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Critical Rationalism Criticisms?

I believe there are no correct, unaddressed criticisms of Karl Popper’s epistemology (Critical Rationalism – CR). If I'm mistaken, I'd like to be told. If others are mistaken, I'd like them to find out and take an interest in CR.

I've found CR criticism falls into some broad categories, with some overlap:

  1. The people who heard Popper is wrong secondhand but didn’t read much Popper and have no idea what CR is actually about. They often try to rely on secondary sources to tell them what CR says, but most secondary sources on CR are bad.

  2. The pro-induction people who don’t engage with Popper’s ideas, just try to defend induction. They don’t understand Popper’s criticism of induction and focus on their own positive case for induction. They also commonly admit that some criticisms of induction are correct, but still won’t change their minds or start learning the solution to induction’s flaws (CR).

  3. The falsificationism straw man, which misinterprets Popper as advocating a simplistic, false view. (There are some other standard myths too, e.g. that Popper was a positivist.)

  4. Critics of The Logic of Scientific Discovery who ignore Popper’s later works and don’t engage with CR's best ideas.

  5. Critics with points which Popper answered while he was still alive. Most criticisms of Popper are already answered in his books, and if not there then in this collection of Popper criticism and Popper’s replies. (I linked volume two which has Popper’s replies, you will want volume 1 also.)

If you believe Popper is wrong, then: Do you believe you personally understand CR? And have you looked at Popper’s books and replies to his critics to see if your point is already answered? If so, have you written down why Popper is mistaken? If not, do you believe someone else has done all this? (They understand CR, are familiar with Popper’s books including his replies to his critics, and wrote down why Popper is mistaken.)

Whether it’s by you or someone else, you can reply with a reference to where this is publicly written down in English. I will answer it (or refer you to an answer or get a colleague to answer). Here is what I expect in return: if your reference is mistaken, you will study CR. You were wrong about CR’s falsity, so it’s time to learn it. If you would be unwilling to learn CR even if you agree that your referenced criticism of CR is false, then you shouldn’t have an opinion on CR. If you still wouldn’t want to learn CR even if all your objections were wrong, then you either aren’t participating in the field (epistemology) or shouldn’t be. (I have nothing against lay people as long as they are interested in learning and thinking. I do have something against people, whether lay or philosophy professors, who state their opinion that Popper is wrong but would not be willing to learn about Popper even if they found out their negative beliefs about Popper are false.)

If you believe one of the many criticisms of Popper is correct, but you don’t know which one and don’t want to pick one, then you are not treating the matter rationally. It’s unacceptable if your plan is, on having one criticism answered, to simply pick another one, and repeat indefinitely. You’re welcome to have one good reference which makes multiple important points, but you don’t get to just keep referencing different critical authors repetitively (as each one fails, you pick another) while not reconsidering your own beliefs. You need to stick your own neck out – as I do. If I can’t answer a challenge to CR I will reconsider my views.

If you want to bring up a couple criticisms at the start, which are written in different places, but you won't add any more later, then that could be reasonable – but provide a brief explanation of why it's needed. In this case where you want to bring up multiple points by different authors, I'd expect you to be referencing specific sections or short works, not multiple whole books. E.g. you could reasonably say you have 3 criticisms of Popper, chapter 3 of book X, chapter 7 of book Y, and paper Z.

Alternatively, if Popper is mistaken but no one has actually written correct criticism (including you), then how do you know he's mistaken? Maybe he's not!

Note: I'm interested in criticisms like "Popper's idea X is false b/c Y.", not like "I wasn't convinced by Popper's writing on topic X." (The second one is compatible with Popper being correct, and is too vague to answer.)

Broadly, the reason criticisms of CR fail is the critics do not understand CR. Having read a lot of Popper criticism, I can report this theme is nearly universal in my experience. (There is one problem with CR, which sometimes comes up, which I fixed.) CR is hard to understand because it disagrees with over 2000 years of epistemological tradition. And people in general massively underestimate the effort it takes to understand ideas well. (People seem to think they can read a philosophy book once and understand it, but that isn’t how it works – study and discussion are needed to clear up misunderstandings.) Pointing out misunderstandings of CR, with quotes, is one of the typical ways I answer CR criticisms.

Secondarily, Popper criticism often fails because the critic is much less smart and knowledgeable than Popper (one of the world’s best ever thinkers). I think people can get smarter and more knowledgeable if they make the effort, but most people don’t make that effort in a serious, persistent way and put a ton of time into it. I will not use this as an argument against any particular criticism. It’s not an argument, but it is a part of the world’s intellectual/scholarship situation which I think matters, and it helps explain what’s going on. It’s hard to criticize your intellectual betters, but easy to misunderstand and consequently vilify them. More generally, people tend to be hostile to outliers and sympathize with more conventional and conformist stuff – even though most great new ideas, and great men, are outliers.

See also: CR reading recommendations.

Elliot Temple on November 28, 2017

Comments (9)

Here's an example of my reply to a CR criticism:


curi at 2:39 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9382
This may be another category of criticism of CR:

6. Silent criticism. This comes from those who know Popper's ideas well, where active, and have now gone mostly silent.

This includes Deutsch, Tanett, Champion, and many others. They have some criticism, either explicit or implicit, but are hiding it and not trying to resolve it.

Anonymous at 2:56 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9384
They do not claim Popper was wrong, they are just failing to fully implement CR ideas in their own lives. I guess you're right there's some disagreement in there somewhere, but I don't think they know what it is.

There's also some other issues mixed in here, e.g. Champion hates Ayn Rand, and I asked him if he hated me too since I love Ayn Rand (I also asked if he had any criticisms of Ayn Rand or, in the alternative, would retract his public statements trashing her), and he really didn't want to talk about it and started being dishonest, and I didn't drop the matter and now he doesn't speak to me (but prior to that he wasn't seriously involved in Popper discussion, e.g. he didn't want to talk about YESNO type issues, and my criticism of Popper's critical preferences, when I first brought those up years ago. Instead he does things like try to write Popper summary works while refusing to actually discuss Popper and deal with criticism of his epistemology views.)

curi at 3:01 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9385
Another category of critic I didn't mention is the pro-CR critic, who thinks CR is great but uses criticism to improve it. These are within-the-system criticisms instead of rejecting-the-system criticisms. An example critic of this type is me.

curi at 3:05 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9386
> I guess you're right there's some disagreement in there somewhere, but I don't think they know what it is.

Yes, I think they do not know what it is. This is an important problem, though, to know what it is.

> There's also some other issues mixed in here, e.g. Champion hates Ayn Rand,

I guess you can easily write an equivalent follow-up post about Objectivism criticisms and the broad categories these fall into.

> and I asked him if he hated me too since I love Ayn Rand

No doubt lots of people hate you, and fear you even.

Anonymous at 4:10 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9387
> No doubt lots of people hate you, and fear you even.

weird, i'm super nice.

curi at 4:17 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9388

Less Wrong Mirror

> Can you suggest a good statement by Popper of his final position? He seemed to be a) forever railing that people misunderstood him b) frequently changing his positions. So it is hard to know what to criticize.

> And given he seems to be in low repute among professional philosophers (that I have spoken to) it would be good to hear the elevator pitch as to why understanding his ideas in detail is a good use of our time.

> You could start with the criticisms in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.

> (simplified)

> a) Refutation requires acceptance of the theory underlying the experiment that refuted the theory. E.g. Think of all the theory that needs to be accepted to agree that the Michelson-Morley experiment refuted absolute space-time. So if you cannot prove any theory refutation also fails.

> b) All critical tests are actually repairable and are not fatal even if failed. Also all tests are probabilistic - you never have a 100% refutation. The way anomalies are actually dealt with is way beyond the scope of Popper's theory.

> c) The importance of auxiliary hypotheses in any test. It is argued that Popper, in dealing with this issue, greatly reduced the scope of his theory, and made it far weaker and more subjective.

Popper didn't change views significantly but LScD is harder to understand, and philosophy is more than hard enough to understand in general. Popper is in low repute because he disagreed with people, and advocated some things (e.g. that induction is imposisble) that they consider ridiculous (which isn't an answer to him). Plus most people go by secondary sources. My colleague surveyed over 100 textbooks and found none of them accurately represented Popper's views – they're broadly similar to the SEP.

(a) Simply ignores Popper's appraoch to fallibilism and conjectural knowledge. It's saying CR doesn't work given infallibilist premises that Popper disputes. (Note the demand for proof.) CR accepts fallibility (which has very compelling logical arguments) and then takes it seriously by e.g. developing a fallibilist theory of knowledge rather than demanding certainty of refutation (which is impossible).

(b) Yes you can repair criticism by modifying an idea or by criticizing the criticism (which is essentially modifying the idea by adding a footnote to address the criticism, which adds content that wasn't there previously). How is that a criticism? Also I don't know why you think fallibilism = probability. Uncertainty frequently isn't numeric. "We may be mistaken in some way we haven't thought of" isn't a probability, the future growth of knowledge is *unpredictable*.

(c) Again there's no understanding of Popper's views here. The thing you're complaining about is somethign Popper emphasized, explained, and addressed. And you don't say what about Popper's position on the matter is weak or subjective (neither of which are part of Popper's own account, and "weak" sounds suspiciously like "fallibile", while "subjective" sounds suspiciously contrary to Popper's theory of Objective Knowledge, which FYI is one of his book titles. I didn't find the weakness or subjectivism when I read Popper, and you haven't told me where to look with any specificity.)


Elevator pitch:

CR solves the fundamental problems of epistemology, like how knowledge can be created, which induction failed to solve. It's a very hard problem: the only solution ever devised is evolution (literally, not analogously – evolution is about replicators, not just genes). In terms of ideas, evolution takes the form of guesses and criticism. CR develops much better criticisms of induction than came before, which are decisive. CR challenges the conventional, infallibilist conception of knowledge – justified, true belief – and replaces it with a non-skeptical, non-authoritarian conception of knowledge: problem-solving information (information adapted to a purpose). Although we expect to learn better ideas in the future, that doesn't prevent our knoweldge from having value and solving problems in the current context. This epistemology is fully general purpose – it works with e.g. moral philosophy, aesthetics and explanations, not just science/observation/prediction. The underlying reason CR works to create knowledge is the same reason evolution works – it's a process of error correction. Rather than trying to positively justify ideas, we must accept they are tentative guesses and work to correct errors to improve them.

This position should not be judged by how nice or strong it sounds; it logically works OK unlike every rival. Decisive issues for why something can't work at all, like induction faces, have priority over how intuitive you find something or whether it does everything you'd like it to do (for example, CR is difficult to translate into computer code or math, which you may not like, but that doesn't matter if no rival epistemology works at all).

I expect someone to bring up Solomonoff Induction so I'll speak briefly to that. It attempts to answer the "infinite general patterns fit the data set" problem of induction (in other words, which idea should you induce from the many contradictory possibilities?) problem with a form of Occam's Razor: favor the ideas with shorter computer code in some language. This doesn't solve the problem of figuring out which ideas are good, it just gives an arbitrary answer (shorter doesn't mean truer). Shorter ideas are often worse because you can get shortness by omitting explanation, reasoning, background knowledge, answers to critics, generality that isn't necessary to the current issue, etc. This approach also, as with induction in general, ignores critical argument. And it's focused on prediction and doesn't address explanation. And, perhaps worst of all: how do you know Occam's Razor is any good? With epistemology we're trying to start at the beginning and address the foundations of thinking, so you can't just assume common sense intuitions in our culture. If we learn by induction, then we have to learn and argue for Occam's Razor itself by induction. But inductivists never argue with me by induction, they always write standard English explanatory arguments on philosophical topics like induction. So they need some prior epistemology to govern the use of the arguments for their epistemology, and then need to very carefully analyze what the prior epistemology is and how much of the work it's doing. (Perhaps the prior epistemology is CR and is doing 100% of the work? Or perhaps not, but that needs to be specified instead of ignored.) CR, by contrast, is an epistemology suitable for discussing epistemology, and doesn't need something else to get off the ground.

(If you'd like more detail, see the reading recommendations linked at the bottom of my post.)

curi at 6:06 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9389
Bunch of typos you might want to fix.

Anonymous at 6:45 PM on November 28, 2017 | #9390

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)