Brett Hall’s Criticisms of Popper’s Corroboration

Brett Hall and I had a discussion about Popper’s views on “corroboration” that I found interesting.

I’d ask of Popper, were he alive “What problem does use of this concept/term/word [corroboration] solve?” He wrote about it in LOSD, then he doubled down (and went further) in “Objective Knowledge” – there’s an entire chapter in there as there is in his much earlier work – about corroboration and comparing it to confirmation. I think all of this is a little misguided on his part, just as his overemphasis on probability and logic is too. It’s all a “product of his time” so to speak.

As you say, he was engaged in these discussion with the Vienna circle who all had an entirely different notion of…well one could daresay everything in philosophy. So I think he’s actually, in truth, trying to be generous to them and concede some stuff. But today, I don’t think Popperians need the word [corroboration].

But anyone who wants to use it, I don’t mind. It’s just that I think we can get away without it (like the word “probably” – at least in a strict, formal sense). But whatever the case, the whole discussion for me collapses in Popper’s own terms that he wrote about explicitly and which I think is far more central to his philosophy than “corroboration” is. And that more central thesis is that debating the meanings of words is not philosophy. It solves no problems: it’s puzzling over what some string of characters arbitrarily designates. Just ask what problem in science is being solved here?

Like: when Mercury fails to appear where it should given Newton’s theory, does this confirm/corroborate/Kramer (pick your random string) “General Relativity”? No. It does not do anything of the sort to General Relativity. That whole way of thinking is a chimera in Popperian/critical rationalist/actual philosophy of science terms. What we instead say is: Newton’s theory is falsified (and so are all other known rivals – of which there are none). The only viable explanation of gravity (and hence the positions of any planets or moving celestial bodies anywhere, anytime) is General Relativity. Done, problem solved.

But he’s not here, so we can’t ask him. I can only guess it’s all the fault of the people he was having debates with and so he was trying to conjure the language to translate his jarringly different world view into something that resembled a picture they could begin comprehending. But, I think we’ve moved on. Or should have, in any rate.

Now I disagree with Brett on this and think this shows a misunderstanding of certain important aspects of Popper’s epistemology. But for this post I am not attempting to criticize Brett’s view, only to summarize it and understand it. (Though I reserve the right to criticize it in the future.)

And it is not just Brett that feels this way, I’ve talked to other critical rationalists that feel that same way. It is a common view among critical rationalists that learned about Popper through Deutsch’s books — I suspect in part because Deutsch does not explain this aspect of Popper’s philosophy. Perhaps even because Deutsch disagreed with the concept of corroboration?

I think this view can be summarized like this:

Refutations are possible but verification is literally impossible. Therefore, you can never in any way verify or confirm a theory. There are no positive arguments in favor of a theory, only negative arguments for competing theories. Once a theory has even a single counter observation as well as there exists some other theory can explain that counter observation then the theory is falsified. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that a theory should improve or strengthen just because it survived tests that might have refuted it. That is far too much like confirming or verifying a theory. For example, what would be the point of corroborating General Relativity today given that it’s already been falsified? So it seems that Popper’s corroboration really brings nothing to the table and is a relic of its times.

Have I summarized this view correctly or am I misunderstanding something?

As a side note, ask Andrew Crawshaw about this some time and he’ll talk your ear off.

Popper on Logic and Probability

It’s also interesting to note that Brett is not big on Popper’s ‘overemphasis on logic’. (i.e. trying to put his whole epistemology in terms of propositional/first-order logic.) Interestingly, it was only a few months ago that I agreed with Brett that Popper’s emphasis on logic was not very important. (Bart can testify that I made strong statements to that effect in our private conversations.) But then I read the Logic of Scientific Discovery and realized I was wrong and that the logic portion was inseparable from the rest of his epistemology. (And then had to admit to Bart that I was mistaken in what I previously said.)

I have different feelings, however, about Popper’s emphasis on probability. Here, Brett and I seem to agree that Popper’s treatment of probability was mostly unnecessary. (At least in the Logic of Scientific Discovery. Andrew makes a good argument that his later work changed this.)

And Brett didn’t mention Popper’s treatment of Quantum Mechanics, but I’m sure we’d both agree that Popper was entirely off base on QM. That chapter was painful to read.

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