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karl popper • bryan magee

"The whole of science is nothing more
than a refinement of everyday thinking." – Albert Einstein

"Only daring speculation can lead us further
and not accumulation of facts." – Albert Einstein

Popper: From Science to Politics

Scientific Knowledge has turned out to be conjectural,
permanently open to revision in the light of experience.
The same principle seems also to apply to politics

For at least two hundred years after Newton, most educated Westerners regarded the new science as certain knowledge, hard fact, completely and utterly reliable. Once a new scientific fact or law was discovered, it was not open to change. This certainty was believed to be the distinguishing characteristic of science: scientific knowledge was the most reliable knowledge that human beings possessed and could be regarded as incorrigible truth. The growth of science, it was thought, consisted in the addition of newly discovered certainties to an ever-expanding body of existing ones, like a treasure-chest whose contents go on increasing over time: what is already there simply stays the same, as new things are added.

Those who were familiar with the ideas of Locke and Hume realized that scientific laws had not been proved conclusively; but in view of the apparently unbroken success of their application over long periods of time, such people tended to regard them as what one might call "infinitely probable," that is to say as near to being certain as makes no difference for practical purposes.


At the turn of the 20th century a scientific genius came on the scene who was comparable to Newton, a German Jew called Albert Einstein (1879-1955) -- and he produced theories incompatible with Newton's. Like Newton, Einstein was amazingly fertile of fundamental ideas. What he is best known for are his contributions to relativity theory: his Special Theory of Relativity, published in 1905, and his General Theory of Relativity, made public in 1915. Not surprisingly, these theories were highly controversial at first; but virtually nobody who was knowledgeable in the field could deny that they were deserving of the most serious consideration. And that fact in itself had disconcerting implications because if Einstein was right then Newton was wrong -- and in that case we had not "known" the contents of Newtonian science all along.

And so it was to prove. Crucial experiments were devised to adjudicate between the two sets of theories; and as the empirical evidence mounted it unmistakably favored Einstein. The consequences of this for philosophy were earthquake-like. Ever since Descartes, the search for certainty had been at or near the center of Western philosophy; and with Newtonian science Western man believed he had uncovered a vast body of reliable knowledge about his world and beyond, knowledge of fundamental significance and enormous practical usefulness.

What is more, the methods by which that knowledge had been gathered had been closely considered and carefully codified and were thought to guarantee its certainty, to validate it as sure knowledge. And yet now it turned out not to have been "knowledge" at all. What was it then? Its use had led to immense progress in our understanding of the world; its practical application through technology had brought about a whole new historical age, namely modern industrial civilization; yet now, we discovered, it was inaccurate. This presented us with an utterly baffling situation, for it appeared that we had been mistaken not only about what was knowledge but about what knowledge was.


We have seen how Locke spelled out the implications that the Newtonian revolution in science had possessed for philosophy and how some of the most important consequences of his ideas then turned out to be in political and social theory. The 20th century philosopher who carried out this task for the Einsteinian revolution was Karl Popper (1904-94). Popper was born in Vienna, the son of a prosperous lawyer. His parents had converted from Judaism to Christianity, so he himself received a Lutheran upbringing. In his early and middle teens he was a Marxist, but he grew disgusted with the Communists' willingness to let ordinary people be killed if it happened to suit their tactics; so he moved to the Social Democrats.

He lived his Socialism -- dressed like a workingman, lived among the unemployed, worked with handicapped children. This last brought him in contact with the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. At the same time he was active in the musical avant-garde led by Schoenberg and formed a friendship with the composer Webern. For holidays he was addicted to mountaineering. He married one of the student beauties of his generation. Altogether his life in Vienna was exceptionally rich and many-sided, full of enthusiastic commitments and exciting activities.

But then came Nazism. In 1937, the year before Hitler took over Austria, Popper accepted a university job in New Zealand, and he was there throughout World War II. When the war ended in 1945, he went to England and spent the rest of his career at the London School of Economics, where he became Professor of Logic and Scientific Method. In England he lived a completely different life from that of his youth in Vienna, deliberately isolating himself in order to produce his writings, which covered an exceptionally wide range of subjects. He was still publishing worthwhile new ideas at age 92, when he died.


Popper realized that if the centuries of corroboration received by Newtonian science had not proved it to be true, nothing was ever going to prove the truth of a scientific theory. So-called scientific laws were not incorrigible truths about the world after all; they were theories, and as such they were the products of the human mind. If they worked well in their practical application then that meant they must approximate to the truth, yet it was always possible, after hundreds of years of pragmatic success, for someone to come along with a better theory that was closer still to whatever the truth was.

Popper developed this insight into a full-scale theory of knowledge. According to him, physical reality exists independently of the human mind and is of a radically different order from human experience -- and for that very reason can never be directly apprehended. We produce plausible theories to explain it, and if these theories yield successful results we go on making use of them for as long as they work. Nearly always, though, they run us into difficulties sooner or later by proving inadequate in some respect, and then we cast around for a better theory, a more ample one that explains everything the first one could explain without being subject to its limitations.

We do this not only in science but in all other fields of activity, including everyday life. It means that our approach to things is essentially a problem-solving one and that we make progress not by adding new certainties to a body of existing ones but by perpetually replacing existing theories with better theories. The search for certainty, which had obsessed some of the greatest Western philosophers from Descartes to Russell, has to be given up because certainty is not available.

It is impossible to prove, finally and for ever, the truth of any scientific theory or to put the whole of science or the whole of mathematics on ultimately secure foundations. "Justificationism," as Popper came to call it, is completely wrong-headed. If you build a house on piles in the swamp, you need to drive the piles down deep enough to sustain the structure, and anytime you enlarge the house you will need to drive the piles down deeper, but there are no necessary limits to that process: there is no "ultimate" level of foundations that will hold up anything regardless, no "natural" or given basis for this or any structure.

However, although no general theory can be proved, it can be disproved, and this means it can be tested. As we saw earlier (in regards Hume) although no number of observations of white swans, however large, will ever prove the truth of the statement "All swans are white," a single observation of a black swan is enough to disprove it. So we can test general statements by searching for contrary instances.

This being so, criticism becomes the chief means by which we do in fact make progress. A statement that no observation would falsify cannot be tested, and therefore it cannot count as scientific because if everything that could possibly happen is compatible with its truth then nothing can be regarded as evidence for it. A good example would be the statement "God exists." It has meaning, and might be true, but no intellectually serious person would regard it as a scientific statement.


The seminal book in which Popper put forward these ideas was The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published in German in 1934 and in English in 1959. Only after he had worked them out in regard to the natural sciences did he fully realize they applied to the social sciences as well. He wrote a two-volume work called "The Open Society and Its Enemies," published in 1945, in which he applied them to political and social theory. Certainty, he argued, was no more available in politics than in science, and therefore the imposition of a single viewpoint is never justified.

The most undesirable and indefensible forms of modern society are those in which centralized planning is imposed and dissent disallowed. Criticism is the chief way in which social policies can be improved before they are implemented; and the noting of undesirable consequences is the promptest cause of their modification or abandonment after they have been implemented. Therefore a society that allows critical discussion and opposition (what Popper calls an open society) will almost certainly be more effective at solving the practical problems of its policy-makers than one that does not. Progress will be quicker and less costly. And this is true regardless of moral considerations.

In politics, as in science, we are continually replacing established ideas with what we hope are better ideas. Society too is in a state of perpetual change, and the pace of that change is increasingly fast. These things being so, the creation and perpetuation of an ideal state of society is not an option for us. What we have to do is to manage a process of endless change that has no stopping place. So what we are engaged in is perpetual problem-solving. We should at all times be seeking out the worst social evils and trying to remove them: poverty and powerlessness, threats to peace, bad education and medical care, and so on. Because perfection and certainty are unattainable we should concern ourselves less with the idea of building model schools and hospitals than with getting rid of the worst ones and improving the lot of the people in them. We do not know how to make people happy but we can remove avoidable suffering and handicap.


In the course of putting forward these ideas Popper mounts a massive onslaught on the most influential proponents of an ideal society, above all Plato and Marx. His critique of Marxism was widely regarded as the most effective that anyone has produced, and it was this that first made Popper's name known internationally. There was a period after "The Open Society" had been published when something like a third of the human race lived under governments that called themselves Marxist, and this fact alone gave the ideas of that book a global relevance. That aspect of it may be less urgent now, but the book's positive case for democratic openness and tolerance remains probably the most compelling anyone has ever produced.


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb