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From Doubt To Discovery

My brief biography as a philosopher is this: I lucked out. I met many thoughtful and distinguished philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, some during my education, some in the lively environment where I teach, and others casually by acquaintance. Perhaps they gave me their time because of a curiosity: I am a skeptic.
I am not a good skeptic: I allow for too much knowledge. For a while, I called myself a “gullible realist” – gullible because I concede too much knowledge of reality, especially in natural science. Skepticism combined with knowledge creates tension. I admit it. I am not as fine a skeptic as Socrates. He knew nothing except that he knew he did not know. Perhaps my second opinion redeems me: I admit that all my knowledge, including my second-hand knowledge – whatever little I know - is fallible. Examine a claim closely; you will find it inaccurate or misleading, even when practically useful.
I became a skeptic when reading Plato before taking philosophy as my major in Mumbai, India. At 19, I graduated with a B.A. 1962 from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, studying philosophy with J.D. Swamidasan and J. N. Chubb. I rushed off immediately that year to the London School of Economics to study with Karl Popper. The prospect was exciting. He was on sabbatical.
Imre Lakatos took me under his wing, arranging my informal study of physics at King’s College nearby. He arranged membership of the British Museum Library, where I could study the reception of Isaac Newton’s Principia. I was introduced to Richard Popkin, a visitor, and A. I. Sabra at the Warburg Institute. Later that year, I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions with great interest. Karl Popper’s fortnightly seminar allowed me to meet many famous philosophers and scientists. My master’s thesis 1965 was on Structure, supervised by John O. Wisdom and Karl Popper. Thomas Kuhn was encouraging when we met during a famous conference session in London on his book. By then, I was admitted to Princeton University, where he had relocated. I obtained a Ph.D. in 1970 with a dissertation on Paul Feyerabend’s challenging opinions on science. My supervisors were Richard Grandy and Carl Hempel. I also met and studied with Gregory Vlastos. I met many other famous philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Let me not keep dropping names: I felt on top of the world.
I was disappointed in myself when I joined some distinguished faculty at York University, Toronto, in 1970. I was stuck with a difficulty: if scientific knowledge is fallible, how is it not wholly undermined when we trade falsehoods? I had no satisfactory answer. 1983 I published a sad little note in Mind, “To Save Fallibilism.” I received some congratulatory letters, but my mood was dark.
I got a reprieve at the millennium’s end. Francis Bacon, I found, had announced early in the seventeenth century a new method of acquiring knowledge. His recipes work. Isaac Newton had deployed them successfully in optics and physical astronomy. What I sought without much hope had always been in plain sight. I had only to learn to see it.
My book that you see on your bookshelf gives you Francis Bacon’s inductive recipes for advancing natural science. I touch upon Isaac Newton’s success in optics. His application of the method to physical astronomy is hailed for inspiring later science. But that story is in my second book, a sequel under revision. In it, I will also try to resolve the eerie mystery of an astonishing disappearing act – I mean the disappearance of the new method from the methodology of science. It happened even while it was being plied successfully. I will suggest that the method became invisible while tacitly applied because we adopted a misleading theory of knowledge – empiricism – to support a new liberal democratic theory. But, you will ask, how can we fathom any reality without relying on sensory facts?
The rub is that the modern method uses skeptical techniques to extract knowledge from phenomena. A process of refutation unexpectedly gives us an affirmative understanding of general principles. It does, it does! That is my tale in a nutshell.
I may be selling you snake oil – I, who recommend skepticism! But please do not skip reading my two books, even if you are an expert. Then you can tell me where I am mistaken. Skeptic that I am, I will listen.

ORCID https://orcid.org/0009-0007-7412-8233