Select your language

A scientific statement about the world can be wrong or right. How can this be determined? In principle, we can try to justify the statement or criticize it.


We are mostly interested in correct statements about the world that describe what is actually the case. Couldn’t we be sure that we have made a correct statement if we are able to justify it? Unfortunately, there is a problem here: no one has yet been able to develop a method to justify something without presuppositions. In philosophy, this has been attempted unsuccessfully for thousands of years.

Münchausen’s trilemma

Why is that? Unconditional reasoning, also known as ultimate justification, has always ended up in three dead ends, which the philosopher Hans Albert called the Münchhausen trilemma. Reasoning means proving the correctness of a statement by deriving it from another correct statement, i.e. a presupposition. But how do we ensure that the premise is valid?

  • We could try to justify the premise as well, but this does not help us, as we now need another premise to be justified and this process continues indefinitely. This dead end is called infinite regress.
  • In the attempt to justify, we could also end up in a (so-called “vicious”) circle of justification, in which we already presuppose somewhere in the chain of justification what is actually to be proven.
  • Finally, we could make it easy for ourselves and break off at a presupposition in the chain by establishing it as correct without justification. This leads us to the dogma.


But can’t we also prove statements to be correct through observations? At this point we must make the important distinction between scientific general and existential statements. A statement of the latter type is in principle accessible to confirming observation. For example, to verify the assertion “there are houses”, a glance out of the window is usually sufficient. However, an unrestricted general statement, such as my cup always falls to the ground when I let go of it, cannot be verified by observation, because this would require an infinite number of attempts.


However, a general statement about the world can be criticised by deducing something from it that must be the case if it is correct. A counterexample is therefore sufficient to question the correctness of a general statement. If no counterexample can be found at all, the general statement has been corroboratet. Scientific statements must withstand criticism.


For methodological reasons, however, one cannot do without confirmatory observations, because this serves to generate statements that are worth investigating in more detail. Simply testing any statements would be completely ineffective. After all, corroboration also means that repeated criticism fails, which is tantamount to repeated confirmation.

Uncriticisable statements?

What about general statements about the world that cannot be criticised? By definition, nothing can be deduced from such statements that must or must not be the case. But what is compatible with what is arbitrary does not say anything about the world. “It may or may not rain tomorrow” is compatible with any weather. Do such statements ever occur in science? Unfortunately, yes. A historical example is the Freudian interpretation of dreams: a dream either has sexual content or, if not, it contains repressed sexuality. The interpretation as sexual content is therefore compatible with any dream. Robin Diangelo provides a more recent example. “White” people have only two options: In the first case, they can confess their racism. In the other case, they suffer from the “white fragility” syndrome, in which they only deny their racism.

Criticisability as an advantage

The fact that a general statement about a worldly fact can be criticised is therefore not a shortcoming, but an advantage. Only the possibility of criticising it generates the content of a factual statement. If a general statement cannot fail because of experience, then it also has no empirical content.

Criticism as a driver of knowledge

Progress in knowledge does not happen automatically, but requires the means of criticism in particular. A branch of science that does not allow criticism ceases to be science. Dogmas are not science. Partial scientific criticism is inadequate as long as there is no ultimate justification.