Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Mr Popper's Pensées

It may seem, at first glance, that Margaret Thatcher and I have little in common - what with her being a deceased former Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom widely held responsible for the demolition of the Welfare State and me being a part-time bartender with anarcho-syndicalist sympathies who talks to his cactus - however, I was alarmed to discover recently that Maggie and I have the same favourite philosopher: step forward, Karl Popper.

I've written about Popper here before - you probably read the account of how I used Conjecture and Refutation to find the cause of a mysterious noise in my flat back in 2013 and thought that I had exhausted my Popper material. But I have a couple more things to say.

Karl Popper is held up as one of the great defenders of Liberal Democracy. This is chiefly the legacy of a book he wrote in New Zealand during the Second World War (he was an Austrian of some Jewish descent, so continental Europe was not a place that he could stick around in at that time). The Open Society and its Enemies is a pretty zippy title for a work of political philosophy. No wonder it has sold better than its sequel, The Poverty of Historicism.

The citizens of open societies are permitted (even encouraged) to ask questions about the best way of doing things in a kind of rolling debate that prioritises pragmatism over dogmatism. Closed societies, by contrast, limit the questions that may be asked. Primitive closed societies achieve this by Taboo. The governments of advanced closed societies enact policies based on the dogma of their particular utopian vision and debate and criticism is discouraged or even punished.

Popper's big contribution to the philosophy of science is his Principle of Falsification. He offers a solution to the problem of demarcation - how do you differentiate science from pseudoscience? - by defining science as a process that:

  1.  Offers up theories that can be falsified.
  2.  Vigorously attempts to falsify those theories.
  3.  Abandons those theories that are found to be false. 

My copy of The Open Society and Its Enemies is on Kindle,
so here's a picture of The Logic of Scientific Discovery

There is a link between Popper's political philosophy and his work in the philosophy of science. An open society should approach a problem like a scientist. If an approach is found not to work, it should be abandoned in favour of a different one.

The problem with this is what to use as your benchmark of success or failure of a policy. In a truly open society, this is up for discussion as well. Obviously, here in the UK - from Thatcher, through the New Labour years to the present Brexit fiasco - the benchmark for policy adjustment has been and will be set by neoliberal ideology not open discussion. More's the pity.

A major critic of Karl Popper's work in the Philosophy of Science was Thomas Kuhn. In his slim and eminently readable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn pointed out accurately that the work that scientists do bears little relation to science as Popper defines it. I have never understood why this is considered a criticism of Popper and not of scientists. In my view, Popper's major theses in his scientific and political work could be considered normatively - he can be read as describing how things should be not how things are.

The United States inaugurates its new President on Friday. By Popper's standards, the USA is a pretty open society. The american people can question its government's decisions and protest its actions. The press is independent of government and can be critical of power (except corporate power, obviously, you don't bite the hand that feeds you). Let's hope that the open nature of American society will enable its people to keep tabs on their new leader and mitigate some potential disasters that might ensue from his team's environmental and nuclear policies.      

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