Book review: Popper, All Life is Problem Solving

Karl Popper’s All Life is Problem Solving is a wonderful collection of his speeches and shorter writings in two parts: Questions of natural science and Thoughts on history and politics.

I first discovered Popper through The Open Society and its Enemies, a vehement defence of democracy against totalitarianism. Many of the themes he explored there are naturally to be found in this much slimmer book. Two particular ideas are relevant today: the logic and evolution of scientific theory and his theory of democracy.

Given that raising interested questions about climate science usually raises cries of “denier” very quickly from the same people who think all science is fact, it’s well worth reading what surely the most famous philosopher of science thought. For example,

An important conclusion from my main thesis refers to the the question of how empirical scientific theories differ from other theories. This is itself not an empirical scientific problem but a theoretical scientific problem; it is a problem which belongs to the logic or philosophy of science. …


A theory is part of empirical science if and only if it conflicts with possible experiences and is therefore in principle falsifiable by experience.

By this measure, climate science is certainly science. However, I’m prompted to think that those who refuse to engage scientifically with those attempting to falsify theories of climate change on the basis of empirical evidence have probably lapsed into dogma.

On democracy, Popper advances the idea that the purpose of democracy is not to provide popular sovereignty – for the people as a whole never rule – but to ensure governments can be dismissed without bloodshed. On the authority of my own experience, I know it is true that neither I nor the people I represent rule their lives. All our lives are ruled by officials and little elites. How much more rational political discourse would be if this hypothesis were generally accepted!

Elsewhere, I found I could not agree with Popper over “waging wars for peace” or his particular attitude to birth control. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant account of the thought of one of the finest minds of the 20th century. I thoroughly recommend it.

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Comments & Responses

3 Responses so far.

  1. Nick says:

    A bit of democracy would be nice in the UK.

    When will you let us decide on issues, rather than you dictate what we can and can’t do?

  2. Nick says:

    Why should we accept rule by bureaucracy? That’s just the same as fascist dictatorship.

    For example, we have huge government debts hidden off the books. Now you could insist that the bureaucracy tell everyone what those debts are. However you won’t. That’s the problem. It’s a fraud.

    e.g. Why isn’t the state pension on the books?

    The treasury response is that we can always change the rules, so it isn’t a debt.

    What that really means is when we can’t pay, we won’t pay. i.e. We are planning on defrauding the public who have paid in advance for a state pension

  3. Nick Heath says:

    The more I read my namesake’s posts, the more I think he’s a spam bot.