Popper's 'Scientific' Irrationalism

Reilly Jones (Reilly@compuserve.com)
Sun, 16 Mar 1997 05:55:55 -0500

Back in March of '95, I posted critiques of Sir Karl Popper's alleged key
characteristic of the scientific method, his propositional falsifiability
principle. The thread was "PHIL: Questioning Popperianism" and the
absolutely fatal criticism of Popper's principle was drawn from Elliott
Sober's "Philosophy of Biology" (1993). Roger Kimball has written an essay
about an Australian philosopher, entitled "Who Was David Stove?" in "The
New Criterion" March 1997, who analytically ripped Popper and his epigoni
to pieces.

David Stove died in 1994, but has left behind some very interesting, but
little known, books. Kimball writes mostly about "Popper and After: Four
Modern Irrationalists" which was originally published in 1982 by Pergamon
Press, but a new edition is being published by Macleay Press retitled as
"Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism". It
looks like a doozy for all die-hard Popper fans. Stove also wrote "Cricket
Versus Republicanism" (a collection of very politically incorrect essays
published posthumuously), "Darwinian Fairytales" (also published
posthumuously, Darwinism's absurdities highlighted between the boundaries
of human genetic vs. cultural evolution), "The Plato Cult and Other
Philosophical Essays" (1991) (seven essays attacking philosophical
idealism), "Rationality of Induction" (1986), and "Probability and Hume's
Inductive Skepticism" (1973).

I am quoting Kimball's account of Stove's critique of Popper:

"The long struggle of empiricism since Bacon had yielded a
straightforward but powerful conception of science. Scientific
propositions were distinguished from speculative or pseudo-scientific
propositions by the degree to which they were verifiable; the method of
science was essentially inductive, which means that it moved from the
observed or known to the unobserved or unknown; the procedures of science
were marked by caution; its results were held to be certain or at least
highly probable."

Stove's technical specialty within philosophy was induction, Popper's
speciality was deduction. These two don't mix well, probably something to
do with New Age Harmonic Divergence.

"Popper stood all this on its head. In his philosophy of science, we
find the curious thought that falsifiability, not verifiability, is the
distinguishing mark of scientific theories; this means that, for Popper,
one theory is better than another if it is more disprovable than the other.
Popper was apparently fond of referring to 'the soaring edifice of
science.' But in fact his philosophy of science robbed that edifice of its
foundation. Refracted through the lens of Popper's theories, the history
of modern science is transformed from a dazzling string of successes into a
series of 'problems' or 'conjectures and refutations.' On the traditional
view, scientific knowledge can be said to be *cumulative*: we know more
now than we did in 1897, more then than in 1697. Popper's theory, demoting
scientific laws to mere guesses, denies this: in one of his most famous
phrases, he speaks of science as 'conjectural knowledge,' an oxymoronic gem
that, as Stove remarks, makes as much sense as 'a drawn game which was

It gets worse.

"...Popper's ideas did not only propound an irrationalist view of
science: they also helped to *license* irrationalism for an entire
generation. Without the bedrock - or, rather, the sandbank - of Popper's
theories upon which to build, the other philosophers of science Stove
discusses - Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend - could never
have developed their own influential permutations of irrationalism. And
without the example of these and other such gentlemen, the blasť
irrationalism that infects the humanities and social sciences today - and,
indeed, that infects our entire 'postmodern' culture - might never have
achieved epidemic proportions. Kuhn's famous book "The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions" (1962), which in effect denies that there is such a
thing as progress in science, has by itself done incalculable intellectual
damage to innumerable professors looking for excuses to deny the claims of
scientific truth."

Obviously the spread of irrationalism was extremely rapid, because
scientific authority lays claim to a political monopoly on all authority.
Our Western democratic governments were founded on the notion of
rationality derived from the Enlightenment. Science is largely government
funded. Science must maintain its corner on being the sole authority on
what is to be labelled rationality. If science loses its monopoly on this
authority, the particular form of government that feeds it loses its
authority, jeodarizing science's food supply. Once a philosopher moves the
herd of state scientists in a different direction, stragglers are cut out
and picked off. The herd has learned to move right smartly en masse,
survival of the fattest.

"Irrationalism, to be plausible, must be disguised, and Stove devotes the
first half of his book to a brilliant analysis of the literary devices used
to achieve plausibility. There are two basic techniques. The first is to
neutralize what Stove calls 'success words' ≠ words like 'knowledge,'
'discovery,' 'facts,' 'verified,' 'explanation.' Such words carry an
implication of cognitive achievement. No philosopher of science can do
without them entirely. But the simple addition of scare quotes alters
everything: 'Galileo discovers x' means something quite different from
'Galileo "discovers" x.' The element of ambiguity is essential: consider
the effect of a sign advertising "fresh" fish. The same trick can
obviously be used with words of cognitive failure: 'mistake,' 'false,'
'refuted,' etc. A "refuted" theory is not the same as a refuted theory."

"The second technique involves deliberately conflating the history or
sociology of science with the logic of science. Stove focuses especially
on what he calls 'sabotaging logical expressions.' By embedding a logical
statement in a historical context, one thereby undermines its logical
status while preserving the impression that a logical claim has been made.
A simple example is the difference between 'P entails Q' and 'P entails Q
according to most logicians.' The first is a logical statement; the second
is a historical claim; it is what Stove calls a 'ghost logical statement':
it poaches on the prestige of logical entailment without actually making
any logical claim at all: it is therefore completely immune to criticism
on logical grounds."

Immunity to criticism on logical grounds is a very powerful memetic tool,
as long as the rubes don't see the trick.

"Stove's analysis of how his authors manage to make their irrationalism
plausible to their readers is a tour de force. So is his analysis of how
they made irrationalism plausible to themselves. The key, at least so far
as Popper was concerned, was the challenge to Newtonian physics by
relativity and quantum mechanics. As Stove points out, this 'changed the
entire climate of philosophy of science,' replacing the nineteenth
century's blissful confidence about the impregnable certainty of science
with a profound skepticism."

Radical skepticism is indistinguishable from nihilism.

"Stove shows how Popper and his other authors, attempting 'to ensure that
no scientific theory should ever again become the object of over-confident
belief,' overreacted and embraced instead a form of irrationalism whose
philosophical roots go back to Hume. At bottom, Stove shows, his authors
embrace irrationalism because of 'a certain extreme belief, by which their
minds are dominated, about what is required for one proposition to be a
reason to believe another.' They all acknowledge that absolute certainty
is impossible; but they assume that only absolute certainty will do as a
warrant for rational belief."

I can't begin to count how many posts have been devoted to quibbling over
"certainty" on this list. I hope certain individuals are taking this
critique to heart. ;)

"They exhibit, in other words, 'a variety of perfectionism.' It is, of
course, a disappointed perfectionism. Disappointed perfectionism has also
led to 'the frivolous elevation of 'the critical attitude' into a
categorical imperative.' The principle result, as Stove notes, has been
'to fortify millions of ignorant graduates and undergraduates in the
belief, to which they are already too firmly wedded by other causes, that
the adversary posture is all, and that intellectual life consists in
'directionless quibble.''

Ha ha! I like this guy! If authoritative science proclaims that no
purpose and no meaning are anywhere to be found in the universe, then of
course, intellectual life must, by scientific definition, consist of
'directionless quibble.' I call this stance 'smug nihilism.' I wonder how
science itself escapes being 'directionless quibble'? Could it be that
scientific laws don't apply to scientists themselves? Why are scientists
so hungry for other people's money all the time if they are really just a
collection of random fluctuations of nothing?

Reilly Jones | Philosophy of Technology:
Reilly@compuserve.com | The rational, moral and political relations
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