dualism. (

(13) The refutation of the Mach-Ostwald anti-atomistic and phenomenalistic theory of matter: Einstein’s great paper on Brownian motion of 1905 suggested that Brownian motion may be interpreted as a refutation of this theory. Thus this paper did much to establish the reality of molecules and atoms. (14) Rutherford’s refutation of the vortex model of the atom.8 This leads directly to Bohr’s 1913 theory of the hydrogen atom, and thus, in the end, to quantum mechanics.

(14) Rutherford’s refutation of the vortex model of the atom.8 This leads directly to Bohr’s 1913 theory of the hydrogen atom, and thus, in the end, to quantum mechanics.

(15) Rutherford’s refutation (in 1919) of the theory that chemical elements cannot be changed artificially (though they may disintegrate spontaneously).

(16) The theory of Bohr, Kramers and Slater (see L.Sc.D., pp. 250, 243): this theory was refuted by Compton and Simon. The refutation leads almost at once to the Heisenberg-Born- Jordan quantum mechanics.

(17) Schrodinger’s interpretation of his (and de Broglie’s) theory is refuted by the statistical interpretation of matter waves (experiments of Davisson and Germer, and of George Thomson, for instance). This leads to Bom’s statistical interpretation.

(18) Anderson’s discovery of the positron (1932) refutes a lot: the theory of two elementary particles — protons and electrons — is refuted; conservation of particles is refuted; and Dirac’s own original interpretation of his predicted positive particles (he thought they were protons) is refuted. Some theoretical work of about 1930-31 is thereby corroborated.

(19) The electrical theory of matter elaborated by Einstein and Weyl, and held implicitly — and at any rate, pursued — by Einstein to the end of his life (since he interpreted the unified field theory as a theory of two fields, gravitation and electromagnetics),is refuted by the neutron and by Yukawa’s theory of nuclear forces: the Yukawa Meson. This gives rise to the theory of the nucleus.
(20) The refutation of parity conservation. (See Allan Franklin, Stud. Hist. Philos. Sci. 10, 1979, p. 201.)”
That is an interesting list of scientific refutations provided by Popper himself. Popper  was right to suggest that the new theories highlighted above were not direct results of the refutations. The refutations merely created new problem situations which stimulated imaginative and critical thought by thinking men. But this initial stage of conceiving a new theory is not susceptible for logical analysis.”The question how it happens that a new idea occurs to a man  … may be of great interest  to empirical psychology ; but it is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge” (See Popper, K., The  Logic of Scientific Discovery,1934,  p. 7). That is because the latter does not concern with quid facti but with quid juris.
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The Ethics of Belief: William K. Clifford

Here is a beautiful excerpt from the “Ethics of Belief” of William K. Clifford which I thought I should share with you:

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind….

“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.


He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.


Dark Matters

A cool video I have just discovered

Dark Matters from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

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Karl Popper in Greece


That is in fact one of the last appearances of the philosopher on TV (in May 1993). Popper died the following year on September 17th.

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Popper II: The attributes of bad theories (and some examples)

“After the collapse of the Austrian Empire there had been a revolution in Austria: the air was full of revolutionary slogans and ideas, and new and often wild theories. Among the theories which interested me Einstein’s theory of relativity was no doubt by far the most important. Three others were Marx’s theory of history, Freud’s psycho-analysis, and Alfred Adler’s so-called ‘individual psychology’.

The three other theories I have mentioned were also widely discussed among students at that time. I myself happened to come into personal contact with Alfred Adler, and even to co-operate with him in his social work among the children and young people in the working-class districts of Vienna where he had established social guidance clinics. It was during the summer of 1919 that I began to feel more and more dissatisfied with these three theories-the Marxist theory of history, psychoanalysis, and individual psychology; and I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status. My problem perhaps first took the simple form, ‘What is wrong with Marxism, Psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity ?

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A new way to explain explanation (David Deutsch)

David Deutsch is a physicist at the University of Oxford and the writer of the very interesting book The Fabric of Reality: Towards a Theory of Everything which I highly recommend. David Deutsch is a member of the Quantum Computation and Cryptography Research Group at the Clarendon Laboratory and he is considered to be an authority on the theory of parallel universes.

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