Philosophy and the Real World, An Intro to Karl Popper by Bryan Magee

Sunday, June 29, 2008

There are two ways of interpreting this title: 1) Idiots guide to Karl Popper or 2) Short book for someone too lazy to actually read Karl Popper's works. Both are valid in this case. Karl Popper is an Austrian philosopher who spent the majority of his adult life in the UK. He is a philosopher on science whose main theories carry over into modern society as well. He was introduced to me (not physically) through the two books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. Fooled by... is a book I highly recommend reading, Black Swan less so. Taleb is certainly a disciple of Popper. To learn more on Popper I decided to seek out a book introducing him to a layman like myself. I have read very little philosophy in my life for the simple reason that it puts me to sleep - and not in the metaphorical sense. I always held the belief that when the time was right philosophy would come to me because I was ready. I don't know if that time has come, but I did make it through this book without falling asleep (too much).

Popper's central argument revolves around the following example. It is not possible to make the observation statement "all swans are white" even if you have observed one thousand, ten thousand or one million white swans without seeing any other colored swans. However, it takes just seeing one black swan to derive the statement "not all swans are white". What I took from Popper was that in science you must look for problems, i.e. black swans instead of searching for occurrences that confirm your hypothesis. In this quest to falsify your findings is when true discovery happens. However, this is difficult for scientists and humans because being "right" just feels so damn good.

By seeking out the problems with your argument is the manner in which you strengthen it. Popper is a true believer in critical feedback stating that people should be eager to receive feedback on their work because it gives them the opportunity to truly improve upon it.

Being right feels good. Taleb in his two books takes this idea to the financial world and points out the problems this can cause. However, it also holds true in politics as well. There is growing concern of tribalism in America according to The Economist. As Norman Mailer said in an interview before the 2004 elections. "How is Bush going to win? I don't know one person voting for him." There is more and more tendency to surround ourselves with people who are more willing to confirm what you have to say instead of opposing it. This certainly may make for more peaceful dinner parties but it is not going to really spur interesting political debate.

Remaining on the subject of society and politics, it was Popper's argument that it is the government's role to minimize avoidable suffering. This falls in line with his overarching belief in addressing problems in order to arrive at improvements. It seems very practical to me. Seek out the low hanging fruit of societal suffering and make it better. He feels this to be the proper direction because it is impossible to determine what defines happiness but it is quite easy to know what makes people unhappy such as sleeping under a bridge or not having food to eat. It is interesting to think of the USA's protection of the endless pursuit of happiness.

I recommend this book. The ideas that are touched upon can be applied to business, society and science. So each person can take something from this introduction to Popper.


Nels Abrams July 18, 2008 at 9:57 PM  

Check out the big brains on Brad! Quick: what movie is that line from?

You have, if I remember right, been a fan of Popper for a while now. I'll check him out. One book I did read was "Wittgenstein's Poker". It's about an argument Popper had with Wittgenstein. It is a popular philosophy book as well.

That's cool you read "Awakenings". The technical descriptions can get tedious but, like you, I was really impressed with his perspective on holistic medicine. His other books are easier--short case studies about crazy people.

Hope all is going well.

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