Any Good Criticism of Karl Popper’s Epistemology?

I be­lieve there are no cor­rect, un­ad­dressed crit­i­cisms of Karl Pop­per’s episte­mol­ogy (Crit­i­cal Ra­tion­al­ism – CR). If I’m mis­taken, I’d like to be told. If oth­ers are mis­taken, I’d like them to find out and take an in­ter­est in CR.

CR is im­por­tant for the gen­eral rea­sons that episte­mol­ogy is im­por­tant (it tells you about how to think, how to learn, how to eval­u­ate ideas and ar­gu­ments, and how AGI could work). It also re­futes in­duc­tion, which is a pop­u­lar be­lief here. If CR is cor­rect, then peo­ple here have a lot to change their mind about.

I’ve found CR crit­i­cism falls into some broad cat­e­gories, with some over­lap:

  1. The peo­ple who heard Pop­per is wrong sec­ond­hand but didn’t read much Pop­per and have no idea what CR is ac­tu­ally about. They of­ten try to rely on sec­ondary sources to tell them what CR says, but most sec­ondary sources on CR are bad.

  2. The pro-in­duc­tion peo­ple who don’t en­gage with Pop­per’s ideas, just try to defend in­duc­tion. They don’t un­der­stand Pop­per’s crit­i­cism of in­duc­tion and fo­cus on their own pos­i­tive case for in­duc­tion. They also com­monly ad­mit that some crit­i­cisms of in­duc­tion are cor­rect, but still won’t change their minds or start learn­ing the solu­tion to in­duc­tion’s flaws (CR).

  3. The falsifi­ca­tion­ism straw man, which mis­in­ter­prets Pop­per as ad­vo­cat­ing a sim­plis­tic, false view. (There are some other stan­dard myths too, e.g. that Pop­per was a pos­i­tivist.)

  4. Crit­ics of The Logic of Scien­tific Dis­cov­ery who ig­nore Pop­per’s later works and don’t en­gage with CR’s best ideas.

  5. Crit­ics with points which Pop­per an­swered while he was still al­ive. Most crit­i­cisms of Pop­per are already an­swered in his books, and if not there then in this col­lec­tion of Pop­per crit­i­cism and Pop­per’s replies. (I linked vol­ume two which has Pop­per’s replies, you will want vol­ume 1 also.)

If you be­lieve Pop­per is wrong, then: Do you be­lieve you per­son­ally un­der­stand CR? And have you looked at Pop­per’s books and replies to his crit­ics to see if your point is already an­swered? If so, have you writ­ten down why Pop­per is mis­taken? If not, do you be­lieve some­one else has done all this? (They un­der­stand CR, are fa­mil­iar with Pop­per’s books in­clud­ing his replies to his crit­ics, and wrote down why Pop­per is mis­taken.)

Whether it’s by you or some­one else, you can re­ply with a refer­ence to where this is pub­li­cly writ­ten down in English. I will an­swer it (or re­fer you to an an­swer or get a col­league to an­swer). Here is what I ex­pect in re­turn: if your refer­ence is mis­taken, you will study CR. You were wrong about CR’s falsity, so it’s time to learn it. If you would be un­will­ing to learn CR even if you agree that your refer­enced crit­i­cism of CR is false, then you shouldn’t have an opinion on CR. If you still wouldn’t want to learn CR even if all your ob­jec­tions were wrong, then you ei­ther aren’t par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the field (episte­mol­ogy) or shouldn’t be. (I have noth­ing against lay peo­ple as long as they are in­ter­ested in learn­ing and think­ing. I do have some­thing against peo­ple, whether lay or philos­o­phy pro­fes­sors, who state their opinion that Pop­per is wrong but would not be will­ing to learn about Pop­per even if they found out their nega­tive be­liefs about Pop­per are false.)

If you be­lieve one of the many crit­i­cisms of Pop­per is cor­rect, but you don’t know which one and don’t want to pick one, then you are not treat­ing the mat­ter ra­tio­nally. It’s un­ac­cept­able if your plan is, on hav­ing one crit­i­cism an­swered, to sim­ply pick an­other one, and re­peat in­definitely. You’re wel­come to have one good refer­ence which makes mul­ti­ple im­por­tant points, but you don’t get to just keep refer­enc­ing differ­ent crit­i­cal au­thors repet­i­tively (as each one fails, you pick an­other) while not re­con­sid­er­ing your own be­liefs. You need to stick your own neck out – as I do. If I can’t an­swer a challenge to CR I will re­con­sider my views.

If you want to bring up a cou­ple crit­i­cisms at the start, which are writ­ten in differ­ent places, but you won’t add any more later, then that could be rea­son­able – but provide a brief ex­pla­na­tion of why it’s needed. In this case where you want to bring up mul­ti­ple points by differ­ent au­thors, I’d ex­pect you to be refer­enc­ing spe­cific sec­tions or short works, not mul­ti­ple whole books. E.g. you could rea­son­ably say you have 3 crit­i­cisms of Pop­per, chap­ter 3 of book X, chap­ter 7 of book Y, and pa­per Z.

Alter­na­tively, if Pop­per is mis­taken but no one has ac­tu­ally writ­ten cor­rect crit­i­cism (in­clud­ing you), then how do you know he’s mis­taken? Maybe he’s not!

Note: I’m in­ter­ested in crit­i­cisms like “Pop­per’s idea X is false b/​c Y.”, not like “I wasn’t con­vinced by Pop­per’s writ­ing on topic X.” (The sec­ond one is com­pat­i­ble with Pop­per be­ing cor­rect, and is too vague to an­swer.)


See also:

Yud­kowsky on Popper

Crit­i­cism of Eliezer Yud­kowsky on Karl Popper

CR Read­ing Recommendations