Critical Preferences

What problem is the idea of a “critical preference” intended to solve? (And how does it solve it?) I think the problem is this:

We form theories to solve our problems, and we criticize them. Sometimes we decisively refute a theory. If this leaves us with exactly one theory standing, there is no problem, we should prefer that theory.

Refutations can be hard to create. Often there are several theories offered as solutions to one problem, which contradict each other, but which are not decisively refuted. What are we to do then? The intellectual answer is to invent new criticisms. That may take years, so there is a pragmatic problem: we must get on with our life, and some of our decisions, today, may depend on these theories.

The idea of a critical preference is aimed to solve the pragmatic problem: how should we proceed while there is a pending conflict between non-refuted theories?.

Popper proposes (without using the term “critical preference”) that we can form a critical preference for one theory, and proceed using that theory in preference to the others. The critical preference should be for whichever theory best stands up to criticism, or in Popper’s words the theory that “in the light of criticism, appears to be better than its competitors” (C&R p 74). Popper writes something similar in Objective Knowledge, p 82 (see also pages 8, 16, 22, 41, 67, 95, 103). Similarly, Firestone wrote, “The best problem solution is the competitive alternative that best survives criticism.”

(How we judge which theories are better, or best survive criticism, is another question, and Popper gives various guidance (e.g. C&R p 74, and the idea of corroboration), as does Deutsch (e.g. his recommendation to prefer explanations that are hard to vary), but I’m not interested in that here.)

Would others here agree that this is the problem and solution of critical preferences? (My purpose here is that I think it is mistaken, and I want to get the theory right prior to offering criticism. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood it.)

About Elliot
This entry was posted in epistemology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Critical Preferences

  1. argumentics says:

    I have just discovered this blog. I know that, on a theoretical level – as pompous as it may sound – we are strongly connected. Sometime this month I’ll post some reviews of Karl Popper’s Open Society, on which I’ll be glad to have you’re re-review by comments. Keep up!

  2. argumentics says:

    My English is untidy ’cause it’s such an early ‘morngin’.

  3. Hi Elliot, I’ve written a good bit about the problem and the solution, and I think your general statement of it is both good and fair. Here are some blog posts that deal with the idea of fair critical comparison, the guiding idea I use to approach “critical preference.”

    These three posts are probably most relevant:

    Also, in a book co-authored with Mark W. McElroy I’ve probably developed my ideas about critical preference in most detail. The book is Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management, Elsevier, 2003. The material on critical preferences is in Chapter 5 and the Appendix to Chapter 5.

    In that Appendix I offer two formal approaches to measuring “truthlikeness” based on critical preferences. I don’t believe my work imports justificationism in through the back door. So, if you can show that it does, that would be a decisive criticism from my point of view.

    I also have a more informal treatment in an excerpt from a book in process called Riskonomics: Reducing Risk By Killing Your Worst Ideas here:

    hope you find these useful.



  4. Looks like my link above to the Riskonomics excerpt isn’t working. Here’s another:

  5. Alan Forrester says:

    I think that is an accurate summary of the way Popper thought about this issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

please answer (required): * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.