A caveat: I’ve not yet had time to read the article my brother pointed me to.

My brother, in the comments to my post on Popper, writes:

First, Lewis’s critique seems aimed at Behaviorism (hence the word “conditioners”). Behaviorists believed human nature to be essentially plastic depending on environmental conditions. Change the conditions; change human nature. Popper was no behaviorist, and his “tinkering” project is entirely political, not psychological. Also note that Popper claims that we can change humanity’s fate, not its nature. Only a hard-boiled behaviorist would claim that the two are identical.

My brother may well be right about Lewis’s response to Behaviorism in Chapter three, but neglects the fact that Chapters 1 and 2 are aimed at those who reject moral norms (which Lewis dubs “the Tao”). In sum, Lewis’s argument is that human nature consists in adherence to these, and that those who reject their existence or attempt to ground them in instinct or elsewhere necessarily “redefine” human nature. Popper clearly falls in to the category of rejecting these moral norms and so seems subject to Lewis’s criticisms.

Furthermore, the fact that Popper’s views are political doesn’t seem to matter much. Much of political philosophy has treated politics as an extension of ethics (as Popper himself seems to). Notice that the principle on which the open society depends is an ethical principal–the closed society believes in “taboos” or moral norms. The fact that he claims rejecting these is “fundamental” to his political theory suggests that if he is wrong here than his conception of the “open society” (or the “good society”) may be in serious jeopardy.

Second, to conflate Popper’s falsificationist “critical realism” and the strong-to-absolute empiricism of the Vienna Circle is to totally distort Popper’s work, even as Popper himself understood it.

I grant that I may have overstated the case when I claimed Popper adopts the “scientific empiricism” of the Vienna Circle. My brother is correct in pointing out that Popper had fundamental disagreements with the Positivists, though not on the issue I have criticized him on. Popper’s epistemology seems nuanced–it is not clear if he wants to make science a part of epistemology, or epistemology a part of science. On Popper’s theory of falsificationism, The Routledge Philosophical Encyclopedia states: Thus falsificationism is made into a supreme rule to the effect that the ‘rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science against falsification.’


It is notable that, like the logical positivists, Popper expresses unbounded respect for science. Unlike them, he grants a constructive (historical) role to metaphysics in science, seen as directly descended from the earliest Greek speculations about the nature of the world. The demarcation between science and metaphysics is thus a matter for decision, not a discovery about the nature of things.

Again, this is not a full-blown defense of my interpretation. I am curious whether Popper’s philosophy of science (epistemology?) lends itself more to the “scientism” of the Vienna Circle than is often stated, especially if all statements must be open to falsification. If ‘falsifiability’ as a philosophical tool means ‘falsifiable by science,’ then many of the claims of substance dualists would be considered non-falsifiable (in so far as they depend upon an unbridgeble explanatory gap).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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