The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Misquoting Popper

Case for GodIn my last post (and also here) I pointed out the true context of several of Armstrong’s sources, demonstrating that she is actually just misrepresenting them. Armstrong fares no better when it comes to science and, in particular, Popper.

While Kuhn does seem share her views that science does not find an objective reality, this is the very point of Kuhn where Kuhn has been shown to have gotten it wrong. Though I am a big fan of Kuhn, his theory explains far less than Popper’s, and so known to be the inferior theory.  (For discussion, see here, here, and particularly here.) Armstrong supports Kuhn on precisely his wrong conclusions. 

Science makes progress precisely because it moves from one paradigm to the next, each one having greater verisimilitude then the last. Science is homing in on objective reality, even if perhaps it will never find it precisely.

And, contrary to Armstrong’s uses of Popper, this was Popper’s whole point!

Consider, for example, this quote from Armstrong supposedly paraphrasing Popper:

[Popper believed that science] moved forward when scientists came up with bold, imaginative guesses that could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other “belief,” because testing could show only that a hypothesis was not false. (p. 267)

This quote made me cringe. It leaves one with the false impression that Popper believed scientific knowledge was no better than any other type of ‘belief.’ It is difficult for me to believe Armstrong could so totally misunderstand Popper.

In this quote above Armstrong’s intermixes two concepts that do come from Popper. But she mixes them in an inappropriate way. The two concepts are:

  1. Popper showed that science (and all explanations) start with ‘conjectures’ that are — prior to being tested — no better than any other belief.
  2. Popper showed that our testing of our explanations could never verify that it was correct, it could only falsify it.

But these two points actually represent different ends of Popper’s epistemology, so they can’t be meshed together like Armstrong tries to do. To do so leaves one with the false impression that Popper thought our scientific knowledge was no better than any other belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Even Kuhn would disagree with Armstrong on this, by the way.)

Popper’s Epistemology

Popper’s actual epistemology is that we creatively come up with conjectures to solve known problems and then we test out those conjectures via criticism and experiment. If they pass all tests plus fit the data better than the last best theory, than that conjecture will become the new prevailing theory. The process will then repeat. By doing this, we will never know the full truth because there is always the possibility that we’ll find a better theory. Our theories can, in that limited sense, never be‘verified’ only ‘falsified.’ But — and Popper is very insistent on this – we can also have confidence that we are getting increasingly closer to reality and that thus we are homing in on objective reality. Therefore not all explanations are equal.

So Armstrong’s paraphrased ‘quote’ of Popper is not correct. Popper would agree with her that ‘conjectures’ – the first step of a grand process — are no better than any other belief prior to testing. And he would also agree that we can’t verify a theory as correct via testing. But after you make a conjecture you are supposed to go on to test it. If it passes all tests via failure to be falsified, then by natural selection this conjecture will become the best prevailing explanation/theory. We can know that it’s superior to all the alternatives because this is the only surviving one that still fits all the data and failed to be falsified.

And while it’s true that Popper did say that we cannot ‘know’ anything, even this is an out of context quote. When Popper says we can’t ‘know’ anything, he is talking only about being certain about out theories. Since our theories can only be falsified, in this limited sense we can’t ‘know’ anything.

But Popper did believe we can know that we are getting closer to objective reality by continually improving on our explanations and theories through falsification. So in this sense we can know quite a bit.

Without all this context – and Armstrong gives you none of it – her quotes of Popper as so misleading as to very nearly mean the opposite of what he actually believed. How did Armstrong misunderstand Popper this severely?

11 thoughts on “The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Misquoting Popper

  1. Science makes progress precisely because it moves from one paradigm to the next, each one having greater verisimilitude then the last. Science is homing in on objective reality, even if perhaps it will never find it precisely.

    Well said. Compare the following, by American polymath Charles S. Peirce:

    “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real”

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading your summary of Karen’s book. I think you are correct about the fallacies Karen embarks upon in trying to mystify both science and religion.

    But there are two points I’d like to make, which effect how we as Mormons might interpret Karen’s arguments.

    1. I think it’s important to consider the theological ramifications of Joseph Smith’s statement that “all spirit is matter.” In a way, Joseph Smith was like an atheist, because he didn’t believe in the spiritual or mystical realm in the same way other people of faith did. I believed that ultimately everything was tangible, measurable, and quantifiable. Joseph Smith believed in Einstein’s god: where all truth could be drawn into one great, comprehensible whole. The only mysteries are the ones that science or empirical revelatory experience had not yet uncovered.

    I think this explains our LDS reticence to embrace Karen’s idealization of mystery and “unknowning,” as well as her mystification of science.

    2. Although Joseph said all spirit is matter, he still approached his own spiritual life in a very unscientific way. Joseph also came from a premodern world of dousing and folk magic, which I think cannot be described as empirical or objective either, but rather intuitive and or sometimes superstitious.

    Karen talks about the pre-scientific world as being non-literalist, and uses philosophers and theologians like Aquinas to support her claims. I think she has a point, but would have been better off citing evidence of some of the more common people of the dark ages, or even some of today’s indigenous societies.

    To a medieval, everything was believable.  They believed there were parallel universes of fairies, unicorns, dragons, and fantastic dimensions that were libel to snatch you up into an Alice and Wonderland-like rabbit hole at any moment.  It is almost impossible for a modern mind to fathom the complete lack of reason and rational thought that existed in the Middle Ages.  The emphasis was on total belief.  The Platonic idea of ideal worlds that existed beyond our own ruled the day.  Supernatural or Divine experience was the only real truth that one could count on.


    This kind of credulousness could not be described as either literal, or non-literal. Both today’s fundamentalists as well as today’s mystics have little in common with these ancient people. We live in a culture that has been saturated by empiricism for centuries, and I think it is almost impossible to reenter that mindset, either religiously or scientifically. Aquinas had much more in common with the rationalists of our day than with the common folk of that day.

    But I think Karen does have a point about not being able to describe these ancient people as holding literal beliefs. I wouldn’t call credulousness and superstition a confident appeal to the rational order of the universe. It’s a childlike wonderment and humility in the face of a world that could not be quantified or understood. An appeal to sages, prophets and poets, anyone that could provide an explanation that somehow resonated, whether rationally, or emotionally.

  3. I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe in the morning after my pepsi and oatmeal.

  4. “To a medieval, everything was believable. They believed there were parallel universes of fairies, unicorns, dragons, and fantastic dimensions that were libel to snatch you up into an Alice and Wonderland-like rabbit hole at any moment.”

    I had an up coming post on this.

    “But I think Karen does have a point about not being able to describe these ancient people as holding literal beliefs.”

    I had an up coming post on this too.

    You are right, of course, that there is a vocabulary issue here.

    The real difference bewteen the ancients (using medievals as an example) and fundamentalists is that fundamentalists try to use ‘scientific reasoning’ to prove their unscientific views. Medievals hadn’t yet even discovered science (as we now think of it.)

    But then I don’t really agree that this is as significantly different as you are claiming. The Medievals did try to use the best science of their day to explain how they meshed fairies and angels together too.

    And they had quite a number of ‘explanations’ surrounding all this. For example, they thought all space must be occupied with life, or why else was it there? So imagining a giant hierarchy starting with humans, moving to fairies, and ultimately ending with angels then God really did make rational sense — given their assumptions.

    So while I see yours (and Armstrong’s) point that maybe it’s not ‘literal’ in quite the way a fundamnentalist thinks of it — it sure seems to me that its much closer to literal than, say, figurative. Much much much closer.

    For better or worse, Armstrong does leave one with a false impression in this regard.

    You know, I am planning to end my series on Armstrong on a positive note. I did not like her book much, as is obvious. I am very sensitive to the sort of cherry picking and resulting misrepresentation she engages in and it offends me more than it does most.

    But there is still much about the book that I liked. For example, she covers the emergence of fundamentalism in a way that, to me, seemed very fair. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it is or not, but let’s just say that she is appropriately harsh on fundamentalist while not really blaming them either. In fact, she essentially blames the theological liberals for having created them through fairly extreme acts of intolerance. For better or worse, I found much in those sections enlightening because it came across far more open and ‘unknowing’ then, say, her views on Jesus Christ.

  5. “a confident appeal to the rational order of the universe”

    Hmmm… you do have a point here, I confess. I’m thinking of Armstrong’s examples of Newton here, who believed you could prove God by studying physics.

    But then again, I don’t think Newton and fundamentalists have that much in common either. The fundamentalists are closer to the Medivels than to Newton in my opinion. There is a great deal of “credulousness and superstition” in most of the pentacostals and baptists that I met on my mission. They sort of accepted everything as true and had little or not understanding of how to fit it (or not fit it) with scientific reasoning.

  6. annegb,

    This is sort of a specialized discussion about Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. You’d have to go back and read the original summary of her book to understand the discussion.

    My posts are often only for the narrow audience that likes this sort of thing. Someone has to write it. :)

  7. “To a medieval, everything was believable. They believed there were parallel universes of fairies, unicorns, dragons, and fantastic dimensions that were libel to snatch you up into an Alice and Wonderland-like rabbit hole at any moment.”

    I’m skeptical of this outlandish claim and don’t find it believable. ; ) Can you provide any evidence for it?

  8. “For example, they thought all space must be occupied with life, or why else was it there? So imagining a giant hierarchy starting with humans, moving to fairies, and ultimately ending with angels then God really did make rational sense — given their assumptions.”

    I have not heard of this. Can you tell me your source?

    I’ve heard something about the hierarchy of living things from Aquinas, but it had nothing to do with “filling space” with life.

  9. Agellius,

    I confess, I’m only as good as my sources on this and, frankly, could be easily unpersuaded.

    Nevertheless, my source is C.S. Lewis in the Discarded Image. (It’s one of his scholarly works, not a Christian work.) One of his main points was that the Medivels basically believed everything they read and felt a need to force it all together into a single model of reality. So they came up with very creative ways to explain it all.

    This is why I feel that the idea that it’s ‘not literal belief’ is misleading. I see the point that open “credulousness” is not the same as rational appeal of fundamentalists. But really, it’s not that different either. The fact is, they believed in these things. They were not just figurative and symbols to them. (Or rather, that is waht Lewis claims.)

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