Scientific Method as “Lebensphilosophie” – My Tryst with Popper and his ideas

BY ASHWATH.

As a student of Humanities & Social Sciences, I had the utmost desire to study philosophy and classics. However, the university rules diminished this desire. The thirsts of reading philosophical texts and developing multiple inquiries were left unquenched. I had to accept the truth and move on. I then started studying History, Politics and Sociology but always kept an eye on philosophy and its historical developments. I read Sankara, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Kant, Victor Cousin, Marx, McTaggart, Russell and Bergson to name a few. On one day, while surfing the Encyclopaedia Britannica I came across the biographical note of Sir Karl Popper. It said he was an eminent philosopher of science and also the key figure behind the evolution of philosophy at the LSE. The next day I saw an old preserved copy of The Logic of Scientific Discovery in the philosophical section of our college. It was the first edition of the magnum opus. With the permission of the librarian, I borrowed the book for an hour. It was astonishing to wonder that there was a philosophy of science. Sadly, there was no one to explain its history, evolution and scope in this contemporary world. 

The urge to studying philosophy reached its zenith in 2014. There was no resolution to this problem. I enrolled for a MOOC by the University of Edinburgh titled Introduction to Philosophy. Luckily, this course had a module on Philosophy of Science. The module was taught by Prof Michela Massimi. The main objective of her module was to think whether the scientific are true or not. She even handled the central debates in the philosophy of science. While explaining Scientific Realism she referred to Popper and the Anti-Realists in detail. The course ended in the same year. Prof Massimi and her insights into the history of scientific thought had left me in speculative mode. The speculation was optimistic in a true sense because science is the pillar of all the academic disciplines and scientific method contributes to the intellectual wellbeing of a man. The next step was unknown. I would occasionally read entries on Popper at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and other reference catalogues. Until then, I had never read a Popper book fully. I was not aware that I would read them and this interaction would change my thinking forever. Everything was wrapped in mystery and the time would reveal it when it was appropriate. 

In 2015, I was in my final year of undergraduate studies. I had opted for studying Social Demography, Post Cold War History of the World and Urban Sociology. I would wonder – if I would have been studying philosophy, I would have chosen History of Logic, Philosophy of Science and Religion among the choices. The world of if and but is just like a mirage where every problem is solved. When the academic year commenced, my friend Paul’s elder brother Pierre Carvalho joined our college’s academic teaching staff as the lecturer in philosophy. The department was to witness a revival in activities under his chairmanship. While interacting with him on various aspects of philosophy, he told us that he specialised in the philosophy of science. The further conversations made me aware of the fact that he was a Popperian in the true sense. I would even tell him that he might be the only Popperian in our local community. 

With the help of the Social Science Association, he decided to start a certificate course in philosophy of science. I was the first and later the only student who would be there to attend all the lectures. The syllabus of this course was based primarily on the history of scientific thought at the beginning while ending with the Popper-Kuhn Dispute. The primary text of the course was Philosophy of Science – A Very Short Introduction. The course was flagged off by the concerned authorities. The classes would take place in his office or a classroom. The class in the office was like a meeting, the other one would seem like a class taken by an Oxford Tutor or a Private Tutor of the royal family. His explanations of phlogiston theory, atomism of Democritean philosophy, scepticism, Lamarckism, Copernican astronomy, Galileo’s experiments, Peano’s mathematics would echo beyond the shabby walls of the classrooms. He devoted two weeks to explain Sir Karl Popper and his contribution to the philosophy of science. I was acquainted with the concepts of induction, falsification and scientific method. To be more precise, I was introduced to Karl Popper and he became a part of my life. There were Aristotelian approaches, warmth and preciseness in the rhetoric of Prof Carvalho. They should have never ended but they had to. The course came to an end. I was awarded the certificate. This was the only time when I studied philosophy formally and in-depth, although philosophy of science is just a tip of an iceberg in the global academic pursuits. 

I graduated in 2016. The certificate course in philosophy of science was a significant factor in my curriculum vitae. I had decided to pursue an MA in Sociology but was forced to take a gap year due to some health problems. The gap year was synonymous to a house arrest. The only things I talked were about the symptoms of my disorder. To get rid of the silence and hallows of idleness, I started reading some books. Amongst the books that I kept on my table were – Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You & Calvin Hayes’ Popper, Hayek and the Open Society. This duo of books discussed economic and political freedom in many contexts. The relationship between Tolstoy, Popper and Hayek is peculiar and debatable. Tolstoy influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Hayek influenced Popper. It is estimated that Hayek nominated Popper for Nobel Prize in Literature many times. After reading the book written by Hayes, I thought it was now the correct time to read Popper directly. Thus, I read The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Out of all the things explained by Popper, I regarded – the growth of knowledge can be studied best by studying the growth of scientific knowledge as the mantra for my academic career. The end of my gap year was near and before I could embark on the journeys of my new beginning, I had to propound a philosophy of life to keep the principles intact which I did.

I took a piece of paper and wrote down the core elements of my Lebensphilosophie (Philosophy of Life) – 

  • Pragmatism 
  • Modernism 
  • Religious Inquiry 
  • Activism 
  • Scientific Method

Thus the scientific method propounded by Popper now became a core element of my life for the betterment of the world. 

Sir Karl Popper became an integral part of my postgraduate study. The Positivism Dispute in sociological theory was a notable debate in German sociology. Popper and Albert engaged into debates with Adorno and Habermas Both sides were correct in their own might but the arguments were active up the decade between 1954-1970. Positivism is now a historical phenomenon, the Frankfurt School is relevant but the Critical Rationalism of Popper seems more relevant. I sided with Popper and ended the dispute going on in my mind. 

I firmly believe in the Locard Principle. Every contact surely leaves a trace, however, the unearthing of the trace can be farther or much nearer. For me, it was like a process, a process of intellectual reform. Before reading Popper, on the political front, I was a man of radicalism and ideological orthodoxy, a left-winger on the verge of disillusionment with its dogmatic persona. Popper came to my help and opened up the doors of the political plus intellectual spectrum. He took me to continental Europe and made me discover Bolzano, Husserl, Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises and the Vienna School. The doors opened rejuvenated my thoughts with liberalism and its variants. They even made me aware that the subject in which I specialised was a product of the liberal phenomenon. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Bryan Magee, JS Mill, Sir John Eccles, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos were the new influences. Popper’s writings encouraged me to study the evolution of science from a historical perspective. Sir Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 and John Losee’s A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science were the works that I studied immediately. I also began to investigate the pseudoscientific and unsolved problems in the social sciences. On the political front, I am now a Third Way proponent as I also owe influence to Keynes & Beveridge a lot. Finally, Popper made me understand humility and the relevance of science as a systematic body of knowledge, the world it has created. Despite the positive aspects, there are some dark undercurrents. The society in which we live is becoming anti-intellectual and anti-scientific in many ways. The reasons are many starting from populism to jingoistic nationalism. The folks surrounding us are unaware of these facts. We are now in a pandemic. The countries with strong scientific upbringing have defeated the virus and saved the people. Sir Karl Popper and its thoughts are lively again; the resurgence may contribute to a better understanding of problems. I feel bad to witness the closure of the philosophy department in which I studied the philosophy of science. The department was closed as authorities believed philosophy is not a lucrative subject. Once, I even overheard a religious priest saying that – “the youths of today shouldn’t study philosophy!” These are the tragedies which I failed to avoid in my academic pursuits.  I have nothing much to say after this; except some confessions. There is an Indian saying which says that – gratitude never finishes. I read Popper even today because I cannot fully claim that I have understood him fully. Whenever I do this, I wonder about them who say “we haven’t read Popper….”     


ashwathAshwath

Belagavi, Kamataka, India – Contributor

Ashwath lives in India. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology. He
specializes in Sociology, Area Studies, Religious Studies and Intellectual
History. He has worked as columnist for some magazines and newspapers. He
is also a translator and has translated the works of Thoreau, Octavio Paz, Tomas
Transtromer and others in Indian Languages. He was also a member of many
research committees. He is a member of the Oxford Karl Popper Society, The
Mises Institute, the Society for French Studies UK and Progressive Writers
Association of India. 

He can be contacted at iashwath7[at]gmail[dot]com.

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