It is common to associate philosophy with a world of speculation without any connection to science, but the truth is that this is not the case. This discipline is not only the mother of all sciences from a historical perspective; it is also the one that allows defending the robustness or weakness of scientific theories.
In fact, since the first half of the 20th century, with the appearance of a group of thinkers known as the Vienna Circle, there is even a branch of philosophy that is in charge of supervising not only scientific knowledge but also what is meant by science. science.
It is the philosophy of science, and one of its earliest representatives, Karl Popper, did much to examine the question of the extent to which psychology generates scientifically supported knowledge. His confrontation with psychoanalysis was one of the main causes of the crisis of this current.
Who was Karl Popper?
Karl Popper was born in Vienna during the summer of 1902 when psychoanalysis was gaining strength in Europe. In that same city, he studied philosophy, a discipline to which he devoted himself until he died in 1994.
Popper was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the Vienna Circle generation, and his early works were taken into account when developing a demarcation criterion, that is when delimiting a way of demarcating what is that which distinguishes scientific knowledge from what is not.
Thus, the problem of demarcation is an issue that Karl Popper tried to answer by devising ways in which one can know which kinds of statements are scientific and which are not.
This is an unknown that runs through the entire philosophy of science, regardless of whether it is applied to relatively well-defined objects of study (such as chemistry) or others in which the phenomena to be investigated are more open to interpretation (such as paleontology). And, of course, psychology, being on a bridge between neurology and the social sciences, is greatly 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 baseless speculation. This led him to reach a series of conclusions that left much of what was considered psychology in his time in a bad place and that emphasized the importance of falsification in scientific research.
Although the philosophy of science was born in the 20th century with the appearance of the Vienna Circle, the main attempts to know how knowledge (in general, not specifically “scientific knowledge”) can be accessed and to what extent it is true appeared a few years ago. many centuries, with the birth of epistemology.
Auguste Comte and inductive reasoning
Positivism, or the philosophical doctrine according to which the only valid knowledge is scientific, was 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, it generated many problems; so many that no one could act in a way that was even slightly consistent with it.
First of all, the idea that the conclusions we reach through experience outside of science are irrelevant and do not deserve to be taken into account is devastating for anyone who wants to get out of bed and make relevant decisions. in your day today.
The truth is that everyday life requires us to make hundreds of inferences quickly without having to go through something similar to the kind of empirical tests necessary to do science, and the fruit of this process continues to be knowledge, more or less correct, that makes us act accordingly. one sense or another. We don’t even bother to base all our decisions on logical thinking: we constantly take mental shortcuts.
Secondly, positivism placed the problem of demarcation at the center of the philosophical debate, which is already very complicated to solve. In what way was Comte’s positivism understood that true knowledge should be accessed? By accumulating simple observations based on observable and measurable facts. That is, it is fundamentally 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 conclude that lions are carnivores; from individual facts, we will arrive at a broad conclusion that encompasses many other unobserved cases.
However, it is one thing to recognize that inductive reasoning can be useful, and another to maintain that by itself it allows us to arrive at true knowledge about how reality is structured. It is at this point that Karl Popper enters the scene, his principle of falsifiability and his rejection of positivist principles.
Popper, Hume, and falsificationism
The cornerstone of the demarcation criterion developed by Karl Popper is called falsificationism. Falsificationism is an epistemological current according to which scientific knowledge should not be based so much on the accumulation of empirical evidence as on attempts to refute ideas and theories to find samples of their robustness.
This idea borrows certain elements from David Hume’s philosophy, according to which it is impossible to demonstrate a necessary connection between a fact and a consequence that follows from it. There is no reason to say with certainty that an account of the reality that works today will work tomorrow. Although lions eat meat very often, perhaps in time it will be discovered that in exceptional situations some of them can survive for a long time eating a special variety of plants.
Furthermore, one of the implications of Karl Popper’s falsificationism is that it is impossible to definitively prove that a scientific theory is true and faithfully describes reality. Scientific knowledge will be defined by how well it works to explain things at a given time and context, not by the degree to which it reflects reality as it is, since knowing the latter is impossible.
Karl Popper and psychoanalysis
Although Popper had some run-ins with behaviorism (specifically, with the idea that learning is based on repetition through conditioning, although this is not a fundamental premise of this psychological approach) the school of psychology that he attacked most vehemently was the Freudian psychoanalysis, which during the first half of the 20th century was very influential in Europe.
What Popper criticized about psychoanalysis was its inability to stick to explanations that could be falsified, something that he considered to be cheating. A theory that cannot be falsified is capable of contorting itself and adopting all possible forms in order not to show that reality does not fit its proposals, which means that it is not useful to explain phenomena and, therefore, it is not science.
For the Austrian philosopher, the only merit of Sigmund Freud’s theories was that they had a good ability to perpetuate themselves, taking advantage of their ambiguities to fit into any explanatory framework and to adapt to all unforeseen events without being called into question. The effectiveness of psychoanalysis had to do not with the degree to which it explained things, but with how it found ways to justify itself.
For example, the Oedipus complex theory need not suffer if after having identified the father as a source of childhood hostility it is discovered that the relationship with the father was very good and that contact with the mother was never had. mother beyond the day of birth: simply, other people are identified as paternal and maternal figures, since as psychoanalysis is based on the symbolic, it does not have to fit with “natural” categories such as 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 happens, but because of something even more basic: because it was not even possible to consider the possibility that these theories are false.
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 the biases and starting points of different observers have on what they study, and therefore he understood that certain theories were more of a historical construction than a useful tool for science.
Psychoanalysis, according to Popper, was a kind of mixture of the argument ad ignorantiam and the fallacy of begging the question: it always asks to accept some premises beforehand to demonstrate later that, since there is no evidence to the contrary, they must be true. That is why he understood that psychoanalysis was comparable to religions: both were self-confirming and based on circular reasoning to get out of any confrontation with the facts.