Conjectures and Refutations

Today is World Book Day, and my contribution to it is to talk briefly about a book that totally captivated me. It was Karl Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations,” first published in 1963, but which I first read the 3rd edition of in 1969, and which the author signed for me.

It is Popper’s most readable book, though it sacrifices none of his intellectual force in being accessible to the intelligent lay reader. Popper had earlier solved Hume’s problem of induction in his “Logic of Scientific Discovery,” and this book develops that theme. “We can learn,” says Popper, “from our mistakes.”

Instead of committing ourselves to the ungrounded belief that tomorrow will be like yesterday, we conjecture theories and then test them to see if they hold up under experiment. It is from our creative brains that these conjectures come, as do the experiments that might refute them.

The book is subtitled “The Growth of Scientific Knowledge,” making the case that each of these pieces of “knowledge” is tentative, and might have to be rejected if experiment goes against what it predicted. “Conjectures and Refutations” was not written as a book, but is a compilation of many lectures Popper had given in and around its central theme.

The book is a powerful antidote against all-embracing theories which purport to “deduce” knowledge systematically. No, says Popper, it is more like inspired guesswork coupled with a methodology for exposing and rejecting what doesn’t sit with observed reality.

“What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth, even though it be beyond our reach.”

It is powerful stuff, and beautifully written. It sets out the methodology which has brought us thus far in understanding the universe we inhabit and has enabled us to send our sounding line to the brink of infinity.