Popper: two philosophical analogies (Part I: Kant, Popper and Certainty)

Introduction

Continuing my series of posts on Popper’s ‘Logic of Scientific Discovery’, I thought some reflections were due. I’ve technically finished the monograph, but I then realised that I have another 200 pages of Appendices and other such suffix-type notes that Popper wished to add to what he seemingly percieved to be his masterpiece. Popper sought to reflect more on his system of science, and in some ways hold the fort on certain issues, or even to think differently on some topics (but not so far as to change his mind significantly).

Throughout the book, Popper elaborates his views through elongated footnotes, such footnotes are pages long at times, and are comparable to the kind of footnotes that theologian Karl Barth left in his works. It almost looks sloppy on first sight, but the need for addressing tangential issues is important not only for clarifying Popper’s views for scholarly or exegetical purposes, but to also anticipate his critics (or perhaps, it amy seem, to respond to them). There is an interesting footnote for instance, pertaining to a discussion of truth where he starts with something like ‘since this publication, my friend Afred Tarski had informed me of his work on truth…’, with sentences like that, I am exceptionally frightened by the more highly technical aspects of this work.

I’d like to address some remarks on the conclusion of the monograph, as well as on one of the appendices, which consists of a piece written about Popper’s thought on falsification in relation to verification theory. I will frame my considerations by way of analogies, between Popper’s thought and that of Kant as well as Popper and Einstein.

Popper and Kant: Fallibility and Apodictic certainties

When we speak of ‘Knowledge’, we can mean a whole range of things. I take it for granted that the English word ‘knowledge’ in the philosophical tradition relates to the historical correlate terms of ‘episteme’ or ‘erkenntnis’. Epistemology usually, in the traditions of  Hume or Kant pertain to a specific kind of thing, facts, propositions and usually unchanging things. It is not the facts that change, it is whether we are right or wrong. This leaves aside the important question of what other forms of things we would normally consider as knowable are excluded, for instance, social knowledge or how facts are mediated by heirarchies, or introspective notions of self-knowledge: how is it to love someone as a form of knowing? This are issues which are valid but take place in a context some time after Popper.

Scientific knowledge and knowledge simpliciter

One question pertinent to the Vienna philosophers, or perhaps even to Early Modern philosophy, is whether epistemology pertains to to knowledge simpliciter. If we talk about knowledge simpliciter, we can include all things that we intuitively or construe as knowing. So, ‘Lois Lane loves Clark Kent’ or Batman’s moral conviction for vigilante justice count as forms of knowledge. It is more than suggestable to consider that when the modern philosophers, and especially the Vienna philosophers were doing epistemology, they were not so much thinking of knowledge simpliciter, but science as the paradigm case for what is knowable.

I pose an analogy with Kant and Popper, because the latter takes this seemingly for granted. Epistemology in the ‘Logik is scientific knowledge. Popper’s system is a system of science, if Popper were thinking about wider forms of knowledge, he’d probably want to use a different account than applying his mechanics of falsification and probability axioms to propositions or thoughts such as ‘I’m hungry’. Kant on the other hand seems to consider knowledge simpliciter. In Kant’s own period, his epistemology resmbles something of what we might now consider (albeit anachronistically) as a cognitive science, or foundations of cognition (without the neuroscience), Kant’s philosophy was part of a system, yes, but a system of understanding the human in a fundamentally holistic way. For Kant, epistemology was an important part of the way a being can know of the world, but this cognitive process in his transcendental Idealism also fed into his moral and ‘aesthetic’ theory. Popper has no such ambitions. In this way Popper and Kant are disanalogous.

To constantly make comparisons between Kant and Popper (which I have done) would seem to be disanalogous to Kant’s larger systematic concerns. However, an analogy can be made of a certain reading of Kant. If we are to consider Kant as having in mind (as well as ‘epistemology as knowledge simpliciter’) natural science as the paradigm case of knowledge, or what good agents should process as knowledge without reasonable doubts (as compared to Cartesian or Humean Doubt), then a good interpretative case can be made to frame Kant as a philosopher concerned with Scientific Epistemology. There are a few distinct reasons to adopt this view:

  • Kant’s explicit and implicit references to the success of the Newtonian ‘philosophy’. On the one hand Kant admires its success and sees it in a way that his philosophy should aspire to. Newton’s philosophy is a mix of rationalism in his use of formalisations and mathematical generalisations of reality which are not perceptually derived, as well as empiricism, in the fact that these observations pertain to the empirical, and are scrutinised by the empirical.
  • An extra note: despite Kant’s interest in the success of Newton’s natural philosophy, he takes to a certain disagreement to Newtonian method as he sees it. This is the primary concern of ‘Metaphysical Foundation of Natural Science’.
  • Kant’s familiarity with Lavousier’s emerging theory of oxygen against phlogiston is influential in the sections which relate to the ‘systematicity’ thesis, or in more Kantian terms, what he construes as the positive role of reason. Which is described towards the end of the First Critique.
  • Kant’s systematicity thesis is also described in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, the fact that Kant would expand his First Critique to wider concerns about natural science strongly suggests that Kant himself valued a connection between the conception of epistemology with ‘natural science as knowledge’
  • Lets say we don’t accept that it is the Historical Kant’s view that epistemology should take to scientific knowledge as its paradigm case: there is an historical connection between Kant’s writings on his considerations of natural science (in the Critical period) with the later work of the so-called ‘Neo-Kantian’ movement in the 19thC such as Hermann Cohen, Ernst Cassirer, and even Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach (despite the fact that both Carnap and Reichenbach made much effort to distance themselves from the more ‘metaphysical’ reputation of Kant).
  • Popper would be reacting to a ‘form’ of the neo-kantian influence of Reichenbach and Carnap, and in doing so shows his own influence. Popper himself admits of the Falsification and demarcation issue not to arise from Hume (as verificationists claim Hume), but more from Kant – this issue refers to different passages of Kant than I am concerned with for this post.

(but I digress)

At the end of the Logik, Popper makes a case for a distinct way of looking at scientific knowledge. Forget truth, science is about degrees and corroboration. Science is a matter of probabilistic models telling us whether a claim has more credence or less credence. Popper fleshes out this account by starting off with his initial conditions of demarcation and falsification, and then introduces a model of probability where the more instances or regularities of a formalised phenomena aggregates our belief in it. Truth and falsity are out of the picture. Science does not look like the Enlightenment certainties of old, but then again maybe it never did.

Many of the modern philosophers believed in truth as a bivalent affair. Something was either true or false. Further to this, scientific knowledge was often linked to necessary knowledge, and special kinds of scientific knowledge (such as mathematics/theoretical physics) was of the highest certainty, and once we get it correct, relates to the a priori necessary truths of reality. Popper will have none of this, however and this is where perhaps Kant and Popper will part ways permanently. For Kant, apodictic certainties were an important part of true knowledge, Kant’s icon of a good claim knowledge would have been how Lavousier’s oxygen trumped phlogiston, or the success of the Newtonian science. Ironically, it is in Popper (and we shall later see in Einstein), that it is the limit of the applicability of scientific notions that is the exact reason why falsification should be adhered. In short, for Kant, certainty was the paradigm bliss of knowledge with Newton’s physics as an example of it. For Popper, a post-Newtonian world where it was expected that our best theories today would probably not be our best theories tomorrow, Popper goes into some detail about his ‘reservations’ of how Quantum Mechanics is interpreted.

I’ve often tried to pose that any good theory of knowledge (that takes scientific knowledge as its paradigm case) must take into account the fact of theory change. I’ve often posed that Kant’s notion of systematicity, with the notion of what he calls ‘reflective judgment’ in the third critique, as an openess to accept that what our fundamental organisation of a priori concepts are can and will change. But to also accept the world of science as a series of certainties puts this a priori openness into repute. Often people such as Reichenbach have criticised Kant for his adherence to the ‘certainty’ of Newton’s physics to base his transcendental aesthetic ( the claim that space and time are assumed before experience) commits himself to metaphysical claims about space that are no longer applicable (namely, Euclidean geometry, which Newton himself presumes). Kant’s systematicity thesis has a lot to arm itself with, but Popper shows that an 18thC theory finds problems with holding to certainty in a 20thC age. Kant was a rationalist philosopher in the age of Newton. Post-Newton, Popper was a rationalist in the age of Einstein.

(Next post: Einstein and Popper)

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3 thoughts on “Popper: two philosophical analogies (Part I: Kant, Popper and Certainty)

  1. Keep ’em coming! Rather you than me with Popper’s Logik… I’ve contented myself to study Popper second hand. If I’m going to tackle something that initially seems impenetrable, I’ll work on my next Kant – they’ve all been thoroughly rewarding thus far, and I feel doubtful I will be able to get as much out of Popper. *waves*

    • Your comment deserves a lol. You’d want to read Kant and put in a lot of effort and you’ve written well on Kant in the past, as well as other philosophers who are not particularly easy (such as the series on Walton), but the buck stops at Karl Popper, somehow Popper is beyond the pale!!

      I have to admit, someone who can really understand Popper (I do not count myself as such a person) need a background in pure mathematics, has an at least passing interest in statistics (and a lot of patients to go through Popper’s ‘eccentric’ use of logic to describe probability), and having an understanding of the historical context of early 20thC philosophy of science (ie. vienna circle, wittgenstein, neo-Kantianism in the 1870s, Einstein’s influence..) will give one a fulfilling reading. I dont want to sound elitist by saying you need x,y,z a background in philosophy (or logic and mathematics for that matter – I am NOT a logician) to read popper, because apparently he’s one of the few (perhaps only) philosophers who are not only read, but taken seriously by actual scientists.

      Despite the great work of philosophy of science and metaphysics today, it’s not read widely. Popper was read widely in an age where the boundary between philosophy and science was an warm cuddly spot between two venn circles (I’m not being technical today). I am not sure to be honest if these scientists really understand Popper after the stuff on Falsification and Demarcation, when it goes to the ‘degrees of universality’ and his probability stuff, because, that’s hard, for anyone. Popper himself interestingly notes that he dislikes writing such technical notation but felt it a necessary evil.

      For someone who is a computer scientist by training and a game designer by trade, considering Popper might be fruitful if you compare it to say, a model. Games are not very different from models surely? Perhaps construing games as probabilistic systems (with game physics, AI behaviour or difficulty adjusting features) would be interesting. Creating a game is very much creating a world, in terms of the imagination, and in terms of the rules/mechanics/physics etc.

      Michael’s next post concerns the relationship between Einstein and Popper. We would recommend reading ‘Geometry and Experience’ by Einstein (It’s available on public domain, and librivox) in a short book called ‘Sidelines on Relativity’. It is one of those unique books which is for a general audience (I promise). Popper has also written about his Logik in more summarised and accessible terms outside of the Logik, I think the ‘Postcript’ and the ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ both pertain to the Logik. Although I think that they all presume familiarity in some way with what the Logik has to say.

      Regards to you and your family, Chris
      Sinistre

  2. *chuckles* I suppose this requires some explanation… Working on Kant is rewarding because reading Kant gets me his perspective, the perspective of intellectuals in his time and the perspectives that later philosophers pushed against – reading Kant enriches the whole philosophical discourse for me. But reading Popper doesn’t do this, perhaps because Lakatos died too young and Feyerabend declared war on his tutor; Popper feels like an interesting branch line – somewhere I’d need a good reason to visit.

    I think I meet all the requirements to decode Popper, except the most important – I’m not sure I have a reason to do so. Of course, that may change! 🙂

    All the best!

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