The Myth of the Framework Introduction: What Your Philosophy?

Agellius once asked me what school of philosophy I most believed in. He wanted to try to understand where I was coming from better. (This is typical of Agellius. He is a very sincere guy.) It is well known that Agellius is a Thomist because he’s Catholic.

I wasn’t quite sure what to answer him. I am actually generally hostile to modern variants of ancient philosophies. My feeling is that just as scientific theories give way to better theories, we should let the ancient philosophies die out and only go with the newer ones that fit what we now know about the world.

This isn’t a slam on ancient philosophy at all. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the ancient philosophers for having created our modern world. But I would have as many concerns over a modern “Aristotlian” as I would over a modern “Newtonian.” [1] In light of our current knowledge about General Relativity, what the heck would a modern “Newtonian” even look like? And should we take him/her serious?

But, of course, I feel very differently about many modern philosophers. In particular, Agellius happened to ask me this question not long after I had discovered Karl Popper and had found that my worldview strongly matched with his philosophies of epistemology (i.e. theory of how we gain knowledge.)

So I told Agellius that I was a Popperian. I think this is actually the first time I had ever called myself a Popperian like that.

I’m still not sure if I regret it or not.

First of all, I probably should have answered “I’m a Mormon.” But this seemed wrong to me somehow because Agellius already knew what my theology was. But now that I think of it, if that is the case, then why does Agellius get to answer that he’s a “Thomist”? Isn’t that just the same as saying “I’m a Catholic?” I doubt Agellius would say he’s an Aristotlian, despite the deep ties between Thomism and Aristotlianism.

Further, it’s not clear to me that Popper’s epistemology (the part of Popper I agree with) is really ‘philosophy’ at all. He certainly considered himself to be a philosopher, and most people do. But personally I think Popper’s epistemology is really a science – a full blown scientific theory on how we gain knowledge. [2]

More over, if you really wanted to know who ‘my favorite’ philosopher is (one that does not seem like science to me — yet) I’d probably have to pick Catholic Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. But I couldn’t really tell Agellius that he’s my favorite philosopher because, first of all, he wasn’t a philosopher, he was a famous scientist. Worse yet, his ‘philosophy’ that I find intriguing was supposed to be a scientific work, not a philosophical work. (I am referring to his masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man.) And, of course, I wasn’t quite sure how Agellius would feel about Chardin since he’s both a devoted Catholic and also still on the Catholic’s we’re-just-not-quite-sure-about-this-guy list. Though bad feelings towards Chardin have largely dissipated in recent years (due in large part to Chardin turning out to be right and the Catholic Church wrong), I’m still not sure Catholics are raving fans of his. Would telling Agellius I like Chardin be like him telling me he likes David Whitmer’s philosophies?

Besides, I would hardly call Chardinism (I made that up) my personal philosophy. I just find him fun to read and I love a lot of his ideas.  

Another reason I regret saying I was a Popperian is because Karl Popper is actually more famous for his writings on “open society.” Now as it turns out, I have not read and know nothing about his views on “open society.” (I’m getting to it.) So I felt like I had accidently told Agellius I was in favor of Popper’s “open society.” And maybe I am. It’s just that I don’t know that yet.

Why I Love Popper

I really only consider myself a “Popperian” in two regards — so far. The first, and most important of which, is Popper’s theory of Conjecture and Refutation as the basis for how we gain knowledge. I am doing a series of posts over at Wheat and Tares where I build up my slight variant of Popper’s epistemology with a few modifications (more like clarifications, really) from the Kuhn school. [3]

I think Popper is incredibly important to understanding how we gain knowledge. I think Kuhn makes some important contributions, but ultimately is inferior to Popper’s “conjecture and refutation.” On the other hand, I don’t even entirely agree with everything Popper said about epistemology either. For example, I’m cool towards his most famous contribution: the idea that science is about falsification. I think Kuhn has effectively challenged the idea that such sharp contrasts between science and other fields actually exist.

On the other hand, when I actually read Popper on this, I found him to understand falsification in a much more nuanced way then those that quote him. So my point of view is that Popper was on the right path here -– science is at it’s most productive when it can be falsified – but, as is often the case, people who didn’t understand what he was really getting at then promptly abused it to try to create a water tight compartment between ‘science’ and ‘other stuff’ that didn’t actually exist. How often do we hear people say that science (or scholarship) is only really science (or scholarship) if it can be falsified? [4]

In truth, Popper’s greatest epistemological contribution was really ending the belief that induction was the basis for growth of knowledge and suggesting ‘conjecture and refutation’ as a replacement.

The other part of Popper’s philosophy I strongly agree with is his “Myth of the Framework.”

In my next post, I will start to explain why I think this idea is so important.

For Discussion

If someone asked you what philosophy you believe in most, what would your answer be? For the sake of argument, assume “Mormonism” isn’t a valid answer – even though really it’s a pretty good dang answer. But for the sake of discussion, you have to pick a non-theological school of philosophy or build your own. (And Agellius, if you participate, you aren’t allowed to use “Thomism” for your answer.)

Or maybe, as an alternative, you have to deny that the philosophies of men are worthy of any further consideration. 🙂

Also, for the sake of argument, assume “science” isn’t a valid answer either. It’s okay to pick a philosophy of science, but not ‘science’ itself as the answer. Philosophy is about meaning, and ‘science’ by itself has no meaning. It’s just a process by which we (often dumbly) collect knowledge.

Oh, and for our purposes “the school of compassion and love” isn’t a valid answer either because that just takes a phenomenon in want of an explanation (compassion/love) and avoids trying to explain it. Philosophy is about explanation, so you have to explain why those matter or why you care about them, and that will take a personal philosophy.


[1] I note here a special exception to this rule for “Thomists” like Agellius, since they are doing it for religious reasons and feel they are doing it based on revelation. But then, strictly speaking, I don’t see Thomism as “philosophy” but rather as “theology.” (Though of course “theology” is really just a special case of “philosophy.” But you get the point. I would have a very hard time taking a “Thomist” seriously if they weren’t also Catholic, or at least Protestant, and doing it for religious reasons. An Atheist or Hindu Thomist would be a farce in my opinion.)

[2] And what is the difference between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy?’ Often, very little. But we tend to not use the two words in the same way and so they usually do not convey the same meaning to our minds.

[3] Unlike most people, I find Kuhn and Popper to have significant overlap and to have more in common than different.

[4] On Falsification and Science – And just as a quick reality check on this idea – name any prevailing theory of science you can think of that can be falsified at the moment. Falsification tends to be in the past or in the future, not in the present. Our theories have already passed such tests (as many as we could think of any how) or we lack the technology to perform other tests as of yet. Surely this throws a wet blanket over the whole idea that we can strongly categorize science in this way.

I don’t believe this reduces the importance of falsification, however. It just means you can’t use it like a weapon like this.

Popper was completely correct that we only progress through ‘falsification.’ We can and do falsify one theory compared to another. We can never prove a theory to be ‘the right one’ but we can prove a theory to be ‘less right’ compared to a better one. So science is, and always will be, deeply tied to falsification just like Popper suggests. But we over reach way beyond this point when we try to create water tight compartments of ‘this is science’ and ‘this is not’ based on the concept of falsification alone. What we need is a better way to measure ‘how good’ an explanation is. (And here, passing more tests of possible falsification does play a role.) This is a subject of great importance that is beyond the scope of this post however.

32 thoughts on “The Myth of the Framework Introduction: What Your Philosophy?

  1. It is a mistake to reduce the work of ancient philosophers to their commentary about natural science. Depending on how you draw the boundary, that was perhaps 5% of their output.

    Science is so pathetically incapable of dealing with a long list of moral, ethical, and philosophical questions that Aristotle or Plato are likely to have more influence over all such questions a thousand years from now than the work of all natural scientists over the past five centuries combined.

    Even with that demarcation drawn, I dare you to show anything that is fundamental to Aristotelian metaphysics, fairly understood (not caricatured) that is philosophically or scientifically obsolete today.

  2. Mark D,

    I won’t be arguing with you on this. It was a sincere statement of my current beliefs that I fully understand might be wrong and unqualified.

    I mean no offense to philosphers. I’m explaining why I haven’t be very interested in philosophy. That’s all. I’m probably wrong. I’d probably find that I actually love philsophy if I just spent more time with it.

    If you want, think of it as a statement of personal bias.

  3. If someone asked you what philosophy you believe in most, what would your answer be? For the sake of argument, assume “Mormonism” isn’t a valid answer – even though really it’s a pretty good dang answer.

    The ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas.

  4. Bruce N, I don’t want to engage a counterproductive argument either, I just thought you were being a little dismissive there.

    You are right that “Thomism” is essentially a theology (an unusually well developed on), not an abstract philosophy per se. The abstract philosophy underlying Thomism is Aristotelianism. If you ask someone whether they are a Thomist or not you are asking them to endorse both a theological and a philosophical position.

    The theological position being something that Aristotle only touched on, but which was enormously influential – the identification of God with everything timeless and eternal. The ground of all being, the Absolute, the First Cause, the upholder and sustainer of all things. That is classical theism in a nutshell, and for all its weaknesses it has been the dominant way of understanding God for about twenty five hundred years now.

    Theology aside, the entire Western world still largely thinks in terms of the language and concepts developed by the Greek philosophers. On some questions, perhaps that is a weakness. On others, well the entire world of natural science, technology, and engineering rests on the linguistic and philosophical framework established by Aristotle and his peers. No one has come close to coming up with a better one for the natural sciences.

    So I tend to get a little annoyed at the constant refrain of we are so smart and our predecessors were all imbeciles, which is the dominant mode of discourse in every academic forum today.

  5. I guess what I am saying is that you can’t escape “the framework” any more than you can escape language. Language is a framework, and all positive arguments about the real world depend on it.

    So to the degree that someone like Popper departs from skepticism to the proposition that anyone actually knows anything, he is making an implicit endorsement of “frameworks”. Metaphysics is inescapable.

    Lee Smolin has written quite a bit lately on that, in the context of the failure of string theory to accomplish anything – a failure he traces to scientists trying to ignore metaphysical issues in favor of instrumentalism, meaning they don’t think clearly about their theories at all.

  6. Mark,

    Popper’s rejection of the ‘myth of the framework’ is not a rejection of ‘frameworks.’ It’s, um, not to steal my own thunder, but a rejection of the idea that seperate frameworks are therefore unable to talk to each other at all. (A common point of view in Popper’s day.)

  7. I am glad to hear that, and look forward to hearing more, Bruce.

    As to your original questions, I don’t really identify with a single philosophy, because philosophy covers far too many issues. I am a big fan of Ockham, Aristotle, Arminius, and Hayek.

  8. Hmm. Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, de Toqueville, Adam Smith, Hayek, Friedman, Jeffrey Miron. (Yes, I know some of them are not philosophers — frankly I prefer reality-based problem-solvers to philosophers, and Yes, I know some philosophers do that).

  9. I haven’t studied a lot of Philosophy directly. But I have been highly influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, both staunch Catholics.

    I have also been highly influenced by Harry V. Jaffa, and also by his mentor Leo Strauss, though less directly by Strauss than by Jaffa– though I do own a copy of Strauss’ “Persecution and the Art of Writing”. Strauss, in turn, is a proxy for Plato and Aristotle, and a critic of Popper’s Open Society arguments.

    John Milton and Foyodor Dostoevsky have had quite an influence on me as well.

  10. I have a hard time with Popper on a number of levels. (Not the least of which his falsification doesn’t appear in practice to be much better than verification – and if we’re talking loosely then we both falsify and verify)

    Mark, “philosophically obsolete” is a pretty vague notion. I think there are few Aristotileans in the academy (just as there are few Platonists). Yet at the same time fundamental ontology is such that it’s pretty hard to really make it obsolete. Rather other ideas take hold and seem like a better way of thinking philosophically. But by their very nature it’s easy to see these as fads. With regards to Aristotle if there’s something science tends to look askance at we can just discard it as not being fundamental, which makes the very approach kind of problematic.

    BTW – I agree with your comments about instrumentalism entirely though.

  11. But personally I think Popper’s epistemology is really a science – a full blown scientific theory on how we gain knowledge

    Bruce, in several places you touch on what is often known as the “demarcation problem”. The boundaries are sometimes fuzzy, of course. Epistemology per se is a branch of philosophy, along with logic (in general), ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

    I believe Popper’s work is generally classified under the heading “philosophy of science”, not so far removed from what was once called “natural philosophy”. Generally speaking, there just isn’t any good way to divide “science” from “scientific philosophy” or even metaphysics.

    About the only way I can think of is to split off speculative propositions of the sort that can only be advanced by intuitive or rhetorical argument. String theory, for example (smile).

  12. Chardin, huh? He was the first non-Restoration theologian I ever studied because he was the first I found who ever dealt with the questions in which I was interested from a modern scientific framework.

    I would have to invent my philosophical school around the idea that we should try to “restore” modern understandings of science into the ancient metaphysics AS BEST WE CAN and then let the metaphysical framework evolve from there. (Sort of like restarting the cake mix from scratch rather than sprinkling the sugar we forgot on top of the cake after it’s been baked.)

    I think we make an error by underestimating how much ancient “science” was embedded in ancient philosophy. That embedding was just as much a part of the framework that has come down to us as the metaphysical concepts and language.

  13. Ancient natural philosophers made some serious mistakes here and there. We certainly don’t want to repeat them.

    However, I think Aristotelian metaphysics in particular gets a bad wrap (to the point of ridicule) not because of fundamental problems with the way Aristotle presented it, but rather because of the faulty extremes it was taken by some of his interpreters, who tended to adopt a pretty naive Platonic realism about the whole thing.

  14. “J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, both staunch Catholics.”

    And I was Chardin.

    Yay Catholics!

  15. By the way, I just received an email that I had purchased Popper Open Society at the reduced price I asked for. (On

    So I will apparently soon know if I like his Open Society philosophy or not.

    I should note here that my concerns with Popper’s falsification are only when trying to use it as the primary demarcation for science. I think his theories on ‘refutation’ are dead on. So obviously that means I think ‘falsification’ is a better word than ‘verification’ in the vast majority of circumstances.

    I also think his ‘falsification’ as a demarcation for science was correct back when he wrote about it based on how we thought of science at the time. But our theories have grown beyond our ability to test, so we’ve been forced to rethink the demarcation of science. (In other words, Popper’s ‘falsification’ theory/conjecture was refuted.)

    But the idea that we can’t ‘verify’ a theory as ‘the absolute truth’ is certainly true. Instead it’s better to think of it as moving to better and better theories that are never verified, but merely waiting for a new theory to replace (i.e. falsify.)

    I know, it’s just semantics. But it’s way more useful to think of it that way then as ‘verifying each new theory.’ Perhaps we could instead say ‘verifying each new theory as better than the old one’ and it would mean the same thing.

  16. Excellent articles Jeff.

    “Just as everything cannot be said in a single language, everything cannot be understood and explained through a single method—science.”

    I actually do hope that one day we’ll all speak the same language and understand everything. And in this sense, I guess I do believe that ‘science’ will probably be very much like that final language. That all will be explained.

    But as Mark D pointed out somewhere above, right now science just doesn’t seem to answer any of the important questions. Sam Harris’ assertions to the contrary.

  17. I guess I do believe that ‘science’ will probably be very much like that final language. That all will be explained.

    This seems to imply the assumption that something isn’t explained unless it is explained in the language of science. I’m just not convinced this is the case.

    I, too, believe that all will be explained. But I don’t believe that science will be the language to do so.

  18. I believe that science as we know it will almost certainly not be the language. However, I believe that it is virtually unquestionable that it or something very much like it will be a major part.

  19. I believe that it is virtually unquestionable that it or something very much like it will be a major part.

    Again, I just haven’t been convinced of that.

  20. Jeff,

    First, let me start with a pharaphrase of an old saying. To the watchmaker, the unverise is a giant watch. To the biologist, it’s a living evolving organism. To the computer scientist it’s a giant computer program.

    I’m a computer scientist.

    Through my lens — biased or not — I do see ‘explanations’ as being ‘algorithmic.’ (An idea I’ve been developing in my posts over at Wheat and Tares.)

    Mark D disagrees with me. He sees it more as ‘structure.’ Fair enough.

    But do this an an exercise. Try to think through what an ‘explanation’ is. At what point can we say that we really can explain something.

    I’d sumbit that the only consistent answer to this question is “once we can turn it into an algorithm.”

    This is my opinion. Actually, it’s only my current opinion. I reserve the right to change it on a whim as new evidence comes forth.

    But if this is what it means to ‘explain something’ it is also what it means to ‘understand something.’

    I like the idea that all of reality, even God, is ‘algorithmic’ and therefore completely understandable. Others hate the idea. 😉

    HOwever, when I say “God is algorithmic” (or rather, that that is what I currently believe) I actually don’t mean “using our current theories of computation.” I really mean “using God’s theory of computation that we don’t yet know about.”

    It’s very difficult for us to imagine a ‘greater theory of computation’ then the ones we have. That is why the Church-Turing thesis exists. Because apparently we can’t imagine other forms of logic/computation save the ones we already use.

    But my suspicion is that God uses ours, but has more power to it. Probably the ability to do what we might call ‘infinite computations.’ (Which are physically impossible to time bound creatures like us.)

    Anyhow, these are in many ways just preliminary thoughts explaining my own tentative point of view. I am not really expecting anyone to agree with me. But I do hope you will all enjoy me sharing my views for the sake of discussion. Plus, the discussions force me to keep rethinking my own views.

  21. Oh, sorry, forgot to explain one thing. My point above is that it’s not the ‘language of science’ through we we understand things in my view, unless by ‘language of science’ you really meant ‘language of reason.’ (i.e. to me that’s the same as saying ‘computational theory.’)

    And I do believe God uses that language the same as we do. I think that’s why we use it. But I think his is beyond ours (i.e. infinite computations) so we can’t, in our current form, do what he can do.

  22. Bruce, if the world is deterministic, then algorithmic explanation would be all there is (with the exception of initial conditions).

    Libertarian free will, however, cannot be explained in purely algorithmic terms, and yet seems to be essential for everything moral and spiritual about the world – all those things science as we know it can’t handle.

  23. I agree with Mark here. Moral agency is just one of the many things that cannot, I repeat cannot, be explained in terms of algorithm or cause and effect. I believe it is understandable, but not in those terms. I don’t believe that the only valid explanations are those in terms of algorithm or cause and effect (and, to be bold, I believe that such an assumption, if taken to its logical conclusions, would end our belief in morality and accountability).

    At what point can we say that we really can explain something. I’d sumbit that the only consistent answer to this question is “once we can turn it into an algorithm.”

    This is such a strange assertion to me. I don’t see how this is necessarily the case at all. It is an assumption that cannot be derived or proven, only presumed, and I’m not really sure why anyone would want to presume this.

    Do read the thesis I sent you. It addresses this very issue… the full version more so than the abbreviated version.

    Here’s another brief post that directly addresses this issue as well:


  24. Jeff and Mark,
    Notice what you just did, because this is important. I just finished saying that I accept that I am not necessarily referring to current computational theory. Yet both of you immediately reacted back at me assuming I was talking about current computational theory. I guess I don’t blame you because computational theory seems like our most solid theories; the one least likely to give way to a better one in the future. But what if it isn’t?

    I don’t want to steal my own future thunder here too much, and frankly, this isn’t a sound bite answer you are asking me for.

    So let me say this: assume for a moment that libertarian free will exists and that it is something specific One popular 19th century Mormon speculation was that comes out of an ‘intelligence’ that was (to some, but not all 19th century Mormons) thought of as some sort of ‘particle’ that could be used to combine together into a consciousness.
    Pretend, for a moment, scientists have just discovered such an ‘intelligence particle.’ It is like nothing they have ever found before, of course. It can’t be described via any sort of existing computational theory.

    So what happens next? Well, they study it, of course. They learn how to interact with it and how to ‘use it’ so to speak.
    Then the very next thing they will do is start to build things with it. i.e. they will build machines that incorporate ‘intelligence particles’ into the architecture.

    These new machines will be capable of everything our current ‘Turing Machines’ (i.e. computers) can do, but they can do more. They are effectively a brand new type of computer. Let’s call these new ‘intelligence particle machines’ Super Turning Machines. This will give rise to a whole new computational theory, of course, that encompasses the old computational theory, but extends it in new and exciting directions to include ‘intelligence particles.’ These new ‘machines’ will in fact have libertarian free will.

    At this point, ‘libertarian free will’ will be describable using this new and improved ‘Super Turing’ computational theory. And then – and only then – will we finally fully comprehend libertarian free will.

    Thus even ‘libertarian free will’ will turn out to be algorithmic under this new and improved computational theory but without ‘end our belief in morality and accountability.’ Indeed, at least we’d really be starting to understand what those concepts really are.

    In fact, so long as we assume ‘libertarian free will’ actually is some actual real / describable phenomenon (as is perhaps implied by the D&C, i.e. no immaterial matter) then there will always be a way to intergrate it into computational theory. Indeed, we will have to if we wish to actually understand what libertarian free will actually is.

    This little example is all completely hypothetical, probably quite hokey, and obviously all made up. But I hope it shows why we can’t assume that something like ‘morality’ or ‘libertarian free will’ are non-algorithmic. The fact is, we can’t say that for sure.

  25. Bruce, I’m sure you know this is an open and unresolved argument, an argument that has been open for at least 2500 years now, perhaps the number one dividing line among theologies and natural philosophies generally.

    I used the word “determinism” instead of “computational theory”, because I believe that it is understood that any form of computation (even forms that require infinite time and/or resources) can be rendered deterministically. However, libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism, by definition. That is (in part) what the qualifier is there for.

    Others believe that free will is compatible with determinism, to me that sounds like an oxymoron for various reasons, but it is certainly open as a logical possibility. Certainly any compatibilist version of free will is compatible with some kind of computational theory. I don’t think LFW can be, not without radically redefining computation at any rate.

  26. “I used the word “determinism” instead of “computational theory”, because I believe that it is understood that any form of computation (even forms that require infinite time and/or resources) can be rendered deterministically.”

    But this wasn’t true for my made up example. If “intelligence particles’ are non-deterministic in the sense you mean, then so would be that new computational theory.

    “…not without radically redefining computation at any rate.”

    This was true for my example.

  27. That would be outstanding. I majored in physics in part because I dreamed of understanding how the spiritual world works. QM certainly seemed to give lots of hints, but LFW was where I decided physics as we know it wouldn’t explain any more.

  28. Mark, I think you might have misunderstood what I said. (Maybe not.) I just said that my made up example required the theory of computation to expand first before we accepted libertarian free will. This isn’t really all that monumental a statement. 🙂

    I was just trying to help you guys see that you can’t assume what a future theory of computation will look like. It’s the same as assuming that we don’t know what a future theory of physics will look like. I think we tend to be better at the later for some reason. Generally people assume that the theory of computation can’t change. (I guess this is the Church-Turing thesis — the assmption that we’ve discovered the entire theory of computation in terms of ‘computing power’.)

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