What Do We Know? What Could We Know? What Will Never Know?

I once watched a movie with a friend who is knee-deep in ideology. It was a police film that began by presenting a rosy image of the police: he helps the oppressed and seeks to uphold justice and apply the law, putting the public interest above his own and any other private interest.  

My friend leaned over to me and whispered that wicked Hollywood was doing it again. It presents a man who is nothing more than a small tool for repression as a guardian angel. Is this not Hollywood’s function in the final analysis? 

A few minutes were enough to make us understand that this was a corrupt policeman who took bribes and that he had been faking his uprightness earlier in the movie to further an ulterior motive. Aware that he would reply with that go-to phrase, “but Hollywood, in the final analysis, is…,” I said nothing to my friend.  

Indeed, my intention is not to defend Hollywood but to demonstrate a way of thinking that does not hesitate to spread its apriori and absolutist knowledge. Those who follow this line of thinking move towards their goal like an arrow. As “the final analysis” experts, they use another “final analysis” they had readied beforehand if the details fail them.   

It is a teleology that does not burden itself with the empirical facts of the world around it in the slightest.  

The Austrian-British philosopher of science, Karl Popper, was among the most prominent critics of this single-minded knowledge whose certainty is not put in doubt under any circumstance.  

He addresses this phenomenon, which he traces back to ancient Greece, in two of his books, “The Open Society and Its Enemies” and “The Poverty of Historicism,” as well as several of his studies. In ancient Greece, society was “open,” and individuals and citizens were free and responsible for the decisions tied to their lives.  

In such a society, individuals account for the fact that they are liable to make mistakes and are thus, always prepared to improve their understanding of the phenomena around them and the experiences they undergo. This vision of the world implants a form of anxiety that tires those who hold it and allows for creativity simultaneously – an anxiety unfamiliar to closed societies that have settled on ready-made answers and collectivities founded on kinship and blood they had been born into.  

However, three greats in the history of ideas laid the foundations for a shift in the opposite direction, which, in the modern era, led to totalitarianism.  

Plato was the first of these three in Popper’s view. Influenced by the events, pains, and disappointments of his era, from accusations of corrupting the youth leading his teacher Socrates to swallow poison to Sparta conquering Athens after the Peloponnesian War.  

As we know, Plato wrote of two worlds in The Republic and what became known as “The Allegory of the Cave”: one of those worlds is that of the physical realm in which we live, where there are false shadows that misrepresent the ideal forms in the second, virtual realm, the “world of forms.” If the latter encompasses the pristine, eternal, and atemporal, the earthly versions are imperfect; they decay and break down, just as our bodies break down and age. This is as true for city-states and their political powers as it is for civilization as a whole. 

For Plato, who hates democracy – which he equates to anarchy and claims leads to the tyranny of the commoners – to remedy this decay, we must understand things “holistically,” i.e., that we understand all the component parts of a particular phenomena. Thus, we must bring to power a ruler who has a strong, holistic grasp of all those parts and prevents decay.  

Since philosophy and power, action and awareness, come together in this ruler, he is to be a “philosopher king.” And so, the man who inherited power and was raised to undertake this task ascends to the top, as his knowledge of the ideal and essence of things is tried and tested.    

After Plato and his “holistic” inclination, Hegel and Marx developed the idea of “historicism,” whereby collective human behavior within a society is necessarily deliberate; it is neither contingent, arbitrary nor unpredictable. According to the two German philosophers, we can understand certain modes of social progress and grasp them.  

This understanding turns into laws of historical development and human behavior through which we can deduce the direction of the future – a direction that we humans have little to do but push for or accelerate the path towards. We thereby transition from history to the end of history. Once we reach it, all humans will live in unprecedented peace and freedom.  

This view of the world, according to Popper, impels extremely callous social engineering aimed at preparing the people for this destination and pushing them to accommodate it.   

Popper leaves us, without interruption, before a stark distinction between the modest knowledge of scientists and philosophers and what is supposedly the knowledge of prophets. For example, he rebuffs phrases like “history of mankind,” given that we do not have such a comprehensive history in our hands. 

As for what he believes is available to us, it is always being less wrong rather than being right. Continuing along this line of thinking, the Austrian-British philosopher makes one of his most significant contributions, establishing the concept of falsifiability, the capacity for an argument to be proven wrong through an experiment or an observation: what distinguishes science from speculation is that the former can be proven wrong; when a hypothesis cannot be proven wrong, it is not a scientific hypothesis.  

In another text, Popper examines a phrase that has become classic: “all swans are white.” This “conviction” was prevalent for centuries until 17th century European explorers and travelers saw black swans for the first time.  

The fact is, statements like that cited above are necessarily wrong for three reasons: those who saw the swans that have been seen did not see all the swans in the world, meaning they cannot reach such an absolute conclusion. Second, we do not know what kind of swans existed in the past, and finally, we do not know what form swans will take in the future.  

Language has endowed us with words like “might,” “maybe,” “probable,” and “likely”… We should seek the protection offered by these words and use them more often. As for my friend, he could have done some patience and should have waited for the movie to end.