Karl Popper’s Epistemological Swamp

Groggy and bruised, you wake up somewhere in the depths of a dark swamp. You have no memory, no sense of who you are or how you got there, and no indication or clues for how to get out. To make matters worse, as you are pulling yourself together you discover that you are also, now, blind.

Through the darkness and the fear, you wait, scared to move and hoping for some elegant form of rescue. And as you wait, things begin to get worse. The horrible smell catches your nose, mud slides further and further up your shins, leeches start to burrow into your skin, the waist deep water feels sharp and cold, and you begin to sense the close movement of large predators.

Everything that you touch is painful and life threatening. Standing up as tall as you can, you are sure of only one thing: you want to improve your situation, you want to get out. And so you must do something, no matter what it is. To stay where you are is to suffer and soon die.

Not knowing where to go is one thing, but you also don’t know where you are, where it is that you are starting from. There are no landmarks, no map, no compass bearing, no possible foundation that could work as a guide or a starting point. You could be anywhere in this swamp — close to an edge, in the absolute middle, or somewhere in-between.

Scared of what you don’t know, you take a tentative step forward, and stop. You try to feel around for changes in the consistency of the mud, the objects under foot, the temperature of the water, the amount of unsettling animal activity — anything by which you might judge whether that step was an improvement or a mistake; anything to judge whether you are going in the right direction.

You take another step. And another.

You never know whether you are taking the correct path to freedom, but you always know when you aren’t (you tread on something sharp, the mud feels thicker, something blocks your way, an animal bites you…).

In such moments your first instinct is to turn around and retrace your steps. But soon you learn to apply a little more nuance. Where you started from was also uncomfortable, also unsafe, so going back doesn’t get you any closer to escaping from, nor surviving, this wetland. Increasingly you respond to obstacles and dangers by changing direction altogether and plotting new courses.

It is painstaking, frustrating and slow. But with each new mistake and misstep you learn a little more about your environment. A map of where you have been begins to build in your mind, but more importantly you begin to develop a feel for your new home, new ways to judge the things you encounter, new ways to understand the swamp and its challenges.

Every time you solve a problem you seem to discover a new one. But with this bank of knowledge behind you, each new problem also feels a little better than the last: how you treated your last illness helps you treat the next one, insights from difficult landscapes helps you to traverse future terrain, and encounters with old predators helps you to understand and avoid new ones.

Soon you are thriving, crisscrossing your way through the swamp with evermore speed and evermore comfort. With so many mistakes behind you and so many problems solved, everything you are now doing feels like progress, like you are finally going in the right direction.

The ground under your feet is more solid, the mud less and less thick, the mosquitoes less aggressive, and large animals see you more and more as a threat and not as a food source. You are sure of it, you are winning. You are walking your way up an incline and out of the marsh once and for all, saying to yourself in dumb amazement, “of course this is the way, it is obvious. How could I have ever thought otherwise?”

Then with your next step the ground disappears under your feet, and you plunge below the water. That steady incline that you thought was the way out, was in fact just a sandbar in an otherwise deeper and more inhospitable part of the swamp. And you have just gone over its edge.

Up to your neck, cold, struggling to breathe, and swimming just to stay above the sludge, you desperately start feeling around in the darkness for something, anything that might be an improvement. Again, as before, and as always, to stay where you are is to suffer and soon die…

But you are lucky! You have made another mistake! And so despite how bad things might feel right now, you are better off than you were before you made it. Because you now also know more than you did before.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store