A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Thursday, March 04, 2004 :::
Karl Popper and Birthdays.

They have nothing much to do with each other, actually. That's simply today's agenda.

The nephew of A Mind That Suits turns 18 on Saturday, when his uncle must, unfortunately, return the spunky little Sebring he is driving to its usual berth at Reagan Airport, and so the two of them will have a nice lunch this afternoon, probably overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway from the balcony of the Oceanic Restaurant on lovely Wrightsville Beach. When asked to pick a restaurant, the young gentleman allowed as how it didn't much matter, as long as it was food. "Oh, that's right," replied his uncle, "you're 18," whereupon said uncle began to make chomping and snarling noises, which made the young gentleman burst out in laughter. As the old folks always say, it's hard to believe he is 18 already, and many happy returns.

And now, on to Karl Popper, who has been gone from this earth 10 years. For the second time in his life, A Mind That Suits has seen the late Sir Karl referred to as a sceptic about scientific claims. This is a remarkable assertion about a man who constantly proclaimed the reality of objective knowledge and the objectivity and absoluteness of truth. Now, his method may induce scepticism, but, in the opinion of this writer, that would be a serious misreading. This amazing opinion of Sir Karl appeared in a review written by a writer who has fought long and hard in the battle against the debasement of the humanities, and the review appeared in the venerable Times Literary Supplement, making the amazement it induced that much greater. TLS has now informed your humble servant that his letter has not made the grade, alas, and so he now offers it to you all.

TLSmay be the only general interest publication to so inform its corrspondents, by the way, and many thanks to them for their courtesy.

To the Editor:

It was with some great surprise that I find so fine a scholar as Roger Kimball asserting, as he did on page 9 of your Januray 23 number, that Karl Popper "helped prepare the ground for unjustified scepticism about the claims of science."

I have only read such a strange assertion once before, in an interview with Prof. Popper conducted by someone who clearly had not read a word he had written. The interviewer was surprised when Prof. Popper dismissed any metaphysical theories about the unreality of the world by picking up a book and slamming it on the table: that proved the real world existed, said the philosopher. It so happens that I was introduced to Prof. Popper as I was working through an excellent series of small books on modern thinkers. After a few pages, I thought something like, "what he is saying is that we know the real world exists because if I smack you in the face it will hurt." (Remember, I was then a young man, by which I mean a young male. Prof. Popper's own demonstration was considerably less aggressive.) That was after about 5 minutes of reading, and I am not deeply educated in the sciences. Yet the interviewer, a scientific journalist, was mystified that Popper would say something like that because he was a "sceptic about science." And journalists wonder why people don't trust them.

I had previously been aware of Prof. Popper through the writings of his great friend and co-laborer for freedom, Friedrich A. von Hayek. It was from his pen that I first encountered the concept of falsifiability, which Dr. Kimball describes as a "curious thought" and an "amazing" one. He summarizes half of the concept ably enough as the idea that "postiive instances do not--in principle cannot--act to confirm a proposition of theory," and then quotes something from Prof. Popper to that effect.

"Think about that a moment," he urges, but it just so happens that I had, long before I read Prof. Kimball's review. And long before I ever got round to it, so had a chap named David Hume. Even at an early age, I found Hume's arrogance off-putting, and left largely unread even the assigned readings for a course in modern philosophy, but I can vividly remember the explanation of Hume's theories by a youngish Ian Hacking, then a professor at Stanford. When I found out later that Prof. Hacking had risen to considerable eminence at Toronto, it hardly surprised me, because he was a spectacularly good lecturer. He carefully explained Hume's famous example of bread: just because bread has been good for us every time we have eaten it does not mean that we can know for certain it will be good for us the next. Prof. Hacking further told us that some previous students of his had gotten a very good illustration of this simple truth. He had given the same talk at an English public school, and the very next day 400 boys could be found on the lawns stretched out in agony because the bread had been tainted.

The half that seems to have escaped the notice of Prof. Kimball, because it is nowhere in a review of ample length, is found in the other half of its name: falsifiability, not falsification. The ability is the key part: for a particular statement to be scientifically meaningful, one must be able to subject that statement to a test which might prove it to be false. Might. Prof. Popper actually first began to feel his way toward the theory as a teenager, when he sought to find out whether or not Marxism was what its adherents claimed it was, a science of history. Dr. Kimball has performed signal service in fighting the votaries of this most noxious doctrine, and surely he understands what Prof. Popper meant when he said he realized that Marxists would not allow even the possibilty of any instance where their theories might be false. This could not then be scientific, the young Austrian was certain, and his thinking continued on from that point.

I think if Prof. Kimball searches within his own beliefs he will find he has more sympathy with Prof. Popper's thought than he realizes. He quotes approvingly, from a Sarah Caudwell mystery novel, a character who says, "...to be always right is the claim of a charlatan, not of the Scholar. The mark of Scholarship is a fearless and unflinching readiness to modify one's theories in the light of new evidence." The quote, substituting 'science' for 'Scholarship' but including the word 'charlatan,' might have been lifted from almost any of Prof. Popper's writings. Indeed, Prof. Popper recounted (in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, I believe) how he had argued often that a scientist who provides fecund hypotheses which turn out to be false has not wasted his career at all. In his last book, he recounted how one prominent scientist heard him say so and found the strength to let loose of a theory that he had held on to for 20 years.

The interviewer I cited above mentioned that Prof. Popper tends to be popular among physicists, but not among philosophers of science. Were I a philosopher of science, that would give me pause. I myself went ahead with the richly rewarding task of learing more about Prof. Popper's theories because I read somewhere that both Albert Einstein and Francis Crick felt that Popper had accurately described how science was done.

I must say that I am grateful to Prof. Kimball for one thing: he caused me to go to the philosophy corner at the local Borders and run my finger along the Popper shelf. There I ran across his last collection of essays, which bears the delightful title All Life is Problem Solving. And there I found the quote with which Popper closed out his publishing career:

"I wish to end with this advice: However happy you may be with a solution, never think of it as final...All our solutions are fallible.

This principle has often been mistake for a form of relativism, but it is the very opposite of relativism. We seek for truth, and truth is absolute and objective, and so is falsity. But every solution to a problem opens the way to a still deeper problem." (P. 161)


A Mind That Suits (ok, TLS got the real signature.)

All Life is Problem Solving, by Karl R. Popper. Copyright 1999, 2001 by the Estate of Karl Popper

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 10:10 AM



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