Conjectures and Refutations
Why Conjectures and Refutations Matters
Despite Popper’s prodigious activity during the 1950s there was little to show apart from the very small and somewhat enigmatic Poverty of Historicism in 1957 and very technical The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959. Neither of those volumes gave any hint of the range of Popper’s interests or provided a helpful introduction to his thought.
The publication of Conjectures and Refutations in 1963 provided 21 papers with something for everyone and some very significant new work to consolidate and extended the insights of The Open Society and The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
It contains a particularly important paper “On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance” which broke new ground to challenge the authoritarian structure of western thought. Another very fertile idea - the vital role of the “moral framework” of society is introduced in “Public opinion and liberal principles”. He advanced his first positive treatment of metaphysics and gave out the first hints of some developments in his thinking on evolution and language that surfaced a decade later in Objective Knowledge.
Published in 1963 the work covers the period from 1937 with his first paper written in English to a chapter on Truth, Rationality and the Growth of Knowledge which is new substantially material.
In retrospect it is clear that Popper’s publication program did not work out well for the propagation of his ideas in the profession and for his own standing. Logik der Forschung (1935) was practically invisible in the English-speaking world while the Continental diaspora entrenched logical positivism and logical empiricism in the North American universities and others, with the help of Freddy Ayer did much the same in Britain. Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic became a big influence after the war, not just in the profession but even more among the general readership that still existed at that time.
During the 1950s various forms of linguistic philosophy became the major rivals to positivism for professional attention among those who were not interested in the so-called Continental schools of thought. Consequently The Logic of Scientific Discovery was published against the tide of thinking and it was soon overtaken by Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) which provided a much more exciting and accessible alternative to the establishment in the philosophy of science. This meant that Conjectures and Refutations came into an academic marketplace where Popper’s stocks were falling. Without the excitement and distraction caused by Kuhn, Conjectures might have been seen as an exciting and reader-friendly explanation and development of the somewhat intimidating ideas in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. As it was, the reaction to Kuhn was led by the new rising star in the Popper circle , Imre Lakatos, who turned out to be more damaging to Popper’s legacy than Kuhn himself.
During the 1950s Popper developed the very important idea of metaphysical research programmes but this remained in manuscript and galley proofs until the 1980s. Lakatos picked up the idea and released it under the trademark of Methodology of Scientific Research Programs which never worked because two essential ingredients from the Popper product were missing – the focus on metaphysics and critical appraisal. Release of the Metaphysical Epilogue to The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery in the 1950s as originally planned would have anticipated Kuhn’s work with a much more robust and helpful approach to the history and evolution of ideas.
As for Popper’s ideas in politics and the social sciences, The Open Society and its Enemies caused a minor sensation immediately after the war but he made too many enemies among both conservatives and radicals to have a permanent place on the reading list of university courses and that work became practically invisible by the 1960s.
Introduction. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance
This is the paper which identified the authoritarian structure of western epistemology and also political philosophy, based on the quest for “justified true beliefs”.
"The traditional systems of epistemology may be said to result from yes-answers and no-answers to questions about the sources of our knowledge. They never challenge these questions, or dispute their legitimacy; the questions are taken as perfectly natural, and nobody seems to see any harm in them. This is quite interesting, for these questions are clearly authoritarian in spirit."
William W Bartley was in the audience when Popper delivered the paper as the Annual Philosophical Lecture read before the British Academy of Science in 1960. Bartley later did a lot of work to explain why Popper struggled to get traction in the profession with his theory of conjectural knowledge because it did not play the traditional “authoritarian” game.
The paper contains seventeen sections after a short introduction.
Empiricism and Rationalism. Two of the most popular sources of authority are observation: “the intellectual intuition of clear and distinct ideas."
Manifest truth. In this section Popper noted the important and helpful function of the doctrine that "truth is manifest", while he also warned of the downside of such an optimistic but false idea.
"The great movement of liberation that started in the Renaissance and led through the many vicissitudes of the reformation and the religious and revolutionary wars to the free societies in which the English-speaking people are privileged to live, this movement was inspired throughout by an unparalleled epistemological optimism: by a most optimistic view of man's power to discern truth and to acquire knowledge."
At the heart of this new optimistic view of the possibility of knowledge lies the doctrine that truth is manifest.
Epistemology and political liberalism. In a short section Popper noted that an abstract study like epistemology can be motivated, even unconsciously, by political hopes and dreams. He suggested that this should be a warning to us. But what can we do about it?
He confessed to being a liberal, in the English, non-collectivist sense. And he wrote "I feel that few things are more important for a liberal than to submit the various theories of liberalism to a searching critical examination". He found that many of the ideas and doctrines which had inspired political liberals are not tenable, including the doctrine of the manifest truth and the inevitability of progress.
The Conspiracy Theory of Ignorance. Explored the ideas that underpinned liberalism, Popper encountered what he called "the conspiracy theory of ignorance". If the truth is clear to honest and clear-eyed seekers, then if they fall into error, or promulgate it, then either their motivation is suspect or they have been taken in and deluded or led astray by some other evil person or group.
"This false epistemology was the major inspiration of an intellectual and moral revolution without parallel in history. It encouraged men to think for themselves. It gave them hope that through knowledge they might free themselves and others from servitude and misery. It made modern science possible. It became the basis of the fight against censorship and the suppression of free thought... It made men feel responsible for themselves and for others, and eager to improve not only their own condition but also that of their fellow men."
"It is a case of a bad idea inspiring many good ones. This false epistemology, however, has also led to disastrous consequences. The theory that truth is manifest - that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it - this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it."
Historical Roots. In several sections Popper examined the historical roots of optimistic and pessimistic epistemologies, from Plato to Bacon and Descartes, with some space devoted to the quest for the truth of statements in their origin and also the pursuit of the true meaning of terms (essentialism).
Solving the problem: a critique of empiricism as the source of justified beliefs. This section of the lecture is an attack on empiricism, that is, the doctrine that knowledge has to rest on the firm foundations of observation, that is, facts that have been presented to the senses or have lodged in the memory after entering by way of the senses.
"The most striking thing about the observationalist program of asking for sources - apart from its tediousness - is its stark violation of commonsense. For if we are in doubt about an observation, then the normal procedure is to test it, rather than to ask for its sources; and if we find independent corroboration, then we shall often accept the assertion without bothering at all about the source."
The authoritarian structure of traditional philosophy.
"The traditional systems of epistemology may be said to result from yes-answers and no-answers to questions about the sources of our knowledge…This is quite interesting, for these questions are clearly authoritarian in spirit. They can be compared with the traditional questions of political theory, 'Who should rule?' which begs for an authoritarian answer such as 'the best', or 'the wisest' or 'the people', or 'the majority'.
This political question is wrongly put and the answers which it produces are paradoxical (Chapter 7 of OSE). It should be replaced by a completely different question such as 'How can we organise our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers cannot do too much damage?' The question about the sources of our knowledge can be replaced in a similar way.
Chapter One. Science: Conjectures and Refutations
This was a contribution to a series on developments and trends in British philosophy. It appeared as “Philosophy of Science: A Personal Report” in British Philosophy in Mid-Century (ed C A Mace, 1957).
This is Popper’s first piece of intellectual autobiography, with the now familiar account of his early suspicions about the scientific status of psychoanalysis and Marxism and the way he was impressed with Einstein’s willingness to expose his theory to the possibility of refutation. This prompted the falsification criterion for science, in contrast with the verificationist approach of the positivists.
“My attacks upon verification soon led to complete confusion in the camp of the verificationist philosophers of sense and nonsense. The original proposal of verifiability as the criterion of meaning was at least clear, simple, and forceful. The modifications and shifts which were now introduced were the very opposite.
An Appendix to the chapter has a long list of problems in the philosophy of science that he was working on at the time, among them the frequency theory of probability and a wide range of problems connected with it, including his attempt to develop a propensity interpretation, the problem of determinism, simplicity and the problem of ‘ad hocness’, layers of explanatory theories, operationalism and instrumentalism and a general theory of measurement, the nature of explanation and objectivity in science and the social sciences.
Chapter Two. The Nature of Philosophical Problems and their Roots in Science
"We must beware of mistaking the well-nigh senseless and pointless subtleties of the imitators for the pressing and genuine problems of the pioneer."
This chapter is based on a 1952 paper which Popper delivered to a meeting of the Philosophy of Science Group of the British Society for the History of Science.
He commenced by stating that he was not happy to talk about the present position of English philosophy because he thought it was more important to solve scientific or philosophical problems rather than talk about what he or other philosophers are doing or might do. Some years later it has turned out that this might have been a mistake because critical rationalism has been marginalised in the philosophy schools and it is possible that more attention to the state of play in the profession at large might have helped people who admired Popper's ideas to compete more effectively for an audience.
He moved on to talk about the nature of philosophical problems, after some comments about the description and classification of subjects.
"Disciplines are distinguished partly for historical reasons and reasons of administrative convenience (such as the organisation of teaching and appointments), and partly because the theories which we construct to solve our problems have a tendency to grow into unified systems. But all this classification and distinction is a comparatively unimportant and superficial affair. We are not students of some subject matter but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline."
Two main theses:
1. Every philosophy and every philosophical school is likely to degenerate under the influence of philosophical inbreeding to the point where its problems become practically indistinguishable from pseudo-problems and its talk becomes almost meaningless babble.
2. This is likely to happen as a result of what Popper called the "prima facie" method of teaching philosophy, that is, starting off by reading the works of the great philosophers without reference to the problem situation in science or mathematics or politics which concerned them.
He went on to argue that it is necessary to understand the real problems that concerned the great philosophers, not just the philosophical problems that they wrote about, and the real problems are actually problems in science and mathematics, or in politics and law. The student needs to understand these problems, which means understanding the problem situation at the time, which means understanding some of the history of ideas.
He pursued his case with two examples, the first concerning Plato's theory of Forms and the crisis in Greek science following the discovery of the irrationality of the square root of two. The second is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Mention Agassi’s views on the roots of scientific problems in metaphysics.
Chapter Three. Three Views
"One may formulate this 'third view' of scientific theories briefly by saying that they are genuine conjectures - highly informative guesses about the world which although not verifiable (capable of being shown to be true) can be submitted to severe critical tests. They are serious attempts to discover the truth."
This paper was first printed in 1956 as a part of his critique of instrumentalism in the philosophy of physics, especially in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. Similar arguments apply in other contexts such as the debate in the methods of economics. Milton Friedman's adopted instrumentalism in his famous 1953 paper where he argued that prediction was all-important, regardless of the truth of assumptions used in the calculations.
The chapter has six sections. The first describes the dispute between Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmino before the Inquisition. In the second section he spelled out the issue at stake, whether the new science of celestial mechanics was true (or nearer to the truth than the pre-Copernican system) or whether it was merely a simpler and a more convenient instrument for astronomical calculations and predictions. The point was that the Church did not want science to become a competitor in the field of providing true statements about the cosmos. Bishop Berkeley took the same line in his criticism of Newton's theory because, like Bellarmino before him, he wanted scientific theories to be regarded as convenient instruments for calculation and not as true descriptions of anything real.
The third section of the paper is a critique of essentialism, the first of the three views. The fourth section is a more detailed exposition of instrumentalism and the fifth section is a critique of that view. The sixth section is "The Third View: Conjectures, Truth, and Reality".
The issue at stake in the modern debate is the way that instrumentalism has been adopted among physicists by default, without a good discussion, under the influence of developments in quantum physics and especially the Copenhagen interpretation.
Section 3. The First View: Ultimate Explanation by Essences
"(1) The scientist aims at finding a true theory or description of the world which shall also be an explanation of the observable facts...(2) The scientist can succeed in finally establishing the truth of such theories beyond all reasonable doubt...(3)The best, the truly scientific theories, describe the 'essences' or the 'essential natures of things' - the realities which lie behind the appearances."
The first proposition is part of the view that Popper defends. He contests 2 and 3.
Popper famously dissents from (2) in favour of the theory of conjectural knowledge, bearing in mind that the theories here concern deep explanations using universal laws, not the existence of such things particles or events such as the evolution of life on earth.
As to (3) Popper is not especially concerned to dispute the existence of "essences" that underlie the visible appearance of nature. He argues that the essentialist doctrine has tended to stiffle criticism and the search for deeper explanations beyond the current orthodoxy.
Section 4: The Second View: Theories as Instruments
This section includes a comparison of the three views and some exploration of the instrumentalist view, including some considerations of language and meaning that indicate that Popper could have excelled in language analysis if he thought that this was a worthwhile occupation.
Section 5: Criticism of the Instrumentalist View
He summarised the criticism as follows:
"Instrumentalism can be formulated as the thesis that scientific theories - the theories of the so-called 'pure' sciences - are nothing but computation rules (or inference rules); of the same character, fundamentally, as the computation rules of the so-called 'applied' sciences. One might even formulate it as the thesis that 'pure' science is a misnomer, and that all science is applied."
"Now my reply to instrumentalism consists in showing that there are profound differences between pure theories and technological compputation rules, and that instrumentalism can give a perfect description of these rules but is quite unable to account for the difference between them and the theories."
That is the summary of Popper's argument and I don't have time to reproduce more detail from the three pages of compressed argument in this section.
Section 6: The Third View, Conjectures, Truth and Reality
He suggested that instrumentalism is an ad hoc response to some serious problems with the interpretation of quantum theory, and it has the effect of defecting criticism and limiting the field of seach (or even the perceived need) for improved theories that meet the computational requirements and provide a grip on the nature of reality as well.
Chapter Four. Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition
This was a talk delivered at the annual conference of the Rationalist Press Association on 26 July 1948, and published in The Rationalist Annual in 1949.
Popper was taking a “progressive” or critical reformist position, that is, the kind of position that secular humanists and rationalists seek to occupy, and he was responding to Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.
Popper also issued a warning to certain types of humanists and rationalists who adopt a dismissive attitude towards traditions: these are the “constructivist rationalists” who have drawn extended criticism from Hayek. That attitude is “I am not interested in tradition, I want to judge everything on its own merits, independent of any tradition”.
Popper, like Hayek, could see the important role of traditions and the need to maintain valuable traditions even while we criticise those that we see as dangerous and harmful.
It should be clearly understood that there are only two main attitudes possible towards tradition. One is to accept a tradition uncritically, often without even being aware of it…The other possibility is a critical attitude, which may result either in acceptance or in rejection, or perhaps in a compromise. Yet we have to know of and to understand a tradition before we can criticize it, before we can say: 'We reject this tradition on rational grounds.' Now I do not think that we could ever free ourselves entirely from the bonds of tradition. The so-called freeing is really only a change from one tradition to another. But we can free ourselves from the taboos of a tradition; and we can do that not only by rejecting it, but also by critically accepting it. We free ourselves from the taboo if we think about it, and if we ask ourselves whether we should accept it or reject it. In order to do that we have first to have the tradition clearly before us, and we have to understand in a general way what may be the function and significance of a tradition. That is why it is so important for rationalists to deal with this problem, for rationalists are those people who are ready to challenge and to criticize everything, including, I hope, their own tradition. They are ready to put question-marks to anything, at least in their minds.
Maybe do a bit more on the substance of the chapter.
Note the exchange of letters and the high level of agreement.
Chapter Five. Back to the Presocratics
This was the Presidential Address delivered to the Aristotelian Society in October 1958.
Bryan Magee described this lecture in his book … he was intrigued by the Popper’s account of the pioneering role of the pre-Socratic philosophers in developing the speculative and critical approach to cosmology.
"If the method [of conjecture and refutation] is valid it overthrows an empirical tradition in philosophy of several hundred years standing, a tradition whose most important single tenet is that all our knowledge of the world must begin with experience. It is therefore, despite appearances, a theory that is radical -- revolutionary in a historic sense, and epic in its implications. It demolishes, almost incidentally, hundreds of years of philosophizing... I was intellectually thrilled by the argument... and agog to see it pounced on by this particular audience which contained some of the most distinguished philosophers in Britain most of whom were identified, and identified themselves, with empiricism."
"I simply could not believe it when, in the question and answer period, not a single person raised this issue or referred to it. The entire discussion, which became impassioned, turned on whether or not this or that particular pre-Socratic philosopher had been correctly represented by Popper, which in turn meant arguing about whether an important fragment might be better understood in a different way..."
Popper described the orthodox kind of school where doctrines are transmitted from generation to generation with the minimum of criticism. An early example of a school of this kind was the religious order founded by Pythagoras, with a characteristic way of life and a secret doctrine. But something very different happened in the school started by Thales, where students challenged their teachers and set forth radical new doctrines without being expelled.
This is the tradition which Popper claimed was rediscovered and consciously revived in the Renaissance, especially by Galileo. That led Popper to his final and most important thesis, that the critical method is the true method of science (and learning generally), in contrast to the empiricist and inductivist view that knowledge begins with observation, and ends up being verified or warranted by reference to sense impressions.
"This, I believe, is the true theory of knowledge (which I wish to submit to your criticism): the true description of a practice which arose in Ionia and which is incorporated in modern science (though there are many scientists who still believe in the Baconian myth of induction): the theory that knowledge proceeds by way of conjectures and refutations."
Chapter Six. A Note on Berkeley as a Precursor of Mach and Einstein
The purpose of this very short paper is to give a list of those ideas of Berkeley's in
the field of the philosophy of physics which have a strikingly new look. They
are mainly ideas which were rediscovered and reintroduced into the discussion
of modern physics by Ernst Mach and Heinrich Hertz, and by a number of
philosophers and physicists, some of them influenced by Mach, such as
Bertrand Russell, Philip Frank, Richard von Mises, Moritz Schlick, Werner
Heisenberg and others.
Chapter Seven. Kant’s Critique and Cosmology
This was a radio broadcast in honour of the 150th anniversary of Kant's death. It was published in the BBC Listener in 1954 and a number of very interesting footnotes have been added in this version. Popper remarked on the popularity that Kant achieved among the general population, most likely because he taught the rights of man, equality before the law and perhaps most important, the idea of emancipation through learning, which Popper considered to be the signature idea of the Enlightenment.
“Kan helped to create on the Continent the idea of emancipation through self-education, in this form hardly known in England where the ‘self-made man’ was the uncultured upstart. The significance of this idea is connected with the fact that on the Continent the educated had been for a long time the middle classes, while in England they were the upper classes”.
1. Kant and the Enlightenment
It seems that the good ideas that are associated with Kant's name reached the Continent from England in a book by Voltaire which praised English representative government, tolerance and empirical science in contrast with the tyranny and bigotry that prevailed in the rest of Europe.
"Voltaire's book was burnt, but its publication marks the beginning of a philosophical movement -- a movement whose peculiar mood of intellectual aggressiveness was little understood in England, where there was no occasion for it."
Kant is one of Popper's favorite philosophers and he associated him with all the positive ideas of the Enlightenment, and especially with the struggle for intellectual and spiritual freedom. He quoted Kant: "Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage... of incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance... Dare to use your intelligence! This is the battle-cry of the Enlightenment."
Chapter Eight. On the Status of Science and Metaphysics
This chapter contains the text of two radio talks for the Free Radio-University, Berlin, delivered in the late 1950s. These were prepared while Popper was working on The Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery and during this time Popper refined his view of the positive role of metaphysics in science. This represents a radical departure from the anti-metaphysical positivism of the Vienna Circle.
Part 1. Kant and the logic of experience.
This section contains a passage that Bryan Magee identified as the key to locating Popper in relation to the western tradition (that was in the chapter on Popper in Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher). Magee regards him as a reconstructed Kantian and this passage brings that out rather well, as Popper agreed although that was not the original purpose of the text.
"As Kant puts it: 'Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature... but imposes them upon nature.' While I regard this formulation of Kant's as essentially correct, I feel that it is a little too radical, and I should therefore like to put it in the following modified form: 'Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature, but tries -- with varying degrees of success -- to impose upon nature laws which it freely invents.'..."
"We invent our myths and our theories and we try them out: we try to see how far they take us. And we improve our theories if we can. The better theory is the one that has the greater explanatory power; that explains more; that explains with greater precision; and that allows us to make better predictions."
"In this way the freedom and boldness of our theoretical creations can be controlled and tempered by self-criticism, and by the severest tests we can design. It is here, through our critical methods of testing, that scientific rigor and logic enter into empirical science."
Part 2. The problem of the irrefutability of philosophical theories.
Early in Popper’s career he considered that the domain of rational discussion was limited to "scientific" matters. It appears that he had given up that view by the time he wrote The Open Society and quite likely by the time he finished Logic der Forschung because that contains rational discussion of principles of method which cannot be empirically tested.
In this section of the paper he demonstrated how philosophical doctrines can be subjected to criticism even though they cannot be refuted by facts. He nominated a number of philosophical theories, all of which he considers to be false. After some discussion of the logic of testing and refutation, he approached his problem: If all philosophical theories are irrefutable, how can we distinguish between true and false philosophical theories? He then specified three types of theory.
Logical and mathematical theories.
Empirical (scientific) theories.
Philosophical or mataphysical theories.
Theories of type 1 are tested by attempted refutation, especially by finding internal contradictions. Decisions in these cases are usually final.
Scientific theories are similarly tested by the process of criticism and in this case observations can fit into the critical discussion.
For the third kind of problems, he proposed a solution that is based on a situational analysis to asses the adequacy of the theory as a solution to a problem. Actually he didn't use the term situational analysis but that is an important concept that will come in useful anytime we are contemplating the reasons for human actions or the rationality/adequacy of human decisions.
"My solution is this: if a philosophical theory were no more than an isolated assertion about the world, flung at us with an implied 'take it or leave it' and without a hint of any connection with anything else, then indeed it would be beyond discussion. But the same might be said of an empirical theory... A theory is comprehensible and reasonable only in its relation to a given problem-situation, and it can be rationally discussed only by discussing this relation."
Chapter Nine. Why Are the Calculi of Logic and Arithmetic Applicable to Reality?
This is a somewhat technical chapter delivered at a symposium organized by the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society in 1946. At this time Popper was working on a series of papers on “logic without assumptions”. He eventually decided that this program was not working although the quality of the work was highly regarded by specialists in the field.
This paper is likely to have limited appeal for the non-professional reader, unlike most of the others in the collection where it is generally possible to relate even the most technical matters to more practical issues.
Popper followed Gilbert Ryle at the symposium and much of the paper relates to the points that Ryle was making.
Chapter Ten. Truth, Rationality and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge
MY aim in this lecture is to stress the significance of one particular aspect of science--its need to grow, or, if you like, its need to progress. I do not have in mind here the practical or social significance of this need. What I wish to discuss is rather its intellectual significance. I assert that continued growth is essential to the rational and empirical character of scientific knowledge; that if science ceases to grow it must lose that character. It is the way of its growth which makes science rational and empirical; the way, that is, in which scientists discriminate between available theories and choose the better one or (in the absence of a satisfactory theory) the way they give reasons for rejecting all the available theories, thereby suggesting some of the conditions with which a satisfactory theory should comply.
The chapter has five sections, (1) the growth of knowledge: theories and problems, (2) the theory of objective truth: correspondence to the facts, (3) truth and content: verisimilitude versus probability, (4) background knowledge and scientific growth, (5) three requirements for the growth of knowledge.
The first requirement is that “The new theory should proceed from some simple, new, and powerful, unifying idea about some connection or relation (such as gravitational attraction) between hitherto unconnected things (such as planets and apples) or facts (such as inertial and gravitational mass) or new 'theoretical entities' (such as field and particles).”
“Secondly, we require that the new theory should be independently testable. That is to say, apart from explaining all the explicanda which the new theory was designed to explain, it must have new and testable consequences (preferably consequences of a new kind); it must lead to the prediction of phenomena which have not so far been observed.”
“Yet I believe that there must be a third requirement for a good theory. It is this. We require that the theory should pass some new, and severe, tests.”