Tag Archive: epistemology

The price of knowledge

In his epistemological sensibility, Popper follows in the footsteps of the philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Their common starting point may be summarised in the following principle: The price of acquiring any knowledge at all is that it will be somehow distorted by the conditions of its acquisition; hence, criticism is the only universally reliable method. [127]

How can we know?

It may, therefore, be a subject worthy of curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence which assures us of any real existence and matter of fact, beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory. This part of philosophy, it is observable, has been little cultivated, either by the ancients or moderns, and therefore our doubts and errors, in the prosecution of so important an enquiry, may be the more excusable; while we march through such difficult paths without any guide or direction. They may even prove useful, by exciting curiosity, and destroying that implicit faith and security, which is the bane of all reasoning and free enquiry. The discovery of defects in the common philosophy, if any such there be, will not, I presume, be a discouragement, but rather an incitement, as is usual, to attempt something more full and satisfactory than has yet been proposed to the public. [14-5]

An explanatory gap

An analogous gap exists in Popperian epistemology. Its critics wonder why the scientific method works, or what justifies our reliance on the best scientific theories. This leads them to hanker after a principle of induction or something of the sort (though, as crypto-inductivists, they usually realize that such a principle would not explain or justify anything either). For Popperians to reply that there is no such thing as justification, or that it is never rational to rely on theories, is to provide no explanation. Popper even said that ‘no theory of knowledge should attempt to explain why we are success­ful in our attempts to explain things’ (Objective Knowledge p. 23). But, once we understand that the growth of human knowledge is a physical process, we see that it cannot be illegitimate to try to explain how and why it occurs. Episte­mology is a theory of (emergent) physics. It is a factual theory about the circumstances under which a certain physical quantity (knowledge) will or will not grow. The bare assertions of this theory are largely accepted. But we cannot possibly find an explanation of why they are true solely within the theory of knowledge per se. In that narrow sense, Popper was right. The explanation must involve quantum physics, the Turing principle and, as Popper himself stressed, the theory of evolution. [341]