The magic of Popper vs. the magic of Darwin

In a previous post, I pointed out that Darwin's theory of evolution is incomplete, because it does not explain why random variations are not arbitrary. The emergence of complex adapted living beings does not follow from the logical structure of the explanation: introduce random variations and select the best ones. I gave the example of binary programs: introduce random variations in the code and select the best ones. It doesn't work. Yet the Darwinian explanation has something self-evident in it: if you select the best variations around something, then you should end up with something better. The fallacy is that a variation does not necessarily result in better and worse outcomes with comparable probabilities. For a program, changing one bit generally results in a faulty program. This is why no one in software engineering uses the Darwinian method to write any program.

For the record, and even though it should be self-evident, I am not advocating for “intelligent design” of any sort. I find the debate between educated creationists (ie intelligent design advocates) and neo-Darwinians generally quite disappointing. Creationists would point out some mysterious aspect of life and evolution, and assume that anything mysterious must be divine. Neo-Darwinians would respond that there is nothing mysterious. I would think that a scientific attitude is rather to point out that mysterious does not imply divine, and to try to understand that mysterious thing.

Later it occurred to me that the same fallacy occurs in epistemology, namely in Karl Popper's view of science, probably the most influential epistemological theory among scientists. Popper proposed that a scientific statement, as opposed to a metaphysical statement, is something that can be falsified by an observation. A scientific statement is nothing else than a logical proposition, and you can make an infinite number of such propositions. To distinguish between them, you need to do experiments that falsify some of them. So many scientists seem to think that the scientific process is to design experiments that can distinguish between different theories. This explains the focus on tools that I have talked about before.

There is a rather direct analogy with Darwin's theory of evolution. The focus is on selection, but neglects a critical aspect of the process, which is the creative process: how do you come up with candidate theories in the first place? I discussed this problem in a previous post. For any given set of observations, there is an infinite number of logical statements that are consistent with it. Therefore, you cannot deduce theories from observations; this is the problem of induction. How then do scientists propose theories, and why do we test some theories and not others that would have the same degree of logical validity? (e.g theory = existing set of observations + random prediction of a new observation) This is what we might call the hard problem of epistemology, in reference to the hard problem of consciousness. Popper doesn't address that problem, yet it is critical to the scientific process. How about this epistemological process:

  • Consider a set of theories, which are logical propositions.
  • Select the best ones using Popper's falsificationnism.
  • Allow those theories to reproduce, kill the other ones.
  • Introduce random variations, e.g. randomly add/remove quantifiers or variables.
  • Repeat.

How well would that work? Science does seem to follow a sort of evolutionary process, but selection itself is not sufficient to explain it; one also needs to explain the creative process.

It is true that Popper has correctly identified experiment as a central aspect of science, just as Darwin has correctly identified selection as a central aspect of evolution. But Popper does not address the hard problem of epistemology, just as Darwin does not address the hard problem of evolution, and Tononi does not address the hard problem of consciousness.

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