Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trouble With "Popperians"


In recent months I have come into increasing intellectual conflict with a number of Popperians—people who embrace Karl Popper's philosophy of science and, worse, his politics—and now seek to identify some of the issues from my point of view. This is a difficult task for me, as I have actually written a couple of posts here (not as many as I had originally intended) while self-identifying as a Popperian. At this point I must reject that label in favor of considering myself a critical rationalist who largely accepts Austrian economics, especially as espoused by Ludwig von Mises. This acceptance rests on the idea that some truths really are self-evident, including truths that Sir Karl himself uttered, like "All things living are in search of a better world," a statement that may be considered a broadening generalization to all organisms of Mises's definition/axiom of human action.

Note that the following observations do not apply to all Popperians and that not every Popperian exhibits all of the negative characteristics that I identify. Popperians are individuals and must be treated as such, usually being a mix of error and truth as are the rest of us.

A Different Flavor of Positivist

Popper rejected the idea that he was just a different flavor of positivist—a falsificationist rather than a verificationist. However, Popperians generally fall into this category, ignoring Popper's writings on metaphysical research programs, which, while subject to criticism, could not be falsified.

Although Popper wrote almost exclusively about metaphysics and its application to real world problems, Popperians tend to see everything as empirical. The one self-evident truth that Popperians seem to accept is that there are no self-evident truths—in spite of the requirement that theories be internally consistent.

Critics Rather than Problem Solvers

Popperians seem to be heavy on criticism and light on problem solving. They tend to attack, criticize, dismiss, and mock tentative theories while rarely attempting to generate new helpful conjectures themselves. This behavior is evident in their constant efforts to discredit Austrian school economics while failing to offer an alternative. They declare it to be unfalsifiable and, therefore, unscientific, ignoring the fact that many positivist economists have tried and failed to produce any universal statements that may be tested.

This problem is actually addressed by Popper when he writes in the preface to The Poverty of Historicism (p xi): 

I think that it is convincing in itself: if there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, the we cannot anticipate to-day what we shall know only tomorrow... 

This argument, being purely logical, applies to scientific predictors of any complexity, including 'societies' of interacting predictors. But this means that no society ca predict, scientifically, it own future states of knowledge. [emphasis in original]

Therefore, from economic theory we can expect explanation, but not prediction. And without prediction we have criticism, but not empirical falsification. 

Popper as a God

Many Popperians see Popper as Revealer of Truth who should guide us in all respects, and that the world may be saved through recognition of these truths. I think this is fallacious, as he is a revealer of a number of truths that actually do guide us. In other words, he explains the process by which knowledge—in his terms, objective knowledge—is produced through the process of problem solving by conjecture and refutation. It is true that the knowledge of this process may improve our capabilities in applying it, but if Popper is right, it is the process we—and all living things—have been using all along. I hasten to point out that these truths are metaphysical—they are not subject to empirical refutation and are, therefore, not science. They are, of course, subject to criticism and are still the subject of controversy to this day.

Treating Popper as a god makes those who criticize Popper or advocate approaches that seem to contradict his, heretics or worse; and by implication, wrong. For example, Mises's epistemology has been the subject of many papers and criticisms, primarily on the basis of empiricism. His claim that economic theory is a priori and cannot be falsified by empirical data is attacked by mainstream economists and Popperians alike, although economists like Hutchison simply bewail the lack of empirical tests of universal statements in economic theory while offering no alternative.

Failure to Apply Principals Popper Himself Advocated

Popperians tend to ignore Popper's rationality principal and situational analysis in engaging in argument. For example, they are quick to take Mises's suggestion that to rule his works as non-science, as a Popperian generally would, is a "verbal quibble," as evidence that Mises is simply ignorant of Popper's work or stupid. They do not recognize Mises's lifelong battle against the positivists in which an identification of his economic work as non-science would have meant its declaration by the positivists as non-sense.

In addition, although Popper suggested we should not argue over words, Popperians do not seem to be willing to grant Mises's use of the word "science," most likely meant as "organized knowledge." They fail to recognize the fact that Mises was already well-established, having published his groundbreaking Theory of Money and Credit in 1912, when Popper was 10—almost 25 years before Logik der Forschung. That his understanding of a word would be different from one Popper had himself created is hardly surprising.


Popperians are largely a politically confused bunch, as was Popper. Jeremy Shearmur wrote, in The Political Thought of Karl Popper (122), "I do not know what real-world institutions could even approximate to by playing the kind of role that [Popper] would be asking of them.” In fact, Popper's political thinking does not seem to rise much above what I learned in high school civics class, consisting mostly of platitudes about open discussion and criticism, after which the piecemeal social engineers impose their will and somehow, assess their success.

Without attitudes that are more akin to that of Popper himself, Popperians are likely to be impediments to, rather than facilitators of, progress.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Mass Psychosis

 An amazing video showed up on my Facebook feed today! It is called MASS PSYCHOSIS - How an Entire Population Becomes MENTALLY ILL. If you have 22 minutes (11 minutes at 2X), you might want to watch it now.

Assuming you have watched it, you probably noticed that the graphics implied the target psychosis was what might be called COVID mania. In my view, COVID mania is a mass psychosis, but so are the other "issues" that are driving the political narrative, including the immigration debate. But this is all politics offers us—one mass psychosis after another. We can call the two current most virulent strains The Great Reset Psychosis—which includes COVID mania and catastrophic climate change—and the MAGA Psychosis—which includes anti-immigration, China demonization, protectionism, and the belief that only Donald Trump can provide the antidote to the Great Reset Crisis.

That being said, those who suffer from these psychoses will most likely see the insanity of their opposition and deny that of their own. It takes a big person to realize their own behavior as insane. The real problem is that, having recognized that insanity, it is unlikely that the revelation will cause them to adopt a libertarian, classical liberal, or "live and let live" position, as politics virtually demands the adoption of a psychosis.

As long as people believe that the existence of the state is a benefit, and that it must be governed through politics, there will be no end of psychoses followed by death and destruction. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Ludwig von Mises on Society and Cooperation

 Mises argues for liberalism in ways reminiscent of arguments for socialism:

"Society is the union of human beings for the better exploitation of the natural conditions of existence; in its very conception it abolishes the struggle between human beings and substitutes the mutual aid which provides the essential motive of all members united in an organism. Within the limits of society there is no struggle, only peace. Every struggle suspends in effect the social community. Society as a whole, as organism, does fight a struggle for existence against forces inimical to it. But inside, as far as society has absorbed individuals completely, there is only collaboration. For society is nothing but collaboration" (Socialism, p 316 of Yale University Press edition/281 of Liberty Classics edition).

This is a beautiful passage and part of Mises's evolutionary arguments. Your world view determines whether you think the ideas of Marx or Mises will generate this happy situation.

All of us in society, even if we are "competing," are engaged in the cooperative effort to discover those products and processes that are best, a view Friedrich Hayek later elaborated on in his essay "Competition as a Discovery Procedure".

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Politically polarized brains share an intolerance of uncertainty

 This article showed up in my Facebook feed a couple of times. The unfortunate thing is that people do not generally understand the cause of this intolerance.

"[A]n inability to tolerate uncertainty" produces the tendency to use force to produce outcomes—what we might generically call "statism," which is clearly present in the ideologies of the right and the left. I've encountered this many times, and even in Jeremy Shearmur's book Hayek and After, where he frequently suggests that Hayek's ideas may not have led to outcomes he preferred. To put one's confidence in markets as the mechanism of discovering the structure of society is the epitome of uncertainty toleration.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Karl Popper's "Virus"

 In The Poverty of Historicism, while talking about the uncertainty of progress, Karl Popper wrote "For we cannot exclude the logical possibility, say, of a bacterium or virus that spreads a wish for Nirvana" (1957, p 157). What is interesting is that Popper was infected with this virus—initially, Marxism, gradually decreasing in virility to socialism and then interventionism.

In 1914, at the age of 12, Popper read Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward:2000-1887 (Hacohen, 2000, p 67-68); and, without guidance, it is hard to believe that he would have been able to engage it critically. In fact, in his intellectual autobiography, he criticizes himself for his uncritical acceptance of Marxism (1982, 33-34). In that same book he demonstrates that while into his seventies he has still not rid himself of the disease, writing "... if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with personal liberty, I would be a socialist still" (36).

As far as I know, Popper, while sometimes mentioning free markets positively, never condemned socialism for its negative economic consequences that have resulted each time it has been tried. Even the voluntary socialist experiments of the 19th century (e.g. by adherents of Owenism in the U.S.) and of Zionists in Israel have been, if not outright failures, difficult to sustain. Perhaps his rejection of economism—the idea that economic welfare is a guide for social policy and a characteristic he identified in Marx's writing— led him to believe that such a criticism was unnecessary and would reduce him to Marx's level.

The failure of Popper to embrace the economics of Mises and Hayek has led to the perpetuation of error, most visibly in the person of George Soros, and put humanity at risk of another dark age. Edward Bellamy would be astonished.

Hacohen, M. H. (2000). Karl Popper — The Formative Years, 1902-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, K. R. (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Popper, K. R. ([1976] 1982). Unended Quest. La Salle: Open Court.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

If a robot is conscious, is it OK to turn it off?

In response to receiving, via email, a link to the article, If a robot is conscious, is it OK to turn it off?, I wrote the following:

For me, feeling pain and suffering does not lead to a claim to moral standing, whatever that is. The killing of fellow human beings has come to be frowned upon because of its disruption to the social order. People who are killed have families, friends, allies, etc. who will be affected negatively by their deaths, and they will likely seek to balance the scales à la Hatfields and McCoys. The institution of the state has endeavored to defuse the seeking of revenge, short-circuiting the tit-for-tat by spreading the responsibility for the execution or long-term incarceration of the perpetrator.

The reality of this situation leads many murderers to choose victims who are without family and friends and, frequently, without the protection of the law. In addition, we can see that in cases where the wholesale killing of groups will not only lead to no (foreseen) costs, but potential benefits (like in the cases of native Americans, the Kulaks, the Jews (that may have lost the war for Germany), Armenians, etc.), there is little problem in carrying out a program to achieve that end. This latter scenario generally requires a state, which is the modern method of marshalling the forces of mass killing.

When we subtract out the state, private killing is a tiny blip. Yes, horrifying when someone shoots up a high school.a music event, or a movie theater, but hardly on the scale of death and destruction of even a small conflict like we see in Yemen.

So, as I see it, killing is a trial-and-error learning process—the only process by which we can discover an "objective" (as Popper would have called it) morality. Killing animals by the millions leads to benefits, like meat on the table, while killing humans on a private scale tends to create problems. When we have a world where an Adolf Hitler or a George W. Bush cannot direct the resources of an entire nation towards the destruction of another without suffering the costs, we may have a chance as a species.

I expected my response to generate a flurry of replies, criticizing and or decrying my position, but as yet I have received none.

Monday, November 09, 2020

“Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato”—Benito Mussolini

 Mussolini's fascist slogan, translated as "everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state," is the underlying theme of an article published by Mariana Mazzucato on Time Magazine's Web site as It's 2023. Here's How We Fixed the Global Economy.

This utopia, straight out of the fascist playbooks of the 1920s and 1930s, and possibly even owing an intellectual debt to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, will have its own Albert Speers bringing forth the next generation of fascist architecture. One wonders why this splendid utopia has not been brought forth in the past, as Bellamy's book projected; and why so many of the attempts to achieve heaven-on-earth have succeeded primarily in bringing hell-on-earth to the world in addition to the domestic population.

We only need to look to California, our own little laboratory of utopian social engineering, to observe the results of efforts that Mazzucato would endorse. Escalating homelessness, a failing high-speed rail project, and a power grid, due to an emphasis on renewables, that is inadequate to meet demand are just the high points for a state that is losing large numbers of businesses and citizens due to high costs, taxes, and regulations.

It leads one to wonder, who is it that really ignores empirical data? How is it that success stories like Hong Kong (created by John Cowperthwaite and described by Milton Friedman) and post-World-War-2 Germany (the German Wirtschaftswunder, heavily influenced by the economic liberal and Mont Pelerin Society member Ludwig Erhard) are ignored. And why is it that failures like Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, North Korea, etc. are also ignored. At this moment, I believe it is due to our imaginations—our imaginations that make it possible to believe in a return to the Garden of Eden.