Nitpicking on Karl Popper

Although I am in agreement with Popper on his description of the scientific method and with his striving for an open society, I do have a few disagreements with some of his claims and proposals.

The first one is his general claim that he does not wish to argue over meanings of words. On the other hand, he also does not want to argue at cross purposes. Well, how in the world are you to avoid arguing at cross purposes, unless you clarify what each of you mean by your words. This does not mean arguing which meaning or definition is to be preferred, but it does requires making a clarification of how words are being used.

The second disagreement I have with Popper is over the search for essences. Historically, Popper may be right about the misguided search for “essences” of natural things. A possible explanation for this is a conflation of artifacts with natural things. An artifact — at least in typical cases, such as in the case of tools — is made for a purpose. And the essences of tools are the purposes they serve. Now, thinking by a misconceived analogy, one can ask what purpose does a stone or a bird serve. And by further analogical thinking, since artifacts serve the purposes of man; it can be mythically reasoned that natural things serve the purposes of gods or a God, or that things themselves are animate beings with purposes. So, I agree with Popper that natural things have no essences, but he forgets that artifacts do.

This distinction between natural kinds and artifacts is relevant to the “infamous” Eddington’s two tables problem. Eddington had written “There are duplicates of every object about me — two tables, two chairs, two pens …” (A. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1958, p. xi). This is a mistake. The word “table” refers to an artifact, and physics does not study artifacts; it studies the materials out of which tables, and artifacts, are made of. A table as a piece of furniture is defined by the purposes it serves. And physics does not study human purposes.

The third disagreement I have with Popper is with his use of the word “rational.” He seems to use the word “rational” as contrasted with the word “irrational.” But there is a broad sense of rational such as when humans are characterized as “rational animals.” This means that humans are capable of acting in rational ways. Being rational, in this sense, includes acting irrationally. To make this clear, consider a cat. A cat cannot act rationally or irrationally, because it can act only a-rationally (or non-rationally). It is Popper’s failure to make a distinction between irrational and a-rational (non-rational) behavior, which causes him to call someone who acts by intuitions as acting irrationally; whereas I would say the person in such situations is acting a-rationally (non-rationally)– like a cat. For example, people who want to experience mystic states or to experience drug highs or who want to “escape from reality,” are not — in my sense — necessarily acting irrationally, but — given their circumstances — may actually –by seeking non-rational states — be acting quite rationally.

The fourth area of disagreement I have with Popper is over his treatment of democracy. His criterion of democracy seems to be concerned with whether there exists in the institution of government a mechanism for removing a leader from office by a popular vote. This to me is a necessary but not a sufficient demand. The result is that he seems to be indifferent to types of democracies.

In contrast, I want to make three points.

1. Swiss style democracy is superior to all other existing state democracies.

2. There is a distinction between Macro and Micro democracy. Micro democracy is favored by anarchists, and exists currently in Rojava, in the Mexican area controlled by Zapatistas, and in the Mexican town, Cheran.

3. As a social democrat, Popper is for piecemeal engineering rather than for revolution. My position is that if a piecemeal law is passed granting everyone a free access to subsistence land — that will constitute a revolution!

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