Advancing gently over the wooden floors of the Albertina gallery in Vienna, my family and I perused the impactful precision of Albrecht Dürer’s work. A craftsman beset on hunting for truth. A man whose legacy reaches beyond the realm of art.
It was my daughter’s first time at an exhibition, and she was taking it all in with the unbounded zest only a child can muster. Zest, what a word, much like inhaling Northern Lights through twinkling eyes. A sensation many adults pursue and may experience in short bursts if they’re lucky. Perhaps we are prone to a wistful trade-off for gaining more stamina as we get older. Eventually, we had to carry her as her little feet became tired and she grew weary of the crowds. She didn’t know why she was there after all or that she was doing me a huge favour. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be close to the man, who helped me see my role in the bigger picture and understand the following quandary.
Taking a bird’s-eye view, our lives may be defined by certain truths that form the parameters of our existence. If our expectations, hopes and ambitions, our ideas about the way in which we relate to others and engage with our surroundings reach beyond these limitations, we are trying to attain the unattainable or escape the inescapable.
Either way, what we are trying to achieve is destined to fail within the confines of reality. Attempts made in opposition to this fact are futile. We cannot read other people’s minds or expect them to decipher ours. We can’t determine the future or change the past. We all have to face death at some point and cope with uncertainty. Unless new discoveries and innovations alter said notions, these truths dictate the conditions we are subject to and obtaining them through a clear lens would decidedly improve the quality of our lives. Yet, futile attempts are commonplace and coming to terms with these boundaries isn’t easy, at least, not for me. The skirmishes of life pull the rug from under my lofty views each and every time. Whenever I think I’ve arrived, I find myself lost at sea. What role can I, of all people, play in garnering a means of bringing us a step closer to the truth?
The irony of someone like me writing a blog still hasn’t escaped me. I can’t really read or write the way other people do. In fact, I don’t read and write; I comb and carve. That may sound cool, but it actually alludes to the type of concentration I have to put myself through to produce a piece of writing. Once there, it is only with reluctance that I unwind the handle of the vice. Do you remember that kid in class, who was half asleep, daydreaming or slow on the uptake? Yup, that was me. I was good at P.E. My family, friends and supportive teachers got me through school. While my father helped me with trigonometry into the late hours of the night, I used to gawk at his bookshelf with awe and trepidation. So much knowledge, so many words. I wish I could read it all. One name kept appearing in my dad’s collection; that name was Karl Popper.
My father used to rave about Popper’s insights and humility, which made me very curious, but fear and low competence are formidable adversaries.
More than twenty years after finishing school, I plucked up the courage to read his work upon my return to university. It helped that Popper was part of the curriculum. Hunkering on selected morsels of his text, I seemed at times to encounter my own thoughts, only put together in a clearer and more intelligible way than I ever could. Thoughts I merely brushed at or that were whizzing around in my mind, were elegantly organized, crushed and ground to iridescent dust. I was in the presence of a great thinker.
Popper (2014) tackles truth by taking an intuitive look at Alfred Tarski’s correspondence theory of objective truth. Tarski, a logician and mathematician, formulated his idea of truth in terms of how statements correspond to facts. The assertion that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system is true in so far as it corresponds to the facts e.g., a denotation of the criteria for what constitutes a planet, the measurement of the circumference of Jupiter compared to other planets and the inclusivity of planets within the boundary of our solar system. Independently of the facts, a competing view that Saturn is the largest planet in our solar system shows that objective truth may make relativism inadmissible, because both could be false, one could be more accurate than the other, but they cannot both be true. Subjective truth, on the other hand, can be well-founded to some individuals and cultures, but not to others e.g., morals, customs, names and borders of countries and the value of their currencies.
Popper (2014) argues that something may be true although we may not have any good reasons for it to be so. Alternatively, we may have excellent reasons to believe something is true, when it is in fact false. Followingly, objective truth may invalidate solipsistic views of truth, for if we knew nothing of these facts or if the human race ceased to exist, the assertion that Jupiter is the largest planet in this solar system would still be true in so far as it still corresponds to the facts. Objective truth, as oppose to subjective truth, doesn’t require coherence, knowledge or usefulness. It isn’t built on some kind of belief, social norm or reliable success and, therefore, free from pragmatic, individual or a class of constraints. An idea about the world may be true or untrue, whether we agree with it, know about it, believe in it, grew up with it or quite frankly, whether we like it or not. Objective truth exists independently of human consciousness.
This humbling notion results in an ensuing problem. As a child, I learnt that the Neanderthal was our ancestor. This turned out to be false when it was discovered that Homo Sapiens lived alongside and competed with the Neanderthal. Now it has come to light that non-African individuals have 3% Neanderthal DNA, which means that some Homo Sapiens intermarried with Neanderthals (Villanea & Schraiber, 2019; Currat & Excoffier, 2011). So we are, at least in part, descended from the Neanderthal. Or try these for good measure - we used to have 9 planets in our solar system, now we have 8. Fat used to be fattening, but now carbohydrates are the true enemy. It was said that red wine was healthy, after which it was healthy in small doses. Then only one glass of red wine per day was healthy but only for men. At this moment in time, red wine just isn’t healthy. Make up your bloody mind will you! What on earth are they going to come up with next? Though the absurdity is apparent, this process points to the tendency of our knowledge to continually adjust to new developments and discoveries, an idea embellished by Xenophanes 2500 years before:
“And even if by chance [man] were to utter
The perfect truth, he would himself not know it;
For all is but a woven web of guesses.”
The acquisition of knowledge as guesswork invokes a gradual stepping forward into the unknown, inch by inch, with the idea of truth as the needle on a tightly held compass. Like a child, stumbling in the dark, reaching out into a void and colliding with the unexpected.
Yet, forging ahead, the child gently palpates textures and contours and assembles an internal map of its surroundings piecemeal with its fingertips, gently balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. But the map is not the territory and there’s the rub. Every attempt is merely a provisional solution. Every blunder, a prediction error forcing the mind to regroup. The child’s journey is a discovery of a series of errors, that gives rise to new problems and, alas, all life is problem-solving.
Yet Popper (1999) argues, that with each and every step, no matter how wrongfooted, we can gradually eliminate failed attempts. Moreover, a pluralism of tries, would maximize the production and hence the elimination of error, allowing us to gain a better approximation of the truth. We may never know what it is, but we may get closer by knowing what it isn’t.
I suppose the most important word in the preceding sentence has got to be we. The fact that all individuals are confined to a subjective experience of the world is aptly illustrated by the lyricized parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant by John G. Saxe, read beautifully here on the channel Spoken Verse. Though the poem pertains to theology, it can be applied here. Hence, let’s assume this is really happening and the blind men have never heard of this thing called an elephant. Each of them touches a different part of the elephant and thinks their view resembles the truth. Yet the story doesn’t end there. They do not agree to disagree or regard each view as equally valid. They do not jump to the conclusion that epistemic humility or the condition of subjectivity mean that the elephant doesn’t exist. They are in dispute with one another letting their perspectives compete. Yet, the story need not end there still. Imagine more and more blind men touching the elephant, sharing, discussing, comparing and contrasting their views with others. Slowly the information would accumulate, and the shape of an elephant would gradually emerge. In his criticism, Saxe may have paved a way to this type of discourse by arguing that the blind men are “to learning much inclined” and yet ignorant “of what each other mean”. A desire to learn what is truly out there may afford an effort to understand each other in an act of collaboration for the sake of truth, instead of derision or collusion to maintain positions, tribal allegiances or a safe seat on the ship of harmony steadily gliding towards a precipice.
So, to return to the pivotal question above, what role can I, of all people, play in garnering a means of bringing us a step closer to the truth? I’m slightly naïve, a late starter, a stumbler in the dark. I’m publishing something here for the whole world to see and I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable with that. Yet in Popper’s thoughts on an evolutionary epistemology, I chanced upon a quote by none other than the afore mentioned Albrecht Dürer, which helped me understand my part in our ascension towards a mountain range, whose peaks are wrapped up in dense fog. We are not alone on this journey but are travelling together towards a blind summit.
“But I shall let the little I have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than I may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error. At this I shall rejoice that I was yet a means whereby this truth has come to light.”
Currat, M. and Excoffier, L., 2011. Strong reproductive isolation between humans and Neanderthals inferred from observed patterns of introgression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(37), pp.15129-15134.
Popper, K., 2014. The Theory of Objective Truth: Correspondence to the Facts in Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. Routledge.
Popper, K.R., 1999. The Logic and Evolution of Scientific Theory in All life is problem solving. Psychology Press.
Villanea, F.A. and Schraiber, J.G., 2019. Multiple episodes of interbreeding between Neanderthal and modern humans. Nature ecology & evolution, 3(1), pp.39-44.