Have Popper, Don’t Need Quine

I’ve been reading Stuart Kauffman’s latest, Reinventing The Sacred, and it’s chocked full of mind-bending ideas. I’m planning to write a review soon, so I won’t go further than to bring up one issue I have with his thesis – a nit, but one worth exploring, if only as a good philosophical hand-waving exercise.

Kauffman argues that the reductionist approach to the natural world is seriously limited – there are many phenomena that are beyond our notions of modern law, and no matter how much we discover, over as many centuries as we can imagine, we’ll never come up with laws that can predict how some (actually, a great many) events will unfold. Unfortunately, says Kauffman, as modern science has been under what he calls the Galilean spell for decades (or more), this truth has been hidden from view. The Galilean spell is the idea that all things in the world are explicable in scientific terms, even if we do not yet have the knowledge to recognize or grasp those explanations. One culprit, accused of prolonging the spell, is Karl Popper.

The argument goes that scientists have, for quite a long time, gravitated toward Popper’s Critical Rationalism as the basis of their quest for truth in the natural world. After all, he is credited with the notion of falsification – the idea that the only good theory is one that has withstood attempts to disprove it (the more the better). Now, if we are to believe Kauffman that reductionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (and I do), then clinging to falsification as a sound methodological approach to science inhibits our ability to “see” what is right before our eyes. Suppose the falsifying evidence we cite is faulty itself. If we buy it, and decide that the hypothesis of interest is false, then we have failed in our search for truth. Not the best method then, right?

I should pause and state, for those unfamiliar with my work, that Popper’s approach to science and truth is fully ingrained in my thought processes. I agree with him on most things, and I have found his insights immensely useful in life. So to hear Kauffman, one of the true heroes of modern science in my book, criticizing Popper is unsettling, to say the least. But I give him his due and hear him out. (To be fair, this is a passing mention in the book. But we Popperians die hard, I suppose.)

Kauffman prefers the Harvard philosopher W.V.O. Quine (dude, get a first name), who gives us holism in science. The idea is that, in searching for truth, the thing we really do (which implicitly works, apparently) is “provisionally alter those statements of fact or other laws that minimally alter our worldview.” So, rather than simply accept falsifying evidence (suspect as it is), we weigh the bigger picture – including the so-called falsifying evidence – and decide where we come down on the matter of the hypothesis in question. That makes sense to me, but I have a hard time seeing where that’s any great advancement over Popper.

You see, Popper’s whole critical rationalism concept is based upon three ideas:

  1. Practical action requires us to choose between more or less definite alternatives – theories, if you will.
  2. You can never be sure that any given theory is correct. This comes from Kant and Hume almost directly.
  3. You can, however, rationally prefer one theory over another. This is Popper’s big contribution to logically acceptable truth seeking.

So, in that context, Quine’s (and Kauffman’s) issue is that rationally preferring one theory over another does not take into account enough variables to be reliable. We may lose the forest for the trees. I disagree.

The key to internalizing Popper (for me) is grasping the relativistic stance of preference. To prefer something implies that there are multiple things and that they relate to one another (or to a separate topic) in some discernible way. In other words, some are better than others. Popper, in good form, did not attempt to prescribe how that preference should be given, at least not exactly. He gave guidelines, which have been stretched by the likes of Quine and Kauffman, to invent the need for a separate practice called holism.

The most important guideline is the notion that we should prefer that which has withstood rational scrutiny over that which has not – thus, falsification emerges as a value in assessing preference. And like all values in the real world, lots of factors go into determining how a specific instance relates to them. Popper is just saying, “I’ll fare better acting upon an alternative (or theory) that has been put to the test over one that has not.” That says nothing whatsoever about what goes into the testing.

From Popper’s “The Problem of Induction” (Section X),

Let us forget momentarily about what theories we ‘use’ or ‘choose’ or ‘base’ our practical actions on, and consider only the proposal or decision (to do X; not to do X; to do nothing; or so on). Such a proposal can, we hope, be rationally criticized; and if we are rational agents we will want it to survive, if possible, the most testing criticism we can muster. But such criticism will freely make use of the best tested scientific theories in our possession. Consequently, any proposal that ignored these theories (where they are relevant, I need hardly add) will collapse under criticism. Should any proposal remain, it will be rational to adopt it.

So Popper is saying that we have to consider our competing theories in the context of everything we know. There’s your holism right there.

Quine’s big example of critical rationalism’s limitation is as follows: if I believe the Earth is flat and you believe it is round, we can devise a seemingly falsifying test. We’ll watch a ship sail into the horizon, and if the hull disappears before the sails, we’ll know the earth is not flat. But, says Quine, what if the ship sank? We may come up with many other tests, but every time, I will be able to doubt the evidence against my assertion that the earth is flat. Thus, critical rationalism fails in helping us logically discern a fairly recognizable truth. Not so fast.

Remember that Popper’s second idea is that we can never be certain that a theory is correct. The reason is, very simply, that our abilities to either conceive of a proper test or accurately assess the results of said test are often too limited. As I said, this comes from Kant. So Quine is using Kant against Popper, when Popper’s entire concept is based upon the very same ideas. I don’t know exactly what you call that, but whatever it is, it’s pretty lame reasoning.

Of course, Popper would be the first to say that any piece of evidence can (and should) be doubted. But note that he insists that we must take into account the best tested theories in making our value judgements, our assessments of preference. It’s all relative. We are to take the full picture and weigh all our options, just as Quine recommends. If the assertions we make in rejecting seemingly falsifying evidence consequently require some “non-minimal” alteration of our worldview, then we are rationally justified in discounting them, especially with regard to our other evidence and other theories.

My point is that the Popperian approach to truth is holistic at its core. Quine would stretch the idea that we prefer tested theories over untested theories to mean that we limit our evaluations to actual experimental data and that we don’t scrutinize our evidence. Popper said no such thing; quite the contrary.

Critical rationalism does not, therefore, in any way, preclude accepting the limitations of reductionism. To be sure, Kauffman is right on about the Galilean spell and the blinders it has placed on much of modern scientific inquiry. But the blame – even for only prolonging it – cannot be placed on Popper’s shoulders.
Incidentally, I (as yet) know little about Quine, but I’m hoping holism was not his signature contribution to philosophy. That would be like inventing diet water.

Disclaimer. I am not a credentialed philosopher, and as such, I am fully aware that I may be way off on this. However, as Popper says, “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”


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