10 December 2012

Popper by Bryan Magee

Karl Popper's philosophy makes a valuable point, but is fundamentally flawed.

This is the best selling book by Bryan Magee (born 1930), the articulate broadcaster of programmes explaining and popularising philosophy.

Magee provides a clearly written and enthusiastic account of the ideas of his personal friend, the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94). The book proceeds from Popper’s view of science (a rejection of induction in favour of falsifiability), to his view of human knowledge as an ever-provisional attempt at problem solving, and concludes with how Popper applies these ideas to the defence of liberal democracy and of a pragmatic problem solving method of doing politics.

Though Popper is often correctly labelled as someone out to clobber Marxism in the post war period, there is much sense in what I understand him to be saying. However, for me his philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) is marred by problems.

Popper recognised the historical distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Analytic statements (e.g. All bachelors are male.) are necessarily true by logic alone. In contrast, synthetic statements, (e.g. The cheese is on the table.) are contingent: that means they are dependent on how the world actually is. Popper regarded science as consisting entirely of synthetic statements.

Popper’s central contention was that a synthetic statement can only be held to be scientific if it is capable of being empirically falsified. There is much sense here; i.e. we should be cautious of statements which claim to remain true irrespective of what happens. Yet, I fail to understand why the truth of a statement is necessarily dependent on the ability to potentially falsify it. For instance, if for some reason, it were impossible to the test the proposition that water boils at one hundred degrees centigrade, that would not prevent the proposition from being either true or scientific.

Many synthetic statements involved in the foundation of science are incapable of being tested at all; for instance the axioms that objects exist in space and time, and that every change has a cause. In fact, following Kant, we could argue that without such so-called synthetic a priori statements we cannot think at all.

Popper is of course right to say that if an extrapolation from a theory is falsified in an empirical test, it’s not the reality which is wrong, but the hypothesis. Yet it seems mistaken to argue that that the theory (a collection of interdependent statements) must be abandoned wholesale, and there isn’t a case on occasion for modifying the theory and its concepts rather than immediately junking them. Popper says he is using practical human solving procedures as the basis for his theory, but, to use a crude analogy, if I have a new car and find the ignition doesn’t work one morning, I am more inclined to have the car repaired than consign it to the scrapheap.

One final point is whether Popper’s theory applies to his own theory of falsifiability. Quite clearly not, so we have to regard the notion of falsifiability as a postulate justified by logic, not experience. So not only does Popper's logic fail to hold up in all cases, as discussed above, but Popper is forced to justify his tool for doing science by the very logico-rational methods that he wanted to oppose.

Karl Popper saw his writing as an attack on the whole Kant-Hegel-Marx tradition in social science (and was certainly lauded by the establishment in Britain for doing just that). But in my view he failed in knocking Kant, Hegel and Marx from their position in Western thought. What he has certainly done is to hold up ‘warning signs’ which serve to alert us to dogma and nonsense in thought.

MAGEE, Bryan – Popper, Fontana 1973

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