Help wanted

Can someone recall the source of this Popperism?

I suggest that much confusion is due to the tendency of attributing to Science (with a capital S) a kind of omniscience and I suggest that this theological view of science ought to be replaced by a more humanistic view, by the realization that science is the work of ordinary humans, groping their way in the dark.



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Conclusion of Misreading Popper

Frank has put me under pressure to finish my book, so I have made the concluding chapter very short so I can get done this weekend (more realistically, this week).

The  book starts with a run through Popper’s progress, the themes and the common or standard errors, then lists a few dozen prime examples. Then the Conclusion.


What can be said  about the literature in the philosophy of science and the place of Popper and the Popperians in it?  The misreading of Popper indicates that serious readers need to check the primary texts to form their own opinion of contested ideas. No interpretation can be taken on trust. Reading the primary Popper texts is no small task, given the density of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the cryptic style of The Poverty of Historicism, the sheer bulk of The Open Society and its Enemies, the challenging technical material on probability and physics in the Postscript. My contribution is a series of guides to Popper’s major works but of course I don’t expect my interpretation of Popper to be accepted uncritically.

It remains to be seen how willing the writers will be to revise their ideas about Popper and it also remains to be seen whether their readers and students will go to the primary texts to check. Time will tell!

It looks as though Popper’s reputation has been a victim of fashion rather than effective criticism. This is a serious matter because it is not a healthy indicator of a strong academic and intellectual culture if fashion overwhelms critical thinking. Something is amiss in “the house of intellect”, as Barzun suggested in a book of that name (Barzun, 1957). For Barzun’s running commentary on education in the United States, see Champion (2013).

Moving Forward

Popper’s ideas can be revived if they resonate with other intellectual currents. His theory of conjectural knowledge gains support from Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz and Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein. There is also a great potential for synergy between Popper’s themes and Philip Kitcher’s mission to revitalize  philosophy by drawing on the work of Peirce and Dewey (Kitcher, Prelude to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2012).  The synergy is not obvious, as I discovered from participating in the Peirce and Dewey email discussion groups, however I am optimistic about the prospects for the future in view of the trajectory of Kitcher’s work as he moved from the “Legend” of positivism/empiricism to pursue a research program that aligns with Popper’s at most points.  There is the potential for critical and creative dialogue.

Retrieving the Creative and Liberating Aspects of Popperism

Popper made his reputation as a critic, which is not surprising in view of his insistence on the critical approach. It might help to point out the creative function of criticism because.

Criticism and testing are not just  therapeutic or housecleaning activities because effective criticism (and tests) identify new problems. This is creative because problems can be seen as the growing points of science, or at least they create contexts where science can grow.

In the language of biology, you can think of new problems like new niches in the ecosystem. They can be colonised by competing theories  and they provide a challenge for new  theories to be invented.

Popper on Discovering(Good)  New Ideas

In the literature there are frequent references to the demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification (or testing) and it is generally agreed that Popper had nothing much to say about discovery. In fact he had views on the topic but the references are thinly spread in his work. One is in the Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science  “On the Non-Existence of  Scientific Method”.

“To conclude, I think there is only one way to do science: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem…(and) even if you obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children”.

Another is the third lecture in his course,  on Problems.

My advice is to devote your mind to your problem—to think about it, to read about it, and to see what other people have thought about it. Read the history of your subject and see how other people have tried to solve your problem. And then study the solutions they have offered!

But I wouldn’t say that it is a method that will lead to greater success. None of these methods, in my opinion, can be regarded as more promising than any of the others. The real answer, which is hardly a method at all, is to have as many ideas as you possibly can, and to be as critical about your ideas as you possibly can.

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Popper on creativity and scientific discovery

As I reach the end of my booklet Misreading Popper the thought occurs that some kind of constructive and forward-looking conclusion is required, in addition to challenging the philosophers to read Popper more carefully.

So I want to say that  the misreading of Popper has two aspects. The most obvious is the hint that all is not well in the  house of  Philosophy. That is a serious matter and the second is equally important: people have been denied access to the creative, liberating and inspirational aspect of Popperism, the critical approach and critical  rationalism.

Criticism is not just a therapeutic or housecleaning activity to identify errors and inconsistencies. It has a creative function to  generate new problems, issues and spaces for new ideas which function as the growing points of science and other creative activities, including technology, the arts and public policy.

In the literature there are frequent references to the demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification (or testing) and it is generally agreed that Popper had nothing much to say about discovery. In fact he had very important views on the topic but the references are sparse. One is in the Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science  “On the Non-Existence of  Scientific Method”.

“To conclude, I think there is only one way to do science: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem…(and) even if you obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children”.

Another is the third lecture in his course,  on Problems.

My advice is to devote your mind to your problem—to think about it, to read about it, and to see what other people have thought about it. Read the history of your subject and see how other people have tried to solve your problem. And then study the solutions they have offered! I think that all of this is better than black coffee or whisky.

But I wouldn’t say that it is a method that will lead to greater success. None of these methods, in my opinion, can be regarded as more promising than any of the others. The real answer, which is hardly a method at all, is to have as many ideas as you possibly can, and to be as critical about your ideas as you possibly can.

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Goodman’s grue emeralds and the “new riddle of induction”

The grue emerald problem surely ranks with the Gettier problem as a red herring of the first order, generated by the misguided quest for confirmation, like Hempel’s paradox of the ravens. The paradox of the ravens means that the existence of a non-black non-raven like a white shoe or a green lizard gets to increase the likelihood that all ravens are black.

I raise this because Rosenberg had a couple of pages on this problem immediately before his Popper paragraphs.

Consider the general hypothesis that all emeralds are green (actually I would have thought that was part of the definition of an emerald, you would advance general hypotheses to explain why the optical properties of a certain kind of stone produce a green colour).

Nelson Goodman invented the term ‘grue’ to which means “green at time t and t is before 2100 AD or it is blue at t then t is after 2100 AD“.

The implication is that after 2010 the cloudless sky will be blue or grue and emeralds will be blue as well.

Testing the  colour of emeralds we find that all the instances which are green support the theory that they are green up to 2100 and grue (blue) after that date. Rosenberg wrote:

We could restate the problem as one about falsification too. Since every attempt to falsify “All emeralds are green” has failed, it has also failed to falsify “All emeralds are grue”. Both hypotheses have withstood the same battery of scientific tests.

Everyone accepts that this is an absurd outcome but the problem is to explain why. What is wrong with grue? To an outsider it looks like a silly philosophers game.  Rosenberg wrote

“For our problem is to show why “All emeralds are grue is not a well-supported law, even though it has the same number of supporting instances as “all emeralds are green”. ”

He advises that this remains an unsolved problem in the theory of confirmation. In the years since 1946 various solutions have been offered but none has triumphed.

“But  the inquiry has resulted in a far greater understanding of the dimensions of scientific confirmation than the logical positivists or their empiricist predecessors [did he mean successors?] recognized. One thing all philosophers of science agree on is that the new riddle shows how complicated the notion of confirmation turns out to be, even in the simple case s of generalizations about things we can observe” (120)

It is very fortunate that  scientists can get along without a working theory of confirmation! Maybe they don’t even need one!!

Well here is my contribution:  “Emeralds are green” is not a  law, it is an empirical regularity based on the laws of optics and the crystal structure of emeralds. Similarly it is not a law that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that is a regularity that we observe over most of the earth (but not all) due to the laws of mechanics and the structure of the solar system.

The laws of scientific interest in relation to the colour of jewels are the laws of optics. Speculation about grueness amount to a conjecture that the laws of optics (or the structure of emeralds) will change at 2100. A conjecture about something that happens after 2100 cannot be tested before 2100. So if we care about grueness, without having any scientific reason to be interested, we will just have to wait until 2100 and see what happens.

I think Bartley made the point that theories are interesting in relation to the problems that they solve. Speculation about grue emeralds was never related to any problem of scientific interest. So what was the point? What is the point of confirmation? We can live with conjectural knowledge provided it is tested well enough for engineering purposes and as long as people come up with better theories from time to time so we know we are  making progress. That looks ok to me.

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Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science: a contemporary introduction, 2nd ed. 2005 reprinted in 2010

The first edition was published in 2000 in the Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy Series. Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings (eds Balashov and Rosenberg, 2004) is a companion anthology.

After a chapter on scientific explanation and a chapter on the structure and metaphysics of scientific theories Popper’s contribution is introduced in a chapter  on the epistemology of scientific theorizing under the sub-heading Induction as a pseudo-problem: Popper’s gambit.

Unfortunately Rosenberg did not explain Popper’s ideas as an attempt to  address some major problems in science and the positivist philosophy of science at the time by reformulating the issue of demarcation to shift attention from meaning  to testability because (a) he thought that the verification principle would never work  and (b)  he thought it was more helpful for working scientists to understand  the most effective way to use data than to worry about a  criterion for meaning.  (It seems that  Hempel conceded on (a) in the 1950s).

As to (b) the function of data,  Popper argued in favour of deductive testing instead of inductive proof or confirmation because the standard approach was not going to work any better than the verifiability criterion of meaning.

Before making some more comments on the details of Rosenberg’s critique it may be helpful to check how  many of the Popperian themes he identified. He did not engage with the theme of non-justificationism and conjectural knowledge (there is no reference to  Bartley who was helpful on that aspect of Popper’s epistemology and rationality).  He cited Objective Knowledge but did not pursue the theme of objective knowledge itself.   The error that Popper called “essentialism”, that is the extended explication of terms,  did not arise as an issue in this book. He did not pick up the social turn and  Popper’s concern with conventions or “rules of the game”. This aspect of Popperism aroused no comment and there was no citation of Jarvie (2001). There was no reference to Popper’s position on metaphysics and the theory of metaphysical research programs. Popper’s serious work along Darwinian and evolutionary lines was not considered nor the theory of language which he inherited from Buhler, and the growth area of evolutionary epistemology (Bartley and Radnitzky, 1987; Hooker and Hahlweg   ).

It is apparent from Rosenberg’s neglect of the Popperian themes  that he was not in a position to explain Popper’s contribution in its most robust form to explain why scientists in particular have found his work to be interesting and helpful. Popper is depicted as a failed contributor to the Legend, the project of the positivists and the logical empiricists, rather than an alternative program. Consequently he has fallen into several of the standard errors. It is interesting to note that he only listed three of Popper’s books in the bibliography; The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations and Objective Knowledge.

Rosenberg commenced his critical commentary with reference to Popper’s ideas about deductive testing. He made the strange claim

“Popper held that as a matter of fact, scientists seek negative evidence against, not positive evidence for, scientific hypotheses.” (121)

However Popper was well aware of the existence of “confirmation bias”, for example in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies he wrote

“Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring…”. (OSE chapter 23)

Certainly Popper thought that scientists should seek negative evidence but in the case of their own ideas there was no guarantee that they will do so, hence the importance of the social nature of science so that other scientists could compensate for the bias of individuals, provided that they take a critical approach.

“A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them; they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities”. (OSE Vol 2, 218)

Popper did not refer to confirmation bias, be referred to “conventionalist strategies” which the defenders of Newton’s theory were using to hold Einstein’s new theory at bay.

Popper mounted logical arguments against theories of induction that attempted to find a way to support or render probably scientific hypotheses. A separate move, not based on logic, was to formulate some proposals for conventions or rules of the game to maximize the critical pressure that is applied to hypotheses, especially by empirical testing.

Taking up the point that the critical approach is a methodological proposal, Rosenberg wrote that Popper stigmatized Freud and Marx on account of the unscientific nature of their theories (122). Certainly Popper was concerned about the status of Freudian theory, although he did not write much about it. In the case of Marx, far from stigmatizing his work he wrote several hundred pages of analysis to pick out the valuable elements (the rejection of psychologism and the beginning of institutional analysis) from the parts which he considered to be dangerous such as the elements of essentialism and prophecy.

Rosenberg then turned his attention to the use of Popper’s ideas by economists, although it is very hard to find economists who have a good understanding of Popper’s ideas. The same applies to the contributors to the post-1980 growth industry of the philosophy and methodology of economics. He concluded that

“when it comes to economics, Popper’s claims seem to have been falsified as descriptions and to have been ill-advised as prescriptions. The history of Newtonian mechanics offers the same verdict on Popper’s prescriptions…Popper’s one-size-fits-all recipe, “refute the current theory and conjecture new hypotheses”, does not always provide the right answer” (123)

It is more correct to say “test the current theory, discover new problems and go to work on them with new hypotheses and imaginative criticism (and tests)”.

Popper did not provide a one-size-fits-all recipe, he advocated a critical approach with several forms of criticism – logic, tests, problem-solving capacity, consistency with other theories, consistency with the metaphysical research program – and the kind of criticism that is appropriate depends on the  theories under investigation and the aspect of the theory that is under scrutiny at the time.

Strangely, Rosenberg regarded Eddington’s eclipse observations as a confirmation of Einstein’s theory; of course Popper knew that the result was a triumph for Einstein in comparison with Newtonian mechanics but that did not mean that Einstein’s theory was proved, confirmed or verified in the final and definitive form required to justify the demands of justificationists.

Rosenberg asked:

“What can Popper say about theories that are repeatedly tested, whose predictions are borne out to more and more decimal places, which make novel striking predictions that are in agreement with (we can’t say “confirmed by”) new data?”

He can say that they are very powerful and beautiful theories and quite likely the best that we have at the present time but that is no guarantee that anomalies will not appear (if they have not done so already), rivals may appear in the way that Einstein challenged Newton and not for the first time a theory that was considered to be the end of the road will turn out to be another milestone in the progress of science. On a point of detail, what theory at the present time is considered to be confirmed in the way that Rosenberg seems to think that Einstein’s theory was confirmed (up to the time of this book, 2010)? What is the current status of Einstein?

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Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2003, Theory and Reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science

The author took his first degree in Sydney and is a Distinguished Professor in Philosophy in the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York. His   book Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection won the 2010 Lakatos award. This book is an ambitious introduction to the philosophy of science and  a platform for his own “naturalistic” program. It is based on lectures delivered at Stanford University over the last  11 years.

“It also bears the influence of innumerable comments, questions, and papers by students over that time, together with remarks made by colleagues and friends. ” (xi)

He acknowledged a dozen people in the Preface, plus two anonymous referees for the University of Chicago Press, three more people for “detailed and exceptionally helpful comments”, and four fundamental mentors.

It seems  that the misreading of Popper that occurs in this book, and errors based on apparent neglect of  most of his books, passed without attracting any critical comment through a decade of lectures and the production process.

The bibliography lists  Logik der Forschung, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations, and Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds Lakatos and Musgrave).

Missing are Objective Knowledge, The Library of Living Philosophers (ed Schilpp) volumes, Unended Quest, The Self and its Brain  and the three volumes of Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

The book provides a chronological account of the philosophy of science in the 20th century after a brief survey of the various ways that science can be studied.  He drew a distinction between epistemologicval and metaphysical issues.

“Epistemology is the side of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge, evidence and rationality.  Metaphysics…deals with more general questions about the nature of reality.” (9)

It is noteworthy that the most dominant school in the philosophy of science in the 20th century completely  banned metaphysics on the ground it is meaningless nonsense.

Another division of interests in the last century has been to look for (1) a proper form of a the philosophy of science; (2) to identify the scientific way of thinking; (3) a logical theory of science; (4) a methodology (rules and procedures) and in recent times (5) a general theory of scientific change. To which one could add (6) the study of the institutions of science.

He devoted two chapters to Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism with special attention to ”The Mother of All Problems” – “a very important and difficult problem, the problem of understanding how observations can confirm a theory.” (39) In his pursuit of confirmation he was not deterred by Popper’s skepticism about the prospects of success or  the failure of the project up to date.

Moving on to his chapter on Popper, he noted that Popper is the only philosopher treated in the book who is regarded as a hero by many scientists, despite criticism from many philosophers over the years. He wrote “I agree with many of these criticisms and don’t see any way for Popper to escape from their force”. (57)

In his biographical introduction to Popper he mentioned his stay in New Zealand but not the two very important books that he wrote while he was there.  Godfrey-Smith described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme along with the demand that scientific theories should take risks and offer the possibility of falsification.

“As I said above, Popper held that Marx’s and Freud’s theories were not scientific in this sense. No matter what happens, Popper thought, a Marxist or Freudian can fit it somehow into his theory.”

On a point of detail, that does not do justice to Popper’s take on Marx than that. He was alarmed by the true believers in Marxism who aroused his concern about unfalsifiable theories, but he took Marx seriously as a social scientists and he devoted hundreds of pages in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies to sort out the valuable parts of Marx from the dangerous parts which resulted in the ruin of Russia.

Another nuance that Godfrey-Smith did not pick up is the distinction between falsifiability and falsification [SE3]. This is apparent from his account of Popperian testing “If the prediction fails, the we have refuted, or falsified, the theory.” ( 59)  The deductive logic of falsifiability is decisive, given a true observation, but we do not have access to (certainly) true observation statements.

Because G-S thought that Popper was looking for decisive refutations (something that Popper always rejected) he suggested that Popper got into trouble when he addressed the problem of comparative probabilities were the raw data are scatter relations and not single points. “But in making this move, Popper  has badly damaged his original picture of science. This was a picture in which observations, once accepted, have the power to decisively refute theoretical hypotheses [SE 2].  That is a matter of deductive logic, as Popper endlessly stressed. Now Popper is saying that falsification can occur without its being backed up by a deductive logical relation between observation and theory” (67).

What has happened is that the theory has been made problematic, so there may be an anomaly that needs to be taken seriously. That is important to generate new research problems and it does not (and cannot) involve decisive refutation.

Introducing Popper

He described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme although Popper himself was not happy with the label “falsificationist” and he considered that the critical approach was the central pillar of his work. The six themes provide a more satisfactory account of the interesting and important features of Popper’s work but placing  the focus on falsification is convenient  for teachers who want to start with the logical positivists and then treat Popper as an eccentric contributor to the same project (the Legend described by Kitcher). It is convenient but it is also very misleading unless the Popperian “themes” are spelled out to signal the major differences between Popper and the positivists and the logical empiricists. How many of the themes did  Godfrey-Smith identify in Popper’s work?

He disagreed with  Popper on confirmation but he did not introduce the language of justification and non-justification to explain the roots of Popper’s conjectural theory of knowledge.

He did not engage with the theme of objective knowledge which was closely linked with Poppers “biological and evolution turn” of the 1960s. [Though the evolutionary approach was clearly present from the beginning.  when he wrote “Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the
fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.” (Popper,
1958, 42).] He compared the two stages of conjecture and refutation with Darwinian variation and selection but did not  refer to the four-stage scheme that was a dominant motif in the collection of papers in Objective Knowledge, or the work on evolutionary epistemology by Popper and others (Bartley and Radnitzky, eds, 1987).

He did not report  Popper’s revival of metaphysics in the form of metaphysical research programs. He gave Lakatos the credit for the idea of research programs. He wrote:

“Lakatos’s main contribution was the idea of  a research program… It should be obvious from the previous chapters that this was an idea waiting to be developed.” (102)

Indeed the idea was developed by Popper in the late 1940s and 19590s and it was written up in the Postscript in the 1950s. The manuscript and galleys were available to Popper’s colleagues, including Lakatos. The signal contribution from Lakatos was to decide as a matter of fiat that the metaphysical “hard core” of the program should be protected from criticism, thereby subverting the salient feature of Popper’s critical approach.

Finally he did not engage with Popper’s social/institutional ideas including the “rules of the game” and the way Popper wrote about the social nature of science.

He inverted one of Popper’s points on the importance of the social nature of science. On the function of criticism in the scientific community, Godfrey-Smith wrote “In contrast to Popper, Hull argues that there is no need for individual scientist to take a cautious and sceptical attitude towards their own work: others will do this for them” (165). Where is the contrast, when we find that Popper wrote “A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them; they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities”. (OSE Vol 2, 218)?

Moving on to Popper’s skepticism about induction and confirmation:

In the opinion of most philosophers Popper’s attempt to defend this radical claim was not successful, and some of his discussions of this topic are rather misleading to readers. As a result, some of the scientists who regard popper as a hero do not realize that Popper believed that it is never possible to confirm a theory, not even slightly, and no matter now many observations the theory predicts correctly. (59)

The problem for Godfrey-Smith and most philosophers is that the various programs to pin down the confirmation of theories or to attach numerical probabilities to theories have yet to deliver, but science proceeds anyway, on broadly Popperian lines. That is apparent from the testimonials of scientific stars like Einstein, Medawar, Monod and Eccles, from the practice of Watson, Crick and Feynman who were clearly practicing Popperians without citing Popper, and the effect on normal working scientist like the agronomists who attended Poppers Adult Education courses in New Zealand.

Godfrey-Smith finds it odd that an exponent of conjectural knowledge should be in search of true theories and he uses a Holy Grail analogy to lampoon the idea of conjectural knowledge. He invites us to imagine a community of  people in search of the eternally glowing “Holy Grail”. A person in this community may “carry” an unrefuted theory, like  a glowing Grail,  all his life without knowing if it is the real thing (the real Grail will lglow for ever).

He compared this with Popper’s conception of the community of scientists who are searching for truth. A theory that we have failed to falsify up till now might, in fact, be true, but even if it is,  we will never know this or have reason to increase our confidence that it is true. This is an ingenious exercise in missing the point of Popper’s ideas and also the real-world practice of scientific research.

Godfrey-Smith apparently thinks of truth like a Terminus of inquiry (the eternally glowing grail).  But in the real world all significant theories have both anomalies and rivals so there is no useful analogy with the Holy Grail.

Scientists are concerned with the growth of knowledge as theories are elaborated or superseded with the aim of inventing theories whichsolving  deeper problems and standing up to more demanding tests. You could think in terms of ever brighter Grails perhaps. In this context the correspondence theory of truth functions as a regulative principle and the truth it is not regarded as a Terminus at the end of the road. Scientists can function without the need to think that they have found the epistemological equivalent of the Holy Grail, and if they are engaged at the frontier of knowledge they will know quite well that they have not found it.

Objections to Popper on Confirmation

“In the previous section I discussed problems with Popper’s views about falsification. But let us leave those problems aside now, and assume in this section that we can use Popperian falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories.” (67)

This is a strange assumption to make because Popper explained that that we cannot use falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories, so why assume that we can? The author went on “If we make this assumption, is Popper’s attempt to describe rational theory choice successful? No, it is not.”

What if we do not make that false assumption and reconsider the question of rational theory choice?

“Here is a simple problem that Popper has a very difficult time with. Suppose we are trying to build a bridge…”. We use a lot of theories, presumably theories that the scientists and engineers regard as well tested “tried and true” methods. Empiricists say that this is a rational way to go, but why this this so? “Let us focus on Popper, who wants to avoid the need for a theory of confirmation. How does Popper’s philosophy treat the bridge building situation”. (67)

He poses a strange situation where Popper has to choose between a theory that has been tested (and passed) many times and a theory which has just been conjectured and has never been tested. Neither has been falsified. Which to choose? The usual thing would be to pick the well tested theory. “But what can Popper say about this choice?

Of course Popper has said that for practical purposes it is rational to use the best tested theory that is available. What is the point that the author is making? He wants to suggest that Popper would have some difficulty in explaining why a well tested (and unrefuted theory) should be selected ahead of a new theory that has not been tested but has also not been refuted. The answer is that Popper is not betting on the truth of the tried and unrefuted theory, he is betting on the same results, that is to say, on the existence of regularities in the world, and the stability of a complex structure or instrument that incorporates many theories and technologies that have been tested in practice.

Like the analogy of  the holy Grail, th bridge-building example is not relevant to scientific research because the bridge is an instrument and the theories that are used in its design could be known to be false, but good enough for the purpose (given the testing and safety factors that are built into bridges and other structures). The analogy is unhelpful because it does not make the distinction between testing theories in the interests of scientific research (the unended quest for truth) and the instrumental  task of building structures that are safe and secure for human use. [Cite Gordon on structures and safety factors]

Godfrey-Smith’s limited treatment of Popper’s ideas is underlined in the final section of book on the key issues for the philosophy of science in the near future. The first of these is the role of frameworks, paradigms and similar constructions. Here some consideration of Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programs is required but the bibliography does not list the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, nor the works of Popperians such as Agassi and Watkins who have contributed to the study of metaphysical ideas in science. The second is the reward system in science which is a subsection of the social and institutional approach to science that Jarvie identified in Popper’s works, including The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism that are not cited in this book.

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Wedberg on positivism and logical empircism

The collection of misreadings of Popper will be supplemented by a some examples where Popper is not mentioned at all (where he should be).

The Swede Anders Wedberg wrote three volumes on the history of philosophy with the third covering the period from Bolzano to Wittgenstein. It was published in 1966 and translated into English in 1984. The book opens with an account of the past 150 years to the mid 20th century  to provide the background of ideas for more intensive scrutiny of 20th century developments focused on Frege, George Moore, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein (first phase), Rudolf Carnap and logical empiricism, and the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein.

Taking up the problem situation after Kant and Hegel he addressed what he called the empiricist critique of science which focused on two questions:

(a)  What is natural science about, or what should be construed as talking about? That is close to what Popper called Kant’s problem of demarcation of the field of science.

(b)  How, and to what extent can theories of physics be verified or falsified by experience? That could be regarded as a form  of  Hume’s problem of induction.

Wedberg noted that the second problem became increasingly pressing at the turn of the century and eventually became a major issue for the logical positivists and logical empiricists. (9)  He also suggested that the efforts of the logical empiricists to give more precise and systematic shape to that idea and others closely related to it, using the resources of mathematical logic “has not led as yet to any even remotely satisfactory result. No real clarity has yet been reached even on the fundamental distinction between what is observable and what is not.” (11)

There is a chapter Experience and Language: Rudolf Carnap and Logical Empiricism

He  listed the figures who gathered around Moritz Schlich: the mathematician Hans Hahn (he should have added Karl Menger, son of Carl the economist), sociologist Otto Neurath, physicist Philipp Frank, historian Victor Kraft, jurist Felix Kaufman, and many others. “The most systematic philosophical talent of the circle was Rudolf Carnap, who gradually became its indubitable leader.” (198). There was a Berlin group led by Reichenback and Hempel,  the Polish “Lwow-Warsaw group” including Lukasiewicaz, Kotarbinksi and Tarski, plus Arne Naess in Norway, Jorgen Jorgensen in Denmark, A J Ayer in England, Nagel and Quine in the US. There is no mention of Popper despite his status as the “official opposition” to the Circle and the influence that he exerted on Carnap when the latter decided that testability rather than verification might be used as  a criterion of meaning.

From Wittgenstein the Circle members took the idea that metaphysics is nonsense and the verification principle became their great weapon. Their respect for science was extreme, as Wedberg put it:

The word science became a term of approbation surrounded by a nimbus of authority, and also a world that was used in the intellectual game as though it were a well-defined ches-man. Venerable and obscure concepts like ‘the scientific language’, ‘the fundamental scientific theory’, ‘the basic postulates of science’ and so on, are constantly encountered in Carnap. The step from respect for authority to a claim for authority is not long. (200)

After setting the scene the remainder of the long chapter is devoted the Carnap’s progress through various stages, including his attempt to construct a formalized language of science that might stand in for natural languages to add precision and rigor. Little is said about his theory of inductive confirmation, which might have prompted a reference to the long-running dispute between Carnap and Popper. This chapter is followed by an equally long chapter on formalization, concluding that the use of formalized languages as theoretical models of natural languages  has very little application (294). As for the long-running concern with meaning, Wedberg noted “budding awareness of nuances” around 1937 when Carnap flirted with different notions of cognitive meaningfulness but “In fact Carnap never abandoned his conviction that one can draw a sharp boundary between the meaningful and the meaningless; as late as 1956 he proposed what he supposed to be such a boundary”. (208)

It is interesting to see how much effort Wedberg devoted to Carnap, compared with no reference at all to Popper.  A  truly remarkable situation developed where it was apparently regarded as quite normal for philosophers of science to proceed independently of the world of science as it is actually practiced and to apparently have no  interest in the value of their activities for working scientists.

Wedberg noted that logical empiricists rarely studied empirical questions empirically, following what he called the Platonistic view of Wittgenstein  that empirical science is the concern of “the sciences”, not of “philosophy”. (202)

At the centre of the logical empiricists’ interest stands the separation of the scientific use of language from other uses, for example the metaphysical use, and the analysis of the languages of science. When reading, for example, Carnap’s discussions of such questions, we often find ourselves in an abstract combinatorial space far above the confused voices of the human crowd. The contact between the abstract arguments and what they are supposed to illuminate is often obscure. (202)

The obscurity of some passages of Carnap is legendary and it is amusing (but sad at the same time) that so much time (and paper) were wasted on a program that never delivered on its initial hopes and expectations. Conceived as an antidote to nonsense, it became a special kind of nonsense of its own.

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Jeremy Shearmur on Popper and Hayek

Should be interesting, have not had time to read it yet, just want to share!

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Popper’s rules of the game of science

The role of institutions and conventions (rules of the game)

The recognition of the social factor in science is often attributed to Kuhn and the sociologists of knowledge, however Jarvie in The Republic of Science (2001) identified what he called the “social turn” in Popper’s earliest published work. It can be seen in the passages in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of The Logic of Scientific Discovery where Popper explained the function of conventions or rules of the game for scientific practice. Here is the list of rules that he extracted from Popper’s early work, as reported in The Republic of Science pp 51-63.

First the supreme or meta-rule that governs the other rules.

SR. The other rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science from falsification (LScD, p. 54).

R1. The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day  that scientific statements do no call for further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game (LScD, p. 53).

R2. Once a hypothesis has been proposed and tested, and has proved its mettle, it may not be allowed to drop out without ‘good reason’ (LScD, p. 53-54).

R3. We are not to abandon the search for universal laws and for a coherent theoretical system, nor ever give up our attempts to explain causally any kind of event we can describe (LScD, p. 61).

R4. I shall…adopt a rule not to use undefined concepts as if they were implicitly defined (LScD, p. 75).

R5. Only those auxiliary hypotheses are acceptable whose introduction does not diminish the degree of falsifiability or testability of the system in question but, on the contrary, increases it (LScD, p. 83).

R6. We shall forbid surreptitious alterations of usage (LScD, p. 84).

R7. Inter-subjectively testable experiments are either to be accepted, or to be rejected in the light of counter-experiments (LScD, p 84).

R8. The bare appeal to logical derivations to be discovered in future can be disregarded (LScD, p. 84).

R9. After having produced some criticism of a rival theory, we should always make a serious attempt to apply this criticism to our own theory (LScD, p. 85n).

R10. We should not accept stray basic statements – i.e logically disconnected ones – but…we should accept basic statements in the course of testing theories ; or raising searching questions about these theories, to be answered by the acceptance of basic statements (:ScD, p. 106).

R11. This makes our methodological rule that those theories should be given preference which can be most severely tested…equivalent to a rule favouring  theories with the highest possible empirical content (LScD, p. 121).

R12. I propose that we take the methodological decision never to explain physical effects, i.e. reproducible regularities, as accumulations of accidents (LScD, p. 199).

R13. A rule…which might demand that the agreement between basic statements and the probability estimate should conform to some minimum standard. Thus the rule might draw some arbitrary line and decree that only reasonably representative segments (or reasonably ‘fair samples’) are ‘permitted’, while a-typical or non-representative segments are ‘forbiden’ (LScD, p. 204).

R14. The rule that we should see whether we can simplify or generalize or unify our theories by employing explanatory hypotheses of the type mentioned (that is to say, hypotheses explaining observable effects as summations or integrations of micro events) (LScD, p. 207).

Jarvie noted that these rules are incomplete and they represent a starting point for  an extended process of elaboration, criticism and improvement that has not happened yet. Occasionally they are subjected to criticism but not in a way that acknowledged “the  innovative brilliance of the original idea” (Jarvie, 2001, 63). He suggested that both Popper and his critics suffered from “a myopia about the institutional turn”.

For the benefit of English speakers before Logik der Forschung was translated in 1959, the institutional approach could be found (without elaboration) in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism on situational logic and the institutional theory of progress.

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Kuhn’s misreading of Popper

Kuhn wrote an essay for the Schilpp volume on Popper which appeared in 1974 and it was published in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds Lakatos and Musgrave) which appeared earlier (in  1970) due to delays in production of the Schilpp volume.  The Lakatos and Musgrave collection was the fourth in a series of books reporting the proceedings of a major conference at Bedford College in London in 1965. Musgrave made  some amusing comments on the conference (and related matters), see link at the bottom of the post.

Kuhn’s paper  at the conference is the foundation of the book. Feyerabend and Lakatos were supposed to deliver papers in the same session but their papers were not available in time and so John Watkins  wrote a paper at short  notice. Popper, Pearce Williams and Stephen Toulmin participated in the discussion and wrote short papers for the published proceedings. Others contributed later – Margaret Masterman in 1966, followed by  Lakatos and Feyerabend,  and Kuhn’s reply to the commentators. The North Holland Publishing Company published three volumes of papers but was not prepared to wait for the long-delayed fourth volume and it was published by Cambridge University Press (it became a best seller).

Something that is rarely mentioned is that the papers by Watkins and Toulmin which follow the  lead paper by Kuhn comprehensively demolish Kuhn’s supposedly radical and exciting ideas, although Toulmin noted that  by that time, almost a decade on from the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  Kuhn had walked away from most  of the ideas that accounted for the excitement generated by book when it first appeared.


Kuhn advanced four criticisms or complaints about some of Popper’s “locutions”. The use of the term “locutions” is a warning sign that we may be subjected to the kind of verbal sparring that became widespread under the influence of Wittgenstein in his second phase. It is often a signal that the writer is about to  engage in earnest and scholarly argumentation (or explication) that elaborately misses the point of the work by work that is under examination.

The four suspect locutions are treated in the four sections of the paper.

Locution 1A scientist, whether theorist or experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step. In the field of the empirical sciences, more especially, he constructs hypotheses, or systems of  theories, and tests them against experience by observation and experiment. From the opening chapter of the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Kuhn found this odd because, for him,  there is one sort of hypothesis that scientists do not repeatedly test, this is  the way that the individual research connects to the corpus of accepted knowledge. So “the scientists must premise current theory as the rules of his game” (p 4). It seems that Kuhn simply cannot understand the critical spirit whereby any aspect of the scientific enterprise might in principle be subjected to criticism and revision.

” To turn Sir Karl’s view on its head, it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science.” (p 6)

The critical attitude does not mean that every scientists should be constantly engaged in critical scrutiny of everything, it just means that they should be prepared to follow problems where they lead, which may be across disciplinary boundaries, into philosophy or even to the first principles of the discipline. Sensitivity to problems is the key.

Locution 2. The essays and lectures of which this book is composed, are variations upon one very simple theme – the thesis that we can learn from our mistakes. From the Preface of Conjectures and Refutations. With emphasis on “we can learn from our mistakes”.

As Watkins pointed out in his reply to Kuhn, addressing his comments to Popperian “locutions” resulted in a deal of distortion of the meaning of Popper’s original text. This especially applies to the  Kuhn’s perception of mistakes. Possibly because Kuhn did not take on board non-justificationism and the conjectural theory of knowledge, he regards “mistakes” as Bad Things that reflect poorly on the people who make them. In the words of Watkins “He seems unable to allow that Popper was using the word ‘mistake’ in a cheerfully guilt-free sense with no suggestion of personal failure, rule-transgression etc.” (p. 26, footnote 3)

For Kuhn, “A mistake is  made at a specifiable time and place by a particular individual…The individual can learn from his mistakes only because the group whose practices embody those rules can isolate the individual’s failure in applying them”. (11)

He did not grasp the idea that the mistakes that concerned Popper were in theories (scientific theories that are false, or theories that are unhelpful, like  theories of sovereignty in politics) or in proposals and practices  (where they are unhelpful or confusing).  Individual culpability and weakness have nothing to do with it.

Locution 3. Sir Karl Popper describes as ‘falsification’ or ‘refutation’ what happens when a theory fails in an attempted application, and these are the first of a series of related locutions that again strike me as extremely odd.  Both ‘falsification’ and  ‘refutation’ are antonyms of proof. They are drawn principally from logic and from formal mathematics…invoking these terms implies the ability to compel assent from any member of the relevant professional community. (Kuhn, 1970, 13).

Kuhn went on to explain that Popper was well aware of the problematic nature of adverse evidence and the capacity of scientist to protect their theory by means of ad hoc hypotheses and the like. He cited Popper’s LSD p 50 statement that no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced.

Having barred conclusive disproof, he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification. Though he is not a naïve falsificationist, Sir Karl may, I suggest, legitimately be treated as one. (ibid. 14).

Kuhn did not understand that Popperian criticism is not supposed to instantly dispatch defective theories, it is to identify problems that call for more work. It is all about maintaining standards of criticism.  That has a “negative” function to  eliminate false theories that have been effectively criticised and superseded by better theories. Criticism also has a positive or creative function to open up new problems that are the growing points of science. As noted above regarding the first locution, sensitivity to problems and “the gift of wonder” are the beginning of  imaginative thinking.

Locution 4When he rejects ‘the psychology of knowledge’, Sir Karl’s explicit concern is only to deny the methodological relevance of an individual’s source of inspiration or an individual’s sense of certainty (ibid p 22). Kuhn went on to draw a distinction between individual psychology and common elements induced by nurture and training in the psychological make-up of the licensed membership of a scientific groupThough [Sir Karl] insists that he is writing about the  logic of  knowledge, an essential role in his methodology is played by passages which I can only read as attempts to inculcate moral imperatives in the membership of the scientific group…We shall not, I suggest,  understand the success of science without understanding the full force of rhetorically induced and professionally shared imperatives like these [referring to a statement by Popper which Kuhn placed in italics "If we have made this our task (understanding the world with the help of laws and explanatory theories), then there is no more rational procedure than the method...of conjecture and refutation". ] …Institutionalised and articulated further, such maxims and values may explain the outcome of choices that could not have been dictated by  logic and  experiment alone. The fact that passages such as these occupy a prominent place in Sir Karl’s writing is therefore further evidence of the resemblance of our views. That he does not, I think, ever see them for the social-psychological imperatives that they are is further evidence of the gestalt switch that still divides us deeply. (22)

This shows that Kuhn, like most of us before Jarvie’s book on the republic of science, did not pick up Popper’s “social turn”  to pay attention to the rules of the game of science (although that should have been clear enough in 1935 and 1958) and it was even clearer in chapter 23 of The Open Society and the section on the institutional analysis of scientific progress at the end of The Poverty of Historicism.

Popper over-reacted to the call for a psychological or sociological approach with a strong negative response when he could have replied that he got there first, in a more helpful manner by drawing attention to the  social  and institutional aspect of science and the importance of the rules, norms and conventions of scientific and scholarly practice.  He could have added that his theory of  metaphysical research programs also was a better formulation of “paradigm theory”  because it called for  investigation of  assumptions that can  cause trouble but are kept out of sight because they are  supposed to be either sacred (shared imperatives) or unspeakable nonsense (metaphysics in the eyes of the positivists). In fact the elements of the MRP are essential ingredients of the “social” or “psychological” situation and there are times when they need to be subjected to critical analysis.

Musgrave interview (re Bedford College conference).

A line of thought to be elaborated in another post.

The error that Lakatos and Kuhn shared in their efforts to criticize Popper was the failure of their SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS to take account of the problem situation in the philosophy of science in the 1920s and 1930s,  to understand how Popper formulated the problems and how he responded to them. Incidentally the paradigm of good SA is Stanley Wong’s Chapter 2 (see  previous post). Maybe Joe Agassi’s historiography is the model,  it came to Wong by way of Larry Boland.

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