Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Excerpt

The essays and lectures of which this book is composed are variations upon one very simple theme--the thesis that we can learn from our mistakes. They develop a theory of knowledge and of its growth. It is a theory of reason that assigns to rational arguments the modest and yet important role of criticizing our often mistaken attempts to solve our problems. And it is a theory of experience that assigns to our observations the equally modest and almost equally important role of tests which may help us in the discovery of our mistakes. Though it stresses our fallibility it does not resign itself to scepticism, for it also stresses the fact that knowledge can grow, and that science can progress--just because we can learn from our mistakes.

The way in which knowledge progresses, and especially our scientific knowledge, is by unjustified (and unjustifiable) anticipations, by guesses, by tentative solutions to our problems, by conjectures. These conjectures are controlled by criticism; that is, by attempted refutations, which include severely critical tests. They may survive these tests; but they can never be positively justified: they can neither be established as certainly true nor even as 'probable' (in the sense of the probability calculus). Criticism of our conjectures is of decisive importance: by bringing out our mistakes it makes us understand the difficulties of the problem which we are trying to solve. This is how we become better acquainted with our problem, and able to propose more mature solutions: the very refutation of a theory--that is, of any serious tentative solution to our problem--is always a step forward that takes us nearer to the truth. And this is how we can learn from our mistakes.

As we learn from our mistakes our knowledge grows, even though we may never know--that is, know for certain. Since our knowledge can grow, there can be no reason here for despair of reason. And since we can never know for certain, there can be no authority here for any claim to authority, for conceit over our knowledge, or for smugness.

Those among our theories which turn out to be highly resistant to criticism, and which appear to us at a certain moment of time to be better approximations to truth than other known theories, may be described, together with the reports of their tests, as 'the science' of that time. Since none of them can be positively justified, it is essentially their critical and progressive character -- the fact that we can argue about their claim to solve our problems better than their competitors--which constitutes the rationality of science.

This, in a nutshell, is the fundamental thesis developed in this book and applied to many topics, ranging from problems of the philosophy and history . . .

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