“On the sources of knowledge and ignorance” essay by Karl Popper

I had the good fortune to encounter Karl Popper’s Conjectures & Refutations while browsing randomly in the library last week. The introduction to this book is an essay called “On the sources of knowledge and ignorance” and I have found it to be very insightful and helpful for me personally in clarifying part of my mental structure of epistemology. I will write a little about this essay and raise some questions that I hope will be answered as I read the essay again and think more deeply about these matters.

To be brief, Popper’s thesis is that both classical empiricism (represented by Bacon etc.) and classical rationalism (Descartes etc.) are mistaken in that they both depend on the idea that knowledge has to be based on an authoritative source. He thinks that there isn’t one pure and untainted source of knowledge—whether it’s observation or clear and distinct ideas—on which is based the rest of our knowledge, and this implies that we can’t establish the certainty of our knowledge positively, only negatively, through eliminating our errors. He calls this new view critical rationalism.

Popper’s view, according to himself, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I see it as a more optimistic version of Plato’s Cave: We can never truly know the reality; we are inherently limited; truth is not manifest. But this does not mean that we can never have knowledge or that sources of knowledge do not exist. There are still different sources of knowledge, it’s just that none of them has absolute authority (apparently, Popper really dislikes the notion of authority). And we can still get knowledge from these sources through critical examination—checking the data we get from them against each other and against the world through experiments and see if any theory is wrong. In this way, our knowledge evolves and gets closer and closer to the truth through a process of elimination.

The implication of this view is that knowledge doesn’t have to be justified by any authority. If I remember correctly from my epistemology course, it is generally agreed that knowledge should be true, knowable, and justified. So Popper’s epistemology seems to be one that does not require this third criterion. However, to me, it seems as if he is just making “critical examination” the new authority.

I get what he said about how observation is not enough as an authority of knowledge because a lot of our knowledge comes from unobservable sources, and reason is not enough either because a lot of times our “clear and distinct ideas” are wrong. I also understand that from the above (+ some other arguments) he concluded that no one single source has absolute authority that provides ultimate positive justification to knowledge. But then isn’t what he proposed a kind of negative justification?

I guess I am just confused about what he wrote toward the end:

“There is no criterion of truth at our disposal, and this fact supports pessimism. But we do possess criteria which, if we are lucky, may allow us to recognize error and falsity. Clarity and distinctness are not criteria of truth, but such things as obscurity or confusion may indicate error. Similarly coherence cannot establish truth, but incoherence and inconsistency do establish falsehood.” p.28

So “critical examination” seems to involve two criteria: non-incoherence and non-falsity. We can never prove a theory to be true, but if it’s not incoherent and is not proven to be false, then it would count as scientific knowledge—the best we have to describe reality. But then how do you know it’s not incoherent? How do we know it’s false? I mean, why can we trust the validity of confusion as an indication of falsity more than clear and distinct ideas as an indication of truth, for example?

With italics applied to “if we are lucky” and “may”, Popper himself seems to be implying that there is no way we can know for sure that something is false, either. But it does seem as if he believes that we have more hope in knowing something to be false than in knowing something to be true. My question is: why?

Perhaps due to this doubt, and the fact that I believe in God, I am having difficulty integrating Popper’s theory into my own existing mental structure of things. In Popper’s framework, I seem to be exactly the classic empiricist/rationalist with whom he disagrees. I believe that the ultimate source of knowledge is God in the form of nature and God’s Revelation, and in order to transform the information we gather from these sources (namely nature and revelation) into knowledge i.e. justified belief that corresponds to the reality, we need to apply, on these data, our God-given ability to reason. My current (tentative and evolving) epistemic view can be captured as follows:

  • Input (Sources): the universe (Bacon’s book of Nature), God’s Revelation
  • The Machine (me): observation + reason
  • Output (Knowledge): truths/facts, i.e. beliefs that correspond to reality

Although I see most of the reasoning behind Popper’s argument (except for the question I raised above), I am not sure how to fit it into my view. I suppose in his view, I will not necessarily get knowledge this way because my sources have no authority and my ability to observe or to reason is not fallible either. The best I can do to get knowledge is to see if the information I obtain from these sources are not internally incoherent and to verify that they are not false.

But maybe due to the fact that I have faith in God, I find that these sources and my ability to sense and reason do have authority. I may not be 100% certain that the universe exists or that Qur’an is the Word of God, and I may be even less certain about my observation and reasoning abilities, but because I have faith in God, I deem these sources sufficiently certain and my ability sufficiently reliable that they could act as an authority to justify my beliefs. So it seems that “faith in God” is what causes my view to diverge from Popper’s…

I don’t know. There’s a lot to think about.

I would like to mention, though, that I disagree with Popper that optimistic epistemology is “the basis of almost any kind of fanaticism”. Speaking for myself: even if I believe that truth is manifest to a certain degree, and I believe that falsehood does come from human beings, I do not find the fanatical urge to condemn people who do not believe in the truth (as I believe in) as weak or stupid or influenced by the devil. Why? Because 1) Everyone is at a different stage in their epistemic quest, and there is no way for me to know how much they really know or how close they are to the Truth, so I cannot judge anyone by the degree of their ignorance or lack of will to find out (and God is the Only Judge), 2) I know from the Qur’an that condemning anyone’s belief is futile and doesn’t change anything; God is the Only One that can guide us, and 3) As mentioned before, even if I feel pretty certain about some of my beliefs, I can never be 100% certain about them so fundamentally speaking there is no reason for me to look down on other people for not believing in what I believe.

This last point probably would not be raised by a true epistemological optimist. I guess I am a weaker optimist in that I agree that there is always going to be uncertainty regarding the sources of knowledge and human ability.

I will leave it here and come back and think about it at a later time, perhaps connecting these ideas with other things I am reading. But for the moment, I really have to start working on those Calculus problems!

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About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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