Category: The Republic of Science

Rodopi: 2001.

Moving on

Established mainstream philosophy of science and of society tries to give the impression that it has absorbed what is of value in Popper and moved on. Thus he and his followers are somehow out of step, possibly even outmoded. [23]

A social demarcation of science

What characterises science on this view is a social decision to allow the world to correct our ideas, and collateral decisions to eschew attempts to insulate those ideas from inconsistency and counter-example. Those decisions are implemented socially in institutions that entrench rules of procedure or method. Thus and only thus is a demarcation established between folk wisdom, social and political opinions and the like, all equally institutional, and science. The difference is not in the results – the claims about the world that issue from time to time from actors in the institutions. Indeed, these may at times look (misleadingly) similar. It lies in the methods by which work proceeds, where method here is construed not simply as a bunch of methodological rules, which is how it is usually presented, but as the deliberate choice and tailoring of methodological rules to specified aims. The choice is institution-building rather than personal. Science is to be identified with an institutionalised aim or set of aims, together with the institutional rules and practices that have been devised to foster pursuit of these aims. These rules serve specifiable purposes and are subject to revision depending upon whether they accomplish such purposes. (Yet Popper did not discuss the reform of scientific institutions, even though he sometimes deplored what science had become (Popper 1972).) It is these rules that enable science to pursue the goals of being objective, realistic, in touch with experience, explanatory, progressive, and causal. Obedience to these rules is what makes the institutions of science different from other social institutions, including those of pseudo-science, magic, logic, and mathematics. It is not doctrines, ideas, or sentences that are scien­tific or non-scientific; it is certain institutionalised ways of handling doctrines, ideas, and sentences that are scientific or non-scientific. The outcome of this effort is not guaranteed truths, but hypotheses that stand at the end of a chain of conjecture and refutatìon. The main result of the investigation is that we have a deeper and more humbling sense of the underlying problems than that with which we started. [20]

Nasty little facts of logic

Although science is a social institution, it is not just another social institution. The social institution of science is obedient to special imperatives because it undertakes to explore and explain the world, to in some sense use the world as the ultimate test of its results. Science institutionalises what we know as empiricism, the attempt to learn from experience. The spine of learning from experience is logic: if we have two inconsistent statements, one of them must be false, its negation true. This uncomfortable logical fact, so often allowed to be disregarded or even flouted by other social insti­tutions (e.g. in politics and religion), has to be taken seriously in science. The republic of science makes it difficult to evade or flout contradiction, hence the detection of one is an incipient crisis. [18]

Faites vos jeux

Popper discovered that in purely logical or methodological terms the problem of demarcation was insoluble. Yet the distinctiveness of science as intellectual activity was an undeniable (social) fact. It followed that the problem of demar­cation was misformulated and needed to be recast. Only by taking account of the fact that there were inescapable choices involved in methodology, choices that structured the social institution(s) of science, was Popper able to get around the fundamental logical impasse. [13]

Science’s social framework

Science is a special kind of endeavour. Philosophers have been seeking to specify in what ways it is special for almost four hundred years (at least since Francis Bacon). Karl Popper is known for his attempt to characterise it negatively, as refutable conjectures about the world. But this is not the sum of what he said. What is and is not refutable requires discussion, which is a social process; if conjectures about the world are to be refuted a social framework is needed for their testing. Popper’s negative method requires institutions and traditions. [9]

The learning machine

My aim is to show how over ten years of fruitful work he remained engaged with the social aspects of the quest for knowledge, working out, supplementing, and generalising ideas about society that were embryonic in his philosophy of science. A fully fleshed-out vision of politics and society emerged which today would be termed the knowledge-using, knowledge-gathering, knowledge­-embodying society. It is, in many ways, a magnificent vision and an intellectual tour de force. Popper presents society as a learning machine, and the learning machine as a Socratic seminar writ large.

Wholehearted though my admiration is for this vision, I take seriously Poppers injunction that we learn from criticism. In criticism I argue that there are serious deficiencies in holding up the Socratic seminar as a model for life in society in general, and for scientific work in particular. The republic of science Popper envisions is susceptible to the corruptions of power just as is the broader body politic, and its citizens need the kind of checks on power that Popper demanded on governments. Even more troubling: the central Socratic and scientific value of truth conflicts at times with other values important for social life. [6]

Power’s corrosive powers

Sir Karl Popper’s originality as a philosopher of science is usually attributed to his stress on criticism and falsification as routes to knowledge. His originality as a philosopher of society and politics is usually presented as an extension of those epistemological and methodological ideas into what might be termed a defensive view of political life. It was prudent, he famously argued, to act as if tendencies to despotism and tyranny were endemic; to treat all government, indeed all power, with suspicion; and to create a political system in which the government could be changed by the governed without resort to violence. While providing no guarantee of freedom and openness, this was the best avail­able insurance against their erosion.[5]