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What is the Objectivist position on Karl Popper's epistemology?

I'm aware there is a lot of hostility, but I've never gotten any good answers from any Objectivist who actually understands Popper's work.

asked Nov 29 '14 at 21:48

Curi's gravatar image


edited Nov 30 '14 at 13:18

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The question calls for a good answer from an Objectivist who understands Popper's work. I don't know of any Answer providers or commenters on this website (including me) who would meet that criterion, but I was able to learn at least a little about Karl Popper from a substantial article about him that I found on Wikipedia. Of all the empiricist philosophers of science whom Objectivists could study and evaluate, he appears to be a good one, well worth studying further. Perhaps Curi himself will initiate such a study and evaluation someday.

As far as I can discern, however, Karl Popper is basically an empiricist, very much in the tradition of David Hume, though not necessarily identically so. Others are welcome to comment on this point (or anything else in this Answer) if they have additional insights to offer.

Hence, my understanding is that the main Objectivist "hostility" toward Popper would simply be an expression of the same opposition that Objectivism has toward all forms of empiricism (and rationalism, too). Refer to the topic of "Rationalism vs. Empiricism" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for a brief overview of that issue.

In fact, rather than begin by differentiating Popper from Objectivism, it might be highly fruitful to begin by comparing and contrasting Popper with Hume. One passage in the Wikipedia article on Popper (in the "Falsification/problem of induction" section) observes:

Popper and David Hume agreed that there is often a psychological belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, but both denied that there is logical justification for the supposition that it will, simply because it always has in the past. Popper writes, "I approached the problem of induction through Hume. Hume, I felt, was perfectly right in pointing out that induction cannot be logically [rationalistically?] justified." (Conjectures and Refutations, p. 55)

But Popper apparently also held that repeated unsuccessful attempts to "falsify" a theory strengthen the degree of certainty in accepting the theory as true, just as repeated confirmatory instances strengthen the degree of certainty.

If I recall correctly from David Harriman's book, The Logical Leap, a vital element strengthening a theory is the identification of a causal mechanism behind the observed results. Hume rejected causality. I'm not sure about Popper's stand on causality, though he appears (from the Wikipedia article) to have agreed with Hume, viewing causality itself as an unprovable induction. (Compare this with Objectivism's identification of causality as a corollary of identity and thus axiomatic).

Update: Causality

I mentioned the potential value of a comparison of Popper and Hume by someone who is highly familiar with both. I would be particularly interested in Popper's stand on causality, compared to that of Hume.

I'm interested because of the Wikipedia mention of a specific work by Popper containing a specific passage allegedly in his own words, with a specific page reference, that seems to say that Popper himself saw considerable commonality with Hume regarding induction. I also know from other sources that Hume rejected causality, which is essential (according to Objectivism) to valid induction. My previous Answer above indicates the Objectivist view of what causality refers to and why it is valid. (Ayn Rand identified causality as the law of identity applied to action.) I also see from the comments that Wikipedia is accused to getting Popper completely wrong. So naturally I'm interested in hearing more about this from someone who knows more about it.

answered Dec 05 '14 at 01:20

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 07 '14 at 02:43

I have studied Popper. He has a lot in common with Rand on epistemology (e.g. realism, objective knowledge, emphasis on context, rejection of both skepticism and infallibility), except for induction. And I think also has some important insight. He's mixed on politics though, pretty bad.

Secondary sources on Popper are very unreliable. He's not an empiricist (or a rationalist). If you want to discuss, email me curi@curi.us

(Dec 05 '14 at 02:01) Curi Curi's gravatar image

"I was able to learn at least a little about Karl Popper from a substantial article about him that I found on Wikipedia"

{{dubious}} :D

Seriously, Wikipedia is a really horrible source for information about philosophy (and really, for any topic about which amateur misconceptions abound). I'm not at all surprised if it got such a basic fact as whether or not Popper is an empiricist incorrect.

(Dec 05 '14 at 08:17) anthony anthony's gravatar image

He has a lot in common with Rand on epistemology (e.g. realism, objective knowledge, emphasis on context, rejection of both skepticism and infallibility), except for induction.

Curi, any chance you'd be willing to do a blog post on that?

I might take you up on the email discussion, but it'd probably be better for you and other readers if you published something that everyone can read.

Also, please note that most of what people who identify as Objectivists talk about when they talk about induction is not from Rand or part of Objectivism.

(Dec 05 '14 at 08:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

FYI the Yahoo group posts are linkable and can be read by anyone including non-members. I have written about Popper and Rand before but I'm trying to understand it better - especially my questions about induction and certainty - and maybe I'll write something else later.

(Dec 05 '14 at 12:52) Curi Curi's gravatar image

reply to Causality update: I'm not sure what the issue is. What questions is a position on causality supposed to answer? Also FYI I'm not that familiar with Hume.

Looking at the Ayn Rand Lexicon on Causality, I read it as kinda saying the universe is lawlike (especially laws of physics) and stuff can't just act arbitrarily and there can't be contradictions. Popper and I would agree.

(Dec 07 '14 at 01:48) Curi Curi's gravatar image

Popper doesn't have a problem with causality. Stuff causes stuff. Sure. Popper liked to build on past ideas where possible. Hume was one person who pointed out the problem of induction (in short, that it's a non sequitur to go from 50 instances to all instances). As far as I know, Hume's answer to the problem of induction was irrationalism. Popper's was different: he worked out a non-inductive epistemology.

(Dec 07 '14 at 03:12) Curi Curi's gravatar image
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Asked: Nov 29 '14 at 21:48

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Last updated: Dec 07 '14 at 11:01