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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 3

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

Chapter 1 begins on p 39. It offers an analogy comparing ideas to fish, "all competing for resources and opportunities for reproduction". I think this is meant to dramatize and illustrate the connections between the logic of genes and memes. Percival adds that, "People have only so much attention and memory capacity to devote to these ideas. Because of these constraints..." These are important constraints but I don't think they are the most important ones to focus on. People reject memes they consider immoral, consider false, or have some other criticism of. That constraint is crucial to the logic of how memes work, as explained in David Deutsch's book The Beginning of Infinity. I bring this up primarily because I consider human choice a very important part of life, and I am wary of how some meme theory tries to attack that and deny us responsibility for our choices (sometimes by denying we made them at all). Which fish are successful in an ocean is an issue that doesn't involve human judgment, choice or responsibility, but which ideas are successful in a culture does involve those human factors, so that's a major difference the analogy doesn't capture. Maybe we'll get more detail on this later.

pp 40-41 talks about ideas with more content or generality that are easier to refute but would be more valuable if true, and ideas with less content, less potential value, but also less opportunity to refute them. It's the issue of more or less bold ideas. Percival gives a nice clear example:
A. All cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
B. All non-smoking cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
Idea A is bolder and tells us more about the world, but can be refuted more easily than B (by a smoking cyclist who dies young).

p 41 comments about how making ideas more attractive (more general purpose, meaning more content) may unintentionally make them more open to criticism. While the intended point is right (more bold ideas that say more can be refuted in more ways), I think there's an issue here. We can criticize ideas for lack of boldness! The moral of the story, as I see it, is that there is simply no way to hide from criticism. All ideas are always quite vulnerable. Similarly, vague ideas may try to avoid criticism by not providing any clear statements to be disputed, but vagueness is itself a well known and important flaw to criticize.

p 42 advocates the "modular hypothesis" that the human mind is not like a general purpose computer but has specific modules for specific tasks (it leaves open the possibility of some general-purpose thinking too). But Popper's method of conjecture and refutation is inherently general purpose (it's how we learn all types of things, it applies to every field), so what is the appeal of the modular hypothesis? If we think by conjecturing and refuting when it comes to every topic, why have different modules for different topics? This Popperian objection is not discussed and the book quickly changes topic (maybe it will come up again later?).

I skipped some pages about religion and then find, p 51
There is a similarity between being converted to a religion and being struck by the power of a scientific explanation.
I don't know about that. The vast majority of religious conversions are done with children who don't know much about critical thinking yet, while being struck by the power of scientific explanation in the usual way requires knowledge of critical thinking and scientific method as a prerequisite. Percival goes on to attribute the spread of Christianity and Islam (partly) to them having some closeness to the truth and value (monotheism is an example). I'm not so sure about that either because there are Eastern religions with vast numbers of followers which lack monotheism and other valuable attributes of Christianity.

p 57 says Popper and Bartley have "claimed that some ideologies and their proponents are impervious to criticism. I disagree." No source is given. Where did Popper say that? What I know he did say is that all frameworks can be criticized, and we can always learn from each other despite differences in perspective. That's in his essay The Myth of the Framework. Also, fallibility itself implies nothing will be completely impervious.

There are ideologies -- e.g. Freud's -- which are impervious to direct criticism because they have general purpose anti-critical methods built in. But they are still open to criticism, e.g. for their closedness to criticism itself. Whenever there is an anti-critical mechanism which is impervious to some category of criticism, we can still analyze it itself and criticize in a different way. I think Popper knew this. He himself did criticize Freud's ideology, so I don't think it makes sense to consider him to have believed it was completely impervious to all types of criticism.

p 58 quotes Popper saying:
no rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.
Percival calls this "pessimistic". But what's wrong with it? By an effort we can improve. If we don't want to, and try not to, we won't. Learning requires active thinking, taking steps to learn, in general it can't be forced on someone from without. If you tie someone to a chair and play some educational videos, hey may not pay attention. If you tell him a rational argument, he may not listen (he may literally walk away and put in ear plugs). So what?

In our society, almost all people do want to adopt rational attitudes -- at least partially and inconsistently -- because they are aware of some of the value of such an attitude. But there is nothing a priori necessary about this, and there have been cultures in which no one knew what rationality was nor wanted to be rational.

I don't see anything bad in people having some control over their lives. Consider: you might disagree with me about what is a rational attitude and which arguments are rational (or true). And you might disagree even more fundamentally about what kinds of attitudes and arguments are good (if any). That's freedom! That's important. I might be mistaken. I might have gross misconceptions about what rational arguments are, what rationality is, what is good, and so on. It's important that anyone can disagree and live life their way. This is a wonderful thing. If what I deemed a "rational argument" was guaranteed to affect you, against your will, then you would lack freedom, I would have an awful sort of power over you. That would be a sad state of affairs; the one Popper speaks of is a happy situation.

None of this is to say that I actually agree with Popper's full position on this topic. He was mistaken when he wrote "Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable." and "irrational faith in reason" (in OSE). But when Popper says the blockquote above or "a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective", he's right.

The mistake which he's struggling with is foundationalism and justificationism. The solution is not to justify reason itself, nor anything else, and not to base it on any foundation. Popper wrote, "[the rationalist attitude] cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience." Yes, but so what?

Rationality is about methods of thinking which allow for the correction of mistakes. It's wise because irrational attitudes, if they are mistaken, stay mistaken. Mistakes in rational attitudes can be fixed. Can someone reject the premises of my argument, or refuse to listen to it if they don't want to, or misunderstand it? Yes. And for all I know they can understand it and reject it -- maybe I'm wrong. But none of this is a problem or bad thing. Progress doesn't come from airtight arguments that force people to accept reason or anything else. It comes from voluntary action, people choosing to think and wanting to gain values by thinking, people having problems they want to improve on, people recognizing their mistakes and wanting a better life. Life presents problems which can inspire people to take some initiative in improving, we don't have to worry about forcing passive people to live the way we deem correct (and we must not do that, because we might be mistaken; a tolerant society is the only rational society).

Summary: reject justificationism (which Popper struggled with early on. He was the first person to understand this, but at first only partially) and then there is no longer any problem of justifying reason. And as to people being free to choose not to listen, that isn't a problem at all but a virtue of a free society.

Percival starts talking about how Popper must think irrationalism is psychologically viable. But I think he recognized that in our society basically no one fully embraces it. One can be interested in refuting irrationalism for other reasons, e.g. because it's an important philosophical position.

Percival misreads Popper in the discussion. Popper wrote (OSE):
That is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience. (And this consideration is quite independent of the question whether or not there exist any convincing rational arguments which favour the adoption of the rationalist attitude.)
Percival writes:
Popper first says that the rationalist attitude must be adopted to make criticism effective, but then immediately retracts this implicitly by saying that this is independent of whether there are any convincing arguments for adopting rationalism. Is Popper saying that a convincing argument can fail to convince?
The parenthetical was not a retraction, it's a correct logical point. And Percival mixes up the concepts of "convincing argument" and "convincing rational argument". Popper does not discuss convincing arguments, unqualified.

The point is that we must adopt a rational attitude (one capable of learning, correcting mistakes) in order to learn from any argument (or experience). Correct so far. Then, Popper adds, this point is true regardless of whether or not there is a rational argument for adopting a rational attitude. Whether or not such an argument exists has no bearing on the first statement that irrational attitudes prevent learning.

I see Popper's position on this topic in OSE as flawed, Percival's analyze of it as also confused, and I think my take on the topic resolves the issue (basically there is no issue, there only seems to be from a justificationist perspective). Next, Percival discusses Bartley on this topic (who he also thinks isn't good enough), and then I think he will present his own answers after, we'll find out next time.

Elliot Temple on April 22, 2012


What do you think?

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