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orion Analysis of an unfalsifiable theory
Since my response to F. Cryer was on the heated side, I would like to
recap in a more organized fashion what I feel to be the problem with
advocating Popper and the castor oil theory at the same time.
Lets imagine a hypothetical situation: I have five manuscripts, four of
which are dated by C14 to 10th century, while the fifth is dated by the
same method to 12th century. However, I have a theory about the origin and
meaning of these manuscripts which will work only if they all date to
tenth century. I also know that some of the manuscripts might have been
subjected to a process that makes parchment register later in C14
Now, the question is : how acceptable is it for me to assume that the 12th
century manuscript is not evidence that falsifies my theory, but is a
tenth century manuscript that underwent treatment?
First off, its clearly acceptable if the process leaves detectable traces
in the manuscripts, and if I detect those traces in the 12th century
manuscript, and determine their absence in the 10th century ones.
However, what if all I have is the general notion that such process could
have taken take place in some manuscripts ? (I understand this to be the
situation with the castor oil supposition, and am willing to be corrected)
Well, it might still be acceptable to use this as a "corrective" for the
problematic evidence if I am a run of the mill humanist historian
who thinks that a historian's job is to construct plausible accounts of
the past. After all, the discovery of the problematic process does make my
assertion about 10th century origins more plausible.
On the other hand, if I happen to be a Popperian, I should notice that this
explanation makes it quite impossible to use C14 to distinguish between
two opposing situations:
a) The case in which the 12th century manuscript underwent
treatment, and actually dates from the tenth century.
b) The case in which the 12th century manuscript is precisely what
it seems: a 12th century manuscript.
In terms of my theory, the C14 evidence for both of these cases will look
Explanatory mechanisms that make it impossible to distinguish between a
state and its opposite are precisely what Popper criticized as "unfalsifiable
theories". I personnaly have nothing against them (in moderation), but than I
make no claims to follow Popper.
Best regards, Asia Lerner