Archives for posts with tag: Karl Popper

True enough.
Good people don’t need laws to tell them how to behave while the ‘cunningly willful’ amongst us will indeed, time and time again, try to circumvent the consequences of bypassing the law.

Then why?
Two and a half millennia after Plato had dispensed this piece of wisdom we still have laws.
Is there a possible explanation for this apparent aberration?
Are we that thick-headed or there’s something else?

To settle this question – to start attempting to settle it, actually, we must first agree upon the difference between good and bad.

Ooops!

‘Everybody knows what good and bad is’ doesn’t really work, right?

In principle… maybe, but when it comes to putting principles into practice… we need guidelines!
Just as ‘good fences make good neighbors‘, a clear understanding among the good about where the realm of the bad starts in earnest makes life a lot simpler. For all of us. And the more visible that line is, the simpler our life becomes.

Only this is but half of the actual explanation.
Laws do make our life simpler, indeed. Unfortunately, ‘simpler’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’.

As some of you already know, I’ve spent half my life under communist rule.
Does ‘Ceausescu’ ring any bells with you?

Under communism, life was a lot simpler than it is now.
Presumably, life was a lot simpler under any of the many flavors of authoritarian rules experienced by humanity during its history. This being the reason for no matter how horrible a dictatorial regime had been, there were always some who had regretted when that regime had fallen.

‘OK, so what’s your point?
That laws, in general, might be good but the laws which impose an authoritarian regime are bad?
You know that you’ve just opened a fresh can of worms, right?’

How do you determine the difference between a good law and a bad one?

There’s no such thing. No law is above good and bad. For the simple reason that we call laws are made by us.
We are fallible human beings and everything we make, including our laws, is, and should continue to be, constantly improved.

‘Then you’re nothing more than a ‘closet progressive‘!
I knew it!
‘Constant improvement’… yuck!
Not to mention the fact that the most important Law comes from God, not from Man!’

I’ve already disclosed that I’m an agnostic.
That I have no idea whether a(ny) god had anything to do with what’s happening around/with us.
All I know is that all laws, including the Bible – and all other Holy Books, had been written by people.
By Humans, that is.

And I also know that there are two kinds of law.
‘Natural’ – as in noticed by us, and ‘synthetic’.

While all laws are ‘artificial’ – ‘written’ by us, the natural ones had been first noticed and only then put on paper.
While all laws had been written on purpose – each ‘writer’ had their own reason for doing it, the ‘synthetic’ ones had been put together with a specific goal.

While observing – and when necessary improving, the natural laws benefits all, the ‘synthetic’ ones serve only those who make it their business to impose those laws upon the rest of the community.

While observing – and, when necessary, imposing them upon SOME, improves the prospects of the entire community, designing and imposing ‘synthetic’ laws upon a community will always bring a huge amount of disturbance.
Sometimes fatal for that community.
Always fatal for the regime attempting it!

‘How about some examples?’

I’ll give you two natural laws and a ‘synthetic’ one.

The law of gravity. Also known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.
This law didn’t need Newton to notice it. The Earth had already been orbiting the Sun for a while before Newton told us why.

‘Do not kill’. A subset of the Golden Rule, ‘Do no harm, if you can help it’.
Also ‘natural’ but a lot more ‘fluid’.
And, strangely enough, noticed and ‘put on paper’ way before the law of the falling objects…
Just think of it!
The ‘law makers’ have noticed long, long ago that the communities which follow the Golden Rule fare much better than those whose members treat each-other like dirt. Yet only a few short centuries ago somebody ‘noticed’ that things fall according to a constant rule… and bothered to make it into a law.
Was ‘gravity’ too obvious? Inescapable, so why bother?
While the Golden Rule worked better when enforced? When the formal rule mandated that even the rulers themselves had to obey the rule?

It’s easy to notice that the first two, the ‘natural’ ones, produce consequences regardless of people observing them or not.
Meanwhile, ‘synthetic’ laws are, entirely, the figment of somebody’s imagination. And produce consequences only when/if enough people are ‘seduced’ by the perspectives of those laws being put into practice.
Communist rule, for instance, could be put into practice only when enough people had been seduced by Marx’s ideal that all property should belong to the state and be managed by a ‘select’ few. Only then, after those ‘select’ few had, somehow, convinced enough followers, could Marx’s ideas be transformed into laws. And put in practice. With the already obvious consequences…

‘OK, but I still don’t get it!
Is there a way to tell whether a law is good or bad before-hand? Before its consequences had become manifest?’

That’s a tall order. And you know that!

Actually, no!
There’s no fire-proof method of ascertaining anything before-hand, let alone something made by us.

But there is a next best thing.
The ‘natural’ laws are natural because they had been first observed. Only then written into law. And because of things proceeding in this order, whenever something changed those who had noticed the change had adapted the wording of the law to the new reality. Simply because those who had to make do with the consequences of the law being put into practice could not wait too long whenever they had noticed that there was a better way.

People have dreamed of flying since god only knows when but they had learned how to do it only after they had been told that everything is pulled to the center of the Earth.
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ had been very useful. For a while… Now we use the same principle – do no harm, but we implement it in a more nuanced manner.

People have also dreamed of a fair society.
And, frankly, ours is a lot fairer than that of our grand-parents. Because we have constantly improved our ‘manners’.
We have not only observed ourselves while living but we’ve also done something when anything went wrong.
The problem is – and it’s only one problem here, that not all things can be reversed. Some mistakes can be fully redressed, other compensated … but we’ll have to take with us the consequences of those mistakes. And the longer a mistake is allowed to happen, the more important the consequences.
So. ‘Synthetic’ rules are bad not because they have been dreamed up by us. They are bad because those who promote them cannot accept the idea they might have been wrong.
The really bad ‘synthetic’ rules were those who could not be changed from within!

Whenever a law maintains that things cannot happen, ever, but in the manner prescribed by that very law, that text is no longer a law. It’s a dictate!
It’s dictates that we can do without, not laws.
And it’s our job to make out the difference. One way or another.

Disclosure.
You haven’t ‘heard’ this from me.
I’ve only ’embellished’ some ideas I’ve stolen from Popper, inasmuch as I’ve understood anything from them.

Well, all knowledge is, ultimately, false. Or, at least, incomplete.

Bearing this in mind, we understand there is no such thing as false knowledge.
Only people unwilling to adapt their understanding of things to the newly discovered facts…
In this sense, it’s not the false knowledge which is dangerous, it’s those who worship ‘self made idols’!
Those who are so convinced that what they know is enough.
That their understanding of the world is so right and so complete that it has reached ‘perfection’.
That their Weltanschauung is, hence, ‘sacred’. ‘Worship-able’, if you’ll allow this word.

“Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God.”

How about this ‘interpretation’ of Shaw’s words?

Further reading:
Do not love your neighbor as yourself. If you are on good terms with yourself it is an impertinence: if on bad, an injury.

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As much as I love writing, I do have to eat.
And to provide for my family.
Earning money takes time.
If you’d like me to write more, and on a more regular basis, hit the button.
Your contribution will be appreciated!

As much as I love writing, I do have to eat.
And to provide for my family.
Earning money takes time.
If you’d like me to write more, and on a more regular basis, hit the button.
Your contribution will be appreciated!

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We happen to be born.

Then we start exploring the world our parents – and all their ancestors, have prepared for us.

At first, we’re like sponges. We absorb, unconsciously, everything which takes places around us. Some according to what our parents had in mind for us, some not.

After a while, on our own and/or under our parents’ supervision, our attention starts to focus. More and more of the things which are stored in our memory are learned. Increasingly a consequence of focused labor and less and less a happenstance.

Almost simultaneously, we start adding our transformative efforts to those already effected by our predecessors. Minute at first, more and more significant as we become more experienced.

At some point, we reach something called ‘maturity’.
That’s when ‘play’ ceases being a legitimate manner of learning for us.
We are allowed to continue playing but only for recreational purposes…

At least we’re still allowed to explore… but from now on, we’re expected to do it in a serious manner. According ‘to plan’, that is.
From now on, wandering is considered to be a sin!

‘You’re an adult, for God’s sake. Act like one!’

I’m sure most of you have experimented things. Either as an experimenter or, mostly in school, as a learning apprentice.
How many of those experiments had been ‘blind’? As is neither you nor anybody else present had any idea about what was going to happen?
And how many had a more ‘modest’ goal? Just to convince the ‘students’ that the ‘theory’ was valid?

If you think of it, the second sentence covers quite a lot of ground.
From the second grade teacher pouring water over some sugar ‘Look, it has disappeared’, to the scientists anxiously watching the gauges at the CERN laboratory…

A few short generations ago, people had to decide whether that plant was edible or not. And had developed methods to accomplish that task. They survived, right?
Nowadays we design new plants/animals and ‘cook up’ fancy snacks to be sold in supermarkets…

During our parents’ ‘watch’, Popper had come up with a test for what belonged to the realm of science – and had to do with ‘reality’.
Nowadays, we brag about being able to create VA. As in virtual reality… Enhanced virtual reality, even!

Nothing good or bad about all this.
For as long as we keep our eyes open… and, at least one of them, focused on the ‘hard’ reality… that which makes us possible!

Science is, above all, a state of mind.
One that posits the world can be understood, one fact at a time.
Science also says that The (complete) Truth will never be fully acquired, only people tend to forget that part.

Some history, first.
Science, as an attitude, had appeared on the shores of the Medieval Mediterranean Sea. The Arabs had just discovered Ancient Greek writings about the ‘natural order of things’ while the Catholics were trying to figure out what God had in mind for the future of the mankind.

We have seen that the laws of nature depend on other laws of nature, which ultimately depend on God’s will.

Put all these together – the wish to understand God’s will, the belief that God’s will is expressed through the natural order of things and the systematic observation of nature, and, Eureka, you have ‘science’.

Which attitude had made Europe what it is today. Both the good and the bad of it.

Europeans have initiated the orderly study of everything around them.
As I said before, the initial intent wasn’t any technological improvement. Technicians and scientists were two completely different breed of people. As in ‘tinkerers’ and ‘philosophers’. Tinkering was sometimes confused with witchcraft while ‘philosophy’ was almost synonym with theology.
Well, both ‘professions’ could lead those to practiced them to a ‘funeral pyre’… whenever either of them ‘trespassed’… Many of those who are able to read are familiar with what ultimately happened to Giordano Bruno but very few of us know the fact that the ‘un-certified healers’ were seen with ‘suspicion’.

“Questioned whether she heals sick persons, answered yes Sir.
Questioned with what kind of medicines, answered by picking betony up and washing it like salad and crushing it into a mortar to get its juice and to give it to her patients for 3, 4 and 5 days, telling them that the more they drunk it, the better it was.
With these words the healer Gostanza da Libbiano, tried for witchcraft in 1594,….”
“The difference between them (healers) and physicians was the specific kind of tasks assigned to doctors: physicians, who rarely touched impurities and who regularly graduated from the university, were believed to be able to make the pain cease, whereas the healer, due to the fact that she actually touched her patients, was able both to make pain cease and to cause it”

Donatella Lippi, Witchcraft, Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe, 2012

On the face of it, ‘science’ was, and continues to be, declared to depend exclusively on facts. Regardless of those facts being the expression of God’s will or, ultimately, of a serendipitous nature.
In fact, science is about what we, ‘scientists’, have been taught to accept as facts by our teachers and peers.

Another interesting thing.
When most scientists were still believing in God, their natural arrogance was kept in check by their belief that there was somebody who knew more than them. He.
As soon as God was declared dead, all hell broke loose.

‘Practical’ sciences continue to be kept in check by … well… practice! For any engineer, biologist, chemist, physician and all other related scientists and practitioners of science  it is obvious that Karl Popper and Werner Heisenberg were, and continue to be, right. No matter how much we will ever learn, we’ll never be able to know everything. Hence, we should proceed with utmost care.
Those who practice ‘secondary degree’ sciences – sci-Po being the most obvious example, share the belief that the world can be learned but are enjoying a far longer ‘leash’. Simply because the consequences of their actions come a lot later than those experienced by the ‘practical sciences’ practitioners. Add the fact that the ‘effects’ are harder  pinpoint to one specific cause/action…
And since God has become, at most, a personal matter… he no longer exerts the taming influence it used to…
Science has become independent. It is practiced for/in its own right, not as the only available manner of ‘divining’ God’s Will.
In fact, we use science as a manner to design our future. Independently. As each of us see fit and as allowed by those around us.
Which is good. Attempting to learn before proceeding is commendable, of course.
But proceeding with the unshakeable belief that we already know everything about what lies ahead of us is… foolish. Even more so when we speed up…  with total disregard about what other people, our colleagues/peers/fellow human beings, have to say and/or feel about the whole thing. Because we momentarily can.

 

The philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision, is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs.”

The systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms.

In these terms, science must be deterministic.
No systematic study of anything might ever be made if not starting from the conviction that a given set of causes will produce the same results, over and over again. No laws attempting to describe any facts in general terms might be formulated unless starting from the same premises.

On the other hand, it was science itself which had taught us that:

It’s impossible to determine, with absolute precision, both the position and momentum of an electron

The same ‘uncertainty principle’ can be extended to other pairs of “complementary variables, such as length of time and energy“.

And there are countless other examples of ‘in-determination’ which have been documented by scientists during their search for the ultimate truth.

Any chance of reconciliation?

Well…
To start, I’ll note first that ‘determinism’ is a concept which had started its career in philosophy while ‘science’ has a more ‘complex’ origin. It might have been initiated by Christian theologians trying to ‘guess’ God’s will only they were attempting to fulfill that task by closely watching Nature – which was seen as the very embodiment of God’s intentions.
In this sense, scientific determinism can be understood as the conviction that Nature must make perfect sense – must be completely explainable, simply because God’s creation – which includes Nature, must be perfect.
OK, and since all theologians agree that no human will ever be able/should ever pretend to know God, what’s the problem in accepting that Man – collectively speaking now, will never learn enough to find a complete explanation for everything?

‘And what about the atheists?’

What about them?
Oh, you mean the people who are sure that God doesn’t exist? Who are just as sure that God doesn’t exist as the staunch believers who are perfectly confident that God not only exists but also micro-manages everything? Under the Sun and beyond?
I’ll just leave it there…

On a deeper level, there is no contradiction between ‘determinism’ – philosophically speaking, and scientific thinking. As long as we keep these two ‘apart’, of course…

‘So you are going to accept that science will never ‘know’ everything AND that ‘everything is a consequence of the previous state of affairs’ ‘ ?

Well, again…
The key word here is “inevitable”!
Determinism is ” the philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision, is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs
For a philosopher it is very easy to say ‘inevitable’. Even more so for believing philosopher.
For a scientist… how is a scientist going to say that something is ‘inevitable’? ‘Philosophically’ speaking, of course… as in ‘with absolute precision’?!?

Specially since entertaining a truly ‘scientific attitude’ means, above all, to be prepared, at all moment and without any notice, for all your previously held convictions to be contradicted by new evidence…

‘What are you trying to say here?
That everything revolves around the manner in which each of us relates to the meaning of his own interpretation of each concept?
That truth itself is relative?’

‘That man is the measure for everything?’

Yep!
AND that man is also responsible for the consequences his own actions! In front of his own children, before everything else.
For no other reason than it will be his own children who will bear the brunt of his own decisions.

Additional reading:
Science as Falsification“, Karl R. Popper.
800 Scientists say it’s time to abandon “Statistical Significance”
“Protagoras”
“On the Essence of Truth“, Martin Heidegger
“Suicide now leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 14 in Japan

– History is the story of what we remember of what had happened, right? Based on our shared individual recollections, the ‘written sources’ we have at our disposal and our interpretation of any other material traces we might have found… and properly preserved…

– Yep!

– Then no history, no matter how diligent and well intended the historian, will ever be the actual representation of what had really happened, back then!

– Well, you seem to be quite familiar with Heidegger’s work.

– I can’t say that. Popper’s injunction that science is more about being prepared to acknowledge your ignorance than about really knowing is enough for me.

– Then we might be soon delivered from History, after all.
When enough people will share your attitude/paradigm – that no matter how hard we’ll ever try we’ll never know anything for sure… it will be impossible for any would be dictator to pretend they have the ‘right’ answer for any problem we might encounter.

The current spate of dissent on this subject has been spurred by this guy, Angus Deaton, being presented with The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

“A Nobel prize in economics implies that the human world operates much like the physical world: that it can be described and understood in neutral terms, and that it lends itself to modelling, like chemical reactions or the movement of the stars. It creates the impression that economists are not in the business of constructing inherently imperfect theories, but of discovering timeless truths.”

I’m afraid that the author had been so disgusted by the obvious mistakes that have been committed by so many of the supposedly reputable economists of this world that he has become amenable to throwing out the baby along with the bath water.

First of all we must remember that “Science is wrong. By definition.” All theories are imperfect and there is no such thing as ‘timeless truths’.
Ever since Karl Popper introduced the idea of ‘falsifiability’ as the litmus test for determining if any piece of information has any scientific value and Berger & Luckmann noticed “The Social Construction of Reality” it had become apparent both that science is being updated constantly – hence always ‘wrong’, or at least incomplete – and that people are ‘doing science’ on purpose – hence any discussion about reality being ‘described and understood in neutral terms’ is unrealistic, to say the least.

Coming back to Popper, Hermann Bondi had declared that ‘There is no more to science than its method, and there is no more to its method than Popper has said.’
True enough but as any ‘scientific declaration’ this is highly ‘updatable’.

In fact Science is, above all, a human enterprise. It’s a human that picks up – or devises – which method to use in a certain situation when he wants to find out something about a certain subject. Furthermore that method is applied by human individuals, not by robots. The same as those who had chosen it or by others, doesn’t make much difference. And, at the end of the cycle, some other people will evaluate – and sometimes try to replicate – the results.

So the mere fact that a certain set of results could not have been replicated by a certain team of evaluators doesn’t mean that much, by itself. This has been silently acknowledged by Andrew C. Chang and Philip Li in a paper published by the Federal Reserve in 2015: “Is Economics Research Replicable? Sixty Published Papers from Thirteen Journals Say ”Usually Not””. The couple admitted they needed some help from the original authors to replicate the results in a few instances and in some-others they didn’t have access to the same computer software as the first publishers.

But the most interesting fact is that in no instance the authors have been able to positively determine that the results published in any of the analyzed papers are inconsistent with the data presented by the original authors and/with the method invoked. In all instances when they failed to replicate the original results that happened because the original authors didn’t present at all the initial sets of data, they were incomplete or the method/sofware used to  process that data was incomplete, altogether missing or proprietary. And all this despite in some cases the papers being published by journals specifically requesting that all data/methods/software being made available at the moment of publication.

In this situation I find the conclusion reached as being both correct and highly objectionable. And above all lacking any scientific value.
“Because we successfully replicate less than half of the papers in our sample even with assistance from the authors, we conclude that economics research is usually not replicable.”

Yes, it seems that too many papers published by presumably reputable journals are not replicable. But that is due exclusively to the journals themselves not observing their own rules or by some of the authors acting less than ‘over the table’. This phenomenon has nothing to do with ‘economics’ being less of a science than, say, physics and everything to do with humans being… well… human!

Let me go back to where I started, to Joris Luyendijk claim that “Don’t let the Nobel prize fool you. Economics is not a science.”
The author ‘illustrates’ his claim by remembering the infamous LTCM – a hedge fund set up by, among others, a couple of economists who had received a … you guessed it… a ‘Nobel prize for economics’ less than a year before the hedge fund went bust. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?
But the problem remains. The fact that LTCM went bust doesn’t prove anything except the fact that its management was completely inadequate.
The point is that trying to assert that ‘economics’ is not a science only because some guys used a couple of economic theories and failed, abysmally, is akin to claiming that physics is not a proper science because no weather bulletin is 100 percent accurate. Or that biology is not a full blown science because medicine has not yet found a cure for cancer. Or to claim that chemistry is bogus simply because Big Pharma is ripping us off.

At the end of their paper Chang and Li offer some very pertinent advice about how things could be vastly improved. Their main idea being that everything must be ‘above the table’ – both the raw data and the method/software used to process it must be made available for whomever wants to replicate the results. In fact this exactly what science, real science, is about. People have to be able to check thoroughly whatever the proponents of a theory are trying to ‘peddle’. This is the only way for a theory to be proved true or false. Or incomplete so further research might be declared necessary.

Similarly, at the end of his article Joris Luyendijk points his finger at the real culprit.
In reality economics, as a space where people try to gather information, is different from, say physics, only because we, the people, approach them with different attitudes.
Time has taught us, repeatedly, that every-time we’ve tried to deny the obvious we ended up with a bloody nose. The problem is that not all of us are, yet, able to recognize the obvious.
No one in his right mind will pretend, nowadays, that the Earth is flat. Meanwhile some people still pretend that vaccines may induce autism. They don’t. But some of the ‘anti-Vaxxers’ continue to pretend this even after a study partly funded by themselves demonstrated that there is no link between the two.

As suggested by Luyendijk and demonstrated by these examples the real culprit for what is going on, not only in the economic field, is our arrogance.
Arrogance that has led to the survival of what is known as ‘tehnocratic thinking’ despite more and more people learning of the role ideology plays in our decision making.

After all what can be more arrogant than pretending that you have ‘scientific reasons’ for what you do, despite the obvious fact that every one of us acts according to his own ideology?

I’m not going to pretend now that there are good and bad ideologies. I obviously think they can be classified but I cannot pretend that my classification is the correct one.
But I can pretend, and you should too, along with Joris Luyendijk, Andrew C Chang and Philip Li, that each of us should honestly state its point of view along with his opinion when ever discussing something.

After all each of us having an ideology is a reality while pretending that any of us can act as if it doesn’t is a rather pathetic lie.

To conclude I’ll have to keep the promise I’ve made at the beginning of all this and ‘update’ Bondi’s statement about Popper:
‘There is no more to science than its method and there is no more to its method than Popper has said’ but we should always bear in mind that science is exclusively ‘performed’ by human individuals.

 

This quote is so wrong that it makes me wonder if Neil deGrasse Tyson is even aware of it’s existence…

Karl Popper has long ago produced ample proof that science is true only till proven wrong so it ever being true depends solely on us temporarily believing in it…
Maybe the guy who wrote this should have put it a little differently.

The good thing about the scientific mind-set is that whenever we find proof to the contrary it makes it easier for us to stop believing an erstwhile scientifically held truth.
And to continue from there.

Karl Popper: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/
Falsifiability: https://explorable.com/falsifiability

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