Popper on "Evident" Ideas

An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 151, by Roberta Corvi quotes Popper:
the task of the professional philosopher is critically to investigate the things that so many others accept as evident. In fact, quite a lot of such opinions are mere prejudices, uncritically accepted as evident by very often simply false. And to get away from them, perhaps something like a professional philosopher is required, who will take his time to reflect on them critically.
which is from pages 8-9 of Offene Gesellschaft, offenes Universum, Franz Deuticke, Vienna, 1982

So whenever someone says an idea is too obvious for critical debate, too evident to take seriously disagreement about it, too well established to doubt ... well, that's silly. As Popper points out, people take for granted many false ideas, so the fact that it seems really obvious to you is no guide to its truth.

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The Most Important Improvement to Popperian Philosophy of Science

Here is (my summary, my words) the most important idea contributed to Popper's philosophy of science by someone other than Popper. It was contributed by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality:

Most ideas are criticized and rejected for being bad explanations. This is true even in science where they could be tested. Even most proposed scientific ideas are rejected, without testing, for being bad explanations.

Although tests are valuable, Popper's over-emphasis on testing mischaracterizes science and sets it further apart from philosophy than need be. In both science and abstract philosophy, most criticism revolves around good and bad explanations. It's largely the same epistemology. The possibility of empirical testing in science is a nice bonus, not a necessary part of creating knowledge.

In his book, David Deutsch gives this example: Consider the theory that eating grass cures colds. He says we can reject this theory without testing it.

He's right, isn't he? Should we hire a bunch of sick college students to eat grass? That would be silly. There is no explanation of how grass cures colds, so nothing worth testing. (Non-explanation is a common type of bad explanation!)

Narrow focus on testing -- especially as a substitute for support/justification -- is one of the major ways of misunderstanding Popperian philosophy. Deutsch's improvement shows how its importance is overrated and, besides being true, is better in keeping with the fallibilist spirit of Popper's thought (we don't need something "harder" or "more sciency" or whatever than critical argument!).

Emphasis on explanations is a theme with Deutsch. His upcoming book, The Beginning of Infinity is subtitled "Explanations that transform the world".

Another big idea of Deutsch's is that Popperian epistemology is true for all people. It sounds obvious when stated in that form, but it becomes controversial when one mentions that children are included in "all people". I think Popper would have approved of this, but he didn't go through and explain the consequences and implications for education. Deutsch has done so in detail.

Edit:

In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 41, Roberta Corvi summarizes Popper, "The practical problem of induction is thereby solved: it is transformed into the problem of testing a theory". This is just the kind of empiricist mistake which Deutsch has improved on. Empirical approaches are insufficient in general because they cannot address philosophy (and epistemology should apply to all knowledge), but even in science when testing is possible, strong empiricism (i.e. we learn primarily using observation) is still a mistake.

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Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Here are some comments on essays from the two volume book Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Paul Feyerabend / Universals as Tyrants and Mediators

No strong thesis. (No point.)

Ben-Ami Scharfstein / Our Difficulties in Finding the Right Words

Thesis is that Popper was wrong in "The Myth of the Framework". But he doesn't mention Popper or seem aware of Popper's arguments. He just says stuff Popper already refuted. Also I easily thought a bunch of severe criticisms while reading it. Also it was offensive because it said that blind or deaf people don't think like full human beings.

Also it's careless, e.g. it says "What the adult finds so difficult, the young child finds impossible." But a young child can do it, at the very least, by the method of growing up to be an adult then doing it. So it's not impossible for him. Truth is hard to come by so we have to be more careful than that.

Abner Shimony / The Confrontation and Monadology

Very short dialogs with lots of metaphorical and poetic type language and no clear arguments. Philosophy needs to make clear, understandable statements to be any good.

John Watkins / Epiphenomenalism and Human Reason

No strong thesis or conclusion. Has textual analysis about what specific people thought and meant to say (who cares?). Also contains a list of 5 arguments for pessimism and point by point optimistic commentary which is OK.

Hans Albert / Religion, Science, and the Myth of the Framework

Meandering religious discussion. Concludes atheism is true for some reason (old news, isn't it?). No strong thesis.

Tom Settle / You Can't Haev Science As Your Religion!

Pleasant, conversational writing style. Anti-materialist themes. Complains that the "selfish" gene theory of Dawkins is able to explain "altruistic" behaviors of animals. Calls Dawkins' approach "an impertinent and even insulting program" over this superficial clash of words. He doesn't argue his strong, closed-minded insults made from ignorance.

Nathaniel Loar / Religion and Rational Philosophy: Coming of Age

Lots of discussion of what other people said (who cares? I wanted a thesis). But bonus points for mentioning Xenophanes. The most interesting part was some negative comments on Bartley's views: apparently he was quite religious in outlook.

David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.

Mario Bunge / The Poverty of Rational Choice Theory

This one has a clear thesis: rational choice theory is flawed. OK, cool, and I agree. But the quality of argument is poor. Example:
[Gary S. Becker] concluded [in his 1955 Ph.D. dissertation] that discrimination by whites against blacks reduces the incomes of both groups — a result that went against the conventinoal wisdom that discrimination favors the whites. Regardless of the truth value of this conclusion, it clearly refutes the "rationality" assumption. Indeed, if discrimination does go against the self-interest of the whites, why have so many of them been practicing it systematically and for so long in the USA, Africa, and elsewhere? Was it not because it is highly profitable at least in the (rather longish) short run?
Bunge says the truth value of the conclusion doesn't matter. But it does. If it's false that racial discrimination is counter-productive, then racism presents no problem to the rationality principle. It's only if Becker's conclusion is true that a bunch of white people have behaved contrary to their self-interest.

Bunge then asks why people did it. Maybe because they were racists? Maybe they didn't know it was counter-productive. Maybe they didn't think about economic efficiency when choosing the behavior. Easy question to answer, yet somehow Bunge seems to think he's scored a strong point with his rhetorical question that isn't supposed to leave Becker an answer. Finally Bunge asserts without argument (in the form of a question) that Becker was wrong. If you're going to bring up Becker's dissertation, and say it is false and actually racisim is profitable, shouldn't you mention some of Becker's arguments and criticize them?

Also, btw, Bunge's pro-racism views seem to me the kind of thing one should be a bit more catious about. Do you really want to assert racisim is beneficial without careful deliberation and argument? That's the kind of really awful, anti-liberal conclusion I'd want to be thoughtful about.

By the way this whole thing is a bit strange because Becker's conclusion that people did something that wasn't in their interest clearly contradicts the rational choice theory Bunge says he was advocating (which says people always know what's in their interest and do it).

By the way, rational choice theory, in that incarnation, is ridiculous since just plain ignores ignorance including ignorances of not-yet-invented technologies. If it was right I would have invented the iPhone before Apple since it was in my interest to do so. Except Apple would have invented the iPhone earlier too since that was in their interest. And don't forget my neighbor. This thing is quite a mess!

Noretta Koertge / A Popperian Sociology of Science: The Problem of Credit

Belives there is such thing as "epistemic weight" which is justificationist (weight = amount of justification/authority provided). Uses the common technique of discussing arguments other people wrote instead of providing a strong, original thesis. And, as is common, it picks a variety of boring and unimportant arguments to discuss, such as the feminist claim that it's undesirable for science to be objective because science should incorporate progressive political views.

It considers what it'd be like if all academic papers were published anonymously so people didn't worry about credit and fame, only content.

Lawrence A. Boland / Style Vs. Substance In Economic Metholodogy

It says:
One would think that given all the current discussion of Karl Popper's views of the philosophy of science that communication ought to be easy
But that is not what Popper said nor what his views mean. It's a lot closer to the opposite. Communication is hard, hence Popper's view that by an effort we can learn from each other. The effort is required because of the difficulty to communication (and knowledge creation generally).

Ernest Gellner / Promethus Perplexed

Perplexing mix of stuff. Boring for lack of a strong thesis (i.e. lack of a point).

Jeremy Shearmur / Philosophical Method, Modified Essentialism and the Open Society

His comments about how Aggasi's work is hard to understand due to lack of structure were interesting, and apply somewhat to Popper. He made some good points about ways thinkers can go wrong.

Gershon Weiler / Reason and Myth in Politics

Promised discussion about Israel in the introduction but then mostly talked about Plato. I was disappointed.

Jagdish Hattiangadi / The First World War and 1991

Makes the good point that "liberal nationalism" (which apparently Aggasi advocated) is a contradiction. In my words, liberalism is about cooperation and harmony and the resolution of conflicts, and nationalism sets up separate groups with separate interests and thereby irreconcilable conflicts. Hattiangadi points out a different contradiction about how liberalism allows autonomy to individuals and nationalism instead to groups.

Makes several comments about Edmumd Burke which are wrong. One fact they are incompatible with is Godwin's extreme praise for Burke. (This makes a good generic criticism of all wrong-headed attitudes towards Burke. Just ask yourself: if this was true, would Godwin have liked Burke so much?)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Popper Against Violence

we have a duty towards our children: to educate them, to teach them to construct a better world. A less violent world. For the goal of civilization is precisely the elimination of violence.
In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper by Roberta Corvi which gives the cite Corriere della Sera, 16 July 1992.

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Nomad and Relativism

Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a good book. However this statement in her Letter to My Unborn Daughter is silly:
I will bring you up to have faith in yourself, in science and your own reason and the force of life. And I will never seek to impose my own beliefs or unbelief on you.
The things in the first sentence are Ayaan's beliefs. She says both that she will cause her daughter to have them, and that she won't.

Ayaan fully intends to design her parenting so that her daughter does grow up to have certain beliefs rather than others. She's not going to be passive about it. Somehow she's trying to limit what "beliefs" encompass even though she's well aware that some cultures have wildly different beliefs about science, faith, life and reason (explaining that is a theme of her books).

A theme of Nomad is that modern Western culture is objectively better then primitive, tribal cultures, and that relativism is a mistake. Ayaan is wise to choose to promote her belief in science to her daughter. Her statement "I will never seek to impose my own beliefs" is a thoughtless platitude of just the type her book rightly opposes.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

mac has global autocomplete!!! and more about cocoa hotkeys

omg, opt-esc, global hotkey for cocoa text fields to try to complete the current word, try it!

there's also tons of other stuff like ctrl-k and ctrl-y (like cut/paste, but with a separate buffer, and cuts to end of line instead of using a selection). or ctrl-a and ctrl-e (move cursor to start/end of paragraph). and you can also make your own hotkeys including ones to do multiple things, like i made one to duplicate the current line by piecing together several commands. they also allow hotkey sequences as triggers.

i also just found out about the esc based shortcuts in terminal (press esc, let go, then hit key). esc-d, esc-delete, esc-f, esc-b :-D (those are forward-delete-word, backward-delete-word, forward word, and backward word)

apple does a great job with details like this, when they try. i hope OS X gets more love soon (though i accept that iphone os is more important to their business atm)

Details

http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~jrus/Site/system-bindi...
http://www.erasetotheleft.com/post/mac-os-x-key-bi...
http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~jrus/Site/cocoa-text.h...
http://www.freesmug.org/tutorial/tips/terminalkey

# in terminal
bind -p
open /System/Library/Frameworks/AppKit.framework/Resources/StandardKeyBinding.dict

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Whirlwind Tour of Justificationism

From an email thread about free will:

Once upon a time (624 BC) Thales was born. Thus began philosophy.

Thales invented criticism. Instead of telling his followers what to believe, he made suggestions, and asked that they think for themselves and form their own ideas.

A little later, Xenophanes invented fallibility and the idea of seeking the truth to improve our knowledge without finding the final truth. He also identified and criticized parochialism.

In the tradition of Thales and Xenophanes came Socrates, the man who was wise for admitting his vast ignorance (among other things).

But only two generations after Socrates, philosophy was changed dramatically by Aristotle. Aristotle invented justificationism which has been the dominant school of philosophy since, and which opposes the critical, fallibilist philosophies which preceded him (and which were revived by Popper and Deutsch).

Aristotle's way of thinking had some major strands such as:

1) he wanted episteme -- objectively true knowledge.
2) he wanted to guarantee that he really had episteme -- he wanted justified, true knowledge. he rejected doxa (conjecture).
3) he thought he had episteme -- he was "the man who knows"
4) he thought he had justification
5) in relation to this, he invented induction as a method of justifying knowledge

Thus Aristotle rejected the fallibilist, uncertain ethos of striving to improve that preceded him, and replaced it with an authoritarian approach seeking guarantees and to establish existing knowledge against doubt.

Induction, as well as all other attempts, were unable to justify knowledge. Nothing can guarantee that some idea is episteme, so all attempts to do it failed.

Much later, Bacon attached induction to science and empiricism. And some people like Hume noticed it didn't work. But they didn't know what to do without it because they were still focussed on the same problem situation Aristotle had laid out: that we should justify our knowledge and find guarantees. So without induction they still had to figure out how to do that, and salvaging induction seemed easier than starting over. Hence the persistent interest in reviving induction.

What Popper did is go back to the old pre-Aristotle philosophical tradition which favors criticism and fallibilism, and which has no need for justification. Popper accepted that doxa (conjectures) have value, as Xenophanes had, and he explained how we can improve our knowledge without justification. He also refuted a bunch of justificationist ideas.

Then David Deutsch wrote "A Conversation About Justification" in _The Fabric of Reality_.

So how does that relate to free will? The basic argument against free will goes like this, "There is no way to justify free will, or guarantee it exists, therefore it's nonsense." The primary argument against free will is nothing but a demand for justification in the Aristotelian style.

As an example, one might say free will is nothing but a conjecture without an empirical evidence. To translate, that means free will is merely doxa, and hasn't got any empirical justification. This is essentially true, but not actually a problem.

Arguments against free will take many guises, but justificationist thinking is the basic theme giving them appeal.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (12)

Think!

I made a new philosophy website.

http://curi.us/think/

It won't look right in Internet Explorer.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (6)

Programming and Epistemology

Organizing code is an instance of organizing knowledge. Concepts like being clear, and putting things in sections, apply to programming and philosophy both.

DRY and YAGNI aren't just programming principles. They also apply to thinking and knowledge in general. It's better to recognize a general case, then think of several cases in separate, repetitive ways. And it's better to come up with solutions for actual problems and not create a bunch of over-engineered theory that may never have a purpose.

The programming methodology of starting with the minimum thing that will work, and then making lots of little improvements to it until its awesome -- based in part on actual feedback and experience with the early versions -- is also a good general method of thinking connected to gradualist, evolutionary epistemology. It's also how, say, political change should be done: don't design a utopia and then try to implement it (like the French Revolution), instead look for smaller steps so it's possible to change course mid way once you learn more about it, so you get some immediate benefit and to reduce risk.

Programmers sometimes write articles about how evil rewrites are, and how they lead to vaporware. Nothing is ever perfect, but existing products have a lot of useful work put into them, so don't start over (you'll inevitably run into new, unforeseen problems) but instead try to improve what you have. Similarly, philosophically, there are three broad schools of thought:

1) the conservative approach where you try to prevent any changes.

2) the liberal approach where you try to improve what you have.

3) the radical approach, where you say existing ideas/knowledge/traditions are broken and worthless, and should be tossed out and recreated from scratch.

The liberal, non-revolutionary approach is the right one not just for code rewrites but also in philosophy in general (and in politics).


Consider two black boxes which take input and give output according to some unknown code inside. You try them out, and both boxes give identical output for all possible inputs. You wonder: are the boxes identical? Are they the same, for all practical intents and purposes? Must they even be similar?

Programmers, although they don't usually think about it this way, already know the answer. Code can be messy, disorganized, and unreadable, or not. Code can have helpful comments, or not. One can spend a day refactoring or deleting code, and make sure all the tests pass, so it does exactly the same thing as before, but now it's better. Some code can be reused in other projects, and some isn't set up for that. Some code has tests, and some doesn't. One box could be written in C, and another in lisp.

None of these things matter if you only treat code as a black box and just want to use it. But if you ever have to change the code, like adding new features, doing maintenance or doing bug fixes, then all these differences which don't affect the code's output are important.

I call what the code actually does its "denotation" and the other aspects its "structure", and I call this field structural epistemology. Programming is the best example of where it comes up, but it also has more philosophical relevance. One interesting question is if/how/why evolution creates good structure in genetic code (I think it does, but I'm not so clear on what selection pressure caused it). Another example is that factories have knowledge structure issues: you can have two factories both making toys, with the same daily output, but one is designed so it's easier to convert it to a car factory later.

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Mises on Force and Persuasion

Liberalism in the Classical Tradition by Ludwig von Mises, p 51
Repression by brute force is always a confession of the inability to make use of the better weapons of the intellect
This is similar to Godwin:
If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.

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Milton Friedman was a Statist

Now you know.

http://www.hoover.org/multimedia/uk/3411401.html

Edit:

In the interview, he expresses disagreement with Ayn Rand and her view that the State is bad because it uses force against its citizens. He does not provide any argument that she's mistaken, or that his view is better.

Milton also, for example, advocated a negative income tax. That means if you contribute a sufficiently small amount to the economy then the State takes money by force from other citizens and gives it to you.

The purpose of this post is simply to inform people about how a libertarian icon is a blatant Statist. (And, by the way, he's not the only one.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (3)

Beyond Criticism?

The Retreat To Commitment, by William Warren Bartley III, p 123:
There may, of course, be other nonlogical considerations which lead one to grant that it would be pointless to hold some particular view as being open to criticism. It would, for instance, be a bit silly for me to maintain that I held some statements that I might make—e.g., "I am over two years old"—open to criticism and revision.

Yet the fact that some statements are in some sense like this "beyond criticism" is irrelevant to our problems of relativism, fideism, and scepticism.
The claim that some statements are beyond criticism is anti-fallibilist and anti-Popperian.

It is not at all silly to maintain that the example statement is open to criticism. It's essential. Not doing so would be deeply irrational. We can make mistakes, and denying that has consequences, e.g. we'll wonder: how do we know which things we can't be mistaken about? And that question begs for an authoritarian, as well as false, answer.

You may be thinking, "Yes, Elliot, but you are over two years old, and we both know it, and you can't think of a single way that might be false." But I can.

For example, my understanding of time could contain a mistake. Is that a ridiculous possibility? It is not. Most people today have large mistakes in their understanding of time (and of space)! Einstein and other physicists discovered that and space are connected and it's weird and doesn't follow common sense. For example, the common sense concept of two things happening simultaneously at different places is a mistake: what appears simultaneous actually depends where you watch from. If some common sense notions of time can be mistaken, why laugh off the possibility that our way of keeping track of how much time has passed contains a mistake?

Another issue is when you start counting. At conception? Most people would say at birth. But why birth? Maybe we should start counting from the time Bartley was a person. That may have been before or after birth. According to many people, brain development doesn't finish until age 20 or so. In that case, a 21 year old might only have been a full person for one year.

Of course there are plenty of other ways the statement could be mistaken. We must keep an open mind to them so that when someone has a new, counter-intuitive idea we don't just laugh at him but listen. Sure the guy might be a crank, but if we ignore all such ideas that will include the good ones.

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