Monday, January 25, 2010

Karl R. Popper and the Buddha

Ice Leaves on Fir Tree
Rime Leaves on Fir Tree, Helsinki, 2010.

Sir Karl Raimund Popper is one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He's best known for his ideas about distinguishing true propositions from false ones; what he called falsifiability and critical rationalism. However, the piece of his philosophy that most influenced me was that of nominalism as opposed to essentialism.

In Popper's view, Western philosophy went into the woods with Plato, and has yet to find its way out. Plato famously expressed his view in his parable of the cave: that the things we think of as concrete, real objects are in reality only shadows cast by the eternal, unchanging ideas of those objects. For Plato, a chair is any object that embodies the idea, or essence, of chair-ness.

In Popper's view, this way of looking at the world leads you to ask entirely the wrong questions. You start hunting for ideas, and then hunting for the essence of those ideas. You ask "What is the essence of justice?" or "What are the fundamental laws that drive history?" or "What is the essence of a perfect political system?" From that, you get everything from St. Augustine's New Jerusalem to Hegel's Spirit of History to Marx's dialectical materialism to Hitler's catalogs and hierarchies of "races" and all that that led to. (Not to mention endless Internet flame wars about semantics, which must have amused him no end, assuming he got on-line toward the end of his life.) These views Popper dubbed Platonic essentialism.

Popper proposes a profoundly different way of looking at the world. He called it nominalism. With it, he stood Plato on his head. Ideas have no independent existence or intrinsic value. Reality is a continuum. Ideas -- words, concepts, definitions -- are arbitrary categories we impose on them. We need them in order to be able to think and communicate, but they're only useful to the extent that they help us formulate and express ideas.

"If words and definitions are arbitrary," you might ask, "how can any two individuals understand what they're talking about?"

To answer this question, Popper starts out by pointing out that we're not starting from scratch -- to do so would be another essentialist misstep. We already have a language. We already agree about what words and structures in it mean, to an extent that meaningful communication is perfectly possible, most of the time anyway. That means that a lot of the time we don't need to bother much with definitions; we just write and talk, read and listen. However, especially when dealing with complex topics, we do run into this problem. This is precisely when arguments about semantics start, and ultimately lead nowhere except, occasionally, volumes upon volumes of incomprehensible books gathering dust in university libraries.

Popper's solution is simple and elegant: why not just negotiate the definition of each problematic concept as we go, in the context in which it's being used? We don't need to find the definition of "Justice" when talking about, say, whether universal health care is a human right. We only need a definition that's good enough for that discussion. If the discussion shifts, we can adjust the definition as we go. The point is that there ain't no such thing as big-J Justice; there's only justice and injustice, the definitions of which are fluid and dependent on context -- and both of which are, ultimately, human inventions. All we need to do is agree on the terms we're using for the purposes of the discussion.

When I first came across the Buddhist concepts of anatta, anicca, and paticca-samuppada -- no-self, impermanence, and dependent origination -- I was struck by how similar they were to Popper's ideas on nominalism. The Buddha, too, says that there are no eternal, abiding, unchanging essences, that everything changes and is in motion, and that everything is connected to everything else; that words and concepts are nothing more than products of the discriminating mind; a prison of our own construction.

Professor Popper and the Buddha set out to solve entirely different problems -- Popper, the conceptual difficulties that Western thought, especially science and society, was struggling with in the mid-20th century; Buddha, the problem of suffering. Yet both visited the same place, 2500 years and a couple of continents between them. Wild!

For more, see Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1-2. It's available, at least in part, on Google Books; they're also available for purchase in most major bookstores on-line and off, albeit at a pretty absurd price. Your friendly local university library should also carry them.

4 comments:

  1. Relativism might make life a bit easier, but ultimately it's going to make for a lot more work. Once you allow for fluid definitions of basic concepts, you're boxed into a single discussion. That is, you'll never be able to apply lessons learned to new situations because the negotiations over fundamental definitions will yield different ground rules every time.

    Won't be much fun when every single problem requires going back to the definitions phase.

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  2. You missed a fundamental point there, dte. Most of the time, you don't need to go back to the definitions phase -- we have a language, and we have a shared understanding of what most of it means.

    What we do need to do is recognize that definitions have no inherent meaning or value, and that we're free to adjust them as we go, should we hit a snag. They're only descriptions, nothing more. As fields develop, the definitions settle down, too. We generally only come up with new ones along the edges, and make radical readjustments with paradigm shifts.

    The danger that Popper wanted to avert was that of the closed society -- Fascism and Communism specifically, but any closed society based on a rigid ideology in general. Closed societies appear when you start out with an ideology that may or may not have some explanatory power, and then apply deductive logic to the concepts within it, without verifying the conclusions through argument and experience.

    So, for example, Marx's system explained the characteristics of 19th century capitalism rather well, but went off the rails badly once you tried to extrapolate from those concepts how society should work. Yet revolutionaries attempted to build entire societies on the deductive cathedrals constructed on Marx's analysis, and we all know what that led to. And the problem wasn't that Marx had faulty premises: the whole exercise is flawed.

    Popper's way out is simple: verify your conclusions through argument and experience, adjust your definitions once you find that they're incomplete, and invent new concepts for new things.

    And you know what, dte? In reality, this is pretty much exactly how science works. Up to the 19th century or so, scientists tended to believe that they're uncovering ultimate truths about the universe. Nowadays, scientists tend to believe they're producing provisional descriptions of regularities in the universe. The former is a Platonic, essentialist exercise. The latter is a profoundly Popperian, nominalist one.

    Popper "merely" recognized how scientific knowledge was, in reality, being developed, and expressed that in a coherent form. Scientists, when exposed to his thoughts, would go "Oh, of course, yeah, we do that."

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  3. Oh that is wild. Thank you for pointing out Popper. I am definitely going to check those volumes out. I try to remain aware that I must live in a relative world doing all the relative things we have to do to survive, but with more awareness of the absolute.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. My Friend Ura reckons that Buddhists reckon that relative and absolute are connected! How wild is that?

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