Who practices critical rationalism?

The following is a comment made on the criticism page in early December. Via error, I only just posted it recently. I’m forwarding it here for comment. Frank Burton is the writer, he is the executive director for The Circle of Reason.

I have a suggested clarification of the mission of CR and of this blog, e.g., about the statement you make in the “What is CR?” page — which notes, compares, and judges between the relative social merit of three epistemological “big three traditions”, where you said: “One, dogmatism. Decide that you are privy to ultimate truth and then just follow that truth no matter what. Does such an attitude contribute to fanaticism? Perhaps. Two, pessimism. Decide that truth is impossible, relative, random, meaningless. Just do whatever you want because nothing matters anyway. Does such an attitude contribute to random violence? Perhaps. Three, critical rationalism, the truth is out there, but no one has a monopoly on it, so let’s work together to try and get a little closer to it. Does such an attitude contribute to progress and mutual respect? More than likely.”

My suggestion is that any implication that these 3 traditions are mutually exclusive ones — wherein different people have chosen to embrace only one tradition within every aspect of their life — is untrue, and should be avoided. In fact, most of us embrace each tradition in one or another aspect of our thought or behavior.

For example, even a dogmatic theocrat exerts sufficient critical rationalism to live — he accepts reality to the point that he won’t blithely step in front of a moving bus; he denies falsifiable assumptions to the point that he won’t wait for the bus to stop for him elsewhere than at the bus stop; and he masters his emotions to the point that he won’t insist on riding the bus for free no matter how much he desires it. So even the “dogmatist” still accepts that in some spheres of his existence, “What is, is; what is not, is not; and what is or is not, is paramount.”

Conversely, even skeptics or atheists will sometimes (or even often, if we look at the “red meat” of the most popular New Atheist writers) broach their criticisms of religious ideas or faith using not just factual, but scathing, emotive language (i.e., ad hominem invective) to win their argument, even when the use of such invective means their “win” isn’t achieved fully rationally, but by evoking emotional irrationality — a sadly pyrrhic victory. Also, many “rational” environmentalists will buy a new Chevy Volt or Tesla — ignoring the reality that buying any “new” (recently manufactured) automobile is much worse for the environment than buying any used car. And Ayn Rand, the self-proclaimed paragon of critical rationality, died from denying the existence of tobacco addiction and the predictive validity of statistical epidemiology.

My contention is that few of us consistently behave guided by only one particular epistemological tradition. We are rationalists that thunder; we are irrationalists who come in out of the rain. I think such human inconsistency in our driving motivations is one of Bartley’s own motivations in seeking to see Popper’s CR applied to all spheres of human thought and behavior, not just to the sciences.

Hence, in my view, Critical Rationalism isn’t a paradisal, “Undiscovered Country” that some of us should for the first time visit. Its the warm, “Home Sweet Home” where all of us already live — but must communally commit to consistently do so. And Irrationalism isn’t a foreboding, “No Man’s Land” into which only the foolhardy journey. Its our own dark, “cellar door” that we’ve all failed to consistently keep locked shut.

Thus, the fight against an irrational world will depend not only on familiarity with the importance of CR, but also on the importance of familiarity with CR.

My 2 cents worth.


Frank H. Burton
Exec. Director, The Circle of Reason

About Matt

My full name is Matt Dioguardi. I have been interested in critical rationalism for about 10 years. I am the administrator of this blog, if you have an questions or problems please let me know.
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2 Responses to Who practices critical rationalism?

  1. Matt says:

    Thank you, Frank Burton.

    I think the page you reference needs to be updated. It was written over ten years ago – and I wouldn’t word anything as I did then.

    My view now is that objectivity exists in the claim only, but never in the holder of the claim. It’s very easy to get tongue tied here and confused over various possible definitions – but to provide an example, if I say “all swans are white”, that claim can’t be verified. It has to be true for all places and at all times – how could I possibly verify it.

    What I can do is hold the claim open to criticism. If there is an exception to the claim, by putting it forward and being open to criticism, I might discover that exception. I might then decide the claim is false.

    In this process, my subjective state has changed. But the truth or falsify of the claim did not change. In fact, it exists independent of whatever subjective state I might have at the time. I regard my subjectivity as simply being unable to determine decisively one way or the other, forever, about the truth of this claim.

    Let’s look at an even simpler claim, “this swan is black.” Here, we can verify this by just looking at the swan. I suppose that’s true. But both swan and black suggest implicit universal claims. My claim could be wrong because maybe what I am looking at turns out not to be a swan or not to be black. So here again, my subjectivity never allows me to decisively know about the truth of my claims.

    However, either “this swan is black” is true or false independent of me. It’s not dependent on my current subjective state in any manner. So the objectivity of our claims rests only with our claims, and not in our own subjective states at the time. True, I have fleeting feelings of belief and certainty, but those feelings don’t justify any of my claims.

    At this point, a person might say, but then how do you know anything is true at all? Unless you can argue for human objectivity in some manner or other how is knowledge possible at all?

    I would note that one could suggest a paradigm similar to natural selection and apply it toward knowledge. Via the process of natural selection each new mutation never comes about via direct input, it’s always a guess that works better than previous guesses. I would suggest there is an analogous process as far as how we learn. Such an idea as what I am suggesting might not be sufficient to answer all the philosophical questions we might have, but it is a huge step, I think, in the right direction.

    We can build our institutions to make use of this process I am describing, or we can do the opposite. Institutions that call for making use of blind faith are doing the opposite, are they not? Institutions that suggest truth isn’t possible are likewise doing the opposite, are they not? But whatever the case, we’re all irrational in the sense that we’re all subjective. The best we can hope to do is to build institutions that force our claims into conflict so that we can better see error. We can maintain helpful habits that help do this in our personal life. A person who understands this process will be more open to error, but I think you are right that either way, we all by necessity make use of this process.

    A final note on logic here, in case you are wondering – I see logic as mostly a property of our claims, not our subjectivity. I see our use of logic as mostly being institutional. So again, even here, just because we feel certain about this or that theorem of logic, that feeling doesn’t substantiate it in some manner. Indeed, there has been progress even in field of logic.

  2. Bruce Caithness says:

    For me one of the salient points of Popper’s thought is that he does not use meaning as a criterion of demarcation of science and metaphysics and so forth.

    Play is a vital life function – Carl Jung spoke of active imagination, taking play seriously.

    I can find any product of my imaginative life meaningful but if I wish to introduce it to society as a knowledge object then I better be prepared for challenge as to its truthlikeness.

    Critical rationalism is not claiming much more than keeping the bastards honest, as one Australian politician was so fond of stating.

    Rather than making one cynical, I believe critical rationalism is potentially liberating. One should remain playful with all sorts of aspects of one’s life, critical rationalism can provide a balance against being a know-it-all while still giving the imagination (conjecture) due weight.

    Conjecture and refutation are each vital. At various moments of our lives we put more focus on one or the other.

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