Nilesh Oak, Johannes Kepler & Degree of falsifiability

“I have always adhered to the habit of praising what in my opinion others have done well, of rejecting what they have done badly. Never do I scorn or conceal other people’s knowledge when I lack my own. Never do I feel servile to others or forget myself when I have done something better or discovered it sooner with my own power.”

 – Johannes Kepler

I received a call from a reader who completed  reading my two books over the last weekend and felt so compelled to talk to me and finally he did.

It appears that he is a voracious reader.  I say this because he was referring to many other books on Indian history and Indian astronomy and few other books on the related subjects that I never heard before; and I considered myself (until today, I guess) a voracious reader!

He was very excited by my work and compared me to Johannes Kepler and encouraged me to read his biography by Max Caspar.  I had read biography of Kepler by Max Caspar and all I remember (at least the impression) is  that this genius had to face realities of ‘a harsh life’.  I had my share of life’s miseries but nothing compared to what Kepler had to endure.  I was always impressed by works of Johannes Kepler and that was one of the many reasons I wanted to read his biography.

Comparison aside, I want to point out two similarities.  Our reader definitely harped on at least of one of them when he told me that he liked my selection of Kepler’s quote (reproduced above) included in my book and made a comment that it appeared to him that I lived by the same dictum.

The other similarity I want to point out is that of method(s) employed by both of us in our own fields.  I know that in my case this was not done consciously, however, I do believe that certain methodological considerations must have played their role.

Degrees of Falsifiability

When I first read about AV observation, my immediate reaction was that this should be easy to test and verify.  I had hypothesis of ‘visual observation’ in my mind.  And I owed my success to this simple hypothesis.  It was simple and thus was relatively easy to falsify. I remember that day in 1995. The very minute I came across AV observation, I thought of it as a perfect observation that would allow one to decisively determine the fate of Mahabharata text as a historical document of significant importance.  Of course I could have been wrong in my judgment. Fortunately, AV observation did not let me down.

Had I begun with some other observation of Mahabharata text, I might not have achieved this success in decisively determining the timing of Mahabharata war.  AV observation and its demystification, by luck, allowed me to eliminate 96% + of all existing proposals (all proposals where proposed year falls after 4508 BCE) for the timing of Mahabharata war.

AV observation turned out to be most suitable (only as an afterthought) for this method of elimination. This happened because my theory of ‘visual observation’ was sufficiently straightforward and thus was sufficiently easy to test and/or falsify.  The theory was in vogue for a long time and that is the reason why majority of Mahabharata researchers avoided talking of AV observation by pretending it did not exist and  few who did acknowledge its presence and importance were baffled by it.

My theory and testing, not unlike that of Johannes Kepler, was sufficiently easy and sufficiently precise to be capable of clashing with observational experience.

In words of Sir Karl Popper (on Kepler)….

“I do not wish to suggest that the belief in perfection—the heuristic principle that guided Kepler to his discovery—was inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by methodological considerations regarding degrees of falsifiability. But I do believe that Kepler owed his success in part to the fact that the circle-hypothesis with which he started was relatively easy to falsify. Had Kepler started with a hypothesis which owing to its logical form was not so easily testable as the circle hypothesis, he might well have got no result at all, considering the difficulties of calculations whose very basis was ‘in the air’—adrift in the skies, as it were, and moving in a way unknown. The unequivocal negative result which Kepler reached by the falsification of his circle hypothesis was in fact his first real success. His method had been vindicated sufficiently for him to proceed further; especially since even this first attempt had already yielded certain approximations.

No doubt, Kepler’s laws might have been found in another way. But I think it was no mere accident that this was the way which led to success. It corresponds to the method of elimination which is applicable only if the theory is sufficiently easy to falsify—sufficiently precise to be capable of clashing with observational experience.”

 (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, p 116, 2002)

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