Monday, 24 March 2014

Mary Midgley on Karl Popper

In a recent post I responded to comments on the impact of the work of Karl Popper made by Mary Midgley in her book "Science and Poetry".

In another book by Midgley "The Myths We Live By" (Routledge, 2003), there are one or two more references to Popper which seem to me to carry the same contention that Popper's work had a negative impact in so far as it went to great lengths to demarcate science from non-science ("the demarcation problem") but then failed to give any, or enough, consideration to the status of non-scientific thought and practice, or what critical standards or criteria are appropriate to those modes of thought and practice. I think it is Midgley's contention that this neglect on Popper's part contributed to a hardening of scientism and increased defensiveness on the part of studies in humanities. She's probably right.

Writes Midgley:
"Many theorists during the later Enlightenment were fired with the ambition to become Newtons of psychology, of morals or of political thought. They claimed scientific status for a wide range of simplifications pursued from various ideological angles, so that eventually, the excesses of allegedly scientific prophets such as Marx, Freud and Skinner caused serious alarm. This is why, in the mid-twentieth century, serious admirers of science, led by Karl Popper, narrowed the meaning of the term ‘science’ in a way designed to cover only the physical sciences themselves."

And she continues (in the following sub-chapter):
"Though Popper’s campaign was aimed primarily against ideologists such as Marx and Freud, on the face of things it also disqualifies the social sciences and humanities from counting as fully ‘scientific’. And since the term ‘scientific’ remains a general name for academic excellence, people conclude that these cannot be serious, disciplined ways of thinking about the world. Social scientists and humanists therefore often feel that they ought to make their reasonings look as like physical science as possible."
('The Myths We Live By', p.59)

I believe it was Bryan Magee (in his "Confessions of a Philosoper", 1997) who said that Popper "wrote as if the noumenal did not exist", and I think Midgley is saying the same thing.

Whereas Wittgenstein, who had something to be silent about, sought to show, by a logical reduction of language, what mathematical science cannot answer, Popper saw that mathematics and logic are not in direct contact with the world, so the answer to the demarcation problem is not that science attains truth (induction is true) but induction is impossible, science is conjecture and refutation (i.e. certain knowledge is impossible).

Midgley wrote (in "Science and Poetry", p.208) that "it should have been obvious" to Popper and everyone else that Freudianism and Marxism were ideologies and not primarily scientific theories. Here I think Midgley is regretting the whole philosophical effort of the early 20th century, including Popper's work,  that went into attempting to demarcate science from non-science in so far as it led to an equation "non-science = nothing substantive or valuable".

However, it seems to me that Popper's work does not support this equation.
Isn't it the case that, while Popper was an admirer and supporter of the scientist-philosophers of the Vienna Circle, he could see that their programme to create a scientific philosophy was based on a false premise, i.e. that induction is possible, which could not serve as the criterion to demarcate science from (metaphysical) non-science? In my view it is quite probable that he knew that his criticism of the Circle's programme could easily have appeared to be Kantianism: synthetic a priori knowledge is true, and his failure to "write as if the noumenal existed" was surely partly because he wished to head off this interpretation by Circle members. He was anxious and concerned for the acceptance and endorsement of the Vienna Circle.

Popper's view is Kantian, but he denied synthetic a priori knowledge. He saw that the Circle's programme to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy (in pursuit of scientific philosophy) eliminated science. He places science on a continuum with myth, of the same kind as myth, which is I think Midgley's position. Demarcation remains important to Popper, but it now becomes testability, refutatbility. Whether or not this is plausible is, so far as I can tell, still disputed. But there remains the case that there are things we cannot know, yet which are not not important. Those things may be addressed by reasoned, yet non-scientific, enquiry and Popper's work stands as a resource to place before scientistic utilitarians who deny this.

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