Karl Popper (1902-1994) is recognized around the world as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers of science and as one of its most articulate and influential critics of Marxism and closed society. Popper was an outspoken champion of rationalism and a constant critic of subjectivist and authoritarian tendencies in science and society.
He is famous, among other things, for his characterization of science as a never-ending problem-solving activity that grows through trial and error. He is, perhaps, most important for his defense of open society and the freedom of thought. Popper was a critic of determinist theories of science and society and a proponent of free will.
Popper used to tell his students that there is no such thing as a scientific method other than the method of trial and error. This simple idea has initiated a revolutionary way of thinking in philosophy and science. Popper thought we were all in search of a better world. And he taught that instead of uncritically accepting our theories and beliefs on authority or trying to justify them with appeals to reason and experience, we should search for problems and inconsistencies in them and try to eliminate them as best we can. Instead of trying to prove we are right, we should try to find the ways in which we are wrong.
He summed up his entire philosophy in these words: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”
“Scientific inquiry is problem solving, and our knowledge grows as we propose theories to explain what we do not understand, and then criticize them in an attempt to eliminate their errors. Our understanding of ourselves and of the world we live in, like life itself, is constantly changing. And Popper thought that we have deeply ambivalent attitudes toward it. We welcome change because it makes it possible to build a better world. But we are terrorized by change because it will eventually lead to our own destruction. Change and the idea of change pose a problem for us. And much of our social and political thought is an attempt to solve it. Popper coined the term ‘historicism’ to describe a cluster of ancient but ultimately impoverished ideas that many social and political philosophers have tacitly accepted in an attempt to acknowledge the fact of change while simultaneously trying to bring its most frightening aspects under control. He thought that these ideas constitute a dangerous philosophical doublethink in which an initial recognition of change leads to a denial of its ultimate reality.
“Popper regarded historicism as a determinist superstition that comes in many different forms. It is ‘the view that the story of mankind has a plot, and that if we can succeed in unraveling this plot, we shall hold the key to the future.’ In theistic versions of historicism, the plot of history is written by a god — or gods — that may intervene in human events. But there are also naturalistic, spiritualistic, and economistic versions in which the laws of historical development are characterized as laws of nature, or laws of spiritual development, or laws of economic progress.”
“What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings. What a decline from this world of irony and reason and truthfulness down to Plato's kingdom of the sage whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; although not quite high enough to forgo the use of lies, or to neglect the sorry trade of every shaman — the selling of spells, of breeding spells, in exchange for power over his fellow men.” — Karl Popper
PARAPHRASED FROM THE INTRO / CHAPTER ONE
“The Open Society and its Enemies” sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization — a civilization which might be described as aiming at humanness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization which is still in its infancy, as it were, and which continues to grow in spite of the fact that it has been often betrayed by so many intellectual leaders of mankind.
This book attempts to show that this civilization has not fully recovered from the shock of its birth — the transition from the tribal or “closed society,” with its submission to magical forces, to the “open society,” which sets free our critical powers.
This book attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of reactionary movements, which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and return it to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays “totalitarianism” (or in 2004, “religious fundamentalism” or “terrorism”) belongs to a tradition that is just as old or as young as our civilization itself.
The most powerful philosophy that wars against the open society is what Popper calls “historicism.”
Historicism says our future depends on something unseen. Perhaps this unseen power is a deity that controls our destiny: this would be theological historicism; or perhaps a hidden human trait that always forces our actions in a certain direction: this would be natural or psychological historicism; or perhaps society itself, which exerts a hidden power over us: this would be sociological historicism. Popper rejects historicism because he believes the future depends on us, and we do not depend on any natural, supernatural or historical necessity. (It would seem to me that “historicism” is another word for “absolutism” and dreams of certainty.)
The closed society gives certainty regarding unseen powers and ultimate outcomes. However, in the open society belief in magical, unseen forces takes a back seat to thoughtful discussion, which includes an endless critique of all theories, philosophies, systems and plans. The open society values thought over belief; it values group discussion over the idea that some expert has concluded, once and for all, the secret to personal or societal success; the open society is practical and piecemeal — not sacred or utopian.
Popper says Heraclitus was the philosopher who discovered change. He lived at a time when Greek tribal aristocracies were beginning to yield to the new force of democracy, fueled by Greek shipping and commerce. Heraclitus told his fellow Greeks, “We must not act like children reared with the narrow outlook … as it has been handed down to us.”
But Heraclitus tempered his philosophy of change with something else, something all the historicist philosophers have come to value deeply: the idea that hidden behind change is eternal law. Popper says this of the early Greek philosophers, struggling through the death of tribalism and the birth of democracy: “It often seems they were trying to comfort themselves for the loss of a stable world by clinging to the view that change is ruled by unchangeable law. In Parmenides and Plato we shall even find the theory that the changing world in which we live is an illusion and that there exists a more real world, which does not change. And in the idea of relentless destiny we frequently find an element of mysticism.”
There is also the theory of “mystical intuition.” It’s the idea that since we’re all human and live in a common world, that we can communicate, and truly understand each other, that we are not victims of illusion, that we can open our eyes and see the whole truth. And while some portions of the theory can be helpful to us, there’s another aspect that mitigates against the beneficial portions; this is the idea that absolute knowledge is given to a chosen few who are awake to the “truth of the matter,” and that it is their duty to inform others, who usually don’t want to listen. So this leads to the idea that there is one group of people who are awake to the truth — and who understand life in the “real world” — and other groups of people who are deaf to truth and causing great strife.
So in Popper’s view, the philosophy of universal change with its subtext of hidden laws and powers set us up for Nazism and World War II — and he wouldn’t be surprised at what’s happening today.
NATURE AND CONVENTION
Plato was not the first to approach social phenomena in the spirit of scientific investigation. The beginning of social science goes back at least to the generation of Protagoras, the first of the great thinkers who called themselves “Sophists.” It is marked by the realization of the need to distinguish between two different elements in man’s environment — his natural environment and his social environment. This is a distinction that is difficult to make and to grasp, as can be inferred from the fact that even now it is not clearly established in our minds. It has been questioned ever since the time of Protagoras. Most of us, it seems, have a strong inclination to accept the peculiarities of our social environment as if they were “natural.”
It is one of the characteristics of the magical attitude of a primitive tribe or “closed” society that it lives in the charmed circle of unchanging taboos, or laws and customs which are felt to be as inevitable as the rising of the sun, or the cycle of the seasons, or similar obvious regularities of nature. And it is only after this magical “closed society” has actually broken down that a theoretical understanding of the difference between “nature” and “society” can develop.
The following features passages from Notturno, who provides a much better summary than I ever could of Popper’s great work; quoted matter is from Popper himself.
The open society is often associated with democratic political, judicial and economic institutions. But Popper distinguished open society from the democratic state and associated it instead with human freedom, fallibilism, and the respect we should have for the ideas of others.
It is very easy to misunderstand the open society by assuming that it is supposed to be a new utopia. This was not Popper’s view. He was in search of a better world dedicated to freedom, reason and equality. He thought utopian thinking was wishful thinking. All life is problem-solving, and our problems will never all be solved. Popper warned that utopian attempts to produce heaven on Earth most often lead to hell.
Popper regarded the democratic state as a set of institutions and saw society as “a form of social life and the values traditionally cherished in that life.” He wrote that, “The transition from the closed society to the open takes place when social institutions are recognized as man-made and when their conscious alteration is discussed in terms of their suitability for the achievement of human aims or purposes.”
But Popper believes that this recognition and the uncertainty it entails can be terrifying. “The Open Society and Its Enemies” is the story of how we have repeatedly tried to escape from “the strain of civilization” that it causes. It is, more specifically, the story of how some of our leading philosophers have tried to help us escape — either to protect the masses, not yet ready to deal with human freedom, or to protect their own power and authority.
A closed society may value freedom, but it values security more. Popper characterized it as a “magical or tribal or collectivist” society in which each individual knows his place. He said that individuals in an open society are confronted with myriad personal decisions and that there is nothing quite like this in a closed society. Closed societies are structured around beliefs and institutions that are supposed to be certain and immutable; however, Popper thought that only beliefs that are freely adopted and sincerely held have any real human value. An open society allows different philosophical, religious and scientific beliefs to coexist and compete freely with each other. And it encourages its members to use their freedom and their critical powers to try to improve their own situations.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NATURE AND CONVENTION
“It is one of the characteristics of the magical attitude of a primitive or closed society that it lives in a charmed circle of unchanging taboos, of laws and customs which are felt to be as inevitable as the rising of the sun, or the cycle of the seasons, or similar obvious regularities of nature. And it is only after this magical closed society has actually broken down that a theoretical understanding of the difference between nature and society can develop.”
Open society, therefore, begins with a clear awareness of the distinction between natural laws on the one hand and normative laws on the other — with an equally clear awareness of the fact that the normative laws of human societies, unlike laws of nature, are products of human decisions. Closed societies blur this distinction, if they are aware of it at all; so the closed society regards social taboos, norms and customs as laws of nature — or of God — that are written in stone. Open societies regard them as human creations open to human interpretation and alteration. The difference between natural laws and normative laws is, basically, the difference between facts and values.
Popper characterized the transition from a closed to an open society as a transition from “naïve monism” that does not distinguish between facts and values to a “critical dualism” that does. The transition to an open society occurs when we realize that we are free to choose the normative laws under which we live.
The recognition that we are free to choose the normative laws under which we live is — or should be — accompanied by the realization that we alone are responsible for the normative laws we choose. This recognition, when coupled with an awareness of our human fallibility and of the disastrous consequences that change can bring, may tempt us to renounce our freedom and try to return to the relatively carefree closed society. This is the strain of civilization. It results from the fact that open society deprives us of clear and unquestioned moral certainties as well as a clear and unquestioned place in society.
The anxiety of making decisions in an uncertain world is just one aspect of the strain of civilization. Competition and struggle for social status is another. And a third is that the open society deprives us from the comfort and security we feel as being an accepted member of a well-defined social group. The strain of civilization, Popper wrote, “is the strain caused by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us — by the endeavor to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept our responsibilities.”
Popper thought the strain of civilization might lead us to yearn for the lost paradise of closed society, where we are not called on to make such difficult decisions and where we feel unthreatened and insulated from fundamental change. He argued that this almost inevitably leads to reactionary attempts to return to the comfort and security of the group. And he tried to show how it led Plato, Hegel and Marx to historicism and to utopian engineering projects in an attempt to quell the terrors of change. He described their proposals to reform society as reactionary attempts to reclaim a lost certainty and security.
“We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society. Our dream of heaven cannot be realized on Earth. Once we begin to rely upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel the call of personal responsibilities, and with it, the responsibility of helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit submission to tribal magic. For those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge, paradise is lost. The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticized gangsterism. Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human. There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back we must go the whole way — we must return to the beasts.”
Popper thought that the open society is a “cross” and a “strain”; that it is the “unknown,” the “uncertain,” and the “insecure”; that it is something before which we may “lose courage” and “flinch” and that we still suffer from the shock of it’s birth in human culture. But there is no going back to the womb.
THE OPEN SOCIETY AND DEMOCRACY
As we have seen, Popper associated a state with its institutions and a society with its values. Popper believed the open society depends on freedom, that freedom is an end in itself and that a democracy is the form of government most likely to foster and protect it. He also believes a democracy can lose sight of the values it is set up to protect.
Popper said that it is important to understand democracy instead of idealizing it — and that it is especially important to understand that a democracy will work fairly well in a society that values freedom and tolerance but not in a society that does not understand those values. Here, the first thing to understand about democracy is that it is not the open society itself but a set of institutions that can, at best, help to preserve freedom, but can never create freedom if the citizens in a society do not value it.
Undoubtedly, Aristotle was right when he insisted that we must not attempt to prove all our knowledge. Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can therefore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true provided the premises are true. If we were to demand that the premises should be proved in their turn, the question of truth would only be shifted back by another step to a new set of premises, and so on, to infinity. (Infinite Regress)
The conclusion of “The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 2,” Chapter 25, entitled, “Has History Any Meaning?” All parenthetical material and emphasis is Popper’s.
We must be taught to do our work; to make our sacrifice for the sake of this work, and not for praise or the avoidance of blame. (The fact that we all need some encouragement, hope, praise, and even blame, is another matter altogether.) We must find our justification in our work, in what we are doing ourselves, and not in a fictitious “meaning of history.”
History has no meaning, I contend. But this contention does not imply that all we can do about it is to look aghast at the history of political power, or that we must look on it as a cruel joke. For we can interpret it, with an eye to those problems of power politics, from the point of view of our fight for the open society, for a rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime. Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning.
It is the problem of nature and convention, which we meet here again. Neither nature nor history can tell us what we ought to do. Facts, whether those of nature or those of history, cannot make the decision for us, they cannot determine the ends we are going to choose. It is we who introduce purpose and meaning into nature and into history. Men are not equal; but we can decide to fight for equal rights. Human institutions such as the state are not rational; but we can decide to fight to make them more rational. We ourselves and our ordinary language are, on the whole, emotional rather than rational; but we can try to become a little more rational, and we can train ourselves to use our language as an instrument not of self-expression (as our romantic educationists would say) but of rational communication. History itself — I mean the history of power politics, of course, not the non-existent story of the development of mankind — has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both. We can make it our fight for the open society and against its enemies (who, when in a corner, always protest their humanitarian sentiments, in accordance with Pareto’s advice); and we can interpret it accordingly. Ultimately, we say the same about the “meaning of life.” It is up to us to decide what shall be our purpose in life, to determine our ends.
This dualism of facts and decisions is, I believe, fundamental. Facts as such have no meaning; they can gain it only through our decisions. Historicism is only one of many attempts to get over this dualism; it is born of fear, for it shrinks from realizing that we bear the ultimate responsibility even for the standards we choose. But such an attempt seems to me to represent precisely what is usually described as superstition. For it assumes that we can reap where we have not sown; it tries to persuade us that if we merely fall into step with history everything will and must go right; it tries to shift our responsibility on to history, and thereby on to the play of demoniac powers beyond ourselves; it tries to base our actions upon the hidden intentions of these powers, which can be revealed to us only in mystical inspirations and intuitions; and thus it puts our actions and ourselves on the moral level of a man who, inspired by horoscopes and dreams, chooses his lucky number in a lottery. Like gambling, historicism is born of our despair in the rationality and responsibility of our actions. It is a debased hope and a debased faith, an attempt to replace the hope and the faith that springs from our moral enthusiasm and the contempt for success by a certainty that springs from a pseudo-science; a pseudo-science of the stars, or of “human nature,” or of a historical destiny.
Historicism, I assert, is not only rationally untenable, it is also in conflict with any religion that teaches the importance of conscience. For such a religion must agree with the rationalist attitude towards history in its emphasis on our supreme responsibility for our actions, and for their repercussions upon the course of history. True, we need hope; to act, to live without hope goes beyond our strength. But we do not need more, and we must not be given more. We do not need certainty. Religions, in particular, should not be a substitute for dreams and wish-fulfillment; it should resemble neither the holding of a ticket in a lottery, nor the holding of a policy in an insurance company. The historicist element in religion is an element of idolatry, of superstition.
This emphasis upon the dualism of facts and decisions determines also our attitude toward such ideas as “progress.” If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. For to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings. “History” cannot do that; only we, the human individuals, can do it; we can do it by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice.
Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control. In this way we may even justify history, in our turn. It badly needs a justification.
From “The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 2,” Chapter 2, entitled, “Oracular Philosophy: Its Aristotelian Roots.” All parenthetical material and emphasis is Popper’s.
Although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learned in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality. And we have learned not to be disappointed any longer if our scientific theories are overthrown; for we can, in most cases, determine with great confidence which of any two theories is the better one. We can therefore know that we are making progress; and it is this knowledge that to most of us atones for the loss of the illusion of finality and certainty. In other words, we know that our scientific theories must always remain hypotheses, but that, in many important cases, we can find out whether or not a new hypothesis is superior to an old one. … Thus we can say in our search for truth, we have replaced scientific certainty with scientific progress. And this view of scientific method is corroborated by the development of science. For science does not develop by a gradual encyclopedic accumulation of essential information, as Aristotle thought, but by a much more revolutionary method; it progresses by bold ideas, by the advancement of new and very strange theories (such as the theory that the Earth is not flat, or that “metrical space” is not flat), and by the overthrow of the old ones.
But this view of scientific method means that in science there is no “knowledge” in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense that implies finality; in science we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call “scientific knowledge” is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific “opinion.” This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs to not occur, if we mean by “proof” an argument that establishes once and forever the truth of a theory.
From the preface:
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. They develop a theory of knowledge and of its growth. It is a theory of reason that assigns to rational arguments the modest yet important role of criticizing our often mistaken attempts to solve our problems. And it is a theory of experience that assigns to our observations the equally modest and almost equally important role of tests, which may help us in the discovery of our mistakes. Though it stresses our fallibility it does not resign itself to skepticism, for it also suggests the fact that knowledge can grow and that science can progress — just because we can learn from our mistakes.
The way in which knowledge progresses, and especially our scientific knowledge, is by unjustified (and unjustifiable) anticipations, by guesses, by tentative solutions to our problems, by conjectures. These conjectures are controlled by criticism; that is, by attempted refutations, which include severely critical tests. They may survive these tests; but they can never be positively justified: They can be established neither as certainly true nor even as “probable” (in the sense of the probability calculus). Criticism of our conjectures is of decisive importance: By bringing out our mistakes it makes us understand the difficulties of the problem we are trying to solve. This is how we become better acquainted with our problem and able to propose more mature solutions: The very refutation of a theory — that is, of any serious tentative solution to our problem — is always a step forward that takes us nearer to the truth. And this is how we can learn from our mistakes.
As we learn from our mistakes our knowledge grows, even though we may never know — that is, know for certain. Since our knowledge can grow, there can be no reason here for despair of reason. And since we can never know for certain, there can be no authority here for any claim to authority, for conceit over knowledge, or for smugness.
Those among our theories that turn out to be highly resistant to criticism, and which appear to us at a certain moment of time to be better approximations to truth than other known theories, may be described, together with the reports of their tests, as “the science” of that time. Since none of them can be positively justified, it is essentially their critical and progressive character — that fact that we can argue about their claim to solve our problems better than their competitors — which constitutes the rationality of science.
This, in a nutshell, is the fundamental thesis developed in this book and applied to many topics, ranging from problems of the philosophy and history of the physical sciences and of the social sciences to historical and political problems.
From “Kant’s Critique and Cosmology,” an essay in “Conjectures and Refutations.”
Kant’s Copernican Revolution in the field of ethics is contained in his doctrine of autonomy — the doctrine that we cannot accept the command of an authority, however exalted, as the ultimate basis for ethics. For whenever we are faced by a command from an authority, it is our responsibility to judge whether this command is moral or immoral. The authority may have the power to enforce its commands, and we may be powerless to resist. But unless we are physically prevented from choosing, the responsibility remains ours. It is our decision to obey a command, whether to accept an authority.
Kant boldly carries this revolution into the field of religion. Here is a striking passage:
“Much as my words may startle you, you must not condemn me for saying: every man creates his God. From the moral point of view … you even have to create your God in order to worship in Him your creator. For in whatever way … the Deity should be made known to you, and even … if he should reveal Himself to you: it is you … who must judge whether you are permitted [by your conscience] to believe in Him and to worship him.”
Kant’s ethical theory is not confined to the statement that a man’s conscience is his moral authority. He also tries to tell us what our conscience may demand from us. Of this, the moral law, he gives several formulations. One of them is, “Always regard every man as an end in himself and never use him merely as a means to your ends.” The spirit of Kant’s ethics may well be summed up in these words: dare to be free, and respect the freedom of others.
ENLIGHTENMENT AND ETHICS
Kant believed in The Enlightenment. He was its last great defender. He wrote:
“Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage … of incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. Such a state of tutelage I call ‘self-imposed’ if it is due, not to lack of intelligence, but to lack of courage or determination to use one’s own intelligence without the help of a leader. Sapere aude! Dare to use your own intelligence. This is the battle-cry of The Enlightenment.” (See full essay.)
Kant is saying something very personal here. It is part of his own history. Brought up in near poverty, in the narrow outlook of Pietism — a severe German version of Puritanism — his own life was a story of emancipation through knowledge. … One might say that the dominant theme of his whole life was the struggle for spiritual freedom.
KANT’S HISTORIC ROLE
Stepping back further to get a still more distant view of Kant’s historical role, we may compare him with Socrates. Both were accused of perverting the state religion and of corrupting the minds of the young. Both denied the charge and stood up for freedom of thought.
To the Socratic idea of self-sufficiency, which forms part of our Western heritage, Kant has given a new meaning in the fields of both knowledge and morals. And he has added further to it the idea of a community of free men — of all people. For he has shown that all people are free, not because we are born free, but because we are born with the burden of responsibility for free decision.
I thought it might be a good idea to give you a quick course on Popper before you read the other stuff I sent. I will start with a story.
I was walking into work one day — it must have been 10 years ago — and I was carrying a book with “truth” in the title. Another person entering the building asked, “Does that book really tell you the truth?” I said that it probably didn’t, that I didn’t know of any book that did, and that I was reading it not for truth but for the interesting ideas it contained. And that person said, “Well, if I can’t read the truth, I would rather just go sailing!”
This is exactly the opposite of Popper’s view, which might be summed up as: Learn all you can, but don't worry about truth.
He came to the belief that even in science — that most precise and painstaking of all human endeavors — justified true belief is not possible. We can amass great practical knowledge, but we are not going to know what’s eternally true, which is to say he believed that though we can never be certain we have absolute truth, we can still keep learning more and more and thus improve our views and our lives; so, he was not a skeptic or a nihilist; he simply tried to think carefully and not wishfully; he had a lot of faith in our ability to learn things.
On the other hand, he believed some of the best minds of all time had sold out and lapsed into metaphysics in regards knowledge. He seems to believe that Plato’s utopian thinking built the idea of certainty into us from the start of Western culture. And he’s trying to cure us of that malady. Indeed, the wrongheaded belief in total truth retards our ability to progress. Sound familiar? I had no idea he was such a kindred spirit!
SCIENCE AND TRUTH
Just to give a quick lesson about why science doesn’t give truth … it goes back to David Hume, and the conundrum he described is still called “Hume’s Problem,” and it’s still unresolved. It hinges on how science works. Or how people think science works.*
Science seems to progress by tests and observations. And after a certain number of observations, a scientist makes a general statement, which is usually accepted as a law — the ultimate truth of the matter.
Let’s say we’re sitting in our lab in Tampa, Florida, trying to determine the exact temperature at which water boils. So we boil water 10 times and record the figure. It’s always the same. But being anal, we want to be sure, so we boil water a million times. Always the same.
So we state the law: Water always boils at xxx degrees. To celebrate, we go to visit your relatives in Denver, the mile-high city. One day as we’re boiling eggs for egg-salad sandwiches, we decide to drop a thermometer into the water, just for old time's sake. You know what? The temperature is different! What the hell? We decide to kill ourselves, so we head for K2 where we plan to jump off the peak. But some egg salad is required for our climb. Here we find that water boils at a different temperature from the other two locations. We decide not to kill ourselves because we come up with another general law: water boils at different temperatures at different altitudes! And we set out to check the differences. It becomes our life’s work.
So our first absolute truth was really conditional after all. Hume and Popper say this is always the case. The reason we want to state laws is not rational or logical — it’s psychological! We want to overstep our bounds and overreach ourselves and pretend to know things thoroughly when we really only grasp them partially. It’s a psychological malady that still infects science — and other areas as well.
Again, it’s not that we don’t know amazing things or can’t learn tons of stuff from all our efforts; it’s just that we have to temper our enthusiasm and keep our claims in line with our tests and abilities, which are always relative and conditional to the specific circumstances we find ourselves in — and falllible. We can’t let our dreams of infallibility get the best of us; when we try to overreach ourselves we retard human progress.
And of course Popper realized that if science cannot give us infallible, absolute, justified true belief, what can? Certainly not history or theology or politics. And this set him off on his life’s work to help us embrace our fallibility but still make progress.
I find his ideas refreshing. A little humility goes a long way.
*Popper thinks science works not by passive observation, but by ingenious conjectures followed by a relentless series of painstaking refutations.
Dear Absolut Paul,
Last year I got "Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper," by Bryan Magee and stuck it on the shelf unread. Today I spotted it – having quite forgotten I ever bought it – and in light of our discussion on absolute truth and objective reality, pulled it off the shelf for inspection.
Magee begins by talking about the scientific method and how it secures its truths. Then he writes:
"Some awkward questions about this were raised by Hume. He pointed out that no number of singular observation statements, however large, could logically entail an unrestrictedly general statement.
"If I observe that event A is attended by event B on one occasion, it does not logically follow that it will be attended by it on another occasion. Nor would it follow from two such observations – nor from twenty, nor from two thousand. If it happens often enough, Hume said, I may come to expect that the next A will be attended by a B, but this is a fact of psychology, not of logic.
"The sun may have risen again after every past day of which we have knowledge, but this does not entail that it will rise tomorrow. If someone says: ‘Ah, yes, but we can in fact predict the precise time at which the sun will rise tomorrow from the established laws of physics, as applied to conditions as we have them at this moment,’ we can answer him twice over.
"First, the fact that the laws of physics have been found to hold good in the past does not logically entail that they will continue to hold good in the future. Second, the laws of physics are themselves general statements, which are not logically entailed by the observed instances, however numerous, which are adduced in their support. So this attempt to justify induction begs the question by taking the validity of induction for granted.
"The whole of our science assumes the regularity of nature – assumes that the future will be like the past in all those respects in which natural laws are taken to operate – yet there is no way in which this assumption can be secure."
"It cannot be established by observation, since we cannot observe future events. And it cannot be established by logical argument, since from the fact that all past futures have resembled past pasts it does not follow that all future futures will resemble future pasts. The conclusion Hume himself came to was that although there is no way of demonstrating the validity of inductive procedures we are so constituted psychologically that we cannot help thinking in terms of them. And since they seem to work in practice we go along with them. This does mean, however, that scientific laws have no rationally secure foundation – neither in logic, nor in experience, since every scientific law, being unrestricted generally, goes beyond both.
"The problem of induction, which has been called ‘Hume’s Problem,’ has baffled philosophers from his time to our own."
POPPER AND MAGEE II
Science is not my field. Not even close. But you might want to read Magee’s "Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper," before we continue this exchange. Because even though science is your field, your claims about it may not be justified.
Here’s a passage and a quote that seems to be an incredible blow to your entire Objectivist outlook. I am amazed I never ran across this quote before. From Page 24: And remember he is talking about hard science.
"Popper’s notion of ‘the truth’ is very much like this: Our concern in the pursuit of knowledge is to get closer and closer to the truth, and we may even know that we have made an advance, but we can never know if we have reached our goal. ‘We cannot identify science with truth, for we think that both Newton’s and Einstein’s theories belong to science, but they cannot both be true, and they may well both be false.’* One of his favorite quotations is from the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes, which he translates as follows:
"The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
*Popper on p.78 of "Modern British Philosophy."
MAGEE AND POPPER III: Provisional versus absolute views
I should have included this passage:
"We are now in a position to see why it is inherent in Popper’s view that what we call our knowledge is of its nature provisional, and permanently so. At no stage are we able to prove that what we now ‘know’ is true, and it is always possible that it will turn out to be false.
"Indeed, it is an elementary fact about the intellectual history of mankind that most of what has been ‘known’ at one time or another has eventually turned out to be not the case. So it is a profound mistake to try to do what scientists and philosophers have almost always tried to do, namely prove the truth of a theory, or justify our belief in a theory, since this is to attempt the logically impossible.
"What we can do, however, and this is of the highest possible importance, is to justify our preference for one theory over another. In our successive examples about the boiling of water we were never able to show that our current theory was true, but we were at each stage able to show that it was preferable to our preceding theory.
"This is the characteristic situation in any of the sciences at any given time. The popular notion that the sciences are bodies of established fact is entirely mistaken. Nothing in science is permanently established, nothing unalterable, and indeed science is quite clearly changing all the time, and not through the accretion of new certainties.
"If we are rational we shall always base our decisions and expectations on ‘the best of our knowledge,’ as the popular phrase so rightly has it, and provisionally assume the ‘truth’ of that knowledge for practical purposes, because it is the least insecure foundation available; but we shall never lose sight of the fact that at any time experience may show it to be wrong and require us to revise it."
Excerpts from Popper’s essay entitled, “On Freedom.” Emphasis is Popper's.
It is especially important to me that what I am about to say is not taken on trust. Indeed, I should prefer it to be treated with the utmost skepticism. Unlike so many of my philosophical colleagues, I am not a leader in traveling new paths, heralding new directions in philosophy. I am a thoroughly old-fashioned philosopher who believes in a completely outmoded philosophy: that is, the philosophy of an age long past, the age of rationalism and the Enlightenment. As one of the last stragglers of rationalism and the Enlightenment, I believe in human self-emancipation through knowledge — just as Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment once did. … I should like to say quite clearly that I represent views that were already seen as outdated and totally mistaken some 150 years ago.
When I speak of rationalism, I am not speaking of a philosophical theory (such as Decartes’) and not at all of the highly unreasonable belief that man is a purely rational creature. When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly criticizing or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us to achieve new ideas. But he does think that in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that critical discussion can give us the necessary maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it.
This assessment of critical discussion also has its human side. For the rationalist knows perfectly well that critical discussion is not the only relationship between people: that, on the contrary, rational critical discussion is a rare phenomenon in our lives.
THE RATIONALIST APPROACH
The rationalist approach might be described as follows. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right; anyway, we can both hope that after our discussion we will both see things more clearly than before, just so long as we remember that our drawing closer to the truth is more important than the question of who is right. Only with this goal in mind do we defend ourselves as well as we can in discussion.
SELF-EMANCIPATION THROUGH KNOWLEDGE
This, in short, is what I mean when I speak or rationalism. But when I speak of Enlightenment, I mean something else as well. I think above all of the idea of self-emancipation through knowledge, the idea that Kant and Pestalozzi inspired. And I think of the duty of every intellectual to help others to free their minds and to understand the critical approach — a duty which most intellectuals have forgotten since the time of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For, unfortunately, it is all too common among intellectuals to want to impress others and, as Schopenhauer put it, not to teach but to captivate. They appear as leaders or prophets — partly because it is expected of them to appear as prophets, as proclaimers of the dark secrets of life and the world, of man, history, and existence. Here, as so often, ceaseless demand produces a supply. Leaders and prophets are looked for, so it is hardly surprising that leaders and prophets are found. But “grown men do not need leaders,” as H.G. Wells once said. And grown men ought to know they do not need leaders. As for prophets, I believe in the duty of every intellectual to keep them at arm’s length.
The Enlightenment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood … because the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince: All the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He speaks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions. Free opinion formation is precious to him: Not only because this brings us all closer to the truth, but also because he respects free opinion formation as such.
NO CERTAINTY ABOUT TRUTH
One of the reasons why the Enlightenment thinker does not want to talk people into anything, or even to convince them, is the following: He knows that, outside the narrow field of logic and perhaps mathematics, nothing can ever be proved. Once can certainly put forward arguments, and one can critically examine points of view. But outside elementary mathematics, our arguments are never conclusive and free of gaps. … In the end, then, opinion formation contains an element of free decision. And it is the free decision that makes an opinion humanly precious. … Kant meant that every human being and his convictions should be respected.
Perhaps it is true that freedom of thought can never be completely suppressed, but it can be suppressed to quite a considerable degree. For without a free exchange of ideas there can be no true freedom of thought. To find out whether our ideas are sound, we need other people to try them out on. Critical discussion is the basis of free thought for each individual. This means, however, that freedom of thought is impossible without political freedom.
Because I am a rationalist, I do not want to convert anybody. Nor do I want to abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude.