I like to think of CR (critical rationalism) as a kind of evolving philosophical tradition concerning how we should approach knowledge. It is the Socratic method only with a little bit of modern awareness. While most philosophical traditions regard knowledge as something that has to be certain and justified, CR takes the view that we don’t have ultimate answers, but knowledge is nevertheless possible. Truth is an endless quest.
The modern founder of critical rationalism was Karl Popper. Popper pointed out we can never justify anything, we merely criticize and weed out bad ideas and work with what’s left. Popper’s initial emphasis was on empirical science, where he solved the problem of induction, something that had been haunting philosophers and scientists for centuries. The problem of induction is this. No matter how many times we’ve seen an apple fall to the ground after we’ve dropped it, do we have any way to prove the same thing will happen next time we drop it. The answer is no. What Popper pointed out is that you can never justify any scientific theory, but you can falsify it. If I were to claim that all swans were white, one black swan would falsify my theory. In this way, science moves forward by weeding out bad theories, so to speak.
Popper said that science moves forward through a method of conjecture and refutation. While Popper was primarily interested in science, he often commented on political problems as well. Popper liked to emphasize the need for an open society, a society where people can speak out and criticize. After all, if science progresses through refutations, criticizing becomes essential. We need to speak out and therefore we need the freedom to do so. Popper was against any form of government that didn’t give people the chance to speak out. Popper’s thinking could probably best be summed up in this quote, “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”
Popper worked hard to expand his ideas, and so have several other people. CR should not be viewed as one man’s philosophy, but as a growing philosophical tradition. One in which several people have contributed and are still contributing. One notable person was William Warren Bartley, III. Bartley worked towards expanding the idea of critical rationalism to cover all areas of knowledge, not just empirical science. Bartley felt that while in almost all areas of knowledge we seek justification, we should instead seek criticism. While nothing can ever be justified in any ultimate sense, certainly we can see error and weed it out. This is true whether we are dealing with empirical science and perhaps even knowledge of what is ethical. An important part of Bartley’s thinking could probably best be summed up in this quote, “How can our intellectual life and institutions, our tradition, and even our etiquette, sensibility, manners and customs, and behavior patterns, be arranged so as to expose our beliefs, conjectures, ideologies, policies, positions, programs, sources of ideas, traditions, and the like, to optimum criticism, so as at once to counteract and eliminate as much intellectual error as possible, and also so as to contribute to and insure the fertility of the intellectual econiche: to create an environment in which not only negative criticism but also positive creation of ideas, and the development of rationality, are truly inspired.”
Neither Bartley or Popper have exhaustively explored the full potential of the CR philosophical tradition. Indeed, there are unlimited possibilities. While CR often emphasizes criticism, it also encourages new approaches and creative thinking. We need to come up with as many new ideas as we can, then let the process of criticism weed out the less workable ones. As CR accepts that the truth is out there and we are working towards it, it is actually a very optimistic philosophical tradition. Perhaps the most optimistic among the big three philosophical traditions. What are the big three traditions. Let me give you a quick summary.
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.
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—Matt Dioguardi, blog administrator