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The philosophy of Karl Popper and psychological theories

The philosophy of Karl Popper and psychological theories

October 5, 2022

It is common to associate philosophy with a world of speculations without any connection with science, but the truth is that this is not the case. This discipline is not only the mother of all sciences from a historical perspective; it is also what allows to defend the robustness or weakness of scientific theories.

In fact, from the first half of the twentieth century, with the emergence of a group of thinkers known as the Vienna Circle, there is even a branch of philosophy that is responsible for monitoring not only scientific knowledge, but what is meant by science.

It's about the philosophy of science, and one of its earliest representatives, Karl Popper did much to examine the question of the extent to which psychology generates scientifically endorsed knowledge . In fact, his confrontation with psychoanalysis was one of the main causes of the entrance into crisis of this current.


Who was Karl Popper?

Karl Popper was born in Vienna during the summer of 19002, when psychoanalysis was gaining strength in Europe. In that same city he studied philosophy, discipline to which he dedicated himself until his death in 1994.

Popper was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the generation of the Vienna Circle, and his first works were very much taken into account when developing a demarcation criterion, that is, when defining a way to demarcate what is that which distinguishes scientific knowledge from that which is not?

Thus, the problem of demarcation is a subject to which Karl Popper tried to respond by devising ways in which you can know what kind of statements are scientific and which are not. .


This is an unknown that crosses the entire philosophy of science, regardless of whether it is applied to relatively well-defined objects of study (such as chemistry) or others in which the phenomena to be investigated are more open to interpretation (such as paleontology). And, of course, psychology, being on a bridge between neurology and the social sciences, is very affected depending on whether a demarcation or other criterion is applied to it.

Thus, Popper devoted much of his work as a philosopher to devising a way to separate scientific knowledge from metaphysics and simple unfounded speculation. This led him to a series of conclusions that left in bad place much of what in his time was considered to be psychology and that they emphasized the importance of falsification in scientific research.


The falsificationism

Although the philosophy of science was born in the 20th century with the appearance of the Vienna Circle, the main attempts to know how to access knowledge (in general, not specifically "scientific knowledge") and to what extent this is true appeared many centuries, with the birth of epistemology.

Auguste Comte and inductive reasoning

Positivism, or the philosophical doctrine according to which the only valid knowledge is scientific, was one of the consequences of the development of this branch of philosophy. Appeared in the early nineteenth century by the French thinker Auguste Comte and, of course, generated many problems ; so many that, in fact, nobody could act in a way that was slightly consistent with it.

In the first place, the idea that the conclusions we make through experience outside of science are irrelevant and do not deserve to be taken into account is devastating for anyone who wants to get out of bed and make relevant decisions in your day to day.

The truth is everydayness requires us to make hundreds of inferences quickly without having to go through something similar to the kind of empirical tests necessary to do science, and the fruit of this process is still knowledge, more or less successful that makes us act in one way or another. In fact, we do not even bother to make all our decisions based on logical thinking: we constantly take mental shortcuts.

Secondly, positivism placed at the center of the philosophical debate the problem of demarcation, which is already very complicated to solve. In what way was it understood from Comte's positivism that true knowledge should be accessed? Through the accumulation of simple observations based on observable and measurable facts. That is to say, It is fundamentally based on induction .

For example, if after making several observations about the behavior of the lions we see that whenever they need food they resort to hunting other animals, we will come to the conclusion that the lions are carnivores; from individual facts we will reach a broad conclusion that covers many other cases not observed .

However, one thing is to recognize that inductive reasoning can be useful, and another is to argue that by itself it allows one to arrive at true knowledge about how reality is structured. It is at this point that Karl Popper enters the scene, his principle of falsifiability and his rejection of positivist principles.

Popper, Hume and falsificationism

The cornerstone of the demarcation criterion developed by Karl Popper is called falsificationism. Falsacionismo is an epistemological current according to which scientific knowledge should not be based so much on the accumulation of empirical evidence as on the attempts to refute ideas and theories to find samples of its robustness.

This idea takes certain elements of David Hume's philosophy , according to which it is impossible to demonstrate a necessary connection between an event and a consequence that derives from it. There is no reason for us to say with confidence that an explanation of the reality that works today will work tomorrow. Although lions eat meat very often, perhaps in a while it is discovered that in exceptional situations some of them are able to survive a long time eating a special variety of plant.

In addition, one of the implications of Karl Popper's falsificationism is that it is impossible to definitively prove that a scientific theory is true and faithfully describes reality. Scientific knowledge will be defined by how well it works to explain things at a given time and context, n or in the degree to which it reflects reality as it is, since knowing the latter is impossible .

Karl Popper and psychoanalysis

Although Popper had certain encounters with behaviorism (specifically, with the idea that learning is based on repetitions through conditioning, although this is not a fundamental premise of this psychological approach) the school of psychology that attacked with more vehemence was that of Freudian psychoanalysis , that during the first half of the 20th century had a lot of influence in Europe.

Fundamentally, what Popper criticized of psychoanalysis was his inability to stick to explanations that could be falsified, something that he considered cheating. A theory that can not be falsified is able to contort itself and adopt all possible forms in order not to show that the reality does not fit with their proposals , which means that it is not useful to explain phenomena and, therefore, is not science.

For the Austrian philosopher, the only merit of Sigmund Freud's theories was that they had a good capacity to perpetuate themselves, taking advantage of their own ambiguities to fit into any explanatory framework and to adapt to all contingencies without being challenged. The effectiveness of psychoanalysis had nothing to do with the degree to which they served to explain things, but with the ways in which I found ways to self-justify .

For example, the theory of the Oedipus complex does not have to be resented if, after having identified the father as a source of hostility during childhood, it is discovered that in fact the relationship with the father was very good and that there was never any contact with the father. mother beyond the day of birth: she simply identifies herself as a fatherly and maternal figure to other people, since, as psychoanalysis is based on the symbolic, it does not have to fit with "natural" categories such as biological parents.

Blind faith and circular reasoning

In short, Karl Popper did not believe that psychoanalysis was not a science because it did not serve to explain well what happens, but for something even more basic: because it was not possible to even consider the possibility that these theories are false .

Unlike Comte, who assumed that it was possible to unravel faithful and definitive knowledge about what is real, Karl Popper took into account the influence that the biases and starting points of different observers have on what they study, and that is why he understood that certain theories were more a historical construction than a useful tool for science.

Psychoanalysis, according to Popper, was a kind of mixture of the argument ad ignorantiam and the fallacy of a request for principle: it always asks to accept premises in advance to demonstrate that, As there is no evidence to the contrary, they must be true . That is why he understood that psychoanalysis was comparable to religions: both were self-confirming and based on circular reasoning to get out of any confrontation with the facts.


Karl Popper, Science, and Pseudoscience: Crash Course Philosophy #8 (October 2022).


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