How Can I Know Anything at All? BBC Animations Feature the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Hume, Popper & More

How did everything begin? What makes us human? What is the self? How do I live a good life? What is love? We’ve all asked these questions, if only within our heads, and recently a series of BBC animations written by philosopher Nigel Warburton and narrated by a variety of celebrities have done their level best to answer them–or at least to point us in the direction of answering them for ourselves by not just telling but wittily showing us what great minds have thought and said on the issues before we came along. Most recently, they’ve taken on that eternal conundrum, “How can I know anything at all?”

The already philosophically inclined will have recognized this as the foundational question of epistemology, that formidable branch of philosophy concerned with what we know, how we know, and whether we can know in the first place. Many familiar names in the history of philosophy have stepped onto this field, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, with whose thoughts this series of extremely brief explanatory videos begins. It lays out his analogy of the beetle in a box, wherein each person holds a box containing what they call a “beetle,” but nobody can look inside another’s box to confirm whether their idea of a beetle aligns with anyone else’s.

In Wittgenstein’s view, says actor Aidan Turner, “there can’t be more to the public meaning of a language than we’re capable of teaching each other, and the private ‘something’—the ‘beetle’—can’t have a role in that teaching, because we can’t get at it.” The next video, in asking whether we should believe in miracles, brings in Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume, who thought that “if we follow the rule of proportioning our beliefs to the available evidence, there will always be more evidence that the eyewitness accounts were mistaken than not.” Hume’s predecessor George Berkeley makes an appearance to weigh in on whether anything exists—or, more precisely, whether anything exists besides our minds, which convince us that we experience real things out there in the world.

Finally, the series lands on a method we can use to know, one science has relied on, with seeming success, for quite some time now: Karl Popper’s idea of falsification. “Rather than looking for supporting evidence, Popper argued that scientists go out of their way to refute their own hypotheses, testing them to destruction,” leaving those that remain, at least provisionally, as knowledge. Though none of these videos exceed two minutes in length, each one, dense with both philosophical and pop-cultural references, will leave you with more knowledge about epistemology than you went in with—assuming they don’t leave you disbelieving in knowledge itself.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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