It’s common to associate philosophy with a world of speculation unrelated to science, but the truth is, it isn’t. This discipline is not only the mother of all sciences from a historical point of view; it is also the one which makes it possible to defend the robustness or the weakness of scientific theories.
In fact, since the first half of the 20th century, with the emergence of a group of thinkers known as the Vienna Circle, there has even been a branch of philosophy responsible for overseeing not only scientific knowledge, but what by science we mean.
It is the philosophy of science, and one of its first representatives, Karl Popper, has done much to examine the question of the extent to which psychology generates scientifically substantiated knowledge.. In fact, its confrontation with psychoanalysis was one of the main causes of the entry into crisis of this current.
Who was Karl Popper?
Karl Popper was born in Vienna in the summer of 20002, as psychoanalysis was gaining strength in Europe. In the same city, he studied philosophy, a discipline to which he devoted himself until his death in 1994.
Popper was one of the most influential scientific philosophers of the Vienna Circle generation, and his early work was highly regarded when developing a demarcation criterion, that is, when delimiting a means of delimiting what distinguishes scientific knowledge from what is not.
The problem of demarcation is therefore a problem to which Karl Popper tried to answer by imagining ways in which it is possible to know which types of statements are scientific and which are not..
It is a mystery that runs through the whole philosophy of science, whether it applies to relatively well-defined objects of study (such as chemistry) or to others in which the phenomena to be studied are more open to the interpretation (like paleontology).). And, of course, psychology, being at the bridge between neurology and the social sciences, is seriously affected depending on whether one demarcation criterion or another is applied to it.
Thus, Popper devoted much of his work as a philosopher to devising a way to separate scientific knowledge from metaphysics and mere unfounded speculation. This led him to a series of conclusions that left much of what in his time was considered psychology and that they emphasized the importance of forgery in scientific research.
Although the philosophy of science originated in the twentieth century with the emergence of the Vienna Circle, the main attempts at how to access knowledge (in general, not specifically “scientific knowledge”) and even how true this is appeared several centuries ago, with the birth of epistemology.
Auguste Comte and inductive reasoning
Positivism, or the philosophical doctrine that the only valid knowledge is scientific, has been one of the consequences of the development of this branch of philosophy. It appeared at the beginning of the 19th century at the hands of the French thinker Auguste Comte and of course caused many problems.; so much so that in fact no one could act in a way that was slightly compatible with her.
First of all, the idea that the conclusions we draw from experience outside of science are irrelevant and not worth considering is devastating for anyone looking to get out of bed and take action. relevant decisions in his everyday life.
The truth is that everyday life forces us to make hundreds of deductions quickly without having to go through something similar to the kind of empirical contrasts necessary to make science, and the fruit of this process remains the knowledge, more or less correct, which makes us act in one direction or another. In fact, we don’t even bother to make all of our decisions based on logical thinking – we’re constantly taking mental shortcuts.
Second, positivism has placed at the center of the philosophical debate the problem of demarcation, which in itself is very difficult to solve. How did Comte’s positivism understand that true knowledge had been accessed? By accumulating simple observations based on observable and measurable facts. In other words, that is to say it is mainly based on induction.
For example, if after making several observations about the behavior of lions, we see that whenever they need food, they resort to hunting other animals, we will come to the conclusion that lions are carnivores. ; from individual facts we will come to a general conclusion covering many other unobserved cases.
However, it is one thing to recognize that inductive reasoning can be useful, and quite another to argue that it in itself allows for real knowledge of how reality is structured. This is when Karl Popper enters the scene, his principle of falsifiability and his rejection of positivist principles.
Popper, Hume and falsification
The cornerstone of the demarcation criterion developed by Karl Popper is called falsificationism. Falsificationism is an epistemological current according to which scientific knowledge should be based not so much on the accumulation of empirical evidence as on attempts to refute ideas and theories in order to find evidence of their robustness.
This idea takes up some elements of David Hume’s philosophy, According to which it is impossible to demonstrate a necessary connection between a fact and a consequence arising from it. There is no reason for us to say with certainty that an explanation of reality that works today will work tomorrow. Although lions eat meat very often, perhaps over time, it is found that in exceptional situations some of them are able to survive for a long time by eating a special variety of plants.
Moreover, one of the implications of Karl Popper’s falsificationism is that it is impossible to definitively prove that a scientific theory is true and accurately describes reality. Scientific knowledge will be defined by how it works to explain things at a given time and in a given context, not to the extent that it reflects reality as it is, because knowing it is impossible.
Karl Popper and psychoanalysis
Although Popper had some encounters with behaviorism (in particular, with the idea that learning is based on repetitions through conditioning, although this is not a fundamental premise of this psychological approach) the school of psychology that he attacked most vehemently was that of Freudian psychoanalysis, Which during the first half of the twentieth century had a lot of influence in Europe.
Basically what Popper criticized about psychoanalysis was its inability to stick to potentially falsified explanations that he viewed as cheating. A theory that cannot be falsified is able to contort and take all possible forms so as not to show that reality does not fit with their proposals, Which means that it is not useful for explaining phenomena and therefore is not science.
For the Austrian philosopher, the only merit of Sigmund Freud’s theories was that they had a good capacity to perpetuate themselves, taking advantage of their own ambiguities to fit into any explanatory framework and adapt to all the unforeseen. without being questioned. The effectiveness of psychoanalysis had nothing to do with the extent to which it was used to explain things, but with the means by which he found ways of self-justification.
For example, the theory of the Oedipus complex should not suffer if, after identifying the father as a source of hostility during childhood, it is found that in fact the relationship with the father was very good and that he did not never had contact with the mother beyond the day of birth. birth: it simply identifies others as father and mother figures, because psychoanalysis being based on the symbolic, it must not fall into “natural” categories. Like the biological parents.
Blind faith and circular reasoning
In short, Karl Popper did not believe that psychoanalysis was not a science because it did not serve to explain well what is happening, but for something even more basic: because it was not even possible to consider the possibility that these theories were wrong.
Unlike Comte, who assumed that it was possible to unravel faithful and definitive knowledge about what is real, Karl Popper took into account the influence that biases and the starting points of different observers have on what they are. study, and so he understood that some theories were more of a historical construct than a useful tool for science.
Psychoanalysis, according to Popper, was a kind of mixture of the argument ad ignorantiam and the error of the request for principle: it always asks to accept in advance certain premises to then demonstrate that, as there is no evidence to the contrary, they must be true. This is why he understood that psychoanalysis was comparable to religions: both confirmed themselves and relied on circular reasoning to come out windy from any confrontation with the facts.