On Karl Popper, George Gurdjieff, and Nondisprovable Hypotheses

Religion is a Very Serious subject for most people, whether they think of themselves as “religious” or not. So this is a Very Serious line of thought.

Whenever I have mentioned “Gurdjieff’s Partition,” which is the concept that disprovable hypotheses are the province of science, nondisprovable ones the province of faith, some have responded that this concept was proposed by Karl Popper. Perhaps so. Gurdjieff predates Popper, and I don’t have dates for when either of them proposed such a concept. However, the dates don’t matter, because the two men had entirely different agendas for why they were making the proposal.

Popper was concerned with delimiting what sort of propositions can be investigated by means of the scientific method. Obviously, if a proposition could not be falsified by any conceivable fact, there is no way to decide whether it is objectively true or not. Popper’s concern was to cleanse science of futile attempts to make decisions about the undecideable. Some people (not Popper himself) go another step, to assert that nondisprovable hypotheses are therefore unimportant, meaningless, unworthy of any sort of study, and so on, much like the fundamental assumption (itself a nondisprovable hypothesis) behind Logical Positivism.

Gurdjieff’s concern was the opposite. He saw the value in cleansing faith of disprovable hypotheses, which have often occasioned profound embarrassment, if not worse, for the religious, such as Bellarmine’s placing Galileo under house arrest for advocating the heliocentric model for the Solar system. Most of the dysfunctions of fundamentalist Christians in America arise, not from the actual doctrines of Christian faith, but from their belief that disprovable propositions are among such doctrines.

All propositions can be investigated in terms of whether they are consequential or not, which will always be a matter of degree. Disprovable hypotheses are consequential by definition, but the consequences of any specific hypothesis may not be important to anyone. It is important to understand that importance is itself a nondisprovable hypothesis.

It is obvious that a statement such as “God exists” is nondisprovable. It is apparently not as obvious to some people that a statement such as “No god exists” is equally nondisprovable. If faith is defined as belief that a nondisprovable hypothesis is true, then belief that the statement “No god exists” is true is also a type of faith.

Usually when a person in America says, “I do not believe in God,” what he or she means is, “I reject the traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs about what the divine is like.” However, so does any person who has an adult education about religion in general. What is taught to children in Sunday School or the equivalent is not adequate for adults and is, in fact, flat wrong in many ways, because it is contradicted by established facts; that is, the doctrines of such faith have been contaminated by admixture with disprovable propositions. Gurdjieff’s goal was to have a concept of faith that is absolutely compatible with modern science, because it would not include any disprovable hypotheses; hence faith and science could not possibly contradict each other.

Like disprovable hypotheses, nondisprovable hypotheses can (but not must) have practical consequences, which will also differ in importance. For example, a proposition that “Every human life is infinitely valuable” leads to very different consequences than one which asserts that “No human life is valuable.” Likewise, an assertion that “Something divine exists” leads to very different consequences than an assertion that “Nothing divine exists.” (Note that I’m using “divine” here rather than “God” or “The Gods” in order to leave open any discussion of what the characteristics of the “divine” might be.)

My discussion here is informed by William James’ pragmatism, which questioned whether a proposition could be true if it had no practical consequences. That is, it is fair and commonsensical to ask, “If that is true, then why doesn’t it work?” I think this view is epistemologically equivalent to the Pauline test of the validity of revelations: “Test the spirits. Does it build up the community?”

 

In reading Karl Popper’s own statements, I get the impression that he was openminded in much the way that Carl Jung or John Archibald Wheeler was. He too had to hide his openness from closedminded colleagues. In an interview he let be published only posthumously, he said,

 “I don’t know whether God exists or not. … Some forms of atheism are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don’t know and to search—is all right. … When I look at what I call the gift of life, I feel a gratitude which is in tune with some religious ideas of God. However, the moment I even speak of it, I am embarrassed that I may do something wrong to God in talking about God.”  He objected to organised religion, saying “it tends to use the name of God in vain”, noting the danger of fanaticism because of religious conflicts: “The whole thing goes back to myths which, though they may have a kernel of truth, are untrue. Why then should the Jewish myth be true and the Indian and Egyptian myths not be true?” (This is from Edward Zerin, “Karl Popper On God: The Lost Interview,” Skeptic 6:2, 1998.)

To put these remarks in perspective, all four of Popper’s grandparents were Jewish. His family converted to Lutheranism to assimilate, but apparently without changing their own beliefs.

To be agnostic is not to be ignorant. It is to know that we cannot know whether any sort of divinity objectively exists. To believe unquestioningly in the truth of any one nondisprovable hypothesis is epistemologically equivalent to certainty about any other one.  However, in practice, some hypotheses are more useful than others, if one remembers that the whole point of proposing a hypothesis at all is to attempt to explain the unexplained.

We can ignore sophomoric arguments that, “Since there is no Santa Claus, there is no God,” or, “Since space goes on forever, there’s no ‘Heaven’ where a God could live.” A far more serious question is, “If gods existed, they would make their existence obvious to us.” No, the latter rests on several unjustified assumptions. To explain them, let’s start with a nondisprovable hypothesis that occurs in various forms in several different kinds of traditions, to wit:

 The gods created humans, amid gales of laughter, since all gods do is play, so that humans could love them.

 Love must be given freely; a coerced feeling is not love at all. Hence humans must remain free to choose whether to love or not. A human fully in the presence of an infinite god would be overwhelmed and no longer able to make a free choice. Hence the gods do not reveal themselves to us in that way. Their primary agenda is to always protect our ability to make a free choice. That is a completely rational explanation of the human condition.

Of course, in real life, the actual reason why some people know (not merely believe) that divinity exists is that they have been engulfed for a moment and transformed by that presence. It cannot and must not last long. It is always an altered state in which the physical necessities of life would not be possible; still, a few are blessed with a long-lasting afterglow (and such a person has become what was classically called a Gnostic.) I think the reason such experiences happen is that the gods’ other primary agenda is to save our lives if they can, if we are not being impossibly stupid.

People who have never had such experiences find it hard to believe that they are possible, and have no way to comprehend what such experiences feel like. Rationalist psychologists always want to explain them away as being hallucinations. (Oh, dear.) And, of course, people who have them rarely want to discuss them; other people might think they are crazy, right?

The skeptic will reasonably insist that such subjective experiences do not constitute proof of or even evidence for the objective existence of any sort of divinity. (One unexamined assumption here is that such existence has to be what we think is objective.) That is, the skeptic insists that evidence is acceptable only if it can be perceived by every human being in the vicinity. True, that is a normal expectation in science, and it does eliminate a lot of hallucinations and wishful thinking, but it also ignores the huge differences in human abilities.

Do colors not exist, if some people are color-blind? Do sounds not exist, because some people are deaf? Do psychic talents not exist, because some people are about as psychic as a brick? Is dowsing a fantasy, just because only a minority of people can do it? (It’s fascinating that John Wheeler tried it and was good at it.) Auras, hunches, premonitions, funny feelings—these are all real experiences. Much of that can be explained in terms of how our minds actually work—without violating Occam’s Razor.

The final point I’m getting to is this: humans differ immensely in their capacity for what some call “spiritual discernment.” I think it’s a natural human talent, but it varies, and unfortunately it can be severely damaged and repressed. To insist there must be objective consensus on evidence about spiritual matters is to make people who have no usable capacity for spiritual discernment into the measurement for all the rest of humanity. That is not reasonable.

 


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