Michael Huemer on Popper

Somebody recommended to me an article by Michael Huemer about Karl Popper. I have previously criticised Huemer who wrote a bad criticism of objectivism so I already thought he was a bad philosopher and he is still a bad philosopher. In the third paragraph Huemer writes:

So, as a public service, I am here to explain to you that no, you probably do not agree with Popper at all — unless you are completely out of your mind.

This sentence isn’t an argument. It doesn’t state a position. All it does is state Huemer’s dislike of the position he attributes to Popper.

Huemer then attempts to describe Popper’s position:

You probably associate Popper with these ideas: It’s impossible to verify a theory, with any number of observations. Yet a single observation can refute a theory. Also, science is mainly about trying to refute theories. The way science proceeds is that you start with a hypothesis, deduce some observational predictions, and then see whether those predictions are correct. You start with the ones that you think are most likely to be wrong, because you’re trying to falsify the theory. 

This claim is false. As Popper writes in The Logic Of Scientific Discovery (LScD), Chapter 3, Section 18:

This may happen if a well-corroborated theory, and one which continues to be further corroborated, has been deductively explained by a new hypothesis of a higher level. The attempt will have to be made to test this new hypothesis by means of some of its consequences which have not yet been tested. 

What matters is whether the test will help us make a decision between theories, not whether it is likely to be false. Huemer continues:

Theories that can’t in principle be falsified are bad. 

This is another false claim about Popper, which Popper specifically disagrees with in LScD Section 4:

The fact that value judgments influence my proposals does not mean that I am making the mistake of which I have accused the positivists— that of trying to kill metaphysics by calling it names. I do not even go so far as to assert that metaphysics has no value for empirical science. For it cannot be denied that along with metaphysical ideas which have obstructed the advance of science there have been others—such as speculative atomism—which have aided it. And looking at the matter from the psychological angle, I am inclined to think that scientific discovery is impossible without faith in ideas which are of a purely speculative kind, and sometimes even quite hazy; a faith which is completely unwarranted from the point of view of science, and which, to that extent, is ‘metaphysical’. 

Huemer continues:

Theories that could have been falsified but have survived lots of attempts to falsify them are good.

I wrote that vaguely enough that it’s kind of what Popper said. And you might basically agree with the above, without being insane. But the above paragraph is vague and ambiguous, and it leaves out the insane basics of Popper’s philosophy. If you know a little bit about him, there is a good chance that you completely missed the insane part.

The insane part starts with “deductivism”: the view that the only legitimate kind of reasoning is deduction. Induction is completely worthless; probabilistic reasoning is worthless.

Huemer provides no quotes by Popper saying that the only legitimate kind of reasoning is deduction and I don’t think Popper ever made such a claim. Popper’s position isn’t that induction is worthless. Rather, Popper explains that inductive reasoning is impossible. No series of observations implies that a theory is correct or probable or anything like that because any given set of observations is compatible with an infinite number of other theories. For example, if I have a sequence of numbers 1,2,3 as observations the next number might be 4 or pi or -206754. Popper explains this position at much greater length and with much greater thoroughness and provides an alternative to inductivism: knowledge is created by guessing solutions to problems and eliminating those guesses using criticism.

The rest of the article continues in a similar way. Huemer quotes some of Popper’s conclusions without explaining of any of his arguments or his position. He also states positions that Popper refuted at length in his published writings, while stating problems that Popper solved and claiming they are decisive objections to Popper. Huemer’s article is a dishonest, unscholarly smear. If you want to understand Popper, read the selections by Karl Popper and David Deutsch in the Fallible Ideas reading list and Elliot Temple’s writings on yes or no philosophy.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to Michael Huemer on Popper

  1. Elliot Temple says:

    > In the third paragraph Huemer writes:

    you forgot to give article cite/link

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