Popper’s Conjectural, Objectivist, Social, and Metaphysical Turns
Since this essay was first written it has become apparent that the reception of Popper’s ideas has been limited by widespread misconceptions that readers bring with them to the texts. This applies especially to people with a background in philosophy. It is widely accepted that Popper was a kind of eccentric positivist who simply substituted falsification for verification, and distorted versions of his ideas are circulated with the label “falsiciationism” attached. Quite likely one of the most influential books in this regard is What is this thing called science? and I trust that this review of that otherwise admirable text will clarify the situation.
The standard account of Popper as a falsificationist does not do justice to the full extent of Popper’s program, starting with the first step which can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” when appreciation of the theory-dependence of observations and arguments became more widespread in the wake of Kuhn and the modern French theorists. Other “turns” include the “objectivist turn” to break with the obsession with the justification of beliefs and instead to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of theories that are stated in a public, inter-subjective or “objective” form. Then there is Popper’s “social turn” to examine the function of institutions, traditions, conventions and “rules of the game” in science and society. And finally the “metaphysical turn” to recognise the pervasive influence of philosophical or metaphysical ideas which are the framework assumptions or presuppositions of thought.
And now, back to...
Popper's Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge
This article explains how Popper's ideas promote creativity and effective problem-solving in science and elsewhere. In 1934 he started a new era in the philosophy of science with a book written in German, and translated in 1959 under the title The Logic of Scientific Discovery. He rejected the traditional idea that scientific knowledge was based on a method called induction whereby theories are verified by observations. Popper argued that the logical process of induction simply does not exist. Theories are forever tentative and the most useful function (and the only logically decisive effect) of observations is to act as tests or attempted falsifications of theories.
Since about 1960 Popper's work has been dominated by biological themes. He has revived an approach to knowledge called evolutionary epistemology. This approach was very popular last century but has lapsed in modern times due to the obsession with physics in the philosophy of science. Evolutionary epistemology applies Darwin's principle of natural selection to scientific theories and to other forms of knowledge. It is concerned with problem-solving and error elimination under various forms of selective pressure. This contrasts with most theories of knowledge that are concerned with the foundations of belief or the probability of theories.
Popper started with the old idea that knowledge grows by trial and error, or in more learned terms, by conjecture and refutation. He generalised this theory to encompass all forms of learning and problem-solving, including the evolution of life on earth. On his account every organism, from the amoeba to Einstein, is constantly engaged in problem solving. In the plant and animal world this involves the production of new reactions, new organs, new forms of life. For humans it involves the production of new ideas. When these forms of life or theories appear they confront selective pressures. These may come from the biological environment or from competing forms of life. Ideas meet the competition of alternative theories, critical arguments and experimental tests.
The central motif of Popper's evolutionary epistemology is the four-step problem-solving schema:
P ---> TS ---> EE ---> P
The starting point is a problem, which evokes tentative solutions. These are subjected to the process of error elimination by way of critical discussion and experimental testing. In the course of these activities new problems emerge.
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