Thursday, May 03, 2012

Untangling The Web I: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VII

All the while I was taking classes at CUA, I was also searching for a suitable topic for a Master's Thesis that would serve as a good starting point for a dissertation. I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to reconcile the irreconcilable: The philosophies of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn could not seem more different. At the same time what each said seemed, at least intuitively, correct. How could this be possible?

Much of the first half of the 20th century in philosophy were consumed with the question of Truth. By this, they weren't concerned with whether or not something was factual or not; rather, the question was, and remained for a long time, a variation on Kant's dilemma in The Critique of Pure Reason: How is it possible that human beings represent to themselves the world in such a way that correct judgments both about the world and human action in the world can be made with any reliability? The assumption behind Kant's query was that the world, whatever that word might be, existed independently of human beings. In order for the world to be intelligible, this manifold noumenal world had to be rendered in to discrete phenomenal events through a series of epistemological structures within the human mind. That human beings only receive their impressions of the world mediately, through their senses, the world as noumena is ultimately this shadowy whole; our encounter cannot penetrate to what Kant called the Thing-in-Itself, but rather had to settle for understanding that our knowledge claims were always only about our sensory impressions of the phenomena filtered through a series of categories that gave shape, form, and substance to our experience.

The big shift, however, between this (admittedly rough) sketch of Kantian epistemology was where intelligibility was rendered. For Kant it was the categories of synthetic judgment within the human mind. In the early 20th century, it became language. Back in the dim, dark 1980's, reading up on the background to Adolf Hitler, I remembered reading that Vienna, from roughly the 1880's through the beginning of the First World War, was an even greater hub of exciting experimental discussion than Paris or London or Berlin. In particular, the focus became human language. The pre-Great War epitome of this was, of course, Sigmund Freud, for whom the words we use can be clues to unlock our hidden, repressed desires. After the war, a group of philosophers, impressed by Freud's explorations of the way language can render the unconscious intelligible, sought to expand the way it was language that offered a way for common intelligibility.

Impressed with the way science, particularly physics, had made huge strides in the first two decades of the century, they thought it was by clarifying what it is science does, and how it does it, that the way language creates intelligibility could create the conditions for understanding how we human beings make sense of the world. They became known as the Vienna Circle. Their way of doing philosophy was called "logical positivism".

Their first order of business was, strange enough, not to clarify our understanding of science, but rather to declare what words were, by their very nature, unintelligible. Along with pretty much the whole vocabulary of theology, such words as love and freedom and justice were simply dismissed as inherently unintelligible, therefore of little to no interest to philosophy. Not winning a whole lot of friends, they then declared, through a series of essays and monographs, what it was scientists did and how they did it. Not a single physicist of whom I'm aware jumped up and down upon reading, say, Otto Neurath's understanding of protocol sentences precisely because, despite an overstated devotion to science, the logical positivists weren't speaking about science.

When Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery first appeared, however, many scientists, and not just physicists, at least nodded their heads. Describing the scientific enterprise as the careful accumulation of a series of data, as defined by strict experimental guidelines within an ordered, intelligible theory that provided an hypothesis for which an experiment served as a falsifying test, I can't imagine a more succinct description of the scientific enterprise.

At the heart of Popper's discussion was the question of intelligibility and the relationship between science and truth. Early on in Logic, Popper states quite explicitly that no event in the world can falsify any sentence. Setting forth, very thoroughly and carefully, the rules that limit and determine the structure, function, and method of scientific theories and what constitutes their testability, Popper is adamant that, like that old joke about the tortoises that make up the universe, it's sentences all the way down. This position - that the meaning of scientific theories was entirely conventional, limited only to the definitional limits set forth within the theories themselves - was one from which he ever wavered. 

Later in his career, Popper published an essay in his collection, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach entitled "Epistemology Without A Knowing Subject" in which he argued, quite forcefully, that he was now and always had been a philosophical realist, and that his theory of science was little more than an elaboration of that dedication to the most basic principle of realism: the world is intelligible, and we human beings approach true knowledge as we eliminate false understandings through rigorous adherence to the principles of science. Nothing, however, could be more wrong. A philosophical realist is dedicated to the idea that the world outside human experience exists with its own integrity. One of the corollaries of realism is what is known as the correspondence theory of truth: Our representations of the extra-human world are true if and only if there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between these representations and that external reality. Yet, Popper was quite clear, and adamant, that scientific theories, and the sentences rendering them both intelligible and testable, were mere conventions; he was further clear and adamant that there was nothing "out there" that could falsify any sentence human beings made regarding the world.

This was a rather glaring problem, to say the least. While Popper was clear that he was not a positivist, his own description of science made it clear that he was, indeed, just that. A curious kind of positivist, to be sure; he was disdainful of the work, for example, of Rudolf Carnap*, perhaps the most respected of the logical positivists whose Meaning and Necessity was perhaps the greatest attempt to create a grammar and semantics within philosophy that was limited to logical coherence. Most people don't even read Carnap anymore, but at the time the disputes between Carnap and Popper hinged precisely on Popper's rejection of Carnap's wholly logical attempt to render human language intelligible.

For Popper, definitions, like sentences and axioms and theories and hypotheses and the rest of science, are all conventions. Setting forth criteria for universal intelligibility, the great project of the end of Carnap's career, would make scientific advancement impossible precisely because it would make no room for the conventional nature of the language of science. I planned on solving this problem, in essence, by making clear through a detailed look at both claims in the two different works - and Popper's adamant insistence on his own consistency - and offer the view that, in fact, what Popper called "The Third World" (the world outside human control and reason) was little more than the sum total of the basic statements not yet falsified by scientific experiment. He as much as admitted this to be the case, although, again, denying he ever said such a thing. From here, I hoped to move toward reconciling Kuhn and Popper on the question of science, the world, and the matter of truth and reality.

*If you ever have insomnia, pick up Open Court Publisher's Library of Living Philosopher's volume on Carnap. You may never finish the 1000 pages, but you will enjoy long nights of dreamless, uninterrupted slumber.

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