Category Archive: “Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance”

Conjectures and Refutations, pp. 3-39

Authoritarian sources of knowledge

But what, then, are the sources of our knowledge?

The answer, I think, is this: there are all kinds of sources of our knowledge; but none has authority. …

The fundamental mistake made by the philosophical theory of the ultimate sources of our knowledge is that it does not distinguish clearly enough between questions of origin and questions of validity. Admittedly, in the case of historio­graphy, these two questions may sometimes coincide. The question of the validity of an historical assertion may be testable only, or mainly, in the light of the origin of certain sources. But in general the two questions are different; and in general we do not test the validity of an assertion or information by tracing its sources or its origin, but we test it, much more directly, by a critical examination of what has been asserted – of the asserted facts themselves.

Thus the empiricist’s questions ‘How do you know? What is the source of your assertion?’ are wrongly put. They are not formulated in an inexact or slovenly manner, but they are entirely misconceived: they are questions that beg for an authoritarian answer. [32]

The question of the authoritative sources of knowledge

Yet the traditional question of the authoritative sources of knowledge is repeated even today — and very often by posi­tivists, and by other philosophers who believe themselves to be in revolt against authority.

The proper answer to my question ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’ is, I believe, ‘By criticizing the theories or guesses of others and — if we can train ourselves to do so — by criticizing our own theories or guesses.’ (The latter point is highly desirable, but not indispensable; for if we fail to criticize our own theories, there may be others to do it for us.) This answer sums up a position which I propose to call ‘critical rationalism’. It is a view, an attitude, and a tradition, which we owe to the Greeks. It is very different from the ‘rationalism’ or ‘intellectualism’ of Descartes and his school, and very different even from the epistemology of Kant. Yet in the field of ethics, of moral knowledge, it was approached by Kant with his principle of autonomy. This principle expresses his realization that we must not accept the command of an authority, however exalted, as the basis of ethics. For whenever we are faced with a command by an authority, it is for us to judge, critically, whether it is moral or immoral to obey. The authority may have power to enforce its commands, and we may be powerless to resist. But if we have the physical power of choice, then the ultimate respon­sibility remains with us. It is our own critical decision whether to obey a command; whether to submit to an authority.

Kant boldly carried this idea into the field of religion: ‘…in whatever way’, he writes, ‘the Deity should be made known to you, and even … if He should reveal Himself to you: it is you … who must judge whether you are permitted to believe in Him, and to worship Him.’

In view of this bold statement, it seems strange that Kant did not adopt the same attitude — that of critical examination, of the critical search for error — in the field of science. I feel certain that it was only his acceptance of the authority of Newton’s cosmology — a result of its almost unbelievable success in passing the most severe tests — which prevented Kant from doing so. If this interpretation of Kant is correct, then the critical rationalism (and also the critical empiricism) which I advocate merely puts the finishing touch to Kant’s own critical philosophy. And this was made possible by Einstein, who taught us that Newton’s theory may well be mistaken in spite of its overwhelming success.

So my answer to the questions ‘How do you know? What is the source or the basis of your assertion? What obser­vations have led you to it?’ would be: ‘I do not know: my assertion was merely a guess. Never mind the source, or the sources, from which it may spring — there are many possible sources, and I may not be aware of half of them; and origins or pedigrees have in any case little bearing upon truth. But if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can; and if you can design some experimental test which you think might refute my assertion, I shall gladly, and to the best of my powers, help you to refute it.’ [34-5]

In our infinite ignorance we are all equal

I believe that it would be worth trying to learn something about the world even if in trying to do so we should merely learn that we do not know much. This state of learned ignorance might be a help in many of our troubles. It might be well for all of us to remember that, while differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal. [38]