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Oct 12, 1995 02:33 PM

by Don DeGracia

Liesel: < I took science courses, long time ago, & I've read through some scientific books since then. I'd never heard of this technique and I wonder whether you know when scientists began working in this manner.> This idea stems from a discipline called " the philosophy of science". The man who stated it most clearly was a philosopher Sir Karl Popper and this was back in the 1950s, if I remember correctly. The idea of trying to disprove an idea instead of proving it is called "falsifyability". That is, you want to try to falsify scientific ideas (i.e. prove they are false). Generally speaking, a hypothesis is not considered valid unless it can be stated in such a manner as to be falsified. This is extrememly common in statistics, where one states what is called the "null hypothesis". You attempt to prove the null hypothesis to be false when you perform experiments. To give an example from my profession (biomedical scieces), if I think drug X lowers blood pressure, I set up the hypothesis (my null hypothesis) that drug X does NOT lower blood pressure, and try to prove this statement to be false. If my experiment shows that drug X indeed lowers blood pressure, then I have proven my null hypothesis false. This is the general and accepted way that science works, particularly in my field. You make a negative statement and then prove it is false. This does not necessarily mean the converse statement (i.e. the opposite statement of the null hypothesis - in my example that drug X lowers blood pressure) is true, it only means that the null hypothesis is false. Again, this method derives from Popper and is based on pure logic. Simply stated, one can never make a positive statement and prove it absolutely true simply because one cannot test every instance of a phenomena. There is always the chance that one is wrong, that some instance will be discovered that contradicts what your hypothesis. However, one can easily prove something to be false because you only need to oberseve one instance of the false statement to be certain that it is false. So, what this means is that all theories of science are tentative in that at any moment some clever person could find a way to disprove a theory. Those theories that have lasted the longest in science are the ones that have withstood repeated attempts to prove they are false. A great example from physics is Einstein's hypothesis that the speed of light is constant. Since Einstein made this statement in 1908, physicists have repeated tried to prove him wrong, but everytime the speed of light is measured, it appears to be a constant. However, this is no guarantee that tommorrow, some bright person will find a way to show that the speed of light is not constant. Thus, any statement is always subject to doubt in science. Of course, it gets more subtle than this because science is complex and embraces many methods and approaches. The methods of physicists differ from those of a biologist or psychologist. Each discipline has its own tools that are relevent to the subject matter it studies. And of course, this idea of falsifyability is applicable to metaphysical statements as well - including those of Theosophy. For example, I read the book "The Astral Plane" by C.W. Leadbeater many years ago in which he claimed the astral plane existed. I set out to prove he was wrong, and do so, I attempted to learn how to astral project. What I discovered is that indeed I could learn to astral project, and furthermore, when I did astral project, I found myself to be in a place very similar to what Leadbeater called the astral plane. Thus, I could NOT falsify Leadbeater's claim that the astral plane exists. This is an example of testing a metaphysical claim in a scientific fashion. And of course, this does not mean that the whole phenomena of astral projection cannot be looked at from completely different points of view. But nonetheless, I set out to take Leadbeater at face value and accept his ideas as a hypothesis (as he himself suggested) and when I subjected his idea to the test of falsifyability, I could not proove him wrong. Thus, I can say for certain that the astral plane does not NOT exist. I cannot say for certain what this place is, however. Hope this is helpful and of interest. Best wishes, Don

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