Nicholas Maxwell’s Bad Epistemology

Nicholas Maxwell has promoted bad epistemology. As an example of this I will use his paper Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Aim-Oriented Empiricism.

Maxwell criticises Popper by saying he doesn’t take account of the use of metaphysical assumptions in science. Maxwell claims that science assumes that the real laws of science are unified and not ad hoc – let’s call this the unification principle. Popper, Maxwell claims, does not build this into his epistemology. As a result Popper’s epistemological claims are not justified. Popper has criticised justification and Maxwell doesn’t answer those criticisms so why does he keep going on about justification? Justification is not a minor theme, Maxwell bangs on about it incessantly. He doesn’t explain in what sense he is using the term or why anybody should care in the light of Popper’s refutation of the ideal of justification.

Maxwell claims that his unification principle is substantive and problematic because it constrains the laws of physics. But he provides no examples where it produces problems and so he solves no problems.

Maxwell claims that falsificationism does not account for the fact that scientists look for unified theories because it only justifies unification insofar as it is testable. But in The Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper discusses looking for universal theories at length in chapter III. This includes a discussion of universal terms and so on that explains that the whole of language except for proper names refers to things that are the same everywhere: water boils at 100 celsius at atmospheric pressure in containers of the right shape and so on.

He also explains why theories should not be ad hoc and Maxwell doesn’t really discuss this in detail. He provides a single example in which he claims that there is an ad hoc theory that Popper wouldn’t discard. But he doesn’t discuss how Popper’s prohibitions against ad hoc theories explained in chapter IV of LScD fail to exclude it. It is not good enough that a theory should just make correct and unambiguous predictions where it has been tested it has to to this in all the situations where it could be tested in principle. I doubt that there are any ad hoc propsosals that would satisfy this test. It’s hard enough to come up with any theory that matches reality never mind an ad hoc one.

For example, you couldn’t just say, as many physicists do, that quantum mechanics applies only to microscopic objects. You would have to specify the exact situations where it fails to apply and what happens in the transition from the regime where it does and the regime where it does not. They often apply the theory of decoherence to do this and then claim it shows that quantum mechanics doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects despite the fact that it is a consequence of quantum mechanics and so can hardly imply that quantum mechanics is false. Quantum mechanics actually applies to macroscopic objects too.

Maxwell also claims to synthesise the ideas of Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos. This is impossible because Popper refuted the claims of Kuhn and Lakatos: see Popper’s chapter in Criticism and the Growth of KnowledgeRealism and the Aim of Science and Popper’s discussion of Lakatos in Philosophy of Karl Popper. Kuhn and Lakatos both claimed that Popper thought it was possible to prove a theory wrong and that refutation played very little role in the history of science. Popper never claimed that it is possible to prove a theory wrong and pointed out that all refutations are conjecture from starting in LScD Chapter IV. Rather a refutation is treated like any other conjecture and can be conjecturally refuted. Popper also provided many historical instances in which theories have been discarded in the light of experimental evidence against them. To claim to mix a bunch of bad, refuted ideas with Popper’s ideas without refuting Popper’s criticisms is to mix philosophical food and philosophical  poison.

There may be some work to do on why the real laws of science allow the existence of criticism and why they seem to be comprehensible, matters that have discussed by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality, The Beginning of Infinity and his paper on constructor theory. Maxwell doesn’t shed any light on these problems.

Maxwell’s paper is full of bad arguments. In the next post I will refute Maxwell’s bad moral ideas.

UPDATE In this paper, Maxwell provides an example of a supposedly successful ad hoc theory: the standard laws of physics hold until a particular time like 8pm tonight after which gold spheres of mass greater than 1000 tons less than 1000 miles apart obey an Gm1m2/d^4 law rather than inverse square. This is outrageously ad hoc by Popper’s standards and is very problematic in the light of existing ideas about the laws of physics. Quite aside from anything else he doesn’t explain how to do relativistic corrections.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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