Israel Folau and the Problem of Future Knowledge


It is all a lot more fundamental than it sounds – it’s a question of how knowledge accumulates in the world.

There is an unnecessary focus on details here, but they do need restating: Israel Folau is a hulking – and once much loved – Australian rugby player who takes his religious faith seriously. So serious in fact, that he is now willing to risk his career and reputation over the question of whether or not gay people are going to hell. He thinks they are, and that they can still be saved if only they repent and reform. Australian Rugby thinks differently, and so seemingly parochial questions of offense, freedoms, and contractual responsibilities are being arbitrated in strangely public ways.

This is only because – despite Karl Popper solving the issue a century ago – most people still don’t understand how it is that we can know anything; how it is that knowledge develops, and with it how progress – moral or technological – is ever possible. It is not an overstatement to say that we have forgotten the most important lesson that our species could ever learn.

The details of what was said, what was breeched, who was offended, and what freedoms are protected, just don’t matter when it comes to the question of what should be done about Israel Folau. The improvement in gay rights over recent decades is undoubtedly a positive, and not something that most people would want to wind back. But though the attachment to this progress is charged with heavy emotion, the only reason that it isn’t reversed, is one that is cold, impersonal, and above all, explanatory.

It has always tended to lag behind technology, but moral progress is happening all around us, all the time. But that doesn’t mean that the growth of moral knowledge (and knowledge in general) is linear. All theories that claim to start from a foundation are not only false, but cruel. The idea that something is known for certain, carries the imputation that questioning that certainty deserves punishment. Because only someone who is deliberately malicious dares to criticise what they know to be true.

It is unsurprising then, that for most of human history the permanent state of things has been stagnation and suppression. Every time we discover new knowledge, the next question can always be ‘why that way, and not another’. A foundation doesn’t allow this – and without questioning of this kind we cannot discover problems, let alone solve them. And so until the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, in the course of any given human life nothing ever really improved. The world you were born into was the world you died in; almost entirely unchanged.

For these people, the problem wasn’t bad ideas – because bad ideas are the general state of things – but rather ideas about the world that discouraged change. New ways of organising political institutions, health care, marriage, or even new ways of understanding what constitutes a good life for example, weren’t just dismissed as wrong, but silenced as heretical. The problem here is the issue of fundamentals – people believed that knowledge came from authorities, and that this knowledge was also self-evident.

With this bug in our thinking, a large chunk of philosophical thought was dedicated to questions of ‘who should rule’ or ‘how do we get the best people into power’. The question itself was wrong. Instead of asking who should rule, Karl Popper turned it over and wanted instead to know ‘how do we best remove bad leaders’. What he had stumbled on was an understanding that the natural state of things is error, and that the truth is never obvious. So what is needed is not authorities, but constant error-correction and a tradition of criticism – a commitment to rapid change and recursive improvement.

This doesn’t mean that no one can ever say that a particular moral theory is better than another, but rather that moral progress is available to us only because no one has a claim – as they did for most of our history – to understand the future growth of knowledge. We have come a long way, and every piece of that progress was fought tooth-and-nail by people claiming to know what was always beyond them (and always an obvious tautology): tomorrow’s knowledge, today.

This also applied to the advocacy of gay rights. At every step people were saying not just that homosexuality was immoral and therefore should be illegal or limited, but also that this would remain true into the future. You only have to go back fifteen or twenty years and the consensus in every country – no matter how enlightened – was against gay marriage… at a minimum. This was – at the time – as foundational a moral principle as that of murder or theft being wrong.

It was only by embracing Karl Popper, and the acceptance that no truth is so incontrovertible that it cannot be questioned, that gay rights advocates ever got a hearing, and then slowly managed to snowball those early noises into broader acceptance, and eventually social change.

The change happened by explanation. By the open challenge of one set of ideas, by a better set of ideas. People were not shamed or coerced into changing their minds, they were convinced. This is how knowledge works: most of us have this strange impression that knowledge is literally transferable, that it can be downloaded from one person to another. This is wrong in so many ways – it can’t possibly exist like this. When someone changes their mind or gains some form of new knowledge, they have in fact given it to themselves – acquired only, and always, through that individual’s creative engagement with it.

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.

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.

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…