Until about 30 years ago scientists mostly believed that their task was to find as many examples as they could to confirm their theories. Now they realise that they have to look for examples that are apparently inconsistent with them. Karl Popper is to blame, and particularly his slogan “No number of sightings of white swans can prove the theory that all swans are white. The sighting of just one black one may disprove it.” Scientists now look for black swans and if they cannot find any, they can feel reasonably confident that their theory is right, although not yet proved. It is, in the present state of knowledge, the best approximation to the truth.
Popper (1902-1994) was born in Vienna of Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity. His earlier philosophical work was done in Vienna, but before the Nazis arrived he took a lectureship at Canterbury University College at Christchurch, New Zealand, where he spent the whole of the war. There he wrote what he called his war work: a pair of books of which the most famous is The Open Society And Its Enemies. He was offered a readership in 1945 at the London School of Economics where he later became professor of logic and scientific method.
He was never accepted by either Oxford or Cambridge because his philosophy was bitterly opposed to their then orthodoxy of linguistic philosophy. He ridiculed their obsession with the meanings of words, agreeing with Humpty Dumpty when he said that words mean what he wanted them to mean. For example, it was a waste of time arguing about what is meant by democracy. Democracy was a name, a label given to a form of government, and he proposed to use the word to describe a state where institutions existed that enabled the government to be removed without violence. Tyranny, on the other hand, was the name given to a sort of government which could only be removed by violence. But, typically, Popper said that if people wanted to reverse these names and give the name democracy to such as the people’s republics of the mid-20th century then he would simply say that he was in favour of what they called tyranny.
The Open Society was devoted to defending democracy and refuting Marxism, though he admired Marx as a man. The companion book, The Poverty Of Historicism, was an attack on large-scale planning. These two books, especially their anti-Marxism, gave him a reputation as a rightwing philosopher. At a memorial ceremony for him at the LSE a few months after he died, Bryan Magee said that Popper’s philosophy has yet to be discovered by many who think they know about it, and he quoted this passage from The Open Society to refute the rightwing label: “If we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state. We must demand that unrestrained capitalism give way to economic interventionism.”
He criticised what came to be called solutioneering: the jumping to solutions – reorganisations, replanning – without spelling out what the problem was, or if there was one. At the back of this lay “holism”, the belief that problems must be tackled “as a whole”. He showed that the holistic method turns out to be impossible. The greater the changes attempted, the greater their unintended and unexpected repercussions, forcing upon the holistic engineer the expedient of piecemeal improvisation – the “notorious phenomenon of unplanned planning”.
Instead the only rational way of carrying out social and political change was through “Piecemeal social engineering”, dealing with problems as they arise, limited solutions to limited problems, limiting the scope of changes to those whose outcome can reasonably be predicted and even then realising that solutions will bring unforeseen new problems which themselves have to be watched out for and dealt with.
Popper tackled an immense range of subjects: among them the mind-body problem. He was a dualist and more, a pluralist. He defined a third reality beyond the material world and the world of mental events, a World 3 consisting of the products and creations of the human mind, abstract and no longer in human minds – ideas, theories, music and poetry, Shakespeare’s plays and the English language, not located in space or time but real because of their ability via human minds to change the face of the material world. And in one of his last published works, using his propensity theory of probability, he tackled the perennial problem of free will – how we may steer and make sense of a course between the tyranny of determinism on the one hand and the lottery of pure chance on the other.
· The centenary of Karl Popper’s birth is being celebrated at a conference in Vienna in July 2002. Roger James is the author of Return To Reason; Popper’s Thought In Public Life is published by Open Books, £10.
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