Minimalism induces falsifiability anxiety in otherwise unflappable people. I noticed this while auditing a class here at the LSA summer institute (one of the undeniable perks of being on the faculty here): how could one show that Minimalism was false? Is there anything that would show that it is incorrect? I’m not sure there is, but then I’m not sure that any interesting scientific proposal can be shown to be false. Let me explain.
Scientific theories are very complex objects. Even as regards more mature sciences like physics and chemistry, philosophers of science have long recognized that Popper’s simple version of falsificationism is an inadequate methodological credo. What makes theories hard to refute? Well, mainly the fact that there is quite a distance between the central concepts that animate a theory, the particular models that incarnate them and the “facts” that test them. Lakatos talked about central belts versus auxilliary hypotheses (Cartwright, a favorite of mine on these topics has good descriptions of how elaborate the testing process in physics can be and how wide is the gap between theory and experiment see here), but now pretty much any account of how the rubber of theory hits the road of experiment highlights the subtle complexities that allow them to make contact. This said, scientists can and do find evidence against particular models (specific combos of theory, auxiliary hypotheses, and experimental set-ups), but how this bears on the higher level theory is a tricky affair precisely because it is never the theory of interest alone that confronts the empirical jury. In other words, when something goes wrong (i.e. when an experiment delivers up evidence that is contrary to the deductions of the model) it is almost always possible to save the day by tinkering with the auxiliary hypotheses (or the details of the experimental set-up or the right description of the “facts”) and leave the basic theory intact.
The recent discovery of the Higg’s particle offers a fair illustration of this logic. There was some discussion before the fact of where (i.e. which energy range) to look to find the Higg’s. The one discovered was one in the lower possible energy ranges. Say the Cernistas had not found anything where they first looked. Would this have falsified the Standard Theory? Nope, there were a whole bunch of other candidates to explore (some at energies that the facility would have strained to achieve). And say that even these proved to be duds, what would have been the rational strategy? Dump the Standard Theory and assume that it was completely off track? Maybe for the young and the daring hoping to make their mark in the world, but my hunch is that this would have been chalked up as a puzzle to be explored and explained away until something better came along, rather than as an indication that the whole edifice is rotten and must be thrown out wholesale. Why? Because the reason that people adopt theories is that they do work, and the work that the Standard theory did, even had the Higg’s been left undiscovered, would still remain. Yes, there would be problems, and yes it would be nice to explain these “anomalies” away, but the theory would not have been dumped. There would likely have been ad hoc patches proposed to salve the disappointment and allow work to continue apace. As Hilary Putnam once observed, ‘ad hoc’ does mean ‘to the point’ and a nice clean local fix would have served quite nicely, I am sure.
So does this mean that theories are not regulated by “the facts”? No. Modulo all the caveats about how facts need massaging to be relevant targets of explanation, empirical success of course plays a role, but the role is not that of falsification. Rather, the facts serve a useful function when they are recruited to distinguish otherwise viable alternatives. And this is where falsificationism really misleads. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to take most of my concocted explanations seriously because they are so obviously inadequate from the get-go. In other words, a candidate theory’s main problem initially concerns not falsification but verification. The pressing and relevant question is not whether there is counter-evidence but whether there is any interesting evidence in its favor! Most theories plop stillborn from the mind. Only a few are worth taking seriously. What makes them worth taking seriously? There are interesting facts they would explain were they true (note the ‘interesting’ here: some facts really are more interesting than others, but this is for another time). The first part of any sane research strategy is to find places where the account works, for when one starts there are all too many indications of failure all too quickly and so one needs reasons for taking the hypothesis seriously and the most immediate concern is not whether there are problems with one’s account (of course there are) but what it would buy you were the theory (roughly) on the right track. So, the very first thing one does (again, if one is sane) is to find factual life support for one’s tender creation, nurturing it via verification, and looking for evidence in its favor. In other words, unless one is an enthusiastic masochist, the last thing one does in the initial stages of theory development is look for reasons to discard your newborn proposal.
Does this mean that looking for contrary evidence is unimportant? No. It is important, but mainly in service of verification. Here’s what I mean. The best kind of evidence in favor of a proposal is the verification of a counter intuitive prediction (especially one that is problematic given current assumptions). So, for example, a very strong argument in favor of Copernicus’ account of a heliocentric solar system is that it predicts the possibility of retrograde planetary motion (viz. that planets rather than moving smoothly forward around the night sky would look like they reversed gear for a while before reversing gear again and moving forward). If Copernicus was right (as we now think he was) then were you to calculate planetary motion using Earth as the center then what you expect to find is the appearance of retrograde motion. Moreover, this motion would “disappear” once one did the calculations using the Sun as center. So rather than being a problem as it was for the Ptolemaic conceptions, apparent (when viewed from Earth) retrograde planetary motion was predicted. This served to corral an otherwise rather unpleasant anomaly and so was strong evidence in favor of Copernicus’.
Other examples abound: bending light rays, perihelion of mercury, shrinking rulers and slowing clocks, quantum tunneling, “spooky” action at a distance (aka entanglement), the tides, colors in white light, backwards control (hehe!!) a.o. So, yes looking for empirical trouble is part and parcel of the good theorists armamentarium but mainly in service of finding strong verification. The strongest evidence in favor of an account lies with the surprising (counterintuitive) predictions that it makes, that turn out to hold. That’s the main reason to go falsificationist and chase potential heartbreak! It’s strategic: new theories need to gain a hearing and the best way to do this is to find a wild unexpected prediction that pans out. So, the smart theorist looks for ways to falsify her account in order to find those that pan out. In other words, the big game here is not the false results, but the predictions that work. If any do, then the theory has earned the right to be taken seriously and then the next stage of serious work begins.
With this as background, let’s return to minimalist syntax.
As with all other theory, minimalism has leading ideas and executions of such. Chomsky likes to talk of the Minimalist Program. The way I see this is a series of basic conceptions (merge, Probe-Goal, phase locality, minimality, Extension, etc.) that can be packaged in different ways to produce varying minimalist theories or models (a personal favorite e.g.: one can think of control as a Probe-Goal effect with PRO the goal of a higher functional probe or one can think of PRO as the trace like residue of internal merge). These theories are then explored by finding how well they fit the “established” facts (e.g. re control: do they derive the distribution and interpretation of control sentences) and what novel predictions (the more surprising the better) they make (e.g. do they allow for the possibility of backwards control). Models will accrete successes and failures and will be judged over a certain period winning fans and detractors. The success of the program will be a function of the theoretical and empirical suasive powers of the particular theories. None of this is novel to linguistics, nor should it be.
How then does a theory fail, linguistic or otherwise? Actually, mainly by running out of steam. Boredom is more deadly than a couple of false data points. Theories can run out of explanatory steam or, worse, never really develop any. Such theories and their attendant programs are abandoned. So there is something worse than being wrong, at least if you are a theory, and that’s being BORING! If right, this has a useful practical consequence: if correct, then the Minimalist Program has a very long and bright future, for boring it ain’t!