Karl Popper (1902-1994) was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century. He made significant contributions to debates concerning general scientific methodology and theory choice, the demarcation of science from non-science, the nature of probability and quantum mechanics, and the methodology of the social sciences. His work is notable for its wide influence both within the philosophy of science, within science itself, and within a broader social context.
Popper’s early work attempts to solve the problem of demarcation and offer a clear criterion that distinguishes scientific theories from metaphysical or mythological claims. Popper’s falsificationist methodology holds that scientific theories are characterized by entailing predictions that future observations might reveal to be false. When theories are falsified by such observations, scientists can respond by revising the theory, or by rejecting the theory in favor of a rival or by maintaining the theory as is and changing an auxiliary hypothesis. In either case, however, this process must aim at the production of new, falsifiable predictions. While Popper recognizes that scientists can and do hold onto theories in the face of failed predictions when there are no predictively superior rivals to turn to. He holds that scientific practice is characterized by its continual effort to test theories against experience and make revisions based on the outcomes of these tests. By contrast, theories that are permanently immunized from falsification by the introduction of untestable ad hoc hypotheses can no longer be classified as scientific. Among other things, Popper argues that his falsificationist proposal allows for a solution of the problem of induction, since inductive reasoning plays no role in his account of theory choice.
Along with his general proposals regarding falsification and scientific methodology, Popper is notable for his work on probability and quantum mechanics and on the methodology of the social sciences. Popper defends a propensity theory of probability, according to which probabilities are interpreted as objective, mind-independent properties of experimental setups. Popper then uses this theory to provide a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, though its applicability goes beyond this specific case. With respect to the social sciences, Popper argued against the historicist attempt to formulate universal laws covering the whole of human history and instead argued in favor of methodological individualism and situational logic.
Table of Contents
2. Falsification and the Criterion of Demarcation
a. Popper on Physics and Psychoanalysis
b. Auxiliary and Ad Hoc Hypotheses
c. Basic Sentences and the Role of Convention
d. Induction, Corroboration, and Verisimilitude
3. Criticisms of Falsificationism
4. Realism, Quantum Mechanics, and Probability
5. Methodology in the Social Sciences
6. Popper’s Legacy
7. References and Further Reading
a. Primary Sources
b. Secondary Sources