Thus, even more fundamental than the concept of truth is that of the explanatory richness of a theory, or its versimilitude as opposed merely to its literal truth content. While a simple arithmetic calculation, for example, is accepted as truth, its theoretical value in opening up new knowledge may be inconsequential. By contrast, a rich provocative theory like balanced reading theory opens up a much broader exploratory realm even as the more the theory seeks to explain, the less likely that it will prevail as truth and ultimately fail the litmus test of severe testing. Notwithstanding the likelihood of its ultimate falsification, in providing new world knowledge, the theory serves a significant heuristic function in expanding human knowledge about some defined area of scientific importance. This may be in nothing other than in the demonstration of the conditions under which the theory fails, which then has the potential of raising new questions, provoking the search for knowledge in new directions, resulting in new theories and new sets of tests. That alone is the grounding point of scientific investigation and sufficient unto itself for the kind of critical work Popper views as essential in progressively moving human knowledge about the universe forward.
The theory postulated is obviously even more significant if severe testing does not result in falsification, for example, if balanced reading theory holds up against stringent scrutiny. To the extent that it does, it represents a strong candidate for regulative truth, which does not mean that it will not ultimately be falsified as a result of rigorous testing. As is evident, Popper’s deductively premised problem-oriented focus differs substantially from inductionist premises that start with observation and moves toward analysis and interpretation. Summing up his position, Popper offered the following conjecture upon which he staked his intellectual identity:
Neither observation nor reason is an authority. Intellectual intuition and imagination are most important, but they are not reliable; they may show us things very clearly, and yet they may mislead us. They are indispensable as the main sources of our theories. But most of our theories are false anyway. The most important function of observation and reasoning, and even of intuition and imagination, is to help us in the critical examination of those bold conjectures which are the means by which we probe into the unknown (1963, p. 37).
While maintaining the importance of an inductive methodology as a function of scientific investigation, Popper (1979) emphasized the centrality of deductive logic stemming from identified problems and theories best suited to solve them. In determining which theories were better than others, several principles applied. The first is the criticality of comparing “competing theories” (italics in original) that “are offered as solutions to the same problems” (p. 13). Thus, in the imaginative construction of bold conjectures, “a good theory is not ad hoc” (italics in original) (p.15), but as closely as possible related to the specific problem under investigation, and, ideally linked in as many ways as possible to competing theories such, to use our example, as the relationship between balanced reading theory to those of whole language and phonemic-based theories.
This is essential, Popper argued, in order to compare and contrast as precisely as possible points of congruence as well as to determine as closely as possible exactly where and why one theory breaks down, which the other theory better explains. That is a critical test in itself in deductive logic of the relative validity of the one theory over the other. As Popper explains the logic, one way of proceeding is to demonstrate that the theory “leads to unintended or undesirable consequences” and therefore is not likely to prove what it claims. Even better, to the extent that it offers a plausible improvement toward the resolution of a problem, “we show that there is a competing theory…which clashes with” the original one, “and which we try to show has certain advantages” (p. 35) over the original theory.
The theory or possible theories that survive the critical litmus test “of proposing theories and submitting them to the severest tests we can design” (p. 16) are the best candidates for providing solutions to the problem under investigation. In this process of rigorous analysis, testing, and elimination, “we may hit on a true theory” even though that does not establish the truth. That is because “the number of possibly [italics in original] true theories remains infinite, at any time, and any number of crucial tests” (p.15) could still be applied to the better theory, which could, and likely would, ultimately, falsify them. Even if the better theory is ultimately falsified, if the conjecture was a plausible one based on logical deductive reasoning and consistent with the squaring of available facts, then the breakdown of the theory still contributes to the ongoing work of knowledge expansion in the opening up of new areas of investigation that the initial project stimulated. Thus, even if balanced reading theory breaks down, it is at least reasonable to assume that some of the creative insights that have gone into its construction will be filtered into more sophisticated theories of how adults learn to read.
As Popper concludes, “all theories are hypothesis; all may be overthrown” (italics in original) (p. 29). Yet, there are scientific criteria by which to establish the relative validity of one theory over another. The extent to which scientific investigation is grounded on those standards based on certain “expulsion procedures as well as entrance examinations” (Miller, 1994, p. 7) establishes its validity even in the near certainty, on Popper’s reading, that the conclusions may be ultimately proven false. For the unending quest of growth in knowledge is built on many best guess failures as well as conjectures that have endured the rigorous tests of some enduring trials over time.
There is a close linkage in Popper’s epistemology with Dewey’s concept of warranted assertability. A critical difference is that Popper is in pursuit of objective knowledge, which is not dependent on the realm of human subjectivity. With Dewey, Popper was a committed fallibilist, although one who made a sharp distinction between scientific knowledge and non-scientific speculation, and thereby rejected as outside the purview of science Dewey’s existential quest for harmonization through the reconstruction of a more desirable “total qualitative situation.” By contrast, for Dewey, the application of scientific methods to the “problems of men” was the primary purpose of competent inquiry. Popper was committed, rather, to a purer quest for truth as related to the scientific problem under study in keeping the distance sharply demarcated between the topic of investigation and the psychology of the investigator. For Popper (1957), practical application was crucial, but required a different epistemology, that of “piecemeal social engineering,” taking political, social, and economic reality into account.
Notwithstanding these subtle differences, as fallibilistic scientific philosophers seeking to cut a discerning path through various schools of rationalism, idealism, and empiricism, upon which they deeply drew in their respective syntheses, Dewey and Popper were closely in sync on the core assumption that:
Every solution to a problem raises new unresolved problems; the more so the deeper the original problem and the bolder its solution. The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed is the main source of our ignorance—the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite (Popper, 1963, p. 38).
In their divergent ways, Dewey and Popper pressed hard against this goad in seeking truth, if only as a regulative ideal, through rigorous scientific methodologies for the purpose of learning important things about the world and changing some portion of it, however piecemeal, for the better.