Can the scientific method save democracy?

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature.

Popper’s a priori faith in reason makes sense to me when seen as a necessary component of his faith in the scientific method, however. On the other hand, Popper finds that the scientific method – at least, in its barest outline, for he is careful to distinguish between the demands of science and of political science – can’t admit of any certainty, even certainty in mankind’s essential equality:

We can . . . know that we are making progress; and it is this knowledge that to most of us atones for the loss of the illusion of finality and certainty. In other words, we know that our scientific theories must always remain hypotheses, but that, in many important cases, we can find out whether or not a new hypothesis is superior to an old one. For if they are different, then they will lead to different predictions, which can often be tested experimentally; and on the basis of such a crucial experiment, we can sometimes find out that the new theory leads to satisfactory results where the old one breaks down. Thus we can say that in our search for truth, we have replaced scientific certainty by scientific progress. And this view of scientific method is corroborated by the development of science. For science does not develop by a gradual encyclopædic accumulation of essential information, as Aristotle thought, but by a much more revolutionary method; it progresses by bold ideas, by the advancement of new and very strange theories (such as the theory that the earth is not flat, or that ‘metrical space’ is not flat), and by the overthrow of the old ones. But this view of scientific method means that in science there is no ‘knowledge’, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. (229)

My belief that all men are created equal makes me what Popper calls an “essentialist.” He lumps me with Locke and Bacon, and he lumps Locke and Bacon with essentialists that Plato challenged. Popper believes in equality as a goal, as I do, but not as a metaphysical starting point, as I do. He argues against a priori, or natural law, equality by pointing out how, even in Plato’s day, nature led theorists to different conclusions concerning equality:

[Antiphon’s] equalitarianism he formulates as follows: ‘The nobly born we revere and adore; but not the lowly born. These are barbarous habits. For as to our natural gifts, we are all on an equal footing, on all points, whether we now happen to be Greeks or Barbarians … We all breathe the air through our mouths and nostrils.’ A similar equalitarianism was voiced by the Sophist Hippias, whom Plato represents as addressing his audience: ‘Gentlemen, I believe that we are all kinsmen and friends and fellow-citizens; if not by conventional law, then by nature. For by nature, likeness is an expression of kinship; but conventional law, the tyrant of mankind, compels us to do much that is against nature.’ This spirit was bound up with the Athenian movement against slavery (mentioned in chapter 4) to which Euripides gave expression: ‘The name alone brings shame upon the slave who can be excellent in every way and truly equal to the free born man.’ Elsewhere, he says: ‘Man’s law of nature is equality.’ And Alcidamas, a disciple of Gorgias and a contemporary of Plato, wrote: ‘God has made all men free; no man is a slave by nature.’ Similar views are also expressed by Lycophron, another member of Gorgias’ school: ‘The splendour of noble birth is imaginary, and its prerogatives are based upon a mere word.’ . . . Reacting against this great humanitarian movement . . . Plato, and his disciple Aristotle, advanced the theory of the biological and moral inequality of man. Greeks and barbarians are unequal by nature; the opposition between them corresponds to that between natural masters and natural slaves. The natural inequality of men is one of the reasons for their living together, for their natural gifts are complementary. Social life begins with natural inequality, and it must continue upon that foundation. . . . [These doctrines] may serve to show how biological naturalism can be used to support the most divergent ethical doctrines. (66 – 67)

Unusual for him, Popper caves in too easily to Plato and Aristotle. First, by acknowledging that biological naturalism can be used to counter as well as support man’s equality, Popper fails to distinguish between essential equality and other forms of equality, such as in the areas of talent and physical strength. No essentialist would claim man’s equality in this latter set of endowments. Popper shies away from metaphysics, but metaphysics are required to carve out an essential equality as the basis for government.

How hard I find Popper fighting against a metaphysical understanding of man’s essence or soul. To strip any metaphysical taint from Socrates’ concept of the human soul, Popper blames Plato for a specific switch in terminology:

I strongly disagree with Burnet’s opinion that Socrates . . . held any definite metaphysical doctrine of the ‘nature’ of the soul. I believe that Socrates’ saying ‘care for your souls’ is an expression of his moral (and intellectual) individualism. Few of his doctrines seem to be so well attested as his individualistic theory of the moral self-sufficiency of the virtuous man. . . . But this is most closely connected with the idea expressed in the sentence ‘care for your souls’. In his emphasis on self-sufficiency, Socrates wished to say: They can destroy your body, but they cannot destroy your moral integrity. If the latter is your main concern, they cannot do any really serious harm to you. It appears that Plato, when becoming acquainted with the Pythagorean metaphysical theory of the soul, felt that Socrates’ moral attitude needed a metaphysical foundation, especially a theory of survival. He therefore substituted for ‘they cannot destroy your moral integrity’ the idea of the indestructibility of the soul. (621)

There is no evidence, however, that Socrates used the term “moral integrity” instead of “soul.” Popper creates Plato’s emendation wholly out of the Pythagoreans’ influence on Plato. Popper’s argument seems far fetched and, to me, demonstrates the lengths he will go to eliminate consideration of metaphysics or any political axioms in order to match his political theory to his understanding of the scientific method.

Popper’s second failing in caving to Plato’s biological argument for slavery is found in Popper’s inconsistency. Popper fails to apply his own definition of tribalism in examining Plato’s and Aristotle’s claims that biological naturalism proves slavery to be a natural law. In a tribal society, to which Popper says Plato wishes to return Athens, there is a “lack of distinction between the customary or conventional regularities of social life and the regularities found in ‘nature’ . . .” (164). Surely Plato’s insistence that slavery is a natural law is a prime example of an advocate of tribalism confusing a “conventional regularities of social life” with a natural law.

Popper loves equality, but he chooses to base his support of it on its salutary effects and not on its place as a priori starting point. Popper finds a lack of rigor but no particular danger in essentialist beliefs like mine and the ancients who championed equality as something taught by nature. I guess I find a similar lack of rigor in his thinking in this regard, but I’m uneasy over where a purportedly metaphysics-free political science may lead us.

Kant’s dualism and Hegel’s monism

Kant also starts with reason, as I’ve mentioned, and Popper loves Kant. My difference with Popper over Kant may have to do with our different temperaments or training. I find in Kant a strong faith in reason but a reason that moves from no firm premises. As a scientist, Popper relies on inductive reasoning, which moves from facts, often observed empirically, to tentative conclusions based on facts. As a former trial lawyer, I prefer the more abstract deductive reasoning built on acknowledged premises. Popper, however, finds that deductive reasoning is only descriptive:

[P]ure mathematics and logic, which permit of proofs, give us no information about the world, but only develop the means of describing it. (230)

How does Popper’s inductive, anti-essentialist approach fit with his notion of democracy? He treats societal problems as if they were scientific problems. Therefore, in the field of politics, according to Popper, we need to assume that nothing is true, we need to cooperate with the political community in question to discover what works, and we need the political space to make mistakes without undue recrimination. Success comes from failures, Popper believes, not from deductions from self-evident truths.

Popper, a scientist by choice and a political theorist only by necessity, is clearly more interested in science than in self-government. One sometimes gets the feeling that he reluctantly puts down his scientific instruments and gives himself a thorough schooling in political science in order to save science and the rest of civilization from Nazi historicism. (He wrote most of Open Society during World War II as his “war effort.”) But this feeling I get yields to a more complete picture as Open Society progresses. Popper believes, the reader discovers, that just as the scientific method depends most of all on a community of scientists willing to challenge hypotheses, so also people need political freedom and a strong sense of community to advance and challenge various hypotheses regarding the diagnosis and course of treatment for social ills.

Although Popper has mixed feelings about my essentialist views, he finds danger in the opposite of my view, in the view that, because we know nothing for certain, we know nothing at all. He does not agree with Hegel that because we – and therefore our reasoning – are the results of strong, unseen historical forces, forces that we can’t successfully counter, we had best try to understand these forces and cooperate with them. This, Popper believes, leads to totalitarianism.

Hegel brings Plato’s and Aristotle’s historicism up to date. As I mentioned, in political science, Popper passes over Locke, my fellow essentialist. He goes as far as Kant and no further. Kant rejected the Enlightenment’s foundation of self-evident truths, but he believed in a dualism of facts (what is) and standards (what ought to be) – a dualism just as essential for liberalism, I think, as equality. In fact, Kant’s dualism is an essential aspect of reason that Popper and I embrace.

Here’s an example, I think, of Kant’s dualism. Fact: In 1904, eight-year-old children legally worked in Georgia cotton mills and in Pennsylvania coal-breakers twelve hours a night. Standard: Children under twelve should not be employed in manufacturing and energy sectors. Even though this standard is not self-evident, it moves us closer to ideals of equality and humaneness, ideals Popper demonstrates to be associated with open societies. We try to meet the standard; we fail. Or the standard turns out to be imperfect. But we arrive at better standards through the trying and the failing.

Hegel disagrees with Kant’s dualism. Hegel is not a dualist but a monist: there are no standards but only facts. For Hegel, a standard’s acceptance “is a social or political or historical fact” (506). Ever since Hegel, some sociologists, psychologists, and historians preempt all argument by assigning a claimed standard to a sociological, psychological, or historic cause. Those who hold to the historical cause are advocates of historism, which Popper defines as historicism without the prophecy:

[T]he development of man’s reason must coincide with the historical development of his society, i.e. of the nation to which he belongs. This theory of Hegel’s, and especially his doctrine that all knowledge and all truth is ‘relative’ in the sense of being determined by history, is sometimes called ‘historism.’ (421)

Hegel’s monism hearkens back to tribalism, the closed society that Popper sets up as the eternal enemy to democracy, which is the open society. A closed society amounts to “a charmed cycle of unchanging taboos” (55) and is characterized by a “naïve monism,” a stage in which “the distinction between natural and normative laws is not yet made” (57). The sun’s daily rising and the form of obeisance due a tribal chief, for instance, are both laws expressed by the same force.

The tribal tendency of Hegel’s monism is evident in his German nationalism and in his belief that those in power make just laws by virtue of their power (might makes right). Hegel provided the German reaction to the French Revolution with a theory as rooted in ages past as that drawn upon by the French Revolution:

Just as the French Revolution rediscovered the perennial ideas of the Great Generation [the first age of Athenian democracy] and of Christianity, freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of all men, so Hegel rediscovered the Platonic ideas which lie behind the perennial revolt against freedom and reason. Hegelianism is the renaissance of tribalism. (245)

Hegel’s mission was the same as Plato’s: arrest change and return to a tribal society. Popper spends most of the first half of his book establishing Plato as a dangerous reactionary and most of the second half of his book giving Hegel the same treatment. (Marx also comes in for heavy criticism in Open Society. Marx’s historicism isn’t reactionary, of course, but it still relies on inaction and unreason in the face of the historical fait accompli Marx uncovers.)

Popper thinks Hegel is brilliant, and he of course thinks that Plato is brilliant, too. Popper even sympathizes with Plato’s plight, though never with his ends or means. Plato saw the dangers and the disorientation of his society as it moved from tribalism to democracy. In seeking to return Athens to tribal monism, he advocated measures that would be considered part of some totalitarian platforms today: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, the deliberate acclimation of children to war, and the denial of individual’s existence outside of his or her relationship with the state. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato didn’t sell these policies as repugnant but necessary steps for moving a society from tribalism to democracy: democracy in Athens had already flowered. Instead, Plato hated democracy and its advocates, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

Plato, of course, is more famous for being a dualist than a monist. Popper examines Plato’s extensive “metaphysical dualism” as it operates in many fields:

In the field of logic, this dualism presents itself as the opposition between the universal and the particular. In the field of mathematical speculation, it presents itself as the opposition between the One and the Many. In the field of epistemology, it is the opposition between rational knowledge based on pure thought, and opinion based on particular experiences. In the field of ontology, it is the opposition between the one, original, invariable, and true, reality, and the many, varying, and delusive appearances; between pure being and becoming, or more precisely, changing. In the field of cosmology, it is the opposition between that which generates and that which is generated, and which must decay. In ethics, it is the opposition between the good, i.e. that which preserves, and the evil, i.e. that which corrupts. In politics, it is the opposition between the one collective, the state, which may attain perfection and autarchy, and the great mass of the people— the many individuals, the particular men who must remain imperfect and dependent, and whose particularity is to be suppressed for the sake of the unity of the state. . . . And this whole dualist philosophy, I believe, originated from the urgent wish to explain the contrast between the vision of an ideal society, and the hateful actual state of affairs in the social field— the contrast between a stable society, and a society in the process of revolution. (79 – 80)

Plato, then, uses dualistic means (i.e. he addresses the difference between what is and what should be) in order to arrive at a monistic end.

Popper and religion

I have other issues with Popper besides his reliance on Kant. Popper suffers from too narrow of an understanding of Christianity outside of that practiced by the likes of Locke – by those who have a strong faith in reason. He uses the term “mysticism,” for instance, quite often and always in a pejorative sense:

. . . since the day of Plato, it has been a characteristic of all mysticism that it transfers this feeling of the irrationality of the unique individual, and of our unique relations to individuals, to a different field, namely, to the field of abstract universals, a field which properly belongs to the province of science. (449)

I agree with Popper’s statement but for two objections: it’s not mysticism that he describes, and the kind of universals he mentions is the realm of government and reason, not science, properly speaking. Science is universal, but it’s inapposite. And mysticism, properly understood, is not averse to reason. Merton makes the case that reason anchors mystical experience, and John of the Cross believes the same thing.

I understand his need for reason as a universal language, and I agree with him that the esoteric language of mystics can sometimes lead to the kind of divisions that Plato wishes to maintain in order to reinstitute tribalism. Here’s Popper attacking mystical language:

Arguments will hardly be offered; since it is impossible to discuss such profundities with a rationalist, the most likely reaction will be a high-handed withdrawal, combined with the assertion that there is no language common to those whose souls have not yet ‘regained their mystical faculties’, and those whose souls possess such faculties. (446)

But there are “mystical” experiences that only a few gain, I understand, and there is a language that those who have experienced them can use. The Gnostikos, or third stage of monastic instruction common in the East during the time of the Desert Fathers, “were meant to be a signal to those who had already experienced some of these things that others were around them who had also experienced the moving of the divine Spirit and who were ready to communicate on an equal level about the higher mysteries,” according to John McGuckin in his book The Book of Mystical Chapters (10). Part of what they attained, though, was an ability to finally embrace their humanity and to realize that they are greater sinners than anyone. So, contrary to Popper’s characterization, the true Christian mystics have been the biggest believers in reason because reason is one of the universally held traits that make us equal before God. And, as Popper points out, everyone must be equally susceptible to reason for reason to amount to a universal language. Of course, I acknowledge that there are also the “false prophets” of mysticism that he speaks of.

Despite his qualms with mysticism (which he seems to define as any religious impulse that trades in myths and eschews reason), Popper is a big supporter of religion:

‘Science, in its own field,’ says [Christian philosopher J.] Macmurray in another place, ‘is the product of Christianity, and its most adequate expression so far; … its capacity for co-operative progress, which knows no frontiers of race or nationality or sex, its ability to predict, and its ability to control, are the fullest manifestations of Christianity that Europe has yet seen.’ I fully agree with this, for I too believe that our Western civilization owes its rationalism, its faith in the rational unity of man and in the open society, and especially its scientific outlook, to the ancient Socratic and Christian belief in the brotherhood of all men, and in intellectual honesty and responsibility. (448)

(Inquisitions and crusades he labels as Christianity getting away from its core values.) He may not accept that all men are created equal, probably because such a metaphysical stance cannot be scientifically proven, but he believe that we should act as though we do.

The scientific method and piecemeal legislation

But Popper, as a scientist, advocates most of all the scientific method’s potential as a political method. And a piecemeal, trial-and-error approach to legislation best fits the scientific method. For Popper, “piecemeal” legislation, or “piecemeal social engineering” is the opposite of “Utopian social engineering”:

[Piecemeal engineering] is an approach which I think to be methodologically sound. The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. (148)

The incremental change comports with the limited goals of Lockean liberalism, though Popper never address Lockean liberalism or American government at all. Like Locke, Popper does not believe in a perfect society or a state-directed happiness, but a “method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society” (148). Piecemeal legislation, then, is neither part of a larger Utopian project such as socialism or totalitarianism.

Popper never suggests how his political theory would fit in American democracy. He sticks, instead, to a discussion of democracy in general. As I mentioned at the outset, I didn’t suspect that Popper’s work would suggest a modern, moderate theory of democracy, but it does.

Open Society as a modern, moderate political philosophy

I’d like to examine how Popper’s theory of legislative trial and error might fit in my new framework for political moderation announced in my recent post. Popper seems to strike a good balance between practical legislation aimed at social ills and efforts to reduce the resulting size of government. He realizes the danger that bureaucracy poses to freedom:

I wish to make it clear that I feel much sympathy with Marx’s hope for a decrease in state influence. It is undoubtedly the greatest danger of interventionism— especially of any direct intervention— that it leads to an increase in state power and in bureaucracy. Most interventionists do not mind this, or they close their eyes to it, which increases the danger. But I believe that once the danger is faced squarely, it should be possible to master it. For this is again merely a problem of social technology and of social piecemeal engineering. But it is important to tackle it early, for it constitutes a danger to democracy. We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure. (398)

Popper’s positive view of government, his insistence on maintaining a community that speaks a universal language (in his case, reason), and his insistence that the community give constructive and critical feedback to piecemeal legislation fit my “government of the people” description. His wary eye against Utopian ends and against bureaucracy fits my “by the people” description. His practical legislation to right social ills fits my “for the people” description. Finally, his stance against historicism’s attack on reason, and therefore on human nature and mankind’s ability to govern itself, is a strong firewall for democracy against any impetus from the right or the left that would tend to keep America from acting reasonably in a crisis.

Popper’s Kantian approach to government is close to the Founders’ Lockean approach, and Kant, as modernized and simplified by Popper’s applied scientific method, may win many hearts of a generation of Americans that resist the Enlightenment generation’s reliance on self-evident truths. Kant’s emphasis on individually discovered standards of morality (his famous categorical imperative), as opposed to the society-wide morality of natural law, may be a more obvious fit than Locke for postmodern America, too.

I remain a Lockean liberal, but I’ve benefitted from the challenge Popper gave to my thinking. We disagree somewhat about Locke and Kant, but we’re on the same page with respect to Plato, Hegel, and Marx. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Popper, who this year has joined Reinhold Niebuhr, Ruth W. Grant, Allen C. Guelzo, Harry V. Jaffa, Walter Lippmann, Alexander S. Rosenthal, and Morton White in my pantheon of twentieth century political science writers.