Critical rationalism


Critical rationalism

Critical rationalism is an epistemological philosophy advanced by Karl Popper. Popper wrote about critical rationalism in his works, The Open Society and its Enemies Volume 2, and Conjectures and Refutations.

Contents

Criticism, not support

Critical rationalists hold that scientific theories, and any other claims to knowledge, can and should be rationally criticized, and (if they have empirical content) can and should be subjected to tests which may falsify them. Thus claims to knowledge may be contrastively, normatively evaluated. They are either falsifiable and thus empirical (in a very broad sense), or not falsifiable and thus non-empirical. Those claims to knowledge that are potentially falsifiable can then be admitted to the body of empirical science, and then further differentiated according to whether they are (so far) retained or indeed are actually falsified. If retained, yet further differentiation may be made on the basis of how much subjection to criticism they have received, how severe such criticism has been, and how probable the theory is, with the least[1] probable theory that still withstands attempts to falsify it being the one to be preferred. (The least probable theory is the one with the highest information content and most open to future falsification.) Critical Rationalism as a discourse positioned itself against what its proponents took to be epistemologically relativist philosophies, particularly post-modernist approaches to knowledge. Critical rationalism has it that knowledge is objective (in the sense of being embodied in various substrates and in the sense of not being reducible to what humans individually "know"), and also that truth is objective (exists independently of social mediation or individual perception).

Since a theory has to be falsifiable in order to be scientific, all currently accepted theories are falsifiable in the sense of being capable of being proved false or changed and improved upon later on in the same way as they falsified or improved upon their previous versions. Being proved false does not imply that the falsified theory has no truth content in it. The old theory that 'the earth is flat' has been falsified but it continues to contain the truth that it appears to be flat. What is held to be true today might be improved upon later on. Therefore, Popper holds that a theory that has not yet been falsified has a certain degree of truth or verisimilitude in it. This does not mean that at no stage can truth be known. What it means is that with every improved version of the truth or verisimilitude, human knowledge draws closer to truth. Thus 'human truth' will never reach the truth but it will continue to draw closer to it. Whatever resists falsification will remain a part of human truth until it is falsified or improved upon.

However, this contrastive, critical approach to objective knowledge is quite different from more traditional views that also hold knowledge to be objective. (These include the strong rationalism of the Enlightenment, the verificationism of the logical positivists, or approaches to science based on induction, a supposed form of logical inference which critical rationalists reject, in line with David Hume.) For criticism is all that can be done when attempting to differentiate claims to knowledge, according to the critical rationalist. Reason is the organon of criticism, not of support; of tentative refutation, not of proof.

Supposed positive evidence (such as the provision of "good reasons" for a claim, or its having been "corroborated") actually does nothing to bolster, support, or prove a claim, belief, or theory.

In this sense, critical rationalism turns the normal understanding of a traditional rationalist, and a realist, on its head. Especially the view that, among theories fitting current observations, a theory is better if it is less likely to be true is in direct opposition to the traditional positivistic view that holds that one should seek for theories that have a high probability.[1] The lower probability theory is favoured by critical rationalism because the higher the informative content of a theory the lower will be its probability, for the more information a statement contains, the greater will be the number of ways in which it may turn out to be false. Popper notes that this "may illustrate Schopenhauer's remark that the solution of a problem often first looks like a paradox and later like a truism".

Critical rationalism rejects the classical position that knowledge is justified true belief; it instead holds the exact opposite: That, in general, knowledge is unjustified untrue unbelief. It is unjustified because of the non-existence of good reasons. It is untrue, because it usually contains errors that sometimes remain unnoticed for hundreds of years. And it is not belief either, because scientific knowledge, or the knowledge needed to build a plane, is contained in no single person's mind. It is only available as the content of books.

The contents of various books, however, do not agree with each other, Popper's 'Objective Knowledge' is not constituted by the contents of all books but by their highest common factor, something on which they all agree. That highest common factor may be called the 'human mind' that changes from time to time and place to place but continues to draw closer to the truth. In the last few centuries, the human mind has grown exponentially but it is destined to remain short of being coterminus with reality or the final truth.

In fact, 'the contents of books' was used by Popper in his 'Objective Knowledge' as an idea in the context of a parable. In order to demonstrate that human knowledge was objective, Popper asked the reader to imagine two scenarios of an armageddon: one in which every single thing is destroyed and only a few humans are left and the other in which books survive along with the humans. In these two scenarios, while the first group may take for ever to rebuild human civilization, the second group will be able to rebuild much more quickly with the help of the books proving that the knowledge contained in them was indeed objective.

Not justificationism

William Warren Bartley compared critical rationalism to the very general philosophical approach to knowledge which he called "justificationism". Most justificationists do not know that they are justificationists. Justificationism is what Popper called a "subjectivist" view of truth, in which the question of whether some statement is true, is confused with the question of whether it can be justified (established, proven, verified, warranted, made well-founded, made reliable, grounded, supported, legitimated, based on evidence) in some way.

According to Bartley, some justificationists are positive about this mistake. They are naïve rationalists, and thinking that their knowledge can indeed be founded, in principle, it may be deemed certain to some degree, and rational.

Other justificationists are negative about these mistakes. They are epistemological relativists, and think (rightly, according to the critical rationalist) that you cannot find knowledge, that there is no source of epistemological absolutism. But they conclude (wrongly, according to the critical rationalist) that there is therefore no rationality, and no objective distinction to be made between the true and the false.

By dissolving justificationism itself, the critical rationalist regards knowledge and rationality, reason and science, as neither foundational nor infallible, but nevertheless does not think we must therefore all be relativists. Knowledge and truth still exist, just not in the way we thought.

The pitfalls of justificationism and positivism

Are all swans white? The classical view of the philosophy of science is that it is the goal of science to “prove” such hypotheses or induce them from observational data. This seems hardly possible, since it would require us to infer a general rule from a number of individual cases, which is logically inadmissible. However, if we find one single black swan, logic allows us to conclude that the statement that all swans are white is false. Falsificationism thus strives for questioning, for falsification, of hypotheses instead of proving them.

The rejection of "positivist" approaches to knowledge occurs due to various pitfalls that positivism falls into.

1. The naïve empiricism of induction was shown to be illogical by Hume. A thousand observations of some event A coinciding with some event B does not allow one to logically infer that all A's coincide with B's. According to the critical rationalist, if there is a sense in which humans accrue knowledge positively by experience, it is only by pivoting observations off existing conjectural theories pertinent to the observations, or off underlying cognitive schemas which unconsciously handle perceptions and use them to generate new theories. But these new theories advanced in response to perceived particulars are not logically "induced" from them. These new theories may be wrong. The myth that we induce theories from particulars is persistent because when we do this we are often successful, but this is due to the advanced state of our evolved tendencies. If we were really "inducting" theories from particulars, it would be inductively logical to claim that the sun sets because I get up in the morning, or that all buses must have drivers in them (if you've never seen an empty bus).

2. Popper and David Miller showed in 1983 [2] that evidence supposed to partly support a hypothesis can, in fact, be neutral to, or even contrary to the hypothesis.

3. Related to the point above, David Miller [3], attacks the use of "good reasons" in general (including evidence supposed to support the excess content of a hypothesis). He argues that good reasons are neither attainable, nor even desirable. Basically, the case, which Miller calls "tediously familiar", is that inductive arguments are either circular or invalid. That is, if one provides a valid deductive argument (an inference from premises to a conclusion) for a given claim, then the content of the claim must already be contained within the premises of the argument (if it is not, then the argument is ampliative and so is invalid). Therefore the claim is already presupposed by the premises, and is no more "supported" than are the assumptions upon which the claim rests, i.e. begging the question.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b Popper, Karl (2002) [1959]. The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2nd English ed.). New York, NY: Routledge Classics. ISBN 0-415-27844-9. OCLC 59377149. , section 43, especially footnote *1 and *2
  2. ^ Nature 302, April 21, "A Proof of the Impossibility of Inductive Probability"
  3. ^ in his Critical Rationalism : A Restatement and Defence, Chapter 3 "A Critique of Good Reasons"

Further reading

  • Niemann, Hans-Joachim. Lexikon des Kritischen Rationalismus, (Encyclopaedia of Critical Rationalism), Tübingen (Mohr Siebeck) 2004, ISBN 3-16-148395-2. More than a thousand headwords about critical rationalism, the most important arguments of K.R. Popper and H. Albert, quotations of the original wording. Edition for students in 2006, ISBN 3-16-149158-0.

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