KARL POPPER'S INDETERMINISM
Presented at Long Island Philosophical
Society, (under the title, Commentary on Ellen Katz's "'Of Clouds and Clocks' Revisited"), Saturday, April 7, 1984 at the State University of New York Agricultural and Technical College at Farmingdale (with minor omissions, additions, and corrections).
I am in complete accord with Professor Katz's presentation on Popper.
For that reason, my comments will be predominantly in the nature of support of her criticisms.
I shall review both some historical concepts which may have been forgotten in the forward rush to replace old
jargon with new -- that is, to put old wine in new bottles -- and to offer some reinforcement for Ellen's arguments.
If we can accept John Passmore's analysis, [in his essay, "The Relevance of History to the Philosophy of Science," (Scientific Explanation and Understanding, edited by Nicholas Rescher)], see, also, Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 193-200], Popper seems to hedge all of his bets.
According to Passmore, Popper
might, indeed have argued that his philosophy of science is a metaphysical theory, a theory which is on his view, criticizable but not falsifiable. (p. 94)
If Passmore has interpreted Popper correctly, I would venture to ask "What is the point epistemically) of criticizing if 'to criticize' cannot also falsify?"
Ignoring, however, Popper's hedge, his falsifiability principle falls victim to at least two serious criticisms: (1) since it cannot be falsified, it is not a
scientific principle; and (2) it cannot be verified because by Popper's own criticism of induction, i.e., that the past says nothing about the future, we cannot rely upon a falsification today to remain a falsification tomorrow, and by the same reasoning, a verification today to remain a verification tomorrow, moreover, if I may be forgiven for pushing this so far, the
verifiability principle (though it is not a principle, it is a tool) to remain unfalsifiable tomorrow.
... from the logic of scientific discovery onwards, Popper has in fact insisted that he is not putting forward a theory of any kind, metaphysical or scientific.
Rather, he is making a proposal.
What, then does all this imply for possible legitimacy of his views on indeterminacy or any of his views for that matter?
Is Popper really immune to useful criticism? These are rhetorical questions which I do not intend to pursue.
It is a tricky venture to attempt to evaluate such a complex thinker as Popper, particularly since even Popper, himself, according to John Passmore, admits,
But as it is said that the mountain is climbed because it is there, Popper is there.
to over-simplifying his views on particular occasions or for particular purposes.
Inevitably, then, Popper has been read at one time and another as holding one or the other of a number of very different views about the philosophy of science. (p.94)
In decrying Darwinism as a less than perfect theory, Popper sees little "difference," if any, between the assertion, "Those that survive are the fittest," and the tautology "Those that survive are those that survive."
This is typical of his glossing over important issues and being oblivious to
crucial elements of explication. Surely to describe the characteristics of a life form which enables it to live in subzero weather, and hence survive, is more than tautology.
Surely, to show the proliferating characteristic of cockroaches, termites, ants, etc., which enables them to outnumber their
predators is more than tautology.
But at least Popper does admit to eating crow on his previous condemnation of the concept of inexorable laws of evolution.
He now condescends to resort to evolutionary theory in his attempt to prove indeterminism.
Apparently one of those inexorable laws is his postulated, unproven, autonomous existence of world III, the world of objective knowledge.
Another is his unproven claim that world II, mental states, including consciousness, is the mediating cause between world I and world III.
In my doctoral dissertation on Conwy Lloyd Morgan's Emergent Evolution, T. H. Huxley (1871) is cited by Morgan on the issue of the mind/body problem.
Morgan points out that Huxley
For Morgan, there is no such thing as matter possessing only physicality.
The material in the universe -- in Aristotelian fashion -- is psycho-physical and monistic.
Furthermore, any evolutionary development in the so-called physical world manifested concomitantly an inseparable evolution in the psychical world.
used the term 'neurosis' to designate the "connection" between molecular changes in the brain, and "psychosis" to mean the states of consciousness which are concomitant with those connections.
I have not seen any reference to Conwy Lloyd Morgan in the philosophy of Popper except for his derogatory reference to the "dubious name ...[of] 'emergent
Obj. Know.) Yet, Popper seems to have borrowed Morgan's A.B.C. method of describing three aspects of his monistic world -- three ways of "talking" about our monistic world.
For Morgan, these were the physical (Popper's world I), the psychical (Popper's world II), and the metaphysical (for Morgan, God; for Plato, the forms; and for Popper, objective knowledge, his world III).
Popper even seems to have borrowed Morgan's principle of acknowledgement, as opposed to proof, as well as his objects of the mind.
Popper, however, separated them from consciousness and declared them to be autonomous.
This he does without demonstrating, that is, without proving, that in the absence of intelligence in the universe that such objective knowledge would still,
in fact, exist "out there" so to speak. Ellen is correct in asserting that he is pontificating on this matter rather than proving his point.
There doesn't seem to be much that can be said about a world of objects that is metaphysical -- not susceptible even indirectly to our sense faculties or even to sensitive instrumentation -- unless of course we're hung up on mental exercise.
I suspect that Popper received his inspiration if not from Plato, since he denies being a Platonist, from Samuel Alexander, who, in his Space, Time, and Deity, (which Popper admits having read), said colors exist separate from the mind.
Well, as Ellen points out, for Popper these objects exist autonomously and have no connection, causal or otherwise, with his world I.
Only world II, the mental world
(consciousness), functions causally to connect worlds I and III. How this occurs is not made clear.
Yet, Popper alludes to the possibility of mental states being reduced to physical states.
I should like to comment on this matter.
It is an error to speak of the possibility of reducing mental states) to physical states.
There is the view that the mind (mental states) is what the brain (physical state) does.
This cannot be accurately stated to mean reducing mental states to physical states.
Such language seems to suggest that a physical state is Hobbsian dead matter being impelled like billiard balls into a state of action.
Such a historical oddity is no longer deserving of attention. It is my impression that this is Popper's concept of
physical determinism which he goes to such lengths to emphasize as a "nightmare" and a "hugh automaton."
Where has he been? He's beating a dead horse.
Few philosophers now-a-days do not know that there is no such thing as physical, that is, dead matter, no such thing as rest.
Objects do not have to be impelled to action. If anything, they are impelled to change of action.
Motion is a permeative characteristic of all matter. In Morgan's and Huxley's terms, there is only a psycho-physical world.
All matter is matter in action and there is no other kind of matter. We have here an Aristotelian analog rather than a Platonic one.
Were it not for the interaction, the "sensitivity," to use an anthropomorphic metaphor, of matter to matter, neither life nor mind could have evolved.
It was for this reason that the term 'psycho-physical' was introduced.
Huxley and Morgan felt it was necessary to show that the evolution of life and mind was dependent upon not merely Hobbsian dead matter but upon the permeative characteristic of all matter in interaction.
I am aware that this raises many questions about the complex issues of causality which I do not wish to pursue here except to point out that even Hume did not destroy science's faith in a causal principle.
The very edifice of science is still quite successfully predicated upon causality however it may be defined.
The separation of matter from its permeative quality of "sensitivity" to other matter is not any more possible than separating one's personality from his physical structure or separating the relation of one object to another object from the objects themselves or separating space and time from spacetime.
As Einstein said in The Meaning of Relativity, (2nd. ed. 1950),
The universe of ideas is just as little independent of the nature of our experiences as clothes are of the form of the human body. (p. 2)
He goes on to say,
The only justification for our concepts and system of concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have no legitimacy.
Some philosophers, and Popper is one of them, confuse a logical separation with an existential separation.
Such thinkers seem to believe that it is possible to abstract the abstract quality of twoness from two physical objects and thereby bring into existence abstract qualities.
Surely such hypostatization went out with St. Anselm.
To postulate, then, the reducibility of mental states to physical states is nonsense.
There is no separability and consequently no autonomy. If mind, that is, consciousness, Popper's world II were reducible, it would be reducible to the "psycho" characteristic that permeates the psycho-physical world.
As Ellen rightly points out a reduction of mental states to physical states would undermine Popper's
Now, Popper could certainly be forgiven for borrowing the ideas of other philosophers if he would give credit where it is
due -- which of course he sometimes does.
He seems not to have chosen to do so in this case. Nevertheless, in borrowing someone else's evolutionary theory and bending it to his own use, he has introduced many new and interesting insights, particularly his views on the evolution of language as a control system for survival.
I suppose borrowing is a characteristic of the process of philosophy. That is not to say that Popper has proved his evolutionary theory.
In fact it is difficult to see how he can believe that he has in view of the very strong Platonic quality inherent in his system.
Just as Plato could not explain how the forms could impose themselves on the world of appearances so Popper does no more than pontificate about his world II being the connecting link between his worlds I and III.
I have commented on the above as a preliminary to what I would like to say about Popper's interpretation of indeterminacy.
Popper defines the term:
I have a problem understanding the phrase "physical indeterminism" in this context because "in all their infinitesimal details" involves nothing physical.
At that level we are supposed to be using the term 'energy.' He goes on to say,
Indeterminism -- or more precisely, physical indeterminism -- is merely the doctrine that not all events in the physical world are predetermined with absolute precision, in all their infinitesimal details. (p. 220. Obj. Know.)
One could argue on this basis that on the physical level every event has an antecedent cause.
But on the level of energy, depending on what atomic or subatomic models one resorts to, one must take into account the element of probability because according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, it is claimed that we are unable to determine both the location and the motion of a quantum particle or wave.
While physical determinism demands complete and infinitely precise physical predetermination and the absence of any exception whatever, physical indeterminism asserts no more than that
determinism is false, and that there are at least some exceptions, here or there, to precise predetermination. (p.220, Obj. know.)
I believe Popper's concepts of probability and of determinism are outmoded and were predicated upon a likewise outmoded concept of physicality.
In my opinion the source of his error lies in his failure to understand that probability in an energy field is a form of causality, albeit a weak one, not to be confused with the use of the term as it pertains to classical determinism.
If I may both paraphrase and quote F. S. C. Northrop, the following distinction holds: The weaker form of probability defines the state of a system, wherein the definition involves
independent variables referring to probabilities, as well as to other properties such as position and momentum, [these] appear in the state-function and only the weaker type of mechanical
'Causality' in the subatomic domain cannot have the same meaning as 'causality' in the molecular domain particularly because the use of probability functions differently in each.
Moreover, it is quite impossible for anyone to specify precisely or even imprecisely what is occurring on sub-electronic or atomic structures not alone on
infinitesimal levels of quanta of energy. On these levels we are dealing with constructs
and mathematical concepts. As Aage Petersen says in his
Quantum Physics and the Philosophical Tradition p. 13: Quantum Physics and the Philosophical Tradition
In the stronger form of probabilities, no independent variables referring to probabilities appear in the state-function and the stronger type of mechanical causality is present.
... one of the things we must be
careful about is to refrain from attaching absolute reality to concepts like the electron, energy, mass,
Popper seems not to have heeded this admonition when he discusses quantum indeterminacy as if such concepts are more than scientific models.
He would do well, also, to listen to F. S. C. Northrop when he says,
It would appear, then, that whatever we might deduce about causality on the "infinitesimal
level," it may or may not have anything to do with the reality of events in the universe any more than Euclidian, Riemannian, Newtonian, or Einsteinian mathematics necessarily describe the real structure of the universe.
Let us recall the admonitions: of three great minds:
... one can arrive at a causal theory in any science or in common-sense knowledge, or even at a probability theory, of the relation between the successive states of any object or system, only by speculative means and axiomatically constructed, deductively formulated scientific and philosophical theory which is tested not directly against the sensed and experimental data but only indirectly by way of its deductive consequences.
Einstein: As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
Russell: Mathematics is the subject in which we don't know
what we are talking about nor whether what we're talking about is true.
Since the iffiness of any conclusions we might draw about causality on the
infinitesimal levels of the universe must be recognized, such conclusions would be of little epistemic value to science.
However, science has progressed very nicely even though the extent of its knowledge probably amounts to considerably less than ten to the minus ten of all there is to be known.
Hardy: a mathematician is someone who not only does not know what he is talking about but also does not care.
Science does not need to know
everything, to be productive. Its nature is that it is open ended.
To date it is fairly well understood that a proper definition of truth and knowledge excludes absolutivity because the regulatory state of affairs is the availability of evidence.
And we have no reason to believe that the evidence can ever be all in.
In conclusion then, since we can only conjecture, postulate, speculate, axiomatize, construct, formulate, deduce, and theorize, and since mathematical precision is only hypothetical precision until such precision is measured against empirical data, it does not matter whether we are able to specify or measure precisely whether events are uncaused on the
infinitesimal level in the domain of sub-quark energy levels. The conclusion may or may not fit the facts of the universe.
Though there may appear to be a direct correlation between subjective probability and objective probability, if there is in fact such a thing, in the macroscopic world, there is little if any evidence that such a correlation exists on
infinitesimal levels of energy. The probability of events occurring without antecedent causes is a domain of human thought.
Nowhere in the experience of man has there been empirical evidence of objective probability except in a causal relationship.
To claim otherwise is a case of
The concept of indeterminism was born out of and borne by the forces of theism which were concerned with defending their gods against the charge of creating and permitting evil.
God is presumed to have given man a free will. With this free will, man is supposed to have escaped being totally subject to God's laws of morality and consequently is guilty of choosing freely to commit evil.
Since the introduction of the term 'free will' into man's vocabulary, there has been an unceasing but unsuccessful effort to prove the existence of events without antecedent causes.
If such efforts could be shown to be successful then, obviously, to take an example, the catastrophic socio-politico-economic-religious physical event of the destruction of six million Jews is the result of the uncaused free will of Hitler and his minions.
infinitesimal levels of energy of the neural activity in which the events without antecedent causes occurred are the source of that free will.
Are we to assume then that none of the caused events which occurred on the energy levels of neuronal activity going on in the brains of Hitler and his minions causally added up to the macroscopic events of the
That there may have been a relatively miniscule number of events without antecedent causes in a universe where experience supported by scientific knowledge tells us that the predominance of events does have antecedent causes is of small consequence in determining whether the universe is deterministic.
This particularly applies to the concept of indeterminism for which there has never been any empirical evidence.
Man is a complex of internal competing forces reacting to the forces or his environment.
It would appear, then, that the experiences of man, the events of the world, and the processes and methods of science, probabilistic in every case, all attest to a causal sequence of events, viz., a deterministic universe.
I agree with Ellen that Popper has not proven his case.
© 1997 by Pasqual S. Schievella