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Objectivist and Popperian Epistemology

Ayn Rand has the best moral philosophy ever invented. Karl Popper has the most important breakthrough in epistemology. Most Objectivists seem to think that Popper and Rand are incompatible, and Popper is an enemy of reason. They have not understood him. These lists are intended to help explain my motivation for integrating Rand and Popper, and also help to highlight many similarities they already have.

Points Popperian epistemology and Objectivist epistemology have in common:

(In Popperian epistemology I include additions and improvements by David Deutsch and myself.)

  • opposition to subjectivism and relativism
  • fallibilism
  • says that objective knowledge is attainable (in practice by fallible humans)
  • realism: says reality is objective
  • connected to reality: we have to observe reality, keep our ideas connected to reality
  • asserts there is objective truth
  • attention to context ("problem situation" or sometimes "problem" is the common Popperian term meaning context. E.g. a Popperian will ask "What is the problem this is addressing?" and be asking about context.)
  • pro-science
  • opposition to positivism
  • opposition to the language analysis school of philosophy
  • say that most professional philosophers are rather crap
  • opposition to both skeptical and authoritarian schools of epistemology
  • keeps our concepts "open-end[ed]" (ITOE). That means: possible to improve in the future as we learn more.
  • says that there are objective moral truths
  • does not seek a "frozen, arrested state of knowledge" (ITOE)
  • written clearly and understandably, unlike much philosophy
  • says epistemology is useful and valuable to real people; it matters to life; it's practical
  • you can't force an idea on someone. they can choose to accept it or not
  • you can't implant an idea in someone. you can't pour it in, stick it in with surgery, make them absorb it, etc. they get to think, interpret, choose.
  • free will
  • people are not born with some unchangeable nature and innate ideas. we can be self-made men. we can learn, change, improve, progress
  • emphasis on active use of one's mind, active learning
  • no inherent conflicts due to objective truth
  • understanding of unconscious and inexplicit ideas
  • if two ideas contradict, at least one is false
  • integration of epistemology with morality, politics, and more
  • rejection of authority
  • full rejection of idealism, solipsism
  • strong emphasis on clarity
  • rejection of limits on human minds
  • reject probabilistic approaches to epistemology
  • looks at man as rational and capable
  • value of critical thinking including self-criticism

Strengths of Objectivist epistemology:

  • stolen concept
  • package deal
  • check your premises
  • ideas about integrating all one's knowledge and removing all contradictions
  • measurement omission and concept formation ideas both worthwhile, though flawed
  • good criticisms of many opponents of reason
  • good understanding of essentials vs non-essentials, e.g. for definitions
  • idea about automating some thinking
  • good explanation of what objectivity is
  • Judge, and be prepared to be judged

Strengths of Popperian epistemology:

  • evolution creates knowledge
  • conjectures and refutations method
  • piecemeal, incremental method. value of every little improvement
  • identification of, and solution to, justificationism
  • addresses induction
  • conjectural, fallible, objective knowledge
  • idea that we progress from misconception to better misconception
  • myth of the framework
  • value of culture clash
  • emphasis on bold highly-criticizable claims, sticking your neck out to learn more
  • no shame in mistakes
  • value of criticism. criticism is a gift
  • understanding of rationality as being about error correction
  • unimportance of starting points. you can start anywhere, improve from there
  • criticism of definitions
  • criticism of foundations, bases
  • criticism of essentialism
  • criticism of manifest truth (and self-evidence, obviousness, etc)
  • static and dynamic memes
  • structural epistemology
  • coercion and common preferences
  • understanding of conflict and symmetry
  • applications to parenting, education, relationships
  • understanding of tradition
  • explanation of value of external criticism (if everyone has some blind spots, but some people have different blind spots then each other, then it's productive to share criticism with each other. a little like comparative advantage)
  • emphasis on critical method, criticism (ideas stand unless refuted)
  • let our ideas die in our stead

Want details and elaboration about any of the topics? Please ask. You can ask in comments or at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group.

Elliot Temple on July 3, 2013

Messages (18)

What a nice try!

The comparison is magnificient!

Hope will encourage those who read Rand to read Popper and vice versa.

Even more than to make a comparison it's important to encourage people to read their works.

Of course it is much easier to read Rand, but if you go thouroghly through The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Popper (which is no simple task), you will desperately want to read all Poppers' papers.

To all the readers:

Beg you, read them both and think yourself!

Maxim at 1:43 PM on September 15, 2015 | #2568 | reply | quote

What does "package deal" under "Strengths of Objectivist epistemology" refer to? Is it how ideas are sometimes transferred to others as a bundle? Or something else?

Anonymous at 3:08 PM on March 10, 2017 | #8522 | reply | quote

package deal

Ideas are sometimes put together in a package when they don't necessarily belong together, e.g. - selfishness and being willing to rip people off.

oh my god it's turpentine at 3:16 PM on March 10, 2017 | #8523 | reply | quote

@#8522 you should learn basic internet/computer usage skills and start using them in your life.


Anonymous at 3:59 PM on March 10, 2017 | #8524 | reply | quote

>Strengths of Popperian epistemology:

>understanding of rationality as being about error correction

In Galt's speech Rand argues the problem with following an authority using fallibilism and error correction.

>Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.

Though I don't know the importance that that argument has in the Objectivist epystemology.

guilherme at 7:59 AM on August 20, 2018 | #10707 | reply | quote

I guess that fallibility and error correction are not very strong in the Objectivist epystemology, thats why it's not under it's stregth. But I haven't read any of their books about just that.

I found one of Curi's questions about Objectivists not being very well defined:


guilherme at 8:03 AM on August 20, 2018 | #10708 | reply | quote

#10708 >I found one of Curi's questions about Objectivists not being very well defined:


I found one question from Curi about the position of Objectivists on fallibility not being well defined:

Anonymous at 8:07 AM on August 20, 2018 | #10709 | reply | quote

> value of criticism. criticism is a gift

Does Popper (or Deutsch) actually say criticism is a gift? Do you have a quote? I don't think its necessarily such a great thing to be receiving a gift.

Anonymous at 6:34 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11573 | reply | quote

Criticism is a gift (Was: how do you respond to critical comments?)

[someone] wrote:

> An imperfectly TCS mother is often at a loss about how to respond to various comments and questions about her family. Here are some hypothetical examples that she needs help with:

> -You seem to be making the mistake of wanting your child to be your friend. That isn't what children really want, nor what is best for them.

And similar nasty stuff, at length.

Several people have given excellent suggestions for what to reply and how to deal with this sort of pressure. However, I think one can also distinguish between the context of criticism, and its content. In this case it seems that the critic's intention is to inflict pain and fear, and hence to manipulate the mother into doing the same to her children. The critic seems to have no intention of helping the children in question, or their mother, by their own lights. However, that does not mean that there is nothing to learn from the criticism.

At the very least, even if the criticisms contain no truth at all, they are a source of valuable information. For instance, their confident cruelty can remind you of the astonishing distance between the prevailing standards of behaviour towards children, and common decency. Their sheer illogic can remind you of what state of mind you would have to re-enter if you were, impossibly, to ditch TCS.

But there's likely to be more to it than that. Few criticisms contain *no* truth -- though the truth they contain may not be foremost in the minds of the critics.

-- David Deutsch


David Deutsch, TCS List, 2001 at 7:27 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11574 | reply | quote

Regarding the DD email, note the topic had been titled "how do you respond to critical comments?" and, for his post, DD changed it to "Criticism is a gift" (his words, his new title for his post).

This was not exactly a new idea when DD said it. Here's David's colleague in 1997 (bolds added in all quotes):

> Those who are interested in improving their ideas should surely not wish to evade criticism of the ideas they express. **Criticism is a gift!** That is why we shouldn't just pretend we are all in complete agreement when we are not. That is why I shouldn't want others to brush over differences with *my* ideas.


> Sarah Lawrence

> Editor, *Taking Children Seriously* journal

Here's a TCS poster 8 months later:

> I've since learned to enjoy criticism -- honest **criticism is a gift** that increases my own knowledge and understanding.

And another one 3 months after that:

> Before I go on, I should say it is the belief of TCS'ers that **criticism is a gift**. This was a hard concept for me to grasp when I first joined the conversation. It looked to me like people (not ideas) were getting attacked. But criticism has turned out to be a great gift for me.

And 4 months later:

> I did NOT mean to imply that 'I don't care about what you have to say' (from your quote above). **Criticism is a gift**, after all.

This specific phrase has been used repeatedly because it's a Popperian theme. Popper explains that criticism is part of the learning process – without it, you can't learn. There are many, many quotes where Popper says positive things about criticism and the critical attitude. He even named his philosophy Critical Rationalism. Here's a couple quotes from OK p34:

> Thus we begin with a vague starting-point, and we build on insecure foundations. But we can **make progress**: we sometimes can, **after some criticism**, see that we have been wrong: **we can learn from our mistakes, from realizing that we have made a mistake**.

> My first thesis is thus that our starting-point is common sense, and that **our great instrument for progress is criticism**.

We Popperians think of criticism as *pointing out errors* which is a key part of correcting errors. (An insult, btw, is not a criticism, because it doesn't explain/argue/whatever that some idea is an error. It's not pointing out a mistake or saying why anything is wrong.)

curi at 7:41 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11575 | reply | quote

Lulie Tanett disagrees that criticism is a gift:


> The self-development idea of 'growth mindset' says: learn from criticism, don't ignore it.

> There is an exaggerated version of this idea, namely: "Because criticism is not actually bad and in fact helps you learn, criticism is always good (or at least neutral)."

> The grain of truth in this is: Identifying errors gives you access to the problems in your ideas. Any criticism could help. Finding conflicts between your ideas is the first step to solving them. A criticism on its own, as an idea in the ether, is only information — and this is information that can be used to make progress.

> So why isn't criticism purely a good thing? How could noticing errors be bad?

> Well, it's true that someone might have an irrational aversion to making mistakes (perhaps after having been penalised in school for getting things wrong), which causes them to be averse to even noticing mistakes.

> But if we got over this, and didn't take criticism personally, wouldn't criticism just be a gift?

> No. Criticism, when unwanted, can effectively destroy the means of error correction and the growth of knowledge. Put differently: it can structurally cripple thinking.

Anon at 9:14 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11576 | reply | quote

Besides criticism, LT is also hostile to FI, Paths Forward, Ayn Rand, and more. And she's not open to discussion/debate about these issues. She's also a dishonest social manipulator[1]. There's a reason she's posting that on LW, an anti-Popper site.

Why bring LT up, anyway? Were you quote what you thought was a good argument, regardless of who wrote it, or were you trying to use her as a rival authority, or what?

BTW she's getting the ideas she's writing about from sources which consider criticism a gift – Popper, DD, me. But she doesn't wish to speak to where she thinks her sources went wrong.

What you're reading are rationalizations disguised as impersonal philosophy.

Meanwhile, one of her social media accounts is named "critsplz" today. And she's certainly said a lot of positive things about criticism over the years – but hasn't gone back and corrected/debated her own previous ideas, or clarified what points she did and did not change her mind about and why.

Also is a million dollars a gift if I give it to you for free? Yes, right? Except if it's *unwanted* then it's not a gift. Being *unwanted* ruins anything, whether it's criticism, a million dollars, pizza, beer, sex, whatever. So what? That's not actually a criticism of criticism anymore that it's a criticism of a million dollars. So LT hasn't actually said anything notable, she's being misleading.

[1] See the topic "Exercise: Analyzing Lies" from FI.

curi at 10:01 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11577 | reply | quote

I thought she made some good points. I came across that link cuz David Deutsch tweeted it so I guess he changed his mind too? What I liked was the point that unwanted criticism can sabotage the structure of a person's thinking and error correcting mechanisms - although that may not have been the intention of the criticism. LT says its analogous to spoilers in a movie. You can't just rip away someone's ignorance. So you should withhold your criticism if you know its unwanted. Thanks for the info about her. I didn't sus that what I was reading was rationalizations.

In case it wasn't clear, I'm not the person from #11573.

Anon at 11:19 PM on January 7, 2019 | #11578 | reply | quote

> the point that unwanted criticism can sabotage the structure of a person's thinking and error correcting mechanisms

I think that's too vague and doesn't mean much. E.g. she's not using the term "structure" ("structurally" in the original) in a technical way. That's why the term is only in the article once and doesn't get explained. You could just delete it and have a better statement. And you could stop making it about criticism in particular, too. So, in plain language: "Unwanted ideas can be bad for thinking, like movie spoilers or being given advice you've already heard before five times." This has been believed by Popper, DD and myself. Popper specifically complained about schools giving students unwanted answers to unasked questions. DD wrote this, which is well known in TCS/FI circles, and which LT did not have the decency to link: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/taking-children-seriously/K_HveJMWVhw

*In the general case*, criticism is a highly valuable thing, and a core part of learning, just like conjectures. It's like a scientist saying "hypotheses are good, they are a valuable, useful part of science" and then someone starts arguing "well what if you hypothesize the end of a movie to a person who wants to be surprised? Or what if you hypothesize there is no God to a deeply religious person, who is super isolated and had never heard of atheism, and who would have done better with a more gradual introduction to the concept of atheism?" Yeah, sure, but hypotheses are still good in general. Criticism is good in general too but has a bad reputation for certain cultural reasons, and part of what LT is doing is making the conventional cultural dislike of criticism sound more rational, contrary to Popper's promotion of critical discussion.

The standard cultural reasons people have issues with criticism are not that they are getting told the answers to intellectual puzzles that they wanted to figure out themselves. It's because criticisms are attacks on people's social status according to our culture's social status game rules. Also people don't like mean comments and insults, which are a large portion of what they refer to as "criticism". (I've had multiple conversations where people tell me they don't like "criticism", and I point out I already told them several criticisms earlier in the conversation which they reacted positively to, and they say they didn't think of those as criticisms because they weren't mean or insulting and actually were useful.)

> David Deutsch tweeted it

I don't think DD would want to explain which parts of the article he liked or disliked, and why, and give arguments about the matter.

curi at 12:23 AM on January 8, 2019 | #11579 | reply | quote


The comments illustrate what the essay means to the (anti-Popperian) audience. One quote from each of the six comments:

> I try to avoid criticism

The essay panders to his irrationality, it helps excuse his bad attitudes.

> Intelligent communities often wind up with criticism based cultures as a means of showing off cleverness, which is death for generative processes.

The essay panders to his irrationality.

Are there people like he's complaining about? Yes. But he's happy to use it as an excuse to be anti-critical, instead of seeking out a better community or better people so he can get good criticism.

> What about a technologically poor, isolated tribe of people who migrated away from a bigger tribe early on in life - and none of them have died yet so they haven't discovered aging - receiving unsolicited criticism from members of an advanced future country that they are going to die if they don't use specific anti-aging technologies?

Why doesn't the advanced country just figure out how to share the info in a wanted way? Jeez. It doesn't even occur to him that useful info can be wanted, even if it points out an error, and there are solutions to the reasons its unwanted, and the article didn't teach him that. He takes for granted wanting to shoot the messenger as how life often works, and violence as the solution, and the article is not helping introduce him to reason. (Sadly, that particular poster actually believes he's a DD and Popper fan. Apparently their writing wasn't critical enough for him to recognize that they disagree with him. That's actually a common problem, one which LT doesn't want me to solve by communicating more clearly about how my ideas differ from other ideas, she instead prefers that people obscure disagreement so there's no negativity.)

> I have experienced guilt for not taking well to criticism, and I feel this piece helps to explain why

The essay panders to his irrationality. What he heard is "It's OK that you get really defensive and stubborn whenever you're wrong, actually you're rational and the other people are screwing up because they aren't aware of the fancy philosophy knowledge in the article which is also common sense that they should have been acting on already."

> I'm not sure where I heard this first, but I think about ideas like a good bottle of wine: once opened, it needs a little breathing time.

The essay panders to his irrationality. It didn't inform him that early criticism can save him from a lot of wasted time pursuing dead ends. Nor did it teach him about how/when/why to stand up to criticism (in a rational way instead of getting emotional and defensive, then sabotaging the discussion, then blaming the bad results on criticism being a bad thing).

> [...] I disagree [...] so strongly. [...]


> [...] I hadn't been able to put it nearly so cleanly in my own thoughts. [...]

This guy likes reading things that sound smart/clever, regardless of whether they're true. LT panders to that. She doesn't write as clearly and plainly as she could in order to maximize the communication of ideas, as e.g. Popper and Rand advocated.

curi at 12:48 AM on January 8, 2019 | #11580 | reply | quote

Thank you for responding to my question and providing quotes.

You said in the other comments above that criticism is a highly valuable thing - in the general case. So saying "criticism is a gift" is shorthand to say something like "criticism is a highly valuable gift that you should treasure". Is that correct?

I didn't read it that way at first [1] because I didn't think of gifts as being valuable in general. But maybe I'm just confusing the idea of gifts with the bad social stuff around gift giving?

[1] when I first read "criticism is a gift" it also confused me for a moment because I took it in the sense of meaning criticism is a special talent.)

Anonymous at #11573 at 3:43 PM on January 8, 2019 | #11593 | reply | quote

> You said in the other comments above that criticism is a highly valuable thing - in the general case. So saying "criticism is a gift" is shorthand to say something like "criticism is a highly valuable gift that you should treasure". Is that correct?


> I didn't read it that way at first [1] because I didn't think of gifts as being valuable in general. But maybe I'm just confusing the idea of gifts with the bad social stuff around gift giving?


> [1] when I first read "criticism is a gift" it also confused me for a moment because I took it in the sense of meaning criticism is a special talent.)

Oh. Yes by "gift" we mean like "good thing to receive" (similar to a "present") not a "talent". You're right that the word has 2 separate meanings. And yes we mean it in a positive way, contrary to various cultural errors surrounding gift giving. And also, like everything including water, the value is contextual. Exceptions exist in some circumstances, and it being *unwanted* is a major, common type of exception, e.g. there was the time someone intentionally splashed water on me while I was in bed.

curi at 3:56 PM on January 8, 2019 | #11594 | reply | quote

One of the major shared themes of Oism and CR is they're both really anti intellectual authority.

curi at 10:47 AM on November 2, 2019 | #14103 | reply | quote

Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

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