I hold some beliefs that are not falsifiable. For example, I hypothesize that humans are free-willed, but no currently-imaginable experiment could falsify that statement (prove that it isn’t true). I think that there are plenty of “reasonable” hypotheses that are worth considering despite the fact that they are not falsifiable, and this post is an attempt to explain why I think that is true.
The notion of falsifiability is intrinsic to the Scientific Method: we advance our knowledge of the universe and the correctness and applicability of our theories by constructing tests for that knowledge and/or those theories. Tests can only show that a theory is wrong (i.e.falsify it) – this is because any number of possible reasons could apply, and no test can account for all of them. A test CAN account for one of them, though, by showing “this isn’t the reason, it must be something else.” There are three very key implied aspects to this application of logic:
- A (semi-) objective observation has been recorded (that-which-we-theorize-about)
- A predictive, testable hypothesis can be constructed about the observation.
- Experiment can be constructed that falsifies AT LEAST the hypothesis in #2.
But there is a deeper question at hand: should the hypotheses for which no tests can be constructed be considered? Such a premise is “nonfalsifiable,” or as Sam likes to say, “not even false.” What is the meaning / truth value of such a theory? “Humans are free-willed,” or “God exists,” are two such hypotheses, where no observation can be recorded relevant to the falsification of the hypothesis.
Still, my argument is that hypotheses like these are worthwhile, and here are my reasons:
- Humans care about the “fundamental nature of the universe” irrespective of whether it has observable effects on us – one might argue this to be illogical, but humans are not merely logical beings (we have emotions, for example). Since humans care, it becomes a part of human nature and therefore is worthwhile to consider despite being “unscientific.”
- There are a lot of implicit assumptions in the use of the scientific method (see #1, #2, and #3 above) and therefore implicit reduction of problem complexity in favor of “solvability.” Now, as a former Physics guy, I definitely understand the usefulness of “assume the cow is a sphere” thinking… but when it comes to thoughtful analysis of the world around us, we can’t ignore that intrinsic complexity is there and can sometimes be considered in addition to what is “solvable.”
- I believe all things imaginable are possible, and if something is possible it might one day be observable. Keeping an open mind and spending some thinking cycles on the possible-but-not-falsifiable better prepares me to handle crazy breaks in prediction later down the line, if they ever occur. As long as I remain grounded and use the admittedly useful and incredible scientific method as a baseline for observables, I will have a leg up on understanding more chaotic, unpredictable and “basically impossible” future-observables should we ever observe them.
P.S. It is interesting to note once again that “there’s nothing new under the sun”: Hempel pointed out that this construction of the scientific method is more akin to inductive analysis (subject to statistics, not underlying predictable truths), and therefore must be enhanced via crucial experiements, or experiments that are capable of lending POSITIVE (not-just-to-falsify) evidence to theories. His Raven Paradox is an interesting cautionary thought experiment about the perils of inductive reasoning: if all ravens are black, so therefore all non-ravens are non-black, then a green apple is evidence that all ravens aren’t black.