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Gödel, Kuhn, Popper, and Feyerabend*
Jonathan P. Seldin Department of Mathematics and Computer Science University of Lethbridge 4401 University Drive Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada jonathan.seldin@uleth.ca http: //www.cs.uleth.ca/~seldin January 5, 2004

Abstract Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, 1962) has presented a view of the history of science as a succession of ‘paradigms’ which are not completely comparable with each other. Karl Popper (Popper, 1970) has attacked this view as being relativistic and denying that there is objective scientific truth. Popper seems to be saying that in order for science to be objectively true, every two scientific theories must be completely comparable. In taking this position, Popper is making a claim for a kind of completeness that is ruled out for theories strong enough to be ‘interesting’ by Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and related results. In this paper, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and related results will be used to draw conclusions about this conflict between Kuhn and Popper. In particular, it will be argued that if Popper had taken Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem into account, he would have wound up with a position consistent with that of Kuhn. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem will also
*

This work was supported in part by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. A preliminary version of this paper was presented at a forum of Sigma Xi held at McGill University in Montreal on April 18, 1997. A later preliminary version was presented at a colloquium of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in January, 1999. I would like to thank the anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions.

1975) does not really have an argument that there is no objective scientific method. he says.Kuhn suggests that the rationality of science presupposes the acceptance of a common framework.2 be used to argue that Feyerabend (Feyerabend. This seems in many ways close to the ideas that Thomas Kuhn proposed. will be from the 1970 edition. 56). Karl Popper is known for the view that science consists of the bold formation of theories as hypotheses which are then subjected to attempts to falsify them. 1970. He suggests that rational discussion.) Later. 1962) has presented a view of the history of science that differs from the previously commonly held view of science as a gradual accumulation of knowledge. In (Popper. The paper will close with some remarks on what might really count as objective scientific truth.’ When for some reason the paradigm is no longer adequate for normal science to proceed in the usual way.’ (Kuhn. for example. Usually. .. Popper says of Kuhn’s views: . is only possible if we have agreed on the fundamentals. p. ‘In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do. that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. One of the most controversial aspects of Kuhn’s ideas is his view that successive paradigms are not completely compatible. but sometimes it may be a larger group than that. 1962.’ (Ibid. there is a ‘scientific revolution.. 94. However. p. we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.’ and normal science only resumes when a new paradigm is accepted by the scientific community involved. He says. Karl Popper objected to Kuhn’s views on the grounds that they represented relativism. p. and rational criticism. He presents the history of science as a succession of periods of ‘normal science.’ each of which is determined by a ‘paradigm. 1. He suggests that rationality depends upon something like a common language and a common set of assumptions. 1970 edition. The dispute between Kuhn and Popper Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn.. 1962. 111) As readers of this volume will be aware. all citations from Kuhn. ‘Like the choice between competing political institutions. this is a group of specialists.

I originally had in mind Thomas Kuhn . In the sciences there need not be progress of another sort. (Popper. We may. Popper was not the only one who thought that Kuhn was relativist: ‘There is nobody else than Thomas Kuhn who contributed more to the widespread acceptance of cognitive relativism in the recent years. p. has the truth in his pocket.. I regard the view here discussed as influential. 63) There seem to be other disagreements between Kuhn and Popper.) I do not doubt that this is one of the points on which we are most deeply divided. 25) Popper did eventually accept that he had misinterpreted Kuhn’s views. 1970).’ (Watanabe. and I am very ready to accept his correction. (Emphasis in the original) And he goes on to say later on the same page: I should like just to indicate briefly why I am not a relativist: I do believe in ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ truth. not an ‘absolutist’ in the sense of thinking that I. Footnote 19. explicit or implicit. . 1994. 1970. However. scientific progress is not quite what we had taken it to be. And it is a logical thesis.. 1991. Kuhn concludes that it may not be possible to say that as science progresses it is bringing scientists closer to the truth: . He says of the view that comparison of different scientific theories requires an agreement on the general framework. It is just a dogma—a dangerous dogma—that the different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages. .. Nevertheless.. I regard this thesis as mistaken..3 This is a widely accepted and indeed a fashionable thesis: the thesis of relativism. p. to be more precise. and his ‘Postscript 1969’ to Kuhn. in Tarski’s sense (although I am... a view with which he disagrees: . have to relinquish the notion. and it is a logical point. of course.. as Kuhn points out. or anybody else. this interpretation was based on a misunderstanding of his views (see his Kuhn. (Author’s footnote omitted) And again later on the same page: The central point is that a critical discussion and a comparison of the various frameworks is always possible.

4th edition 1972. the empirical content of theory t 2 exceeds that of theory t1. in the light of critical discussion. but is rather excluded by the incommensurability. Some of Popper’s remarks seem to indicate that he thought that Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability implied the impossibility of . 1970. and these more precise assertions stand up to more precise tests. (Popper. the facts in more detail than t1. while I have defined the empirical content of a as the class of all basic statements which contradict a. then we can see that the contents of the theories t1 and t 2 play an important role in it. and perhaps not even applicable to t1). p. p. (It will be remembered that the logical content of a statement or theory a is the class of all statements which follow logically from a. 1962. or explains. The idea presupposes the kind of relationship between theories that Kuhn claims does not always exist between paradigms. not considered before t2 was designed (and not suggested by t1. (6) t2 has unified or connected various hitherto unrelated problems. (1) t2 makes more precise assertions than t1. author’s footnote omitted) This suggests that Popper is aiming to give a set of deductive rules to express the idea that one theory is nearer to the truth than another.) For in our list of six cases. (5) t 2 has suggested new experimental tests. t2’s assertions are more precise). 1963. get nearer to the truth. (Kuhn. for example the above case that. (2) t2 takes account of. 232. Chapter 10. Popper says about scientific theories: ‘The aim is to find theories which. (4) t2 has passed tests which t1 has failed to pass. other things being equal. If we reflect upon this list. (3) t2 describes. more facts than t1 (which will include. 170) On the other hand. and t2 has passed these tests.’ (Popper. and explains.4 that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. 57) An indication of what Popper means by this is as follows: I shall give here a somewhat unsystematic list of six types of case in which we should be inclined to say of a theory t 1 that it is superseded by t2 in the sense that t2 seems—as far as we know—to correspond better to the facts than t1 in some sense or other. p.

However. The claim that two theories are incommensurable is more modest than many of its critics have supposed. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the KuhnPopper Dispute Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that any consistent formal system that includes the elementary theory of natural numbers is necessarily incomplete. Kuhn.) 2. in (Popper. the term ‘incommensurability’ functions metaphorically. their meanings. No more in its metaphorical than its literal form does incommensurability imply incomparability. p. conceived as sets of sentences. Insofar as incommensurability was a claim about language. are preserved. can be translated without residue or loss. neutral or otherwise. The phrase ‘no common measure’ becomes ‘no common language’. he refers to it. Only for a small subgroup of (usually interdefined) terms and for sentences containing them do problems of translatability arise.5 comparison between paradigms. (Kuhn. The claim that two theories are incommensurable is then the claim that there is no language. its local form is my original version. 1983. 1983) explicitly denied this. 1963. for example. claiming that his idea of incommensurability was really local incommensurability: Applied to the conceptual vocabulary deployed in and around a scientific theory. But he seems to have missed this particular application of it. It is proved by mapping the formal objects of the formal system to the natural . pp. 310). Chapter 11. and for much the same reason. he would have found his position much closer to that of Kuhn than he realized. 670–671) I believe that if Popper had taken more account of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Most of the terms common to the two theories function the same way in both. into which both theories. about meaning change. their translation is simply homophonic. 4th edition 1972. whatever those may be. 269ff and Chapter 14. I shall call this modest version of incommensurability ‘local incommensurability’. in (Kuhn. (Popper was certainly aware of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. pp.

suppose that T1 and T2 are two scientific theories to be compared. sentences about the formal system itself and then constructing a sentence of the formal system which. Any comparison would have to be carried out in some theory.’ Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem applies directly only to formal systems. As an example. The condition that the formal system includes the elementary theory of natural numbers is often expressed by saying that the system is ‘strong enough to be interesting. via this mapping. and the definitions used in model theory are insufficient to allow a . asserts its own unprovability. Assuming that T 1 and T 2 are ‘strong enough to be interesting. A consideration of all of these related results suggests strongly that even where Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem itself does not apply directly. If one considers the process by which large parts of mathematics were formalized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To see how these results might apply to the dispute between Popper and Kuhn. even if they are not presented in this fully formalized form.’ T´ will also have to be ‘strong enough to be interesting. there is no program which will take as input another program and input data and return the answer to whether or not the computer running second program with the given input data will stop after a finite amount of time or continue forever in an infinite loop. But indirectly it applies to theories that are capable of this complete formalization. via this mapping. one can see that the process which led to these formal systems was a matter of bringing hidden assumptions into the open. There are a number of other such examples. The theory T´ will have to be strong enough to include references to T1 and T2 and to draw conclusions from those references. the comparison is likely to involve deductions. T2 might be a theory which has replaced T 1 in what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution. T´ (which might be one of T1 or T 2). where the basic definitions do seem to imply completeness. For example. (Even if we are thinking in terms of semantics [model theory]. there is the undecidability of the halting problem. it would be a mistake to assume completeness. that is to deductive theories that are so strictly formalized that it is possible to determine mechanically whether or not a sequence of sentences constitutes a valid proof. It would thus appear that most deductive theories could be formalized if somebody were willing to do the necessary work. which says that for an idealized computer with unlimited memory and time.’ This means that assuming completeness would be a mistake. a process which required the analysis of some concepts that had not been previously analyzed.6 numbers using a one-to-one mapping so that some sentences about natural numbers become. Furthermore. there are a number of results related to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

’ and so it would be a mistake to assume completeness for it. (i.) A similar argument will. show why we cannot talk about science progressing to theories that come ever closer to the truth about the world. I believe. requires a theory.e. in which to carry out this reasoning. The implication of the incommensurability of paradigms is that our ability to know and talk about this objective reality is limited. is closer to the truth than another. It thus appears that Popper was originally more mistaken about the Kuhn’s views being relativist and subjective than he later realized. To say that one theory. 1970) that except for this one difference. roughly. Thus. 1962) that every paradigm will eventually be found inadequate: surely this implies that there is some sort of objective reality against which these paradigms are being tested. Since we are dealing with scientific theories. say T2. In fact. especially in the version of local incommensurability of (Kuhn. not that this objective reality does not exist. This is why I claim that Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability. This seems especially likely since Kuhn implies in (Kuhn. This would imply that it would be a mistake to assume that there is a complete definition of truth. 3. T´. (It should be noted that Kuhn’s claims for [local] incommensurability were based on historical considerations. and therefore that it is not always possible to say that newer theories are closer to the truth than older ones. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Paul Feyerabend . we should consider it a consequence of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem that we cannot always talk about scientific progress getting closer to the truth. Perhaps we can say that. it is reasonable to suppose that T´ would also be ‘strong enough to be interesting. say T1. Popper + Gödel = Kuhn. Kuhn himself points out (Kuhn. Popper’s claim that the incomparability of paradigms implies relativity) his views are very similar to those of Karl Popper.. It follows that there cannot be a guarantee that it will be possible in T´ to obtain a complete comparison of all aspects of T1 and T2. 1983) should be considered an expected consequence of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. and when he and Popper are analyzing the same historical episode in science their analyses are usually very much alike.7 determination of the validity of all possible deductions.

(Ayala and Black. (If there can be no sound and complete description of a scientific method. Legislative bodies and courts are interested in evidence for their conclusions on these issues. again. it concentrates on those questions that are of interest to legislative bodies and courts involving matters of public policy or the value of scientific testimony. but he has no evidence whatever that there is no such method.) The evidence Feyerabend presents in (Feyerabend. 1975). 1975). . (This argument applies only to what Feyerabend says in (Feyerabend. perhaps ‘method’ is the wrong word: perhaps we should be speaking of a scientific approach. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and related results should lead us to expect that no description of the scientific method can be both sound and complete. the evidence may change with regard to any particular question. The answer I have in mind does not try to prove the truth of every assertion of the accepted scientific paradigms. 1975) simply does not support his thesis that ‘anything goes’ in science. this argument is based on the same kind of claim of completeness as Popper’s. And I think that the refereeing procedure that is standard in the best scientific journals is the procedure that generates the best evidence for or against the assertions involved. Instead. at a later time. Feyerabend then argues that the absence of a sound and complete description of the scientific method means that there is no such method. I think there is an answer to them.8 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem also has something to tell us about the views expressed by Paul Feyerabend in (Feyerabend. Feyerabend thinks that he is arguing that there is no such thing as a scientific method. Of course. But when his arguments are stripped of rhetoric. but it is not the same kind of answer that Popper seems to have been seeking.) 4. Feyerabend may have produced some evidence that we can never soundly and completely describe the scientific method. 1993) argue from the position of Popper that the courts should pay attention to refereed scientific journals. This idea gives us a basis for saying that there is an objective basis for these assertions. and he goes on to suggest that no complete and consistent description of scientific methodology is possible. what is left is a catalog of instances in which various descriptions of scientific methodology fail to correspond with the way science has actually progressed. But. The objective truth of science At this point some readers may wonder what we can say to those who really deny the value or truth of science. and not to any of his other works. Feyerabend argues correctly that this shows that the descriptions of scientific methodology of which he is speaking do not fit science as it has actually occurred. In fact.

Chapter 5). 1959. It is possible that at a given time there is no consensus of the literature by specialists on the matter in refereed scientific journals. I am not assuming any characterization of the logical forms of questions which come before legislatures and juries. the scientific evidence that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. I think most of us know from our own personal experience that if we have a reason to want something to be the case. 8th impression 1975. there are questions that arise in science that are never considered by courts or legislative bodies: an example is the question that arose in the early days of the special theory of relativity. Einstein’s arguments for his approach did not constitute the same kind of evidence from the point of view of courts and legislative bodies as. 2001). as Popper seems to do in (Popper. if such a consensus exists. But then these arguments of Einstein were on a subject unlikely to get before a court or legislative body. but depends on the (scientific or legal) context. see (Canadian Association of University Teachers. However. There is one important qualification we must make here: it is important that this refereeing process be conducted in a way consistent with the practices of the scientific specialty in question and is free from external influences. For a troubling example showing how medical research financed by a pharmaceutical company may be affected by economic interests. unlike Popper. A.9 but at the time the question is being considered. especially the last two pages on jury verdicts. Chapter 5). This means that each of us must constantly be on guard against making this kind of mistake in our own individual work. in this case. Lorentz based on classical physics which made exactly the same predictions as Einstein’s theory. This idea seems to have something in common with the Popper’s discussion of the establishment of basic statements in (Popper. when there was an alternative theory due to H. 8th impression 1975. What is common is the idea that the determination of truth involved is not absolute and unchanging. This suggests that in areas of science in which there are important economic interests that are affected by the results of scientific research. say. special efforts are needed to protect the process of scientific research and refereeing from the effects of those economic interests. such as economic interests. it is easy to convince ourselves that it is the case even if the evidence does not support that conclusion. This is a way we can refer to science as embodying objective truth. Economic interest can cause a very powerful desire for something to be the case even if it is not. a consensus of the literature by specialists on the matter in question in refereed scientific journals. It is at the point at . 1959. the legislatures and courts would have to conclude that there is insufficient scientific evidence to settle the matter at hand scientifically. is the best evidence available on that question. Of course.

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