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“Inference to the Best Explanation” as an Inferential Strategy

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            In order to discuss why ‘Inference to the Best Explanation’(IBE) is convincing but would not be capable of persuading Popper to accept it as an inferential strategy, I will first analyze Popper and build towards a necessary understanding of his most important theorizations.

            Once such an understanding is assumed and organized in a useful way, I will be able to examine the IBE method in greater detail and contrast IBE to Karl Poppers methodology.  Lastly, I will advise on whether Popper would be able to tolerate or even accept the IBE method.

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I.                   Introduction to Popper

            Behind every major philosophical system there lies an obscured psychological prejudice.  Ironically, although Popper worked arduously to maintain the status of ‘autonomy’ within his epistemology of science, in doing so, he had to succumb to his psychological compulsion to dogmatically disavowal anything that could be termed ‘metaphysical.’

            To understand why this disavowal is so important one must examine what the metaphysical meant to Popper.

  While it’s easy to say that the metaphysical was for Popper that which was dogmatic and did not admit error in the face of empirical contradiction.  It’s important to stress another element of the metaphysical that is so seductive that Popper forcefully attempted to attack with as much credibility as he could command.

            This seductive component is pervasively pleasing and inviting to the reasoning mind because it promises a type of deliverance from contradiction and discord.  Within this promise is the even more alluring assurance that one can eventually be satisfied with the harmonious enchantment of complete certainty.

            On social terms, the metaphysical can produce a type of group transcendence that in its own way, develops into a religion of sorts that is “the consecration, generalization, and sublimation of the values of community.(Rader 44)  While the religious has a harmonious and beautiful side to it, it also carries a negative and barbaric impulse that is almost instinctually delivered to the graves of death.  The negation of the harmonious and beautiful is that which is excessively irrational and expresses this through manifestations of fanaticism, superstitious cruelty, and the inchoate desire to dismember all that was once held sacred.

II.                The Mythical Proportions of Popper’s Philosophy of Science

            When Wittgenstein notes that, “Philosophers…are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does,” he continues to remark that, “This tendency is the real source of metaphysics.”(Wittgenstein 18)  What Wittgenstein observes is extremely insightful as it takes issue with why philosophers are so tempted to speak scientifically?  If scientific language carries the most authority and transmits the most power in a society that has benefited tremendously from the advancement of science, then is not hard to believe that philosophers are so tempted that they are envious enough to desire what they cannot legitimately possess; The authority and power of science in itself for pragmatic and personal ends for themselves.

            While Popper’s philosophy tries to rid itself of attachment to the metaphysical by continually praising doubt as not only a virtue but as the one guiding virtue that is the supposed impetus behind his work.  This is, nevertheless, extremely suspicious if one is to any extent alarmed by the cautionary tone of Wittgenstein’s words.

            What becomes ironically apparent about Popper’s philosophy is that Popper’s engagement with doubt is hardly honest, sincere, or even justifiable.  Within the framework of his philosophy, doubt is not doubt in itself but is rather a disabled form of doubt that is so altered that it is bent into a cold form which operates coercively through the mystifications of dogma.      Ironically, Popper’s philosophy becomes woefully dogmatic and situates what is referenced as ‘doubt’ so that it is almost untouchable and possesses special rights to which ‘belief’ is formally denied.

            According to Krige, “Popper strongly suggests that there are only two possible responses to a test:  we either tentatively accept a theory, or we reject it as erroneous, and eliminate it.  To act in this latter way, however, we must take an unambiguous stand on observation statements.  Harboring no doubts about their adequacy, we must ruthlessly reject and eliminate our tentative conjectures.”(Krige 301)  This is very serious because Popper, who is supposedly the proponent of the ‘open society,’ is grossly and reliably intolerant of accommodating mechanisms that have long been a major component of scientific culture.

            For instance, when the Newtonians were challenged by contradictory observations, they made the important and completely legitimate point that the experimental results yielded results that were too unreliable to prove that the Newtonian system was entirely wrong.

            According to Popper on the other hand, the Newtonians were unambiguously wrong.  They were not unambiguously wrong in a distinct and consequently bounded fashion.  Rather, by Popper’s epistemology, their assumed fallibility was at once infinite and total.   Following from this, if one is to believe Popper one must accept that the entire Newtonian system must be entirely eliminated if one counter-experiment can be demonstrated.

            The Newtonians also offended Popper because they insisted that anomalies should be preserved and shelved so that future developments would be able to take anomalies into account and might even be able to accommodate for such anomalies within a more developed scientific system.   While this doesn’t seem at all strange to us when we know that a lot of scientific discoveries do benefit from the preservation and inclusive utilization of anomalies for the purposes of research and study.

            In contrast, Popper’s reaction seems so harsh and negating that the irrationalities of his judgment cannot completely conceal themselves.  As his reactions to very reasonable and widely accepted scientific procedures are so pointedly intolerant, what really gets called into question is the legitimacy of Popper’s Democratic guise and the progressive worldview that accompanies it.

            Even though Popper attacks totalitarianism with a vigor that attempts to be sincere, as one continues to engage with Popper’s theories, the world that Popper constructs from ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ appears increasingly totalitarian.  When the feeling of unease cannot be undone, one sometimes cannot help but question what seemed to be so simple that there was nothing to be doubted.

            Very mysteriously, Popper’s principle of falsification is so taken for granted that it’s hard to take the time to really examine it with substantial consideration.  While the falsification principle hides behind the impression that it is entirely unpretentious, it becomes alarmingly more suspect if one follows its line of reasoning and applies logic to what is supposed to be so eminently ‘logical.’  While Popper is brilliant at manipulating, philosophy, a ‘system of systems’ that is fundamentally incapable of justifying its own existence, he uses philosophical code-words to demean science when science is powerful, authoritative, and is continually able to justify its own existence.   While Popper is arguably successful at demoralizing science and going even so far as to challenge its very will to exist and expand.  Popper’s enterprise is intrinsically unstable despite the rampant popularization of his principle of falsification.

            However conveniently accepted, Popper’s principle may be, this acceptance is grounded upon very questionable claims.

            While it is true that Popper’s principle of falsification is very good at removing difficulties, whether this is a good thing, is another issue entirely.  The problem with the principle is that it eliminates difficulties so efficiently that eventually there would be no more problems left.  Eventually, even the initiative behind scientific development would perish because people would know all too well that sooner as opposed to later whatever they could develop would be subject to an absolute and totalistic elimination as is justified by the principle of falsification.  As the principle is theoretically constructed, it is so strong because it is protected from ever being wrong.  Consequently, the perpetuation and even the survival of science are called into question when every development is inevitably falsified so that the possibility of advancement becomes nonexistent.

            This seems to be such a drastic conclusion that one is almost unwilling to accept such a dismal conceptualization.  In order to do more justice to Popper’s work, further analysis can be assumed so that one is not carried away or too quickly influenced by the falsifications within one principle, however prominent that principle may be.

            In order to put the principle into perspective, so that it can be better understood as it is framed within an appropriate context.  It is possible to look at other prominent theorizations that Popper put forth so that one’s initial issue with Popper’s principle of falsification can be more comparatively assessed and engagingly understood.

            According to Popper, “A theory is comprehensive and reasonable only in relation to a given problem-situation, and it can be rationally discussed only by discussing this relation.”(Popper, “Conjectures” 199)  While this sounds more reasonable because one almost hopes to find more rationality in Popper’s theories as they sound so scientific and rational.  When greater thought is given to the grammar, the technocratic appeal starts to crack under the stress of its underlying ‘commitments.’

            It is noteworthy that the absence of the actor is missed but that this absence is at the same time, easy to ignore.  The problem-situation has agency in Popper’s thesis but if the problem-situation has agency in that it directs and has some capacity for enforcement, so people have any agency at all in Popper’s methodology?

            According to Popper’s ‘rationality principle,’ the only thing that is most firmly affirmed is that people essentially have no agency because they will act in accordance to “the situation in which they find themselves.”(Popper, “Rationality” 361)  This is pessimistically deterministic an if Popper’s ‘rationality principle’ were true then there would be no individuality because the actor is arbitrary as the situation dominates the actor so much that the actor without agency is directed like a puppet on a stage.   Furthermore, existing situations, by guaranteeing the same results from different people during different historical periods, is operationally so stable that force exists without momentum.  Without momentum, time tragically ceases to exist as it no longer has any substantiality in a world that cannot change and consequently loses its dependency on time.  Time is no longer needed because its purpose is to provide a measure or evaluative standard for assessments of change.  When change no longer occurs, time has no reason to exist.

            Furthermore, it’s questionable if people even exist in Popper’s world.  As determined by the ‘rationality principle,’ every person can do nothing but act in accordance to the situation that they are situated in.  Every action is determined because every action is situation-bound so that no independent action is possible.  Whether people exist is alarmingly unclear because even if they can be called people, these ‘people’ in Popper’s World can only perform actions that they have already been and forever will, be pre-determined to perform.

            Unfortunately, within Popper’s theoretical world, there does not seem to be much hope or opportunity for science to exist with even a small degree of available reference to freedom.  Though scientific actions may be performed if some situations determine that they be executed but science would be a dead mechanism that is without possibilities as it can never develop in a world deprived of both change and agency.

            Following from this ‘logic’ it is very much doubtful that there even exist any loopholes that can be relied upon to enact any change at all.  Even if problem-situations appear from time to time in Popper’s theoretical world, resolutions are already determined and unchanging situations promote the never ending replication of actions that are utterly futile and possess no meaning as they are guided by not even a faint glimmer of free-will.  If certain situations determine that theories or statements will be produced by the actions of a person, the outcome is already predetermined so the same theories will be produced and the same refutations will be realized again and again.  Eventually, what would happen is that Popper’s theoretical world would contradict even its own premises to an absurd length.  If the same situations determine the actions that determine the output, the replication and expected replication of refutation would occur over and over again.  Consequently, the same theories would be falsified over and over again because no one is able to consciously direct action so as to accommodate for the produced ‘existence’ of a theory that has already been refuted.  The principle of falsification is even impossible to uphold against the weight of the rationality principle because it is unable to accommodate for the endless and repetitious production of theories that it is nevertheless commanded to refute even though it has already refuted the same theory before.

            What emerges quite clearly from this discussion is the severely fragile quality of Popper’s theorizations.  Questionably scientific, they more persuasively manifest the self-serving and hyperbolically fantastic appeal that the metaphysical frequently assumes even as it tries to conceal its conceptual fragility  along with an internal subjugation that is ‘fatalistic’ and ultimately ‘false.’

            While the integrity of Popper’s system is almost indefensible, the morality of Popper as a theorist is incredibly uncertain.  Even while Popper claims to value doubt above all other values, he is very inconsistent about applying even a small degree of doubt to his own statements.  Popper instead engages in a dance towards distraction with hopes that the reader will not be able to be aware of the pervasive problems within Popper’s methodology.  If such a methodology should be called a philosophy, it is a philosophy like so many other philosophies that it is utterly incapable of justifying itself as either secure or credible.

            In spite of his many and all too pervasive inadequacies, Popper still maintains a domineering edge by engaging language so that his theorizations appear ‘truthful’ and even ‘trustworthy.’  By engaging repetition to his own ends, Popper is able to assert over and over again that his theories are not only objectivist but also anti-psychological.  Even when a mastery of psychology is undeniably exercised, the codification process is so complete that the language of philosophy is never allowed, even as it functions to mediate and in some substantial way, restore.

III.              Inference to Best Explanation

            In light of the previous discussion of Popper, it is readily apparent that Popper is hostile to inferences as inferences necessitate the existence of a conscious agency that is capable of reason.  Following from this, a conscious agency that is capable of reason would be able to continuously store knowledge and use this knowledge to facilitate decision making processes.

            It is important to discriminate that for Popper, inductive inferences are interpreted extremely hostilely while deductive inferences are not at all problematic as they incorporate tautology and pure reasoning so as to subdue the status of agency and consciousness.  As Popper is almost so theoretically avoidant of change, it is challenging to assess how Popper would react to something as dynamic and flexible as IBE, or, Inference to the Best Explanation.  Inference to Best Explanation is a “contextual principle in that it draws heavily upon background knowledge for its application, e.g., in order to judge which hypothesis among a number of rivals is the best explanation for the data gathered.”(Douven S426)  Furthermore, IBE operates without having to assume that formal statements exist that would provide automatic legitimization for IBE as it is an explanatory procedure.   This goes to say that Popper’s principle of falsification that relies on a formalized decision making procedure which is ignorant of agency variations is very different from IBE’s decision making procedure that is both informal and extremely reliant upon individual interpretations and considerations.  Furthermore, IBE stresses that if refutations do appear, these refutations are inconclusive while Popper firmly believes that refutations, if valid on scientific grounds, necessitate for the entire elimination of the theory or even the system that it is held to refute.  Judging from the results of this preliminary discussion and comparison, it would be very challenging to formulate IBE so that it would give Popper a more acceptable view of inference.

            However, another way to approach this is to attempt to look beyond Poppers exhibited work to what Popper exhibits in his work.  As the mythic exaggerations and logical implausibility of Poppers theoretical approach is so blatant that one is tempted to dismiss his efforts as egotistically corrupt.  As the domination of the ego is so readily apparent and can serve to explain not only why there are so many contradictions within Poppers theoretical system but also why his system and argumentation are so readily ‘convincing’ if one does not give it much thought.  Although his errors can be appraised as substantially inadequate attempts that were  somehow able to deceive people through rhetorical tricks and psychological devices to assume that what he argued had a credible basis.  I think there’s something else going on and that other element is indicated in the critique but not descriptively acknowledged.  There is some kind of deeply intuitive wisdom that is reflective of Poppers attempts which make his statements and even his most outlandish theses somehow ‘meaningful.’  Even if they merely rephrase cognitive tendencies towards irrationality in a scientific way that neutralizes the beholder as it suggests a world without agency.  The naturalization of ‘mistakes’ may be in some way very closely connected to the workings of the human mind.  Especially as it concerns decision-making processes.

            While Poppers principle of falsification seems to correspond so poorly to science that it is easy to refute even on empirical grounds.  If one takes perspective into greater appeal it’s useful to note that while we forgive our individual errors and inconsistencies with a degree of generosity that borders on extravagant.  If the world’s greatest chess master is beaten in a monitored competition, then because of a counter-theory that arose because his designation was subject to a test, his designation has been forcibly falsified and in the eyes of most observers, this falsification is both infinite and absolute.  Although he might, win back the title, for most observers, this is when they stop being interested in how he is doing and would probably not even pay attention to his attempts towards reclaiming his title as the ‘world’s greatest chess master.’

            Most audience members unambiguously and conclusively settle that the theory that previously upheld that the chess master was the ‘world’s greatest’ has been falsified in such a way and with such confirmation and satisfaction that adequacy of judgment is not at all an issue.  The audience member will probably not assess whether he is adequate to judge on this matter but automatically assumes in a self-satisfying and supremely egotistical way that his judgment is solid and unambiguous; That he does not need to follow this chess master who has fallen and can for all time, determine that he is no longer the ‘world’s greatest chess master.’  The genius of Popper may flow from his insight into intuitive appeals and egotistical limitations as the play out in the decision making process.

            While IBE would fail to change Popper’s hostility towards inductive inference because the issue of inference for Popper is somewhat semantic and stubbornly rigid that preference changes are almost impossible to actualize.  What’s notable is that inference is perceived by Popper in such a negative light because Popper is so passionate about the preservation of his intellectual legacy and exhibits a considerable amount of effort for the sake of not only achieving but securing this end.

            Inductive inference is able to threaten the security of any legacy because it has a vigorous capacity that can be utilized to reshape meanings and destabilize patterns of production.  Theories are also products and as such, even Popper’s contributions could one day be extremely disadvantaged and utterly demoted in response to very different values and interpretative trends.  Therefore, Poppers desire for endless replications of ‘agents’ without ‘agency’ would serve his desire for immortality because he sets up a ‘convenient’ strategy that engages theoretical arguments to provide ‘confirmation’ against agency and true change so that history can be both an end as well as a beginning.   As inductive inference is capable of being extremely hostile to Popper’s interests and aims, there is little reason for Popper to change his ‘contempt’ for inference.

            However, if a perspective shift occurs so that Popper is able to realize what is useful and advantageous about the particularities within IBE then it is very possible that he could identify with select particularities

            One of the advantages of the IBE method is also a disadvantage.  As the term, empirical, can be so broadly assumed that it can be enlisted to explain almost any and every situation.  What is an advantage, the almost universal usefulness of the term, also becomes a disadvantage because although one can use the term readily, it is not precise enough that it can be used effectively.  Due to imprecision association with definition, IBE is hard to found and legitimize on scientific grounds because the foundation term is so imprecise that it cannot be adequately tested or evaluated.  If conceptions can be maintained to be empirical because they involve hypotheses about human behavior, hypotheses in the instances that IBE concerns are subject to distortion, manipulation and even complete fabrication.  While people do consciously conceive, they do not consciously hypothesize in a manner that corresponds well to the scientific stylization of what it means to hypothesize.  This makes claims to scientific verifiability and integrity to be extremely shaky because an agent can easily be manipulated so that they say what is ironically determined by the situation they are in.  Alternatively, an agents evidence can be distorted to fit within hypothesis models so as to make professional theories more persuasive though they lack the merit of an ethical and rational procedure for the gathering and utilization of empirical evidence.

            Also, even though IBE and Popper’s methodology both suffer from severe methodological mishaps that injure their explanatory merit, there is something about both methods that is almost intuitively appealing and consequentially ‘credible.’  While both are very good at promoting a kind of psychological satisfaction as both approaches are very confident about the legitimacy of their methodological enterprise.  IBE is confident that it provides or rather, promotes the production of theories that are useful for explanatory purposes.  So even though all of its theoretical entities cannot be vindicated, it nevertheless feels certain that it deserves to exist as a result of its useful results.  Popper’s methodology is as previously shown, notoriously impossible to vindicate though it is a far easier task if one only sets about to legitimize.

            Popper’s falsification principle alone has received a considerable amount of attention not only in academic circles but also within various businesses and Popper’s principle has been used time and time again because of its subliminal and intuitive appeal.  What Popper’s principle is certain about is that it is able to allow for the unambiguous end to endless chatter or discussion.  This can seem irrational because it necessitates for the necessity of ignorance whenever possible and whenever it can be legitimated.  However, too much investment in rationalization can be very irrational because no actions are able to be apprehended and therefore, no work is being done.  As Popper’s methodology is very confident about its ability to create psychological certainty by claiming that it completely avoids the psychological; it supports productively with advantageous ‘lies’ but the benefits of this are realized by actors with a tendency towards compulsive rationalization.  As too much rationalization very quickly becomes irrational, although Popper’s methodology is not verifiable and is not even too scientific except in the rhetorical sense, it is nevertheless so commandingly popular because it frees people up so that they can act.

            While it’s uncertain that Popper would be able to accept the IBE method, he would probably be attentively interested in a supportive sense because it proves that it is useful time and time again for the purposes of motivating and coordinating action.  Popper should support that end because his method pervasively legitimizes itself despite its many internal contradictions because it is able to satisfy agents so that they can become motivated and coordinated workers.

            Both methods are infused with contradiction but are complementary in many ways.  Although there are disadvantages associated with both methods that result from their internal contradictions, they are frequently very to enlist and for that reason are continually used.  Ironically, their functionally may be primarily derived from their uncanny ability to betray appearances as they are frequently able to acknowledge contradictions latent within the human mind.  As the two methods are capable of taking stock of latent, and arguably universal, human defects; Both methods operate effectively to promote as an end that which is so encouraged and pursued.  The end that is productivity, as productivity is at its essence, the fuel for development in all areas of human life and human activity.

Works Cited

Rader, Melvin.  “Crisis and the Spirit of Community.”  Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association  27  (1953-1954):  40-58

Wittgenstein, Ludwig.  The Blue and Brown Books.  Oxford:  Blackwell, 1958.

Krige, John.  “Popper’s Epistemology and the Autonomy of Science.”  Social Studies of Science  8.3  (1978):  287-307.

Popper, K.R.  Conjectures and Refutations.  London:  Routledge, 1972.

Popper, K.R.  “The rationality principle.”  A Pocket Popper.  Ed.  Miller.   Oxford:  Fontana, 1983.

Douven, Ivan.  “Inference to the Best Explanation Made Coherent”  Philosophy of Science  66  (1999):  S424-S435

Cite this “Inference to the Best Explanation” as an Inferential Strategy

“Inference to the Best Explanation” as an Inferential Strategy. (2016, Oct 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/inference/

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