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Israel Folau and the problem of future knowledge

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2019


The set of problems that got Karl Popper motivated here, was that of induction and empiricism. Essentially the claims that we comprehend the world through our senses, and that our experienced reality resembles unexperienced true theories. Popper again turned this over – our thoughts about the world only come to us through long chains of conjecture; reality is always theory laden, and so it is always deceptive.

People listened, they thought about it, and finally they came to understand that the gay rights movement was not just championing moral change, but moral improvement. Arguments against this were less credible, were built on bad explanations, and so proved to be less convincing over time.

Popper exposed the messiness of our enterprise here. There is no hierarchy to knowledge, and what feels like truth or progress might be revealed as false, or as regression, at any moment. Any claim to the contrary is a claim to understand what is impossible – the future growth of knowledge. Considering how far we have come in recent years, or indeed how the morality of only a few hundred years ago now seems abhorrent to us, the only reasonable thing to project is that our moral standards will continue to improve. And our descendants in a hundred years will look back on us with the same – if not greater – level of disgust, and in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

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This is as sure as anything that we understand in science or philosophy – prophesy is not available to us. All we can know is that moral improvements are coming our way – if we play our cards right. Just what those improvements are likely to be, we can never know until we have the explanations.

The lesson here – and particularly for people wanting to protect gay rights – cannot be clearer: it is always a mistake to try to silence opposition and criticism, no matter how upsetting those arguments may be. If we allow institutions to impose today's moral values by coercion, then we must also accept that this would have mandated that those early gay rights advocates – openly challenging accepted norms and offending the standards of their day – be silenced also. It may feel like the compassionate thing to do, but protecting feelings also means that soon enough the immoral, the barbaric, and bigoted, will also have that tool in their arsenal.

Forget gay marriage, forget legalisation of homosexuality at all for that matter. If the values of our predecessors had been immune from criticism – in the same way that certain people now want to be immune from Israel Folau's criticism – then we would still have those old values today. Women would still be second class citizens, racism would be the norm, and the thought of allowing gay men and women a voice would be a great blasphemy.

The second half of Popper's equation – after conjecture – is refutation. It is not that we adopt theories as true, but only that we don't discard them as false if they survive in the face of criticism. Without this second step, we are only ever guessing blindly at truth – rigorous testing knocks down bad ideas, leaves good ideas standing, and only then is progress possible.

So it is always a mistake to allow anyone to wall-off their truth claims. And we should not respect anyone who – once they have achieved the small piece of salutary progress that matters most to them – would then seek to shut down all criticism of that progress. Having benefited from Popper's open society, and their freedom to speak their mind without limit, they would seek to burn the bridges behind them, and again claim to be the final arbiters of truth. If silencing people by the moral standards of the day were appropriate, then we would still be living in the dark ages.

Truth has a rare property that separates it from falsehood: it is strengthened by criticism and not weakened. It doesn't need to be shielded, or protected – the more people are allowed to hammer away at it, the clearer it becomes. Israel Folau, if he could, would turn back the clock not just on gay rights but also on (in his own words) "drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters". We have a choice: to challenge him and let his arguments fail on their own grounds, to prove him wrong; or to simply – and dangerously – insist that he shuts up.

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Israel Folau might lose his court case, and if so it will be on the principle that employers have the right to impose their moral values – or the consensus values of society – upon their employees. This is a loss for everyone involved. It means we are again in the business of outsourcing our truth claims to authorities, of empowering those people with the ability to silence dissent, and so we are also in the business of locking in the values of today against future change. Instead Karl Popper would have us meet Israel Folau's challenge head on, test his understanding of gay rights against our own, and break him down only with argument. Popper knew, as so many people seem to have now forgotten, that the source of all tyranny comes from the idea that the truth is manifest…

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is an Australia born academic. After graduating from La Trobe University with majors in Political Science and Philosophy, Jed completed his post-graduate education in International Relations at Deakin University. His research has covered a broad range of topics, including humanitarian intervention, civil conflict, violence prevention, regional development and moral philosophy. Jed is currently an Assistant Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at Vignan University, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow his work, or contact him directly at http://www.jedleahenry.org/

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