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Karl Popper and the Mullahs
by Jeff Racho
16 January 2003
The Poverty of Islam.
Raphael¹s ³School of Athens² is a wonderful anachronism, depicting pre- and post-Socratic philosophers of Classical Greece attempting to discern the Meaning of It All. Plato and Aristotle dominate the painting: Plato points to the heavens, confidently positing his axiom that the true nature of the world is discerned through rational deduction, while Aristotle calmly stretches his palm over the earth, rebuking his teacher that our knowledge of the world must be firmly rooted in experience. In this fresco Raphael has summed up the basic epistemological tension dominating Western thought over the past 2,500 years and which has expressed itself as deduction versus induction, rationalism versus empiricism, a priori versus a posteriori, and top-down control methods versus a bottom-up, self-organizational approach.
The Hellenistic legacy was introduced to the classical Muslim world and passed to the Mulsim philosophers al Farabi, Ibn Sinna, and the twelfth century philosopher Ibn Rushd, whose commentaries on Aristotle explored the relation between the truth of religious revelation and the pursuit of truth through philosophical discourse. Ibn Rushd¹s writings reached Catholic Europe, where the friar Tomasso de Aquino further developed his theses and concluded that there was no schism between religion and philosophy. The friar¹s efforts earned him canonization as St. Thomas Aquinas and ensured that Aristotle¹s philosophy would not be banned as heretical. The works of Ibn Rushd (whose name would be Latinized to Averroes) were likewise saved, guaranteeing that future scholars of the House of War would have access to his writings. Future scholars of the House of Islam, however, never felt the impact of Ibn Rushd as the teachings of the philosophers Al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya marginalized him and Aristotle with the assertion that philosophical truth could never equal the truth of revelation. Ibn Rushd would become a small figure on the periphery of Islamic thought; Averroes would influence the Saint ridiculed as the dumb ox who nonetheless bellowed so loud as to change the world of Europe.
Although Plato¹s Republic was accessible to Ibn Rushd and his predecessors, Aristotle¹s Politics was available only in a fragmentary form to the Muslims. Ibn Rushd produced a comprehensive study of the Republic, finding in its philosopher-king the Caliph of the Muslim world. Just as Plato¹s wise and just philosopher king would rule according to the law as revealed through deductive reasoning, so too would a wise and just Caliph rule the House of Islam according to the law as divinely revealed in the Quran.
One wonders what Ibn Rushd would have thought of Aristotle¹s Politics and its conclusion that a polity, or a hybrid of oligarchy and democracy, was the best attainable method of organizing society. Ibn Rushd¹s first reaction may have been akin to that of Mirza Abu Talib, an eighteenth century Muslim who, upon visiting the British Parliament, observed that the argumentative British did not have the divinely revealed law of the Quran and instead had to attempt to figure out the law for themselves. But this view underestimates the intellect of Ibn Rushd, who was physically attacked in Islamic Spain for his unorthodox views, including his critique of the status accorded to women in his society.
Aristotle¹s legacy of an epistemology based upon empiricism and induction, saved by the efforts of Aquinas, were passed down through the centuries and influenced thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Alchemy gave way to science as induction and empiricism led to the formation of experimental methods; feudalism gave way to representative government, influenced by Aristotle¹s Politics and its tempered democracy. In the 18th century, however, David Hume showed that induction is not logically sound because we have no rational basis for inferring universal statements from singular instances because there can be a single, future instance to refute such universal statements. Nevertheless, Western science achieved great success in developing theories describing physical reality, leading to the industrial revolution and great advances in chemistry and biology throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Philosophers, however, continued to be uncomfortable with the Humean critique of induction, until a young man in twentieth century Vienna became interested in the nascent field of quantum mechanics.
Karl Popper, who was never a scientist but was fascinated by the new quantum theory, overcame the Humean critique by altering what empiricism and induction meant in the scientific method. Popper posited that the essential characteristic of empiricist methods was falsifiabilty, or framing empiricist statements in a manner where they could be tested and refuted as false. For Popper, empiricism rested upon proving what wasn¹t so, thereby growing human knowledge by removing those theories shown to be incorrect and leaving those more likely to be true. Popper acknowledged Hume¹s critique: a single instance could indeed refute an inductive statement, but what mattered was finding these instances and using them to reduce the number of available theories, leaving the remainder to be further developed and tested. This ³trial and error² self-critical approach would fine-tune theories and was essential for the growth of human knowledge.
Popper applied his epistemology to the social sciences, which he believed failed to formulate their theories in a manner whereby they could be tested, and possibly refuted. This conclusion led to his book The Poverty of Historicism, in which he showed that historicism the thesis that society was inexorably moving to a future state which could be deduced through rational or other means could not possibly be correct. The progress of society strongly depends on the growth of human knowledge, including the growth of scientific knowledge. Since it is impossible to predict the future state of scientific knowledge, it is likewise impossible to predict the future course of human history, and attempts to predict the course of human history can be nothing but idle conjecture. As Popper noted, if there is a growing body of human knowledge, we cannot anticipate today what we could only know tomorrow.
With this simple argument Popper demolished the Marxist assertion that a communist state was ³historically inevitable.² Although aimed primarily at Marxist historicism, Popper¹s conclusion was applicable to all Utopian movements that relied upon social engineering. A Utopian planner cannot possibly foresee the future state of society, and could never plan for such a future state in a present bureaucracy. Utopian, centrally planned societies, whether seeking a Thousand-Year Reich or a classless society, were doomed to fail for this simple reason.
Popper further developed his critique of Utopian or totalitarian movements in The Open Society and Its Enemies, which found the origin of totalitarian systems in Plato¹s Republic and its intention to remodel the whole of society along the lines of a definite plan. Plato believed all change was decay; this belief is reflected in the Republic¹s static kingdom that controlled every aspect of its society under the law as deduced by its philosopher-king. In an ironic twist, Plato¹s philosopher-king was to be a near-omniscient ruler, the antithesis of Plato¹s teacher Socrates, who found wisdom in the realization of how little he truly knew.
Popper contrasted these totalitarian systems, based upon a deductive model of how best to organize society, with his notion of an ³open society.² Somewhat like Aristotle¹s Polity, the open society was a self-critical democratic institution whereby the members of society would debate and examine the evidence of their government¹s actions in order to determine what worked best. The open society could formulate a proposed system, enact it, observe its effects, and, if ineffective, reform it. In this regard, the open society was firmly rooted in Popper¹s self-critical empiricism: observe how something operated, and if shown to be ineffective or false, discard or alter it. Hume was correct in criticizing induction, but deduction from a priori principles has a problem in that its conclusions have no basis in real-world experience. Whereas a totalitarian regime was based upon deductive ³truths² that could lead to disastrous results when applied to the real world, the open society would be built upon truths learned from experience. Popper would have been very pleased watching those 18th century Englishmen debate in their Parliament if he had accompanied Mirza Abu Talib.
Popper¹s epistemological insights are evident in his open society concept, which he deemed necessary for the advance of human knowledge since totalitarian systems would naturally attempt to restrict the growth of human knowledge because any advance could be used to refute or falsify their governing doctrines. Popper developed these insights as a response to fascism and communism, the geopolitical threats of his day. Had he lived a few more years, he would have been exposed to today¹s threat of Islamism and he might have noticed more than a few similarities.
Islamism, the ideology of radical Islam, includes a worldview of a House of Islam at odds with the land of the infidel as a dialectic that can end only when the House of Islam incorporates the entire world, resulting in a utopian House of Peace. Though derived from a non-rational approach, this approach to history has a strong element of historicist inevitability. Islamism, like all totalitarian systems, seeks to exercise its dominion on all aspects of human behavior by imposing its interpretation of the law of the Quran on every facet of society. The Islamist writer Samih atef El-Zein, in Islam and Human Ideology, proposes a system of Islamic economics, including controls over capital formation and mandatory wealth redistribution based on an interpretation of the Islamic zakat, or charity for the poor. Like other totalitarian movements, Islamism is a world historical movement, seeking to eradicate cultural pluralism and replace it with a worldwide monolithic Islamist culture with Arabic in lieu of Esperanto. Like other totalitarian regimes, Islamism attempts to remove itself from any form of criticism, finding its hegemony in revelation (instead of historical inevitability or ³Aryan supremacy²) and dismissing any who would critique it as infidels and blasphemers (instead of as bourgeoisie reactionaries or genetic inferiors). Like communism and fascism, ³top down² systems that attempted to impose a thought system on the whole of society, Islamism has been a failure everywhere it has been tried.
Popper might also conclude that the failure of Islamic thinkers to incorporate a self-critiquing empiricist tradition into their philosophy contributed to the development of Islamism. The classical Islamic world produced its share of scientists such as Omar Khayyam; it did not, however, produce the epistemological system of experimentation and testability found in western science. The scientists of classical Islamic society excelled at disciplines based upon deductive models of thought, such as mathematics and astronomy, but lagged in those which required an experimental approach, such as chemistry and metallurgy. The lack of a self-criticism leads one to presume that its society is ideal and needs no further development, leading to either stasis or decay. If Popper had perused the study What Went Wrong by the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis he would have read that the Ottoman caliphate saw itself as the zenith of human development and never bothered to incorporate knowledge from the House of War. By dismissing the infidel¹s knowledge as unnecessary, the Ottoman Empire sealed its fate. Popper would also have agreed with historian Victor Davis Hanson¹s observation that the Ottomans failed to study their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in self-critical terms, instead opting to attribute their defeat to a failure of religious faith. In these and other instances, history has shown that it was the failure of Islamic societies to adopt a self-critical approach that led to their downfall, not lapses in religious piety.
In his writings, Popper concluded that the poverty of historicism was a poverty of imagination. And so too is the poverty of Islamism. The Islamists, who arrogantly believe that they alone have the sole interpretation of their cultural legacy, cannot fathom a change in their worldview. They could never allow a future Ataturk to attempt to establish a self-critical state in the House of Islam. Like the close-minded fools who attacked Ibn Rushd centuries ago, they find find common cause with the Iranian mullahs who sentenced the professor Hashem Aghajari to death for challenging their infallibility. The Islamists find common ground with the monsters who rejected genetics as a bourgeoisie construct in favor of Lysenko¹s proletarian crop planning and those who rejected relativity as ³Jewish science² when they decry human advances as blasphemy. The Islamists would have the world revert to a static society built along the lines of a seventh century totalitarian state, controlling and preventing the advance of human knowledge lest any new insight or theory show their ideology to be false. And for that, they are not only a threat to the West, but to their own culture and the whole of human civilization as well.
Perhaps, someday in the not too distant future, when the bones of the Islamists have been ground to dust and dumped onto the ash-heap of history, a Muslim artist will depict an anachronistic School of an Open Baghdad, portraying al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and their successors debating in a climate amenable to free discussion. Karl Popper may not be depicted among them, but an inchoate Middle Eastern society that could produce such a future work of art would owe him a debt of gratitude a debt that Ibn Rushd has already paid on their behalf by helping bequeath the legacy of Aristotle to the West.
Note: The author is aware of Popper¹s critique of Aristotelian essentialism. The purpose of this essay is not to explore Popper¹s views on all Aristotelian thought, but rather to illustrate the progress of inductive-based epistemology as initiated by Aristotle and developed by Popper.