Friday, 8 January 2016

Reply to Hedlund.

Frankly, I am a bit puzzled. My latest posts on Popper generated some controversy among my readers.

The latest comment, by long-time reader Hedlund, replying to "Popper, Art and Science" is an example. Hedlund starts like this:
"The importance of falsification is widely recognized these days, and there's overlap between Popper's critical rationalism and a thoroughgoing realism.
"An adequate summary of Popper would not end at falsificationism. Also important is anti-justificationism;"

At a given moment, Hedlund adds:
"Feyerabend, in Against Method, gives examples of theories that were by all appearances falsified, yet still advanced our understanding (and in some cases were later vindicated)."
And ends like this:
"I would argue that critical realism/dialectical materialism has the good aspects of Popper without the weaknesses."

My father told me the following folk tale when I was a kid.

A hungry traveler arrived to a poor village. Lacking money to buy anything from them, the villagers -- already destitute themselves -- wouldn't be able or willing to help him, he guessed.

What to do?

The traveler found a big pot. Without saying a word, he gathered some wood and started a fire. Next, he filled the pot with water and put it to heat over the fire; back into the creek, he got ostensibly busy examining stones.

"Tsk, tsk. Too light", he would mumble to himself, observing all sides of a big stone, before throwing it away.

Occasionally he would drop a stone into the pot, saying something like "You beauty".

After some time,  a villager standing by, unable to resist the curiosity, asked: "What are you doing?"

"I'm selecting food stones. What does it look like?" answered the traveler, without stopping his search.

"What for?"

"To make me some stone soup", answered the traveler, pointing to the pot.

"Stone soup?"

"Yeah. Haven't you ever tried?" asked the traveler.

"Nope. Is it any good?" asked the villager, himself hungry, his interest aroused.

"Delicious, and nourishing, too!" answered the traveler, enthusiastically. "Want to share with me when it's ready?"

"Sure. Thanks!" was the villager's excited answer.

"The only thing missing is some condiment. I've just run out...", said the traveler.

"No worries!" replied the villager. "I just happen to have some condiment left. To be honest, it's all I have left, too".

After a while, the pot was boiling, with its stones, plus condiments, potatoes and cabbage, bacon and garlic, a few onions and carrots, fava beans and even some wild herbs for good measure, all added by the villagers, after the traveler had told them what he was doing.

Everybody shared in the stone soup. And it was as nutritious and mouth-watering as the traveler promised.

As a child, perhaps I was already a bit too skeptical for my own good, but I remember wondering that perhaps the stones had nothing to do with that.


I'm pretty sure that, after removing everything questionable in Popper's philosophy of science (provided that's possible), adding additional safeguards to avoid arbitrary decisions -- as Hedlund proposes -- one's left with something as good as the stone soup with all the "optional" ingredients.

That's not my objection. Hedlund may have the recipe for a stone soup, and good and nourishing it may well be. One thing, however, it is not: it evidently is not Popper's soup. In this episode, Popper is the stone. One may call Hedlund's falsificationism and justificationism, but it is not Popper's  falsificationism and justificationism. If you do what Hedlund advises, you can discard the name "Popper" as easily as you can discard the stones in the stone soup.

And, unlike me, Popperians may object to that. One would need to convince them to accept the changes, just like the traveler had to convince the villagers to provide the ingredients. That was easy in the story. It may be harder with Popperians.

This is my personal take and I might be mistaken, but for me the popularity of Popper's philosophy of science does not come from its goodness, but from the fact it enables its users to deny scientific status to those they don't like. It's a simple matter: fairly or not, you deny a hypothesis its falsifiability; or, once "falsified", you deny the opportunity to justify the falsification.

Is this ease of use that makes Popper's falsificationism useful to Popperians: it makes of them bouncers, judges. Take that away, and you may have unhappy villagers.

Or, well, like I said, that's my personal take. I'm no philosopher of science.


  1. It might have been clearer of me to have said "what is good in Popper is also present in [x]," without any suggestion that [x] is making anything like an attempt to prop the man up ala Weekend at Bernie's.

    I won't deny the man's importance to the history of philosophy, and I do recognize that sufficiently sophisticated expressions of this or that position often erase differences between it and its rivals. That said, I'll still probably butt heads with people over the demarcation issue, or the claim that he solved the problem of induction, and so on.

    1. I am still not quite sure of the differences in opnion you two are expressing. It is a very fine one eitherway but not not worth exploring.

      You seem to be debating different things. Helund is expressing the of merits of "sophisticated falsification" especially when tied in with other philosophies of science but also agreeing with Magpie on the failure of "simple falsification".

      Magpie doesn't seem to have an issue with this. He is saying that Popper's falsification (And how it is used by his fans) is simple in content and lacks the nuance to be considered anything resembling what Hedlund proposes as "sophisticated falsification"

      Is this an interpretation issue on how Popper is read?
      I know that the fans do use the theory how Magpie has indicated: Aka as a bouncer at the door. Yet is this a misunderstanding on their part? Or is it a just expression of Popper's thought?

      I don't know because I have only read third-hand accounts of Popper's thought with some scattered quotes.

      Have I summarised both your opnions correctly? If not, let me know. I hope that my outside perspective helps.


    2. @D.K.

      "Is this an interpretation issue on how Popper is read? I know that the fans do use the theory how Magpie has indicated: Aka as a bouncer at the door. Yet is this a misunderstanding on their part? Or is it a just expression of Popper's thought?"

      I'm speaking on my behalf alone.

      The bottom line for me is that philosophers of science, in general, as philosophers of science, may have very little useful to contribute to science. On this, I follow Percy Bridgman (I have a recent post on him).

      I, however, go one step beyond Bridgman: I believe philosophers of science may be really destructive, because (to reply to this part of your question) this often is not "a misunderstanding on their part". In Popper's particular case, I think it is "a just expression of Popper's thought" (more on this below).

      Let me qualify all the above. A scientist, who also is a philosopher of science, perhaps may make more useful, thoughtful contributions than someone whose only qualification for the job is their connections, willingness, and self-confidence. Independence is another requisite: someone with an ideological chip on the shoulder fails on that account.

      (Incidentally, that includes me. The thing is I don't go around telling anybody what to do.)

      Anyone (including philosophers of science) forcing others (including scientists) to do this and not that, is -- for me at least -- a no-no. Especially when a lot of hand-waving is involved.

      Let's move now to what kind of contribution philosophers of science can make (and this is where, I think, the interpretation issue you mentioned is very important).

      Jason Smith, a physicist who posted on this subject, for instance, seems to believe in Popper. However accurate that belief might be, he has a much more sensible and flexible interpretation of Popper. In his views, Popperianism is a much less prescriptive, normative, thing. Less injunctions of the kind "thou shalt not".

      In this -- from my point of view -- he is not far from Hedlund.

      True, that makes their interpretations much better, much less dangerous; they take away most of Popper's bite. But even those better interpretations don't remove all the risks inherent in a philosophy of science (any philosophy of science).


      Let me sum up: a philosopher of science may promote or decry a theory until she is blue in the face. That won't make the theory any truer or falser.

      What she can do is to fool people. That's the danger inherent in philosophies of science.

      That function was once performed by religion and high prelates. In our secular times, we came up with the philosophy of science and its philosophers.

    3. Great posts and discussions! Jason Smith (the scientist you mention), has a brief reply to Hedlund here.

      I'm a fan of Jason and his blog. I've noted a somewhat anti-philosophy tone there at times, so I was a tiny bit surprised to see him defend Popper.

      I'm also a fan of physicist Sean Carroll. Carroll describes himself as a philosophy friendly physicist. He's a busy guy but has responded to email questions in the past, so I asked him. No response yet, but this is what he says on his blog. Also look for his Rationally Speaking interview with Julia Galef.

    4. Massimo Pigliucci (formerly involved with Rationally Speaking) did a piece on Sean's take here (with links).

      I notice he has the same blog template as you do, complete with the birds (magpies?).