Thursday, April 13, 2006


Carl Sagan's Positivist Hangover

Consider this statement from Carl Sagan's 'Baloney Detection' kit in The Demon Haunted World (1996):

'Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifable are not worth much.'
(p. 198.)

As a philosopher, I always ask whether a statement can be applied to itself without self-contradiction. In this case the answer is that while Sagan technically avoids self-contradicition, because he says that untestable propositions are 'not worth much' rather than that they are not worth anything, he is certainly skating on thin ice. His statement undermines itself. How, even in principle, could one empirically falsify the claim that unfalsifiable propositions are not worth much? You cannot. Hence, this part of Sagan's baloney detection kit is, by its own standards, 'not worth much'. How much epistemological worth is 'not much'? Isn't it a rather strange epistemology that elevates the epistemological worth of empirical observation over the epistemological worth of propostitions such as 'the law of non-contradiction is true' (which cannot be empirically verified)! Other empirically unfalsifiable statements that are surely 'worth something' are: 'The Holocaust was morally wrong' and 'Rainbows are beautiful'.

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