You may not be able to prove what you believe about the world, no matter how often an observation or experiment takes place, but you can disprove it.
Popper used the example of swans. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you see, it still doesn’t prove that all swans are white. But if you see a black swan, then you know they are not.
Popper was writing during the Second World War, his home city was in the hands of totalitarians, and he quickly found himself applying this insight to politics too. In doing so, he produced one of the classic twentieth century statements of philosophical liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies.He said societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. This has huge implications, not just for effective societies, but for effective organisations too.Popper was flying at the time in the face of the accepted opinions of the chattering classes. They may not have liked the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but people widely believed the rhetoric that they were somehow more efficient than the corrupt and timid democracies.Popper explained why they were not, and why Hitler would lose. Anybody who has read Antony Beevor’s classic account of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the hideous slaughter and inefficiencies brought about by two centralised dictators who had to take every decision personally, can see immediately that Popper was right.
I’d argue that what defines liberalism is taking seriously the possibility that you are wrong. Liberals may not read Popper as much as Boyle would like. However, we are instinctively drawn to institutions like localism, proportional representation and a free press that allow people to articulate (and indeed sometimes implement) alternative approaches to the government – including potentially a liberal one.
This seems like the right approach. Human societies are almost impossible to understand: each individual is complex and paradoxical, so when millions of them interact the uncertainty is mind blowing. The communities we live in are subject to an extraordinary amount of diversity and butterfly effects. Oh and this is a system we are part of, so are denied the opportunity to look at from the outside. With all this mind, it is best to suppose – as liberals do – that we are wisdom consists of knowing how little we know….Well Probably!
Hat tip: Stephen Tall