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The part played by trial and error in making progress


The thesis I submitted for my PhD at the university of St Andrews was about progress and the methodology which can achieve it.  I take the view that progress must be aim-related.  If we do not have a clear sight of what we are trying to do, of what goal we are trying to attain, we will not be able to assess whether or not particular actions take us closer to it.  Thus in any field we have to start with an awareness of what the aim is.  We also have to be able to make attempts to reach that goal, to engage in behaviour that can take us closer to it.  These attempts are by no means random, in that they usually represent actions that we think might work.  Instead of random trials, these are nearly always inspired trials, suppositions on our part that they might bring us closer to or goals.  They must be testable, in that we need to try them out and check whether the results do indeed bring us closer to our aims.  They are not usually tested in isolation, but competitively against other actions, sometimes to see if they bring an improvement on what we have been doing hitherto.

People sometimes complain that while science has made progress by leaps and bounds, the area of our philosophical and moral lives seems to lack similar visible evidence of progress, as we tread and retread the same old ground.  A large part of this might be simply that we are agreed about what is the aim of science, and can therefore see when we reach closer toward it, whereas there is no such agreement about what is or should be the aim of moral philosophy.

Karl Popper thought the aim of science is to provide us with objective knowledge, truths about the universe, and that testing theories in an attempt to prove them false and eliminate them is the way to achieve a more concentrated core of truth.

I take a rather different view, that our aim in science is to increase our ability to predict what we shall observe.  We produce models in our mind that might help us do this, and test them to see if they do it better than previous or rival models.  If they do not, we discard them, not because we have proved them wrong, but because they are less effective than their competitors at helping us to achieve our aim.  These models do not constitute objective knowledge of the universe, just convenient ways of enabling us to predict it.  In my book Newton did not discover the theory of gravity; he invented it.  It is a human construct, better than its predecessors at helping us to predict what we shall observe.  My approach has science as a special case, albeit a very important one, of a general methodology by which we make progress towards our aims.


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