Monday, June 9, 2014

"Two Dogmas" on "Confirmation"

In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

In my previous post I mentioned that as a young philosopher I noticed that Quine never used the word "confirmation".  A reader of this blog pointed out that it occurred a half dozen times in Quine's celebrated paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". So it behoves me to point out that Quine uses it there only to deny that there is such a thing as the confirmation of a statement. His reasons for distrusting the notion are explicitly stated (on pp. 41-2 of the version in From a Logical Point of View): "I hope we are now impressed with how stubbornly the distinction between analytic and synthetic has resisted any straightforward drawing. I am impressed also, apart from prefabricated examples of black and white balls in an urn, with how baffling the problem has always been of arriving at any explicit theory of the empirical confirmation of a synthetic statement."  In sum, the notion of confirmation of a statement, to which Carnap and Reichenbach devoted so much attention, should be discarded along with the analytic/synthetic distinction. 


  1. “What I meant was that Quine believed that theories are never probabilized by observations alone, but (sometimes) by previously accepted theories, or by previously accepted theories conjoined with certain observations plus mathematical statistics.”

    Agree 100%.

    "So it behoves me to point out that Quine uses it there only to deny that there is such a thing as the confirmation of a statement."

    I would disagree with Quine on this ‘confirmation’ issue on two points.

    One, Quine missed some recent ‘confirmations’ in physics. The Higgs mechanism is totally about the way of giving mass to ‘some (not all)’ elementary particles. The newly discovered 125 Gev. ‘particle’ of July 2012 was ‘confirmed’ as a boson predicted by Higgs, and a Nobel prize was awarded because of that ‘confirmation’. Yet, Nigel Lockyer (Fermilab director) posted an article at ( ), saying, “As just about everyone now knows, the Higgs boson is integrally connected to the field that gives particles their mass. But the excitement of this discovery isn’t over; now we need to figure out how this actually works and whether it explains everything about how particles get their mass.”

    Is this statement confirming that Higgs boson has discovered? Is it confirming that Higgs mechanism is about the giving mass to particles? Is it confirming that Higgs mechanism is not yet understood? Is this confirming that we can confirm about the new particle being definitely the Higgs boson while we have no clue about what the Higgs mechanism is all about yet? So many ‘confirmations’ in this 3-line sentence.

    Theoretical Physicist Matt Strassler also reported on June 2, 2014 that "... the measurements made via the more precise methods mentioned above… so all seems consistent [as a SM Higgs boson]." ‘Consistent’ is seemingly a bit different from ‘confirmation’. Quine’s position is all good but does not work in the real world.

    Two, something can be self-confirming, that is, Quine’s denial of all ‘confirmation’ is wrong. I am showing one example below.
    Empirical measurement: (1/Alpha) = 137.0359 …

    An equation about it,
    Beta = 1/alpha = 64 (1 + first order mixing + sum of the higher order mixing)
    = 64 (1 + 1/Cos A (2) + .00065737 + …)
    = 137.0359 …
    A (2) is the Weinberg angle, A (2) = 28.743 degree
    The sum of the higher order mixing = 2(1/48) [(1/64) + (1/2) (1/64) ^2 + ...+(1/n)(1/64)^n +...]
    = .00065737 + …

    This equation is totally self-confirming. In fact, all ‘necessary truths’ are self-confirming. When a theory (or a system) is described with a language (an equation or a set of equations), the theory (or system) is necessary true if the ‘language’ (which describes the system) is ‘verified’. On the same token, if the ‘system’ is true, then the language (which describes the system) must also be necessary true.