Thursday, September 21, 2006



The perils of showmanship
The following article about the opinions of the leading Australian philosopher, the late David Stove, may be of interest to those who are following the renewal of discussion about Darwinism. Others who may be interested in debate about whether Karl Popper was a liberal or a social democrat, a relativist or a realist, may also find the article of interest.


There is nothing so absurd or incredible that it has not been asserted by one philosopher or another.

THERE IS ALWAYS something immediately enjoyable about watching, listening to or reading apparently outrageous attacks on received opinion. Reductio ad absurdum is, after all, a time-honoured trick of rhetoric. The attempted dictatorship of 'political correctness' nowadays makes the trick even more liable to work. According to those who listened to the lectures of the Australian philosopher David Stove, he was a virtuoso in the genre. Professor Michael Levin says: 'Reading Stove is like watching Fred Astaire dance. You don't wish you were Fred Astaire, you are just glad to have been around to see him in action'.

There is, however, a problem with ridicule, especially if we ourselves have our own reasons for not liking its victims. It is liable to obscure solid grounds for criticism and play into the camp of the adversary by providing facile, spurious or distorted arguments. This would seem to be the case with some of Stove's writing as exemplified in the two books under review. Not that he isn't worth reading. His provocative style is such as to make many readers stop, think and re-examine their own preconceptions. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the subject matter, especially among the younger generation, are likely to be seriously misled about some of his targets and to mistake rhetoric for serious argument.. Stove, who died in 1994, was a conservative, an anti-communist and desperately at odds with the fashionable Left-wing views prevalent in the academy. He taught Philosophy at the University of Sydney for many years and according to his friend and literary executor, James Franklin:

“The list of what he attacked was a long one, and included, but was certainly not limited to, Arts Faculties, big books, contraception, Darwinism, the Enlightenment, feminism, Freud, the idea of progress, leftish views of all kinds, Marx,....metaphysics, modern architecture and art, philosophical idealism, Popper, religion, semiotics, Stravinsky and Sweden...Also, anything beginning with ‘soc’ (even Socrates got a serve or two).”

Two of these targets, among others, appear in two recently published books by Stove: Popper and Darwin in Against the Idols of the Age (1998) while Anything Goes, Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism (Ed. Roger Kimball, 1999) gives Popper pride of place.

Stove against Darwin
In “Darwinian Fairytales”, the third section of the former book, Stove fails to present the most cogent arguments for his case. Now, Stove is not a creationist and seems to accept Darwinian evolutionary theory up to a point. Where he objects is when it comes to mankind and here he brings big guns to bear on the concept of the “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection”. He takes as his premise that the idea of competition for survival in Darwinian theory was inspired by Malthus and is mainly concerned with the getting of food and that this competition is essentially within each species rather than mainly between species. But Darwinism holds that it is the latter kind of competition which is the motor force of species differentiation while it is sexual selection that is the significant factor within a species. Human beings, Stove believes, are not generally subject to competition for survival (despite all the obvious exceptions) or we would not have hospitals, social security arrangements and other examples of altruism and co-operation.
He overlooks entirely that competition for survival in all species is not simply over the getting of food but, perhaps more important, over the avoidance of becoming someone else's food. After all, it is likely that most organisms will give first, or at least equal, priority to avoiding being eaten by others over having a meal themselves. This priority seems evidenced by the fact that hunting, eating, digesting and excreting follow remarkably similar patterns among all species from insects upwards. However, the really enormous differences between species are the stratagems adopted for protection against predators—from butterflies to zebras, from hedgehogs to tortoises. If we follow this line of reasoning then we have little problem in applying the Darwinian idea about struggle for survival to mankind and presenting altruism, hospitals and social security as part of our protective stratagems. We can argue, if we are Darwinians, that physically fragile humanoids developed co-operation and communication skills as their means of protection against predators and the elements..

Stove in fact leaves Darwinism's most vulnerable aspects untouched. These, persuasively criticized by others, include the mystery of consciousness, especially human self-consciousness, and the apparently insuperable problem of how there can be the gradual selective evolution of organs which have survival value only when they are fully developed, the paradigm case being that of the eye. And this is to leave out the truly formidable challenge to Darwinism, whether of the orthodox or neo variety, of recent advances in molecular biology—but perhaps Stove's rather early death excuses him in this latter respect. If we wish to have a go at the weaknesses of Darwinism it would be more useful to look at some of the extensive recent literature on the subject and an accessible overview of some of the main criticisms to be found in, for instance, the work of Raymond Tallis. When we have looked at these we cannot help reaching the conclusion that Stove simply did not understand Darwin well enough to criticize his thought and that others have done this more successfully.

Where Stove's critique of Darwinism does have leverage, however, is when he sets his sights on the much-hyped 'selfish gene', popularized by Dawkins. Here Stove is at his best, mixing wit with a perceptive critique.


More troubling than the above is the smaller of these two books. Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism. It is troubling because irrationalism and relativism in philosophy of science are widespread, influential and deserve dissection and Stove is quite right in his denunciation of some of those responsible. He is also especially interesting in his analysis of 'how irrationalism about science is made credible' which forms Part One of the book. The titles of its two chapters are elucidative:
'1. Neutralizing success words' and
'2. Sabotaging logical expressions'.
As the epistemologist Susan Haack says, Stove's analysis of certain linguistic devices used in sociology of science is genuinely illuminating. So, too, are his criticisms of Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

Stove against Popper
Unfortunately, however, these three musketeers are extended by Stove to a gang of four. He sees Karl Popper as their forerunner and the prime originator of scientific irrationalism from whom the succeeding three took their inspiration. By means of caricature and highly selective quotations Stove makes Popper out to be the villain of the piece. This endeavour cannot be left uncriticized, especially because each author of the respective prefaces to these books appears to accept Stove's grossly unfair caricature with little demur.
It is not easy here to produce a rebuttal of the required brevity or to embark on a boringly technical argument for and against Popper's epistemology, but justice does require some attempt to be made. It must first be stated quite unequivocally that certain of Popper's epistemological positions, once widely accepted, have in recent years come under forceful criticism from many quarters. Like so many innovators, Popper did to some extent become a prisoner of his own creation, extrapolating too far and clinging so tenaciously to certain views that they reached the point of dogma. Nevertheless it is one thing to criticize and quite another to misrepresent.

Venerated by many distinguished practising scientists and immensely popular for many decades among the educated general public, Popper never encountered the same acceptance among professional philosophers. Nor did he expect to do so because, apart from their lack of interest in his special sphere which was the philosophy of science, he declared virtual war on what was then the prevailing school, namely philosophical analysis. He stated at the outset that he was interested in the discussion neither of definitions nor of meaning. What interested him passionately was the problem of the growth of knowledge and he was convinced that the key to its solution was to study the growth of scientific knowledge. As he said in the preface to Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach, “The phenomenon of human knowledge is no doubt the greatest miracle in our universe.”
This study became his life's work, but he was also passionately interested in political philosophy and conclusions he reached in the philosophy of science led him to believe that his ideas in this area were relevant to politics. His best-known work was indeed political and The Open Society and Its Enemies as well as The Poverty of Historicism vaccinated generations of students and intellectuals against the virus of Marxism and totalitarianism. It is indeed ironic that the anti-communist Stove should find Popper so objectionable when there is probably no academic figure in the last half century who has done as much to combat their common enemy. In fact on many matters Stove and Popper were on the same side. Against irrationalism and relativism, against Freud, against philosophical idealism, against scepticism, critical of some aspects of Darwinism, and, much else.

What Stove really loathed and derided in Popper was his stance against inductivism and his denial that it played any part in science. It is this position of Popper's, and what he believed followed from it, that Stove saw as leading to a whole host of other consequences and eventually to the irrationalism in Science studies protagonized by Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

Induction (or the procedure of inferring a general law from its instances, acting on our belief that the future will be like the past) received its first great critique from David Hume, and Popper freely acknowledged his debt to the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher. Stove was the author of a book on Hume and therefore familiar with Hume's argument, with which he disagreed.

But Popper made the rejection of inductivism the cornerstone of his entire philosophy, holding that there can be no logical justification for it. Logic, for Popper, is deductive or it is not logic. (At least until late in his career, when he turned towards greater stress on probabilism). From what the unphilosophically-minded might regard as nit-picking, Popper drew immense conclusions. They were shattering, because hitherto, at least from the time of Bacon, induction had been regarded as the hallmark of the scientific method. Scientists, it was thought, corroborate their theories by observation and experiment and having done so expect these to be replicated. This expectation, or generalizing from the known to the unknown, Popper thought was in fact not the method of science. We cannot know the future and in science it is always likely that something will turn up to alter what was previously thought of as an immutable law as happened with the overthrow of Newtonian physics by Einstein's relativity hypothesis.

So, Popper concluded, scientific laws are not immutable but are always hypotheses. All you can have are better or worse theories and the scientist's work is to produce ever-better theories. The only logically and practically acceptable way to do this is to try to falsify your theory by appropriate testing: the method of trial and error. This, Popper says, is what scientists actually do in real life. Scientific method is basically one of testing, making public and criticizing. Failed theories are abandoned and the search begins again, either by trimming or adapting the old theory or formulating a new one. So a good scientific theory should be framed in such a way that it is testable, in other words falsifiable. If this is not the case then the theory is neither a good theory nor even a scientific theory.

Demarcating science
Popper was interested in finding a criterion for demarcating science from non-science and he concluded that such theories as Marxism, Freudianism or astrology do not meet the criteria required of a genuinely scientific theory. They are couched in such broad terms that they are invulnerable to falsification. Whatever happens their proponents regard them as either corroborated or unfalsified. They are theories against which no arguments or criticisms can count.
Whatever the justice of his views on induction, Popper's conception of falsifiability proved a rich field and he mined it for theories in the realm of his other passion: politics and social questions.. Having thrown out positive corroboration as crucial in favour of its negative, namely falsifiability, and having made criticism the essential method for this, he proposed a similar approach in the political and social spheres. The aim of government, of the State, should never be the positive one of trying to make people happy, a quite impossible aim. Happiness is a private matter and conceived of differently by every individual. On the contrary the only feasible objective of government is the negative one of reducing misery. Suffering, starvation, disease and the rest are objective, public and measurable and it is the State's job to try to minimize them because the only justification for the existence of government is the protection of the citizen. To this end freedom to criticize, to discuss and debate solutions are essential. So for Popper democracy means freedom of criticism and institutional arrangements that provide for the removal of unsatisfactory rulers without bloodshed. He deduced from this position the enormous importance of institutions and an institutional tradition, of gradual reform as against revolution, and wrote and lectured widely on these subjects, declaring untiringly that the political systems of Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were the best models so far known.

Popper’s philosophy of science
Now none of this can be unacceptable to a reasonable person, least of all to a conservative. What has stuck in the throat of many people is that Popper makes his anti-inductivism bear too much weight. To deny the possibility of inductive knowledge is to fly in the face of everybody's everyday experience, including that of our dogs, cats and most other sentient beings. If we did not start by assuming regularities and their more or less indefinite replication none of us would survive for a moment. Indeed, we would be unable to learn anything at all. It would seem, in fact, that all of us, including animals, have an innate predisposition to use induction. Popper did not accept this: he thought that what is innate is the predisposition towards using methods of trial and error. However, to object to induction on the grounds that it does not use the rules of entailment of deductive logic, is to extend the criteria of formal systems and mathematics beyond what is appropriate. Deductive logic is one thing, inductive logic is another and their modes of justification are distinct. In science both logics would appear to have their place. Indeed in the areas of logic and epistemology we can find an ever-growing literature in which even deductive logic is questioned and alternative logics proposed.

Popper's great contribution to the philosophy of science was to highlight the importance for good theorizing of the need for clear articulation so that it is immediately, or as immediately as possible, apparent what would be the conditions for falsification. Such procedure is both practically and intellectually economical and nurtures the critical approach and in no way encourages relativism.

Stove will have none of this. In a dizzying dithyramb he inveighs against Popper, not only ignoring his closely woven arguments, but accusing him of such crimes as denying the accumulation of scientific knowledge, of irrationalism and of self-contradiction. The aim of science in Popper's view, Stove alleges, is not to seek truth but to find untruth. Popper's insistence on the provisional nature of scientific theories, on what he calls 'conjectural knowledge' is regarded by Stove as irrational in the extreme. Popper, in effect, denies the accumulation of scientific knowledge because, if it is all provisional, then it cannot be knowledge. Knowledge, for Stove, always means knowledge of the truth, and truth cannot bear the adjective 'conjectural' (as though truth were absolute). He implies that to talk about 'conjectural truth' is rather like talking about somebody being 'a little bit pregnant'. So the concept of 'conjectural knowledge' is a nonsense, a contradiction in terms and meaningless, and leads to the denial of objective truth found in the relativists. Stove makes much of this with his usual darting wit. But his objections are unconvincing. Without entering into the sorely disputed question (among philosophers) of what constitutes truth it seems no more unreasonable to talk of 'conjectural knowledge' than to talk of 'partial knowledge', which everybody does without batting an eyelid. All Popper means by 'conjectural knowledge', is 'the knowledge we have so far on the basis of our unfalsified theories', that is, those theories which when tested are found to have verisimilitude with empirical facts. This is something we hear every day when we are told about 'the present state of knowledge'. So the proposition that absolute truth is unattainable does not entail relativism and, indeed, seems undeniable to most people.

That Popper believed fiercely in objective truth (in its non-absolute sense) is evidenced from his constant stress that the job of the scientist is the quest for truth. He also thought that this was an unending quest, for our ignorance is infinite before the infinity of what is to be known and the finite nature of our knowledge. This is not the place to examine Popper's somewhat bizarre theory of 'epistemology without a knowing subject', what he called World Three, that mysterious sphere in which are stored books and all man's artefacts, but any serious study of this shows just how much Popper believed in the objectivity of knowledge.

So, because of his misreading, Stove sees Popper as the ultimate progenitor of the real irrationalists including the unspeakable Feyerabend whose relativism led him quite openly to declare that schoolchildren should be taught astrology and myth as equally valid explanations of the world along with science. Popper's frequent and extended criticism of these attitudes is regarded by Stove as mere quarrelling between inmates of the same stable. He totally ignores the historical fact that the actual forerunners of relativism in philosophy of science were the sociologists of knowledge going back to Mannheim, examined and combatted by Popper himself in many writings. Today, of course, relativism in science studies, rather than coming mainly from Stove's three musketeers has sadly been given a new boost by philosophers of cognitive science in conjunction with artificial intelligence theory such as Stitch, the Churchlands and their disciples.

Those who wish to have a more informed and balanced view of Popper's ideas would do well to read Anthony O'Hear or Susan Haack. The latter should be of especial interest also to adversaries of all forms of relativism, gender feminism and the corruption of the academy.

For anyone acquainted with what Popper actually wrote, Stove's wholesale condemnation, can only be regarded as dogmatic and unjust. This is serious because in the present academic atmosphere of relativism, irrationalism and sub-marxism, there could be no better antidote for today's students than to read what Popper has to say about these matters.

Reading Stove's opinions about him will do little to encourage them in this direction. The trouble is, as indicated at the beginning of these comments, that Stove's style is frequently so engaging and humorous that many readers will be taken in.
Patricia Lanca

(First published in The Salisbury Review, Summer 2001 under the title: “The Perils of Showmanship”.)