glyph 613: important question: how minimize damage caused by bad governments and mistakes arising from bad theories ... the fundamental importance of continuous error correction ... political theory ... epistemology ... no ideal governments, no ideal sources of knowledge ... error correction opens the way to ever renewed wonder


Karl Popper on how to improve government and knowledge

endless conjecture and refutation

The following is taken from part XV of the introductory chapter of Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations. The title of the introduction is "Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance".

The traditional systems of epistemology may be said to result from yes-answers or no-answers to questions about the sources of knowledge. They never challenge these questions, or dispute their legitimacy; the questions are taken as perfectly natural, and nobody seems to see any harm in them.

This is quite interesting, for these questions are clearly authoritarian in spirit. They can be compared with that traditional question of political theory, 'Who should rule?', which begs for an authoritarian answer such as 'the best', or 'the wisest', or 'the people', or 'the majority'. (It suggests, incidentally, such silly alternatives as 'Whom do you want as rulers: the capitalists or the workers?', analogous to 'What is the ultimate source of knowledge: the intellect or the senses?') This political question is wrongly put and the answers which it elicits are paradoxical (as I have tried to show in chapter 7 of my Open Society). It should be replaced by a completely different question such as 'How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers (whom we should try not to get, but whom we so easily might get all the same) cannot do too much damage?' I believe that only by changing our question in this way can we hope to proceed towards a reasonable theory of political institutions.

The question about the sources of our knowledge can be replaced in a similar way. It has always been asked in the spirit of: 'What are the best sources of our knowledge--the most reliable ones, those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal?' I propose to assume, instead, that no such ideal sources exist--no more than ideal rulers--and that all 'sources' are liable to lead us into error at times. And I propose to replace, therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: 'How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?'

This quotation was drawn to our attention by Michael Strong, creator of the Academy of Thought and Industry, a fine place for young explorers, where K. R. Popper's ideas play an important part, if not as foreground, always in background.

Conjectures and Refutations, a guide by Rafe Champion, whose note on part XV begins with this heading: "The authoritarian structure of traditional philosophy"
July 11, 2019; edited/updated July 25, 2019

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