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May 17th, 2006

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09:22 am - Kuhn v. Popper
Last night, I finished reading Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller. It's a very interesting book, but I feel somewhat unsatisfied after having finished it. As I mentioned earlier, I've been interested in the figure of Karl Popper ever since I read the book, Wittgenstein's Poker. Popper as a philosopher was very engaged in the world and in politics during the Cold War and seemed to covet a public intellectual role for himself. His name seems to come up a lot both in Left and Right-wing camps.

I was quite fascinated by Fuller's testimony in the Kitzmiller trial. As a witness for the defense, Fuller testified that the neo-Darwinian consensus was a self-perpetuating clique in science that was unfairly keeping out a competing idea, Intelligent Design. As a philosopher of science, Fuller disputed the idea of fellow philosopher Thomas Kuhn that ideas outside of given scientific "paradigms" should be marginalized, unless a paradigm is in crisis and needs to be replaced. Like Popper, Fuller believes science should be a constant roiling battlefield, with new scientific ideas battling for dominence with existing ideas.

The book is divided into chapters that are almost like public lectures. In them Fuller roams around, exploring the encounter between Kuhn and Popper and the landscape of the philosophy of science. He kind of gets your feet wet in a lot of areas, but I'm still left with questions about Popper and his views. While Fuller begins the book introducing the two figures, it becomes clear throughout the book that Fuller is writing, by his own admission, a "Tory history" of science, as opposed to a "Whig history." What he means is that he is writing a history from the perspective of the losers, because Kuhn's ideas now constitute the dominant ideology of science, while Popper's followers are rebels. And Fuller is a Popperian.

Fuller draws fascinating lines through history to make connections that are interesting to me, but not well enough supported to trust. Kuhn, to Fuller, is a cold warrior and an authoritarian and his ideas came into ascendency in a Cold War where the military-industrial complex was asserting itself on the political stage in the United States and in the west. Fuller posits Popper's ideas about science to be the open, democratic ones, while Kuhn has created a closed, authoritarian structure for science, ensconced in the university system and funded by defense spending.

Fuller doesn't really address Intelligent Design and its proponents in the book, but one gets the sense that he views them as fellow revolutionaries lobbing mortar shots from the forests outside the Kuhnian empire, even if they don't share the same political philosophy. He also takes the opportunity to pile onto Martin Heidegger, likening Kuhn's rise in the American military-scientific establishment to Heidegger's rise in the Nazi establishment, saying both chose not to criticize the political systems that functioned symbiotically with their ideas.

It's clear to me why the Intelligent Design folks like Fuller. He brings to them a master narrative from which to operate. But the only thing that Popper seems to have in common with the backers of Intelligent Design is his anti-communism.

Edit 7/26: Replaced "Kuhn" in the last paragraph with "Fuller" to remedy a dumb mistake.

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Kuhn v. Popper - flash & yearn

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