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

https://web.archive.org/web/20120106163141/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gardner_popper.html
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:

http://www.law.keio.ac.jp/~popper/v6n2miller.html
[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:

http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3476946.html
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:

http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm
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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Popper on the relationship between morality and epistemology

Every rational discussion, that is, every discussion devoted to the search for truth, is based on principles, which in actual fact are ethical principles. I should like to share three of them.

  • 1 The principle of fallibility. Perhaps I am wrong and perhaps you are right; but, of course, we may both be wrong.
  • 2 The principle of rational discussion. We need to test critically and, of course, as impersonally as possible the various (criticizable) theories that are in dispute.
  • 3 The principle of approximation to truth. We can nearly always come closer to the truth with the help of such critical discussions; and we can nearly always improve our understanding, even in cases where we do not reach agreement.
It is remarkable that these principles are epistemological and, at the same time, also ethical principles. For they imply, among other things, toleration: if I can learn from you, and if I want to learn, then in the interest of truth I have not only to tolerate you but also to recognize you as a potential equal; the potential unity of man and the potential equality of all humans are prerequisites for our willingness to discuss matters rationally. Of further importance is the principle that we can learn from a discussion, even when it does not lead to agreement. For a rational discussion can help to shed light upon some of our errors.

All this shows that ethical principles form the basis of science. The most important of all such ethical principles is the principle that objective truth is the fundamental regulative idea of all rational discussion. Further ethical principles embody our commitment to the search for truth and the idea of approximation to truth; and the importance of intellectual integrity and of fallibility, which lead us to a self-critical attitude and to toleration. It is also very important that we can learn in the field of ethics.
Karl Popper, The World of Parmenides, chapt 2, section 6, paragraph 5

See also chapt 2 Addendum 2 titled: Some Principles for a New Professional Ethics Based on Xenophanes' Theory of Truth

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Karl Popper on Nature/Nurture Debate 2

The World of Parmenides, by Karl Popper, page 124:
what Freud might have described as a neurosis -- as a rejection of what Freud called the 'reality principle'. By the way, I am not a Freudian, and I even think that Freud's description of the world of the human mind may indeed be regarded as largely due to a convention or invention -- a very influence convention indeed.

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Popper on Education

Thank you, Rafe Champion, for putting together this page.

http://www.the-rathouse.com/RC_PopperEdu.html
'If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations'. Unended Quest, p. 40.
"Do no harm" and "give the young what they most urgently need in order to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves" would be a very worthy aim for our educational system, and one whose realization is somewhat remote although it sounds modest. Instead, "higher" aims are the fashion, aims which are typically romantic and indeed nonsensical, such as "the full development of the personality".

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Right vs Left Wing

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p 86
modern left-wing nonsense is generally even worse than modern right-wing nonsense.

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Popper on Philosophers

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p 87
Most philosophers are incapable of recognizing either a problem or a solution, even when they are staring them in the face: these things simply lie outside their field of interest.

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Popper on Culture Clash

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p. 109
When two or more different cultures come into contact, people realize that their ways and manners, so long taken for granted, are not 'natural', not the only possible ones, neither decreed by the gods nor part of human nature. They discover that their culture is the work of men and their history. It thus opens a world of new possibilities: it opens the windows and it lets in fresh air. This is a kind of sociological law, and it explains a lot. And it certainly played an important role in Greek history.

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Athens and Books

Popper was very interested in how athens became so great. his first explanation was culture clash. people like xenophanes and pythagoras came and brought with them different ideas, and this led to questioning conventions and fruitful disagreements. but he did not think this was a full explanation.

today i found out another part of the story, which Popper worked out late in life. it is that Pisistratus (a tyrant of athens) had homer written down as books. before that, homer was an oral tradition, and books were individual things guarded by priests. well, homer got written down in lots of copies, and athens became literate, and everyone read it. then private individuals had some other poetry written down, and sold it, and that was popular too. this paved the way for people to write books for the purpose of commercial publication (the first being, Popper thinks, _On Nature_ by Anaxagoras). and so Athens had the first *book market*, where many books could be purchased cheaply. this also led to competition among writers to make better books.

Popper mentions a nice confirming fact. He found records of large shipments of papyrus from egypt to athens, starting in a year when Pisistratus was in power. he also found several mentions of the book market in surviving books from the time.

You can find this theory in _In Search of a Better World_. look for the chapter title mentioning books *and* the one after it.

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Morality, Gorgias, and Open Society

The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, p 105
Socrates' doctrine, in the Gorgias, that it is worse to do injustice than to suffer it [...] Socrates' teaching that it is better to suffer such acts than do them
'such acts' refers to acts of injustice, and these examples are given
boxing a man's ears, injuring, or killing him
Popper looks upon this theory with favor, and says it is in the spirit of Pericles, and opposed to the spirit of Plato's Republic.

While I happen to agree with Socrates' conclusion, his arguments for it are bad. I don't think Popper should cite conclusions that were badly argued without providing some argument of his own.

Here is a summary (by me) of what Socrates says:
Doing injustice is bad for your soul. Suffering through no fault of your own is not bad for your soul. Therefore doing injustice is worse than suffering it.

Socrates also says that it's better to be punished for doing injustice than to get away with it, because the punishment is just, and therefore improves your soul.
This is nonsense. Socrates never explains how to tell what is good or bad for a soul, other than in terms of what we already think is good or bad. And also, if an action or event is soul-harming, why should it not harm everyone involved equally? Socrates assumes his conclusion to be true when he assumes the doer of injustice suffers more soul harm. That is the 'begging the question' fallacy.

Here is how I would consider this issue. I approach moral questions as an individualist who is interested in *the* moral question: 'how should I live?' We must think about what choices, and general policies for choosing, are best for a person. This way of approaching moral questions is very powerful and can easily settle many confused old debates.

As a quick note, I interpret the question about "better" or "worse" to mean "morally better" and "morally worse". Otherwise it would go more like this: would I rather have a significant force exerted on my ears, or a mild one on my knuckles? (Would I rather box ears, or be boxed.) Put this way, of course the mild force on the knuckles damages my body less and is thus preferable, but this isn't what Socrates meant, nor is it an interesting question.

In the context of a question about morality, it's pretty simple. To intentionally do injustice means to have a way of making choices that is hateful, and it means to adopt some value system compatible with being a thug. The person who's way of making decisions leads him to do injustice is the person who has the wrong way of choosing, by definition of 'injustice'. So he is immoral.

To suffer injustice at the hands of others simply means to fail take enough precautions and defensive measures. This is a mistake that people can make while having a generally good life strategy, and mostly making good choices. (And unfortunately, injustice can even happen to people who make only exceptional choices and no relevant mistakes. But what of it? That is bad luck, and no more. All that is in our power is make good decisions in our life. Bad luck can happen to anyone; the interesting thing is what's in our control: our choices. Do those work to make our life better or worse?)

If we think of morality as being about having a good way of approaching life, then it's obvious that even a good person can be assaulted by thugs in an alley, and that does not make him less moral, but no good person can be one of those thugs.

The question basically amounts to, "If X is a bad way of life, would you rather do X, or rather someone else does?" In other words, "Would you rather be immoral, or not?" It's sad that this has ever confused anyone.

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Popper on Bayesians

_Objective Knowledge_ p 141
Bayesians (as the adherents of the subjective interpretation of the probability calculus now call themselves) ...

This ... I have combated for thirty-three years. Fundamentally, it springs from the same epistemic philosophy which attributes to the statement 'I know that snow is white' a greater epistemic dignity than to the statement 'snow is white'.

I do not see any reason why we should not attribute still greater epistemic dignity to the statement 'In the light of all the evidence available to me I believe that it is rational to believe that snow is white.' The same could be done, of course, with probability statements.

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Popper Mistaken About Physical Determinism

_Objective Knowledge_ by Karl Popper, p 221
physical determinism implies that every physical event in the distant future (or in the distance past) is predictable (or retrodictable) with any desired degree of precision, provided we have sufficient knowledge about the present state of the world.
This is false. Physical determinism does not imply that we can calculate what the past was like based on the present.

The reason is that some functions are not reversible. Knowing the function used, and the output, does not let you calculate the input.

An example is addition. If you know two numbers were added, and the result was four, you cannot work out what the original numbers were. The output of addition has less information than the input.

To predict the past based on the present, one needs to posit both physical determinism and that all the laws of physics are reversible.

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Bayes and Induction

Here is a question for people who think Bayes' theorem holds answers for epistemology. Suppose we have a coin. We estimate the prior probabilities of heads and tails at 50% each. We flip the coin 5,000 times. They all come up tails. Now we want to update our estimates of the probabilities of heads and tails. If we flip it again, what should we estimate the chance of another tails is?

This is a very generous question. Choosing prior probabilities is itself a serious issue, but we grant that. 5,000 data points, all with precise, unambiguous results, is not common in daily life. Plus the data can be summed up nicely and has a strong, easy to analyze pattern. And coin flipping is especially suited to a Bayesian approach. It's just as generous as a problem about picking different colored marbles out of a bag. And I don't ask for an explanation, only for a new probability estimate, which is again what Bayes is all about.

But I don't think Bayesians can answer this (or any harder question). If one tries, here is what you say to them next: "Would you agree that some parts of what you just said are not implied by Bayes' theorem, but are extra things you've added?" When they agree they've stepped a little beyond the bounds of the formula itself, then you can ask them about how much of their procedure for answering the question is Bayes' formula. And ask about where this extra part is coming from, and where to find a rigorous statement of how it works, and so on.

Now, here is a scenario for inductivists. I have a Rails application with a memory leak. I want to find the leak and fix it. How do I do it? You have a theory of knowledge, which is supposed to (along with deduction) explain how knowledge is created, right? So tell me how to create knowledge of my memory leak. Tell me how to solve a real problem.

I can repeat the test code which causes the leak thousands of times if you want. And I can run code that doesn't cause the leak thousands of times. You can have all the repeated observations you want. But I don't see how that will help. Tell me, Mr. Inductivist, how will repeating these observations help anything? Should I get different Rails applications, perhaps thousands of them, and see if they leak memory? I can do that, but is it really going to figure out where the bug in my program is?

Here is how I actually find memory leaks. I make guesses about where the problem might be, and then I think of ways to test whether I'm right or wrong. For example I guess it's in a certain section of code, then I delete that section and run the application and see if the leak goes away or not. Just like Popper said: guesses and criticism, trial and error.

I also run some programs to get statistics. What statistics? The ones I guess might be useful, such as a list of the most numerous objects in memory. How do I get from this list to figuring out which code is to blame? Sometimes I don't. Other times I think "Oh, lots of widgets, well I think I know where we create a lot of widgets" and I come up with a guess about which code is probably making them. None of this follows the inductivist model where you make repeated observations (of what? Just run the same exact thing over and over? If not, then how do you decide what to observe?) and then infer the answer from the observations (so i observe the leak every day for 3 years, and write down what happened each time, and then somehow I infer from this what the problem is? That "somehow" is very vague. That's where induction falls flat.)

One of the general patterns this post illustrates is that bad philosophy can be dealt with by asking it to be effective. Asking to see it in action. Even just in simple, realistic examples.

See also: Popper on Bayesians

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Misreading Popper

I think the majority of people who say they agree with Popper read him like this:

Popper says there is no verification or justification. They think "That sounds stupid. I must have misread it. Let me try to find a better interpretation." (And, by the way, if they didn't know to do that in advance, they might well learn it while reading Popper, since he's a big advocate of seeking the best possible version of arguments one encounters.)

So, they try to think of a way to change Popper's statements about epistemology to be more reasonable. They end up interpreting his statements to be consistent with the only epistemology that makes any sense to them: the prevailing one.

And so they go through the whole book interpreting everything Popper says as advocating justificationism, induction, and the theory that knowledge is justified, true belief.

They perhaps take Popper to be making some critiques of it, for example they might notice Popper denies that infallible justifications are possible, but overall they take him to fundamentally agree with justificationism. What else could he be saying? As far as they can see, it's the only possible, conceivable approach to epistemology. One can't disagree with it; it's the manifest truth of how to think. Anyone who disagrees with it wouldn't be able to think; he'd end up in an insane asylum.

Let me emphasize: I think a majority of people who claim to agree with Popper do not. That's how hard communication and persuasion are, and how different two people who think they "agree" often are. Popper knew people are different and persuasion is hard, but I don't think he ever said it this strongly.

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Authoritarian Irony

http://philosophy.suite101.com/article.cfm/critical_rationalism
One of Popper's students at the London School of Economics was William Warren Bartley III. According to Rafe Champion, Bartley, along with Popper, recognizes "the authoritarian way of thinking which charactorizes Western thought.
The author understands that Popper was opposed to authoritarian ways of thinking.

What he doesn't understand is that citing Rafe Champion as an authority on what Popper and Bartley's positions are is itself an instance of authoritarian thought. And a very archetypical one at that.

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Refinements of inductive inference by Popperian machines

ftp://ftp.udel.edu/pub/people/case/kyb-final.ps

Most of this paper is code/math rather than philosophy. I am only criticizing its philosophy. It may be a very good paper within its field.
Consider a real world phenomenon f that is being investigated by an agent M. M performs discrete experiments x on f. For example, x might be a particle diffraction experiment and f(x) the resultant probable distribution on the other side of the diffraction grating. By a suitable encoding of the experiments and results we may treat f as a function from = {0,1,2,...}, the set of natural numbers, to N. A complete explanation for f is a computer program for f. Such a program for f gives us predictive power about the results of all possible experiments related to f. We are concerned about the theoretical properties of the agents which attempt to arrive at explanations (possibly only nearly correct) for different phenomena. In what follows we will conceptualize such agents as learners (of programs for function).

An inductive inference machine (IIM) is an algorithmic device which takes as its input a graph of a function N -> N, an ordered pair at a time, an, as it is receiving its input, outputs computer programs from time to time.
The use of the word 'explanation' here is not how Popper uses it. This is because they are not philosophers and are not doing philosophy. I am not faulting them for that, but I was rather hoping for a critique of Popper's philosophy, which this is not. I discuss the word 'explanation' more later.

The use of the word 'induction' here *is* how I use it. Their use of induction here has *data first*, and then "explanations" are created second, based on the data.

They assert their machines arrive at "explanations" (computers programs) which are correct or nearly correct using this inductive approach. This is, at least according to Popperian philosophy, impossible. Here are some reasons:

Any finite set of data is compatible with infinitely many theories. Only one is correct. The machine has no way to judge which theories are better than others. Therefore the machine cannot succeed. (Note: if we did have a theory telling us how to judge which are better than others, that would no longer be induction because all the content would be coming from this theory and not by induction from the data.)

There is no way to generalize data points into a theory. Imagine the data points on a 2-dimensional graph. A theory is a line on the graph (or the function which generates that line, if you prefer). I don't mean a straight line, it can curve around or whatever. A theory *consistent with the data* would have to go through every point. There are infinitely many ways to draw such a line. Any portion of the line between any two points, or after the last point, or before the first, can go absolutely anywhere you feel like on the graph at your whim while remaining fully *consistent with the data*. The points can be connected in any order. The data points provide no useful restrictions at all on which theories (lines) are possible. (IIRC this argument is in _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_).

Some people would say you should draw the most smooth line between the points, and avoid the bendy ones. This kind of sounds nice in English. But it's not so easy when you deal with real theories, especially philosophical theories. What is the smooth line to tell me the right theory about the morality of stealing? But also consider a field which has lights which are turned off at 6am, and turned on at 6pm, every day. If you make observations at noon and midnight daily, and draw straight lines between the data points, you will predict the lights are partially on in between your observations, which is wrong. When it comes down to it, no one has ever made a general purpose theory of this sort (draw the smooth line) which works.

Further, the smooth line theory involves having a *theory first* (about the type of line most likely to correspond to a true theory), and then making guesses *based on the theory* and interpreting the data in light of the theory. So it's not really induction anymore.

In other words, because (following Popper) induction does not work, the inductive inference machine will not work.


In the paper's abstract it asserts the way the induction machines are "Popperian" is that they make use of Popper's "refutability principle". Later the paper says:
Karl Popper has enunciated the principle that scientific explanations ought to be subject to refutation[23]. Most of this paper concerns restrictions on the machines requiring them to output explanations which can be refuted.
Unfortunately the word "explanation" in Popper's principle has a different meaning than the "explanations" which the machines output. In fact they are not creating any explanations at all in Popper's sense. So their machines do not follow his principle (except perhaps by loose analogy or metaphor).

Their sense of "explanation" is a correct program, i.e. one that can *predict* data points. But Popper's idea of an explanation is an English statement to *explain the underlying phenomenon*, not just to make predictions. The idea that scientific explanations are nothing more than instruments for making predictions is *instrumentalism*. You can find criticism of instrumentalism in _The Fabric of Reality_ chapter 1. Also in Popper (various places, like OK p 64-65).

The paper also talks about the reliability of their inductive inference machines. Their approach is justificationist. They attempt to *establish* the reliability of some knowledge (not as absolutely certain truth, just as reliable/partially-certain/supported/weakly-justified whatever you want to call it). This is anti-Popperian. They do not provide criticism of Popper's arguments on the subject.

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Comments on Philosophy of Biology versus Philosophy of Physics by William W Bartley III

http://www.the-rathouse.com/Philosophy_vs_Philosophy_of_Physics.pdf
Let me ask you for a show of hands. How many of you will agree that you see me? I see a number of hands - so I guess insanity loves company. Of course, you don't "really" see me. What you "see" is a bunch of pieces of information.., which you synthesize into a picture image... It's that simple.

...

Representationalism, the commonsense position which Bateson appears to criticize in our example, and which is rejected outright by Machian philosophy, is also the position of many of the founders of the western scientific tradition - including Galileo, Boyle, and Newton.
This is strange. The example says you see *information*. That means the picture image you create is based on real empirical information. It's not a fantasy. This is consistent with common sense. Common sense has no problem with the mechanism of sight being that information comes to you eyes, on photons, and then is processed by your brain, as long as the conclusion of the story is that you end up with a roughly accurate picture of the real world.
As Newton wrote: "In philosophical disquisitions we ought to abstract from our senses and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only sensible measures of them". Such representationalism maintains that the members of Bateson's audience - at least those that had vision - did see Bateson (at least if he was there).
This is just toying with terminology. There's no substantive difference. The example defines the word "see" so "seeing" photons isn't "seeing" people. That's mildly silly, I guess, but it wasn't the focus of the example. The point was to consider the specific mechanism by which we see. And that matters sometimes, e.g. for considering where errors can creep in.


Reading on, it looks like this example was badly chosen and "presentationalism" is actually about saying we learn about appearances rather than objective reality. That is not a claim about the mechanism of sight, and isn't illustrated by the example above. The example even *contradicts it* by saying there is information (implicitly from objective reality, what other sort of information is there?) coming to our eyes.

The reason all this stood out to me is the example is *true* on the face of it. That *is* how sight works. But Bartley takes it to be deeply wrong. I think it's important to be able to accept the accurate view about how eyesight works without thinking it has bad philosophical consequences. And mixing in differing accounts of sight (ambiguous statements on this issue continue) blurs the philosophical issues the paper is really about.
What explains the appeal of presentationalism to contemporary physicists and philosophers of physics? Part of its appeal no doubt consists just in the fact that, being contrary to common sense, it enjoys the possibility of being sophisticated.
I don't think one should put condescending psychologizing of one's opponents in serious papers.
Preoccupied with the avoidance of error, they suppose that, in order to avoid error, they must make no utterances that cannot be justified by -i.e., derived from - the evidence available. Yet sense perception seems to be the only evidence available; and sense perception is insufficienfly strong, logically, to justify the claim about the existence of the external world, or about the various laws and entities of science, such as atoms and forces. The claim that there is an external world in addition to the evidence is a claim that goes beyond the evidence. Hence claims about such realms are unjustifiable. Worse, many presentationalists argue that they are intrinsically faulty: they are not genuine but pseudo-claims; they are indeed meaningless. For a word to have a meaning, they say, it must stand for an idea: that is, for a perception or for a memory of a perception. Since there can be no perception of any realitybeyondperception, there can be no idea of it, and hence no meaningful language "about" it.
Wow! Now I see what Bartley has a problem with! He should have put this earlier. This section is good and clear.
Mach and his students against atomic theory. The best known of these problems relates to entropy. The second law of thermodynamics asserts the existence of irreversible processes. Thus differences of density, temperature and average velocity disappear, but do not arise, by themselves: entropy always increases. Yet it was difficult for atomic theory to explain processes of this sort: for in classical mechanics all motion is reversible. Hence it could be argued, as the physicist Loschmidt did, that heat and entropy simply could not involve mechanical motion of atoms and molecules. Boltzmann' s work, by contrast (like Maxwell's in Britain), was directed to explaining entropy statistically in terms of atomic theory.
The problem of entropy brought up here is interesting. Is it solved?
Their view has been named "evolutionary epistemology" by the distinguished American psychologist Donald T. Campbell. It is an approach, based on biological and physiological research, which is utterly at variance with presentationalism.
I disagree. Evolution is not based on research, it's a philosophical non-empircal, non-scientific theory. It's a statement about the logic of what happens in a certain category of situations.

Evolutionary theories of the history of the Earth/species/humans are based on research, and are scientific. But the research and empirical part of those isn't relevant to the philosophical issues at stake. It's specious to draw on that research for authority in a philosophical debate.
Until recently, there has been even less appreciation that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms and western epistemologies could be compared - let alone that they conflict radically.
*If* there was a different way of creating knowledge, *then* it could be used to explain the observation that knowledge (in the form of animals, etc) has been created on Earth.

Christians know this perfectly well. *If* God is a good explanation for how knowledge is created -- if he can survive the philosophical debate -- *then* he can explain all the data (that knowledge was created) just fine. If you accept the God explanation, the data is not problematic.

So it's wrong to say that biological evolution research contradicts rival epistemologies. If there were any rival epistemologies, they could very possibly account for the data and there's no way to say in advance that they couldn't. And even if they couldn't account for the data, it still wouldn't contradict them. If I say you can create knowledge doing X, and this can't explain the origin of species only other types of knowledge creation, then maybe there's two or more ways knowledge can be created. There's no contrdiction.

The real problem with alternative epistemologies is being bad explanations, not failing to account for some data. Their real problem is there are no rival epistemologies that *have some other explanation of how knowledge is created*. Or in other words, there exist no rival epistemologies that are remotely serious -- they are all missing the core idea an epistemology should have!

They shouldn't feel too bad. The Problem of Design was a big, hard problem. So far there's only one proposed solution that has ever gotten anywhere. It's the difficulty of solving the philosophical problem of design in new ways that keeps rival epistemologies down, not any empirical data.

Oh, and Darwin didn't explain this stuff, so the paper shouldn't be talking about him at all.

The paper goes on to give actual animal examples. Birds and trees and stuff. meh. I think he'd be a lot better off explaining the philosophical theory of evolution (which surprisingly few people understand well) instead.
A good example is winetasting: the connoisseur knows what to look for and how to describe both what he searches for and what he experiences. His sensations are, as a result of cultivation, made more authoritative.
Errr, Bartley thinks people's statements or ideas can be more/less authoritative? He believes in authority?
Sensations are, then, anything but authoritative: they are themselves interpretations. They can be educated and refined. In this process they become more authoritative in the sense that they are better tested and educated but not in the sense that they are ever beyond error or improvement
Yeah he does. Not in the standard way, but still some. This is bad! Critical tests and knowledge creation are not about gaining authority. The Popperian approach is about *rejecting the goal of authority* and replacing it with a new approach!

I like Feynman. He rejects authority.
A presentationalist would hardly deny this; quite the contrary, if he knows his Kant, he understands these matters.
The part after the semicolon is condescending to people who haven't read Kant and it's unexplained. Should have been omitted.
One will hardly be inclined to treat
It goes: [argument] Therefore: One will hardly be inclined to treat

It should go: [argument] Therefore: one should not do X, Y, Z which contradict the conclusions of the argument.

Arguments don't depend for their power on what *people* are *inclined* to do or treat.



The paper goes on at length about various animals. It makes the point that different animals have different sense apparatus. This is kinda problematic for people who consider the *human* senses to be the sacred, authoritative version of reality. Actually different things about reality can be seen with differently designed eyes, or with microscopes.

It also says "combinatorialism" is about as big a problem as justificationism. And emergence/emergent-evolution is its opposite. Says something about combinationlism=reductionism too. I don't know what that is about, though of course reductionism is silly: we should operate at whatever level of explanation best solves our problems, not the lowest level possible.



So here's my version:

Presentationalism, instrumentalism, strong empiricism, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, etc, say: do not explain. Just observe reality (perhaps predict, presumably using induction).

The right view is: do explain reality. That should be our goal. To *understand*. We should regard stuff to exist in reality if it's *needed* in our explanations. In other words, if we can't understand reality while denying X exists, then we should say X does exist.

Denying objective reality itself exists is quite a bad way to try to understand it, or anything!

And presentationalism/etc has no explanation of how knowledge is created to offer so it doesn't work as a rival theory to Popperian epistemology.

And authority is invalid. And there's no "raw" observations, sensory data is, and must be, interpreted.

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Rationality

http://www.the-rathouse.com/bartagree.html
Following his teacher, Karl Popper, the operating principle of Bartley's rationalism is the formula 'I may be wrong and you may be right, and by means of critical discussion we may get nearer to the truth of the matter'.
Note that this conception of rationality is all about *how disagreements are treated*. It has an implicit "When we disagree, I may be wrong..." at the start.

Here is an equivalent statement of rationality:

Rationality is a property of how disagreements are treated, not which ideas one holds. Rational ways of approaching disagreements keep open the possibility of either party being mistaken, or both parties. Rational approaches are those that aim to eliminate errors. Irrational approaches presuppose a correct conclusion. They try to entrench it, or "make it rule". Aiming to convert people to your way of thinking is thus irrational, whereas aiming to discuss which way of thinking is true is rational.

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Abduction

If abductive reasoning is about "inference to the best explanation" isn't that similar to the Popperian approach, which tries to find good explanations?

No, because:

abduction justifies the conclusion of the inference being the best explanation based on the process used to reach it (i.e., the conclusion is justified b/c it was reached using abduction rather than, say, guessing)

abduction, like induction, is supposed to offer a procedure for how to get from the input data to a conclusion, but actually doesn't.

critical rationalism (CR) doesn't need a procedure for how to create or pick explanations b/c it just says: guess them however you want, and if your method is dumb it doesn't really matter (but feel free to criticize your method and try to improve it).

The reason it doesn't matter to CR where ideas come from is CR doesn't try to justify ideas by having them come from an authoritative process. Instead, CR tries to improve ideas by *error elimination*. Although this does let us improve ideas, it never makes them authoritative or secure (or probably secure), as abduction aims to do.

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Popper vs The World

Popper/Feynman/fallibilists/etc: Mistakes are very easy to make. In addition to imaginative conjectures, we need relentless criticism. If we don't have that criticism, we'll constantly be fooled by mistakes.

Others: Stop dismissing everything so easily. It's good enough. No one is going to be fooled unless they are an idiot. Imagination is more important than criticism. And anyway, the way to avoid mistakes is this: proven or supported ideas are not mistakes.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

New Induction Disproof

Deutsch, Popper, and Feynman aren't inductivists. I could add more people to this list, like me. So here we see a clear pattern of people not being inductivists. There's a bunch of data points with a certain thing in common (a person not being inductivist). Let's apply induction to this pattern. So we extrapolate the general trend: induction leads us to conclude against induction. Oh no, a contradiction! I guess we'll have to throw out induction.

Q&A:

Q: Your data set is incomplete.
A: All data sets are incomplete.

Q: Your data set isn't random.
A: No data sets are entirely random.

Q: I have an explanation of why your method of selecting data points leads to a misleading result.
A: That's nice. I like explanations.

Q: Don't you care that I have a criticism of your argument?
A: I said we should throw out induction. As you may know, I think we should use an explanation-focussed approach. I took your claim to have an explanation, and lack of claim to have induced anything, as agreement.

Q: But how am I supposed to object to your argument using only induction? Induction isn't a tool for criticizing invalid uses of induction.
A: So you're saying induction cannot tell us which inductions are true or false. We need explanation to do that. So induction is useless without explanation, but explanation is not useless without induction.

Q: That doesn't prove induction is useless.
A: Have you ever thought about how much of the work, in a supposed induction, is done by induction, and how much by explanation?

Q: No.
A: Try it sometime.

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Rethinking Popper Papers Comments

http://www.flu.cas.cz/rethinkingpopper/description.html
Preserving the authority of reason, Popper can...
The authority of reason is a contradiction.


http://www.flu.cas.cz/rethinkingpopper/papers.html

Jarvie:
Thus an author [like Popper] may be a privileged interpreter [of his own writing] but he is not necessarily reliable, infallible, the last word, or anything like that.
Why is a Popper conference paper claiming there exist privileged sources of knowledge (sometimes)?


Boyer:
Popper was essentially right about verification and passive induction : the former is inaccessible, outside formal sciences, and the latter is a myth
Why is a Popperian conference paper saying verification is possible (sometimes), and claiming further that that was Popper's view?
And we should certainly prefer the hypothesis that resists to our best criticisms better than the others do.
Why does he think we have a way to judge how good a theory is? And on a continuum, it sounds like. Popper offered no such technique.

What Popper offered is the idea that we can reject theories with even one false consequence. There's no continuum of falsity, they are just false, end of story. If criticism leaves us with exactly one remaining theory, then we should tentatively adopt it.

BTW that may sound implausible or unlikely to happen to have exactly one viable theory at some time. It isn't because there are techniques for ending up with exactly one theory, though I don't recall Popper ever explaining them.


Udell:
Moreover, it is Popper, not Rawls, who identifies and emphasizes the connection between justice and full employment.
I don't remember reading that and it has no citation. Can anyone provide a cite?
Rawls’s method reflects his recognition that a strong moral conviction about a particular action or institution—e.g., slavery, sexism—may override the appeal of an otherwise appealing moral principle
What does it mean for an idea to override an idea? Either it refutes it, or it doesn't. I think this concept is incoherent.
Popper the first anti-foundationalist philosopher in the analytic tradition
But Popper was not an analytic philosopher. He criticized analytic philosophy.


Verhofstadt:

This paper begins by explaining liberalism. However, it never mentions tradition (except negatively in passing). I would summarize the liberal attitude as about optimistic reform of existing knowledge (traditions), and contrast it with conservatism (keeping traditions unchanged) and radicalism or utopianism (which does not value tradition and try to reform it, but instead ignores it and is happy to start from scratch). When a supposed liberal has nothing good to say about tradition, I fear he is actually a radical. Popper himself certainly had good things to say about tradition, and a Popperian should know that.

The paper focusses more on liberalism as being about freedom, individualism, justice, and humanitarianism. But many conservatives and radicals are in favor of all of those things. So how can they be the defining characteristics of liberalism? Further, many liberals accept restrictions on freedom and the other things. This paper approvingly points out that Popper accepts restrictions on freedom later.
neoliberals and libertarians consider free market as a kind of scientific certainty
One can adopt fallibilism and be a free market libertarian, like me. The paper contains no argument that one cannot, just this alienating assertion.

The paper goes on to attack religion. I don't think it's a good idea for a Popper conference paper — and ironically one about liberalism, which is supposed to advocate tolerance — to be intolerant of views held by many Popperians. It'd be better to focus on things agreeable to Popperians.

A better, more Popperian way to criticize libertarianism or religion would be to consider what problem they are trying to solve, what they get right, what they get wrong, and how they can be improved, instead of being hostile to them. It is unliberal to be hostile to fellow liberals instead of trying to work together.


Swann:
Popperian Selectionism and Its Implications for Education, or ‘What to Do About the Myth of Learning by Instruction from Without?’
That's the title.
Although Popper was vehemently opposed to the discussion of words and their meaning (Popper, 1992[1974], § 7), my experience in talking about learning with educationists has led me to accompany any exposition of a Popperian view of learning with what I term an evolutionary definition. I propose that learning is best defined as
Swann acknowledges doing something Popper was "vehemently opposed to". She spends four consecutive paragraphs doing it. The only reason for opposing Popper that she provides is an appeal to experience which she claims "led" her. But experience does not lead people: that is the myth of instruction from without, the very myth her paper criticizes.
The process itself is not entirely conscious, so you will not be aware of more than a few aspects of it.
It does not follow from a claim that X is not entirely Y that little of X is Y.
A criticism, even if valid, may be inappropriate if ultimately it serves to stifle creativity and inhibit further trial and error-elimination
How does critically seeking the truth stifle truth seeking?
What is at issue here is a choice between two competing theories. One proposes that ‘No learning takes place by instruction from without’, the other that ‘Some learning takes place by instruction from without’. Although both theories are about events in the world, neither has the potential to be refuted by reference to empirical evidence.
Although we don't know how to test the theories today, surely we will in the future. They are theories about the mechanisms by which some physical objects function. Why would that be impossible to test by observing those physical objects?
The function of the brain is to select and create; it has no means of taking in information
The Popperian position is the brain cannot directly take in knowledge. Of course it does take in information through the senses. But that information is not useful until it is processed and interpreted. I am at a loss as to how someone can think the brain does not take in any information at all. The paper does not include any arguments for this proposition, though there is a cite.

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Limits of Critical Discussion?

How effective can critical discussion be as the primary mode of learning more in a field once you reach the very top of the field? Once you know all the common ideas and arguments, then people who only know those common ideas and arguments can be of little use.

Or perhaps not. If you have a new idea, then the reactions of those same people to the new idea will be new to you.

But what if you are so far ahead of others in the field that their reactions to new ideas consistently contain nothing you didn't already consider? Then critical discussion wouldn't be especially useful. Is such a scenario realistic? If one was in it, should they make progress by critical discussion within their own mind? Or should they find another field to work on? Or should they teach others and help them catch up? Or should they make progress in this field by some other method?

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Fallibilism

The word 'fallibility' has two different meanings. One is that we can't be absolutely sure of anything. The other is that mistakes are common. These meanings are both the same kind of thing, but the first is much narrower than the second. I embrace the truth of both meanings.

Sometimes fallibilists argue that math cannot have certainty because performing a proof is a physical process, and during physical processes things can go wrong (e.g. i could be drugged to unconsciousness and then awake with tampered memories such that I thought I'd completely the proof correctly when I hadn't). This argument is correct, but it is only an argument for the first, lesser meaning of fallibility. Although it gives an example demonstrating the possibility of a mistake, it does not show that mistakes are common.

A similar kind of argument is made by fallibilists with inductivists. We may point out that, as a matter of logic, inductive conclusions do not deductively follow from their premises, and therefore they are fallible. Again, this is an argument for fallibility in the first sense -- error is possible -- but it does not say whether error is common or not.

One result of this situation is that some people are converted to fallibilism but only in the first sense. When they encounter people who embrace fallibilism in the deeper sense, they become confused because these people discuss fallibilism but in a different way than they understand it. There can be further confusion because both groups identify themselves by the same label, "fallibilists", and may then wonder why they are disagreeing so much.

The more thorough meaning of fallibilism is required for most important fallibilist arguments. This is known to many anti-fallibilists who claim fallibilism is stupid and useless because not a lot of interesting truths follow from it (they have in mind the more limited meaning of fallibilism). And emphasizing that error is possible could be deemed misleading if it is in fact very very rare and perhaps even negligible.

Here are some examples of how the stronger meaning of fallibilism leads to important conclusions the weaker meaning does not:

Should parents take seriously the possibility that, in the face of a disagreement, their child might be in the right? If mistakes are common, including mistakes by parents, then yes they should. This is a clear implication from the strong meaning of fallibilism. But on the other hand if the parent having made a mistake is only a very remote possibility, one in a million, then one could considering taking a different attitude.

Should lovers who think they won't end up with broken hearts take seriously the possibility that their knowledge of how to avoid being hurt may contain a mistake? That depends if mistakes are commonplace or extremely rare. If the rate of making mistakes like that is one per hundred million couples then it's not worth worrying about. If it's one per two couples then it'd be crazy not to think about it a lot.

When a person seems to misunderstand my argument, should I believe he is doing it deliberately (perhaps because he sees that it refutes his position)? If mistakes in understanding arguments are extremely rare, then it would follow that it's usually deliberate. But if mistakes are common, then I shouldn't take it to be deliberate.

In general, when I disagree with someone, is he mistaken, am I mistaken, or is he a bad person? If mistakes are common, either of us could be mistaken. If mistakes are extraordinary rare, then I may have to conclude he is a bad person who wants to adopt mistaken ideas due to bias or some other factor. This is especially true if I have multiple disagreements with him. If mistakes are very rare, can he really be innocently mistaken on all those issues?

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Popper on Burke and Tradition

_Conjectures and Refutations_ p 162
[Edmund Burke] fought, as you know, against the ideas of the French Revolution, and his most effective weapon was his analysis of that irrational power which we call 'tradition'. I mention Burke because I think he has never been properly answered by rationalists. Instead rationalists tended to ignore his criticism and to persevere in their anti-traditionalists attitude without taking up the challenge. Undoubtedly there is a traditional hostility between rationalism and traditionalism. Rationalists are inclined to adopt the attitude: 'I am not interested in tradition. I want to judge everything on its merits and demerits, and I want to do this quite independently of any tradition. I want to judge it with my own brain, and not with the brains of other people who lived long ago.'

That the matter is not quite so simple as this attitude assumes emerges from the fact that the rationalist who says such things is himself very much bound by a rationalist tradition which traditionally says them. This shows the weakness of certain traditional attitudes towawrds the problem of tradition.
I see confusion here. The right attitude is to judge ideas on their merits and demerits, but to do so with the aid of both reason and traditional knowledge. This is perhaps clearer to see if one renames "traditional knowledge" to "existing knowledge". Existing knowledge is good, and shouldn't be disregarded even by people with a very high opinion of reason and individual judgment.

Existing knowledge should be used whenever doing so seems unproblematic, and improved when it seems problematic. It should be respected as something valuable, but not something beyond criticism. I think this attitude harnesses the good points of both the rationalists and traditionalists and also demonstrates they are not fundamentally in conflict.

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Critical Preferences and Strong Arguments

This post is a followup. For context, click here to read the first post.

The following is intended as a statement of my position but does not attempt to argue for it in detail.

The concept of a critical preference makes the common sense assumption that there are strong and weak arguments, or in other words that arguments or ideas can be evaluated on a continuum based on their merit.

The merit of an idea is often metaphorically stated in terms of its weight (e.g. Popper wrote "weighty though inconclusive arguments", Objective Knowledge p 41). It's also commonly stated in terms of probability or likeliness. And it's also stated in terms of ranking or scoring ideas to see which is best.

Ideas do have merit, and they can be closer or further from the truth (more or less truthlike, if you prefer). However, we never know how much merit an idea has. We can't evaluate ideas that way.

(BTW suppose we could evaluate how much merit ideas have. A second assumption is that doing so would be useful and that it would make sense to prefer the idea with more merit. That should not be assumed uncritically.)

Popper did not give detailed arguments for the idea that we can or should evaluate arguments by their strength or amount of merit. That's why I call it an assumption. I think he uncritically took it for granted without discussion, as have most (all?) other philosophers.

In the strength based approach, an idea could score a 1, or a 2, or a 20. In Popper's view, the numbers don't have an absolute meaning; they can only be compared with the scores of other ideas. Or in other words, we never know how close to the truth we've come on an absolute scale. In this approach, an idea can have infinitely many different evaluations.

In my approach, an idea can only have three possible evaluations. An idea can be unproblematic (non-refuted), problematic (refuted), or we're unsure. Ignoring the possibility of not taking a stance, which isn't very important, an idea gets a boolean evaluation: it's either OK or not OK.

If we see a problem with an idea, then it's no good, it's refuted. We should never accept, or act on, ideas we know are flawed. Or in other words, if we know about an error it's irrational to continue with the error anyway.

On the other hand, if we have two ideas and we can see no problem with either, then we can have no reason to prefer one over the other. This way of assessing ideas does not allow for the middle ground of "weighty though inconclusive arguments".

If an idea is flawed, it may have a close variant which is unproblematic. Whenever we refute an idea, we should look for variants of the idea which have not been refuted. There may be good parts which can be rescued.

My approach is in significant agreement with Popper's epistemology because it does not allow for the possibility of ideas having support. Some people would say we can differentiate non-refuted ideas by how much support each has, but I follow Popper in denying that.

Popper's alternative to support is criticism. I accept the critical approach. Where I differ is in not allowing an idea to be both criticized and non-refuted. I don't think it makes sense to simultaneously accept a criticism of an idea, and accept the idea. We should make up our mind (keeping open the possibility of changing our mind at any time), or say we aren't sure.

As I see it, a criticism either points out a flaw in an idea or it doesn't. And we either have a criticism of the criticism, or we don't. A criticism can't contradict a theory and be itself non-refuted, but also fail to be decisive. On what grounds would it fail to be decisive, given we see no flaw in it?

Let's now consider the situation where we have conflicting non-refuted ideas, which is the problem that critical preferences try to solve. How should we approach such a conflict? We can make progress by criticizing ideas. But it may take us a while to think of a criticism, and we may need to carry on with life in the meantime. In that case, the critical preferences approach attempts to compare the non-refuted ideas, evaluate their merit, and act on the best one.

My approach to solving this problem is to declare the conflict (temporarily) undecided (pending a new idea or criticism) and then to ask the question, "Given the situation, including that conflict being undecided, what should be done?" Answering this new question does not depend on resolving the conflict, so it gets us unstuck.

When approaching this new question we may get stuck again on some other conflict of ideas. Being stuck is always temporary, but temporary can be a long time, so again we'll need to do something about it. What we can do is repeat the same method as before: declare that conflict undecided and consider what to do given that the undecided conflicts are undecided.

A special case of this method is discussed here. It discusses avoiding coercion. Coercion is an active conflict between ideas within one mind with relevance to a choice being made now. But the method can be applied in the general case of any conflict between ideas.

My approach accepts what we do not know, and seeks a good explanation of how to proceed given our situation. It is always possible to find such an explanation. It may sound difficult, but actually you already do it dozens of times per day without realizing it. Just like people must use conjectures and refutations to understand each other in English conversations (and must use them in all their thinking), and when they first hear that idea it sounds bizarre, but they already do it quickly, reliably, and without realizing what they are doing.

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Using False Theories

C&R by Popper p 306
we are, in many cases, quite well served by theories which are known to be false.
This is a mistake! Consider a theory of motion, say, which we'll call T. We know T is false, but it's also a good approximation to the truth in common and well defined circumstances.

We do not use theory T. We use theory U which consists of what I said in the first paragraph: that theory T is an approximation, and useful in certain circumstances. Theory U contains in it theory T, but also some other ideas including the refutation of T. Theory U is a way of approximating motion in certain circumstances, it's useful, and it's not known to be false. Theory U is just plain better.

If we can't create a true variant of T or any other false theory, like we did with U, then T is not actually useful at all. Refuted theories can only be useful via non-refuted theories that make reference to them, not on their own.

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Weak Theory Example

T1 is a testable, scientific theory to solve problem P. T2 is a significantly less testable theory to solve P. In Popper's view, barring some important other consideration, if both T1 and T2 are non-refuted then we must prefer T1 and say it's better.

But T1 might not be better. You could easily choose T1 so it's false and T2 so it's true as best we know today, without contradicting the situation description.

You can assert that T1 is better, as far as we know, given the current state of knowledge. But is it? Where is the argument that it is? This looks to me like both explanationless philosophy and positive philosophy (T1 is supported by its testability, and T2 isn't). T2 is losing out without any criticism of it.

What we should do is not say T1 is better, but say: T2 needs to be testable to be a viable theory because X. X can be a generic reason such as scientific theories should be testable and P is a scientific problem. Once we say this, we are now making a criticial argument: we're criticizing T2. This offers T2 the chance to defend itself, which never came up in the original analysis.

It's now up to T2 to offer a reason that it doesn't need to be more testable, or actually is more testable. T2 can criticize the criticism of it, or be refuted. (BTW if T2 didn't already contain this reason, and it has to be invented, then T2 is refuted and T2b is now standing, where T2b consists of the content of T2 plus the new content that criticizes this criticism of T2.)

Then if the testibility criticism is criticized, it can either be refuted or be ammended to include a criticism of that criticism. And so on. This approach takes seriously the idea that we only learn from criticism. That makes sense because criticisms are error-correcting statements: they explain a flaw in something, which helps us avoid a mistake.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Examples of Accepting Contradicting Ideas

People commonly say things like, "That's a good point, but alone it's insffucient for me to change my position."

In a debate club meeting, or a Presidential debate, most of the non-partisan audience usually comes away thinking both sides made some good points.

Debaters think an idea can suffer a few setbacks, but still be a good idea. They aren't after perfection but just trying to get the better of their debating opponent.

These are examples of the same mistake underlying critical preferences: simultaneously accepting two conflicting ideas (such as a position, and a criticism of that position).

PS Notice that "simultaneously accepting two conflicting ideas (and making a decision about the issue)" would be a passable definition of coercion for TCS to use. This highlights the connection between coercion and epistemology. The concept of coercion in TCS is about when rational processes in a mind break down. The TCS theory of coercion tries to answer questions like: What happens then? (Suffering; a big mess.) What causes the breakdown to happen? (Different parts of the mind in conflict and the failure to resolve this by creating one single idea of how to proceed.) What's a description of what the mind looks like when it happens? (It contains conflicting, active theories.)

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Another Problem Related To Critical Preferences

X is a good trait. A has more of X than B does. Therefore A is better than B.

That is a non sequitur.

You can add, "All other things being equal" and it's still a non sequitur.

X being a good or desirable trait does not mean all things with more X are better. There being all sorts of reasons X is amazing does not mean X is amazing in all contexts and in relation to all problems.

You'd need to say X is universally good, and all other things are equal. In other words, you're saying the only difference between A and B is amount of something that is always good. With the premises that strong, then the claim works. However, it's now highly unrealistic.

It's hard to find things that are universally good to have more of. Any medicine or food will kill you if you overdose enough. Too much money would crush us all, or can get you mugged. An iPhone is amazing, but an iPhone that's found by a hostage taker who previously asked for everyone's phones can get you killed.

You can try claims like "more virtue is universally good". That is true enough, but that's because the word "virtue" is itself already context sensitive. It's also basically a tautology and immune to criticism, because whatever is good to do is what's virtuous to do. And it's controversial how to act virtuously or judge virtue. If you try to get specific like, "helping the needy is universally good," then you run into the problem that it's false. For example, if Obama spent too much time working in soup kitchens, that wouldn't leave him enough time to run the country well, so it'd turn out badly.

You could try "more error correction is a universal good thing" but that's false too. Some things are good enough, and more error correction would be an inefficient use of effort.

You might try to rescue things by saying, "X is good in some contexts, and this is one of those contexts." Then you'll need to give a fallible argument for that. That is an improvement on the original approach.

Now for the other premise, "all other things being equal." They never are. Life is complicated and there's almost always dozens of relevant factors. Even if they were equal, we wouldn't know it, because we can never observe all other things to check for their equality. We could guess they are equal, which would hold if we didn't miss anything. But the premise "all other things being equal, unless I think of some possible relevant factor" isn't so impressive. You might as well just say directly, "A is better than B, unless I'm mistaken."

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Beyond Criticism?

The Retreat To Commitment, by William Warren Bartley III, p 123:
There may, of course, be other nonlogical considerations which lead one to grant that it would be pointless to hold some particular view as being open to criticism. It would, for instance, be a bit silly for me to maintain that I held some statements that I might make—e.g., "I am over two years old"—open to criticism and revision.

Yet the fact that some statements are in some sense like this "beyond criticism" is irrelevant to our problems of relativism, fideism, and scepticism.
The claim that some statements are beyond criticism is anti-fallibilist and anti-Popperian.

It is not at all silly to maintain that the example statement is open to criticism. It's essential. Not doing so would be deeply irrational. We can make mistakes, and denying that has consequences, e.g. we'll wonder: how do we know which things we can't be mistaken about? And that question begs for an authoritarian, as well as false, answer.

You may be thinking, "Yes, Elliot, but you are over two years old, and we both know it, and you can't think of a single way that might be false." But I can.

For example, my understanding of time could contain a mistake. Is that a ridiculous possibility? It is not. Most people today have large mistakes in their understanding of time (and of space)! Einstein and other physicists discovered that and space are connected and it's weird and doesn't follow common sense. For example, the common sense concept of two things happening simultaneously at different places is a mistake: what appears simultaneous actually depends where you watch from. If some common sense notions of time can be mistaken, why laugh off the possibility that our way of keeping track of how much time has passed contains a mistake?

Another issue is when you start counting. At conception? Most people would say at birth. But why birth? Maybe we should start counting from the time Bartley was a person. That may have been before or after birth. According to many people, brain development doesn't finish until age 20 or so. In that case, a 21 year old might only have been a full person for one year.

Of course there are plenty of other ways the statement could be mistaken. We must keep an open mind to them so that when someone has a new, counter-intuitive idea we don't just laugh at him but listen. Sure the guy might be a crank, but if we ignore all such ideas that will include the good ones.

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Whirlwind Tour of Justificationism

From an email thread about free will:

Once upon a time (624 BC) Thales was born. Thus began philosophy.

Thales invented criticism. Instead of telling his followers what to believe, he made suggestions, and asked that they think for themselves and form their own ideas.

A little later, Xenophanes invented fallibility and the idea of seeking the truth to improve our knowledge without finding the final truth. He also identified and criticized parochialism.

In the tradition of Thales and Xenophanes came Socrates, the man who was wise for admitting his vast ignorance (among other things).

But only two generations after Socrates, philosophy was changed dramatically by Aristotle. Aristotle invented justificationism which has been the dominant school of philosophy since, and which opposes the critical, fallibilist philosophies which preceded him (and which were revived by Popper and Deutsch).

Aristotle's way of thinking had some major strands such as:

1) he wanted episteme -- objectively true knowledge.
2) he wanted to guarantee that he really had episteme -- he wanted justified, true knowledge. he rejected doxa (conjecture).
3) he thought he had episteme -- he was "the man who knows"
4) he thought he had justification
5) in relation to this, he invented induction as a method of justifying knowledge

Thus Aristotle rejected the fallibilist, uncertain ethos of striving to improve that preceded him, and replaced it with an authoritarian approach seeking guarantees and to establish existing knowledge against doubt.

Induction, as well as all other attempts, were unable to justify knowledge. Nothing can guarantee that some idea is episteme, so all attempts to do it failed.

Much later, Bacon attached induction to science and empiricism. And some people like Hume noticed it didn't work. But they didn't know what to do without it because they were still focussed on the same problem situation Aristotle had laid out: that we should justify our knowledge and find guarantees. So without induction they still had to figure out how to do that, and salvaging induction seemed easier than starting over. Hence the persistent interest in reviving induction.

What Popper did is go back to the old pre-Aristotle philosophical tradition which favors criticism and fallibilism, and which has no need for justification. Popper accepted that doxa (conjectures) have value, as Xenophanes had, and he explained how we can improve our knowledge without justification. He also refuted a bunch of justificationist ideas.

Then David Deutsch wrote "A Conversation About Justification" in _The Fabric of Reality_.

So how does that relate to free will? The basic argument against free will goes like this, "There is no way to justify free will, or guarantee it exists, therefore it's nonsense." The primary argument against free will is nothing but a demand for justification in the Aristotelian style.

As an example, one might say free will is nothing but a conjecture without an empirical evidence. To translate, that means free will is merely doxa, and hasn't got any empirical justification. This is essentially true, but not actually a problem.

Arguments against free will take many guises, but justificationist thinking is the basic theme giving them appeal.

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Popper Against Violence

we have a duty towards our children: to educate them, to teach them to construct a better world. A less violent world. For the goal of civilization is precisely the elimination of violence.
In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper by Roberta Corvi which gives the cite Corriere della Sera, 16 July 1992.

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Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Here are some comments on essays from the two volume book Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Paul Feyerabend / Universals as Tyrants and Mediators

No strong thesis. (No point.)

Ben-Ami Scharfstein / Our Difficulties in Finding the Right Words

Thesis is that Popper was wrong in "The Myth of the Framework". But he doesn't mention Popper or seem aware of Popper's arguments. He just says stuff Popper already refuted. Also I easily thought a bunch of severe criticisms while reading it. Also it was offensive because it said that blind or deaf people don't think like full human beings.

Also it's careless, e.g. it says "What the adult finds so difficult, the young child finds impossible." But a young child can do it, at the very least, by the method of growing up to be an adult then doing it. So it's not impossible for him. Truth is hard to come by so we have to be more careful than that.

Abner Shimony / The Confrontation and Monadology

Very short dialogs with lots of metaphorical and poetic type language and no clear arguments. Philosophy needs to make clear, understandable statements to be any good.

John Watkins / Epiphenomenalism and Human Reason

No strong thesis or conclusion. Has textual analysis about what specific people thought and meant to say (who cares?). Also contains a list of 5 arguments for pessimism and point by point optimistic commentary which is OK.

Hans Albert / Religion, Science, and the Myth of the Framework

Meandering religious discussion. Concludes atheism is true for some reason (old news, isn't it?). No strong thesis.

Tom Settle / You Can't Haev Science As Your Religion!

Pleasant, conversational writing style. Anti-materialist themes. Complains that the "selfish" gene theory of Dawkins is able to explain "altruistic" behaviors of animals. Calls Dawkins' approach "an impertinent and even insulting program" over this superficial clash of words. He doesn't argue his strong, closed-minded insults made from ignorance.

Nathaniel Loar / Religion and Rational Philosophy: Coming of Age

Lots of discussion of what other people said (who cares? I wanted a thesis). But bonus points for mentioning Xenophanes. The most interesting part was some negative comments on Bartley's views: apparently he was quite religious in outlook.

David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.

Mario Bunge / The Poverty of Rational Choice Theory

This one has a clear thesis: rational choice theory is flawed. OK, cool, and I agree. But the quality of argument is poor. Example:
[Gary S. Becker] concluded [in his 1955 Ph.D. dissertation] that discrimination by whites against blacks reduces the incomes of both groups — a result that went against the conventinoal wisdom that discrimination favors the whites. Regardless of the truth value of this conclusion, it clearly refutes the "rationality" assumption. Indeed, if discrimination does go against the self-interest of the whites, why have so many of them been practicing it systematically and for so long in the USA, Africa, and elsewhere? Was it not because it is highly profitable at least in the (rather longish) short run?
Bunge says the truth value of the conclusion doesn't matter. But it does. If it's false that racial discrimination is counter-productive, then racism presents no problem to the rationality principle. It's only if Becker's conclusion is true that a bunch of white people have behaved contrary to their self-interest.

Bunge then asks why people did it. Maybe because they were racists? Maybe they didn't know it was counter-productive. Maybe they didn't think about economic efficiency when choosing the behavior. Easy question to answer, yet somehow Bunge seems to think he's scored a strong point with his rhetorical question that isn't supposed to leave Becker an answer. Finally Bunge asserts without argument (in the form of a question) that Becker was wrong. If you're going to bring up Becker's dissertation, and say it is false and actually racisim is profitable, shouldn't you mention some of Becker's arguments and criticize them?

Also, btw, Bunge's pro-racism views seem to me the kind of thing one should be a bit more catious about. Do you really want to assert racisim is beneficial without careful deliberation and argument? That's the kind of really awful, anti-liberal conclusion I'd want to be thoughtful about.

By the way this whole thing is a bit strange because Becker's conclusion that people did something that wasn't in their interest clearly contradicts the rational choice theory Bunge says he was advocating (which says people always know what's in their interest and do it).

By the way, rational choice theory, in that incarnation, is ridiculous since just plain ignores ignorance including ignorances of not-yet-invented technologies. If it was right I would have invented the iPhone before Apple since it was in my interest to do so. Except Apple would have invented the iPhone earlier too since that was in their interest. And don't forget my neighbor. This thing is quite a mess!

Noretta Koertge / A Popperian Sociology of Science: The Problem of Credit

Belives there is such thing as "epistemic weight" which is justificationist (weight = amount of justification/authority provided). Uses the common technique of discussing arguments other people wrote instead of providing a strong, original thesis. And, as is common, it picks a variety of boring and unimportant arguments to discuss, such as the feminist claim that it's undesirable for science to be objective because science should incorporate progressive political views.

It considers what it'd be like if all academic papers were published anonymously so people didn't worry about credit and fame, only content.

Lawrence A. Boland / Style Vs. Substance In Economic Metholodogy

It says:
One would think that given all the current discussion of Karl Popper's views of the philosophy of science that communication ought to be easy
But that is not what Popper said nor what his views mean. It's a lot closer to the opposite. Communication is hard, hence Popper's view that by an effort we can learn from each other. The effort is required because of the difficulty to communication (and knowledge creation generally).

Ernest Gellner / Promethus Perplexed

Perplexing mix of stuff. Boring for lack of a strong thesis (i.e. lack of a point).

Jeremy Shearmur / Philosophical Method, Modified Essentialism and the Open Society

His comments about how Aggasi's work is hard to understand due to lack of structure were interesting, and apply somewhat to Popper. He made some good points about ways thinkers can go wrong.

Gershon Weiler / Reason and Myth in Politics

Promised discussion about Israel in the introduction but then mostly talked about Plato. I was disappointed.

Jagdish Hattiangadi / The First World War and 1991

Makes the good point that "liberal nationalism" (which apparently Aggasi advocated) is a contradiction. In my words, liberalism is about cooperation and harmony and the resolution of conflicts, and nationalism sets up separate groups with separate interests and thereby irreconcilable conflicts. Hattiangadi points out a different contradiction about how liberalism allows autonomy to individuals and nationalism instead to groups.

Makes several comments about Edmumd Burke which are wrong. One fact they are incompatible with is Godwin's extreme praise for Burke. (This makes a good generic criticism of all wrong-headed attitudes towards Burke. Just ask yourself: if this was true, would Godwin have liked Burke so much?)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

The Most Important Improvement to Popperian Philosophy of Science

Here is (my summary, my words) the most important idea contributed to Popper's philosophy of science by someone other than Popper. It was contributed by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality:

Most ideas are criticized and rejected for being bad explanations. This is true even in science where they could be tested. Even most proposed scientific ideas are rejected, without testing, for being bad explanations.

Although tests are valuable, Popper's over-emphasis on testing mischaracterizes science and sets it further apart from philosophy than need be. In both science and abstract philosophy, most criticism revolves around good and bad explanations. It's largely the same epistemology. The possibility of empirical testing in science is a nice bonus, not a necessary part of creating knowledge.

In his book, David Deutsch gives this example: Consider the theory that eating grass cures colds. He says we can reject this theory without testing it.

He's right, isn't he? Should we hire a bunch of sick college students to eat grass? That would be silly. There is no explanation of how grass cures colds, so nothing worth testing. (Non-explanation is a common type of bad explanation!)

Narrow focus on testing -- especially as a substitute for support/justification -- is one of the major ways of misunderstanding Popperian philosophy. Deutsch's improvement shows how its importance is overrated and, besides being true, is better in keeping with the fallibilist spirit of Popper's thought (we don't need something "harder" or "more sciency" or whatever than critical argument!).

Emphasis on explanations is a theme with Deutsch. His upcoming book, The Beginning of Infinity is subtitled "Explanations that transform the world".

Another big idea of Deutsch's is that Popperian epistemology is true for all people. It sounds obvious when stated in that form, but it becomes controversial when one mentions that children are included in "all people". I think Popper would have approved of this, but he didn't go through and explain the consequences and implications for education. Deutsch has done so in detail.

Edit:

In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 41, Roberta Corvi summarizes Popper, "The practical problem of induction is thereby solved: it is transformed into the problem of testing a theory". This is just the kind of empiricist mistake which Deutsch has improved on. Empirical approaches are insufficient in general because they cannot address philosophy (and epistemology should apply to all knowledge), but even in science when testing is possible, strong empiricism (i.e. we learn primarily using observation) is still a mistake.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Popper on "Evident" Ideas

An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 151, by Roberta Corvi quotes Popper:
the task of the professional philosopher is critically to investigate the things that so many others accept as evident. In fact, quite a lot of such opinions are mere prejudices, uncritically accepted as evident by very often simply false. And to get away from them, perhaps something like a professional philosopher is required, who will take his time to reflect on them critically.
which is from pages 8-9 of Offene Gesellschaft, offenes Universum, Franz Deuticke, Vienna, 1982

So whenever someone says an idea is too obvious for critical debate, too evident to take seriously disagreement about it, too well established to doubt ... well, that's silly. As Popper points out, people take for granted many false ideas, so the fact that it seems really obvious to you is no guide to its truth.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

The Search of Truth Presupposes Ethics

The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles; while in fact the search of truth presupposes ethics
From Karl Popper, «Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind», in: Gerard Radnitzky and William W. Bartley, III (editors), Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987), p. 141., found online at http://www.unav.es/cryf/theethicalrootsofkarlpopper.html#nota60

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How Inductivists Think About Bias

I just saw someone making an argument that something is unbiased because no one tried to bias it or designed it to be biased.

In other words, he thinks that not being biased is the automatic default.

I think this is what many inductivists think: that all the theories they make up and claim to have induced are not just bias talking. And why do they think it's not bias but rather a hint coming from the evidence itself? Because it can't be bias because they didn't intend any bias or do it on purpose. Simple as that.

But actually epistemology/reality is the other way around: everything is biased by default (a lot, not a little), and it is only with great care and effort that we can get anything that isn't biased.

It's as Feynman said: it's easy to fool ourselves, and science is what we've learned about how to not fool ourselves. Or in other words, bias is the default and the scientific method consists of doing everything we know how to in order to reduce bias.

You can tell there is a lot of bias to overcome because of how careful scientists have to be to get good results. It's not that the scientists are bad people or anything like that, it's simply that avoiding bias takes skill and effort not just a lack of bad intentions.

David Deutsch says about this (quoted with permission):
It's the intentional fallacy. If something is bad, a bad person must have done it. If something is biased, a biased person must have done it. And therefore if we are all pure and unbiased, we are infallible.
That reminds me of *early* induction. According to Popper (with textual evidence and good arguments), Bacon's conception of induction was a bit different than what you usually run into today. The main idea was to *purge your mind of bias*[1]. Then you can read nature like an open book and make zero mistakes and finish learning all of science in a few years.

This is (again via Popper) building on the *original* meaning of induction which comes from Aristotle (who falsely attributed it to Socrates) which was about maieutics. The idea is, very roughly, that the truth is trivial (and already inside us, I think) and the only obstacle to the truth is therefore bias.

[1] How do you know what is a bias and what isn't? Easy. It's all bias. Just empty your mind completely. That's Bacon's way.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made

Objectivists accuse Popperians of being skeptics. Popperians accuse Objectivists of being infallibilists. Actually, both philosophies are valuable and largely compatible. I present here some integrating ideas and then a mistake that both philosophies made.

Knowledge is certain, absolute, contextual, conclusive and progressive. The standard of knowledge is conclusiveness not infallibility, perfection or omniscience.

Certain means we should act on it instead of hesitating. We should follow its implications and use it, rather than sitting around doubting, wondering, scared it might be wrong. Certain also means that it is knowledge, as opposed to non-knowledge; it denies skepticism.

Absolute means no contradictions, compromises or exceptions are allowed.

Contextual means that knowledge must be considered in context. A good idea in one context may not be a good idea when transplanted into another context. No knowledge could hold up against arbitrary context switches and context dropping.

Further, knowledge is problem oriented. Knowledge needs some problem(s) or question(s) for context, which it addresses or solves. Knowledge has to be knowledge about something, with some purpose. This implies: if you have an answer to a question, and then in the future you learn more, the old answer still answers the old question. It's still knowledge in its original, intended context.

Consider blood types. People wanted to know which blood transfusions were safe (among other questions) and they created some knowledge of A, B, AB and O blood types. Later they found out more. Actually there is A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+ and O-. It was proper to act on the earlier knowledge in its context. It would not be proper to act on it today; now we know that some B type blood is incompatible with some other B type blood. Today's superior knowledge of blood types is also contextual. Maybe there will be a new medical breakthrough next year. But it's still knowledge in today's context, and it's proper to act on it.

One thing to learn here is that a false idea can be knowledge. The idea that all B type blood is compatible is contextual knowledge. It was always false, as a matter of fact, and the mistake got some people killed. Yet it was still knowledge. How can that be?

Perfection is not the standard of knowledge. And not all false ideas are equally good. What matters is the early idea about blood types had value, it had useful information, it helped make many correct decisions, and no better idea was available at the time. That value never goes away even when we learn about a mistake. That original value is still knowledge, considered contextually, even though the idea as a whole is now known to be false.

Conclusive means the current context only allows for one rational conclusion. This conclusion is not infallible, but it's the only reasonable option available. All the alternative ideas have known flaws; they are refuted. There's only one idea left which is not refuted, which could be true, is true as far as we know (no known flaws), and which we should therefore accept. And that is knowledge.

None of this contradicts the progressive character of knowledge. Our knowledge is not frozen and final. We can learn more and better – without limit. We can keep identifying and correcting errors in our ideas and thereby achieve better and better knowledge. (One way knowledge can be better is that it is correct in more contexts and successfully addresses more problems and questions.)

The Mistake

Peikoff says that certainty (meaning conclusive knowledge) is when you get to the point that nothing else is possible. He means that, in the current context, there are no other options. There's just one option, and we should accept it. All the other ideas have something wrong with them, they can't be accepted. This is fine.

Peikoff also says that before you have certainty you have a different situation where there are multiple competing ideas. Fine. And that's not certainty, that's not conclusive knowledge, it's a precursor stage where you're considering the ideas. Fine.

But then Peikoff makes what I think is an important mistake. He says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence. This is a standard view held by many non-Objectivists too. I think this is too compromising. I think the choices are knowledge or irrationality. We need knowledge; nothing less will suffice.

The weight of the evidence is no good. Either you have knowledge or you don't. If it's not knowledge, it's not worth anything. You need to come up with a good idea – no compromises, no contradictions, no known problems – and use that. If you can't or won't do that, all you have left is the irrationality of acting on and believing arbitrary non-knowledge.

I think we can always act on knowledge without contradictions. Knowledge is always possible to man. Not all knowledge instantly, but enough knowledge to act, in time to act. We may not know everything – but we don't need to. We can always know enough to continue life rationally. Living and acting by reason and knowledge is always possible.

(How can we always do this? That will be the subject of another essay. I'm not including any summary or hints because I think it's too confusing and misleading without a full explanation. Edit: here is the follow up essay.)

Knowledge doesn't allow contradictions. Suppose you're considering two ideas that contradict each other. And you don't have a conclusive answer, you don't have knowledge of which is right. Then using or believing either one is irrational. No "weight of the evidence" or anything else can change this.

Don't pick a side when you know there is a contradiction but have not rationally resolved it. Resolve it; create knowledge; learn; think; figure it out. Neither idea being considered is good enough to address the contradiction or refute the other idea – so you know they are both flawed. Don't hope or pray that acting on a known-to-be-flawed idea will work out anyway. Irrationality doesn't work.

That's not good enough. If you discover a contradiction, you should resolve it rationally. If you fail at that – fail at the use of reason – then that's bad, that's a disaster, that's not OK.

Karl Popper made the same mistake in a different form. He said that we critically analyze competing ideas and the one that best survives criticism should be acted on. Again this is too compromising. Either exactly one idea survives criticism, or else there is still a contradiction. "Best survives criticism", and "weight of the evidence", are irrational ways of arbitrarily elevating one flawed idea over another, instead of using reason to come up with a correct idea.

(For some further discussion about weighing ideas, see also the choices chapter of The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Induction is Wrong. A lot

There are two particularly hard parts of explaining why induction is false. First, there are many refutations. Where do you start? Second, most refutations are targeted at professional philosophers. What most people mean by "induction" varies a great deal.

Most professional philosophers are strongly attached to the concept of induction and know what it is. Most people are strongly attached to the word "induction" and will redefine it in response to criticism.

In *The World of Parmenides*, Popper gives a short refutation of induction. It's updated from an article in Nature. It involves what most people would consider a bunch of tricky math. To seriously defend induction, doesn't one need to understand arguments like this and address them?

Some professional philosophers do read and respond to this kind of thing. You can argue with them. You can point out a mistake in their response. But what do you do with people who aren't familiar with the material and think it's above their head?

If you aren't familiar with this argument against induction, how do you know induction is any good? If you don't have a first hand understanding of both the argument and a mistake in it, then why take sides in favor of induction?

Actually, inductivists have more responses open to them than pointing out a mistake in the argument or rejecting induction (or evading, or pleading ignorance). Do you know what the other important option is? Or will you hear it for the first time from me in the next paragraph, and then adopt it as your position? I don't recommend getting your position on induction from someone who thinks induction is a mistake – all the defenses I bring up are things I already know about and I *still* consider induction to be mistaken.

Another option is to correctly point out that Popper's refutation only applies to some meanings of "induction", not all. It's possible to have a position on induction which is only refuted by other arguments, not by this particular one. I won't help you too much though. What do you have to mean by "induction" to not be refuted by this particular argument? What can't you mean? You figure it out.

Popper argues against induction in books like LScD, C&R, OK, RASc. Deutsch does in FoR and BoI. Should I repeat points which are already published? What for? If some inductivist doesn't care to read the literature, will my essay do any good? Why would it?

I recently spoke with some Objectivists who said they weren't in favor of enumerative induction. They were in favor of the other kind. What other kind? How does it work? Where are the details? They wouldn't say. How do you argue with that? Someone told me that OPAR solves the problem of induction. OPAR, like ITOE, actually barely mentions induction. Some other Objectivists were Bayesians. Never mind that Bayesian epistemology contradicts Objectivist epistemology. In any case, dealing with Bayesians is *different*.

One strategy is to elicit from people *their* ideas about induction, then address those. That poses several problems. For one thing, it means you have to write a personalized response to each person, not a single essay. (But we already have general purpose answers by Popper and Deutsch published, anyway.) Another problem is that most people's ideas about induction are vague. And they only successfully communicate a fraction of their ideas about it.

How do you argue with people who have only a vague notion of what "induction" is, but who are strongly attached to defending "induction"? They shouldn't be advocating induction at all without a better idea of what it means, let alone strongly.

There are many other difficulties as well. For example, no one has ever written a set of precise instructions for how to do induction. They will tell me that I do it every day, but they never give me any instructions so how am I supposed to do it even once? Well I do it without knowing it, they say. Well how do they know that? To decide I did induction, you'd have to first say what induction is (and how it works, and what actions do and don't constitute doing induction) and then compare what I did against induction. But they make no such comparison – or won't share it.

Often one runs into the idea that if you get some general theories, then you did induction. Period, the end. Induction means ANY method of getting general theories whatsoever. This vacuous definition helps explain why some people are so attached to "induction". But it is not the actual meaning of "induction" in philosophy which people have debated. Of course there is SOME way to get general theories – we know that because we have them – the issue is how do you do it? Induction is an attempt to give an answer to that, not a term to be attached to any answer to it.

And yet I will try. Again. But I would like suggestions about methods.

Induction says that we learn FROM observation data. Or at least from actively interpreted ideas about observation data. The induced ideas are either INFALLIBLE or SUPPORTED. The infallible version was refuted by Hume among others. As a matter of logic, inductive conclusions aren't infallibly proven. It doesn't work. Even if you think deduction or math is infallible (it's not), induction STILL wouldn't be infallible.

Infallible means error is ABSOLUTELY 100% IMPOSSIBLE. It means we'll never improve our idea about this. This is it, this is the final answer, the end, nothing more to learn. It's the end of thinking.

Although most Objectivists (and most people in general) are infallibilists, Objectivism rejects infallibilism. Many people are skeptical of this and often deny being infallibilists. Why? Because they are only infallibilists 1% of the time; most of their thinking, most of the time, doesn't involve infallibilism. But that makes you an infallibilist. It's just like if you only think 1% of haunted houses really have a ghost, you are superstitious.

So suppose induction grants fallible support. We still haven't said how you do induction, btw. But, OK, what does fallible support mean? What does it do? What do you do with it? What good is it?

Support is only meaningful and useful if it helps you differentiate between different ideas. It has to tell you that idea X is better than idea Y which is better than idea Z. Each idea has an amount of support on a continuum and the ones with more support are better.

Apart from this not working in the first place (how much support is assigned to which idea by which induction? there's no answer), it's also irrational. You have these various ideas which contradict each other, and you declare one "better" in some sense without resolving the contradiction. You must deal with the contradiction. If you don't know how to address the contradiction then you don't know which is right. Picking one is arbitrary and irrational.

Maybe X is false and Y is true. You don't know. What does it matter that X has more support?

Why does X have more support anyway? Every single piece of data you have to induce from does not contradict Y. If it did contradict Y, Y would be refuted instead of having some lesser amount of support. Every single piece of data is consistent with both X and Y. It has the same relationship with X and with Y. So why does Y have more support?

So what really happens if you approach this rationally is everything that isn't refuted has exactly the same amount of support. Because it is compatible with exactly the same data set. So really there are only two categories of ideas: refuted and non-refuted. And that isn't induction. I shouldn't have to say this, but I do. That is not induction. That is Popper. That is a rejection of induction. That is something different. If you want to call that "induction" then the word "induction" loses all meaning and there's no word left to refer to the wrong ideas about epistemology.

Why would some piece of data that is consistent with both X and Y support X over Y? There is no answer and never has been. (Unless X and Y are themselves probabilistic theories. If X says that a piece of data is 90% likely and Y says it's 20% likely, then if that data is observed the Bayesians will start gloating. They'd be wrong. That's another story. But why should I tell it? You wouldn't have thought of this objection yourself. You only know about it because I told you, and I'm telling you it's wrong. Anyway, for now just accept that what I'm talking about works with all regular ideas that actually assert things about reality instead of having built-in maybes.)

Also, the idea of support really means AUTHORITY. Induction is one of the many attempts to introduce authority into epistemology.

Authority in epistemology is abused in many ways. For example, some people think their idea has so much authority that if there is a criticism of it, that doesn't matter. It'd take like 5 criticisms to reduce its authority to the point where they might reject it. This is blatantly irrational. If there is a mistake in your idea it's wrong. You can't accept or evade any contradictions, any mistakes. None. Period.

Just the other day a purported Objectivist said he was uncomfortable that if there is one criticism of an idea then that's decisive. He didn't say why. I know why. Because that leaves no room for authority. But I've seen this a hundred times. It's really common.

If no criticism is ever ignored, the authority never actually gets to do anything. Irrationally ignoring criticism is the main purpose of authority in epistemology. Secondary purposes include things like intimidating people into accepting your idea.

But wait, you say, induction is a method of MAKING theories. We still need it for that even if it doesn't grant them support/authority.

Well, is it really a method of making theories? There's a big BLANK OUT in the part of induction where it's supposed to actually tell you what to do to make some theories. What is step one? What is step two? What always fills in this gap is intuition, common sense, and sometimes, for good measure, some fallacies (like that correlation implies or hints at causation).

In other words, induction means think of theories however (varies from person to person), call it "induction", and never consider or examine or criticize or improve your methods of thinking (since you claim to be using a standard method, no introspection is necessary).

For any set of data, infinitely many general conclusions are logically compatible. Many people try to deny this. As a matter of logic they are just wrong. (Some then start attacking logic itself and have the audacity to call themselves Objectivists). Should I go into this? Should I give an example? If I give an example, everyone will think the example is STUPID. It will be. So what? Logic doesn't care what sounds dumb. And I said infinitely many general conclusions, not infinitely many general conclusions that are wise. Of course most of them are dumb ideas.

So now a lot of people are thinking: induce whichever one isn't dumb. Not the dumb ones. That's how you pick.

Well, OK, and how do you decide what's dumb? That takes thinking. So in order to do induction (as it's just been redefined), in one of the steps, you have to think. That means we don't think by induction. Thinking is a prerequisite for induction (as just redefined), so induction can't be part of thinking.

What happens here is the entirety of non-inductivist epistemology is inserted as one of the steps of induction and is the only reason it works. All the induction stuff is unnecessary and unhelpful. Pick good ideas instead of dumb ones? We could have figured that out without induction, it's not really helping.

Some people will persevere. They will claim that it's OBVIOUS which ideas are dumb or not – no thinking required. What does that mean? It means they can figure it out in under 3 seconds. This is silly. Under 3 seconds of thinking is still thinking.

Do you see what I mean about there are so many things wrong with induction it's hard to figure out where to start? And it's hard to go through them in an orderly progression because you start talking about something and there's two more things wrong in the middle. And here I am on this digression because most defenses of induction – seriously this is the standard among non-professionals – involve a denial of logic.

So backing up, supposedly induction helps us make theories. How? Which ones? By what steps do we do it? No answers. And how am I supposed to prove a negative? How do I write an essay saying "induction has no answers"? People will say I'm ignorant and if only I read the right book I'd see the answer. People will say that just because we don't know the answer doesn't mean there isn't one. (And remember that refutation of induction I mentioned up top? Remember Popper's arguments that induction is impossible? They won't have read any of that, let alone refuted it.)

And I haven't even mentioned some of the severe flaws in induction. Induction as originally intended – and it's still there but it varies, some people don't do this or aren't attached to it – meant you actually read the book of nature. You get rid of all your prejudices and biases and empty your mind and then you read the answers straight FROM the observation data. Sound like a bad joke? Well, OK, but it's an actual method of how to do induction. It has instructions and steps you could follow, rather than evasion. If you think it's a bad joke, how much better is it to replace those concrete steps with vagueness and evasion?

Many more subtle versions of this way of thinking are still popular today. The idea of emptying your mind and then surely you'll see the truth isn't so popular. But the idea that data can hint or lead or point is still popular. But completely false. Observation data is inactive and passive. Further, there's so much of it. Human thinking is always selective and active. You decide which data to focus on, and which ways to approach the issue, and what issues to care about, and so on. Data has to be interpreted, by you, and then it is you interpretations, not the data itself, which may give you hints or leads. To the extent data seems to guide you, it's always because you added guidance into the data first. It isn't there in the raw data.

Popper was giving a lecture and at the start he said, "Observe!" People said, "Observe what?" There is no such thing as emptying your mind and just observing and being guided by the data. First you must think, first you must have ideas about what you're looking for. You need interests, problems, expectations, ideas. Then you can observe and look for relevant data.

The idea that we learn FROM observation is flawed in another way. It's not just that thinking comes first (which btw again means we can't think by induction since we have to think BEFORE we have useful data). It also misstates the role of data in thinking. Observations can contradict things (via arguments, not actually directly). They can rule things out. If the role of data is to rule things out, then whatever positive ideas we have we didn't learn from the data. What we learned from the data, in any sense, is which things to reject, not which to accept.

Final point. Imagine a graph with a bunch of dots on it. Those are data points. And imagine a line connecting the dots would be a theory that explained them. This is a metaphor. Say there are a hundred points. How many ways can you draw a line connecting them? Answer: infinitely many. If you don't get that, think about it. You could take a detour anywhere on the coordinate plane between any two connections.

So we have this graph and we're connecting the dots. Induction says: connect the dots and what you get is supported, it's a good theory. How do I connect them? It doesn't say. How do people do it? They will draw a straight line, or something close to that, or make it so you get a picture of a cow, or whatever else seems intuitive or obvious to them. They will use common sense or something – and never figure out the details of how that works and whether they are philosophically defensible and so on.

People will just draw using unstated theories about which types of lines to prefer. That's not a method of thinking, it's a method of not thinking.

They will rationalize it. They may say they drew the most "simple" line and that's Occam's razor. When confronted with the fact that other people have different intuitions about what lines look simple, they will evade or attack those people. But they've forgotten that we're trying to explain how to think in the first place. If understanding Occam's razor and simplicity and stuff is a part of induction and thinking, then it has to be done without induction. So all this understanding and stuff has to come prior to induction. So really the conclusion is we don't think by induction, we have a whole method of thinking which works and is a prerequisite for induction. Induction wouldn't solve epistemology, it'd presuppose epistemology.

What we really know, from the graph with the data points, is that all lines which don't go through every point are wrong. We rule out a lot. (Yes, there's always the possibility of our data having errors. That's a big topic I'm not going to go into. Regardless, the possibility of data errors does not help induction's case!)

And what about the many lines which aren't ruled out by the data? That's where philosophy comes in! We don't and can't learn everything from the data. Data is useful but isn't the answer. We always have to think and do philosophy to learn. We need criticisms. Yes, lots of those lines are "dumb". There are things wrong with them. We can use criticism to rule them out.

And then people will start telling me how inconvenient and roundabout that is. But it's the only way that works. And it's not inconvenient. Since it's the only way that works, it's what you do when you think successfully. Do you find thinking inconvenient? No? Then apparently you can do critical thinking in a convenient, intuitive, fast way.

At least you can do critical thinking when you're not irrational defending "induction" because in your mind it has authority.

EDIT: Some more problems with induction I didn't mention:

"the future is like the past" principle. or "the future will resemble the past". or other similar formulations. the problem is the future always resembles the past in some ways and not others. which are which? induction doesn't tell you which are which. instead it implicitly smuggles in thinking as a prerequisite to figure that out. (so it presupposes, rather than explains, thinking).

Induction is supposed to be a solution to epistemology but doesn't address Paley's problem.

The issue of how we think about abstract non-empirical ideas is not addressed by induction.

See also: http://www.curi.us/1450-new-induction-disproof

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Skepticism vs. Infallibilism vs. Critical Rationalism

skeptics have the idea you can't be sure of anything. maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong. men can't have knowledge, it's kinda hopeless to figure things out.

this is weird because how did they figure it out?

then their opponents, the infallibilists, say they are sure of things.

but sometimes the stuff they are sure about turns out wrong later

both sides have the same hidden idea: that ideas should be proved or established or supported to make them sure or more sure.

and one side is saying we can do that, and the other side says it doesn't work so we're screwed.

the majority think we can be sure. because people do have knowledge. we build computers that work. we figured out how to make airplanes and bicycles.

but the doubters have some good points. there are logical reasons that the sureness stuff doesn't work. no one has ever been able to answer those logical arguments.

another approach is that we don't need to be sure. we can make an iPhone without being sure of anything, and it can still work. sureness was the wrong thing to look for. we should be looking for other stuff instead. so the whole debate was missing the point.

everyone was stuck on this issue for over 2000 years. Karl Popper got it unstuck like 50 years ago.

being sure is like trying to say "this idea is good because..." and then it scores points for every argument you give. people then compare how much sureness or points different ideas have.

the alternative is to look for problems with your ideas. try to figure out what's bad about them. if you can't find any problems, it's a good idea to use for now.

we don't have to be sure, but we can improve our ideas. if we see a problem and make a change to fix it, now we have a better idea than before. we don't know if it's true. we don't know if it has a bunch more problems. but we learned something. we made progress.

if an idea has a problem that isn't fixed, then we shouldn't use it no matter how sure anyone is. sureness isn't relevant.

and if there's no problems anyone knows of, then why wouldn't you use it? there's no objections. so sureness doesn't matter here either.

Example

so there's a cow farmer, and he says he's sure he has 3 cows. but a skeptic says "how do you know you have 3 cows? you can't be sure of anything. maybe you've been hallucinating and have goats"

the cow farmer is saying how sure he is when actually he shouldn't be sure. maybe he DID hallucinate. or lots of other things. there's ways he could be wrong. it's POSSIBLE.

it turns out some wolves ate one of the cows last night, and he didn't check yet. so actually he has 2 cows. he was wrong. he shouldn't have been so SURE.

the skeptic is dumb too b/c he just doubts everything. except not really. it's kinda random. he didn't point out that maybe the cow farmer didn't exist and he (the skeptic) was hallucinating. he didn't worry that maybe he hallucinated his dinner.

the skeptic didn't know the wolves attacked. he didn't have any information that there weren't 3 cows.

he wasn't saying something useful. there wasn't any way the cow farmer should act differently once he finds out the skeptic's idea.

so the guy who was sure was risking being wrong. he can't be SURE there were no hallucinations or wolves. but the skeptic is bringing up hallucinations without seeing any LSD lying around, without seeing any goats outside, without any reason to suspect a hallucination in this case.

this whole thing is silly and is pretty much how everyone thinks.

the cow farmer should say:
i'm not sure i have 3 cows. but i think i do. i saw 3 cows yesterday, and the day before. my family and i harvest their milk and it fills up the right number of bottles for 3 cows. it takes my son 3 times longer to clean up their poop than when we had 1 cow. they eat pizza like normal cows, not sushi like goats always want.

do you have any argument i'm hallucinating? do you know something i don't, which should change my view? do you have a criticism of the idea that i have 3 cows? not a reason it isn't guaranteed, but a reason it's actually wrong?
this way he's explaining why he thinks he has 3 cows, and asking for new information or criticism that would let him change his mind to a better idea.

if the skeptic doesn't have any info or criticism like that, then 3 cows is the best guess (idea). even if the wolves attacked and they don't know that, it was still the best guess given the information available.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Explaining Popper on Fallible Scientific Knowledge

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, sec. 85, Popper writes:

Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge (epistēmē): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability.

Yet science has more than mere biological survival value. It is not only a useful instrument. Although it can attain neither truth nor probability, the striving for knowledge and the search for truth are still the strongest motives of scientific discovery.

What does Popper mean when he denies science is "knowledge (epistēmē)"? He explains (sec. 85):

The old scientific ideal of epistēmē—of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge—has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever.

His point here is fallibility. There's no way to ever prove an idea with finality so that there's no possibility of it ever being overthrown or improved in the future. There's no way to be 100% certain that a new criticism won't be invented later.

People consider Popper a skeptic because they see the options as infallibilism or skepticism. Popper does deny infallibilist conceptions of knowledge, but disagrees that infallibilism is a requirement of genuine knowledge.

In the first quote, Popper uses the word "knowledge" in two different senses, which is confusing. The first use is qualified as "epistēmē" and refers to view that we must find a way around fallibility or we don't have any knowledge. The second use, in "striving for knowledge", means good ideas (useful ideas, ideas which solve problems) as opposed to random, arbitrary or worthless ideas. The view that we have no way to judge some ideas as better than others is the skeptical position; in contrast, Popper says we can use criticism to differentiate ideas.

I'll now discuss individual pieces of the first quote.

[science] can never claim to have attained truth

Popper means that even if we had an idea with no errors, we have no means to absolutely prove it has no errors and then claim there are none. There are no methods which guarantee the elimination of all errors from any set of ideas.

An idea with no errors can be called a final or perfect truth. It can't be refuted. It also can't be improved. It's an end of progress. Human knowledge, by contrast, is an infinite journey in which we make progress but don't reach a final end point at which thinking stops.

Could there be unbounded progress while some ideas, e.g. 2+2=4, are never revisited? Yes but there's nothing to gain by being dogmatic, and there're no arguments which yield exceptions to fallibility. Just accept all ideas are potentially open to criticism, and then focus your research on areas you consider promising or find problematic. And if someone has a surprising insight contradicting something you were confident of, refute it rather than dismissing it.

[science] can attain neither truth nor probability

Regarding probability: There's no way to measure how close to the (perfect) truth an idea is, how much error it contains, or how likely it is to be (perfectly) true. The method of judging ideas by (primarily informal) critical arguments doesn't allow for establishing ideas as probable, and the alternative epistemological methods don't work (Popper has criticisms of them, including on logical grounds).

Also, probability applies to physical events (e.g. probability of a die rolling a 6), not to ideas. An idea either is (perfectly) true or it isn't. Probability of ideas is a metaphor for positive support or justification. I've addressed that issue under the heading: gradations of certainty.

Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements

What's good about scientific statements if they aren't well-established or certain? They aren't refuted. We've looked, but haven't found any errors in them. That's better than ideas which are refuted. I shouldn't accept or act on ideas when I'm aware of (relevant) errors in them.

My judgements are capable of being mistaken in general. But that isn't a criticism of any particular judgement. Ideas should be rejected due to critical arguments, not due to fallibility itself.

striving for knowledge and the search for truth

The human capacity for error ruins some projects (e.g. attaining absolute certainty, attaining epistēmē). But it doesn't prevent us from creating a succession of better and better ideas by finding and fixing some of our errors.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Reply to David Stove on Popper

Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, by David Stove criticizes Karl Popper's philosophy of knowledge.

But Stove's criticism doesn't focus on epistemology.

And Stove writes insults and other unserious statements. These are frequent and severe enough to stand out compared to other similar books. I give examples.

The book's organization is problematic as a criticism of Popper because it criticizes four authors at once. It only focuses on Popper for a few paragraphs at a time. It doesn't lay out Popper's position in detail with quotes and explanations of what problems Popper is trying to solve and how his ideas solve them.

First I discuss the book's approach and style. Then I address what I've identified as Stove's most important criticisms of Popperian philosophy.

My basic conclusion is that Stove doesn't understand Popper. His main criticisms amount to, "I don't understand it." Popper contradicts established philosophy ideas and some common sense; Stove doesn't know why and responds with ridicule. Stove is unable to present Popper's main ideas correctly (and doesn't really try, preferring instead to jump into details). And without a big-picture understanding of Popper, Stove doesn't know what to make of various detail statements.

Stove's Focus

Part 2, Ch. 3 begins:

Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend have succeeded in making irrationalist philosophy of science acceptable to many readers who would reject it out of hand if it were presented to them without equivocation and consistently. It was thus that the question arose to which the first Part of this book was addressed: namely, how did they achieve this? My answer was, that they did so principally by means of two literary devices discussed in Part One. The question to which the present Part of this book is addressed is: how was irrationalist philosophy of science made acceptable to these authors themselves?

Stove says the first part discusses how Popper achieved influence. How did Popper convince readers? What literary devices did Popper use to fool people? And part two (of two) discusses the psychological issue of how Popper made irrationalism acceptable to himself.

By Stove's own account, he's not focusing on debating philosophy points. He does include epistemology arguments, but they aren't primary.

The problem Stove is trying to solve plays a major role in his thinking (as Popper would have said). And it's the wrong problem because it assumes Popper is an irrationalist and then analyzes implications, rather than focusing on analyzing epistemology. If Popper's philosophy is true, Stove's main topics don't matter.

Ridicule

Ch. 2:

It is just as well that Popper introduced this [methodological] rule. Otherwise we might have gone on indefinitely just neglecting extreme probabilities in our old bad way: that is, without his permission.

This is unserious and insulting. Popper's purpose was to discuss how to think well, not to give orders or permission.

To readers in whom the critical faculty is not entirely extinct, the episode has afforded a certain amount of hilarity.

This is mean.

I point out more examples of Stove's style as they come up.

Neutralizing Success Words

Ch. 1 discusses neutralizing success words. A success word like "knowledge" or "proof" implies an accomplishment. Compare "refuted" (a successful argument) to "denied" or "contradicted" (doesn't imply the denial has merit). Neutralizing knowledge yields idea – knowledge means a good idea, whereas an idea could be good or bad. Neutralizing proof yields argument – a proof is a type of successful argument, whereas a mere argument may not succeed.

Stove says Popper equivocates. Often, Popper uses success words with their normal meaning. But other times Popper changes the meaning.

It is the word "knowledge", however, which was the target of Popper's most remarkable feat of neutralization. This word bulks large in his philosophy of science (much larger than "discovery"), and in recent years, in particular, the phrase "the growth of knowledge" has been a favorite with him and with those he has influenced most. Some people have professed to find a difficulty, indeed, in understanding how there can be a growth-of-knowledge and yet no accumulation-of-knowledge.

There is accumulation-of-knowledge. Stove gives no cite, but I have a guess at what he's talking about. This quote is from C&R (Conjectures and Refutations) ch. 10 sec. 1, and there's a similar statement in LScD (The Logic of Scientific Discovery).

it is not the accumulation of observations which I have in mind when I speak of the growth of scientific knowledge, but the repeated overthrow of scientific theories and their replacement by better or more satisfactory ones.

The growth of knowledge doesn't consist of accumulating ever more observations (we need ideas). Nor are we simply accumulating more and more ideas, because scientific progress involves refuting, replacing and modifying ideas too. The growth of knowledge is more about quality than quantity.

Continuing the same Stove passage:

But then some people cannot or will not understand the simplest thing,

More ridicule.

and we cannot afford to pause over them. Let us just ask, how does Popper use the word "knowledge"?

Well, often enough, of course, like everyone else including our other authors, he uses it with its normal success-grammar. But when he wishes to give expression to his own philosophy of science he baldly neutralizes it. Scientific knowledge, he then tells us, is "conjectural knowledge". Nor is this shocking phrase a mere slip of the pen, which is what anywhere else it would be thought to be.

Expressing shock and talking about slips of the pen is not how one debates ideas seriously. But let's discuss conjectural knowledge.

Knowledge is good ideas. Sorting out good and bad ideas is one of the main problems in epistemology.

Conjectural serves two purposes. First, it indicates that knowledge is fallible (and lacks authority). Popper doesn't mean justified, true belief. He's not looking for perfect certainty or absolute guarantees against error.

Second, conjecture is the original source of the good ideas that constitute knowledge. Conjecture is, intentionally, an informal, tolerant, inclusive source. Even myths and superstitions can qualify as conjectures. There's no quality filter.

I think Stove's negative reaction has a thought process like this: No quality filter!? But we want good ideas. We need a quality filter or it's all just arbitrary! "Anything goes" can't achieve knowledge, it's irrationalism.

Popper has an answer:

Standard approaches do lots of quality filtering (sometimes all) based on the source of ideas.

Instead, all quality filtering should be done based on the content of ideas. This is done with criticism and human judgement, which lack authority but are good enough.

So we do have a quality filter, it's just designed differently and put in a different place.

For more, see Popper's introduction to C&R, On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. Excerpt from sec. XV:

The question about the sources of our knowledge can be replaced in a similar way [to the 'Who should rule?' issue]. It has always been asked in the spirit of: ‘What are the best sources of our knowledge—the most reliable ones, those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal?’ I propose to assume, instead, that no such ideal sources exist—no more than ideal rulers—and that *all* ‘sources’ are liable to lead us into error at times. And I propose to replace, therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: ‘*How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?*’

Continuing the same Stove passage:

On the contrary, no phrase is more central to Popper's philosophy of science, or more insisted upon by him. The phrase even furnishes, he believes, and as the title of one of his articles claims, nothing less than the "solution to the problem of induction" [28].

Note the lack of discussion of Popper's position.

In one way this is true, and must be true, because any problem clearly must yield before some one who is prepared to treat language in the way Popper does. What problem could there be so hard as not to dissolve in a sufficiently strong solution of nonsense? And nonsense is what the phrase "conjectural knowledge" is:

More insults.

just like say, the phrase "a drawn game which was won". To say that something is known, or is an object of knowledge, implies that it is true, and known to be true.

This is ambiguous on the key issue of fallibility.

Is Stove saying all knowledge must be infallible and known to be infallible? It must be the proven to be the perfect truth, with complete certainty, so that error is utterly impossible – or else it's not knowledge?

If that's Stove's view of knowledge, then I think he has a choice between irrationalism or skepticism. Because his demands cannot be met rationally.

Or if Stove's position is less perfectionist, then what is it? What allowances are made for fallibility and human limitations? How do they compare to Popper's allowances? And why is Popper mistaken?

(Of course only `knowledge that' is in question here). To say of something that it is conjectural, on the other hand, implies that it is not known to be true.

Does "known to be true" here mean infallibly proven? Or what?

And this is all that needs to be said on the celebrated subject of "conjectural knowledge"; and is a great deal more than should need to be said.

What's going on here is simple. Stove is scornful of a concept he doesn't understand. He doesn't appreciate or discuss the problems in the field. And he doesn't want to. He's unable to state a summary of Popper's view which a Popperian would agree with, and he wants the matter to be closed after three paragraphs.

Sabotaging Logical Expressions

Ch. 2:

What scientists do in such circumstances, Popper says, is to act on a methodological convention to neglect extreme probabilities

For example, how do you know a coin which flips 1000 heads in a row is unfair? Maybe it's a fair coin on a lucky streak.

Well, so what? I'm willing to risk a 2^-1000 chance of misjudging the coin. I'm far more likely to be struck be lightning than get the coin wrong. And the downside of misjudging the coin is small. If the downside were so large that I couldn't tolerate that much risk, I could flip the coin additional times to reduce the risk to my satisfaction (assuming I get more heads, that reduces the probability it's a fair coin).

So Popper offers: if you judge it's not a worthwhile issue to worry about, then don't worry about it. This judgement, like everything, could be a mistake, so it's always held open to criticism. That openness doesn't mean we think it's mistaken or spend our time searching for a mistake, it just means we recognize we have no infallible guarantee against error. We have to make fallible, criticizable judgements about what areas are problematic to focus attention on.

Stove dislikes this approach because he thinks you could do it to dismiss any problem. Stove fears arbitrarily creating a methodological convention to neglect any difficulty. The solution to this is criticizing bad methodological conventions. Stove (correctly) sees problems with some conventions that could be proposed, and those problems can be expressed as criticism.

The problem here is Stove's unfamiliarity with Popperian methods. Plus I think Stove wants methodological rules to guide thinking and reduce the scope for human judgement and creativity.

... Popper actually anticipated it. This is `the Quine-Duhem thesis': that "any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system [...]. Conversely, [...] no statement is immune to revision" [23].

There's an important logical point here. I wonder what Stove's answer to it is (he doesn't say). Popper offered some help with this issue, but not a full solution. That's OK because Popper's general approach of fallible judgement combined with error correction still works anyway.

Philosopher David Deutsch addressed the Quine-Duhem issue better. His two books offer refinements of Popper. (FoR ch. 1, 3, 7-8; BoI ch. 1-4, 10, 13.)

In short: You may try modifying whatever you want to rescue a statement, but those modifications have meaning and can be criticized. Ad hoc modifications commonly ruin the explanation which gave the idea value in the first place, or contradict vast amounts of existing knowledge without argument. If you can come up with a modification that survives immediate criticism, then it's a good contribution to the discussion (sometimes the error really is elsewhere in the system).

Other Thoughts

Ch. 3:

It is a favorite thesis with him that a scientific theory is, not only never certain, but never even probable, in relation to the evidence for it [3].

Right, because logically there's no such thing as evidence for a theory. There's only evidence which does or doesn't contradict a theory. And any finite set of evidence is logically compatible with (does not contradict) infinitely many theories, and those theories reach basically every conclusion.

What does Stove think of this?

These two theses [the one above and one other] will be acknowledged to be irrationalist enough; and they are ones upon which Popper repeatedly insists.

Stove doesn't present and discuss Popper's solution to the logical difficulties of positive support. Nor does Stove present his own solution. Instead he says it "will be acknowledged" that Popper's view is irrational, without argument. Stove treats it as if Popper only talked about this difficulty without also giving a solution. (The solution, in short, is that negative arguments don't face this difficulty.)

Ch. 3:

Scepticism about induction is an irrationalist thesis itself

Rather than present and discuss Popper's solution to the problem of induction, Stove simply asserts that the only alternative to induction is irrationalism. He goes on to discuss Hume at length rather than Popper.

Ch. 5:

One of these features, and one which is at first sight surprising in deductivists, is this: an extreme lack of rigor in matters of deductive logic.

Because Popper's main positions aren't about deduction. The technical reason that conjectures and refutations is able to create knowledge is that it's evolution, not deduction. The key to evolution is error correction, and that's also the key to Popper's philosophy, but Stove doesn't understand or discuss that. Stove only uses the word "evolution" once (in a Kuhn quote where it means gradual development rather than replication with variation and selection).

A core issue in Popper's philosophy is: "How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?" (as quoted earlier). Stove doesn't understand, present, or criticize Popper's answer to that question.


Note: My comments on Popperian thinking are summary material. There's more complexity. It's a big topic. There are books of details, and I can expand on particular points of interest if people ask questions.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

25 Robert Spillane Replies

Robert Spillane (RS) is a philosopher who worked with Thomas Szasz for decades. He comments on Critical Rationalism (CR) in his books. I think he liked some parts of CR, but he disagrees with CR about induction and some other major issues. Attempting to clear up some disagreements, I sent him a summary of CR I wrote (not published yet).

Previously I criticized a David Stove book he recommended, responded to him about RSI (we agree), replied positively to his article on personality tests, explained a Popper passage RS didn't understand, and wrote some comments about Popper to him.

RS replied to my CR article with 25 points. Here are my replies:

I am reluctant to comment on your article since it is written in a 'popular' style - as you say it is a summary article. Nonetheless, since you ask.......

I think writing in a popular (clear and readable) style is good. I put effort into it.

Speaking of style, I also think heavy use of quoting is important to serious discussions. It helps with responding more precisely to what people said, rather than to the gist of it. And it helps with engaging with people rather than talking past them.

(I've omitted the first point because it was a miscommunication issue where RS didn't receive my Stove reply.)

2. Your summary article is replete with tautologies which, while true, are trivial. The first paragraph is, therefore, trivial. And from trivial tautologies one can only deduce tautologies.

I’m not trying to approach philosophy by deduction (or induction or abduction), which I consider a mistaken approach.

Here's the paragraph RS refers to:

Humans are fallible. That means we’re capable of being mistaken. This possibility of making a mistake applies to everything. There’s no way to get a guarantee that one of your ideas is true (has no mistakes). There’s no guaranteed way to limit where a mistake could be (saying this part of my idea could be mistaken but not that part) or the size a mistake could be.

This makes claims which I believe most people disagree with or don’t understand, so I disagree that it’s trivial. I think it’s an important position statement to differentiate CR’s views from other views. I wish it was widely considered trivial!

I say, "There’s no way to get a guarantee that one of your ideas is true”. I don’t see how that's a tautology. Maybe RS interprets it as being a priori deducible from word definitions? Something like that? That kind of perspective is not how I (or Popper) approach philosophy.

I wrote it as a statement about how reality actually is, not how reality logically must be. I consider it contingent on the laws of physics, not necessary or tautological. I didn’t discover it by deduction, but by critical argument (and even some scientific observations were relevant). And I disagree with and deny the whole approach of a priori knowledge and the analytic/synthetic dichotomy.

3. Why are informal arguments OK? What is an example of an informal argument? It can't be an invalid one since that would not be OK philosophically, unless one is an irrationalist.

An example of an informal argument:

Socialism is a system of price controls. These cause shortages (when price ceilings are too low), waste (when price floors are too high), and inefficient production (when the controlled prices don’t match what market prices would be). Price floors cruelly keep goods out of the hands of people who want to purchase the goods to improve their lives, while denying an income to sellers. Price ceilings prevent the people who most urgently need goods from outbidding others for those goods. This creates a system of first-come-first-serve (rather than allocating goods where they will provide the most benefit), a shadow market system of friendships and favors (to obtain the privilege of buying goods), and a black market. Socialism sacrifices the total amount wealth produced (which is maximized by market prices), and what do we get in return for a reduction in total wealth? People are harmed!

Szasz’s books are full of informal arguments of a broadly similar nature to this one. He doesn’t write deductions, formal logic, and syllogisms.

Informal arguments are invalid in the sense that they don’t conform to one of the templates for a valid deduction. I don't think that makes them false.

I don’t think it’s irrationalism to think there’s value and knowledge in that price controls argument against socialism, even though it’s not a set of syllogisms and doesn't reduce to a set of syllogisms.

The concept of formal logic means arguments which are correct based on their form, regardless of some of the specifics inserted. E.g. All X are Y. Z is X. Therefore Z is Y.

The socialism argument doesn’t work that way. It depends on the specific terms chosen. If you replace them with other terms, it wouldn’t make sense anymore. E.g. if you swapped each use of "floor" and "ceiling" then the argument would be wrong. Or if you replaced "socialism" with "capitalism" then it'd be wrong because capitalism doesn't include price controls.

The socialism argument is also informal in the sense that it’s fairly imprecise. It omits many details. This could be improved by further elaborations and discussion. It could also be improved with footnotes, e.g. to George Reisman’s book, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, which is where I got some of the arguments I used.

Offering finite precision, and not covering every detail, is also something I consider reasonable, not irrationalist. And I’d note Szasz did it in each of his books.

Informal arguments are OK because there’s nothing wrong with them (no criticism refuting their use in general – though some are mistaken). And because informal arguments are useful and effective for human progress (e.g. science is full of them) and for solving problems and creating knowledge.

4. I wasn't aware that there was A key to philosophy of knowledge (metaphor?). And how is 'fixing' mistakes effective if we are condemned to fallibility?

It's not a metaphor, it’s a dictionary definition. E.g. OED for key (noun): "A means of understanding something unknown, mysterious, or obscure; a solution or explanation.”

What does RS mean “condemned” to fallibility? If one puts effort into detecting and correcting errors, then one can deal with errors effectively and have a nice life and modern science. There’s nothing miserable about the ongoing need for critical consideration of ideas.

In information theory, there are methods of communicating with arbitrarily high (though not 100%) reliability over channels with a permanent situation of random errors. The mathematical theory allows dealing with error rates up to but not including 50%! In practice, error correction techniques do not reach the mathematical limits, but are still highly effective for enabling e.g. the modern world with hard disks and internet communications. (Source: Feynman Lectures On Computation, ch. 4.3, p. 107)

The situation is similar in epistemology. Error correction methods like critical discussion don't offer any 100% guarantees, nor any quantifiable guarantees, but are still effective.

5. Critical rationalists leave themselves open to the charge of frivolity if they maintain that the 'sources of ideas aren't very important'. How is scientific progress possible without some 'knowledge' of ideas from the past?

Learning about and building on old ideas is fine.

The basic point here is to judge an idea by what it says, rather than by who said it or how he came up with it.

You may learn about people from the past because you find it interesting or inspiring, or in order to use contextual information to better understand their ideas. For example, I read biographies of William Godwin, his family, and Edmund Burke, in order to better understand Godwin’s philosophy ideas (and because it’s interesting and useful information).

6. Why must we be tolerant with, say, totalitarians? Do you really believe that Hitler could be defeated through argumentation?

I think Hitler could easily have been stopped without violence if various people had better ideas early enough in the process (e.g. starting at the beginning of WWI). And similarly the key to our current struggles with violent Islam is philosophical education –- proudly standing up for the right values. The mistaken ideas of our leaders (and most citizens) is what lets evil flourish.

7. One of the most tendentious propositions in philosophy is 'There is a real world.' Popper's 'realism' is Platonic.

So what if it's "tendentious"? What's the point of saying that? Is that intended to argue some point?

Popper isn't a Platonist and his position is that there is a real, objective reality and we can know about it. I was merely stating his position. Sample quote (Objective Knowledge, ch. 2.3, p. 36):

And Reid, with whom I share adherence to realism and to common sense, thought that we had some very direct, immediate, and secure perception of external, objective reality.

Popper's view is that there is an external, objective reality, and we can know about it. However, all our observations are theory-laden – we have to think and interpret in order to figure out what exists.

8. How can an idea be a mistake if its source is irrelevant?

Its content can be mistaken. E.g. "2+3=6" is false regardless of who writes it.

RS may be thinking of a statement like, "It is noon now." Whether that's true depends on the context of the statement, such as what time it is and what language it's written in. Using context to understand the meaning/content of a statement, and then judging by the meaning/content, is totally different than judging an idea by its source (such as judging an idea to be true or probably true because an authority said it, or because the idea was created by attempting to follow the scientific method).

9. One of the many stupid things Popper said was 'All Life is Problem Solving'. Is having sexual intercourse problem-solving? Is listening to Mozart problem-solving?

Yes.

RS calls it stupid because he don't understand it. He doesn't know what Popper means by the phrase "problem solving". Instead of finding out Popper's meaning, RS interpreted that phrase in his own terminology, found it didn't work, and stopped there. That's a serious methodological error.

Having sex helps people solve problems related to social status and social role, as well as problems related to the pursuit of happiness.

Listening to Mozart helps people solve the problem of enjoying their life.

The terminology issue is why I included multiple paragraphs explaining what CR means in my article. For example, I wrote, "[A problem] can be answering a question, pursuing a goal, or fixing something broken. Any kind of learning, doing, accomplishing or improving. Problems are opportunities for something to be better."

Despite this, RS still interpreted according to his own standard terminology. Understanding other perspectives, frameworks and terminology requires effort but is worthwhile.

The comment RS is replying to comes later and reads:

Solving problems always leads to a new situation where there’s new problems you can work on to make things even better. Life is an infinite journey. There’s no end point with nothing left to do or learn. As Popper titled a book, All Life is Problem Solving.

I brought up All Life is Problem Solving because part of its meaning is that we don't run out of problems.

10. 'All problems can be solved if you know how' is a tautology and has no contingent consequences.

It's not a tautology because there's an alternative view (which is actually far more popular than the CR view). The alternative is that there exist insoluble problems (they couldn't be solved no matter what knowledge you had). If you think that alternative view is wrong on a priori logical grounds, I disagree, I think it depends on the laws of physics.

11. 'Knowledge is power' entails 'power is knowledge' which is clearly false as an empirical generalisation.

"Knowledge is power" is a well known phrase associated with the Enlightenment. It has a non-literal meaning which RS isn't engaging with. See e.g. Wikipedia: Scientia potentia est.

I would be very surprised if RS is unfamiliar with this phrase. I don't know why he chose to split hairs about it instead of responding to what I meant.

12. 'If you have a correct solution, then your actions will work' is a tautology.

It's useful to point out because some people wouldn't think of it. If I omitted that sentence, some readers would be confused.

13. 'Observations play no formal role in creating ideas' is clearly false. Semmelweis based his idea about childbirth fever on observations and inductive inferences therefrom.

RS states the CR view is "clearly false". That's the fallacy of begging the question. Whether it's false is one of the things being debated.

Rather than assume CR is wrong, RS should learn or ask what CR's interpretation of that example is (and more broadly CR's take on scientific discovery). Popper explained this in his books, at length, including going through a variety of examples from the history of science, so there shouldn't be any mystery here about CR's position.

I don't think discussing this example is a good idea because it's full of historical details which distract from explaining issues like why induction is a myth and what can be done instead. If RS understood CR's position on those issues, then he could easily answer the Semmelweis example himself. It poses no particular challenge for CR.

Anyone who can't explain the Semmelweis example in CR terms is not adequately familiar with CR to reject CR. You have to know what CR would say about a scientific discovery like that before you decide CR is "clearly false".

14. 'Knowledge cannot exist outside human minds'. Of course it can if there are no human minds. I agree with Thomas Szasz who, in 'The Meaning of Mind' argued that while we are minded (mind the step) we do not have minds. 'Mind' should only be used as a verb, never as a noun. Popper's mind-body dualism is bad enough, but his pluralism is embarrassing.

I wrote "Knowledge can exist outside human minds." and this changes "can" to "cannot". RS, please use copy/paste for quotes to avoid misquotes.

I'm not a dualist.

It's fine to read my statement as "Knowledge can exist outside human brains" or outside people entirely. The point is knowledge can exist separate from an intelligent or knowing entity.

15. 'A dog's eyes contain knowledge'. I don't understand this since to know x is to know that x is true. Since truth is propositional, dogs don't have to deal with issues of truth. Lucky dogs!

CR disagrees with RS about what knowledge is, and claims e.g. that there is knowledge in books and in genes. Knowledge in genes has nothing to do with a dog knowing anything.

RS, what is your answer to Paley's problem? And what do you think genetic evolution creates?

16. Your use of 'knowledge' is somewhat eccentric if you claim that trees know that x.

I don't claim trees know anything, I claim that the genes in trees have knowledge of how to construct tree cells.

CR acknowledges its view of knowledge is non-standard, but nevertheless considers it correct and important.

17. 'Knowledge is created by evolution' is a tautology if we accept a liberal interpretation of 'created'. If we do not and we assume strict causation, it is false.

That knowledge can be created by evolution is contingent on the laws of physics, not tautological. RS does not state what the "liberal interpretation" he refers to is, nor what "strict causation" refers to, so I don't know how to answer further besides to request that he provide arguments on the matter (preferably arguments that would persuade me that RS understands evolution).

18. Ideas cannot literally replicate themselves.

This is an unargued assertion. Literally, they can. I think RS is simply concluding something is wrong because he doesn't understand it, which is a methodological error.

David Deutsch has explained this matter in The Fabric of Reality, ch. 8:

a replicator is any entity that causes certain environments to copy it.

...

I shall also use the term niche for the set of all possible environments which a given replicator would cause to make copies of it....

Not everything that can be copied is a replicator. A replicator causes its environment to copy it: that is, it contributes causally to its own copying. (My terminology differs slightly from that used by Dawkins. Anything that is copied, for whatever reason, he calls a replicator. What I call a replicator he would call an active replicator.) What it means in general to contribute causally to something is an issue to which I shall return, but what I mean here is that the presence and specific physical form of the replicator makes a difference to whether copying takes place or not. In other words, the replicator is copied if it is present, but if it were replaced by  almost any other object, even a rather similar one, that object would not be copied.

...

Genes embody knowledge about their niches.

...

It is the survival of knowledge, and not necessarily of the gene or any other physical object, that is the common factor between replicating and non-replicating genes. So, strictly speaking, it is a piece of knowledge rather than a physical object that is or is not adapted to a certain niche. If it is adapted, then it has the property that once it is embodied in that niche, it will tend to remain so.

...

But now we have come almost full circle. We can see that the ancient idea that living matter has special physical properties was almost true: it is not living matter but knowledge-bearing matter that is physically special. Within one universe it looks irregular; across universes it has a regular structure, like a crystal in the multiverse.

Add to this that ideas exist physically in brain matter, (in the same way data can be stored on computer disks), and they do cause their own replication.

Understanding evolution in a precise, modern way was Deutsch's largest contribution to CR.

I don't expect RS to understand this material from these brief quotes. It's complicated. I'm trying to give an indication that there's substance here that could be learned. If he wants to understand it, he'll have to read Deutsch's books (there's even more material about memes in The Beginning of Infinity) or ask a lot of questions. I do hope he'll stop saying this is false while he doesn't understand it.

19. You claim that CR 'works'. According to what criteria - logical? empirical? pragmatic? If it is pragmatism - or what Stove calls the American philosophy of self-indulgence' - then all philosophies, religions and superstitions 'work' (for their believers).

CR works logically, empirically, and practically. That is, there's no logical, empirical or practical refutation of its effectiveness. (I'm staying away from the word "pragmatic" on purpose. No thanks!)

What CR works to do, primarily, is create knowledge. The way I judge that CR works is by looking at the problems it claims to solve, how it claims to solves them, and critically considering whether its methods would work (meaning succeed at solving those problems).

CR offers a conception of what knowledge is and what methods create it (guesses and criticism – evolution). CR offers substantial detail on the matter. I know of no non-refuted criticism of the ability of CR's methods to create knowledge as CR defines knowledge.

There's a further issue of whether CR has the right goals. We can all agree we want "knowledge" in some sense, but is CR's conception of knowledge actually the thing we want? Not for everyone, e.g. infallibilists. But CR explains why conjectural knowledge is the right conception of knowledge to pursue, which I don't know any non-refuted criticism of. Further, there are no viable rival conceptions of knowledge that anyone knows how to pursue. Basically, all other conceptions of knowledge are either vague or wrong (e.g. infallibilist). This claim depends on a bunch of arguments – RS if you state your conception of knowledge then I'll comment on it.

20. You are right to say that '90% certain' is an oxymoron. But so is 'conjectural knowledge'.

Here RS interprets "knowledge" and perhaps also "conjectural" in his own terminology, rather than learning what CR means.

The most important part of CR's conception of knowledge is that fallible ideas can be knowledge. Conjectures are fallible.

"Conjectural knowledge" is also an anti-authoritarian concept. Popper is saying that mere guesses (even myths) can be knowledge (if they solve a problem and are subjected to critical scrutiny). An idea doesn't have to be created by an authority-granting method (e.g. deduction, induction, abduction, "the scientific method", etc) or come from an authority-granting source (e.g. a famous scientist) in order to be knowledge.

21. 'Actually, the possibility for further progress is a good thing' is a value judgement. But how can progress be a feature of CR? Was not Thomas Kuhn right to claim that Popper's position leads to rampant relativism (as Kuhn's does).

No, Popper isn't a relativist about anything. Popper wrote a ton about progress and took the position that progress is possible, objective and desirable. (E.g. "Equating rationality with the critical attitude, we look for theories which, however fallible, progress beyond their predecessors" from C&R.) And Popper thought we have objective knowledge, including about value judgements and morality. Some of Popper's comments on the matter in The World of Parmenides:

Every rational discussion, that is, every discussion devoted to the search for truth, is based on principles, which in actual fact are ethical principles.

...

All this shows that ethical principles form the basis of science. The most important of all such ethical principles is the principle that objective truth is the fundamental regulative idea of all rational discussion. Further ethical principles embody our commitment to the search for truth and the idea of approximation to truth; and the importance of intellectual integrity and of fallibility, which lead us to a self-critical attitude and to toleration. It is also very important that we can learn in the field of ethics.

...

Should this new ethics [that Popper proposes] turn out to be a better guide for human conduct than the traditional ethics of the intellectual professions ... then I may be allowed to claim that new things can be learnt even in the field of ethics.

...

in the field of ethics too, one can put forward suggestions which may be discussed and improved by critical discussion

In CR's view, the ability to learn in a field requires that there's objective knowledge in that field. Under relativism, you can't learn since there's no mistakes to correct and no objective truth to seek. So Popper thinks there is objective ethical knowledge.

22. Your claim that 'induction works by inducing' applies also to 'deduction works by deducing'.

The statement "deduction works by deducing" would be a bad argument for deduction or explanation of how deduction works.

Inductivists routinely state that induction works by generalizing or extrapolating from observation and think they've explained how to do induction (rather than recognizing the relation of their statement to "induction works by inducing").

23. Inductivists do have an answer for you. Stove has argued, correctly in my view, that there are good reasons to believe inductively-derived propositions. I paraphrase from my book 'An Eye for an I' (pp.183-4) for your readers who have no knowledge of my book.

'Hume's scepticism about induction - that it is illogical and hence irrational and unreasonable - is the basis for his scepticism about science. His two main propositions are: inference from experience is not deductive; it is therefore a purely irrational process. The first proposition is irrefutable. 'Some observed ravens are black, therefore all ravens are black' is an invalid argument: this is the 'fallibility of induction.' But the second proposition is untenable since it assumes that all rational inference is deductive. Since 'rational' means 'agreeable to reason', it is obvious that our use of reason often ignores deduction and emphasises the facts of experience and inferences therefrom.

Stove defends induction from Hume's scepticism by arguing that scepticism about induction is the result of the 'fallibility of induction' and the assumption that deduction is the only form of rational argument. The result is inductive scepticism, which is that no proposition about the observed is a reason to believe a contingent proposition about the unobserved. The fallibility of induction, on its own, does not produce inductive scepticism because from the fact that inductive arguments are invalid it does not follow that something we observe gives us no reason to believe something we have not yet observed. If all our experience of flames is that they burn, this does give us a reason for assuming that we will get burned if we put our hand into some as yet unobserved flame. This is not a logically deducible reason but it is still a good reason. But once the fallibility of induction is joined with the deductivist assumption that the only acceptable reasons are deductive ones, inductive scepticism does indeed follow.

Hume's scepticism about science is the result of his general inductive scepticism combined with his commitment to empiricism, which holds that any reason to believe a contingent proposition about the unobserved is a proposition about the observed. So the general proposition about empiricism needs to be joined with inductive scepticism to produce Hume's conclusion because some people believe that we can know the unobserved by non-empirical means, such as faith or revelation. As an empiricist Hume rules these means out as proper grounds for belief. So to assert the deductivist viewpoint is to assert a necessary truth, that is, something that is trivially true not because of any way the world is organised but because of nothing more than the meanings of the terms used in it. When sceptics claim that a flame found tomorrow might not be hot like those of the past, they have no genuine reason for this doubt, only a trivial necessary truth.'

What, then, is the bearing of 'all observed ravens have been black' on the theory 'all ravens are black'? Stove's answer is based on an idea of American philosopher Donald Cary Williams, which is to reduce inductive inference to the inference from proportions in a population. It is a mathematical fact that the great majority of large samples of a population are close to the population in composition. In the case of the ravens, the observations are probably a fair sample of the unobserved ravens. This applies equally in the case where the sample is of past observations and the population includes future ones. Thus, probable inferences are always relative to the available evidence.

The claim "there are good reasons to believe inductively-derived propositions" doesn't address Popper's arguments that inductively-derived propositions don't exist.

Any finite set of facts or observations is compatible with infinitely many different ideas. So which idea(s) does one induce?

Note that this argument is not about the "fallibility of induction". So Stove is mistaken when he says that's the source of skepticism of induction. (No doubt it's a source of some skepticism of induction, but not of CR's.) The claim that deduction is the only form of rational argument is also not CR's position. So Stove isn't answering CR. Yet RS said this was an inductivist answer to me.

This is typical. I had an objection to the first sentence following "Inductivists do have an answer for you." It made an assumption I consider false. It then proceeded to build on that assumption rather than answer me.

Where RS writes, "it is still a good reason", no statement of why it's a good reason or in what sense it's "good" or why being good in that sense matters is given. Avoiding some technical details, CR says approximately that it's a good reason because we don't have a criticism of it, rather than for an inductive reason. Why does no criticism matter? What's good about that? Better an idea you don't see anything wrong with than one you do see something wrong with.

Nothing in the paragraphs answers CR. They just demonstrate unfamiliarity with CR's standard arguments. Consider:

When sceptics claim that a flame found tomorrow might not be hot like those of the past, they have no genuine reason for this doubt, only a trivial necessary truth.

Many things in the future are different than the past. So one has to understand explanations of in what ways the future will resemble the past, and in what ways it won't. Induction offers no help with this project. Induction doesn't tell us in which ways the future will resemble the past and in which ways it won't (or in which ways the unobserved resembles the observed and in which ways it doesn't). But explanations (which can be improved with critical discussion) do tell us this.

For example, modern science has an explanation of what the sun is made of (mostly hydrogen and helium), its mass (4.385e30 lbs), why it burns (nuclear fusion), etc. These explanations let us understand in what respects the sun will be similar and different tomorrow, when it will burn out, what physical processes would change the date it burns out, what will happen when it burns out, and so on. Explanations simply aren't inferences from observations using some kind of inductive principle about the future probably resembling the past while ignoring the "in which respects?" question. And the sort of skeptic being argued with in the quote has nothing to do with CR.

I won't get into probability math here (we could do that in the future if desired), but I will mention that Popper already addressed that stuff. And the object of this exercise was to answer CR, but that would take something like going over Popper's arguments about probability (with quotes) and saying why they are mistaken or how to get around them.

24. You state that Popper invented critical rationalism around 1950. I would have thought it was around the mid-1930s.

Inventing CR was an ongoing process so this is approximate. But here are some of the book publication dates:

Objective Knowledge, 1972. Conjectures and Refutations, 1963. Realism and the Aim of Science, 1983 (circulated privately in 1956). The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934 (1959 in English). Since I don't consider LScD to be anything like the whole of CR, I chose a later date.

[25.] Your last paragraph is especially unfortunate because you accuse those philosophers who are not critical rationalists (which is most of them) of not understanding 'it enough to argue with it.' With respect Elliot, this is arrogant and ill-informed. Many philosophers understand it only too well and have written learned books on it. Some are broadly sympathetic but critical (David Miller, Anthony O'Hear) while others (Stove, James Franklin) are critical and dismissive. To acknowledge that CR 'isn't very popular, but it can win any debate' is nonsensical and carries the whiff of the 'true believer', which would seem to be self-contradictory for a critical rationalist.

It may be arrogant, but I don't think it's ill-informed. I've researched the matter and don't believe the names you list are counter-examples.

What's nonsensical about an idea which can win in debate, but which most people don't believe? Many scientific ideas have had that status at some time in their history. Ideas commonly start off misunderstood and unpopular, even if there's an advocate who provides arguments which most people later acknowledge were correct.

I think I'm right about CR. I'm fallible, but I know of no flaws or outstanding criticisms of any of my take on CR, so I (tentatively) accept it. I have debated the matter with all critics willing to discuss for a long time. I have sought out criticism from people, books, papers, etc. I've made an energetic effort to find out my mistakes. I haven't found that CR is mistaken. Instead, I've found the critics consistently misunderstand CR, do not provide relevant arguments which address my views, do not address key questions CR raises, and also have nothing to say about Deutsch's books.

I run a public philosophy discussion forum. I have visited every online philosophy discussion forum I could find which might offer relevant discussion and criticism. The results were pathetic. I also routinely contact people who have written relevant material or who just seem smart and potentially willing to discuss. For example, I contacted David Miller and invited him to discuss, but he declined.

Calling this arrogant (Because I think I know something important? Because I think many other people are mistaken?), doesn't refute my interpretation of these life experiences. RS, if you have a proposal for what I should do differently (or a different perspective I should use), I'll be happy to consider it. And if you know of any serious critics of CR who will discuss the matter, please tell me who they are.

None of RS's 25 points were difficult for me to answer. If RS knew of any refutation of CR by any author which I couldn't answer, I would have expected him to be able to pose a difficult challenge for me within 25 comments. But, as usual with everyone, so far nothing RS has said gives even a hint of raising an anti-CR argument which I don't have a pre-existing answer for.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

More Robert Spillane Discussion

This reply to Robert Spillane follows up on this previous discussion. Here's a full list of posts related to Spillane.

Thank you for your respectful reply. I think we are making progress.

It has been helpful to have you clarify which parts of Popper you accept.

Great.

I am reminded of an interesting chapter in Ernest Gellner's bookRelativism and the Social Sciences, (1985, Ch. 1: 'Positivism and Hegelianism), where he discusses early versus late Popper, supports the former against the latter, and concludes that Popper is (a sort of) positivist. It is an interesting chapter and one I would happily discuss with you.

Like Gellner, I am sympathetic to Popper's 'positivism' but cannot accept his rejection of inductive reasoning. Like you (and Szasz), I reject his 3 Worlds model.

Popper was an opponent of the standard meaning of positivism. I mean something like this dictionary definition: "a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism."

So what sort of "positivism" are you attributing to Popper?

I've ordered the book.

Re your favourite philosophers: you might read Szasz's critical comments on Rand, Branden, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and Nozick in Faith in Freedom: Libertarian Principles and Psychiatric Practices, (Transaction Publishers, 2004). Even though I received the Thomas Szasz Award in 2006, I told Tom that I could not commit myself to (economic) libertarianism in the way that he did and you appear to do. I accept the primacy of personal freedom but do not accept the economic freedom favoured by libertarians. Indeed, I would have thought that by now, in the age of huge corporations, neo-liberalism is on its last legs. I respect your position, however.

Yes, I'm fully in favor of capitalism.

Yeah, I discussed Faith in Freedom with Szasz, but I don't have permission to share the discussion. One thing Szasz did in the book was use some criticism of Rand from Rothbard. I could tell you criticism of Rothbard's arguments if you wanted, though I think he's best ignored. I do not consider Rothbard or Justin Raimondo to be decent human beings, let alone reliable narrators regarding Rand. I was also unimpressed by Szasz's criticisms of Rand's personal life in the book, and would prefer to focus on her ideas. And I think Szasz made a mistake by quoting Whittaker Chambers' ridiculous slanders.

FYI I only like Rand and Mises from the list of people you mention, and I agree with Szasz that they were mistaken regarding psychiatry. (Rand didn't say much on psychiatry, and some of it good, as Szasz discusses. But e.g. she got civil commitment partly wrong.)

You may be interested to know that Rand spoke very critically of libertarians, especially Hayek and Friedman (who both sympathized with socialism, as did Popper). She thought libertarians were harming the causes of liberty and capitalism with their unprincipled, bad philosophy. I agree with her.

Rand did appreciate Mises because he was substantially different than the others: he was an anti-anarchy classical liberal, a consistent opponent of socialism, and he was very good at economics.

We have criticisms of many libertarian ideas from the right.

Let me mention that I'm not an orthodox Objectivist. I do not like the current Objectivist leadership like Peikoff, Binswanger, and the Ayn Rand Institute. I am banned from the main Objectivist forum for dissenting regarding epistemology (especially induction, fallibilism and perception). I also dissented regarding psychiatry, but discussion of psychiatry was banned before much was said.

If you're interested, I wrote about what the disagreements were and the decision to ban me. I pointed out various ways my views and actions are in line with Ayn Rand's philosophy and theirs aren't. It clarifies some of my philosophy positions:

http://curi.us/1930-harry-binswanger-refuses-to-think

There was no reply, no counter-argument. I am aware that they will hold a grudge for life because I wrote that.

I also made a public record of what I said in my discussions with them:

http://curi.us/1921-the-harry-binswanger-letter-posts

Warning: my comments are book length.

I have spent my career in the space between neo-positivism (Hume, Stove) and a critical existentialism (Sartre, Szasz). You might see inconsistencies here but I have always agreed with Kolakowski who wrote in his excellent book Positivist Philosophy, (pp. 242-3):

'The majority of positivists tend to follow Wittgenstein's more radical rule: they do not simply reject the claims of metaphysics to knowledge, they refuse it any recognition whatever. The second, more moderate version is also represented, however, and according to it a metaphysics that makes no scientific claims is legitimate. Philosophers who, like Jaspers, do not look upon philosophy as a type of knowledge but only as an attempt to elucidate Existenz, or even as an appeal to others to make such an attempt, do not violate the positivist code. This attitude is nearly universal in present-day existential phenomenology. Awareness of fundamental differences between 'investigation' and 'meditation', between scientific 'accuracy' and philosophic 'precision', between 'problems' and 'questioning' or 'mystery' is expressed by all existential philosophers...'

I broadly disagree with attempts to separate some thinking or knowledge from reality.

As an aside: I asked Tom Szasz that since he has been appropriated by some existentialists, whether he accepted that label. He thought about it for an hour and said: 'Yes, I'm happy to be included among the existentialists. However, if Victor Frankl is an existentialist, I'm not!' Frankl, despite his reputation as a humanist/existentialist boasted of having authorised many and conducted a few lobotomies on people without their consent.

Your criticism of the analytic/synthetic dichotomy reminds me of Quine but expressed differently. I disagree with you (and Quine) and agree with Hume, Stove and Szasz (and many others) on this issue. I am confident that had Szasz lived for another 50 years, you would not have convinced him that all propositions are synthetic and therefore are either true or false. He and I believe that the only necessities (i.e necessary truths) in the world are those expressed as analytic propositions and these tell us nothing about the world of (empirical) facts.

I don't believe necessary truths like that exist. I think people mistake features of reality (the actual reality they live in) for necessary truths. In our world, logic works a particular way, but it didn't necessarily have to. People fail to imagine how some things could be otherwise because they are used to the laws of physics we live with.

If you have a specific criticism of my view, I'll be happy to consider it.

I think I would have persuaded Szasz in much less than 50 years, if I'm right. Or else Szasz would have persuaded me. I don't think it would have stayed unresolved.

I found Szasz extraordinarily rational and open to criticism, more so than anyone else I've ever discussed with.

I'm delighted that you do not buy into Dawkins' nonsense about 'memes' even if you use 'ideas' as if they are things. Stove on Dawkins hits the mark.

There may be a misunderstanding here. I do buy into David Deutsch's views about memes! I accept memes exist and matter. But I think memes are popularly misunderstood and don't lead to the conclusions others have said they do.

I know that Szasz disagreed with me about memes. He did not, however, provide detailed arguments regarding evolution.

'Knowledge' and 'idea' are abstract nouns and therefore, as a nominalist, I'm bound to say they don't exist, except as names.

I consider them the names of either physical objects (like chairs) or attributes of physical objects (like the color red). As a computer hard drive can contain a file, a brain can contain an idea.

I encourage my students to rely less on nouns and more on verbs (from which most nouns originated). You asked for two definitions:

To 'know' means 'to perceive or understand as fact or truth' (Macquarie Dictionary, p.978). Therefore 'conjectural knowledge' is oxymoronic.

This is ambiguous about whether the understanding may be fallible or not.

Do you need a guarantee of truth to have knowledge, or just an educated guess which is correct according to your current best-efforts at understanding?

Why can't one conjecturally (fallibly) understand something to be a fact?

Induction: 'the process of discovering explanations for a set of particular facts, by estimating the weight of observational evidence in favour of a proposition which asserts something about the entire class of facts (MD, p.904).

Induction: 'a method of reasoning by which a general law or principle is inferred from observed particular instances...The term is employed to cover all arguments in which the truth of the premise, or premises, while not entailing the truth of the conclusion, or conclusions, nevertheless purports to constitute good reasons for accepting it, or them... With the growth of natural science philosophers became increasingly aware that a deductive argument can only bring out what is already implicit in its premises, and hence inclined to insist that all new knowledge must come from some form of induction. (A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan Books, 1979, pp.171-2).

I agree that those are typical statements of induction. How do you address questions like:

Which general laws, propositions, or explanations should one consider? How are they chosen or found? (And whatever method you answer, how does it differ from CR's brainstorming and conjecturing?)

When and why is one idea estimated to have a higher weight of observational evidence in favor of it than another idea? Given the situation that neither idea is contradicted by any of the evidence.

I think these issues are very important to our disagreement, and to CR's criticism of induction.

You say that 'inborn theories are not a priori'. But a priori means prior to sense experience and so anything 'inborn'must be a priori be definition.

A priori means "relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience" (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Inborn theories, which come from genes, don't come from theoretical deduction, nor from observation. Their source is evolution. This definition offers a false dichotomy.

Another definition (OED):

"A phrase used to characterize reasoning or arguing from causes to effects, from abstract notions to their conditions or consequences, from propositions or assumed axioms (and not from experience); deductive; deductively."

that doesn't describe inborn theories from genes.

inborn theories are like the software which comes pre-installed on your computer, which you can replace with other software if you prefer.

inborn theories don't control your life, it's just that thinking needs a starting point. similar to how your life has a starting time and place, which does matter, but doesn't control your fate.

these inborn theories are nothing like analytical ideas or necessary truths. they're just regular ideas, e.g. we might have inborn ideas about the danger of snakes (the details of which ideas are inborn is largely unknown) which were created because of actual encounters with snakes before we were born. but that's still not created by observation or experience, because genes and evolution can neither observe nor experience.

Spillane wrote previously:

Here is Szasz's logic:

  • Illness affects the human body (by definition);
  • The 'mind' is not a bodily organ;
  • Therefore, the mind cannot be or become ill;
  • Therefore mental illness is a myth.
  • If 'mind' is really the brain or a brain process;
  • Then mental illnesses are brain illnesses.
  • Since brain illnesses are diagnosed by objective medical signs,
  • And mental illnesses are diagnosed by subjective moral criteria;
  • Mental illnesses are not literal illnesses
  • And mental illness is still a myth.

If this is not deductive reasoning, then what is?

I denied that this is deduction, and I pointed out that "myth" is introduced for the first time in a conclusion statement, so it doesn't follow the rules of deduction. Spillane now says:

If the example of Szasz's logic is not deductive - the truth of the conclusion is implicit in the premise - what sort of argument is it? If you remove #4, would you accept it as a deductive argument?

I think it deviates from deduction in dozens of ways, so removing #4 won't help. For example, the terms "objective", "subjective" and "literal" are introduced towards the end without using previous premises and syllogisms to establish anything about them. I also consider it incomplete in dozens of ways (as all complex arguments always are). You could try to write it as formal (deductive) logic, but I think you'd either omit most of the content or fail.

I don't think the truth of the conclusion is implicit in the premises. I think many philosophers have massively overestimated what they could translate to equivalent formal deductions. So I regard it simply as an "argument", just like most other arguments which don't fall into the categories non-Popperian philosophers are so concerned with.

And even if some arguments could be rewritten as strict deductions, people usually don't do that, and they can still learn and make progress anyway.

Rather than worrying about what category an argument falls into, CR is concerned with whether you have a criticism of it – that is, an argument for why it's false.

I don't think pointing out "that isn't deduction" is a criticism, because being non-deductive is compatible with being true. (The same comment applies to induction.)

I also don't think that pointing out an idea is incomplete is a criticism without further elaboration. What matters is if the idea can succeed at it's purpose, e.g. solve a problem, answer a question, explain an issue. An idea may do that despite being incomplete in some way because the incompleteness may be
irrelevant.

My epistemological position should be clear from what I have said above - it is consistent with a moderate form of neo-positivism.

That Popper's fallibilism is ill-concealed skepticism has been argued at length, by many Popper scholars, e.g. Anthony O'Hear. It was even argued in the book review mentioned.

I don't care how many people argued something at what length. I only care if there are specific arguments which are correct.

Are you denying that you are fallible (capable of making mistakes)? Do you think you sometimes have 100% guarantees against error?

Or do you just deny the second part of Popper's fallibilism? His claim that, in the world today, mistakes are common even when people feel certain they're right.

If it's neither of those, then I don't know what your issue with fallibilism is.

I have already given you (in a long quote) examples of inductively-derived propositions that are 'reasonable'. Now they may not be reasonable to a deductivist, but that only shows that deductivists have a rigid definition of 'rational', 'reasonable' and 'logical'. Given that a very large number of observations of ravens has found that they are black without exception, I have no good reason to believe the next one will be yellow, even though it is possible. That the next raven may be yellow is a trivial truth since it is a tautology. Accordingly, I have a good reason to believe that the raven in the next room is black.

OK I'll address this topic after you answer my two questions about induction above.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Discussing Necessary Truths and Induction with Spillane

You often ask me for information/arguments that I have already given you

We're partially misunderstanding each other because communication is hard and we have different ways of thinking. I'm trying to be patient, and I hope you will too.

Please address these two questions about induction. Answering with page numbers from a book would be fine if they directly address it.

I've read lots of inductivist explanations and found they consistently don't address these questions in a clear, specific way, with actual instructions one could follow to do induction if one didn't already know how. I've found that sometimes accounts of induction give vague answers, but not actionable details, and sometimes they give specifics unconnected to philosophy. Neither of those are adequate.

1) Which general laws, propositions, or explanations should one consider? How are they chosen or found? (And whatever method you answer, how does it differ from CR's brainstorming and conjecturing?)

2) When and why is one idea estimated to have a higher weight of observational evidence in favor of it than another idea? Given the situation that neither idea is contradicted by any of the evidence.

These are crucial questions to what your theory of induction says. The claimed specifics of induction vary substantially even among people who would agree with the same dictionary definition of "induction".

I've read everything you wrote to me, and a lot more in references, and I don't yet know what your answers are. I don't mind that. Discussion is hard. I think they are key questions for making progress on the issue, so I'm trying again.

As a fallibilist, you acknowledge that the 'real world' is a contingent one and there are no necessary truths. But is not 1+1=2 a necessary truth? Is not 'All tall men are men' a necessary truth since its negation is self-contradictory?

I'll focus on the math question because it's the easier case to discuss first. If we agree on it, then I'll address the A is A issue.

I take it you also think the solution to 237489 * 879234 + 8920343 is a necessary truth, as well as much more complex math. If instead you think that's actually a different case than 1+1, please let me know.

OK, so, how do you know 1+1=2? You have to figure out what 1+1 sums to. You have to calculate it. You have to perform addition.

The only means you have to calculate sums involve physical objects which obey the laws of physics.

You can count on your fingers, with an abacus, or with marbles. You can use a Mac or iPhone calculator. Or you can use your brain to do the calculation.

Your knowledge of arithmetic sums depends on the properties of the objects involved in doing the addition. You believe those objects, when used in certain ways, perform addition correctly. I agree. If the objects had different properties, then they'd have to be used in different ways to perform addition, or might be incapable of it. (For example, imagine an iPhone had the same physical properties as an iPhone-shaped rock. Then the sequences of touches the currently sum 1 and 1 on an iPhone would no longer work.)

Your brain, your fingers, computers, marbles, etc, are all physical objects. The properties of those objects are specified by the laws of physics. The objects have to be used in certain ways, and not other ways, to add 1+1 successfully. What ways work depends on the laws of physics which say that, e.g., marbles don't duplicate themselves or disappear when arranged in piles.

So I don’t think 1+1=2 is a truth independent of the laws of physics. If there's a major, surprising breakthrough in physics and it turns out we're mistaken about the properties of the physical objects used to perform addition, then 1+1=2 might have to be reconsidered because all our ways of knowing it depended on the old physics, and we have to reconsider it using the new physics. So observations which are relevant to physics are also relevant to determining that 1+1=2.

This is explained in "The Nature of Mathematics", which is chapter 10 of The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. If you know of any refutation of Deutsch's explanation, by yourself or others, please let me know. Or if you know of a view on this topic which contradicts Deutsch's, but which his critical arguments don't apply to, then please let me know.

I believe that Einstein is closer to the truth of what you call the real world than was Aristotle. So when I'm told by this type of fallibilist that we don't know anymore today than we did 400 years ago, I demur.

Neither Popper nor I believe that "we don't know anymore today than we did 400 years ago".

Given your comments on LSD and the a-s dichotomy, after reading this I conclude that you are a fan of late Popper (LP) and I prefer early Popper (EP).

Yes.

You think EP is wrong, and I think LP is right, so I don't see the point of talking about EP.

(I disagree with your interpretation of EP, but that's just a historical issue with no bearing on which philosophy of knowledge ideas are correct. So I'm willing to concede the point for the purpose of discussion.)

Gellner argued that Popper is a positivist in the logical positivist rather than the Comtean positivist sense. His discussion proceeded from the contrasting of positivists and Hegelians and so he put (early) Popper in the positivist camp - Popper was certainly no Hegelian. Of course, Popper never tired of reminding us that he destroyed the positivism of the Vienna Circle and went to great pains to declare himself opposed to neo-positivism. For example, he says that he warmly embraces various metaphysical views which hard positivists would dismiss as meaningless. Moderate positivists, however, accept metaphysical views but deny them scientific status. Does not Popper do this too, even if some of these views may one day achieve scientific status?

Yes: (Late) Popper accepts metaphysical and philosophical views, but doesn't consider them part of science.

CR (late-CR) says non-science has to be addressed with non-observational criticisms, instead of what we do in science, which is a mix of observational and non-observational criticism.

If by fallibilism you mean searching for evidence to support or falsify a theory, I'm a fallibilist. If, however, you mean embracing Popper's view of 'conjectural knowledge' and the inability, even in principle, or arriving at the truth, then I'm not. I believe, against Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, that the history of science is cumulative.

No, fallibilism means that (A) there are no guarantees against error. People are capable of making mistakes and there's no way around that. There's no way to know for 100% sure that a proposition is true.

CR adds that (B) errors are common.

Many philosophers accept (A) as technically true on logical grounds they can't refute, but they don't like it, and they deny (B) and largely ignore fallibilism.

I bring this up because, like many definitions of knowing, yours was ambiguous about whether infallibility is a requirement of knowing. So I'm looking for a clear answer about your conception of knowing.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Anthony O'Hear on Popper

Quotes are from the book Karl Popper, by Anthony O'Hear (AOH). It's in "The Arguments of the Philosophers" series edited by Ted Honderich. (Be careful, AOH has two other books with titles beginning with "Karl Popper".)

AOH says:

Popper's attempt to dispense with induction is unsuccessful. [ch. 4, p. 57]

AOH says his reason, which he'll attempt to show, is:

any coherent conceptualization of the experience requires the assumption of a stable order in the world. [ch. 4, p. 58, emphasis added]

Previously, AOH wrote:

But, argues Popper, we can see on logical grounds that there is no such thing as a perfect repetition of any event. Similarity in all respects would mean that the two events were really identical, and so there would actually be only one event. So the repetitions we experience are only approximate. But this means that some features of repetition B of event A will be different from some features of A. Thus B is to be seen as a repetition of A only to the extent that we discount those features in which B differs from A. [ch. 2, p. 13]

So AOH ought to address the question: "Stable in which respects?" He ought to know that the world is stable in some respects and not others, just as the future resembles the past in some ways and not others, and any two observations are similar to each other in some ways and not others.

Saying the world is "stable" means just as little as saying two observations are "similar". Claiming a stable world means claiming some things stay the same over time (or at least only change a small amount, according to some suitable measure). Of course not all things stay the same over time.

So AOH needs to say what type of stability he's talking about for his claim to mean anything.

One of the standard problems with inductivists is their routine failure to understand this general problem (that when we compare non-identical things they're always both similar and different, and you have to specify what sort of comparison you're doing). What does AOH do about this issue? Nothing. After the "stable" claim I quoted, he immediately changes the subject to solipsism. He's apparently unaware of this issue, even though he discussed it earlier in the book.

AOH proceeds (p. 59) to talk about regularities and patterns of experience without talking about which ones. Of course there are some regularities and some non-regularities in the world. AOH's approach to epistemology is basically "We live in a stable world, so recognize regularities and project them into the future." This is standard inductivist, and misses the point in the standard ways, such as the issue of which regularities to project into the future and how to find them (how does thinking work? AOH just takes for granted that we find these regularities somehow – that is, his epistemology presupposes intelligent thought and fails to explain how thinking actually works. He starts in the middle.) Then:

Our notion of an objective world, then, is reflected by the degree of continuing order and regularity that is to be found within our perceptions. [ch. 4, p. 59]

But Popper already explained the problem with this, and AOH already included that in this book. There is no such thing as "order" or "regularity" out of context. You have to first say which things you want to be the same which you'll count as being orderly or regular. Different aspects of the world are always similar (orderly, regular) in some ways and different in other ways. AOH doesn't address this.

I also found this bizarre statement:

That a belief in induction is not something which can be dropped without substantial alterations elsewhere in our conceptual scheme is why the failure of Popper to develop a truly non-inductive science is not a chance result, but one with deep roots. [ch 4, p. 60]

But Popper was aware of this issue, and wrote about it, and did develop substantial alterations in our conceptual scheme. I would understand if someone thought Popper's substantial alterations were mistaken, or if someone was unfamiliar with Popper's writing. But AOH has studied Popper a lot, and then is apparently unaware this substantial alterations even exist. AOH even quotes and discusses some of them, but apparently(?) doesn't recognize their meaning and importance. This is just like the similar in which respects issue, where AOH quoted Popper about it and discussed it – but then later on he writes as if he was unaware of it (which I take to mean he doesn't fully understand it).

the assumption that the world is not going to [suddenly become chaotic] [ch 4. p. 61]

The world is already chaotic in some ways and not others. So what does this mean? AOH doesn't say.

Does it mean the world won't suddenly become chaotic in all respects? But what would a world that is chaotic in all respects even mean? AOH doesn't address the issue and it's highly problematic.

One fairly technical way to approach the matter is via the theory of computation: consider whether there exist long bitstrings which can't be compressed by any compression algorithm (or, equivalently, can't be the output of any computer program, in any language, which is much shorter than the bitstring). Such a bitstring would be chaotic in all respects. But the answer is no, such a bitstring doesn't exist.

AOH might imagine that, all of a sudden, all the ways the world is stable stop working, and some new ones take their place. But that doesn't make sense, because no matter what happens, you can always retrospectively find regularities in the bigger picture including both before and after the so-called descent into chaos. All that's happened is this: from the infinitely many regularities compatible with the data you have, you favored some (why those? how were they chosen?), and found out those favored regularities were mistaken. (Meanwhile this so-called descent into chaos is fully compatible with some of the other data-compatible claims about regularities you could have made before it happened.)

So the assumption of the world's stability really means assuming your favored theories are correct. Why did you favor them over other theories, compatible with the same data, which make different predictions about the future? From the perspective of those rival theories, the future you predict is a descent into chaos. So when you say the world won't descend into chaos, you just mean the future will happen as you expect and not as your rivals expect – you mean the world will descend into chaos for the people who disagree with you, just not for yourself.

Thus, I am not simply saying that our ability to distinguish between true experience and illusions depends on our once having experienced an orderly world, but that it depends on the continuance of whatever order we had previously recognized. But to assume this is just what, according to Popper, is deeply irrational, and which should be eliminated from our conceptual scheme. [ch 4. p. 61]

Yes, it is irrational. Because it consists of assuming you're right.

What does "whatever order we had previously recognized" refer to? There are infinitely many theories compatible with the data you've observed previously. To recognize some order means to choose some of those of those theories (why those? why not others?) to provide order to your thinking. Then to assume the continuance of that order means to assume that your choice of which theories to prefer won't turn out to be mistaken in the future.

The solution to all this is what Popper said: critical and explanatory thinking (which is literally evolution). We can only conjecture which of the infinite regularities (or, preferably, explanatory theories) compatible with our data are correct. And we can correct errors with criticism, which is how progress is made. (Part of this is explained by AOH, pp. 171-177)

AOH also objects to Popper's corroboration, and I agree that corroboration is a mistake. I have fixed that aspect of Critical Rationalism. You can find my solution here. For a quick overview, I also offer a free short argument.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Popper vs. Impressive, Incomprehensible Writing

Popper is quoted in Relativism and the Social Sciences, by Ernest Gellner, ch. 1, p. 5.:

Many years ago I used to warn my students against the widespread idea that one goes to university in order to learn how to talk, and to write, impressively and incomprehensibly. At the time many students came to university with this ridiculous aim in mind, especially in Germany ... most of those ... who ... enter into an intellectual climate which accepts this kind of valuation ... are lost.

Thus arose the cult of un-understandability, the cult of impressive and high-sounding language ... I suggest that in some of the more ambitious social sciences and philosophies, especially in Germany, the traditional game, which has largely become the unconscious and unquestioned standard, is to state the utmost trivialities in high-sounding languages.

Some of the famous leaders of German sociology ... are ... simply talking trivialities in high-sounding language ... They teach this to their students ... who do the same ... the genuine and general feeling of dissatisfaction which is manifest in their hostility to the society in which they live is, I think, a reflection of their unconscious dissatisfaction with the sterility of their own activities.

The source is given as:

The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, by T. W. Adorno, Hans Albert, Ralf Dahrendorf, Jürgen Habermas, Harald Pilot and Karl Popper, London, 1976, pp. 294 and 296.

I think it's a misquote or incorrect citation in some way because it skips a page but never has ellipses to skip one or more paragraphs. The only time text is skipped it's within a paragraph. (It could be correct if there's a paragraph that's over a page long, I guess.)

I like the quote and I noticed its similar to Ayn Rand's view.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Criticism of Eliezer Yudkowsky on Karl Popper

I wrote this in Feb 2009. There was no reply.


Dear Eliezer Yudkowsky,

I am writing to criticize some of your statements regarding Karl Popper. I hope this will be of interest.

http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes

Previously, the most popular philosophy of science was probably Karl Popper's falsificationism - this is the old philosophy that the Bayesian revolution is currently dethroning. Karl Popper's idea that theories can be definitely falsified, but never definitely confirmed, is yet another special case of the Bayesian rules

That isn't Popper's idea because he doesn't believe in definite falsifications. Falsifications are themselves tentative conjectures which must be held open to criticism and reconsidering.

Popper also doesn't assert that confirmations are never definite, rather he denies there is confirmation at all. The reason is that any given confirming evidence for theory T is logically consistent with T being false.

More generally, Popper's philosophy is not about what we can do definitely. He does not address himself to the traditional philosophical problem of what we can and can't be certain of, or what is and isn't a justified, true belief. While he did comment on those issues, his epistemic philosophy is not an alternative answer to those questions. Rather, his positive contributions focus on a more fruitful issue: conjectural knowledge. How do people acquire conjectural knowledge? What is its nature? And so on.

BTW, conjectural knowledge does not mean the probabilistic knowledge that Bayesians are fond of. Probabilistic knowledge is just as much of an anathema to Popper as certain knowledge, because the same criticisms (for example that attempting justification leads to regress or circularity) apply equally well to each.

Your claim at the end of the quote that Popperian epistemology is a special case of Bayesian epistemology is especially striking. Popper considered the Bayesian approach and told us where he stands on it. On page 141 of Objective Knowledge he states, "I have combated [Bayesian epistemology] for thirty-three years."

To say that something which Popper combatted for over three decades is a more general version of his own work is an extraordinary claim. It should be accompanied with extraordinary substantiation, and some account of where Popper's arguments on the subject go wrong, but it is not.

Popper was a hardworking, academic person who read and thought about philosophy extensively, including ideas he disagreed with. He would often try to present the best possible version of an idea, as well as a history of the problem in question, before offering his criticism of it. I would ask that a similar approach be taken in criticizing Popper. Both as a matter of respect, and because it improves discussion.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Empiricism and Instrumentalism

Gyrodiot commented defending instrumentalism.

I'm going to clarify what I mean about "instrumentalism" and "empiricism". I don't know if we actually disagree or there's a misunderstanding.

FI has somewhat of a mixed view here (reason and observation are both great), and objects to an extreme focus on one or the other. CR and Objectivism both say you don't have to, and should not, choose between reason and observation. We object to the strong "rationalists" who want to sit in an armchair and reason out what reality is like without doing any science, and we object to the strong "empiricists" who want to look at reality and do science without thinking.

Instrumentalism means that theories are only or primarily instruments for prediction, with little or no explanation or philosophical thought. Our view is that observation and prediction are great and valuable, but aren't alone in being so great and valuable. Some important ideas – such as the theory of epistemology itself – are primarily non-empirical.

There's a way some people try to make philosophy empirical. It's: try different approaches and see what the results are (and try to predict the results of acting according to different philosophies of science). But how do you judge the results? What's a good result? More accurate scientific predictions, you say. But which ones? How do you decide which predictions to value more than others? Or do you say every prediction is equal and go for sheer quantity? If quantity, why, and how do you address that with only empiricism and no philosophical arguments? And you want more accurate predictions according to which measures? (E.g. do you value lower error size variance or lower error size mean, or one of the infinitely many possible metrics that counts both of them in some way?)

How do you know which observations to make, and which portion of the available facts to record about what you observe? How do you interpret those observations? Is the full answer just to predict which way of making observations will lead to the most correct predictions later on? But how do you predict that? How do you know which data will turn out useful to science? My answer is you need explanations of things like which problems science is currently working on, and why, and the nature of those problems – these things help guide you in deciding what observations are relevant.

Here are terminology quotes from BoI:

Instrumentalism   The misconception that science cannot describe reality, only predict outcomes of observations.

Note the "cannot" and "only".

Empiricism   The misconception that we ‘derive’ all our knowledge from sensory experience.

Note the "all" and the "derive". "Derive" refers to something like: take a set of observation data (and some models and formulas with no explanations, philosophy or conceptual thinking) and somehow derive all human knowledge, of all types (even poetry), from that. But all you can get that way are correlations and pattern-matching (to get causality instead of correlation you have to come up with explanations about causes and use types of criticism other than "that contradicts the data"). And there are infinitely many patterns fitting any data set, of which infinitely many both will and won't hold in the finite future, so how do you choose if not with philosophy? By assuming whichever patterns are computable by the shortest computer programs are the correct ones? If you do that, you're going to be unnecessarily wrong in many cases (because that way of prediction is often wrong, not just in cases where we had no clue, but also in cases when explanatory philosophical thinking could have done better). And anyway how do you use empiricism to decide to favor shorter computer programs? That's a philosophy claim, open to critical philosophy debate (rather than just being settled by science), of exactly the kind empiricism was claiming to do without.

Finally I'll comment on Yudkowsky on the virtue of empiricism:

The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction.

I disagree about "roots" because, as Popper explained, theories are prior to observations. You need a concept of what you're looking for, by what methods, before you can fruitfully observe. Observation has to be selective (like it or not, there's too much data to record literally all of it) and goal-directed (instead of observing randomly). So goals and ideas about observation method precede observation as "roots" of knowledge.

Note: this sense of preceding does not grant debating priority. Observations may contradict preceding ideas and cause the preceding ideas to be rejected.

And note: observations aren't infallible either: observations can be questioned and criticized because, although reality itself never lies, our ideas that precede and govern observation (like about correct observational methods) can be mistaken.

Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate.

Not all beliefs are about experience. E.g. if you could fully predict all the results of your actions, there would still be an unanswered moral question about which results you should prefer or value, which are morally better.

Always know which difference of experience you argue about.

I'd agree with often but not always. Which experience is the debate about instrumentalism and empiricism about?


See also my additional comments to Gyrodiot about this.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Critical Rationalism Criticisms?

I believe there are no correct, unaddressed criticisms of Karl Popper’s epistemology (Critical Rationalism – CR). If I'm mistaken, I'd like to be told. If others are mistaken, I'd like them to find out and take an interest in CR.

I've found CR criticism falls into some broad categories, with some overlap:

  1. The people who heard Popper is wrong secondhand but didn’t read much Popper and have no idea what CR is actually about. They often try to rely on secondary sources to tell them what CR says, but most secondary sources on CR are bad.

  2. The pro-induction people who don’t engage with Popper’s ideas, just try to defend induction. They don’t understand Popper’s criticism of induction and focus on their own positive case for induction. They also commonly admit that some criticisms of induction are correct, but still won’t change their minds or start learning the solution to induction’s flaws (CR).

  3. The falsificationism straw man, which misinterprets Popper as advocating a simplistic, false view. (There are some other standard myths too, e.g. that Popper was a positivist.)

  4. Critics of The Logic of Scientific Discovery who ignore Popper’s later works and don’t engage with CR's best ideas.

  5. Critics with points which Popper answered while he was still alive. Most criticisms of Popper are already answered in his books, and if not there then in this collection of Popper criticism and Popper’s replies. (I linked volume two which has Popper’s replies, you will want volume 1 also.)

If you believe Popper is wrong, then: Do you believe you personally understand CR? And have you looked at Popper’s books and replies to his critics to see if your point is already answered? If so, have you written down why Popper is mistaken? If not, do you believe someone else has done all this? (They understand CR, are familiar with Popper’s books including his replies to his critics, and wrote down why Popper is mistaken.)

Whether it’s by you or someone else, you can reply with a reference to where this is publicly written down in English. I will answer it (or refer you to an answer or get a colleague to answer). Here is what I expect in return: if your reference is mistaken, you will study CR. You were wrong about CR’s falsity, so it’s time to learn it. If you would be unwilling to learn CR even if you agree that your referenced criticism of CR is false, then you shouldn’t have an opinion on CR. If you still wouldn’t want to learn CR even if all your objections were wrong, then you either aren’t participating in the field (epistemology) or shouldn’t be. (I have nothing against lay people as long as they are interested in learning and thinking. I do have something against people, whether lay or philosophy professors, who state their opinion that Popper is wrong but would not be willing to learn about Popper even if they found out their negative beliefs about Popper are false.)

If you believe one of the many criticisms of Popper is correct, but you don’t know which one and don’t want to pick one, then you are not treating the matter rationally. It’s unacceptable if your plan is, on having one criticism answered, to simply pick another one, and repeat indefinitely. You’re welcome to have one good reference which makes multiple important points, but you don’t get to just keep referencing different critical authors repetitively (as each one fails, you pick another) while not reconsidering your own beliefs. You need to stick your own neck out – as I do. If I can’t answer a challenge to CR I will reconsider my views.

If you want to bring up a couple criticisms at the start, which are written in different places, but you won't add any more later, then that could be reasonable – but provide a brief explanation of why it's needed. In this case where you want to bring up multiple points by different authors, I'd expect you to be referencing specific sections or short works, not multiple whole books. E.g. you could reasonably say you have 3 criticisms of Popper, chapter 3 of book X, chapter 7 of book Y, and paper Z.

Alternatively, if Popper is mistaken but no one has actually written correct criticism (including you), then how do you know he's mistaken? Maybe he's not!

Note: I'm interested in criticisms like "Popper's idea X is false b/c Y.", not like "I wasn't convinced by Popper's writing on topic X." (The second one is compatible with Popper being correct, and is too vague to answer.)


Broadly, the reason criticisms of CR fail is the critics do not understand CR. Having read a lot of Popper criticism, I can report this theme is nearly universal in my experience. (There is one problem with CR, which sometimes comes up, which I fixed.) CR is hard to understand because it disagrees with over 2000 years of epistemological tradition. And people in general massively underestimate the effort it takes to understand ideas well. (People seem to think they can read a philosophy book once and understand it, but that isn’t how it works – study and discussion are needed to clear up misunderstandings.) Pointing out misunderstandings of CR, with quotes, is one of the typical ways I answer CR criticisms.

Secondarily, Popper criticism often fails because the critic is much less smart and knowledgeable than Popper (one of the world’s best ever thinkers). I think people can get smarter and more knowledgeable if they make the effort, but most people don’t make that effort in a serious, persistent way and put a ton of time into it. I will not use this as an argument against any particular criticism. It’s not an argument, but it is a part of the world’s intellectual/scholarship situation which I think matters, and it helps explain what’s going on. It’s hard to criticize your intellectual betters, but easy to misunderstand and consequently vilify them. More generally, people tend to be hostile to outliers and sympathize with more conventional and conformist stuff – even though most great new ideas, and great men, are outliers.


See also: CR reading recommendations.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (10)

Popper is Different Than Other Philosophers – Bartley Quote

William W. Bartley on Popper:

Sir Karl Popper is not really a participant in the contemporary professional philosophical dialogue; quite the contrary, he has ruined that dialogue. If he is on the right track, then the majority of professional philosophers the world over have wasted or are wasting their intellectual careers. The gulf between Popper's way of doing philosophy and that of the bulk of contemporary professional philosophers is as great as that between astronomy and astrology. [emphasis added]

I agree with this comment. Note it doesn't apply to Ayn Rand, who is also an outcast from the majority of professional philosophers.


The quote wording is not exact. I haven't checked the original document. Sources:

Bartley, W. W. (September–December 1976), "III: Biology - evolutionary epistemology", Philosophia, 6 (3–4): 463–494

Cite found here and here. Those links, and this website all give slightly different wordings for the quote.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (13)

Comments on "The Society Most Conducive to Problem Solving: Karl Popper and Piecemeal Social Engineering"

Brian Gladish published The Society Most Conducive to Problem Solving: Karl Popper and Piecemeal Social Engineering in The Independent Review. I'm reposting my comments here.


Thanks for sharing the article. I found your comments on Popper’s thinking much more accurate than most secondary sources.

In case you hadn’t seen it yet, I wanted to share Popper’s "The Power Of Television” (After the Open Society, ch. 48). In it, Popper advocates TV censorship, particularly regarding depicting violence. Excerpt:

What I propose is that such an organization be created by the state for all people who are involved in the production of television. Everybody who is connected with it must have a licence. This licence can be withdrawn from him for life, if he acts against certain principles. That is my way of introducing discipline into this subject. Everybody must be organized, and everybody must have a licence. Everybody who is doing something which he should not do by the rules of the organization can lose his licence – the licence can be withdrawn from him by a kind of court. So he is constantly under supervision, and he constantly has to fear that if he does something bad he may lose his licence. This constant supervision is something far more effective than is censorship.

Popper said this in 1992 and was particularly eager to have these ideas widely shared. It shows how limited his "lifetime drift toward classical liberalism” was.

Your article mentions Popper’s "complicated scheme of seminationalization”. I wanted to share with people what that means. The letter is available in After the Open Society, ch. 34. Quote:

The comparatively easy problem is the nationalization problem. I suggest, in brief, that the state should take a share of 51 per cent of the shares of all public companies (= with shares quoted on the Stock Exchange). However, (a) they should not be interfered with in general, only if the situation warrants it, and (b) only 40 per cent, or 41 per cent, of the income should go to the state to start with.

Although I admire and advocate Popper’s epistemology, this is awful.

I had a quick comment on this part of the paper:

But it is somewhat harsh to criticize Popper for this failure [to advocate anarcho-capitalism] because he had contemporaries who were better equipped to make this leap—Mises and Hayek, for example—but who did not.

Why bring up anarchism? That criticism would be harsh, but we can fairly criticize Popper’s rejection of minarchism, minimal and limited government, and classical liberalism.

Here’s the big picture as I see it. Popper gave us:

(1) Critical Rationalism & reason -> (2) linking arguments -> (3) freedom & non-violence -> (4) linking arguments -> (5) interventionist government

His 1-3 were correct and his 4-5 were incorrect. His 1 was especially original and valuable. We can form our own system using Popper’s 1-3 followed by Misean arguments linking freedom & non-violence to e.g. laissez faire capitalism and limited government. Or we could follow with anarchist arguments to replace 4-5. 1-3 function independently of what we think freedom & non-violence imply.

Popper’s 4-5 were unoriginal and added nothing significant to the debate. He basically followed Marx in thinking that true freedom requires the forcible prevention of economic exploitation, e.g. in OSE:

I believe that the injustice and inhumanity of the unrestrained 'capitalist system' described by Marx cannot be questioned

Note how blatantly he contradicts his own fallibilist epistemology which teaches us that all ideas can be questioned.

Anyway, Popper was right to link reason with non-violence (and right to link reason with evolution, to reject induction, etc.), and we can and should use that part of Popper’s thinking without using his Marxist followup.

What do you think?

PS: FYI, there’s a typo in the 12th endnote: “seemto” instead of “seem to”.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Fallible Justificationism

This is adapted from a Feb 2013 email. I explain why I don't think all justificationism is infallibilist. Although I'm discussing directly with Alan, this issue came up because I'm disagreeing with David Deutsch (DD). DD claims in The Beginning of Infinity that the problem with justificationism is infallibilism:

To this day, most courses in the philosophy of knowledge teach that knowledge is some form of justified, true belief, where ‘justified’ means designated as true (or at least ‘probable’) by reference to some authoritative source or touchstone of knowledge. Thus ‘how do we know . . . ?’ is transformed into ‘by what authority do we claim . . . ?’ The latter question is a chimera that may well have wasted more philosophers’ time and effort than any other idea. It converts the quest for truth into a quest for certainty (a feeling) or for endorsement (a social status). This misconception is called justificationism.

The opposing position – namely the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism.

DD says fallibilism is the opposing position to justificationism and that justificationists are seeking a feeling of certainty. And when I criticized this, DD defended this view in discussion emails (rather than saying that's not what he meant or revising his view). DD thinks justificationism necessarily implies infallibilism. I disagree. I believe that some justificationism isn't infallibilist. (Note that DD has a very strong "all" type claim and I have a weak "not all" type claim. If only 99% of justificationism is infallibilist, then I'm right and DD is wrong. The debate isn't about what's common or typical.)

Alan Forrester wrote:

[Justification is] impossible. Knowledge can't be proven to be true since any argument that allegedly proves this has to start with premises and rules of inference that might be wrong. In addition, any alleged foundation for knowledge would be unexplained and arbitrary, so saying that an idea is a foundation is grossly irrational.

I replied:

But "justified" does not mean "proven true".

I agree that knowledge cannot be proven true, but how is that a complete argument that justification is impossible?

And Alan replied:

You're right, it's not a complete explanation.

Justified means shown to be true or probably true. I didn't cover the "probably true" part. The case in which something is claimed to be true is explicitly covered here. Showing that a statement X is probably true either means (1) showing that "statement X is probably true" is true, or it means that (2) X is conjectured to be probably true. (1) has exactly the same problem as the original theory.

In (2) X is admitted to be a conjecture and then the issue is that this conjecture is false, as argued by David in the chapter of BoI on choices. I don't label that as a justificationist position. It is mistaken but it is not exactly the same mistake as thinking that stuff can be proved true or probably true.

In parallel, Alan had also written:

If you kid yourself that your ideas can be guaranteed true or probably true, rather than admitting that any idea you hold could be wrong, then you are fooling yourself and will spend at least some of your time engaged in an empty ritual of "justification" rather than looking for better ideas.

I replied:

The basic theme here is a criticism of infallibilism. It criticizes guarantees and failure to admit one's ideas could be wrong.

I agree with this. But I do not agree that criticizing infallibilism is a good reply to someone advocating justificationism, not infallibilism. Because they are not the same thing. And he didn't say anything glaringly and specifically infallibilist (e.g. he never denied that any idea he has could turn out to be a mistake), but he did advocate justificationism, and the argument is about justification.

And Alan replied:

Justificationism is inherently infallibilist. If you can show that some idea is true or probably true, then when you do that you can't be mistaken about it being true or probably true, and so there's no point in looking for criticism of that idea.

My reply below responds to both of these issues.


Justificationism is not necessarily infallibilist. Justification does not mean guaranteeing ideas are true or probably true. The meaning is closer to: supporting some ideas as better than others with positive arguments.

This thing -- increasing the status of ideas in a positive way -- is what Popper calls justificationism and criticizes in Realism and the Aim of Science.

I'll give a quote from my own email from Jan 2013, which begins with a Popper quote, and then I'll continue my explanation below:

Realism and the Aim of Science, by Karl Popper, page 19:

The central problem of the philosophy of knowledge, at least since the Reformation, has been this. How can we adjudicate or evaluate the far-reaching claims of competing theories and beliefs? I shall call this our first problem. This problem has led, historically, to a second problem: How can we justify our theories or beliefs? And this second problem is, in turn, bound up with a number of other questions: What does a justification consist of? and, more especially: Is it possible to justify our theories or beliefs rationally: that is to say, by giving reasons -- 'positive reasons' (as I shall call them), such as an appeal to observation; reasons, that is, for holding them to be true, or at least 'probable' (in the sense of the probability calculus)? Clearly there is an unstated, and apparently innocuous, assumption which sponsors the transition from the first to the second question: namely, that one adjudicates among competing claims by determining which of them can be justified by positive reasons, and which cannot.

Now Bartley suggests that my approach solves the first problem, yet in doing so changes its structure completely. For I reject the second problem as irrelevant, and the usual answers to it as incorrect. And I also reject as incorrect the assumption that leads from the first to the second problem. I assert (differing, Bartley contends, from all previous rationalists except perhaps those who were driven into scepticism) that we cannot give any positive justification or any positive reason for our theories and our beliefs. That is to say, we cannot give any positive reasons for holding our theories to be true. Moreover, I assert that the belief we can give such reasons, and should seek for them is itself neither a rational nor a true belief, but one that can be shown to be without merit.

(I was just about to write the word 'baseless' where I have written 'without merit'. This provides a good example of just how much our language is influenced by the unconscious assumptions that are attacked within my own approach. It is assumed, without criticism, that only a view that lacks merit must be baseless -- without basis, in the sense of being unfounded, or unjustified, or unsupported. Whereas, on my view, all views -- good and bad -- are in this important sense baseless, unfounded, unjustified, unsupported.)

In so far as my approach involves all this, my solution of the central problem of justification -- as it has always been understood -- is as unambiguously negative as that of any irrationalist or sceptic.

If you want to understand this well, I suggest reading the whole chapter in the book. Please don't think this quote tells all.

Some takeaways:

  • Justificationism has to do with positive reasons.

  • Positive reasons and justification are a mistake. Popper rejects them.

  • The right approach to epistemology is negative, critical. With no compromises.

  • Lots of language is justificationist. It's easy to make such mistakes. What's important is to look
    out for mistakes and try to correct them. ("Solid", as DD recently used, was a similar mistake.)

  • Popper writes with too much fancy punctuation which makes it harder to read.

A key part of the issue is the problem situation:

How can we adjudicate or evaluate the far-reaching claims of competing theories and beliefs?

Justificationism is an answer to this problem. It answers: the theories and beliefs with more justification are better. Adjudicate in their favor.

This is not an inherently infallibilist answer. One could believe that his conception of which theories have how much justification is fallible, and still give this answer. One could believe that his adjudications are final, or one could believe that his adjudications could be overturned when new justifications are discovered. Infallibilism is not excluded nor required.


Looking at the big picture, there is the critical approach to evaluating ideas and the justificationist or "positive" approach.

In the Popperian critical approach, we use criticism to reject ideas. Criticism is the method of sorting out good and bad ideas. (Note that because this is the only approach that actually works, everyone does it whenever they think successfully, whether they realize it or not. It isn't optional.) The ideas which survive criticism are the winners.

In the justificationist approach, rather than refuting ideas with negative criticism, we build them up with positive arguments. Ideas are supported with supporting evidence and arguments. The ones we're able to support the most are the winners. (Note: this doesn't work, no successful thinking works this way.)

These two rival approaches are very different and very important. It's important to differentiate between them and to have words for them. This is why Popper named the justificationist approach, which had gone without a name because everyone took it for granted and didn't realize it had any rival or alternative approaches.

Both approaches are compatible with both infallibilism and fallibilism. They are metaphorically orthogonal to the issue of fallibility. In other words, fallibilism and justificationism are separate issues.

Fallibilism is about whether or not our evaluations of ideas should be subjected to revision and re-checking, or whether anything can be established with finality so that we no longer have to consider arguments on the topic, whether they be critical or justifying arguments.

All four combinations are possible:

Infallible critical approach: you believe that once socialist criticisms convince you capitalism is false, no new arguments could ever overturn that.

Infallible justificationist approach: you believe that once socialist arguments establish the greatness of socialism, then no new arguments could ever overturn that.

Fallible critical approach: you believe that although you currently consider socialist criticisms of capitalism compelling, new arguments could change your mind.

Fallible justificationist approach: you believe that although you currently consider socialist justifying arguments compelling (at establishing the greatness and high status of the socialism, and therefore its superiority to less justified rivals), you are open to the possibility that there is a better system which could be argued for even more strongly and justified even more and better than socialism.


BTW, there are some complicating factors.

Although there is an inherent asymmetry between positive and negative arguments (justifying and critical arguments), many arguments can be converted from one type to the other while retaining some of the knowledge.

For example, someone might argue that the single particle two slit experiment supports (justifies) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. This can be converted into criticisms of rivals which are incompatible with the experiment. (You can convert the other way too, but the critical version is better.)

Another complicating factor is that justificationists typically do allow negative arguments. But they use them differently. They think negative arguments lower status. So you might have two strong positive arguments for an idea, but also one mild negative argument against it. This idea would then be evaluated as a little worse than a rival idea with two strong positive arguments but no negative arguments against it. But the idea with two strong positive arguments and one weak criticism would be evaluated above an idea with one weak positive argument and no criticism.

This is easier to express in numbers, but usually isn't. E.g. one argument might add 100 justification and another adds 50, and then a minor criticism subtracts 10 and a more serious criticism subtracts 50, for a final score of 90. Instead, people say things like "strong argument" and "weak argument" and it's ambiguous how many weak arguments add up to the same positive value as a strong argument.

In justification, arguments need strengths. Why? Because simply counting up how many arguments each idea has for it (and possibly subtracting the number of criticisms) is too open to abuse by using lots of unimportant arguments to get a high count. So arguments must be weighted by their importance.

If you try to avoid this entirely, then justificationism stops functioning as a solution to the problem of evaluating competing ideas. You would have many competing ideas, each with one or more argument on their side, and no way to adjudicate. To use justificationism, you have to have a way of deciding which ideas have more justificationism.

The critical approach, properly conceived, works differently than that. Arguments do not have strengths or weights, and nor do we count them up. How can that be? How can we adjudicate between competing ideas with out that? Because one criticism is decisive. What we seek are ideas we don't have any criticisms of. Those receive a good evaluation. Ideas we do have criticisms of receive a bad evaluation. (These evaluations are open to revision as we learn new things.) (Also there are only two possible evaluations in this system. The ideas we do have criticisms of, and the ideas we don't. If you don't do it that way, and you follow the logic of your approach consistently, you end up with all the problems of justificationism. Unless perhaps you have a new third approach.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Popperian Alternative to Induction

This wrote this on an Objectivist discussion forum in 2013.


http://rebirthofreason.com/Forum/Dissent/0265.shtml

I wrote:

Observe what? There are always many many things you could observe. Real scientific observation is selective.

Perform which action? There are many many actions one could perform. Real scientific action is selective.

Which patterns? There's always many many patterns.

In each case, being selective requires complex (critical) thinking. Ideas come first. Induction is supposed to explain how thinking works, but actually presupposes it.

Merlin Jetton replied:

Okay. Give us your answer to these questions. Please give us simple methods that cover all possible cases. How do we delimit those infinitely many possible conjectures?

(Following Popper.) We don't run into all the same problems because we use different methods in the first place.

We don't start with observation, scientific experiment, or finding patterns. All of those come later, after you already have various ideas. Then you do them according to your ideas. This is not problematic in general. It is a problem when you say stuff is "step 1" that actually presupposes ideas, and then claim your set of steps is a solution in epistemology and is how we get ideas.

We have a different approach that is not like induction and avoids many of induction's problems. By using different methods some problems never come up. We never have the problem of figuring out what to observe before having ideas, for example, because we say ideas come first before observations.

How are ideas learned then? Not from observations. Ideas come first. That's not to say observations are excluded. Observations are very useful. But first you need some ideas. Then you can observe (selectively, according to your ideas about what is important, what is interesting, what is notable, what is relevant to problems of interest, what clashes with your expectations, etc, etc ... and if your way of observing doesn't work out you can improve it with criticism, you can change and adjust it) and use the observations to help with further ideas (in a critical role – they rule things out).

Now this is a hard issue and you haven't read the literature and don't be too ambitious about how much you expect to learn from a summary. But anyway, because it's hard I'm going to split it up. First we'll consider an adult who wants to learn something. Then we could talk about how a child gets started after. I'll save that for later if the adult explanation goes over OK. The child is the harder case. I think it's too much to do the child first, all at once.

So, one of Popper's insights is that starting places aren't so important. I'm guessing this sounds dumb to you, because you're a foundationalist and think you have to start with the right foundations/premises/basis and then build up from there, step by step, making sure not to introduce errors or contradictions as you go. And Popper criticized and rejected that approach and offered a significantly different approach.

So let me try to explain what Popper's approach is like. People make mistakes. People are fallible. Errors are common. People mess up all the time. This isn't skepticism. People also get things right, learn, acquire knowledge, make scientific progress, etc, etc... But it's important to understand how easy it is to make mistakes. Knowledge is possible but hard to come by. To get knowledge you have to put a ton of effort into dealing with the problem of mistakes. I think if you read this the right way, you could agree with it. Objectivism recognizes that lots of philosophies go wrong and using the right methods is important and makes a big difference and some stuff like that.

So, OK, error is common and a big part of epistemology and philosophy is how you deal with error. What are you going to do about it? One school of thought tries to avoid errors. You use the right methods and then you get the right answers. That sounds very plausible but I don't think it's the right approach. I'll try to talk about Popper's approach instead. Popper's approach is you do try to avoid errors but you're never going to avoid all of them in the first place. That's not the primary most important thing. Whatever you do, some errors are going to get through. What you really have to do is set up mechanisms to identify and correct errors.

Popper applied this approach widely. Take politics and political systems. One of Popper's big ideas about politics is that trying to elect the right ruler is the wrong thing to focus on. Electing the right guy is trying to avoid errors. Yes you should put some effort into that but you can't do it perfectly and it's not the most important issue. What is the most important issue? That errors can be identified and corrected. In politics that means if you elect the wrong guy you find out fast, and you can get rid of him fast and you can get rid of him without violence. Popper called the wrong approach the "Who should rule?" problem and said most political philosophy argues about who should rule, when it should be focussing a lot more on how to set up political systems capable of correcting mistakes about who gets to rule.

What about epistemology? "Which ideas should we start with?" is a bit like "Who should rule?" You're never going to get it perfect and it shouldn't be the primary focus of your attention. Instead you want to set things up so if you start with the wrong ideas you can find out about the mistake and fix it quickly, easily, cheaply.

error correction is (a lot) more important than starting in a good place. look at it another way. if you start in a bad place but keep making progress, after a while you'll get to a good place and keep going. but if you start in a good place but aren't correcting errors, there is no progress, things never get better, long term you're doomed. so error correction is the more crucial thing that you really need.

so how can adults be selective? how can they decide what scientific experiments to do or which actions and results to investigate? how can they decide what patterns to look for? answer: they already have ideas about that. they can use the ideas they already have. that's ok! they don't need me to tell them some perfect answer. i could give them some advice and there could be some value in it, but it doesn't matter so much. they should start with the ideas they already have, use those, and then if something goes wrong they can make adjustments to try to do something about it. (and they can also philosophically examine their ideas and try to criticize instead of waiting for something noticeable to go wrong.)

in one sense, we're both advocating the same thing. people can and do use the ideas they already have about how to be selective, what issues to focus on, which patterns are notable, and more. but we Popperians know that is what's going on, and know how to keep making progress from there even if people aren't great at it. inductivists on the other hand think they have this method from first principles that is how people think but actually it smuggles in all sorts of common sense and pre-existing ideas as unexamined, uncriticized premises. and that's a really bad idea. those premises being smuggled in are good enough to start with, but what you really need to do is examine and criticize them!

i have not addressed how children/infants get started. i also haven't explained how thinking works at a lower level. (being able to criticize and correct errors requires thinking. how is that done?). we can get to those next if what i'm saying so far goes over ok. also the very short answer for how thinking works is that evolution is the only known theory for how knowledge can be created from non-knowledge. human thinking, at a low level, uses an evolutionary process to create knowledge. (i mean thinking literally uses evolution, not metaphorically. and no i'm not saying you consciously do that).


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Rand, Popper and Fallibility

I wrote this at an Objectivist forum in 2013.


http://rebirthofreason.com/Forum/Dissent/0261.shtml

Popper is by no means perfect. The important thing is the best interpretations (that we can think of) of his best ideas. The comment below about "animals" is a good example. I do not agree with his attitude to animals in general, and I'm uncomfortable with this statement. However, everything he said about animals (not much) can be removed from his epistemology without damaging the important parts.

Popper made some bad statements about epistemology, and some worse ones about politics. I don't think this should get in the way of learning from him. That said, I agree with Popper's main points below.

1) Can you show if Popper ever fully realized that the falsification of a universal positive proposition is a necessary truth? In other words, if a black swan is found, then the proposition "All swans are white" is falsified, but more than that, it is absolutely falsified (which is a form of absolute knowledge/absolute certainty)? Even if you can't, please discuss.

No, Popper denied this. The claim that we have found a black swan is fallible, as is our understanding of its implications.

Fallibility is not a problem in general. We can act on, live with, and use fallible knowledge. However, it does start to contradict you a lot when you start saying things like "absolute certainty".

Rand isn't fully clear about this. Atlas Shrugged:

"Do not say that you're afraid to trust your mind because you know so little. Are you safer in surrendering to mystics and discarding the little that you know? Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life. Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automaton, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.

"Discard that unlimited license to evil which consists of claiming that man is imperfect. By what standard do you damn him when you claim it? Accept the fact that in the realm of morality nothing less than perfection will do. But perfection is not to be gauged by mystic commandments to practice the impossible [...]

Here Rand accepts fallibility and only rejects misuses like claiming man is "imperfect" to license evil. Man's imperfection is not an excuse for any evil -- agreed.

Rand has just acknowledged that man and his ideas and achievements are fallible. But then she decides to demand moral "perfection". Which must mean some sort of contextual, achievable perfection -- not the sort of infallible, omniscient perfection Popper rejects and Rand acknowledges as impossible.

It's the same when Rand talks about "certainty" which is really "contextual certainty" which is open to criticism, arguments, improvement, changing our mind, etc... (Only in new contexts, but every time anyone thinks of anything, or any time passed, then the context has changed at least a little. So the new context requirement doesn't cause trouble.)

2) Can you offer something to redeem Popper of seemingly damning quotes such as:

In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

... which preemptively denies the possibility of axiomatic concepts (i.e., the possibility of statements that speak about reality, but are not, themselves, falsifiable).

Any statement which speaks about reality is potentially falsifiable (open to the possibility of criticism using empirical evidence) because, if it speaks about reality, then it runs the risk of being contradicted by reality.

Popper does deny axiomatic concepts, meaning infallible statements. Statements that you couldn't even try to argue with, potentially criticize, question, or improve on. All ideas should be open to the possibility of critical questioning and progress.

There is a big difference between open to refutation and refuted. What's wrong with keeping things open to the potential that, if someone has a new idea, we could learn better in the future?

"If realism is true, if we are animals trying to adjust ourselves to our environment, then our knowledge can be only the trial-and-error affair which I have depicted. If realism is true, our belief in the reality of the world, and in physical laws, cannot be demonstrable, or shown to be certain or 'reasonable' by any valid reasoning. In other words, if realism is right, we cannot expect or hope to have more than conjectural knowledge."

... which preemptively denies the possibility of arriving at a necessary truth about the world.

Conjectural knowledge (or trial-and-error knowledge) is Popper's term for fallible knowledge. It's objective, effective, connected to reality, etc, but not infallible. We improve it by identifying and correcting errors, so our knowledge makes progress.

We cannot establish our ideas are infallibly correct, or even that they are good or reasonable. Such claims (that some idea is good) never have authority. Rather, we accept them as long as we don't find any errors with them.

I think this is different than Objectivism, but correct. Well, sort of different. The following passage in ITOE could be read as something kind of like a defense of this Popperian position (and I think that is the correct reading).

One of Rand's themes here, in my words, is that fallibility doesn't invalidate knowledge.

The extent of today’s confusion about the nature of man’s conceptual faculty, is eloquently demonstrated by the following : it is precisely the “open-end” character of concepts, the essence of their cognitive function, that modern philosophers cite in their attempts to demonstrate that concepts have no cognitive validity. “When can we claim that we know what a concept stands for?” they clamor—and offer, as an example of man’s predicament, the fact that one may believe all swans to be white, then discover the existence of a black swan and thus find one’s concept invalidated.

This view implies the unadmitted presupposition that concepts are not a cognitive device of man’s type of consciousness, but a repository of closed, out-of-context omniscience —and that concepts refer, not to the existents of the external world, but to the frozen, arrested state of knowledge inside any given consciousness at any given moment. On such a premise, every advance of knowledge is a setback, a demonstration of man’s ignorance. For example, the savages knew that man possesses a head, a torso, two legs and two arms; when the scientists of the Renaissance began to dissect corpses and discovered the nature of man’s internal organs, they invalidated the savages’ concept “man”; when modern scientists discovered that man possesses internal glands, they invalidated the Renaissance concept “man,” etc.

Like a spoiled, disillusioned child, who had expected predigested capsules of automatic knowledge, a logical positivist stamps his foot at reality and cries that context, integration, mental effort and first-hand inquiry are too much to expect of him, that he rejects so demanding a method of cognition, and that he will manufacture his own “constructs” from now on. (This amounts, in effect, to the declaration: “Since the intrinsic has failed us, the subjective is our only alternative.”) The joke is on his listeners: it is this exponent of a primordial mystic’s craving for an effortless, rigid, automatic omniscience that modern men take for an advocate of a free-flowing, dynamic, progressive science.

One of the things that stands out to me in discussions like this is that all today's Objectivists seem (to me) more at odds with Popper than Rand's own writing is.

I'll close with one more relevant ITOE quote:

Man is neither infallible nor omniscient; if he were, a discipline such as epistemology—the theory of knowledge—would not be necessary nor possible: his knowledge would be automatic, unquestionable and total. But such is not man’s nature. Man is a being of volitional consciousness: beyond the level of percepts—a level inadequate to the cognitive requirements of his survival—man has to acquire knowledge by his own effort, which he may exercise or not, and by a process of reason, which he may apply correctly or not. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion. He needs a method of cognition, which he himself has to discover: he must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it?


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)