The Myth of the Framework Introduction: What’s Your Philosophy?

This is a historical post. In this post I was struggling to make sense of Popper.

Agellius (a devout Catholic friend of mine) once asked me what school of philosophy I most believed in. He wanted to try to understand where I was coming from better. (This is typical of Agellius. He is a very sincere guy.) Agellius, being Catholic, is philosophically a “Thomist.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to answer him. I am actually generally hostile to modern variants of ancient philosophies. My feeling is that just as scientific theories give way to better theories, we should let the ancient philosophies die out and only go with the newer ones that fit what we now know about the world.

This isn’t a slam on ancient philosophy at all. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the ancient philosophers for having created our modern world. But I would have as many concerns over a modern “Aristotlian” as I would over a modern “Newtonian.” [1] In light of our current knowledge about General Relativity, what the heck would a modern “Newtonian” even look like? And should we take him/her serious?

But, of course, I feel very differently about many modern philosophers. In particular, Agellius happened to ask me this question not long after I had discovered Karl Popper and had found that my worldview strongly fit well with his philosophy of epistemology (i.e. theory of how we gain knowledge.)

So I told Agellius that I was a Popperian. I think this is actually the first time I had ever called myself a Popperian like that.

I’m still not sure if I regret it or not.

Further, it’s not clear to me that Popper’s epistemology (the part of Popper I agree with) is really ‘philosophy’ at all. He certainly considered himself to be a philosopher, and most people do. But personally I think Popper’s epistemology is really a science – a full blown scientific theory on how we gain knowledge. [2]

More over, if you really wanted to know who ‘my favorite’ philosopher is (one that does not seem like science to me — yet) I’d probably have to pick Catholic Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. But I couldn’t really tell Agellius that he’s my favorite philosopher because, first of all, he wasn’t a philosopher, he was a famous scientist. Worse yet, his ‘philosophy’ that I find intriguing was supposed to be a scientific work, not a philosophical work. (I am referring to his masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man.)

And, of course, I wasn’t quite sure how Agellius would feel about Chardin since he’s both a devoted Catholic and also still on the Catholic’s we’re-just-not-quite-sure-about-this-guy list. Though bad feelings towards Chardin have largely dissipated in recent years (due in large part to Chardin turning out to be right and the Catholic Church wrong), I’m still not sure Catholics are raving fans of his.

Besides, I would hardly call Chardinism (I made that up) my personal philosophy. I just find him fun to read and I love a lot of his ideas. 

Another reason I regret saying I was a Popperian is because Karl Popper is actually more famous for his writings on “open society.” Now as it turns out, I have not read and know nothing about his views on “open society.” (I’m getting to it.) So I felt like I had accidently told Agellius I was in favor of Popper’s “open society.” And maybe I am. It’s just that I don’t know that yet.

Why I Love Popper

I really only consider myself a “Popperian” in two regards — so far. The first, and most important of which, is Popper’s theory of Conjecture and Refutation as the basis for how we gain knowledge. I am doing a series of posts on another blog where I build up my slight variant of Popper’s epistemology with a few modifications (more like clarifications, really) from the Kuhn school. [3]

I think Popper is incredibly important to understanding how we gain knowledge. I think Kuhn makes some important contributions, but ultimately is inferior to Popper’s “conjecture and refutation.” On the other hand, I don’t even entirely agree with everything Popper said about epistemology either. For example, I’m cool towards his most famous contribution: the idea that science is about falsification. I think Kuhn has effectively challenged the idea that such sharp contrasts between science and other fields actually exist.

On the other hand, when I actually read Popper on this, I found him to understand falsification in a much more nuanced way then those that quote him. So my point of view is that Popper was on the right path here -– science is at it’s most productive when it can be falsified – but, as is often the case, people who didn’t understand what he was really getting at then promptly abused it to try to create a water tight compartment between ‘science’ and ‘other stuff’ that didn’t actually exist. How often do we hear people say that science (or scholarship) is only really science (or scholarship) if it can be falsified? [4]

In truth, Popper’s greatest epistemological contribution was really ending the belief that induction was the basis for growth of knowledge and suggesting ‘conjecture and refutation’ as a replacement.

The other part of Popper’s philosophy I strongly agree with is his “Myth of the Framework.”

In my next post, I will start to explain why I think this idea is so important.

Note

[1] I don’t personally see Thomism as “philosophy” but rather as “theology.” (Though of course “theology” is really just a special case of “philosophy.” But you get the point. I would have a very hard time taking a “Thomist” seriously if they weren’t also Catholic, or at least Protestant, and doing it for religious reasons. An Atheist or Hindu Thomist would be a farce in my opinion.)

[2] And what is the difference between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy?’ Often, very little. But we tend to not use the two words in the same way and so they usually do not convey the same meaning to our minds.

[3] Unlike most people, I find Kuhn and Popper to have significant overlap and to have much in common.

[4] On Falsification and Science – And just as a quick reality check on this idea – name any prevailing theory of science you can think of that can be falsified at the moment. Falsification tends to be in the past or in the future, not in the present. Our theories have already passed such tests (as many as we could think of any how) or we lack the technology to perform other tests as of yet. Surely this throws a wet blanket over the whole idea that we can strongly categorize science via the current ability to falsify it.

I don’t believe this reduces the importance of falsification, however. It just means you can’t use it like a weapon like this.

In at least one sense, Popper was completely correct that we only progress through ‘falsification.’ We can and do falsify one theory compared to another. We can never prove a theory to be ‘the right one’ but we can prove a theory to be ‘less right’ compared to a better one. So science is, and always will be, deeply tied to falsification just like Popper suggests. But we over reach way beyond this point when we try to create water tight compartments of ‘this is science’ and ‘this is not’ based on the concept of falsification alone. What we need is a better way to measure ‘how good’ an explanation is. (And here, passing more tests of possible falsification does play a role.) This is a subject of great importance that is beyond the scope of this post however.

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