Anthony O’Hear on Popper

Prof O’Hear now at the University of Buckingham wrote the Popper entry in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich. O’Hear has been writing about Popper for along time, his first major book Karl Popper was published in 1980. It was a very bad book. He argued that Popper could not get away from some kind of inductive principle, along the lines that the future will be like the past (if we claim to learn anything from the rsults of an experiment).  This was answered crisply on the friesian site.

“These all can be called “inductive assumptions,” but they owe nothing to induction. Quite the opposite. With them, however, O’Hear’s objection here to Popper disappears. Thus, when O’Hear says, “…we would need something like an inductive jump, from past to future” [p. 40], there actually is no reason not to postulate the validity of that jump: It is just a higher order rule, with the same logical status, as all the other contents of scientific theories.”

He also argued in favour of  “direct perception”, as though the conscious mind can receive information directly from the world without any kind of  processing on the way, not to mention the role of  theoretical presuppositions.

His arguments have not improved with age. In the Companion he wrote about the role of falsification in an over-simplified way, as though it is possible to have a decisive refutation “What we can do…is to disprove a universal theory” without the important reservation that the logic of  falsification is decisive but the practice is not, due to the Duhem effect and the problems of  observation etc.

He wrote “Questions remain. Is it true that scientists always reject their theories when faced with counter-evidence, as Popper says they should?”

Where did he say that? Counter-evidence renders a theory problematic, but the evidence may itself be challenged and refuted. And even if the evidence is overwhelming the theory is not necessarily “rejected” because it might still be the best one we have. There is some subtley in these matters but not so much that a Professor should be unable to explain them properly.

“And if the most that we can ever do in science is to disprove theories, how do we know which theories to believe and act on? Popper says that we ought to act on those theories which have survived severe testing. His critics find this hard to distinguish from the induction which he officially rejects”.

So many misconceptions in such a few words!  For a start, can invent new theories which are better than the earlier ones, even if they are in turn disproved. This is not, or need not be, a matter of belief. Popper has explained that he has broken from the epistemology of justified belief to work on the formation of critical preferences for public (objective) knowledge. The “induction” that is a metaphysical theory about the existence of regularities in the world is quite different from the indution that is supposed to be used to discover or justify theories. It is a pity that such a ham fisted effort should appear in a handbook that is likely to be read by many people who will never read a book by Popper.

The entry ends by damning with faint praise (or the opposite). “He also defended versions of scientific realism, indeterminism and dualism with commendable valour, if not always with great subtlety of argument”.

Another interesting observation. The Popper entry occupies one and a half columns and pays no attention to his  work on probability theory, the history of ideas, the philosophy of mind, metaphysics or the range of moral and politial issues addressed in The Poverty and OSE, or his work in quantum physics.

Ayer and Carnap get a little more space. Hegel and Hegelianism get over  five pages (eleven columns), Heidegger – four pages,  Sartre – five pages. The four pages on the history of the philosophy of science written by Feyerabend do not mention Popper at all!

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2 Responses to Anthony O’Hear on Popper

  1. Elliot says:

    > there actually is no reason not to postulate the validity of that jump: It is just a higher order rule

    We should expect the future to resemble the past when we have an explanation that says it will, and not otherwise. Postulating it as a general rule isn’t needed and doesn’t really make sense (often the future differs from the past).

  2. Peter D Jones says:

    ‘He also argued in favour of “direct perception”, as though the conscious mind can receive information directly from the world without any kind of processing on the way, not to mention the role of theoretical presuppositions.’

    That is not what direct perception means in philosophy. It means there are no proxy sense data in the mind that are perceived instead of external objects.

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