Before continuing where I left off after Chapter 1, part 1, I wanted to quote another book. The following quote is from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fantastic book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Taleb’s book deals with the “problem of induction” a great deal, so it’s only natural that the subject of Karl Popper comes up in the book. Strangely, even though Popper is mentioned throughout Fooled by Randomness (and in Taleb’s other fantastic book, The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable), I simply glossed over the name and did not become interested in Popper’s work until late last year. Anyway, Taleb sums up Popper’s thoughts on the problem of induction more concisely than I can, so I thought he’d be worth quoting. The following is from Fooled by Randomness, page 126:
Popper came up with a major answer to the problem of induction (to me he came up with the answer). … There are only two types of theories:
1. Theories that are known to be wrong, as they were tested and adequately rejected (he calls them falsified).
2. Theories that have not yet been known to be wrong, not falsified yet, but are exposed to be proved wrong.
Why is a theory never right? Because we will never know if all the swans are white (Popper borrowed the Kantian idea of the flaws in our mechanisms of perception). The testing mechanism may be faulty. However, the statement that there is a black swan is possible to make. A theory cannot be verified. … It can only be provisionally accepted. A theory that falls outside of these two categories is not a theory. A theory that does not present a set of conditions under which it would be considered wrong would be termed charlatanism—it would be impossible to reject otherwise.
On page 127, Taleb continues:
[Popper] refused to blindly accept the notion that knowledge can always increase with incremental information—which is the foundation of statistical inference. It may in some instances, but we do not know which ones.
I think these are very important things to note, and it’s interesting that even today perhaps most people would not understand or accept these notions. Anyway, this sums up the basic understanding with which I am approaching my reading of Popper.
And now, to finish Chapter 1.
Section 6: Falsifiability as a criterion for demarcation
In this section, I think Popper is establishing that the ability for a theory to be falsified is what distinguishes empirical statements from non-empirical statements. In this sense, verification is impossible, as Taleb states in the quote above.
Section 7: The problem of ‘empirical basis’
Here, I think Popper is asking: How do our experiences relate to the statements we develop? He is trying to deny the intuitive notion that experiencing something verifies anything but a useless tautological statement (such as “I experienced this!”). Popper writes on page 21:
Perceptual experiences have often been regarded as providing a kind of justification for basic statements. It was held that these statements are ‘based upon’ these experiences; that their truth becomes ‘manifest by inspection’ through these experiences; or that it is made ‘evident’ by these experiences, etc. … Yet it was also rightly felt that statements can be logically justified only be statements.
Popper continues on page 22:
Here too a solution can be found, I believe, if we clearly separate the psychological from the logical and methodological aspects of the problem. We must distinguish between, on the one hand, our subjective experiences of our feelings of conviction, which can never justify any statement … and, on the other hand, the objective logical relations subsisting among the various systems of scientific statements, and within each of them.
That is, statements, and the logic behind their falsification and correction or abandonment, are separate from our experiences. Related, sure, but not directly derived from them. We experience something, create a statement, then “detach” ourselves from it, pushing it into the realm of “objective logical relations.”
Section 8: Scientific objectivity and subjective conviction
The main thing I get out of this section is that the idea of “conviction” counts for nothing scientifically. It may still matter a great deal in a person’s decision making, but it doesn’t justify anything. Hence the distinction between scientific objectivity and subjective conviction.
And that’s Chapter 1 of this book! I’m not sure whether or not I will continue on to Chapter 2 just yet. I may start reading a different nonfiction book instead. This is for two reasons:
1. This book is still a bit heavy for me; it still takes quite a bit of time and focus for me to understand what Popper saying, and even when I think I do, I can’t be certain my understanding is correct. (I can’t verify my understanding!)
2. I have completed, on paper, an algorithm that would, in theory, teach itself to play chess, which is why I was exploring Popper’s work in the first place. I have yet to try my ideas; the algorithm is complicated and it will take some time to program. And, of course, it probably won’t work, because something this ambitious could never work on a first try. Anyway, trying to translate my messy notes into a programming language will be confusing enough without having to try to ponder what Karl Popper is saying.