Popper's Importance

Confessions of a Philosopher, by Bryan Magee, pg 193:
[Popper's epistemology] is worked out on such a scale, and yet in such detail, that it constitutes an intellectual achievement of the front rank. It is the most highly developed philosophy yet to have appeared that incorporates within itself a belief in an independently existing material world subsisting in independently existing space and time. It constitutes a huge advance beyond Russell, and embodies a depth of originality and imagination altogether outside Russell's scope. Anyone who is determined to cling to the empiricist tradition will find in Popper's philosophy the richest and most powerful instantiation of it that the ongoing development of Western philosophy has made available to us so far. At the point we have reached around the year 2000, to be a self-aware and sophisticated empiricist has to mean either being a Popperian or being a critical and reconstructed Popperian. And to be any sort of transcendental idealist ought to involve embracing something like a Popperian account of empirical reality. On either presupposition, he is the foremost philosopher of the age.

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Three Criticisms of Popper

Each quote is from The Myth of the Framework by Karl Popper, which is an excellent book.
If the many, the specialists, gain the day, it will be the end of science as we know it - of great science. It will be a spiritual catastrophe comparable in its consequences to nuclear armament. (pg 72)
Popper wrote this around 1970, long after it was known that nuclear weapons did great good at the end of World War II. Presumably he means to say the Cold War is a comparable catastrophe to the end of science. In hindsight it is easy to see how false that is; the Cold War was expensive, but it did not ruin us; the world is still improving dramatically despite the presence of nuclear weapons. In large part it is improving due to the progress of science. Losing science would be a truly massive setback. Science is behind everything from farm equipment to cars to household appliances to lightbulbs to modern medicine to computers and the internet.
It is a crime to exaggerate the ugliness and the baseness of the world: it is ugly, but it is also very human. And it is threatened by great dangers. The greatest is world war. Almost as great is the population explosion. (pg 80)
Under free markets, people who produce less than they consume are no danger to the world. Either they receive voluntary aid from people with extra or they starve. That does not put me in danger. By contrast, a world war puts everyone in danger, not just the incompetent.

It is only under a system of redistribution of wealth at gunpoint that additional people can be a burden, but even then it is a smaller burden. Feeding one inept person costs less than feeding and arming one soldier.

Further, it is considerably easier to achieve free markets than world peace. Free markets are freedom applied to property. A free market means we tolerate each person to use his own property as he chooses. Peace requires that we tolerate each person to live his life as he chooses, which includes tolerating his decisions about his property, his religion, and more. Because peace requires a superset of what a free market requires, it is more difficult to attain.
I certainly agree with this idea, the idea of a society of free men (and also with the idea of loyalty to it). It is an idea that inspired the American and the French revolutions. (pg 80)
In contradiction to Popper, I assert that the French and American revolutions were drastically different in motive and inspiration, and that only the American revolution had liberty as its reason.

The reason for the American Revolution was that Britain was not granting its traditional and reasonable liberties to the American colonies. Britain understood liberty well but refused to apply it to America. America needed a revolution so it could have the same liberty that British citizens had.

The French Revolution was not a matter of reason at all. If they had used reason they would not have had a revolution. Reforms were taking place, but the revolutionaries irrationally decided a bloodbath would speed things along. They were utopian idealists who thought if their enemies were dead then the world would soon become the world they envisioned. Of course that didn't work; it made matters much worse.

One issue which Popper's view does not account for, and mine does, is that the American Revolution gloriously triumphed whereas the French Revolution met with miserable disaster.

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Low Quality Criticism of Popper

Anthony O'Hear is quoted at http://www.friesian.com/ohear.htm as saying:
The first problem for a Popperian to consider, though, is whether he can really talk of a severe test [of a theory] without the use of inductive reasoning....

For a severe test is one which is unlikely on past evidence. Without using some sort of inductive assumptions, how can one move from past experience to calculations of present (or future) probability?.... All we have, on non-inductive grounds, are reports of past experience, and generalization from them is forbidden. [pp. 39-40]
The reason he thinks that the inductive reasoning comes into play is that he is in the habit of making inductive assumptions. A Popperian can see at once how to avoid them. It is the same way we approach problems in general. Make a guess at the solution, then subject it to criticism and try to find mistakes or better guesses. So if we want to know how severe a test is, that's what we'll do, not induction. Before criticizing Popper in published work, one should make a serious attempt at understanding Popper.

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Very Poor Quality Criticism of Popper

Today [Popper's] followers among philosophers of science are a diminishing minority, convinced that Popper's vast reputation is enormously inflated.
This is an insult with no citation. It's also an attempt to deny that there are any Popperians who hold a high opinion of Popper. I am such a Popperian, so Gardner is mistaken.
I believe that Popper's reputation was based mainly on this persistent but misguided efforts to restate common-sense views in a novel language that is rapidly becoming out of fashion.
Popper repeatedly advocated speaking in a simple and clear way, and put a lot of effort into doing so. He was a major opponent of what he is being accused of here. See, for example, The Myth of the Framework page 72-73.
I am convinced that Popper, a man of enormous egotism, was motivated by an intense jealousy of Carnap.
This is an insult which should not be found in any serious essay.
Confirming instances underlie our beliefs that the Sun will rise tomorrow, that dropped objects will fall, that water will freeze and boil, and a million other events. It is hard to think of another philosophical battle so decisively lost.
Popperians today, such as myself, disagree about confirming instances. The battle has not been lost. Gardner is trying, for the second time, to convince his readers that he must be correct because his opponents have conceded, which they have not.
Scholars unacquainted with the history of philosophy often credit popper for being the first to point out that science, unlike math and logic, is never absolutely certain. It is always corrigible, subject to perpetual modification. This notion of what the American philosopher Charles Peirce called the "fallibilism" of science goes back to ancient Greek skeptics, and is taken for granted by almost all later thinkers.
Popper conjectured that the critical rationalist tradition was invented only once by Thales and Anaximander, not by himself. He learned Ancient Greek to help support his position. He repeatedly quoted Xenophanes to show his fallibilism. Popper did not try to take credit for these ideas; he was a major force in spreading knowledge of their origins.

Popper credits "the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce" as a fallibilist in The Myth of the Framework on page 92 and again on page 48. On pages 91-92 he credits Einstein as a fallibilist who ended authoritarian science perhaps forever. Popper is generally humble throughout his books.

Kelley L. Ross criticizes Gardner's essay at http://www.friesian.com/gardner.htm

Here is what he says about fallibilism:
Gardner only sees skepticism as the endorsement of the fallible and corrigible nature of knowledge -- something that goes "back to ancient Greek skeptics, and is taken for granted by almost all later thinkers" [p.15]. Greek Skepticism, however, denied that there was knowledge, not just that it was infallible; and this is only "taken for granted" by later thinkers who happen to be an Anglo-American tradition derived from Hume's own skepticism.
This is in direct contradiction to Popper. In 'Back to the Presocratics' Popper argues that his fallibilist approach is in keeping with a tradition going back to Xenophanes and before. Here are two Xenophanes quotes from page 205 of Conjectures and Refutations:
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better

These things, we conjecture, are somehow like the truth
Apparently Kelley L. Ross is unaware of this essay. Xenophanes was not a skeptic who "denied that there was knowledge" but was a part of the Presocratic fallibilist tradition.

Even Popper's defenders do not carefully read his work. What's going on?

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Popper: Meek or Angry?

On page 183 of Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee writes
In practice this meant [Popper] was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt.


Emotionally, Popper understood little if anything of this. he behaved as if the proper thing to do was think one's way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one's way. "The totalitarian liberal" was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.

... discussions with me were carried on by him in a kind of rage ...

... the angrier he got ...

In later years [Popper] said that in those early meetings I was frequently rude to him, but I do not believe this to be true ... The truth, I think, is that I stood up to his intellectual bullying and hit back hard, and that he was taken aback by this, coming from someone half his age, and he resented it--and then, because he resented it, saw it as offensive.
And on page 198:
I became uninhibited about hitting him with all the artillery I could muster ... [Popper] turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger
David Miller contradicts Magee:

[Popper] said that I did a good job as his assistant, and later he trusted me with his writings in a way that he rarely trusted others; nonetheless, I was amazed, and endeared, by the meekness with which he so often accepted my suggestions and emendations.


I never really managed to quarrel properly with Popper in all the years that I knew him. We disagreed on many issues, of course, philosophical, technical, stylistic, tactical, and personal. But far from being overbearing, he was patient and tolerant. If there was difficulty in resolving disagreements, it was not tiresome confrontation ... Sweet in argument, Popper was as often as not the one who gave way.

I am inclined to think Miller is correct. There are hints in Magee's story that he himself was not calm during those discussions and may have misinterpreted what was going on. Popper's view was that Magee was rude and Magee, by his own report, "hit" Popper "hard" which supports Popper's view. Magee interpreted their discussions as fights, but that does not mean that Popper did too.

Magee's assertion that Popper was taken aback by criticism -- that he was surprised by it -- is at odds with the facts of Popper's life. Popper was never idolized during his career; he was closer to an outcast; people disagreed with Popper and criticized him all the time, certainly more often than they agreed with him. Being criticized was the status quo for Popper, not something that would shock him.

My guess is that Popper was very accustomed to criticism, and genuinely enjoyed it, and that's why he did not realize his criticisms were offending Magee, who was less open to criticism than Popper.

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Popper's Insignifiance

The Myth of the Framework page 195:
Men are not gods and they ought to know it. We shall never dominate nature. The mountaineer is to be pitied who sees in mountains nothing but adversaries he has to conquer -- who does not know the feeling of gratitude, and the feeling of his own insignificance in the face of nature.
Popper's idea that men are insignificant compared to nature applies to himself: Popper is insignificant next to a zebra or a pile of dirt.

At least that's what he says. I think that is ridiculous. I think Popper had more good ideas while walking over one hill than all zebras have ever had.

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Popper's Leftism

Here are two unfortunate quotes by Popper:

if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.
Myth of the Framework page 125:
Avoidance of war is ... the overriding problem of public policy ... In this context it should be stated very clearly that one of the most disturbing aspects of recent events is the cult of violence. We all know that one of the most horrible aspects of our entertainment industry is the constant propaganda for violence, from allegedly harmless Westerns and crime stories to displays of cruelty pure and simple. It is tragic to see that this propaganda has had its effects even on genuine artists and scientists, and unfortunately also on our students (as the cult of revolutionary violence shows).

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Popper on Burke

Popper does a great job of presenting opposing views fairly, with ample quoting, and generous interpretations. Popper writes very clearly, and he makes sure to explain the opposing views as clearly as possible. That often means writing them more clearly than their proponents ever did. Popper frequently uses more words to explain an opposing view than he does to criticize it. I can't think of anyone else who is comparable; this is one of of the wonderful things about reading Popper.

That's why I was very surprised to find one case where Popper provided a single, hard-to-read quote, and gave an ungenerous and unreasonable interpretation. Unfortunately, Popper does this to one of my favorite authors: Burke.

Quotes are from The Open Society and Its Enemies p112-113. Popper starts by lumping Burke together with Aristotle even though their statements are quite different. Here's Aristotle:
To take care of virtue is the business of a state
And here is what Burke said[1]:
[the state is] to be looked upon with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature
Note that it says "other reverence" not just "reverence". This is because Popper left out important context. Popper goes on to paint Burke as a worshipper of the State. But Burke was actually saying the State deserves more reverence than a temporary agreement for trading coffee or calico. That's where the word "other" comes from.

Now, the main thing Popper says is that Burke and Aristotle are demanding that the State be worshipped, and be in charge of morality. Aristotle says very clearly that virtue is in the domain of the State, but Burke does not. Burke says the State is more important than "things subservient...". What things is he talking about? Trade of coffee for one. Burke goes on to explain that the State is a longterm partnership to achieve longterm ends. The main theme is to get liberty and prevent chaos. Those are exactly the things Popper thinks it proper that a State do. But Popper takes Burke to mean something else:
In other words, the state is said to be something higher or nobler than an association with rational ends; it is an object of worship.
That is not what Burke said, at all. His ends are rational and he did not ask for worship. My guess is that Popper is being harsh because Burke used one religious word ("reverence") despite the fact that Burke was only demanding more reverence than trade contracts. Popper goes on to accuse Burke of wanting to legislate morality:
it is a demand that the realm of legality ... should be increased at the expense of the realm of morality proper ... [at the expense of] our own moral decisions ... [at the expense of] our conscience.
That is what Aristotle demanded, but it's not even close to what Burke said. Nor is it consistent with Burke's record, e.g. his asking the State to be more lenient with Catholics. Popper then expands on his favored view (he calls it "protectionist"), which he is opposing to the Burke/Aristotle view:
from the protectionist point of view, the existing democratic states, though far from perfect, represent a very considerable achievement in social engineering of the right kind. Many forms of crime, of attack on the rights of human individuals by other individuals, have been practically suppressed or very considerably reduced, and courts of law administer justice fairly successfully in difficult conflicts of interest.
I can't imagine Burke disagreeing with this!

[1] Popper gave no citation, but I found it, here's the full paragraph:

SOCIETY is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure "” but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule, because this necessity itself is a part, too, of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.

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Popper the Altruist

OSE p104 Popper writes:
'Friends have in common all things they possess.' This is, undoubtedly, an unselfish high-minded and excellent sentiment. Who could suspect that an argument starting from such a commendable assumption would arrive at a wholly anti-humanitarian conclusion?
There are also various hints that Popper likes altruism before and after this. But this is worse than just advocating altruism. It is an unlimited form of altruism where nothing is held back. It tells us that all possessions should be common.

The sentiment also sounds something like a generic attack on people having differences, and therefore a very intolerant statement, but perhaps it's different with more context.

OSE p100: Popper says the term 'individualism' has two dictionary meanings. The first is the opposite of collectivism. The second is the opposite of altruism. He says one of Plato's tactics was to lump both senses of individualism together, in order to argue for collectivism by attacking selfishness (an invalid and dishonest approach). And Popper separates them out, in part for accuracy, and in part so he can defend anti-collectivism without having to defend selfishness, and can say the first sense of individualism is compatible with altruism.

I think Popper's dictionary is correct to connect these two concepts. If you value individuals in their own right, then how can you advocate those individuals all individually choose to sacrifice themselves for others? That is not the standard individualist attitude of people caring deeply about their own lives, and taking responsibility for themselves, and pursuing their own interests. Altruism is a way of sneaking collectivism in through the back door.

Popper only goes half way in his support of individualism. He opposes collectivism but not altruism. Ayn Rand goes the whole way. She vigorously supports both meanings of individualism. I wonder did anyone else before her ever seriously defend selfishness? I mean for a good reason, not something like advocating tyranny and trying to justify powerful people selfishly keeping their power.

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Commentary on The Open Society and Its Enemies chapter 5

This is an incomplete summary of OSE ch5, by Karl Popper, focussed mostly on criticism of the claim that Popper is an excellent moral philosopher.

p57-58 we must distinguish between natural and normative laws. natural laws are literally impossible to break, but normative ones can be broken.

p58 denies true/false applies to normative laws

p60 people in primitive societies don't see the difference between natural and normative laws. they don't understand that laws of physics cannot be changed and cultural norms can be changed, and how to figure out which is which. (Elliot: this gets more confusing when we consider technology that increases our power over nature, so that natural laws which were major barriers become less important. in that case the laws of nature didn't really change, just our ability to circumvent or harness them.)

p61 says morality is a human construct

p61 says there are no moral facts or moral regularities in nature

p62 says you can never derive moral knowledge from facts or regularities or laws of nature (I take him to mean by "derive" something he would consider possible to do in science, not something impossible in all fields)

p62 gives example saying if you think people getting diseases is alterable, you can still take any attitude about whether this would be a good or bad change

p62 shoves a lot of morality into a category which he dismisses as unimportant and not worth calling morality. it's any way of life which, as a matter of fact, won't work because of the laws of nature. his example is working more and eating less (impossible beyond a certain point). but other examples of things we can rule out in this way include trying to have communism and prosperity, or trying to have trade protectionism without hurting your citizens, or trying to keep children innocent without harming the growth of knowledge. this category Popper dismisses includes important and controversial moral issues. I don't think that Popper knows that the moral question is "How should I live?" and thus "Should I be a communist?" is a question about how to live, and an important moral question, not just a trivial factual matter.

p63 mentions the impossibly of "logically" deriving decisions from facts. well, you can't logically derive scientific theories from facts either. so who cares?

p63 says "simply impracticable" decisions are "pointless and without significance". he is dismissing much of morality as trivial. his attitude denies that attempting projects that will fail is harmful. it second denies that ruling out bad ways of life has any value to someone who wants to learn about how to live. that's ridiculous; as Popper taught us, in science we think up a bunch of theories then use criticism to rule them out until just one stands. we should do the same in morality, and thus we should treat figuring out what won't work as very important -- it's a fundamental part of the knowledge creation process.

p64 representative quote:
But the norm 'Thou shalt not steal' is not a fact, and can never be inferred from sentences describing facts. This will be seen most clearly when we remember that there are always various and even opposite decisions possible with respect to a certain relevant fact. For instance, in face of the sociological fact that most people adopt the norm 'Thou shalt not steal', it is still possible to decide either to adopt this norm, or to oppose its adoption; it is possible to encourage those who have adopted the norm, or to discourage them, and to persuade them to adopt another norm. To sum up, it is impossible to derive a sentence stating a norm or a decision or, say, a proposal for a policy from a sentence stating a fact; this is only another way of saying that it is impossible to derive norms or decisions or proposals from facts.
This doesn't really say why, it just asserts these things.

Whatever this may be, it is not excellent moral philosophy. That would tell us about how we should live, rather than engaging in technical analysis about the philosophical limits of various statements.

From the fact that communism cannot work (whether this really is a consequence of the laws of physics is controversial, but assume for a moment that it is true) we can, at least in lay terminology, easily infer that purusing communism would be a mistake -- a poor way of life -- immoral. All communists would abandon communism if they thought, factually, that it would not achieve their goals. Technically one could still take the position that communism is good despite believing it would not achieve any good goals, but that would be ridiculous and easy to criticize, so why does it concern Popper so much? Sounds like borderline relativism.

p65 argues that morality is not "entirely arbitrary". concedes it is partially arbitrary. it's not entirely clear what being partially arbitrary means.

p65 gives 3 "moral demands" of mankind: "for equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak". two thirds of these are bad demands! It's very strange that they appear in a book touted as one of the best attacks on communism ever written. Does everyone but Ayn Rand sympathize with communism?

p67 there are "sociological laws" such as laws of economics

The rest of the chapter mostly talks about Plato.

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