Thursday, April 15, 2010

To Live a Popperian Life

We like to think of the absurd as a philosophy of doubt. It is a sharp blade that cuts through life’s thickest illusions. The absurd man, emboldened by the idea that life has no meaning or purpose, finds it easy to slay dragons that give other men nightmares, so to speak.

The absurd, in this way, shares its method with Rene Descartes’ methodical doubt. (Cartesian skepticism, as Descartes’ method became known, doubted nearly everything that could not be supported with logic.) As critic John Cruikshank put it, “This is why [Camus] says that The Myth of Sisyphus [Camus’ book on the philosophy of the absurd] offers a method of argument but does not contain a body of doctrine.”

As we’ve talked about before, the absurd does not tell a man how to live. There is no absurd lifestyle, per se. There are absurd attitudes and absurd conclusions, but not a systematic way of life as is the case with religions. The absurd is mostly concerned with sweeping away things that other men think so important and meaningful by showing that all things are unimportant and meaningless.

There is another philosopher of doubt that has always appealed to us and whose ideas, we think, have absurd applications. In our line of work – trying to make a buck in the world’s financial markets – he is the only philosopher anyone ever talks about because his ideas are eminently practical, and profitable.

That man is Karl Popper. In recent years, we have tried to live a more Popperian life by incorporating more of his ideas into our everyday thinking.

We won’t give you his life story, which you can find readily on the internet. We will get to the meat of Popper’s own unique brand of doubt. Let’s start with the famous example “All swans are white.”

Popper thought that no matter how many swans you found that were white you could never prove the statement that all swans were white. However, by finding a single black swan, you could disprove it. In this important sense, the observations we make are not verifiable, but only falsifiable.

Thinking this way, no amount of proof can ever verify a statement. All we can do is prove something is not true. All knowledge, then, is provisional knowledge – and permanently so. At no stage can we be sure of what we know now because at some future date that knowledge can be overturned by a “black swan.”

As Bryan Magee, a long-time scholar on Popper’s ideas puts it:

“If we are rational we shall always base our decision and expectations on ‘the best of our knowledge,’ as the popular phrase so rightly has it, and provisionally assume the ‘truth’ of that knowledge for practical purposes, because it is the least insecure foundation available; but we shall never lose sight of the fact that at any time experience may show it to be wrong and require us to revise it… According to Popper, falsification in whole or in part is the anticipated fate of all hypotheses.”

This is how true knowledge advances. We prove things are not true. We falsify ideas and by that way we get closer to the truth. To a Popperian, to find error is a pleasure.

Now, we’ve just summarized some basic ideas here and we are hardly doing justice to the depth of thought and the complexity of his ideas.

But Popper’s ideas on falsification seem a nice marriage with the absurd. As with the absurd, it is a philosophy of doubt. It has no doctrine. It is a philosophy more aimed at not being fooled by what may not be true, than it is a philosophy about proving something right. It is a philosophy open to the mysteries of the universe and to the idea that what we think we know may not be so. More than that, it actively seeks to falsify ideas.

To put it bluntly, to live a Popperian life means to not be a sucker for ideas that others take as given. Similarly, to live an absurd life means not be a sucker for ideas that other men let bind and constrict their lives.


  1. Although an atheist, I heard a good prayer today; "God, grant me freedom from what I think I know."


  2. Your short post has so many rich and fascinating connections to so many things that your ability to keep your post short is impressive.