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JOSEPH AGASSI

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KARL POPPER

JOSEPH AGASSI

Although Logical Positivism, as a specific school of thought, did not remain influential in philosophical circles more than a few years, the problems brought out by these thinkers were debated hotly by epistemologist of other persuasions for over half a century, and it led to the modern school of Philosophical analysis which we will not get into in this chapter. The first quarter of the twentieth century was undoubtedly one of the most productive period in the history of science. The period gave rise to another school of philosophy that attempted to explain this phenomenon through a study of the history of science. The leader of that school was Sir Karl Popper. But before we begin our study of Popper we will examine a few notes developed by a well known Popperian, Joseph Agassi. These concern problems involved in developing theories about the philosophy of science through a study of the history of philosophy.

Agassi described the growth of science in two ways First, as a search for clarity of thought, and second, as a "continuing revolution." Throughout history, he pointed out, the accepted body of scientific thought, though problematic, represented the clearest thinking of its time. Yet, he also showed that this statement was not strictly true. Particularly in this excerpt from his discussion of Michael Faraday.

The historical case of Faraday is tragicomic: even recognizing Faraday's ideas as interesting was a heresy, since these ideas contradicted the well established cannons of Newtonian science.

He made it equally evident that the clearest thinkers at any particular time might very well be the mavericks whose ideas were outside the mainline of scientific thought, and therefore rejected by the major scientists of the time. Therefore, any theory of the development of science drawn from history must account for these mavericks. While Agassi was a dedicated follower of Popper, he found problems with Poppers ideas that were directly connected with the historical view. Popper, he said, described science as a series of "conjectures and refutations" but as a matter of fact it was not the attempt to refute prevailing theories that was the major driving force of scientific activity. More often it was the elimination of problematic portions of accepted theories. He illustrated this with a statement about the problematic portions of Cartesian theory that led Newton to discover the force of gravity.

Newton wanted his theory to be more Cartesian. But he couldn't do it. What could he do then? Try harder. He did, and he was the cleverest man on earth. But hard as he tried, and his followers tried even harder, he couldn't do it. Because Descartes was wrong

Agassi developed three views concerning the relationship between beliefs about what science is and attitudes about the history of science. The first is Bacon's view. He called this the "radicalists view."

Once we are determined to give up all our preconceptions about nature and carefully attend to things as they really are, science will develop with great ease, by the emergence of theories from observed facts in accord with the rules of inductive logic.

Baconian historians of science saw the middle ages as an era of pre-conceived notions and the sudden transition to a scientific age a direct result of the institution of Baconian science. To them there was no science prior to Bacon, or at least to the discovery of the inductive method. Finally, Agassi argued that the Baconian radicalist theory of the renaissance of science itself is based not on facts, but on a preconceived notion.

The preconceived notion is this: preconceived notions lead to superstition, whereas the preference for facts and induction leads to enlightenment. It therefore seems to me that the preconceived notion of the majority of historians of science is not only a superstition but also an obvious contradiction.

Pierre Duhem's conventionalist view stated that scientific ideas evolve not from facts, as the Baconians believed, but from previous scientific ideas. Each subsequent idea being a modification of an earlier idea. Duhem thus did away with the dark ages of the Baconian and refers to the middle ages as essentially a precursor of the scientific age. The third theory, which Agassi called "modified intuitionism" is supported, in Agassi's words, by Galileo, Brewster, Whewel, Poincare' Hadamard, Einstien, Russell, and Popper. ln his own words, "this theory describes the acquisition of a new idea as a flash of insight." However, they assume intuition to be the source of new ideas, not the authority. It is this search for authority that illustrates the difference ln their interpretation of the renaissance of science. Popper stated that Science is characterized by scientific criticism, and is discriminated from other criticism by its being empirical or experimental. Most scientific activity that occurred during either the middle ages or the renaissance, was not subjected to empirical criticism. Obviously, then, Agassi believed that formulas for writing the history of science have a great deal to do with beliefs about scientific method. Of course this only confirms the thesis we've been working on since the beginning, that beliefs about truth and knowledge are culturally based and that they evolve over time with the experience of the members of the culture. But it is important to remember Popper derived much of his analysis of science and truth from a historical perspective.

KARL POPPER

Popper began where Kant left off. He did so with an awareness of the problems that the positivists and others ran into when they attempted to overcome trascendentalism. The problem with both Transcendentalists and positivists lay more in their dogmatic approach than their reasoning. The secret to understanding the power of the Popperian view of science is to see it as a new kind of critical skepticism. Of course Popper would never allow himself to be called a skeptic, but remember our discussion of Pyrho? This kind of skepticism, like Pyrho's, rebels against any kind of dogmatism, both the cynical skepticism that rejects the possibility of truth and dogmatic empiricism that claims to have a direct path to truth. Popper calls these two schools "Epistemological Optimism and Epistemological Pessimism." The important point made by Popper is that what we believe about the source of knowledge and truth determines to a great extent the way we seek out answers.

The advantage of epistemological optimism is that it provides a sense of confidence that what you believe to be true is actually true. If we had to reevaluate every minor decision we make by re examining every Little point ln it, we would simply not have time to accomplish anything. Still, only a person with severe personality problems requires every fact in his possession to be absolutely true. But on the other hand he said we must realize that extreme epistemological optimism leads to the doctrine that "Truth is Manifest. Truth, if it does not reveal itself, has only to be unveiled, or discovered. Once this is done, there is no need for further argument."

It also leads to what Popper called "conspiracy theories" caused by the reluctance to examine knowledge and its sources critically. On the other hand, epistemological pessimism, as Popper explained in this quote, may eventually lead toward authoritarianism.

The belief of a liberal, the belief ln the possibility of a rule of law, of equal justice, of fundamental rights, and a free society--can easily survive the recognition that judges are not omniscient and may make mistakes about facts and that, in practice, absolute justice is hardly ever realized in any particular legal case. But this belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, cannot well survive an epistemology which teaches that there are no objective facts; not merely in this particular case, but in any other case; and that the judge cannot have made a factual mistake because he can no more be wrong about facts than he can be wrong.

Whatever one may think of Popper's approach to the philosophy of science, these statements, which are as important for ordinary life as for science, bare careful consideration. And it is with this attitude that one must approach Poppers philosophy. When he said that every scientific theory should be stated in a way that it can be refuted he meant that in order to hold this special kind of skeptical attitude toward what you are implying is so, you should be just as aware of the conditions that would prevail if you were wrong. As Agassi described scientific activity, most scientists are involved in solving problems, not in refuting accepted theories. He didn't feel that popper's description fit normal science as it was practiced. But, the Popperian attitude, that one should hold scientific truths lightly in the hand provides a safe haven from dogmatism. The American Pragmatist Charles Peirce put it this way. He said, "If you find what I say acceptable, you will have learned something worth your while. If you can refute me, the gain will be chiefly on my side."

As I tried to show in chapter 4, truth always requires faith. Not faith in a truth, but faith in the source of truth. If you have faith in the Bible as a source of truth then truth for you will be what you derive from an examination of the bible. The American philosopher John Dewey called truth a "warrantable assertion." William James said that truth was what was left over when everyone stopped searching. Truth in this sense is a concept on which one can make decisions, take actions. When we apply this kind of logic to the search for the kinds of truths that occupy the activities of scientists it is called instrumentalism. But what scientists are searching for are truths that lie below these pragmatic views. They are prepared to ask what is it in the world around us that leads us to accept these concepts as true. Epistemologists would like to develop an explanation about science and scientific method that would explain in universal terms exactly what it means to find such truth. This is extremely important and we can see just how important it is when we examine the difference between the developments in science during the first half of the twentieth century and the developments in other fields during the same period.

If we ask questions concerning social or economic questions of a large number of people from varying backgrounds we will receive in return a wide variety of contradictory answers. Even if we turn to those who specialize in these fields the range of contradictions will be hardly less. But if we ask questions regarding a problem in the "hard sciences" we will get answers which are far more consistent, If we ask them of the scientists working in the field the answers will be nearly unanimous. Why is this true? It is the belief of many, and Popper is one, that if we could apply the same criteria for social and economic studies that we apply to the hard sciences, then we could find answers that would be consistent and not contradictory. The feelings of most others, however, is that the difference lies in the complexity of social and economic systems and that therefore the criteria that works for the hard sciences will not work for these.

In 1984 I proposed that the answer to this problem lies in an understanding of complexity itself. In this case in the way that complex systems organize themselves. The point I made then was that we must see scientific activity as a social system. That article examined several seemingly contradictory approaches to the philosophy of science and showed that there actually was no contradiction involved because of the complex organization of science itself. I will leave it to the interested scholar to examine the reasoning involved. What is germane to our study here is that if we look at science this way then we can see a few similarities between science and society in general. The first is that like science social systems are constantly changing and regenerating themselves. But most important is that stability in social systems is determined by their ability to extract out of the chaotic world around them those aspects of the world that contribute to their own success. To put it in simple terms, legal systems maintain their stability by solving legal problems, and through the faith that those who use them have that their problems will be solved. By the same token science is a social system which maintains its hegemony by solving scientific problems and by the faith that scientists have in the ability to solve problems concerning the world around them through application of scientific method.

Thus, the faith that scientists have in the truth of their assumptions lies not in the assumptions, nor in the structure of their theories, but simply in the faith they have that the scientific method, (or paradigm if you will) does result in answers that are more than instrumentally valid..