Category: The Republic of Science

Rodopi: 2001.

All life is conjecturing

We can view truth as the outcome of attempts to generalise this insight: as organisms we conjecture our environment all the time in order to cope with it, to act. Some of the time we fail, we are surprised. We conclude that the environment was not the way we conjectured it to be. If it was not the way we conjectured it to be, then it was some other way. We need no assumption of final or complete truth.[229]

Seeking transcendental truth

What differentiates science is that it seeks transcendental truth while denying that it possesses it. [230]

Truth over loyalty

Gellner has taken this critique one step futher, by pointing to the social disruption entailed by the concept of disinter­ested and supra-human truth. Since so many social bonds turn on loyalty to ideas, a general scepticism towards ideas is already highly disruptive. Refusing all loyalty except to truth, and placing truth beyond human control, is still more disruptive. Gone are all guarantees of loyalty to actual existing social bonds. Such bonds are themselves now hostage to the vagaries and vicissitudes of nature. This may be the most decisive objection to taking science as a model for social institutions in general. [187-8]

Science as a model for society

In chapter 5 I discuss the two great utopianist social engineering movements of nationalism and totalitarianism. One problem they pose is that they were espoused by intellectuals, including scientists. To turn them aside Popper has to develop his view of social science and of the social organisation of science. From this effort we can extrapolate his view that science is a model for society: science is the knowledge-gaining institution par excellence. Because all institutional initiatives embody conjectures, the society of institutions embodies our aggregate conjectural attempts to realise our aims. Knowledge is a social institution, and social institutions are our attempts to apply our knowledge. [143]

The paradigm of rationality

Science, or rather, doing science, is Popper’s paradigm of rationality, of acting under the constraint of ends. Scientists aim to solve problems by advancing theories and testing them step by step. This acitvity presupposes and depends upon institutions, including a public language and fora in which mutual cross-checking can take place. [129-30]

Social engineering

According to Popper we cannot construct foolproof institutions … . The problems of quality of personnel and the need to cope with changing circumstances ensure that constant maintenance is required. It is for this reason that Popper allows himself the admittedly objectionable term “social engineering”. He emphasises that our fallibility imposes on us a responsibility to proceed with care and caution.

Critics concerned about the conservatism of his conclusion have also argued that it is hard to implement: how to differ­entiate where piecemeal tinkering ends and wholesale alteration begins? Popper admits this difficulty. One obvious difference between the piecemeal and the wholesale is that the piecemeal engineer considers possible unintended consequences of any change carefully and in advance of the change, trying to devise criteria whereby the success or failure of the change can be estimated. [109]

No logic of scientific discovery?

Popper conceded that there was no formal way to characterise a statement or a system of statements as scientific. He thus vacated any hopes raised by the linguistic turn, and he seems to have seen clearly that science had to be looked at institutionally, and that it was in the methodological institutions that the connection beween science and experience would be found. After all, elsewhere he argued clearly that there was no logic of discovery: scientifically respectable statements came with no mark upon them (such as being free of metaphysics). Rather, a statement was checked by what scientists did to it, how they tested it. Testing is a procedure, a social practice. [83-4]

Distinctly social

What Popper argued is that a problem classically treated as logical (the demarcation of science) is insoluble in that form. Yet science does seem distinctive, i.e. demarcatable. The solution to its distinctness is found in its institutionalised rules of inquiry. These rules can be circumvented without violating any rules of logic. In the choice or decision not to circumvent them we find the hallmark of science. Such choice is not individual but social: it is constitutive of and depen­dent upon institutions. Moreover, being institutions, the rules of science are not like rules of inference: discoveries about the properties of logical systems. Institutional rules can be assessed against given aims, such as fruitfulness, and be discussed and modified. Science and its distinctiveness are open to modification. [83]

Science, the liberal society

Consonant with is transcendental aims, science strives to be the social formation that can tolerate even those who are corrupt: who seek advancement, power, advantage, to serve the cause of anti-science. It relies on its institutional strenghts to overcome such individual lack of acceptance of scientific ideals and concentrates solely on the cotribution, if any, such individuals make to ongoing projects. Thus venality and dishonesty – provided they are not pervasive – are compatible with making a scientific contribution. Science is the most liberal version of the open society … . [80]

The fundamental question of politics

The argument of The Open Society and Its Enemies is that wherever there is power there is the possiblitiy of abuse. This renders the fundamental question of politics not ‘who should rule?’ but, ‘how can we design government so that bad rulers can be removed without violence?’ [30]