17. How do you regard Karl Popper?

Karl Popper was cited in the postscript to my first book Psychology in Science (p. 201). That was in relation to a basic difference between the neuroscientists Roger Sperry (1913-1994) and John Carew Eccles (1903-1997) about cerebral mechanisms and the mind/brain problem. Eccles had teamed up with Popper (1902-1994), and the result was The Self and Its Brain (1977), which I read some four years after publication. That book was distinctive, and something quite apart from the standard idioms of British analytical philosophy.

Eccles was an Australian theist and brain scientist who had gained the Nobel Prize in Medicine for research on the synapse (in contrast to Sperry, an American who had won the Nobel Prize for split-brain research). Popper enjoyed a rather elite celebrity profile in Britain as a philosopher of science. Yet even for Popper, the excursion into mind/brain was special mission activity. The sub-title of his collaboration with Eccles was An Argument for Interactionism. That represents an abbreviation for dualist-interactionism, a description favoured by Eccles for his theory. The latter was strongly resistant to a materialist interpretation, and Popper seems to have been influenced by Eccles, contributing his own discursive complement in favour of “dualism.”




l to r: Roger Sperry, John Carew Eccles, Karl Popper

The attendant mind/brain debates are still in process, with cognitivist psychology vying with other formats for supremacy. The various possibilities in view provoked from me an elaborate sub-title for my first published book, namely The relevance of new models in the interdisciplinary study of psychology: an essay in psychobiological and cross-cultural implications. Reductionism was one of the problems to contend with. Some said that brain studies were in danger of incurring missing segments, a reservation which referred to interpretation rather than the empirical discoveries. Sperry had contributed an important x factor in his split-brain research, but this was now a subject contested from different angles.

“Sperry aligns himself with a mentalist stance, but discountenances dualism” (Psychology in Science, 1983, p. 201). I was not at all certain that Karl Popper had selected the best arguments in his version of self/brain. I became rather sceptical in this respect.

Sixty years before, Popper had been apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in his native Vienna. He had subsequently gained a Ph.D. in 1928, and yet he attributes to the cabinetmaker the major formative influence in his becoming “a disciple of Socrates.” His pre-academic phase of making kneehole desks had taught “that any wisdom to which I might ever aspire could consist only in realising more fully the infinity of my ignorance” (Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1976, p. 7).

Six years after gaining his credential, his first book Logik der Forschung was published at Vienna. Popper became associated with the famous Vienna Circle, though his own emerging theory moved at a tangent. The Vienna Circle comprised logical positivists, and included men like Herbert Feigl, Moritz Schlick, and Rudolf Carnap. Popper later complained that philosophers in England and America mistook him for a logical positivist until the English translation of his first book (now The Logic of Scientific Discovery) was published in 1959. In his autobiography, Popper claims responsibility for having killed off logical positivism (Unended Quest, p. 88). He replaced verifiability by falsifiability, a controversial view which denied the traditional role of inductivism that had commenced with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

In Popper’s own words “I could apply my results concerning the method of trial and error in such a way as to replace the whole inductive methodology by a deductive one” (ibid., p. 79). This buoyant confidence has met with repudiation, especially in view of the accompanying Popperian emphasis that “scientific theories, if they are not falsified, forever remain hypotheses or conjectures” (ibid.).

Moving to Britain after the Second World War, Popper became Professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. His influential books included The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (1982). This was one of three works which had remained in proof format for many years. That same year appeared Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, and this was followed by Realism and the Aim of Science (1983). Popper is generally identified as a realist arguing for probabilistic knowledge in science as distinct from certainty. His excursion into quantum theory was unusual for siding with Einstein and Schrodinger rather than Heisenberg and Bohr.

Various key concepts at large were described by Popper as metaphysical theories or “metaphysical research programmes,” the ideological map here including determinism, indeterminism, idealism, realism, and nihilism. Such theories or programmes are not testable scientific theories in this perspective, though they are granted a status as “ideas of the greatest importance” (Unended Quest, p. 151). For Popper, even the Darwinian theory of natural selection was a metaphysical research programme (ibid.).

The meaning of the word “idealist” has varied substantially. Popper tended to identify the Vienna Circle as “epistemological idealists” (ibid., p. 81). Yet one of his major supporters (Bryan Magee) is strongly associated with idealist affinities in philosophy, relating to Kant and Schopenhauer, who signify something quite different to logical positivism. It is less confusing to consult Popper’s description of logical positivism in terms of “trying to find a criterion which made metaphysics meaningless nonsense, sheer gibberish” (ibid., p. 80).

One of the most famous books of Karl Popper is Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963), which insists upon a method of critical discussion going back to the PreSocratics, a trend described by Popper as having comprised a unique transition in human thinking.

More specifically, the Popperian method advocated the falsification of theories. Detecting errors was crucial. The criterion of falsifying theories has been viewed in the light of separating science from pseudoscience. It is certainly unwise to be dogmatic. Yet there seemed something of a blank wall involved here. Popper is famous for such assertions as: “All we can do is to search for the falsity content of our best theory.” The human mind here becomes very limited in potential. Moreover, it emerged that there is no certainty in science; empiricism cannot make any giant leap to providing scientific laws, because those laws will remain theories. Better theories will always replace inferior ones, like Einstein transcending Newton. Yet the search for certainty has to be relinquished, because certainty is just not possible. We can merely solve problems.

Popper was a deductivist. He believed that he had overcome the traditional problem of induction. However, his argument against inductionism has been considered extreme by many analysts. It has been said that only a minority of philosophers continue to defend the Popper angle in relation to science, though his political philosophy is another matter. Many contestants of Popper say that his falsificationist approach is not a viable methodological stance.



l to r: Karl Popper, Bryan Magee

The Popperian method became known as critical rationalism, which was his own designation. One of his leading supporters was the philosopher Bryan Magee, who has called him “the foremost philosopher of the age.” Yet Magee also indicates some limitations, and seems to lament the fact that Popper did not become a philosopher in the category of Kant or Schopenhauer. Popper’s realist outlook amounted to believing that the empirical world is all there is. He was by no means the first such believer, though critical rationalism was far less common. Popper’s worldview is resistant to certain knowledge or the pursuit of ultimates. Magee comments: “There is no point in speculating, because we do not have even the concepts with which to do the speculating” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997, p. 248).

Popper may be called a pessimist on some accounts. “All his work was enclosed within the unattainable horizons of the empirical realm” (ibid.). The factor of disbelief should be stressed. “There are things he does not see any grounds for believing, and therefore does not believe” (ibid., p.250). One of those things was the existence of the self after death. “He said that he had no wish for an existence after his bodily death; and he thought that people who yearned for one were rather pathetic egotists” (ibid.).

Bryan Magee effectively popularised Popper. See further Magee, Karl Popper (1973), and Magee, Philosophy and the Real World (1985). Professor Magee also became known for his celebration of a very different philosopher, namely Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). It is not easy to reconcile the two preferred thinkers (Popper and Schopenhauer), as the starting points were so different.

The Popperian denial of certainty in science contradicted earlier views such as those of the otherwise sceptical Bertrand Russell. This matter is not universally agreed upon, and nor are the grounds for belief in metaphysical factors deemed nebulous by all parties. Popper gained more general recognition for his theme of “the open society,” which was pressed in The Open Society and Its Enemies (2 vols, 1945). Just as in science, he urged, so in politics a single viewpoint should not be enforced, as this can lead to a situation where dissent is proscribed. A society which allows critical discussion is likely to be far more effective at solving problems than the alternative closed society. Popper was in sore friction with both Marxism and Fascism in this argument, and there is much to be said for his perspective on these points. Popper also disapproved of Plato’s Republic, interpreting this in terms of a totalitarian regime. Other analysts have disagreed with the demotion of Plato, which they regard as a caricature associated with much later political events, and one that does not penetrate the ancient Greek literary strategy. Popper’s supporting work was The Poverty of Historicism (1957).

A striking aside to the output of Popper is afforded by certain details of academic opposition to him. Oxford University imposed a cordon against professorship in his direction, and the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) is said to have played the decisive role here. According to Bryan Magee, “the most scandalous aspect of a ripely scandalous situation was that several of the ablest philosophers in Oxford would admit in private, if the challenge were pressed, that Popper was the outstanding philosopher then practising in Britain; they knew he was better than they were, and did not want him on their territory” (Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 89). Ryle and Sir Alfred J. Ayer (1910-1989) are both mentioned in this context, and one can only wonder at the objectivity in high places. See also J. L. Austin and the Oxford Tradition (2009) and Bryan Magee's Critique of Oxford (2009).

The testimony of Professor Magee is weighty, coming from an Oxford man who taught philosophy at Balliol College. Ryle is now dwarfed by the fame of Popper, and even Ayer trails behind in the celebrity ratings. If the open society fails at academic levels, what hope is there in less educated sectors?

A problem with “open society” concepts (associated with Popper's rival Paul Feyerabend) is that new age trends can make superficial use of these. For instance, the Findhorn Foundation cast a spell over many subscribers by creating the image of a tolerant community who embodied unconditional love, conflict resolution, and spiritual transformation. In reality, they suppressed dissidents and refused to resolve conflicts on their doorstep in Moray. The major objector was given the role of cleaning toilets and was prevented from giving talks or gaining a fair hearing. See my Letter of Complaint to David Lorimer and SMN. Also David Lorimer and New World Values.

Both the trustees and management personnel of the Findhorn Foundation proved that they had no conscience in such matters. An annotated book describing the suppression was repudiated by an internet strategy which declared that this book was not worthy of review (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, pp.167ff.). There was no discussion, no hearing, no democracy. Only the dictates and economic interests of the feted “intentional community” were the criteria. Despite critical media reports and dissident literature, the Findhorn Foundation was protected by NGO status and charity status. On close inspection, the Findhorn Foundation has maintained a reputation deriving from the “divine guidance” claimed by the co-founder Eileen Caddy, and has been promoting for many years a very commercial programme of “workshops” that encourage dubious techniques in alternative therapy and pop-mysticism. Cf. my web item Analytical Philosophy (2010).

The evasive nature of contemporary “open society” is further implied by the current failure of government and other official bodies to duly inspect available data and to answer public complaints about the Findhorn Foundation. See my Second Letter to Tony Blair (2006). See also the Letter of Kate Thomas to UNESCO (2007). The bureaucratic torpor does not fit the standards of Popperian critical discussion, and in such respects we might still learn from Sir Karl Popper (though I do not agree with all his views and am definitely not a Popperian). See further The Karl Popper Web.

Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded September 2008, last modified March 2013.