It is quite common to be in discussions about worldviews and scientific evidence and the issue of falsifiability comes up. Usually, one side offers several pieces of evidence that they believe shows the other worldview to be false, but the other person has a logical answer to rebut their claims of incompatibility. The skeptic, in frustration, often claims that the opposing view is therefore "unfalsifiable" on the adherent's view. The skeptic believes that the other person is somehow cheating and denying the possibility that their worldview could be falsified. For if something is not falsifiable, then it cannot be considered scientific (and is often labeled as "pseudoscience"). The term "unfalsifiable" is tossed around a lot, but it is unclear whether those hurling it at their "opponents" actually know what it means or how to properly apply it to the opposing worldview (or their own). So today I want to take some time to examine falsifiability to clear up some misconceptions.
What Is It?
We have to establish what we mean by "falsifiability," because it does have two general understandings. The one that I want to examine is falsifiability in theory (the second, falsifiable in reality, will be discussed throughout). This the idea that a view has the logical ability to be demonstrated false if something else is shown to be true or false. There is a necessary logical connection to the evidence, so this allows someone to say something along the lines of, "if we discover such-and-such, then X view is definitely false." This is also called "predictability." The more of these type of predictions that a view (or theory, scientifically speaking) makes, the more chances one has to demonstrate a view to be false. If a single one of them is demonstrated, then the view cannot possibly reflect reality and has been effectively falsified- its time to abandon the view and go with something else. Seems simple enough?
Not quite; there are two reasons. First, as I have written before (here), man is not omniscient, so scientific research is constantly taking place and new discoveries are being made. In many cases it will take a long time to make discoveries that will be able to tell us whether a prediction was correct or not. It is often claimed that if a prediction is attempted to be shown false but is not demonstrated to be false, then it is a continued confirmation of the truth of the view. The adherent needs only to appeal to "some future discovery." Allow me to give two examples of this, one from both sides of the creation/evolution debate.
Intelligent Design Appeals to the Future
Creation theories include the idea that God is the designer of all nature (addressed here). Inherent in this view is that God created each component of the various systems of nature with a purpose. Skeptics of the "intelligent design" (ID) theory often point to the fact that many systems and features of systems do not have any function that has been discovered. Skeptics see this as a falsification of the prediction of ID that all features do have function. However, ID proponents often appeal to "some future discovery" of function. This frustrates the skeptics of ID, because the ID proponent is granting the falsification only existentially and epistemologically- meaning that scientists simply do not know the actual function today, but they will know the actual function in the future.
Naturalism Appeals to the Future
Naturalistic theories require that no agent be involved in the creative process of nature at all- everything that exists today either came about by necessity or by pure, dumb luck. Inherent in this theory is that there is no authentic consciousness. The idea that we have experiences of consciousness is illusory, but that illusion can be explained by strictly natural processes. To date, no naturalistic theory has been able to provide an explanation for the illusion of consciousness. Skeptics of naturalism often see this as a falsification of the naturalistic view. However, the naturalist needs only to appeal to "some future discovery" that will explain the illusion. The skeptic is often frustrated by this attempt because, once again, only epistemological falsification today is granted. So what are we to do with these? I'll get to that later.
Accidental vs. Necessary Details
The second issue has to do with predictions of details accidental to the view, not details necessary to the view. Often in the creation/evolution debate, skeptics of Christianity believe that if the universe and earth are demonstrated to be older than about 10,000 years, that Christianity, in general, has been demonstrated to be false. Any time a skeptic of a view misunderstands the distinction between details that are accidental and details that are necessary, falsifiability is not only misunderstood, but it is misapplied. For, if a particular view that falls under another general view makes a prediction that is demonstrated to be false, the general view is not what needs to be abandoned (since it is not necessarily dependent upon the truth of the claim of the accidental view); it is rather the particular sub-view that must be jettisoned.
For the skeptic who fails to make this distinction, they believe that a general view is constantly being falsified, and they do not understand why the adherents still hold the general view and keep "moving the goal posts" to another view that explains the data. This often leads to the accusation that a view is not falsifiable, thus not scientific, or even worse, pseudoscientific. However, again, since man is not omniscient, it is necessary that his understanding of the world constantly be changing to accommodate how we discover the world to be. Are goal posts moving? Sure. But that is only because knowledge is constantly growing. This cannot be avoided on any side of any debate where the sides rely upon discoveries of reality to build the case for their view. If we are to complain that someone will not give up their general view because accidental detail after accidental detail has been falsified, we need to be willing to give up general view based upon the falisification of the accidental details of it also. If this distinction is not made (and granted to all sides of a debate), then the very fact that discovery continues is reason enough to label every theory as pseudoscience.
Of course, it is not just the skeptics of a view that need to be aware of the distinction between accidental and necessary details of a worldview. Adherents to a general view must make this distinction also.
This leads me to the third issue: presuppositions. If an adherent to a general view presupposes their worldview and fails to make the above distinction, they often will ignore evidence that demonstrates their particular view to be false in order to maintain their general worldview. This causes all kinds of other issues. Not only does it cause fighting among adherents within a general worldview (accusations of "heresy" are quite common), but it also forces the adherent into a position of admitting that their view (general or particular), in fact, is not even falsifiable in theory, much less, in reality (this was admitted by Ken Ham in the question and answer session following his debate with Bill Nye). When someone fails to make the distinction between the accidental details and the necessary details of their worldview, it places them outside the realm of being testable, and any attempt on their part to make an argument based on discoverable evidence is merely a smokescreen to appear to be falsifiable, when the reality is that their view cannot be falsified, even in theory.
Now, to be sure, religious people are not the only people to do this. I've heard many an atheist say that no amount of evidence could convince them that theism is true. But I have to be careful of another mistake: not to judge the many by the few. Just because one person holds their general view presuppositionally, does not mean that everyone else who holds that general or particular view does so also. It is a huge mistake (and often the source of more frustration) if we believe that everyone of a different worldview presupposes their general view is the only possibly correct view of reality. And as I explained above, the fact that people do have to alter the accidental details of their general view is not evidence that the view is unfalsifiable in theory or that the adherent believes that their view is unfalsifiable in theory. Updating the accidental details of a view is a legitimate practice if done appropriately, which, as I hinted to above, I will get to later.
This is a fourth issue that is also quite common. Many times, adherents and skeptics simply have not agreed upon common definitions for terms. So a general or particular view that appears to be falsified in reality actually hasn't been. It is often claimed by atheists that if they can show that ancient Greek, Roman, or Norse gods do not exist that they have shown the Christian God to not exist also. However, as I have explained in a previous post (here), we need to make sure that we agree that specific predictions made by the adherent's view applies as they have defined it, not as someone else has. So, any prediction that applies to views that incorporates gods that are merely superhuman and has failed, applies only to the views that incorporates gods that are merely superhuman, not a God that is supernatural. Another example would be falsifying the existence of a god that is not omniscient, when the God being challenged is omniscient. Likewise, a prediction that falsifies an understanding of evolution that is incorrectly held by a proponent of ID has not falsified the correct understanding of evolution (falsification of punctuated equilibrium does not equate to falsification of gradualistic theories, or vis versa). In logic, this fallacious move is called a "strawman" and should be avoided by ensuring that we understand what the adherent means by their terms. Of course, if the correct understanding is falsified, we need to revisit the distinction between accidental and necessary features before we claim that the general worldview has been falsified in reality.
Changing Your View?
Now, the idea of falsifiability is necessary to scientific investigation. It is how we allow what we discover about reality to shape our understanding of reality. But our understanding can only be shaped if we are allowed to change the accidental details of our general view. If we have the correct general view (but our accidental details fall short), we should not be forced to "toss the baby with the bath water." At the same time, though, we need to know when it may be appropriate to consider changing our general view.
It is crucial to the concept of falsifiability that we be committed to finding the truth, not necessarily committed to a general view (and especially accidental details to that view). Many people hold a general view because despite falsification of accidental details, they have been able to alter the accidental details of their general view in ways that (they believe) remains internally consistent (a feature of reality that the scientific method depends upon) while being able to accommodate and even predict future discoveries. We depend on the reliability of a general view in the past to ground our present faith that the general view will remain reliable in the future. This is why people of all sides of a debate appeal to "some future discovery" to show that their view "may still be compatible with the evidence." This is not an effort to escape falsifiability, but rather a logical trust that their view does actually reflect reality (is true). This makes falsifying a general view to someone to be quite the difficult and tedious process. While failing to make the above distinction deceives us into thinking that a general worldview has been falsified, we are taken again by believing that the adherent is making the emotional choice to dodge the intellectual responsibility to test their general view, when their maintaining it is actually grounded in reasoning from the reliability of the general view in the past and extrapolating that reliability to the future.
On the flip side, though, when we continually are adjusting the accidental details of our general view to accommodate the evidence, it may be time to consider that our general view might not be true, after all. Of course, we must also recognize that there does not exist merely one kind of accidental detail as implied though this post (for simplicity). There exists necessary details of accidental details of a general view and accidental details of accidental details of a general view (if you didn't catch that, please read it again- it is vital). So, don't be too hasty to toss your general view if accidental details keep getting falsified. They could merely be the necessary details of an accidental detail of the general view. An example of this would be the many predictions made by young-earth creationism. These are falsified on almost a daily basis (sometimes, the same predictions have multiple falsifications, but that is not the focus of this post). However, this constant falsification of accidental details of the general view of Christianity is evidence that the accidental view of young-earth creationism is what needs to be abandoned, not Christianity in general.
Focus On The Necessary Details of the General View
I do want to point out that someone could have such a screwed-up understanding of the correct general view that many of their accidental views are constantly falsified (which can be overwhelming if we don't understand how to process it), which brings me to make another important point about falsification that will also answer the question "so, how do we falsify a general view?": if we want to demonstrate a general view to be incorrect, focus on the necessary details of the general view, not the accidental ones. If a necessary detail of a general view is shown to be false, then all versions (which include all levels of accidental details) are false by logical necessity, and that is definitely reason to abandon a general view for an alternative. But make sure, once again, that you make the proper distinction between features that are accidental to the general view and those that are necessary- you don't want to reject what is true (Christianity) because you think that the universe being 6000-10,000 years old is a necessary detail of worldview, when it is actually an (incorrect) accidental detail that may be disregarded without abandoning the Christian worldview altogether.
Falsification Is Not Enough
Finally, just because we show that one general view has been falsified (we did so by focusing on one of the necessary details of the general view) that does not mean that, by default, they must accept our general view (or our version with our accidental details). As long as multiple general views exist, we can knock them out one by one. The process of elimination is legitimate. However, it is not an excuse to presuppose our own general (or particular) view is true. At the same time that we are showing other particular and general views to be false, we need to be making predictions that, if shown to be correct, will validate our view (in general and particular). For if we do not do this but are successful at demonstrating other views false, we leave an intellectual vacuum that will be filled with something else false. We must not only falsify other views, but we must also demonstrate ours to be true.
So, is your view falsifiable? To answer that question, you must examine your own commitments- is it to what is true, or to your view instead? If it is not to what is true, then your view is not falisifiable to you, no matter how falsifiable in reality it is. Has your view been falsified by discoveries? That depends on if a necessary detail of your general view has been demonstrated to be false. If it has, then the general view is false. The question now becomes: "will you be humble enough to set aside any emotional commitment you have with that view and search for the truth?"
Of course, no one is going to read this post and limit their application of it to their own views. We want to know if someone else's view is falsifiable (possibly more so than we care about our own...but that is another topic for later). It depends on what are the necessary details and accidental details of their view. If an accidental details has been shown false, the answer is "no." If a necessary detail has been shown false, the answer is "yes." The questions now, respectively, become: "Are you willing to be humble enough to recognize the failure to falsify and move on to the next attempt at falsifying with the same level of humility and intellectual honesty?" or "Will you humbly show the adherent grace and gently encourage their rejection of falsehood?"
Falsifiability seems like a simple concept to understand and practice. But it certainly is not. It requires intellectual honesty, philosophical precision, and personal humility. It is my prayer that anyone who wishes to use evidence to falsify other worldviews use it, not to tear people down, but to build them up. And obviously, I am confident that those who are humbly on the search for truth will come to understand the reality that they are sinful, and can only come to their Creator by freely accepting the historical death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a substitution for the penalty of their transgressions. Though, the evidence compels such a conclusion, it is not ultimately evidence or arguments that will cause a skeptic to surrender to the truth. Falsifiability is a powerful tool in times of intellectual doubt and to show skeptics that their views are not as solidly grounded in reality as they think, but ultimately the person has to make a choice to accept error and move on or to ignore error and live in denial of the Truth. Will you use falsifiability to live in denial, or will you use it to embrace the Truth?
For continued study check out these links:
- You Don't Know Jack, But Its Okay
- Is Theism Well-Defined Enough to Be Scientifically Testable?
- Zombies of Christianity
- Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye: The Aftermath
- The Importance of Defining Terms
- Elvis, Thor, and Atheists
- Your View Does Not Apply: The Strawman
- Reasons In And Out of a Worldview
- Internal Debates and Apologetics
- Is Faith Emotional or Logical?
- Validity of the Process of Elimination
- The Resurrection
- Can You Argue Someone Into The Kingdom