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In Search of a Better World: Karl Popper on Truth vs. Certainty and the Dangers of Relativism

“Knowledge consists in the search for truth… It is not the search for certainty.”

In Search of a Better World: Karl Popper on Truth vs. Certainty and the Dangers of Relativism

“I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lamented. Nearly half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt captured the crux of the problem in her incisive reflection on thinking vs. knowing, in which she wrote: “The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.”

This distinction between truth and meaning is vital, especially today, as political propaganda and the “alternative facts” establishment manipulate a public that would rather know than think, preying on the desire for the certitude of ready-made meaning among those unwilling to engage in the work of critical thinking necessary for arriving at truth — truth measured by its correspondence with reality and not by its correspondence with one’s personal agendas, comfort zones, and preexisting beliefs.

This essential discipline of differentiating between truth and certitude is what the influential Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (July 28, 1902–September 17, 1994) examined at the end of his long life throughout In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years (public library).

Karl Popper

Popper writes:

All things living are in search of a better world. Men, animals, plants, even unicellular organisms are constantly active. They are trying to improve their situation, or at least to avoid its deterioration… Every organism is constantly preoccupied with the task of solving problems. These problems arise from its own assessments of its condition and of its environment; conditions which the organism seeks to improve… We can see that life — even at the level of the unicellular organism — brings something completely new into the world, something that did not previously exist: problems and active attempts to solve them; assessments, values; trial and error.

Popper argues that because the identification of error is so central to the problem-solving process, its corrective — that is, truth — is a core component of our quest for betterment:

The search for truth … no doubt counts among the best and greatest things that life has created in the course of its long search for a better world.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Carl Sagan’s insistence on science’s essential role in democracy, Popper adds:

We have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error.

Looking back on the sometimes troubled but ultimately exponential reach for a better world that had unfolded over the eighty-seven years of his life — “a time of two senseless world wars and of criminal dictatorships” — Popper writes:

In spite of everything, and although we have had so many failures, we, the citizens of the western democracies, live in a social order which is better (because more favourably disposed to reform) and more just than any other in recorded history. Further improvements are of the greatest urgency. (Yet improvements that increase the power of the state often bring about the opposite of what we are seeking.)

What often warps and frustrates our quest for betterment, Popper notes in a 1982 lecture included in the volume, is our failure to distinguish between the search for truth and the assertion of certainty:

Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.

It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. It follows that we must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty. That to err is human means not only that we must constantly struggle against error, but also that, even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake… To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of scientific activity. Hence we can say: our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.

[…]

Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.

In a sentiment of piercing pertinence today, as a litany of “alternative facts” attempts to gaslight an uncritical public, Popper offers a definition and admonition of elegant acuity:

A theory or a statement is true, if what it says corresponds to reality.

[..]

Truth and certainty must be sharply distinguished.

Condemning relativistic approaches to truth — ones that regard truth as “what is accepted; or what is put forward by society; or by the majority; or by my interest group; or perhaps by television” — he cautions:

The philosophical relativism that hides behind [Kant’s] “old and famous question” “What is truth?” may open the way to evil things, such as a propaganda of lies inciting men to hatred.

[…]

Relativism … is a betrayal of reason and of humanity.

It is useful here to revisit Arendt’s distinction between truth and meaning, for where truth is absolute — a binary correspondence with reality: a premise either reflects reality or does not — meaning can be relative; it is shaped by one’s subjective interpretation, which is contingent upon beliefs and can be manipulated. Certainty lives in the realm of meaning, not of truth. The very notion of an “alternative fact,” which manipulates certainty at the expense of truth, is therefore the sort of criminal relativism against which Popper so rigorously cautions — something that, as he puts it, “results from mixing-up the notions of truth and certainty.” All propaganda is in the business of manipulating certainty, but it can never manipulate truth. Arendt had articulated this brilliantly a decade earlier in her timely treatise on defactualization in politics: “No matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough … to cover the immensity of factuality.”

Illustration by Salvador Dalí for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Popper argues that the ability to discern truth by testing our theories against reality using critical reasoning is a distinctly human faculty — no other animal does this. A generation before him, Bertrand Russell — perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest patron saint of reason — called this ability “the will to doubt” and extolled it as our greatest self-defense against propaganda. The cultural evolution of our species, Popper notes, was propelled by the necessity of honing that ability — we developed a language that contains true and false statements, which gave rise to criticism, which in turn catalyzed a new phase of selection. He writes:

Natural selection is amplified and partially overtaken by critical, cultural selection. The latter permits us a conscious and critical pursuit of our errors: we can consciously find and eradicate our errors, and we can consciously judge one theory as inferior to another… There is no knowledge without rational criticism, criticism in the service of the search for truth.

But this rational criticism, Popper notes, should also be applied to science itself. Cautioning that the antidote to relativism isn’t scientism — a form of certitude equally corrosive to truth — he writes:

Despite my admiration for scientific knowledge, I am not an adherent of scientism. For scientism dogmatically asserts the authority of scientific knowledge; whereas I do not believe in any authority and have always resisted dogmatism; and I continue to resist it, especially in science. I am opposed to the thesis that the scientist must believe in his theory. As far as I am concerned “I do not believe in belief,” as E. M. Forster says; and I especially do not believe in belief in science. I believe at most that belief has a place in ethics, and even here only in a few instances. I believe, for example, that objective truth is a value — that is, an ethical value, perhaps the greatest value there is — and that cruelty is the greatest evil.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly sobering and ennobling In Search of a Better World with Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets of critical thinking, Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means.

BP

Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it.”

Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1972 as he made his elegant case for rational faith in the human spirit, adding: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”

That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) — another thinker of formidable foresight and abiding insight into the human experience — explored this osmotic relationship between optimism, pessimism, and hope in the fourth and final volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).

Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)

Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. Beauvoir writes:

Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.

With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — Beauvoir adds:

Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.

But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. Beauvoir writes:

In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.

[…]

My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating All Said and Done, which also gave us Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, with Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for hope in the dark, Helen Keller on optimism, and Jonathan Lear on radical hope, then revisit Beauvoir on art, science, freedom, and busyness and the measure of intelligence.

BP

The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Story Behind Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the Poet’s Own Stirring Reading of His Masterpiece

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” — a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).

Written in 1947, Thomas’s masterpiece was published for the first time in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951 and soon included in his 1952 poetry collection In Country Sleep, And Other Poems. In the fall of the following year, Thomas — a self-described “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” — drank himself into a coma while on a reading and lecture tour in America organized by the American poet and literary critic John Brinnin, who would later become his biographer of sorts. That spring, Brinnin had famously asked his assistant, Liz Reitell — who had had a three-week romance with Thomas — to lock the poet into a room in order to meet a deadline for the completion of his radio drama turned stage play Under Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas, early 1940s

In early November of 1953, as New York suffered a burst of air pollution that exacerbated his chronic chest illness, Thomas succumbed to a round of particularly heavy drinking. When he fell ill, Reitell and her doctor attempted to manage his symptoms, but he deteriorated rapidly. At midnight on November 5, an ambulance took the comatose Thomas to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. His wife, Caitlin Macnamara, flew from England and spun into a drunken rage upon arriving at the hospital where the poet lay dying. After threatening to kill Brinnin, she was put into a straitjacket and committed to a private psychiatric rehab facility.

When Thomas died at noon on November 9, it fell on New Directions founder James Laughlin to identify the poet’s body at the morgue. Just a few weeks later, New Directions published The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), containing the work Thomas himself had considered most representative of his voice as a poet and, now, of his legacy — a legacy that has continued to influence generations of writers, artists, and creative mavericks: Bob Dylan changed his last name from Zimmerman in an homage to the poet, The Beatles drew his likeness onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Christopher Nolan made “Do not go gentle into that good night” a narrative centerpiece of his film Interstellar.

Upon receiving news of Thomas’s death, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote in an astonished letter to a friend:

It must be true, but I still can’t believe it — even if I felt during the brief time I knew him that he was headed that way… Thomas’s poetry is so narrow — just a straight conduit between birth & death, I suppose—with not much space for living along the way.

In another letter to her friend Marianne Moore, Bishop further crystallized Thomas’s singular genius:

I have been very saddened, as I suppose so many people have, by Dylan Thomas’s death… He had an amazing gift for a kind of naked communication that makes a lot of poetry look like translation.

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” remains, indeed, Thomas’s best known and most beloved poem, as well as his most redemptive — both in its universal message and in the particular circumstances of how it came to be in the context of Thomas’s life.

By the mid-1940s, having just survived World War II, Thomas, his wife, and their newborn daughter were living in barely survivable penury. In the hope of securing a steady income, Thomas agreed to write and record a series of broadcasts for the BBC. His sonorous voice enchanted the radio public. Between 1945 and 1948, he was commissioned to make more than one hundred such broadcasts, ranging from poetry readings to literary discussions and cultural critiques — work that precipitated a surge of opportunities for Thomas and adrenalized his career as a poet.

At the height of his radio celebrity, Thomas began working on “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps because his broadcasting experience had attuned his inner ear to his outer ear and instilled in him an even keener sense of the rhythmic sonority of the spoken word, he wrote a poem tenfold more powerful when channeled through the human voice than when read in the contemplative silence of the mind’s eye.

In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:

For more beloved writers reading their own work, see Mary Oliver reading from Blue Horses, Adrienne Rich reading “What Kind of Times Are These,” J.R.R. Tolkien singing “Sam’s Rhyme of the Troll,” Frank O’Hara reading his “Metaphysical Poem,” Susan Sontag reading her short story “Debriefing,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day,”, Dorothy Parker reading “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom,” and Chinua Achebe reading his little-known poetry.

BP

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