I suggest reading Michael Lynch’s article in the New York Times Opinionator blog before reading past the break.
Posts Tagged ‘critical rationalism’
After reading Eric MacDonald’s piece on natural law theory over at Choice in Dying, I think it best to describe how a Critical Rationalist as influenced by Popper and Bartley crosses the ‘is-ought’ gap. Natural law theory seeks to ground ethics in something tangible, something that is easy to grasp. It is in the nature of things to be so, and therefore it follows that we must follow the nature of things. Of course, this indubitably begs the question of what exactly is the nature of things. To take a poor example, it is in the nature of things that bananas fit hands, but bananas also fit into orifices other than the mouth. But put this problem aside for the moment. Assume that it can be solved, or at least a group of people may come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, on the nature of things. Hume, though, notes that it is difficult to justify an ‘ought’ as logically following from an ‘is’, and does not rule this out as impossible. I, on the other hand, take this justification as impossible, since this problem of justification is little more than a variation of Fries’s trilemma: (1) either this ethical justification goes in a circle, (2) grounded on a foundation that is assumed without argument, or (3) part of an infinite series of justifications.
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An anomaly, a recalcitrant fact, may bode trouble for either a local part of a theoretical system, easily detached and replaced without significant revision to other parts of the system, or the theoretical system as a whole. If religious practices developed long before settled communities, then the findings at Gobekli Tepe would overturn a local part, and such a correction would be (comparatively) made without much fuss in the sociology of religion. However, if a fossilized rabbit was uncovered in Precambrian strata, this is not merely a problem for the theory of evolution. If it is in fact a fossilized rabbit in Precambrian strata, it knocks over central assumptions in radiometric dating, physics, and geology.
In the sea of anomalies, it is rational not to engage in a scientific revolution when anomalies are seemingly local rather than global; conversely, it is irrational to refuse a scientific revolution when anomalies are seemingly global rather than local. There remains a problem: the seriousness of anomalies is not currently subject to calculation, and may not in principle be calculated. Without a mathematical underpinning, a sociological, political, or methodological underpinning may be of service.
If a basic statement and theory are incoherent, then observation reports cannot inform us that theories are wrong and theories cannot inform us that observation reports are wrong. Either the theories or observation reports are wrong — or both. Neither T1 nor T2 should be adopted a priori, for they effectively annihilate one another: all we can see is an incoherence between T1 and T2.
Furthermore, even after we recognize an incoherence between an observation report and a theory, this ‘recognizing’ is relative to a given system of logic, background assumptions, language, and cognitive framework: we are even fallible in recognizing incoherence. Whatever method or route we follow that leads to preferring one over the other will either not rest on an Archimedean point, or will not be known to rest on an Archimedean point. All is theory-laden and subject to error. We must admit that it is possible to change the logic we employ, statements we adopt, theories we accept, methods we follow, language we use, or the cognitive frameworks we inhabit, for none of them are privileged.
Wesley Salmon objects to Popper’s theory of knowledge on the grounds that, contrary to its stated rejection of a principle of induction, in order to explain how one can rationally decide between competing unfalsified theories, it requires the adoption of a principle of induction. The advice to an applied scientist or engineer to act as if the best-tested theories are probably true and the untested theories are probably false, though no doubt excellent advice, does not have any claim to be dubbed ‘rational’ unless a pragmatic principle of induction is adopted.
If the applied scientist’s choice is guided by the best-tested scientific theories available to him, then it appears that he is assuming that what was successful in the past will remain successful in the future. This would be an assumption rejected by Popper, for it employs the principle of induction. However, if a scientist, following Popper’s theory of knowledge, renounces a principle of induction, then he is not allowed to say that ‘future unobserved events will resemble past observed events.’
Here is a copy of the first part of an unfinished biography of Karl Popper, by William W. Bartley: Rehearsing a Revolution [.pdf]. I suggest reading pp. 50-71, for they deal with Popper’s trouble with Kant and Kierkegaard.
Two points of interest I’ve picked up from talking to friends of Bartley: (1) he was either bisexual or gay (this puts his Wittgenstein in a different light); (2) he took up writing the — rather poor, in my opinion — hagiography of Werner Erhard in order to live comfortably in California with his long-time companion.
If philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy should broaden their horizons. (Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity, xvii)
Peter Singer’s 1974 article in the New York Review of Books, Discovering Karl Popper is extremely favorable of Popper’s philosophy of science–except for three paragraphs in the middle, which are highly informed criticism. I’ve reproduced them below along with some limited comments in light of that criticism.
A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In Wittgenstein’s posthumous Philosophical Investigations he argues that meaning of terms is equal to its use within language: each ‘linguistic universe’ has its own rules. Content cannot be separated from criteria by which they are judged: criteria is never inter-cultural, but sub-cultural. Each discipline or ‘language’ game has its own standards, which cannot be reducible to other standards or principles. The task of the philosopher is then to describe and clarify standards, not to judge, defend, or criticize proposals laid out within a ‘language game.’ Criticism can only point out the misuse of language, or violations of the rules.
Argument or judgment does not cross disciplines, for they exist only in reference to criteria of the rules of the game. This leads to relativism, where there is no rational choice to be made between competing games: all games are equally defensible.
Larry Laudan’s well-known paper “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” has been republished several times in several volumes. The most readily available copy I could find was in “Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum.” The paper is worth reading for Laudan’s historical analysis of the demarcation problem, but two points in the essay stand out as supremely lackluster, especially for Laudan.
The philosopher Edward Feser has a response to the ‘gnu’-atheists that has been floating around for a few months. In the past week he’s brought up the response again. It doesn’t amount to much, but give it a read. Feser must think that the response is powerful enough to sway the critic (or at least powerful enough to quiet any doubts he may have) if he pulls it out more than once. My comments are below the fold.
The biggest problems in critical rationalism, expressed as broadly as possible:
- too many are engaging in exegesis on, and history of, Popper’s thought.
- too few are progressively advancing critical rationalism.
The same could be said of most schools, and I do not intend to target anyone directly. That said, the work of historians of science and philosophy is invaluable, giving unseen insights into brilliant minds; however, Popper should only be valued because he, like many before him, paved the way for others. Of course, 1 is often not a problem, for younger generations often have had little understanding of the full implications of critical rationalism, and good historical scholarship can only help. That said, all things being equal, 1 is not as important as 2 in the long run, for critical rationalism will stagnate without constant criticism and revision in light of that criticism.
What can be done to advance critical rationalism? It is still in a savage state.
Duncan Pritchard, who holds a chair in epistemology at the University of Edinburgh, published What is This Thing Called Knowledge? some years ago. He has three textbooks, two published books on epistemology, and approximately fifty journal articles to his name. Let me make this clear: Pritchard is no first-year undergrad at a community college. And yet, his What is This Thing Called Knowledge? has a short section on Popper’s response to the problem of induction that is … shameful. Just shameful.
There’s a lovely debate that’s been around for some time between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig at Biola University. I recommend that you watch it — or watch parts of it, namely Christopher Hitchens’s turns at the podium. William Lane Craig is an awful speaker. Christ must have granted Hitchens a silver tongue and Craig a wooden ear. If you can bear through Craig’s turn at the microphone, then you’ll witness a great ‘debate’ between a philosopher-hack and a public intellectual.
What I find most interesting about the debate — besides the subject of ‘Does God exist?’ — is Hitchens and Craig’s respective debating styles. I will start with Hitchens:
Over at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, Daniel Barnes (who I understand is at least sympathetic to critical rationalism) provides the following quotation from Rand:
“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion). (Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection”, Philosophy: Who Needs It? p.14)
Barnes provides a subjectivist account of the comprehensively critical rationalist’s response, but it should be objectified to explain its true strength: talking about the status of mental states tells us nothing about the epistemological status of statements. Is the statement “Nobody can be certain of anything,” when rephrased as “We cannot know of any statement as justified” justified, true, or believed?
Someone may in due time develop a powerful objection to the statement, but so far none have been raised and survived even the most superficial criticism. If some statement is found that is known to be justified, then the sentence would be false. This negates the first criteria of justification.
It’s then permissible to adopt the statement as true. Adopting a statement as true, provisionally as it may be, does not make the statement true. This means that we cannot know (in the sense of having sufficient reasons) that the statement is true. The statement is then not self-refuting, but a conjecture about a critical failure in justificationist theories of knowledge: they are dealing with a pseudo-problem, a ‘false consciousness’ about ‘knowledge.’
It is not my duty to justify conjectures, for the conjecture asserts that very impossibility. To anyone that adopts the conjecture, according to their own lights, such an activity would be a waste of time, for it is prima facie absurd. It is my duty, and the duty of others, to criticize conjectures.
I do believe the statement is true, in much the same way I believe that I exist, but my beliefs, my psychological states, are unimportant–truth is primary.
Teacher: I will give a quick recap of our last lesson: We discarded the Logical Positivist solution to the demarcation problem as leaving far too many statements in that would qualify as ‘science’ and leaving out strictly universal statements as ‘meaningless’. We moved on to Popper’s original solution to the demarcation problem. It attempts to cleave scientific statements from non-scientific (or pseduo-scientific) statements by proposing that scientific statements are falsifiable, while non-scientific statements are not. Has anyone found a problem with this solution?
One of the aims of science, perhaps its most fundamental aim, is knowledge — not of past events — but of future events. Scientists want to ‘read the book of nature’, to borrow a phrase from Bacon. Think of the laws of nature as being general truths, or as they’re known in predicate logic, universal statements (“for all x, y”). So the question, to rephrase David Byrne is, how do I get there? How can scientists grasp hold of the laws of nature?
The popular answer is by ‘inductive inference’, called by Aristotle “the passage from individuals to universals.”  Inductive inference usually takes the following form: “This bacon is crispy. That bacon is crispy. … Therefore, all bacon is crispy.”
There is a significant difference between what I will call ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ thinking. Positive thinking rests on the assumption that a solution’s past success (the ‘is’) guarantees or increases the probability of the solution’s future success (the ‘ought’): past success ought to show future success. Negative thinking, however, does not run into the is/ought problem: if a universal statement contradicts an existential statement, and the existential statement corresponds with the facts, then the existential statement is false.