Popper Selections: A response

After a much longer period than I would have liked, I have recently finished reading Popper Selections as edited by David Miller.  I had been familiar with some of his work previously, both indirectly and from other texts and essays, and even had a habit of enlisting his arguments when I felt it was appropriate to do so.  However, upon finishing the text in question I am left aware of the fact that I do not escape from many of his criticisms.  At minimum it seems necessary that I should account for his arguments in some fashion, and while owing to the book itself I recognize this process should, properly, require criticism, I nonetheless feel inclined to begin this process even if circumstances should prevent it from actually developing.  To put it another way, I can do my best to ensure the positions I put forth are internally consistent and meaningful, even if I cannot guarantee they will receive any degree of critical attention.  I suppose this is a good start.  In the worst case scenario, it leaves me as a philosopher, something which I have been for some time now and am not particularly ashamed of.

Before I set into all that, though, I would like to briefly enumerate the arguments which I felt were helpful or enlightening, and which present me with no difficulties.  In all cases, the discussion of relational properties, as opposed to intrinsic properties, was extremely informative.  The discussion of measure-theoretic probability theory as a solution to the problem of psychologism in quantum physics removed a very large deficit in my understanding of the world.  Essentially, the treatment of probability as a real phenomenon, not simply an epistemological phenomenon, allows me to appreciate why many of the arguments advanced today by social theorists of various sorts, which enlist quantum mechanics as either a metaphor or an argument, are mistaken.  In a similar vein, I am deeply appreciative of the discussion of the shortcomings of Plato, particularly given the very clear relationship which is exposed between him and the bulk of modern philosophy.

All of the treatment of Marx was enlightening, both the praise and the criticism.  My understanding of the shortcomings of holistic political analysis, historicism, and psychologism was greatly improved by reading this text.  In light of this new information, much of my previous criticism of these approaches seems hollow and superficial.  Popper offers very robust and powerful criticisms of each of these approaches, and if I can help it I very much intend to make use of them in the future.

An outline of the positions and criticisms which I have chosen to address is presented below.

  1. The Untenability of Phenomenology

  2. The Requirements of Social Reform

The Untenability of Phenomenology

This issue is of particular importance to me, given both my own inclinations to use phenomenology in the construction of social and psychological models, and my assessment of the relative merit of fiction along phenomenological lines.  In Popper Selections, the eponymous author never takes explicit aim at Sartre, choosing instead to attack the likes of Husserl and Schopenhauer.  As my familiarity with both authors is limited to indirect quotations and responses, I cannot comment on whether or not his distaste for their philosophy is appropriate.  Popper himself explains that every rational theory including those of a metaphysical character can be understood as an attempt to solve certain problems.  In their successes or failures in this capacity they can be weighed critically against other competing theories.  Therefore I feel it is expedient to begin by assessing which problems Sartre’s phenomenology is attempting to solve, and how it is attempting to do so.

Owing perhaps to my philosophical ignorance, my initial impression of Being and Nothingness was that it was predominately an epistemology.  On subsequent consideration, inspired partially by the forward to my copy of the book, I considered it more along the lines of a psychology.  Yet at the same time, serious ontological conclusions are suggested at various places in the text.  So which is it then?  The answer I believe is that it is all of these things, and this can be explained by examining the nature of its methodology.  In his concern about questions of knowledge, perception, and experience, Sartre follows the same paths of inquiry as Descartes.  The fundamental conflation of psychology with epistemology outlined by Popper in his analysis of Descartes is then quite easy to recognize in Sartre as well.  We can hardly fault Sartre for continuing along these lines, given the spectacular appearance of success which the Cogito generated.  It was an argument that was as revolutionary for philosophy as Newtons formula for gravity would later prove to be for physics, with the possible difference being that very little of value was produced by the former.

Just the same, Sartre advanced propositions which allow for the solution of a large number of problems, many of which are recognized as important by Popper himself.  In his section of the book on metaphysics, there is a subsection titled Indeterminism and Human Freedom, which Popper uses to advance the position that it is necessary to adopt indeterminism in order to allow for conversation.  He does this on the grounds that physical determinism renders human action and even (therefore) language meaningless.  This is highly significant, insofar as it increases the number of metaphysical assertions Popper is willing to treat as a prerequisite for the use of the scientific method, adding indeterminism to ontological realism.  In fact, Popper appears to place the requirement for indeterminism above the requirement for ontological realism, stating that he is “first an indeterminist, second a realist, and third a rationalist“.

Subsequently, Popper attempts to formulate indeterminism without using metaphysical concepts, by appealing to probability.  In this capacity he fails, and admits as much.  Yet towards the end of his treatment of this subject, he is still no nearer to a cogent argument for indeterminism, and he concludes without being able to provide one either metaphysical or otherwise.  The principle utility of Phenomenology then, I would propose, is that it allows for such an argument.  Admittedly it presents a problem of its own in the form of existential despair, but this new problem, unlike Compton’s “nightmare of the physical determinist”, does not preclude the solution of scientific problems.  It allows for a foundation upon which we can consider language meaningful, and therefore argue.  More importantly, it does not truly conflict with ontological realism, for the very concept of facticity presupposes things which are prior to human consciousness, just as the concept of transcendence supposes things which extend beyond it.

The Requirements of Social Reform

As I am an anti-statist, the arguments given within the text for piecemeal reform and situational analysis have a particular relevance to my own positions.  In effect, they assert that I must either give up the concept of large scale social reform, or else fail altogether to apply the scientific method to social reform.  Well, so much the worse for the revolution.  Despite the ease of this first conclusion, however, a number of problems still assert themselves.  In adopting Popper’s inversion of Plato, which replaces the question “who should rule?” with the question “how should we assure that those who rule poorly do as little damage as possible?”, I am faced of course with the question of the emergence of the state.  The same question which Rothbard attempted to answer, unsatisfactorily, by asserting that the worst possible outcome of a failed stateless society is simply a state.  This is of course untrue, as there are different forms of state which have greater or worse character.

Poppers own assertion that power is required to prevent economic exploitation of course strikes me as faulty.  It relies upon the assumption of the instability of the market.  Therefore, despite initially being concerned by the argument advanced, I must ultimately conclude that it is mistaken.  For it is perhaps correct in its assertion that some regulative principle must prevent the acquisition of monopoly status on the part of large firms, yet just the same, such a regulative principle is already contained within the market, in its natural tendency towards equilibrium.  This does not of course answer the power question, for I am quite in agreement with Popper that power takes precedence over money, and that force can be used to destroy even the most idyllic of social arrangements.

Therefore, in the absence of a state it will be quite necessary to demonstrate what regulative principle might exist to preclude the use of force.  I am of the opinion that Rothbard made good inroads into this question, but did not answer it in sufficient detail.  I came to this conclusion after engaging in my first and most likely last argument on Cracked.com, and while I believe I came up with a solution of sorts, the comment which it was contained in has since been deleted.  In addition to this concern over a regulative principle, an outline must be given for tracing a course to anti-statism through piecemeal reform.  It is not sufficient to point to a Somalia for evidence, for the same reason that all holistic political analysis is untenable.  Namely, it allows very easily for the analysis of cause and effect to break down, to make mistakes based on the entanglement of many causes and many effects.  Too much is introduced far too quickly, and therefore it is effectively impossible to discern which aspects of a society have desirable effects, and which have undesirable effects.

In this capacity, large scale social reform is undesirable because it removes the ability to calculate.  I believe it is unfortunate that despotic systems cannot be done away with expediently, but at the same time I am forced to recognize the legitimacy of the argument.  At the same time, piecemeal reform as outlined in selections does not seem to offer very explicit boundaries.  How much reform is too much?  Is it simply the point at which people cease to be able to discern which causes have which effects?  And if this is true, then how do we account for false positives, attributable to dogmatism on the part of a given observer, for instance?  The problem of progress in politics does not appear to go away, even with piecemeal reform, and I am afraid that any sufficiently long-term project would become irrelevant before reaching fruition.  There are of course numerous ways in which a state may cease to be, and many of them are based simply on the advancement of technology.  In 100 years, government may very well be the least of our concerns.  Yet at present it still effects the lives of everyone.

It is in this sense that I believe I can express my main problem or concern with the concept of piecemeal reform, and that is that it does not permit time-sensitive reform, if such a thing can be said to exist.  I believe it can.  In addition to the technological example, we might easily conceive of the problem in economic terms.  Deregulation might enable for a firm to engage in the production of greater wealth, and for a time this will lead to employment and other things of benefit.  Yet if the deregulation occurs for one firm, but not for another, the asymmetry may allow the first firm to achieve monopoly status in the interim between the instances of deregulation.  Yet this monopoly status would then likely be taken as a sign of the undesirability of deregulation, owing to a false induction made from the one instance of deregulation to the others.  Each individual act of deregulation appears to allow for a tendency to move away from equilibrium, yet taken together they achieve a harmonious effect.

But in this case, piecemeal reform is not wholly scientific.  It precludes experiments which may reveal otherwise hidden relationships.  In this case, how do we rectify the differences?  I am afraid that I cannot think of an adequate answer.  Yet this problem still appears to me very real.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on December 17, 2009.

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