Sherlock, emotions and rationality

Many people have a false model of how emotions work and in particular a false model of the relationship between emotions and rationality.

To see this model in action, you need only watch programs like Sherlock in which the hero is supposedly rational. The hero is said not to have any emotions except when he is doing something stupid. So when Sherlock wants a cigarette he acts like an idiot, not just in the sense of wanting to poison himself in a way that could shorten his life and end up with him dying of lung cancer, but also in the sense of him being angry with people who get in the way of him smoking. In Episode 2 of Season 3, Sherlock gives a terrible best man speech in which he claims that Watson saved his life in more than one way. In other words, if Watson was not his friend he would be miserable or something like that. And we are told that Sherlock isn’t good at dealing with emotions. So the model is that rationality and emotions are antithetical.

The way most people with emotions is that they have some particular interpretation of those emotions that they never bother to question. It doesn’t matter what the interpretation is because absolutely any such rule is bound to be completely broken and lead to disaster. And by disaster I don’t mean driving your car off a cliff, I mean chronically failing to solve problems. An emotion is just a kind of sensation, so any interpretation of that sensation that you don’t criticise is going to be wrong almost all the time. Imagine if you stopped moving every time you saw something red because you thought it was a red traffic light and you will have some impression of just how bone headed this idea really is. Actually I’m understating the problem. Imagine every time you saw a red light, you decided to chain yourself to the first person you saw when the red light was on. That’s basically what people do when they get married, as Godwin pointed out:

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falsehood. They are led to conceive it their wisest policy to shut their eyes upon realities, happy if by any perversion of intellect they can persuade themselves that they were right in their first crude opinion of their companion. The institution of marriage is a system of fraud; and men who carefully mislead their judgments in the daily affair of their life, must always have a crippled judgment in every other concern. We ought to dismiss our mistake as soon as it is detected; but we are taught to cherish it. We ought to be incessant in our search after virtue and worth; but we are taught to check our enquiry, and shut our eyes upon the most attractive and admirable objects.

Sherlock acts like an idiot when he deal with emotion because the writers don’t have any other model in mind for dealing with emotions other than turning off all their critical faculties and enacting a ritual that has nothing to do with rationality or reality.

There is a common saying that you can’t criticise an emotion. This is sort of true only because emotions are so lacking in any worthwhile content  that they aren’t worth criticising if you divorce them from the context in which you are having them. If you look at them in context you can often criticise the package deal of which they are a part: a set of emotions, preferences and ideas about how the world works or should work. For example, if you feel happy when you’re with somebody you might think you should have sex and get married and that sort of thing. The way you ought to think goes a bit more like this: “Why am I happy when I am with this person? She looks attractive, she smells nice and she cooks me nice food. To get the same services I can buy air freshener, porn and a cook book. I don’t need to get married or even have sex with this person.” Why don’t people do this? Part of the problem is other bad ideas, like the idea that dealing morally with other people requires mutual sacrifice, so you should sacrifice stuff by getting married and agreeing to do stuff your dislike with your spouse. But it’s kinda difficult to criticise that idea without first realising that your emotions are just sensations and that they should be treated as being part of a wider context.

Justificationism vs ancap and rationality

The socialist anarchopac claims to have an argument against anarchocapitalism (ancap). I think this argument is flawed, but I doubt that many ancaps could reply to it properly.

Anarchopac states that according to ancap all property gained by coercion is illegitimate. So if a thief buys a phone with money stolen from many victims, they collectively own the phone. All government property has been created by taxation, which is theft according to ancap. the money used to fund that property is owned collectively by all of the people from whom it was stolen. Many corporations get government subsidy and that money too comes from taxation, so their property too is owned collectively.

There are a few problems with this argument. The first is that if a thief steals money from people, then he owes them money, not something they would not have chosen to buy. If we were to view taxation as theft, then what the government would owe people is the money it stole, not the goods or services they bought with the proceeds of that theft. The first is that if a thief steals money from people and buys a phone with it they may or may not own the phone, or the proceeds from its sale, or the money the thief stole from them depending on what the law awards them as compensation and what other claims are made on the thief’s assets. This is true even under ancap since the protection agency employed by an individual might only look for assets worth more than some lower bound or something like that. I can see no reason why such a policy would be illegal.

The second problem is that it is not at all clear that taxation is theft. Most taxpayers still think that government is good and necessary and many are enthusiastic about it. They want the government to take their money. Is the government stealing from them? I don’t think so. The trouble is that you have to pay taxation to the government regardless of whether you support their policies. If you dislike the government’s policy on the environment you can’t refuse to pay for that particular policy. Rather, you get to vote for one party or another every four years or so, and occasionally it may happen that a government is toppled by a vote of no confidence or something like that between elections. The rest of the time you are free to say what you like (in the West) but the government can ignore or insult you and there is nothing you can do about it. Now, just so I’m not misunderstood, having the vote is better than not having it. It is sometimes possible to persuade enough people the government is doing something bad or stupid at an election. But I would prefer to change the way government works in the direction of allowing individuals to withdraw financial and practical support from the government piecemeal and on a much shorter timescale than every four years. I think that is the good substance of the ancap position. Taxation is bad financing, it is not theft.

Many ancaps might agree that government and corporate property is not legitimate. But seeing as everybody uses goods and services provided by the government I don’t think that it would be possible to disentangle what property is legitimate and what property is not legitimate. Some positions are morally worse than others to be sure. Campaigning for government support of X is worse than taking money from the government that happens to be available for doing X. If you think it would be better for X to be paid for by non-tax means but you take the money anyway I don’t see that as bad provided that you don’t compromise what you want or say that it’s good for X to be paid for by taxation. The money will be spent anyway so why not take it? The proviso may be difficult to meet, but if you’re willing to walk away if you can’t meet it, then that’s okay.

I think this is an instance of a much more general problem. People often say that some position is rational or not rational. (1) Sometimes what a person means by saying a position is irrational is that there are known criticisms of it and so people shouldn’t hold it. (2) But they also irrational to mean that an idea has been justified: shown to be true or probably true. (1) is possible, (2) is not. Justification is impossible because the conclusion of an argument is only true if its premises are true. So if you have to show something is true then you have to justify the premises, which requires another argument with more premises, which have to be justified and so you get an infinite regress. So justification is a bad standard. What you can do instead is to look for criticisms of your ideas: problems they fail to solve such as inconsistencies with other ideas, or with experimental data. You can then propose replacements for the criticised ideas and so make progress by solving problems. (See Realism and The Aim of Science by Karl Popper, especially Chapter I, Sections 1 and 2 and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch for more details.) What you should do is look for problems and try to solve them, not justify ideas.

Looking for problems requires having the means to spot them and take action to change the way we do things. Liberal democracy has some means to do this, but ancaps have suggested means that may allow us to do better. So if people decide ancap is a good idea what they should they do about the current distribution of property? The best gloss I can come up with on legitimacy is the following: a particular action is legitimate if there are no unrefuted criticisms of it. There is no way to justify an action or idea about what action to take. If there is clear problem with some particular action and there is a way to fix it that has no surviving criticisms you should fix it. Otherwise you should just admit that you don’t know how thing would be if people hadn’t made the mistakes they have made in the past rather than trying to undo things when you don’t know how to do so without doing bad stuff.

For example, Apple has sued Samsung who allegedly copied their iPad designs or something like that, but the government has also pursued an antitrust case against Apple. What would have happened without those cases? I don’t know, nor does anybody else. Apple lost money from the antitrust action. But would people who bought a Samsung pad thing have bought an iPad? Did Apple actually lose money because of what Samsung allegedly did and if not weren’t they just shaking down Samsung? What would Apple have done with the money they had to spend on the antitrust case? How could you even go about finding out what opportunities Apple gained or lost or how to price them in either case? And let’s say Apple has come off worse. Whatever improvements they would have made the resources for making them have already been used and can’t be recaptured. The damage can’t be undone. Apple and Samsung should just be left alone to trade.

There may be some very clear cases where somebody has been screwed and it is possible to make restitution. If the government has seized some property (e.g. – eminent domain or civil asset forfeiture) and it hasn’t ruined the property in question, then it should return the property. Otherwise all we should do is sell off government property and let the market sort the rest out. I don’t think the government has much chance of getting the price of its assets right, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about that.

Holding positions rationally

Many people seem to think that rationality consists of holding certain positions that are justified (shown to be true or probably true) – justified true belief. For example, you are supposedly rational if you think that life evolved by natural selection and creationists are irrational. Why? One common answer is that there is lots of evidence for evolution. Thus evolution is not just a theory it is a proven scientific fact or something like that. If you don’t look at this story too closely, you might think it makes sense. There is a lot of evidence that is relevant to the theory that life evolved on Earth by common descent from a single ancestor. However, the idea that positions can and should be justified – justificationism – is a gross misrepresentation of science and rationality more generally.

If you were looking for flaws in justificationism, it wouldn’t be difficult to find them. Newtonian mechanics was not contradicted by the vast bulk of experimental evidence before the 20th century – that’ two hundred years of positive experimental results. But Newton’s theory was replaced by quantum mechanics and general relativity, which contradict one another so they can’t both be true. We don’t know what the replacement will be and it may be the case that there is stuff physicists have badly misunderstood at the foundations of both theories. If physicists are almost certainly misunderstanding a whole load of stuff and don’t have a consistent worldview then it can hardly be said that physics is justified. So by justificationist lights, the whole of physics is irrational.

I picked physics, but I could have picked many other subjects. In biology we don’t understand what sort of complexity DNA can be used to create as a result of natural selection. Would it be possible to evolve creatures that travel through space and colonise other planets purely by natural selection among genes? Human beings haven’t created knowledge about space travel in that way. Rather, we have created a lot of that knowledge through evolution of ideas. And we have virtually no understanding of how evolution of ideas is instantiated in the brain.

And then there’s everyday life. Let’s take brushing you teeth. Can you justify brushing your teeth? People seem to end up doing stuff that is widely recognised as irrational when they undertake activities like politics, personal relationships, work, money, drugs, food, exercise and other stuff. But a lot of it is the same old shit people have been doing for centuries. So what’s the hold up? Why hasn’t it been justified yet and so made rational? Many people will say that such stuff is necessarily irrational. Why? Because we’re apes or something comes the vague reply. This reply doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t explain why all this stuff should be irrational while science is supposedly rational.

Rationality isn’t about the content of your positions, it’s about how you hold them. Justification is not any part of rationality, because justification is impossible. Any argument has to start with premises, so if the premises are not justified nor is the conclusion. And if you try to justify the premises then you need another argument, with more premises that have to be justified.

“Aha!” I hear you cry, “I have got you. For I can look out of my window right now and see lots of stuff like a white van. I can base my worldview on these observations.” This is a terrible argument. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. People often misunderstand stuff they see quite badly. They make up stories to try to explain what they see after the fact and this can change what they think they saw.

And people don’t understand the vast majority of what they see. For example, there are some rain drops on my window. Those raindrops are refracting the light from the scenery in front of the window: they bend the path the light takes away from a straight line. I can see colours in each raindrop because it takes the light from some piece scenery and bends it in such a way that it enters my eye and I see it. The optics of visible light for an object as large as a raindrop is fairly well understood. Given enough time I might be able to reproduce what I can see through the raindrops. Most people couldn’t do that calculation since they don’t know the relevant physics, and I’m just not going to do it because it’s not interesting. Now, think about how much stuff in everyday life you don’t understand at that level of detail and you’ll begin to see a problem in taking what you see as totally unproblematic.

So if justification is impossible how can we think and act rationally? What’s needed is a way to try to sort bad ideas from good ones. The way to do that is to take your ideas seriously as descriptions of how the world works and look for problems with them – anything that seems unsatisfactory. You then propose solutions to those problems and look for problems with the solutions until only one is left. Then you start on another problem. Rationality is about solving problems and then moving on to new problems you prefer to the old ones. It’s not about fixing some particular idea in stone. Rather, it is about improving ideas

To the extent that we have succeeded in creating knowledge in subjects like physics and biology, it’s because people have found lots of flaws with their past ideas and discovered new ideas that don’t have those flaws. They have other flaws that are more interesting.

By contrast, it is notable that when it comes to things like politics and personal issues people seldom admit error and almost never look for explanations. For example, when people get married they become dependent on one another to some extent because their finances are bound together, unless they specifically stipulate otherwise in a prenup and prenups can be overturned. But why should two adults be financially dependent on one another? Most of them could afford to rent  or buy an abode on their own. Food is cheap. Lots of people could live near to where they work and to shops so they wouldn’t need a car. Many people say marriage is good for raising children, but lots of married people get divorced and hurt their children in the process. There is a lot of stuff here that just doesn’t add up at all and very few people are looking for alternatives.

Nicholas Dykes has not replied to my criticism

Nicholas Dykes claims that  he has not replied to my criticism. I have criticised his non-reply reply.

Measurement is theory-laden part 2

In my previous post in this series I discussed the idea that all measurement is theory laden and gave an example of a bad explanation of a measurement. In this post, I will give a good example, from the special theory of relativity. The point is to illustrate  that a good explanation consists of taking an idea seriously and working out its consequences, not of sweeping apparently strange implications under the rug. Doing that is an error since either those new implications are false and your idea is a dud or they are true and you have discovered something new and important. You can’t find out which of those two possibilities is true without working out the consequences of the idea.

First, two definitions that will be relevant. An frame of reference is a set of physical systems used to measure the motion of other systems. An inertial reference frame (IRF) is a frame of reference in which objects that do not suffer some external force move in straight lines. Empty space far away from any masses is a good approximation to an inertial frame. If you measure everything relative to your car while it is accelerating that won’t be a good approximation to an inertial frame because you will see things accelerating when no forces act on them.

Special relativity uses two assumptions.

(1) All IRFs are the same with respect to the laws of physics. For example, if two people use different IRFs, they will both see that objects obey conservation of momentum.

(2) The speed of light in empty space has the same value in all IRFs, denoted by c.

The second assumption looks a bit strange. If you were to get in your car and drive down the road, the cars coming in the opposite direction would be moving at a different velocity relative to you if you speed up or slow down. If you’re driving at 30mph with respect to the pavement and the chap driving in the opposite direction is also travelling at 30mph then you will see him coming at you at 60mph. But you can consistently work out the consequences of these assumptions and that’s part of what matters when it comes to doing experimental tests. (It is not the only thing that matters since some consistent and well worked out ideas don’t have empirically testable consequences.)

I will illustrate two consequences of these assumptions to illustrate what I’m talking about. The consequences in question are that if an object is moving at constant velocity (moving at a constant speed and in a constant direction) with respect to an IRF will act as if it is shorter along the direction in which you are moving than in an IRF in which it isn’t moving and any clocks attached to that object will run slower. This happens in such a way as to make measurements of the speed of light come out the same in both IRFs.

Suppose that you have a clock X that is at rest in an IRF S. This clock consists of two mirrors A and B, a distance L apart with a pulse of light bouncing between them. Each time the light pulse bounces off one of the mirrors it causes a clock attached to mirror A to tick. In the frame S the time T between ticks is 2L/c.

Now suppose there is another IRF S‘ that is moving at a speed v with respect to S at a right angle to the pulse of light bouncing between the mirrors:clocks

The distance between the mirrors in S isn’t going to change because that distance is at right angles to the direction in which the clock is moving. The time it takes the clock to tick in S‘ is T‘. The light takes T‘/2 to hit the mirror B in S‘ and during that time the mirror has moved vT‘/2. The light then takes another T‘/2 to hit the first mirror again at position C. So using Pythagoras theorem the total distance the light travels in S‘ is

AB + BC = 2\sqrt{L^2+(vT'/2)^2}.

The total distance travelled by the light pulse must be cT‘ because the speed of light doesn’t change between the two frames, so

cT' = 2\sqrt{L^2+(vT'/2)^2}

and a bit of rearrangement gives:

T' = \frac{2L}{\sqrt{c^2-v^2}}.

Since L = cT/2 we can write

T' = \frac{T}{\sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}}


1 > \sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}

because v < c so the amount of time it takes for the clock to tick increases.

Now suppose that we consider another frame S” moving  at speed parallel to the direction in which the light travels in the clock:


Since the far end of the clock is moving away from the light pulse it has to travel farther than the length of the clock in S” to get to the mirror at the far end of the clock:

L'' + vt'' = ct''.

When the light pulse is travelling back from the far end of the clock to where it started, it travels a shorter distance:

L'' - vu'' = cu''.

The total time is

T'' = u'' + v'' = \frac{2L''c}{c^2-v^2}=\frac{2L''/c}{1-v^2/c^2}.

The time measured in S‘ and S” will be the same so:

T'' = \frac{T}{\sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}}

L'' = L\sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}

and so moving objects will act as if they are shorter.

On the scales of speed and distance we use in everyday life these effects are very small, but they can be measured for particles travelling near the speed of light and they have been found.

For more information, see Special Relativity by A. P. French.

Measurement is theory-laden

Followers of Karl Popper say that measurement is theory-laden. This means that every time you do a measurement you are making assumptions about how the measurement works. This implies that the idea of our knowledge being derived from measurement makes no sense since knowledge is required for measurement.

However, this is often left a bit abstract, so I thought I would provide an example in which you can be led astray by bad ideas about measurement.

Isaac Newton, despite making great contributions to our understanding of how the world worked, also came up with some confused ideas about absolute space and time. I will illustrate these ideas with quotes from an English translation of Newton’s scholium on absolute space and time.

First, Newton states that he thinks motion can’t just be relative motion:

Only I must observe, that the common people conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to sensible objects. And thence arise certain prejudices, for the removing of which it will be convenient to distinguish them into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common.

Newton clarifies:

Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies; and which is commonly taken for immovable space; such is the dimension of a subterraneous, an aerial, or celestial space, determined by its position in respect of the earth. Absolute and relative space are the same in figure and magnitude; but they do not remain always numerically the same. For if the earth, for instance, moves, a space of our air, which relatively and in respect of the earth remains always the same, will at one time be one part of the absolute space into which the air passes; at another time it will be another part of the same, and so, absolutely understood, it will be continually changed…

Absolute motion is the translation of a body from one absolute place into another; and relative motion, the translation from one relative place into another. Thus in a ship under sail, the relative place of a body is that part of the ship which the body possesses; or that part of the cavity which the body fills, and which therefore moves together with the ship: and relative rest is the continuance of the body in the same part of the ship, or of its cavity. But real, absolute rest, is the continuance of the body in the same part of that immovable space, in which the ship itself, its cavity, and all that it contains, is moved. Wherefore, if the earth is really at rest, the body, which relatively rests in the ship, will really and absolutely move with the same velocity which the ship has on the earth. But if the earth also moves, the true and absolute motion of the body will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space, partly from the relative motion of the ship on the earth; and if the body moves also relatively in the ship, its true motion will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space, and partly from the relative motions as well of the ship on the earth, as of the body in the ship; and from these relative motions will arise the relative motion of the body on the earth. As if that part of the earth, where the ship is, was truly moved towards the east, with a velocity of 10010 parts; while the ship itself, with a fresh gale, and full sails, is carried towards the west, with a velocity expressed by 10 of those parts; but a sailor walks in the ship towards the east, with 1 part of the said velocity; then the sailor will be moved truly in immovable space towards the east, with a velocity of 10001 parts, and relatively on the earth towards the west, with a velocity of 9 of those parts.

Newton also thought that it was possible to measure this absolute motion:

It is indeed a matter of great difficulty to discover, and effectually to distinguish, the true motions of particular bodies from the apparent; because the parts of that immovable space, in which those motions are performed, do by no means come under the obser- vation of our senses. Yet the thing is not altogether desperate; for we have some arguments to guide us, partly from the apparent motions, which are the differences of the true motions; partly from the forces, which are the causes and effects of the true motions. For instance, if two globes, kept at a given distance one from the other by means of a cord that connects them, were revolved about their common center of gravity, we might, from the tension of the cord, discover the endeavor of the globes to recede from the axis of their motion, and from thence we might compute the quantity of their circular motions. And then if any equal forces should be impressed at once on the alternate faces of the globes to augment or diminish their circular motions, from the increase or decrease of the tension of the cord, we might infer the increment or decrement of their motions; and thence would be found on what faces those forces ought to be impressed, that the motions of the globes might be most augmented; that is, we might discover their hindmost faces, or those which, in the circular motion, do follow. But the faces which follow being known, and consequently the opposite ones that precede, we should likewise know the determination of their motions. And thus we might find both the quantity and the determination of this circular motion, even in an immense vacuum, where there was nothing external or sensible with which the globes could be compared. But now, if in that space some remote bodies were placed that kept always a given position one to another, as the fixed stars do in our regions, we could not indeed determine from the relative translation of the globes among those bodies, whether the motion did belong to the globes or to the bodies. But if we observed the cord, and found that its tension was that very tension which the motions of the globes required, we might conclude the motion to be in the globes, and the bodies to be at rest; and then, lastly, from the translation of the globes among the bodies, we should find the determination of their motions. But how we are to obtain the true motions from their causes, effects, and apparent differences, and the converse, shall be explained more at large in the following treatise. For to this end it was that I composed it.

So Newton imagines an experiment involving two globes in empty space connected by a cord undergoing circular motion with respect to absolute space. The tension in the cord between the spheres increases if the globes move faster with respect to absolute space. So by measuring the tension in the cord you can tell how fast the globes are moving with respect to absolute space.

There a few problems with this proposal. First, the real universe isn’t like that, it actually has other stuff in it. Second, if there was such a universe, nobody would be able to measure the tension in the cord because there would be nobody around to measure it. Third, the globes are accelerating so at most this experiment would refute the idea that accelerated motion is motion relative to other bodies.

Newton also describes another experiment that he actually did and sounds a lot more plausible:

The effects which distinguish absolute from relative motion are, the forces of receding from the axis of circular motion. For there are no such forces in a circular motion purely relative, but in a true and absolute circular motion, they are greater or less, according to the quantity of the motion. If a vessel, hung by a long cord, is so often turned about that the cord is strongly twisted, then filled with water, and held at rest together with the water; thereupon, by the sudden action of another force, it is whirled about the contrary way, and while the cord is untwisting itself, the vessel continues for some time in this motion; the surface of the water will at first be plain, as before the vessel began to move; but after that, the vessel, by gradually communicating its motion to the water, will make it begin sensibly to revolve, and recede by little and little from the middle, and ascend to the sides of the vessel, forming itself into a concave figure (as I have experienced), and the swifter the motion becomes, the higher will the water rise, till at last, performing its revolutions in the same times with the vessel, it becomes relatively at rest in it. This ascent of the water shows its endeavor to recede from the axis of its motion; and the true and absolute circular motion of the water, which is here directly contrary to the relative, becomes known, and may be measured by this endeavor. At first, when the relative motion of the water in the vessel was greatest, it produced no endeavor to recede from the axis; the water showed no tendency to the circumference, nor any ascent towards the sides of the vessel, but remained of a plain surface, and therefore its true circular motion had not yet begun. But afterwards, when the relative motion of the water had decreased, the ascent thereof to-wards the sides of the vessel proved its endeavor to recede from the axis; and this endeavor showed the real circular motion of the water continually increasing, till it had acquired its greatest quantity, when the water rested relatively in the vessel. And therefore this endeavor does not depend upon any translation of the water in respect of the ambient bodies, nor can true circular motion be defined by such translation.

But this experiment only refutes the idea that the force on the water is determined by its motion relative to the objects that immediately surround it.

The fact that the water rises up the side of the bucket has nothing to do with absolute space and time. Rather, the water rises up the bucket because it is accelerating with respect to the gravitational field. Newton didn’t find that explanation, Einstein did that. Newton wasn’t looking for a good explanation because he thought he had already found it and proved it by doing measurements.

One moral of this story is that you should be critical of the explanations behind measurements.

A Refutation of Nicholas Dykes on Karl Popper

Many years ago, Nicholas Dykes wrote a criticism of the philosophy of Karl Popper. His essay not only fails to refute Popper, it also seems to reflect an inability on Dykes’ part even to state Popper’s positions accurately. I will go through the arguments section by section, labelling what section each argument comes from. I have left out references and footnotes in my quotes, the reader can get them from the original article. Where I have put in references I refer to Section numbers rather than page numbers since different versions of Popper’s books have different page numbering.

Section 1

Dykes tries to describe Popper’s position:

CR was originally developed by Popper to demarcate science from non-science. He stated that for scientific knowledge to be considered knowledge it had to be refutable: “‘In so far as scientific statements refer to the world of experience, they must be refutable … in so far as they are irrefutable, they do not refer to the world of experience'” [OSE2 13].

The quote is misleading. Popper didn’t develop CR to demarcate science from non-science, he did it to explain the growth of knowledge: “to analyse the method of the empirical sciences” (LScD, Chapter I). A fuller quote from the source Dykes used makes Popper’s actual position clearer:

In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory. (What may occur, however, are refutations of scientific theories.) On the other hand, pure mathematics and logic, which permit of proofs, give us no information about the world, but only develop the means of describing it. Thus we could say (as I have pointed out elsewhere): ‘In so far as scientific statements refer to the world of experience, they must be refutable; and, in so far as they are irrefutable, they do not refer to the world of experience.’ But although proof does not play any part in the empirical sciences, argument still does; indeed, its part is at least as important as that played by observation and experiment.

According to Popper, knowledge that is not empirically testable is not scientific, but it is still knowledge.

More from Dykes:

It follows that we can never attain certainty: “The quest for certainty… is mistaken…. though we may seek for truth… we can never be quite certain that we have found it” [OSE2 375]. “No particular theory may ever be regarded as absolutely certain…. No scientific theory is sacrosanct…” [OKN 360]. “Precision and certainty are false ideals. They are impossible to attain and therefore dangerously misleading…” [UNQ 24]. He summed up with an oft-repeated aphorism: “We never know what we are talking about” [UNQ 27].

Accordingly, Popper refused to grant any philosophical value to definitions: “Definitions do not play any very important part in science…. Our ‘scientific knowledge’… remains entirely unaffected if we eliminate all definitions” [OSE2 14]. “Definitions never give any factual knowledge about ‘nature’ or about the ‘nature of things'” [C&R 20-21]. “Definitions…. are never really needed, and rarely of any use” [RASC xxxvi].

This is a false description of Popper’s position on definitions, see Section 7 of Unended Quest. His actual position is that words can’t be defined with perfect accuracy since all definitions have to employ undefined words. Suppose I say that a tiger is “a big cat”. If all the terms are defined then there is a definition of “a” and “big” and “cat” and these definitions refer to other words and if those definitions are defined then they lead to still more definitions with still more words… So either we use undefined words or we have an infinite regress. As a result of this problem the habit of trying to understand the world by coming up with the right definitions, which Popper calls “methodological essentialism”, is untenable.

A word is shorthand for an idea not for some imaginary perfect definition. As such, we should be willing to change terminology to talk in ways that other people understand. That is, we should be willing to use their definitions. Furthermore, we should never try to be more precise than is necessary to address the problem we are dealing with since this will lead to loss of clarity. The best summary of his position on this issue is (Unended Quest, p. 24):

Every increase in clarity is an intellectual value in itself; an increase in precision or exactness has only a pragmatic value as a means to some definite end – where the end is usually an increase in testability or criticizability demanded by the problem situation…

Dykes never states let alone answers Popper’s argument on definitions.

Section 2

Dykes tries to refute Popper’s arguments against inductivism. Inductivism is the belief that there is a method called induction by which people can get new ideas from sense information and then confirm those ideas.

Popper built his philosophy on foundations borrowed from Hume and Kant.

No he didn’t. Popper argued that knowledge doesn’t have foundations (see in particular “Realism and the Aim of Science” Chapter I), and Dykes hasn’t refuted that argument, nor does he do so anywhere in the essay.

Hume, said Popper, had shown that: “there is no argument of reason which permits an inference from one case to another… and I completely agree” [OKN 96]. Elsewhere he referred to induction as “a myth” which had been “exploded” by Hume [UNQ 80]. He further asserted that “There is no rule of inductive inference – inference leading to theories or universal laws – ever proposed which can be taken seriously even for a minute” [UNQ 146-7; see also RASC 31].”

There then follows a lot of stuff on Hume’s position on induction, not Popper’s. Popper had many arguments against induction that Hume didn’t give him and took those arguments more seriously than Hume. Dykes does not address most of the arguments Popper provided.

What argument does Dykes attempt to address?

Hume stated, in essence, that since all ideas are derived from experience we cannot have any valid ideas about future events – which have yet to be experienced. He therefore denied that the past can give us any information about the future. He further denied that there is any necessary connection between cause and effect. We experience only repeated instances, we cannot experience any “power” that actually causes events to take place. Events are entirely “loose and separate…. conjoined but never connected.”

According to Hume, then, one has no guarantee that the hawthorn in an English hedge will not bear grapes next autumn, nor that the thistles in a nearby field won’t produce figs. The expectation that the thorn will produce red berries, and the thistles purple flowers, is merely the result of “regular conjunction” which induces an “inference of the understanding.” In Hume’s view, there is no such thing as objective identity, there is only subjective “custom” or “habit.

Dykes then goes on to argue as follows:

The crux of the case against Hume was stated in 1916 by H.W.B. Joseph in An Introduction to Logic: “A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connexion between a and x implies that a acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is a. So long therefore as it is a, it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is a is something else than the a which it is declared to be.” Hume’s whole argument – persuasive though it may be – is, to borrow Joseph’s words, “in flat conflict with the Law of Identity.”

Existence implies identity. It is not possible to exist without being something, and a thing can only be what it is: A is A. Any actions of that thing form part of its identity: “the way in which it acts must be regarded as a partial expression of what it is.” Thus to deny any connection between a thing, its actions, and their consequences, is to assert that the thing is not what it is; it is to defy the Law of Identity.

It is not necessary to prolong this discussion. Entities exist. They possess identity. By careful observation – free from preconception – we are able to discover the identities of the entities we observe. Thereafter, we are fully entitled to assume that like entities will cause like events, the form of inference we call induction. And, because it rests on the axiom of the Law of Identity, correct induction – free from contradiction – is a valid route to knowledge. The first premise of CR is therefore false.

This argument doesn’t solve the problem at all. The problem of induction as stated by Hume is that our expectations of the future don’t follow from what we have observed in the past. To see why let’s take Dykes’ example of the hawthorn, which he claims will not produce grapes. How does he know it won’t produce grapes? Perhaps some scientist will genetically engineer hawthorns to produce grapes. And even if he doesn’t the fact that it won’t produce grapes doesn’t follow merely from the fact that it hasn’t in the past.

To put this in Dykes’ language, if we were to accept that existence implies identity that would not tell us the identity of any specific entity. And indeed characterising the issue as being about the identity of the object in question is a bad way to think about it. Whatever the thing in question is we need an explanation of how it works to say what it will do next and why. And we won’t be able to tell what we can predict about the entity in question without such an account. Why do hawthorn bushes not produce grapes? That has to do with a complicated set of circumstances in its evolutionary past that selected against hawthorns producing relatively large fleshy fruit and refers to lots of things that are not hawthorn bushes, like human beings who did not selectively breed hawthorn bushes to get them to grow grapes. Stating this theory in terms of definitions would make it less clear because the explanation involves tying together many different entities and so the whole explanation would have to be repeated many times in slightly different ways.

Note also that Dykes’ approach to creating knowledge amounts to defining terms in the right way: that is, to the idea of methodological essentialism that I criticised in my comments on Section 1.

Section 3

Dykes then discusses the idea that all observations are theory-laden, which he describes as Popper’s “Kantian premise”:

[I]f it is true that our senses are pre-programmed; if it is true that “there is no sense organ in which anticipatory theories are not genetically incorporated” [OKN 72]; then what flows into our minds is determined and what flows out of them is subjective. If our senses are not neutral, if they organise incoming data using pre-set theories built into them by evolution, then they do not provide us with unalloyed information, but only with prescriptions, the content of which is determined by our genetic make up. Whatever is thereafter produced inside our heads – cut off as it is from any objective contact with reality – must be subjective.

It is not true that the fact that our senses are theory-laden implies that we are cut off from objective reality. More broadly the problem is this: all sources of knowledge are flawed in some respects, so how can we ever learn anything? First, knowledge can have implications beyond the problem that it was invented to solve. Our eyes can be used to do things they did not evolve to do like looking at readings on scientific instruments: they are limited by the content of the knowledge instantiated in them not by the problem they originally evolved to solve. Second, what counts is not whether any particular piece of information we get is flawed. Rather, what matters is whether we can correct those flaws. We can do this by comparing different sources and trying to come up with an explanation of the underlying objective reality that explains what all of the sources say. They will not all be flawed in the same way and so we can try to work out which ones are giving us bad information on any particular issue. (See “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance” Section XIII onward in “Conjectures and Refutations” and Chapter 1 of Objective Knowledge). Dykes never mentions this argument let alone addresses it.

Section 4

In this section, Dykes plays a sort of verbal game saying that conjecture is not knowledge because conjecture means “an opinion formed on slight or defective evidence or none: an opinion without proof: a guess.” Popper does think all of our knowledge consists of unproven guesses. Dykes is not satisfied with this but logically it is no different than the problem that all sources of information are flawed and so it does not need a distinct answer from the one given in the previous section.

Section 5

Dykes then claims that Popper does not give a way for us to select what conjecture we should consider next. But why would this be needed? If your propose a conjecture and it fails tests you just ditch it and try another. Any rule for picking the next conjecture would imply that there are some ideas you can’t question: the rules for selecting the conjectures. If those rules are flawed in any way then you might miss some flaws in your ideas that you would otherwise see. Dykes raises yet another variant of the problem that all of our knowledge is flawed, which he still has not addressed.

Section 6

Dykes attempts to criticise the idea that science can be distinguished from non-science by scientific theories being refutable by observation or experiment.

Relatively few philosophers have embraced it however. Tom Settle, a major contributor to P.A. Schilpp’s massive festschrift, The Philosophy of Karl Popper, stated firmly in 1970: “As a criterion of demarcation between science and nonscience, Popper’s ‘falsifiability’-plus-a-critical-policy does not work” [PKP2 719]. Other contributors evidently agreed; among them A.J. Ayer, William C. Kneale, Imre Lakatos, Grover Maxwell, and Hilary Putnam.

Dykes doesn’t discuss the content of their criticisms, except for one mention of Maxwell.

Next Dykes tries to produce an actual criticism:

One can understand the importance of the distinction to the young Popper. Fascinated by science, he was surrounded by true-believing Marxists and Freudians all of whom claimed science on their side while espousing doctrines which seemed to Popper obviously false. Nonetheless, ‘refutability’ seems to miss the mark. The ideas of Marx or Freud stand or fall on their conformity to logic and the available evidence – in exactly the same way as the ideas of Newton or Einstein. Marxism and Freudianism failed to survive as viable theories due to myopic concentration on a narrow range of data, false interpretations of evidence, and logical inconsistency. They never were ‘irrefutable.’ They failed precisely because they could be, and were, refuted; either by contrary evidence, by exposure of contradictions, or by the resolute refusal of reality to conform to their predictions. It wasn’t refutability which made them unscientific, it was inaccuracy and/or illogicality.

Marxism and psychoanalysis can’t be refuted by experiment because they either started out as too vague to make any specific claims about what would happen or were changed to make them vague. If a theory doesn’t make specific claims it can’t be refuted by observation. As such observational or experimental evidence are not relevant to judging them. They may fail in other ways but they don’t make the grade for being scientific theories for that reason alone even if they had no other flaws. Note also that Popper didn’t disqualify using other kinds of criticism to eliminate scientific theories so Marxism and psychoanalysis could have been eliminated by finding logical flaws even if they were not empirically testable.

Dykes continues:

Science is distinguished by its strict adherence to physical evidence. Non-science, on the other hand, is invariably characterised by preconception, followed by a cavalier disregard for, or rationalisation of, anything that doesn’t fit into the preconceived schema. In one sense, this is what Popper was saying. But, due perhaps to his dislike of definitions, he homed in on the wrong identifying characteristic.

Whether an idea can be tested experimentally is important since there is no point in trying to test an idea experimentally if no such test is possible. If Dykes just wants to call all good ideas scientific then he can do that. However, we would then need a new term for experimentally testable scientific ideas. If Dykes were to say, as David Deutsch has, that a scientific theory should be a good explanation in addition to being experimentally testable this might be a good idea, but Dykes doesn’t make this point.

Grover Maxwell pointed out that ‘All men are mortal’ is a perfectly sound scientific statement which is not falsifiable [PKP1 292]. Popper defended himself robustly [PKP2 1037ff], but Maxwell seemed to have the stronger case.

What was Popper’s counterargument? Dykes doesn’t say, which means the reader has nothing to go on when trying to make a decision between Maxwell’s position and Popper’s since Popper’s position hasn’t even been stated. What was Popper’s reply? If you try to refute a theory that implies that all men are mortal and you fail to do so, then “all men are mortal” has also passed a test by virtue of the fact that it is a consequence of a theory that has passed that test. An example of such a theory might be that biology might limit the extent to which cells can be repaired and as a consequence all men die before they get to 150, say. No such theory has actually been proposed so I would actually class “all men are mortal” as a bad example cooked up by philosophers.

Next, we get another argument:

Maxwell might also have taxed Popper about mathematics. The axioms of mathematics cannot be refuted. According to the demarcation theory, therefore, mathematics is not a science. But physics is inseparable from mathematics. Quantum mechanics, for example, could hardly be expressed without it. So physics cannot be a science either. Much the same could be said about logic. The Law of Contradiction, etc, cannot be refuted, so logic is not a science.

By irrefutable I presume Dykes means “not experimentally testable” since mathematical and logical theories can be refuted by non-experimental arguments. Maths is not a science, nor is logic. Rather, they are ideas we use to help us express other ideas more clearly. This does not mean that the ideas thus expressed are untestable. Quantum physics claims that particular mathematical structures provide an accurate depiction of how the world works and that is the testable claim made by quantum physics. It is a claim not primarily about maths but about the laws of physics. If a particular calculation is done badly it can be tested in non-experimental ways, e.g. – redoing the calculation or doing it using a different technique, so you can’t wiggle out of experimental tests just by saying some piece of maths might be wrong. Physics also uses other untestable ideas, e.g. – philosophical ideas like realism.

Dykes then tries to poke holes in Popper’s position on Marxism:

Marxism was one of the theories which led Popper to develop his conception of demarcation in the first place: “I had been shocked by the fact that the Marxists… were able to interpret any conceivable event as a verification of their theories” [UNQ 41-2]. Yet in “Replies to my Critics” Popper changed his tune: “Marxism was once a scientific theory”; “Marxism was once a science” [PKP2 984-5]. No doubt Popper would have swamped this objection with distinctions between Marx and Marxism, but the notion that Marxism could both be and not be a science does little to inspire confidence in Popper’s theory of demarcation.

A fuller quote explains what Popper was actually saying and it is not contradictory from The Philosophy of Karl Popper v1, v2, edited by P.A. Schilpp, pp. 984-5:

Marxism was once a scientific theory: it predicted that capitalism would lead to increasing misery and, through a more or less mild revolution, to socialism; it predicted that this would happen first in technically highest developed countries; and it predicted that the technical evolution of the “means of production” would lead to social, political, and ideological developments rather than the other way round.

Popper then describes a series of developments that refuted all these implications of Marxism and so refuted the theory itself. He then adds:

However, Marxism is no longer a science; for it broke the methodological rule that we must accept falsification and it immunized itself against the most blatant refutations of its predictions.

The version of Marxism that is not scientific is a modified version that has been stripped of its empirical predictions according to Popper. Dykes has attacked a position Popper didn’t hold, namely that a particular idea can be both scientific and unscientific.

Section 7

Dykes attacks Popper for only allowing negative statements about what does not exist:

The scholastic principle, “we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not” is remarkably similar to Popper’s assertion that “natural laws…. do not assert that something exists or is the case; they deny it” [LSCD 69].

Popper’s point is that the testable content of a theory consists of what it excludes not in existential statements. For if I just say “neutrinos exist” I could always wiggle out of a purported refutation by saying you haven’t looked for them in the right place. But if I say that it is impossible to violate the conservation of energy in a nuclear reaction and predict the existence of a neutral particle with a particular momentum distribution then I have made a testable statement that implies the existence of the neutrino.

More from Dykes:

However, recalling Popper’s Kantian premise, one might reasonably enquire at this point: if all observations are theory-laden, and thereby suspect, what justifies our placing any confidence in negative observations? The procedure of observation is identical whether one is seeking evidence in favour of a theory, or testing for evidence against it. If our senses are automatically suspect, as Popper maintained, negative or falsifying instances deserve no more credibility than positive or confirming ones.

Dykes is assuming that we need to have an argument showing an observation is true or probably true to use it, but this is simply not so. We can instead treat observations as testable conjectures. If we have made a mistake about some observations then when we find out about the mistake we can reconsider the theories that were supposedly refuted by them. We should treat the creation of knowledge as an error-prone process and look for problems. Dykes fails throughout the entire essay even to mention this point let alone argue with it.

Further, remembering Popper’s Humian premise, one immediately wants to ask: If we are not allowed to argue from positive instances to true laws, why are we allowed to argue from counterinstances to negative laws (we were told above that “natural laws… deny”). The reasoning process is the same. Collecting disconfirmations and arguing negatively scarcely differs from collecting confirmations and arguing positively. Both are inductive procedures and, as such, have been disallowed in advance by Popper’s rejection of induction.

If a theory claims that every time X happens Y will also happen, then if X happens even once and Y doesn’t happen that theory is false. The mere fact that this particular theory is false does not imply that any other particular theory is true. There is no question of arguing from an observation to a negative law. In every case, we start with a proposed law, look for instances in which it is false and if we find such an instance we look for a new law.

There are no new points in the rest of the section so let’s go on to the next section.

Section 8

Dykes claims that CR has a problem with facts:

CR states that for knowledge to be regarded as scientific it must be falsifiable. Plainly then, if an item of ‘knowledge’ is falsified, it can no longer be regarded as a fact. In Popper’s own words, a false conjecture “contradicts some real state of affairs;” “falsifications… indicate the points where we have touched reality” [C&R 116]. What we are left with are conjectures which have not yet been falsified. But a yet-to-be-falsified conjecture can hardly be called a fact, ‘a real state of things.’ It is rather ‘a mere statement or belief’ from which facts are to be distinguished.

So any statement of fact should be considered a conjecture about what is the case in reality. That conjecture may be false. The solution to that problem is to look for problems with our ideas about reality, including our ideas about observations. This doesn’t imply that we have no knowledge about the world: it implies that our knowledge is conjectural. Dykes provides no argument about why this is unacceptable.

Section 9 is just a rehash of Dykes’ methodological essentialism. I criticised this position in my comments on Section 2, so I will move on.

Section 10

Dykes attacks Popper’s theory of the three worlds. World 1 is the world of physical objects, world 2 is the world of psychological states and world 3 is the world of the objective content of our knowledge. How does Dykes argue against this?

First, there seems little conjectural about the theory of worlds 1, 2, & 3. In none of Popper’s several presentations is the theory offered as an hypothesis. Rather, it is laid out as a discovery, as what Popper thought the facts to be.

Popper doesn’t precede every sentence with “this is a conjecture”. So what?

Second, the idea of objective knowledge appears directly to contradict CR. If knowledge can exist objectively, it is not clear how it remains at the same time conjectural. The exercise of studying Popper, for instance, depends on the existence of a dozen or so world 3 objects – his books. Now, either those books exist and say what they say or they don’t, there is simply no room for conjecture.

Either the books exist or they don’t. And for any particular statement either they make that statement or they don’t. They have content independently of the content people think they have. For example, the fact that Dykes has ignored a lot of Popper’s arguments doesn’t mean that Popper didn’t make them. And Dykes may think that he has answered Popper satisfactorily but that doesn’t mean that he has. The fact that we have to make conjectures about the meaning of a particular passage and that we may be wrong does not mean the book doesn’t have objective content. Indeed, we could not be mistaken unless they did have objective content about which we could be mistaken.

The existence of objective world 3 ideas also seems to conflict with Popper’s rejection of ‘essentialism’ – the real existence of concepts – which formed an integral part of his notorious attack on Aristotle and underlay his dislike of definitions. Surely it is unreasonable on the one hand to lambaste essentialism – the idea that concepts are, or have, real ‘essences,’ which exist in our own reality or in another dimension – while claiming on the other hand that concepts have a separate existence in world.

Dykes here is saying that Popper is attacking essentialism without paying any attention to what Popper said about it. Popper argues against methodological essentialism: the idea that the way to understand things is to produce precise definitions. Popper interprets Plato’s theory of forms as an attempt to explain why different objects may be similar in some respects The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1 Chapter 3 Section V:

If things are similar because of some virtue or property which they share, for instance, whiteness, or hardness, or goodness, then this virtue or property must be one and the same in all of them; otherwise it would not make them similar. According to Plato, they all participate in the one Form or Idea of whiteness, if they are white; of hardness, if they are hard. They participate in the sense in which children participate in their father’s possessions and gifts; just as the many particular reproductions of an etching which are all impressions from one and the same plate, and hence similar to one another, may participate in the beauty of the original.

Popper’s solution to this problem is that different objects obey the same universal laws discovered by science, which are “descriptions of the structural properties of nature.” (See Realism and the Aim of Science, Section 15.) Popper thinks we should discuss the way the world works in terms of theory, truth and arguments rather than definitions and concepts since the latter is methodologically bad for reasons I discussed earlier, see my criticism of Section 1. Popper’s world 3 is about the content of theory and arguments  that change over time as people create new knowledge not concepts and definitions, still less is it about the unchanging divine world of forms envisioned by Plato, see Section 5.1 of “Objective Knowledge”.

Finally, the ‘autonomy’ of man-made, objective knowledge shows a marked kinship to Aristotle’s concept of potentiality. Popper often used number theory to explain world 3: “natural numbers are the work of men,” he stated. However “unexpected new problems arise as an unintended by-product of the sequence of natural numbers…. These problems are clearly autonomous. They are in no sense made by us; rather, they are discovered by us; and in this sense they exist, undiscovered, before their discovery” [OKN 160-1]. That is fair enough, but is it not merely another way of saying that the future is not actual but potential; that unknown future advances do not actually exist, yet must exist as potential in the known?

It is not true that unknown future advances exist as potential in the known since, for example, Newtonian gravity did not in any way imply the future advances in our understanding of gravity: Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And even in maths it is an inaccurate way of discussing mathematical problems. Since we have no infallible way of telling which results can and cannot be derived from previous mathematical ideas we have to propose bold new conjectures and look at their consequences to try to figure out the truth.

Dykes likens the belief in world 3 to idealism:

For instance, in one of his several discussions of worlds 1, 2 & 3, he wrote: “I regard world 3 as being essentially the product of the human mind. It is we who create world 3 objects…. these objects have their own inherent or autonomous laws which create unintended and unforeseeable consequences…. [these] repercussions on us are as great as, or greater than, those of our physical environment” [UNQ 186]. Elsewhere he wrote of “the ‘objective mind’ or ‘spirit'” [OKN 149]; and that “the third world is… superhuman”, it “transcends its makers” [OKN 159]. But surely the notion of a transcendent mind or spirit which effects human beings more than their physical environment is a straightforward depiction of idealism?

This is wrong. The reason why world 3 is important is that it provides the knowledge that enables us to solve problems with our environment. The idea that surgeons can help prevent sepsis by washing their hands before surgery is more important then the mere fact that bacteria exist since the former allows us to overcome the latter. These ideas also create new problems that become more significant than the problem they were intended to solve. Most people don’t experience much direct physical violence in their daily lives and the government has helped solve that problem but it has created other problems, like economic problems caused by taxation and subsidies. Our attention is now focused on such problems that many of our ancestors could not even have imagined.

More from Dykes:

In The Open Universe, the idealist element seems even plainer: “we ought to admit the existence of an autonomous part of World 3; a part which consists of objective thought contents which are independent of, and clearly distinct from, the subjective or personal thought processes by which they are grasped, and whose grasp they can causally influence. I thus assert that there exist autonomous World 3 objects which have not yet taken up either World 1 shape or World 2 shape, but which, nevertheless, interact with our thought processes” [TOU 119-20]. It would be hard to describe ‘independent, autonomous, objective thought contents which influence human thought processes’ in other than idealist terms.

I think this is a worthy attempt by Popper to draw attention to the problem of how we should think about abstractions. The best account of them I have read is given in Chapter 5 of David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity.

In The Self and Its Brain Popper’s idealism becomes explicit. The thesis of the work, a joint effort by Popper and neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, consists of a revival of Cartesian dualism.

“The Self and Its Brain” is a terrible book but substance dualism is not idealism. David Deutsch has described the problems associated with how to explain thought, creativity and other problems in the philosophy of mind in Chapter 7 of “The Beginning of Infinity”.

Section 11

In this section, Dykes maintains that some established theories are not conjectural:

Yet theories do exist which, in fact, are positively confirmed, as Grover Maxwell has pointed out [PKP1 292ff]. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, for example, was indeed hypothetical in 1543 because the instruments did not then exist with which to prove it. But now that huge telescopes and space probes have eliminated any rational doubt that the earth revolves around the sun, it would seem bizarre to maintain that heliocentricity remains conjectural.

I can’t think of any problem with the heliocentric theory at present. That doesn’t change its logical status: it is a well tested conjecture. And in some respects the heliocentric theory has been superseded because we don’t think of the sun as being the centre of the universe, only of the solar system, which is on the edge of a galaxy of billions of stars, which is part of a cluster of galaxies and so on. The best a theory can hope for is to preserved as an approximation to a better theory in the future.

Other similar issues are pointed out but I won’t go through them all. There is just one more issue to consider in this section:

Popper’s problem was of course that the theory of evolution is just about as inductive as one can get, yet he wanted us to believe that induction is a myth. He found no way out of this impasse, and in the end decided that the only solution was to evade the issue: “I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme” [UNQ 168].

The theory of biological evolution is not inductive. It contradicts induction. Biological evolution proceeds by the production of variations on current genes and selection among them just as human knowledge creation proceeds by producing variations on current knowledge and selecting among those variations. Biological evolution does not consist of animals or plants somehow condensing observations into genes, which would have to be the case if biological evolution was inductive: that is the discredited idea of Lamarckism. One of many problems with Lamarckism is that it doesn’t explain what changes in an organism’s body get incorporated into genes and which do not just as inductivism does not explain how we pick what observations to do. See Chapter 4 of “The Beginning of Infinity”, which also explains how the biological evolution of life on Earth can be tested in principle. If you found that some organism only underwent favourable mutations then the postulate that mutations are random would be refuted and a new explanation would be needed. Deutsch also provides other examples.

Dykes also does not quote the full context of Popper’s remark that evolution is a metaphysical research programme:

From this point of view the question of the scientific status of Darwinian theory – in the widest sense, the theory of trial and error elimination – becomes an interesting one. I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research programme – a possible framework for testable scientific theories.

In other words, Popper was considering both biological evolution and human knowledge creation as being instances of a wider evolutionary explanation of knowledge creation – all knowledge must be created by trial and error elimination. He thought that wider explanation was not testable. I don’t know if he was right or wrong about that but Dykes gives no sign that he even understands the issue involved.

Section 12

A lot of the points in this section rehash stuff tackled above so I’m not going to bother addressing all of it. I will consider only a few points:

Popper’s philosophical premises also led him into more serious confusions. For example, he explicitly rejected as “utterly naïve and completely mistaken” what he called “the bucket theory of the mind” [OKN 61], the idea that “before we can know or say anything about the world, we must first have had perceptions – sense experiences” [OKN 341]. Yet earlier he had stated: “I readily admit that only observation can give us ‘knowledge concerning facts’, and that we can… become aware of facts only by observation” [LSCD 98].

This is a confusion on Dykes’ part not Popper’s. First, an observation is different from a sense perception. To find facts relevant to testing a theory we have to do observations, and we do this by developing conjectural knowledge about how to observe the relevant phenomenon and then using that knowledge to do the observations. Second, we do have knowledge about the world prior to observing it. Babies are born with the knowledge required to do certain things like breathe: they didn’t get that knowledge by observation.

Popper’s attitude to ‘the laws of nature’ was just as perplexing. In Open Society he called natural law a “a strict unvarying regularity…. A law of nature is unalterable; there are no exceptions to it…. laws of nature… can be neither broken nor enforced. They are beyond human control…” [OSE1 57-58, c.f. OKN 196]. But such absolutist claims are difficult to reconcile with the actual discovery of natural laws when, according to Popper: “There can be no valid reasoning from singular observation statements to universal laws of nature” [RASC 32, c.f. OKN 359].

This is not perplexing at all. The fact that laws of nature are beyond our control is one of the reasons why our knowledge of them is conjectural: we have to go out and find out what they are by a process of proposing and testing explanations.

Another point:

In like vein, Popper’s use of illustrations often involved disregard of his own dicta. In Realism and the Aim of Science, when once again attacking induction, he told us that “mere supporting instances are as a rule too cheap… they cannot carry any weight” [RASC 130]; and that, “confirming instances are not worth having” [RASC 256]. However, when he had earlier sought to demonstrate the case that “practically every… ‘chance observation’ is an example of the refutation of some conjecture or assumption or expectation,” he unhesitatingly drew attention to scientific discoveries by Pasteur, Roentgen, Crookes, Becquerel, Poincaré and Fleming to reinforce his point [RASC 40].

Dykes doesn’t seem to grasp the distinction between illustrating a point with concrete examples to help people understand it and using those examples as confirmation.

Another accusation from Dykes:

The trait of employing what he sought to deny can be found throughout Popper’s work. Take his critique of Plato’s politics. In Volume 1 of Open Society Popper went through the Republic, Laws, etc, with a sort of remorseless philosophical laser. Yet not once did he give any hint that he regarded the object of his study as conjectural. His method was purely and simply inductive. He took Plato’s dialogues as fact, examined them line by line in search of evidence, and generalised his (very firm) conclusions.

Popper said that all knowledge is conjecture several times in that book alone. And as for the idea that his method was inductive, if that were true, then none of the people who had previously read Plato would have been at all surprised by anything Popper had to say, nor would any of them have found it worthwhile since they would all have inductively reached the same conclusion having read the same book.

Dykes claims that Popper didn’t respond to a criticism:

Another failing was Popper’s occasional lack of response to important criticisms of his philosophy. As a critical rationalist, to whom criticism was “the lifeblood of all rational thought,” this was serious indeed. There was, for example, the incisive refutation of the falsification principle published by the famous American philosopher Brand Blanshard. Blanshard noted that particular propositions such as ‘some swans are white’ can only be falsified by showing that ‘no swans are white.’ Since the latter would be self-evidently untrue, ‘some swans are white’ is a perfectly valid scientific statement which cannot be falsified.

“Some swans are white” is equivalent to “some white swans exist”. These statements are not directly testable but they may be consequences of testable scientific theories and so may be indirectly tested. So to the extent that “some swans are white” is scientific it is because it is related to testable theories. See Popper’s reply to Maxwell which was referenced by Dykes but not refuted by him. Why Popper should offer yet another reply to the same old stuff that he refuted before is beyond me. If people aren’t willing to make any effort to think you can’t force them.

Dykes also criticises Popper’s leniency toward Marx. His criticisms on that point are correct. However, that is an argument against ignoring criticism, not against Popper’s epistemology, which implies that we shouldn’t ignore criticism.

Dykes’ criticisms of Popper seldom get close even to stating Popper’s position never mind criticising it successfully. If somebody wants to understand Popper’s epistemology the best account by Popper is Chapter I of “Realism and the Aim of Science”.

UPDATE: I have edited this essay slightly to make it clearer and eliminate points that did not refute the substance of Dykes’ position.