When asked to participate in this exercise, to write an essay on how Popper has influenced my life, and to do so in 3,500 words, I almost let out a little giggle. The thought that 3,500 words could even begin to describe my answer to that question, seemed impossible. Alas, I am determined to take on this challenge, and to somehow fit into 3,500 words, what impact Karl Popper has had on my life. The short answer to this question is simple enough however, Karl Popper taught me who I was, who I’ve always been, and who I wanted to become. But how can a philosopher whom I have never met before, who had passed away when I was 2 and who lived on the other side of the world, have such a profound impact on my life? Well, my journey to Popper began with my journey to truth, my journey to science.
My family moved from New South Wales, Australia (where I was born), to Queensland, the Sunshine State just above it, when I was 9 years old. In order to stay with the kids of my own age, I skipped a grade and went from Year 3 to Year 5. In Australia, Year 4 is generally the year when you learn about the solar system, the stars and the galaxies. I can remember walking past solar system diagrams when I was in Year 3, so eager to learn about those different coloured balls revolving around each other. Yet, I missed out. But now, I am quite glad I did. As I continued to get older, I understood what the planets were, in a general sense, but the night sky remained quite the mystery to me for quite some time; and it sure wasn’t the general conversation of children of that age, let alone teenagers.
But all that changed one seemingly unimportant day when I was in Year 10 (around 15 years old). I was sitting in my regular science class, listening to the teacher at the front of the room talk quite casually about the universe. The ordinary lines which he gave so nonchalantly went something like: ‘…so you know that the sun is a star, and there are billions of stars in the galaxy, and there are billions of galaxies…’. He continued with his predetermined lesson, buy my whole world had stopped, the sun was a star? I looked at the sunshine spilling through the classroom window, that was star light? There are billions of these stars? And billions of galaxies containing these stars? My cosmos had changed in the space of a few seconds, it was like I was Giordano Bruno pushing back the curtain of his own cosmos all those years ago.
And that was the moment, right there, in a classroom filled with people quite un-impressed with what the teacher was going on about, that was the moment when I silently fell in love, the moment I feel in love with truth and with science.
And from that moment on I was hooked. I wanted to know everything, I wanted to find more of these hidden treasures hiding behind seemingly ordinary things. So, I studied, in my own time after school, all the documentaries I could find. Luckily, my Dad was also passionate about science, so he passed on to me wonderful documentaries, from Richard Dawkins to Brian Cox. I remember staying up late at night, watching Brian Cox and writing down the bases found in the DNA molecule, trying to memorize everything and learn about its infinite potentials and possibilities. To this day, my love of truth has never wavered, I have never ceased to be impressed by it, and have never stopped seeking it.
Surprisingly enough, my Dad had never introduced me to Carl Sagan. I was very well acquainted with the new Cosmos series, Cosmos:_A_Spacetime_Odyssey, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that’s for sure, but had never known much about Sagan. In fact, the first instalment of the new Cosmos series was my favourite documentary of all time. I would even annoy friends around me because ‘all you ever want to watch is Cosmos’. Just hearing and seeing the main title, would bring a tear to my eye. What drew me so much to it, I believe, was the emphasis it placed on the history of science, the people, their problems and their solutions. With this documentary grew in me the desire to know the complete history of science, I wanted to know who started it and how it had happened.
Then I finally became acquainted with Carl Sagan, and what a joyous occasion that was. I saw something special in him, something that reminded me of myself; I saw his love for truth, his love for science, and his desire to share it with the world.
The moment I was first introduced to Popper was through Carl Sagan. I was reading his biography by Keay Davidson and I remember Davidson referring to Sagan as a Popper. He would say something along the lines of: ‘Sagan agreed that a theory must be testable through observation, as a Popper…’. And I remember thinking, this ‘Popper’ must be pretty great if Carl Sagan agreed with him. But I continued on my research, trying to trace back the history of science, the beginning of the great enlightenment.
No doubt, Sagan had passed on some interesting information regarding this development. In his original Cosmos series, he even mentions Thales and the Ionian School. But I wanted to know more. So I went where any normal 24 year old would go when they wanted to find more information… to the library of course.
And boy was I glad I did. I went straight to the science section and began reading the titles, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a book about the history of science, right? I stumbled upon a book called The Beginning of Infinity’ by David Deutsch, which I thought had to have something to do with the beginning of science. So I loaned the book and eagerly began reading, or should I say, attempting to read it. At this point, I had gotten into the habit of writing down quotes from the various books I was reading, and there were a few I wrote down from The Beginning of Infinity, a few of these quotes were from Popper.
There was that name again. ‘Okay’, I thought to myself, ‘I better see what this Popper person is all about. To have these two, highly intelligent men know about him, is no small feat.’ I began searching the web and found the nearest bookstore that sold Conjectures and Refutations, surprisingly there was only one. I eagerly picked it up, eagerly awaited what I was about to learn and eagerly hoped that I would finally find the answer to which I was seeking, how did it all begin?
At this point, I was still writing down quotes from the books I was reading, and I found myself taking a lot of quotes from Conjectures and Refutations. A few chapters in and I realized that I could not continue writing down the parts in the book which I thought were important, as I would soon find myself writing down the whole book. I read it once, and then again. I couldn’t believe how little anyone had spoken about it; how little I had heard of Popper. This book, arguably one of the most important books ever written, was hardly known to the general public. So I set myself the mission to change that, in whatever way I could.
After many failed attempts, a written book, a screenplay, a YouTube series, I was lost on how I could help spread his work. However, YouTube was something I found myself continually coming back to; mainly because it was free, and I did not need an agent to spread information using it. After some video presentations (now removed), I was originally reading out loud The Open Society and Its Enemies; however, I decided to start back at the beginning from Conjectures and Refutations and return to The Open Society and Its Enemies afterwards. Unfortunately, I cannot return to reading aloud The Open Society, as it has since been professionally recorded as an audiobook. However, I am eternally grateful that I still have the opportunity to release Conjectures and Refutations in an audible format on YouTube, a project which I am still working on to this day.
Conjectures and Refutations not only gave me the answers to which I was seeking, i.e. ‘who started science and how’, but it also had a profound influence on the way I thought, the way I treated myself and the way I interacted with everyone around me. I believe that is the true power of wisdom, the wisdom of knowing that neither you, nor anyone else, really knows. It is a kind of ‘awakening from a dogmatic slumber’ as Kant would call it, one which has far reaching consequences for not only your personal relationships, but also for your own peace of mind. It is the power of knowing that truth is hard to come by, and the ease and compassion you soon develop for those who are also seeking this hard to come by truth. It is the power of the tolerance that grows as a result, the tolerance to not only those around you and their fallibility, but also to your own mistakes. Yet at the same time, it is an emphasis on the rationality of mankind and the potential to learn from mistakes, a refreshing notion which is sadly, too often hard to come by. A notion which fills your heart with a sense of faith that is perhaps more stable than any other faith you have ever felt before; and which guides you in your dealings with your fellow men, allowing you to see them as the incredible beings that they are, with all their fallibility and growing potential. And if you are lucky, this understanding will be extended inwardly, allowing you to see yourself in such a light, and giving you that inner peace which comes from not being afraid to make mistakes, in not taking them too seriously, and the growth which inevitably follows, when you choose to learn from them.
Can you put a price on peace of mind? Can you write an essay on the power of wisdom? Sometimes these things are more easily felt then written. Often when I think about such things that Popper has given me, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude and that too, is difficult to put into words.
I never really knew what I was ‘good at’ growing up, never considered what kind of gifts or talents I had. I knew, and everyone else around me knew for that matter, that I loved debating. I loved to argue, to understand and to rationalize solutions in order to solve problems. I was always one of the highest scoring students in both Mathematics and English. Yet, if these were my gifts, they didn’t really add up to any kind of career that I could think of, nor what anyone else could think of. Who would consider that these could be signs of a philosophic nature, if there are only a handful of people who understand what philosophy is all about? As a consequence, I often struggled to find my place in the world, going from one career to another, one group of friends to another, never really feeling like I’d found where I belonged.
When reading Conjectures and Refutations, I found someone who was like me, someone who really understood who I was. Someone who taught me about others that had come before me, who were also like me. I was beginning to realize that I belonged to a long line of people that had passed, that had solved problems using words, and who had made a profound impact on this world which was often taken for granted. These were the men who had shaped our very society, some for the better and others for the worse. Popper taught me who a philosopher was, who I was.
But no more did I have this feeling of finding my ‘people’, my fellow philosophers, then when I read The Open Society and Its Enemies. And oh, what a tale is told in this book. A tale of a part of our history which has been forgotten, of Athens, and of the Great Generation that lived in this time, the time of the rise of democracy and of science. What a special time, what a special place, and what an astounding collection of heroes. What an honour, an honour which I constantly carry with me in my heart, to know of these men. To know of Socrates, to hear the words of Xenophanes, and to read aloud the Funeral Oration of Pericles. Words could not express my gratitude for that, for Popper’s introduction to these great men and their ideas. They are worth more then mere words could tell.
As I come to the end of my essay, and I look down at my word count, which is approaching 2,200 words, I find that my original chuckle at the thought of not being able to say everything I wanted to within 3,500, was quite naïve of me. To my surprise, I have found more often than not, when trying to describe how Popper has influenced my life, I am lost for words. I sometimes find myself wondering how I ever managed to earn such a privilege to know of these ideas, to know of these men. I am yet to find the answer to that question. However, it would be an even greater privilege to be able to pass these ideas on, to tell the world of these men. I hope that I could, one day, earn such a privilege to contribute to their great enterprise, the enterprise of the liberation of mankind, however small that contribution may be.
In ending, I cannot help but share some parting words from Popper, from his book titled, Unended Quest:
‘…the fact that we can all contribute to this world, if only a little, can give comfort to everyone; and especially to one who feels that in struggling with ideas he has found more happiness than he could ever deserve.’
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia – Contributor
Elyse first heard of Karl Popper when she was 24 years old, while she was searching for answers to questions regarding the beginning of science and its history. Since then, she has been determined to spread Popper’s work in whatever way possible. Elyse has been given permission from the Karl Popper Library (where the copyright to Popper’s work remains) to publish the first Audiobook version of his Conjectures and Refutations which can be found at Elyse’s YouTube Channel. She is very passionate about this project and continues to work on it to this day. Elyse looks forward to the day where she can make an even bigger contribution to Popper’s work, by making his ideas more readily available to the public.
Elyse was a co-host of the 24 hr. Transcontinental Popperian ZOOM Meet ‘n Greet of January 9-10, 2021. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
What a beautiful and inspiring essay, Elyse! Thank you.