Philosophy That Sticks To Your Ribs

A Review of Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations


“Knowledge is an adventure of ideas.” -K.P.

It’s rare to have a book esteemed in academia yet so rich in value for everyday life. Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations has not lost relevance since its 1963 publication.

The title refers to Popper’s account of how we gain and advance knowledge in light of his main premise that “truth is not manifest” (TINM). And by that he means we can’t and don’t deduce true theories of the world by passively observing it. Science is not this process commonly called induction because data don’t tell their own story. Two people can observe the same event and interpret it differently, yet coherently. Consider a person that’s lost in the woods who at the last moment is found by another hiker. The theist says, “The Lord answered your prayers.” The unbeliever replies, “What are you talking about, thankfully I was found by another hiker.” In Popper’s words, “Our cosmos bear the imprint of our minds.”

Many scientists would likely disagree with Popper’s thesis, intuitively taking it to be the case that they are, in fact, proving theories true. Popper convincingly argues otherwise, but points out that this common misconception of science had the profoundest of historical significance by setting the world on its most fortunate path ever: the Enlightenment and with it a shedding of the authoritarian yoke from the church and state on sources of knowledge.

K.P. makes clear that though Realism is the case and we can know truths do in fact exist, they are not self-evident and we may never arrive at certainty of having found them. We will never observe all the cases necessary to verify a theory; we will never exhaust all new and improved experiments. This understated and elegantly simple conception of truth and the growth of knowledge without certainty is worth some thought as it carries the weight of the book and he’ll go on to leverage it to areas outside of science.

Popper reasons that improving our knowledge is a process of creativity, imagination, critical rationalism, and then specific predictions that put a theory at risk of being proved wrong--so it’s conjectures and then it’s refutations. And any serious experiment is an attempt to refute a theory--not confirm it. We can take advantage of this “asymmetry of falsification” and stop trying to count all the white swans to prove a theory true, and rather just look for one single black swan to disprove it. It follows that a more credible theory is one that has undergone many specific attempts to falsify it. And that key attribute is the demarcation between science and non-science--the lack thereof being the common defect in belief systems like astrology, karma, psychics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and religions. They don’t risk anything--they don’t make themselves vulnerable to being rejected. And it’s this lens of critical thinking that Popper helps us polish to examine with greater clarity the beliefs that make up our present worldview.

Conjectures and Refutations spills over the academic walls wherein it’s normally housed and is applicable to common issues of everyday importance. As Popper says, “Anything of worth in academia is always rooted in real world problems.” And so this is philosophy that sticks to your ribs.

The book has a humanistic plea of timeless relevance: if truth is hard then society should be tolerant of divergent views. For a society to pursue prosperity and share in the fruits of increased understanding of our world, the logical best practice is free and open, rational dialogue. He calls this tradition, established in pre-Socratic Greece, “our greatest invention ever”, and tells of how damaging it was to lose for 2000 years until revived in the Renaissance.

In a final chapter, K.P. employs his main premise, that truth exists but certainty is elusive, to political theory and social organization. He advocates liberal principles, consistent with the dedication of this book to Friedrich Hayek, an economist famed now but not in his time and authour of The Constitution of Liberty.

This book charts a course of human progress and it’s one of curiosity and creativity, skeptical inquiry, tolerance, intellectual engagement and humility, given that this, our best means to advance humankind and help it flourish, is still an imperfect one. So we’ll move forward by correcting the mistakes that we’ll never cease to make.

Like many things that offer a payout, reading C&R requires some effort, but the view from standing on its shoulders is worthy of the climb. Nassim Taleb said, “No man has influenced the way scientists do science more than Sir Karl.” I add that science unadorned by formality is simply using reason with feedback, intellectual honesty, and creative thinking. Science and philosophy have fuzzy borders and their commonality is more a state of mind or a muscle to be strengthened. In that regard, Conjectures and Refutations is a performance enhancer for critical thought and worth the read.

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  • For continued reading, a good article by Farnam Street on Karl Popper and the line between science and pseudoscience. Or, buy the book.