Posts Tagged ‘popper’

Feser writes on Popper

In critical rationalism on 27/02/2012 at 4:28 am

The Thomist Edward Feser has written a few blog articles on issues relating to Popper’s work in philosophy of mind here, here, and here. His most recent post Hayek and Popper on the mind is also worth a read.

I don’t agree with Feser on many things (his arguments for Catholicism for one), but he seems to appreciate work done by Popper (perhaps when his criticisms against monism are useful) and is an excellent writer.


Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.


Popper on Uncertain Truth

In popper on 13/10/2011 at 4:17 am


From ‘Ought’ to ‘Is’

In bartley, critical rationalism, ethics on 06/09/2011 at 2:50 am

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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Philosophy and Science-Themed T-Shirts!

In art on 02/09/2011 at 11:47 pm

It’s difficult for anyone working in philosophy to find a nice casual philosophy-themed shirt. A few years ago, I picked up this most awesome shirt:

I’ve just learned that the company behind the shirt, Amorphia Apparel, has come out with a new line of t-shirts. And they are awesome. Most of them use the instantly recognizable font of some of my favorite punk and metal bands, mashed together with famous philosophers and scientists. I think I’ll have to pick up a copy of this one soon, seeing as I rate Hume as one of the greatest philosophers …

I’m just sad that there’s no Popper shirt. What would it even look like? I decided to make a quick mock-up Popper-logo in an homage to Iron Maiden.


Practical Prediction

In experiments, induction, justificationism, popper, salmon on 01/08/2011 at 5:24 am

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.’

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In critical rationalism, fideism, popper, wittgenstein on 26/07/2011 at 5:51 am

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.

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In critical rationalism, evolution, justificationism, plantinga on 25/07/2011 at 8:27 am

I find Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (it should probably be called the ‘evolutionary argument against correct belief formation’, but I’ll get to that in a second) to be perfectly permissible (with certain revisions). This might come as a shock to some, considering that I am an open agnostic atheist about gods. In fact, I am far more of an apathist in spirit, for positing the existence of gods is a non-explanation for, I think, a non-problem. Plantinga’s argument boils down to little more than an attack against assumptions in epistemology, not against ‘naturalism’: evolution and our traditional theories of knowledge are incompatible.

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In fideism, induction on 23/07/2011 at 6:24 am

Nothing is more characteristic of a dogmatist epistemology than its theory of error. For if some truths are manifest, one must explain how anyone can be mistaken about them, in other words, why the truths are not manifest to everybody. According to its particular theory of error, each dogmatist epistemology offers its particular therapeutics to purge minds from error. (Imre Lakatos)

I’ve heard it said from followers of Rand that a theory (usually one of Rand’s own, or a variation thereof) is unassailable, for any criticism of the theory must necessarily assume the theory in order to criticize it. This, somehow, invalidates all criticism.

Is the supposition “Any criticism must assume the validity of the theory being criticized” self-evident?

One problem: how does one know that all possible criticisms employ that theory? Is anyone familiar with all potential arguments against the theory? Of course not: novel ideas are created every day. Therefore, this assertion, that all criticism must assume the theory is true, is based on an inductive inference, which cannot, as a matter of logic, be as demonstrably self-evident or unconditionally immune to criticism as it first appears.

It might be the case that it is true, but it is hardly evident to me, especially once this doubt is raised. Furthermore, whatever theory is used to demonstrate how the initial theory is self-evident must, of course, be scrutinized to determine if it suffers from the same problem: is this new theory self-evident as well? A regress of ‘unassailable’ theories begins in earnest.

The world is far more interesting than we can imagine: asserting that no criticism could possibly exist speaks only to, I think, their limited intellectual horizon. I conjecture that it is better for an idea to stick its neck out as far as it can, therefore inviting many criticisms, and taking them serious. One criticism, if accepted, is enough. As the followers of Rand would have it, the world can only be a constant construction of sandcastles following the blueprints of the Master, and yet no helpful criticism of the blueprints or their faithful execution is permitted. I might go so far as to say that this meta-theory is self-evident, but of course, I don’t.

Assume that everything I have just said is not the case: assume that the Randian (for they are such an easy punching bag, no?) now says that by any criticism that does not assume the same things as Objectivism is then starting from different — incompatible — assumptions, and is not a viable criticism. This might be a possible defensive maneuver for the Randian, for it disallows criticism of its assumptions and criticism of its coherence. Here we have the gestation of the most uninteresting post-modernists within the Randian (or the religious presuppositionalists like Van Til), for the Randian must not be aware of a reductio ad absurdum.

And this, I should note, is a point that deserves no further clarification on my part, for pointing out incoherence is one of the most powerful criticisms available.


Laudan on the Demarcation Problem

In empiricism, experiments, laudan, popper on 22/07/2011 at 1:36 am

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.

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Of What is Rationally Permitted

In critical rationalism, empiricism, van fraassen on 21/07/2011 at 2:52 am

Bas van Fraassen’s work is, to use the words of another philosopher said to me during a brief Skype conversation, “one of the best philosophers of science alive.” But why? The concluding pages of his article The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology (2000) stand out as bucking the trend in philosophy of science and epistemology in much the same way Bartley and Popper did–he considers the historical problem-situation, finds faults with all the available options, and then reconfigures the problem in such a way as to dig out an underlying assumption.

In this case, his language is still laden with certain terms that make him far more understandable to others that still cling to these assumptions, but his conclusions are, when understood, close enough to critical rationalism as to deserve either catcalls and gnashing of teeth from the traditionalist monkeys that cling to the rafters, or a long time spent reflecting by critical rationalists. I’ve already taken on board several of his positions, and may take on more in time, but even if I should reject them in due course, he has provided, even implicitly, a powerful alternative to critical rationalism.

I take it that what is rational is precisely what is rationally permitted. Thus we are rational in believing something exactly when we are not rationally compelled to believe the opposite. This implies, tautologically, that nothing more than staying within the bounds of reason is needed for this status of rationality–not good reasons, not a rationale, not support of any special sort, not a pedigree of inductive reasoning or confirmation, nothing is needed above and beyond coherence. Thus any truly coherent position is rational.

Now this may strike you as absurd, because it seems to imply that ‘anything goes’, the ugly brought of skepticism’s ‘nothing goes’. But that is simply not so. If it were so, I would have come to an impasse and would have to admit that the constrains of rationality are more than coherence. But it is not so, and we have not in fact come to an impasse.

… Logically speaking there may be infinitely many coherent alternatives to our posterior opinion, but almost none of these will be live options for us. This is not an accidental feature of our situation, but integral to it, exactly because we have prior opinion and prior understanding, which is not laid out for us on the side, like a textbook, but which is already our own. Any small part of it we can think of changing as part of our response, and any large part of it we can think as possibly changed, to any imaginable alterative, over the long run, in the course of time. But we do not have the wherewithal to respond in more than a limited variety of ways at any given time. Many of the imaginable alteratives to what seems plausible to us cannot be incorporated by us.

… It does not mean that there are constraints on rationality beyond coherence, and it does not mean that we are following apliative rules after all. It means simply that the Neurath ‘mariners repairing their boat at sea’ for m of relativism does not lead us into a damagingly enfeebled epistemic enterprise. The ‘already on a boat’ part defeats the skeptical argument based on the ‘at sea’ part.

So here is my conclusion. We supply our own opinion, with nothing to ground it, and no method to give us an extra source of knowledge. Only the ’empty’ techniques of logic and pure math are available either to refine and improve or expose the defects of this option. That is the human condition. But it is enough. (Bas van Fraassen, The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LX, No. 2, March 2000, 277-279)



In experiments, fallibilism on 20/07/2011 at 7:06 am

The problem: if a scientist abandons theory A after deciding that it does not stand up to criticism (say, the theory fails a crucial experiment), the scientist could make the wrong choice. Theory A could very well be true, or be more approximately true (have more verisimilitude), than the replacement theory B.

Why is this a problem?

  1. The crucial experiment could produce a false positive, so that a scientist rejects the theory rather than rejecting the result of the test. Naturally, the scientist’s replacement theory B would have less verisimilitude.
  2.  The crucial experiment produces a true outcome, but theory B is more approximately true than theory A over this small range; however, theory B has overall less verisimilitude than theory A.

This problem applies to any number of crucial experiments: a scientist may abandon a theory with a high degree of objective verisimilitude because he mistakenly thinks it has a low degree of verisimilitude.

The set of preformed crucial experiments will be very small, smaller than all crucial experiments available to the scientist at any one time, which in turn will be very, very small compared to all crucial experiments. This further assumes that the results of the tests are easily decidable.

Think of it this way: the scientist has insufficient reasons, which amount to nothing, after preforming a crucial experiment. Now, just keep adding additional insufficient reasons. What does the scientist have? Nothing.

What have we learned? There cannot be any evidence that anything can raise the objective probability of future success.

Assume that 1 is not an immediate problem. All results of tests are conclusive. The problem still remains, and appears to be far more robust and serious for the scientist than Quine’s problem. Now, how do we deal with 2?

One solution is to tentatively reject A and adopt B. After all, they’re only theories. Truth takes second to coherence, but the rule of operations is the negation of Quine’s holism and goes against Popper’s claim that scientists are interested in increasing verisimilitude in scientific theories. If anything, this best approximates van Fraassen’s position on empirical adequacy.


Strauss and Voegelin on Popper

In popper, strauss on 15/07/2011 at 1:58 pm

In Faith And Poltical Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964 comes the following dialogue between Strauss and Voegelin:

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What is This Thing Called Knowledge?

In critical rationalism, duhem, experiments, induction on 13/07/2011 at 12:21 pm

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.

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One Dogma of Logical Negativism

In fallibilism, popper, quine on 11/07/2011 at 6:07 am


Positive theories of knowledge assert that, if they are correct, future guesses are guaranteed to have (at least probabilistically) a marked improvement in their objective verisimilitude, not just in their increased empirical adequacy. If this were true, it would be an immense boon for everyone. Logical negativism rules such a possibility out a priori; in fact, it originates in the supposed failure of all positive theories of knowledge. Therefore, the greatest argument one can muster against this dogma in logical negativism is to demonstrate that some kind of necessary increase in verisimilitude occurs when replacing an old theory with a new one.

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Conjectures and Criticisms, pt. 2

In critical rationalism, duhem, empiricism, experiments, popper, quine on 11/07/2011 at 12:03 am

Teacher: Previously, we touched on how non-scientific statements play a bigger role than Popper first acknowledged. Gamma, you said yesterday that you disagreed with Sigma’s description of the scientific process?

Gamma: Yes, I was getting at that there is a significant problem in Popper’s methodology of scientific progress, namely the very act of falsifying a theory. As we know from Duhem, no scientific theory can ever be conclusively refuted —


In flew on 09/07/2011 at 8:53 pm

Jerry Coyne recently said of Antony Flew’s famous paper Theology and Falsification,

I’m actually surprised that this piece, which is quite good (albeit written in academic-speak) was so popular, for what it says seems self evident.

Flew had a habit of following the latest philosophical fads, but not always understanding their purpose. For instance, when Flew says,

When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all, (bolding added)

this is nothing but an inversion of logical positivism’s verification principle of meaning. Flew claims that only scientific statements can be refuted. Religious statements are not meaningful, for if religious statements are not scientific statements, they cannot be refuted. Meaning is then tied to statements that are refutable at least in principle, while meaningless is tied to uninformative or irrefutable statements.

Is such a claim as ‘self evident’ as Coyne claims? I think not, since demarcating science from non-science by way of meaning is a dead end. Religious statements are meaningful, but do not necessarily refer: the statement “Merlin rides a unicorn” is a meaningful statement. Asserting that said statement is meaningless leaves me shrugging my shoulders. Such a statement makes sense to me, but if it is called ‘meaningless,’ in the process all sorts of meaningful statements may turn into meaningless statements. For example, any sort of God-conjecture (“There exists a being with characteristics x,y,z”) is a strictly existential statement, and therefore not falsifiable … since as a matter of logic, strictly existential statements are verifiable, but not falsifiable.

Has Flew then done away with the meaningfulness of strictly existential statements?

Flew does touch on the distastefulness of the behavior of holding on to a statement come what may,

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then,”

but Flew misses the point once more, and in the process conflates methodological or procedural rules and objective status of statements: Flew is now talking about ad hoc immunizing procedures when confronted with confounding ‘monsters.’ Monster-barring is not a distasteful behavior solely of the religious individual, but of the pseudo-scientific or non-scientific individual. Scientific statements may be falsifiable, but a scientist may hold on to them come what may as well!

Sagan’s classic The Dragon In My Garage is somewhat better than Flew’s, but it occasionally runs into its own problems or misses the big picture to rag on religion. Russell’s Celestial Teapot is another variation on the same theme, and ought to be preferred over the other two for its focus on doubt, rather than meaning.


Determining the Truth

In critical rationalism, experiments, fallibilism, holism, justificationism, popper, quine, skepticism, underdetermination on 08/07/2011 at 1:13 pm

I go to a wedding and I miss a gigantic explosion in the blogosphere over Sir Harold Kroto’s Nobel Laureate lecture. Eh, I’ve missed worse things.

Andrew Brown at The Guardian has an adequate–but far from complete–drubbing of Kroto’s proto-positivist claim that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.”

PZ Myers disagrees with Brown, but I’m not surprised. After reading him for a few years, he comes off as a genuine naïve Popperian, saying “If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?” After Quine, it isn’t so obvious anymore. Isn’t that obvious? PZ is a scientist, and scientists aren’t often paid to think about epistemology, so I won’t hold it against him. Only through a critical discussion can we come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, about things like the color of cats–and yet this agreement is forever provisional. If someone were to point out this distinction in private, PZ would probably temper his initial statement, but headlines sell papers.

Kroto, Myers, and Brown all come off thinking that science is directed at establishing claims–I am apparently the odd man out when I concede that, rather than lifting up other traditions to science’s level, science does not have the epistemic privilege Kroto and PZ think: there is no way to reliably determine the truth.

That said, we can choose to prefer science over other ‘ways of knowing’ for the same reason we can choose to prefer a theory that has survived criticism over one that has not: while its past success at solving our problems provide no ‘good reasons’ for favoring science, the failures of alternative ‘ways of knowing’ are sufficient to provisionally adopt what remains.


Reduced to Twelve Lines of Dialogue

In critical rationalism, empiricism, induction, popper on 05/07/2011 at 12:32 pm

Logical Positivist: Popper, we know we didn’t let you in our club, but what you do you think of our plan on eliminating metaphysics by reducing all meaningful statements to elementary statements of experience or analytic truths? Isn’t it swell?

Popper: Are you blind?

Logical Positivist: What?

Popper: You define ‘meaningful’ as ‘possible to empirically investigate’ while you define ‘meaningless’ as ‘impossible to empirically investigate,’ but metaphysics has usually been defined as non-empirical. Your use of the word ‘meaningless’ is derogatory, rather than descriptive. I call your very plan into question as merely restricting definitions.

Logical Positivist: No, it’s not!

Popper: Fine, if that will not turn you, put that criticism aside. Does this criticism work? Your very plan is not analytic, nor is it reducible to an elementary statement of experience. Therefore, there exists at least one meaningful metaphysical statement: your plan.

Logical Positivist: … could you try something more … palatable?

Popper: Sure, try this on for size. If we assume that you are successful in eliminating all metaphysics–by that very criterion of meaning, scientific laws cannot be reduced to elementary statements of experience, and ought to be rejected as meaningless.

Logical Positivist: … um … Let me get back to you …

Popper: Take as much time as you want. Put all my previous objections aside and assume for the moment that you have solved them all. How about this? You accept an inductive logic, right?

Logical Positivist: Sure!

Popper: Your proposed inductive logics are not reducible to elementary statements of experience or analytic truths. Your plan is clearly incoherent.


The Orthodox Story

In bartley, kuhn, wittgenstein on 03/07/2011 at 12:31 pm

The orthodox story runs as follows: Kuhn is the philosopher that undermined the philosophical tradition of Logical Positivism. I think this is wrong; Kuhn did not manage to break from the preceding philosophical tradition. His work is laden with principles belonging to the philosophy he was determined to reject. In fact, incommensurability, non-directed progress, rejection of the concept of truth as a regulatory principle, and the very thesis of “world change” are all consequences of the positivist elements Kuhn’s philosophy retains.

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