Posts Tagged ‘John Bower’

Popper and Xenophon on Science, the Gods, and the impossibility of Certain Knowledge

October 12, 2013

Bryan Magee, in his book on the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, notes that one of Popper favourite statements on the nature of science was from the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Xenophon. Xenophon wrote

‘The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.’

It’s a truly sceptical statement. Xenophon believed that the gods purposely did not reveal all knowledge to humanity, deliberately leaving it to humanity to find things out for themselves, in order that they could have a deeper understanding of the cosmos. However, human knowledge is, in the last analysis, ‘a web of guesses’. They are actually attempts by the human intellect to understand the universe, but not true knowledge itself. In fact the nature of the universe is such that people wouldn’t understand the truth about the universe, even if they were accidentally to stumble upon it.

The astronomer John Barrow said something similar in his book, Theories of Everything. Barrow was arguing against the view of Stephen Hawking, and repeated in the popular press and science journals, that we could have a final ‘theory of everything’. He argued that the nature of the universe was so complex, and some of the events that created the modern cosmos, such as the symmetry-breaking in which the original superforce broke up into the separate forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, were so random, that a theory of everything would be so general that it would actually explain nothing. Or else it would be so complex, that it would need another theory to explain it in turn, and so not actually be a final theory of everything. And so despite the claims of Stephen Hawking, the final truth about the universe, expressed into the kind of equation you put on a T-shirt, like the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer ‘What’s 6 x 9? 42’ in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will remain forever elusive.

Sources

Bryan Magee, Popper (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1975) p. 28.

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