El término de una búsqueda sin término

The end of an endless search. Karl Popper discusses death

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Aceprensa, 124/94
date of on-line publication: 28 September 1994

Sir Karl Popper was born in Vienna on 28 July 1902, and died in London on 17 September 1994. He is regarded as one of the leading philosophers of this century. He has certainly been one of the most influential in the Philosophy of science, and also in the political and social Philosophy , where he has stood out for his defence of the democratic "open society" and his critique of Marxism and all totalitarianisms.

In 1977 "The self and its brain" was published. The first part is by Popper. The second part is by Sir John Eccles, award Nobel Prize in medicine (neurophysiology) for his research on the brain. The third part is a collection of twelve dialogues that Popper and Eccles held at Villa Serbelloni in September 1974, twenty years ago. In the foreword they say: "One of us (Eccles) believes in God and the supernatural, while the other (Popper) could be called an agnostic, although each of us not only deeply respects the other's position, but sympathises with it".

In dialogue XI (29-30 September), Popper and Eccles discuss survival after death. At the edge of this topic, they present their views on science and the meaning of human life.

Evolutionary explanations

Whoever believes in God can be an evolutionist at the same time. If he is, he will affirm that God has created the universe in a primitive state and placed in it laws that allow the progressive organisation of the subject; that God maintains in being all that he has created and makes its evolution possible; and that, in each human being, God creates a being that resembles him by his spiritual capacities of knowledge and love.

Whoever does not believe in God must be an evolutionist. And he must affirm that the human person "emerges" from subject, in a completely mysterious way. Some dogmatically affirm that evolution explains everything. Others recognise that it explains almost nothing, and leaves almost everything a mystery. This is the case with Popper.

Indeed, in the dialogue with Eccles, Popper states: "I now wish to emphasise how little is said when it is asserted that the mind is an emergent product of the brain. It is practically of no explanatory value and amounts to little more than putting a question mark at a certain place in human evolution. Nevertheless, I think it is the only thing we can say from a Darwinian point of view". Of course, Popper was a convinced Darwinist, but this did not prevent him from pointing out that neither Darwinism, nor any other evolutionary theory, explains the unique characteristics of the human person.

Lest there should be any doubt, Popper adds: "And certainly evolution cannot in any sense be taken as an ultimate explanation. We have to get used to the idea that we live in a world in which almost everything that is very important must remain essentially unexplained... ultimately written request, everything remains unexplained: especially everything that concerns existence". And still: "I would like to emphasise, in case I have not done so before, that evolutionary theory never provides us with a full explanation of anything that is generated in the course of evolution.... In a sense, evolutionary theory is terribly weak as an explanatory theory, and we should be aware of that". These statements lead us to Popper's ideas about knowledge.

Conjectures and refutations

The core of Popper's thought can be summed up in this expression: "Conjectures and refutations" is the degree scroll he gave to one of his major books, published in 1963. The basic idea is simple. We live surrounded by puzzles, and for our knowledge to advance, we need to propose hypotheses and submit them to test. However, we can never prove that our hypotheses are definitely true. Some people fabricate a theory and cling to it, closing their eyes to possible counterexamples: such an attitude is irrational and sterile. We should rather look for counterexamples, and rejoice when we find one, because then we can find out where we have made a mistake and, on that basis, we can formulate a better hypothesis. Thus, our knowledge advances by means of hypotheses that are always "conjectures", and counterexamples that are "refutations" of these conjectures and lead us to new hypotheses.

Hence Popper's degree scroll for his intellectual autobiography, published in 1974: "Search without end". We can never be completely sure of anything. However, we search for the truth, and we can get closer and closer to it, provided we use the method of "essay and error" or "conjecture and refutation".

Graphically, Popper says that this method is basically the same from the amoeba to Einstein. It is used by animals, and even Darwinian evolution by "mutations and selection" is a variant of "essay and error elimination".

The open society

Popper applied these ideas to social and political theory. His central idea is transparent: if no one can possess definitive certainties, everyone must be respected. Hence his fierce defence of democracy, tolerance and respect for the individual. And his strong criticism of all totalitarianism subject , especially Marxism.

It is interesting to note that his devastating critique of Marxism was set out in the voluminous book "The Open Society and its Enemies", published in 1945, when the Soviet Union was an ally of the Western powers. The work has three parts, devoted to three great enemies of the open society: the third is Marx.

Against utopias that easily lead to totalitarianism and deception, Popper advocates a policy internship: respecting the individual, freedom and private initiative as much as possible, while at the same time listing the concrete evils afflicting society and trying to eradicate them, one by one, by concrete means.

The self and its brain

Sir John Eccles claims that Popper's methodology has helped him in his scientific work , which led him to the award Nobel Prize. Popper and Eccles were good friends and admired each other. However, this did not prevent them from expressing their differences, especially with regard to the ultimate questions of existence. Let us return to dialogue XI of "The self and its brain" from 1977, to appreciate these differences more closely.

Popper, as a good agnostic, states that he does not believe in survival after death: "I do not expect an eternity of survival. On the contrary, the idea of going on forever seems to me to be downright terrifying. ..... I don't think we would really value life if it were destined to go on forever. I think it is precisely the fact that it is finite and limited, the fact that we have to face its end, that makes life and even the ultimate suffering of death more valuable...... Perhaps I should also say that all attempts to imagine an eternal life seem to me to have utterly failed to make that idea attractive in any way. I need not go into details, and far be it from me to ridicule such attempts.... death confers value, and in a sense an almost infinite value, on our lives, making the task of spending our lives to achieve something for others more urgent and more attractive.

With the gentleness of a friend but with the clarity of a scientist, Eccles replies: "I think, Karl, that you are misled by crude attempts to describe life after death..... there must be a central core, the innermost self, which survives the death of the brain to access some other existence that is completely beyond anything we can imagine...".

When he speaks of survival, Popper is thinking above all of some attempts to describe it that seem to him not very serious. In fact, he expressly alludes to the Islamic heaven and the ghostly semi-existence of the spiritualists. On the contrary, when Eccles speaks of another life that takes place under other conditions, outside time and space (as Christianity claims), Popper adds: "If there is any value in the idea of survival, then I think that those who say that it cannot be simply in space and time, and that it cannot be merely a temporal eternity, must be taken very seriously".

Science and spirit

Eccles defends the spirituality of the human soul, created by God and destined for a life that extends beyond earthly existence. And in his dialogue he alludes to another award Nobel laureate, Charles Sherrington, also an expert (like Eccles) on the brain. He says that Sherrington wrote against immortality, but adds: "he gave me to understand immediately before his death in 1952 that he may have changed his mind on the subject, saying: 'For me, the only reality now is the human soul'".

Experimental science tells us nothing about God, the soul or ethics. But this does not mean that there is no God, no soul and no ethics: these are simply realities that fall outside the realm of science. When science is instrumentalised and pushed beyond its limits, it incurs excesses such as Eccles describes in these words: "I believe that science has gone too far in breaking down man's belief in his spiritual greatness by supplying him with the idea that he is merely an insignificant material being in the frigid cosmic vastness... man is much more than his purely materialistic explanation indicates".

Science has nothing to do with materialism or agnosticism. Most materialists and agnostics recognise this today. On the other hand, the enormous progress of science sample shows that the human person possesses a capacity for argument and reasoning that places him far above all other natural beings.

Popper rightly stresses time and again the importance of argumentation and reasoning. His Philosophy has even been called "critical rationalism". He is also right to point out the great limits of our knowledge, and to defend the individual against authoritarianism. But he encounters difficulties when he considers the rationale of his Philosophy. Indeed, if we are just more evolved animals than others, where do intelligence, the ability to do science and ethical values come from?

Are there ultimate answers?

In his dialogue with Popper, Eccles states: "Thus, I am forced to believe that there is what we might call a supernatural origin of my unique self-conscious mind, my unique self or my unique soul".

The differences between Eccles and Popper cannot be resolved by science alone. They include doses of experience staff, of intimate convictions arising from other sources, and of Philosophy. For example, from what he himself explains in his autobiography, Popper does not seem to have found it easy to find a profound knowledge of religion. Instead, his philosophical training leads him to pose the problems in a way that probably leads hopelessly to dead ends; thus, in the case of knowledge, Popper identifies, like Descartes and so many others, certainty with a perfect and absolute demonstration, which is indeed very difficult and perhaps impossible: and he does not realise that we can arrive at genuine certainties even if they are not based on "ideally perfect" demonstrations.

In the absence of ultimate answers, the search for and recognition of truth, as well as ethical values, remain rather up in the air. If we are just more evolved animals than others, what is the point of talking about objective truth, and why shouldn't we apply the "law of the jungle"? Aren't agnostics more consistent, arriving at scepticism and pure pragmatism?

See you later.....

Popper is certainly not a sceptic or a pure pragmatist. And he has always stood for rationality and respect for the individual. In concluding his dialogue with Eccles, he declares: "I think I must speak for both of us in saying that, although we disagree, we take seriously and respect each other's views on subject. I think we would both stand up against a lack of respect for someone's attitude to these very important issues".

In former times, Popper could be said to have been a gentleman. He was literally a gentleman because, as an Austrian, he was knighted by the Queen of England, where he lived for 50 years. Sir Karl Popper has left behind him a trail of dignity and many ideas that are stimulating even when they are not shared, as some of them are for me.

I came across Popper's work, coincidentally, some 30 years ago. I know him quite well, and he has always been a stimulus for my own work. I gave a doctoral course on Popper at the University of Barcelona when almost nobody was talking about him in Spain. My first book was about Popper. I share many of his intuitions, although it seems to me that they lack an adequate foundation and that, for that reason, his conclusions can sometimes be disorienting. But I owe him a great deal.

I am sure Sir John Eccles will have prayed for him. So am I. I don't know what Sir Karl's attitude must have been in his last moments, but I am convinced that he is still living in the expectation of the final resurrection. Even if he didn't know it. And I hope to meet him in some time, because it seems to me that he had, and has, a noble soul.

Popper's main works

  1. La lógica de la research científica. Tecnos, Madrid 1977. (original 1934)
  2. The misery of historicism. Taurus-Alianza, Madrid 1973. (original 1944-1945)
  3. The open society and its enemies. Paidós, Barcelona 1982. (original 1945).
  4. Conjectures and refutations. El development del knowledge científico. Paidós, Barcelona 1983. (original 1963)
  5. knowledge goal: an evolutionist approach . Tecnos, Madrid 1974. (original 1972)
  6. El yo y su cerebro (in partnership with J. C. Eccles). Labor, Barcelona 1980 (original 1977).
  7. Search without end. An intellectual autobiography. Tecnos, Madrid 1977. (original 1974)
  8. Post-scriptum to "The Logic of Scientific research ". 3 volumes. Tecnos, Madrid 1984 and 1985. (original 1982-1983)

About Popper

  1. Artigas, M. Karl Popper: Búsqueda sin término. Magisterio Español, Madrid 1979. It is a synthesis and critical analysis of Popper's Philosophy . 179 pages.
  2. Artigas, M. The search for Karl Popper. Aceprensa, 70/84 (9 May 1984).
  3. Artigas, M. Karl Popper's "The Open Universe". Aceprensa, 171/84 (7 November 1984).
  4. Artigas, M. The challenge of rationality. Eunsa, Pamplona 1994 (in press). Chapter II is a exhibition and analysis of Popper's life, works and thought.