*  ESSAY *

A Summary of some Recent Work by Karl Popper

Rafe Champion


Based on offprints sent by Popper in 1971 before they appeared in Objective Knowledge (OUP, 1972).

In  an interview reported in the BBC Listener (Jan 7,  1971)  Sir Karl Popper began with an apology for being a philosopher because "In the long history of philosophy there are many more  arguments of  which I feel ashamed  than philosophical arguments of which I am proud". He has persisted with the task because he is convinced that our ideas and basic assumptions are important,  even  though they  are  often wrong,  so that it is very important  to  become aware  of  them  and critical of them.  This is the  job  of  the philosopher,   which   means  that  we  should  all  try  to   be philosophers  some  of  the  time.    Unfortunately  there  is  a widespread  distrust of ideas and many people are contemptuous of philosophy  and the free play of thought so it is worth  pointing out that ideas and abstractions are taken most seriously by those who  most  distrust  intellectuals.    In other  words,  people  who refuse  to consciously take ideas seriously are simply the slaves of whatever ideas they happen to have picked up.

Rationality and freedom

"Of Clouds and Clocks:  An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and  the  Freedom  of Man".  The Arthur  Holly  Compton  Memorial lecture delivered at Washington University in 1965.

The full text of this paper can be found in two pdf files. These are slow-loading, so be patient. Part 1. Part 2.

In  this lecture Popper set out to produce an alternative to  two opposing  theories of human freedom.  The first of these  is  the determinist   nightmare  according  to  which  the  whole  world, including ourselves,  is a machine which runs as if by clockwork. In  the  words  of the German poet  Novalis  this  view  converts '...the  infinite  creative music of the universe into  the  dull clappering of a gigantic mill,  driven by the steam of chance and floating upon it,  a mill,  without architect and without miller, grinding  itself  to pieces'.

Popper  went on to say that this view destroys the idea of  human creativity.  "It  reduces to a complete illusion the idea that in preparing  this lecture I have used my brain to create  something new".

The   alternative   that   is  usually  offered    derives   from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Some events at the sub-atomic level happen at random,  these random events may become amplified to produce unexpected happenings at higher levels, and so we have the chance to do something original.

Popper  is  not  satisfied  with these  alternatives  because  he suggests  that the real problem is to explain   how  non-physical things such as aims,  plans, values and purposes manage  to exert effects  in  the  physical world.  He confronted what  he  called "Compton's  Problem" which Compton discovered after he agreed  to deliver a lecture at Yale University at 5 p.m.  on November 10th. This  decision  introduced  a kind of plastic  control  into  his movements   on   and  around  November  10th.   It  was   not   a completely  rigid  control  because the lecture  might  not  have started at the right time and it could even have been  cancelled. There  was an element of freedom in the situation but it did  not  derive from chance.  What was the nature of this plastic control? How is it that speakers usually turn up on the right day, at more or less the correct time? Popper set out to solve this problem of freedom  within  plastic  control   by way of  a  new  theory  of language in the context of a revised theory of evolution.

The  revised  theory of evolution.  

This is summed up in twelve theses,  though not all of these need to be spelled out here.

1.  All  organisms  are constantly,  day and  night,  engaged  in problem solving.

2.   These problems are problems in an objective sense.  They can be    hypothetically   reconstructed  by   hindsight.   Objective problems in this sense need not have their conscious  counterpart and where they do,  the conscious problem need not be the same as the objective problem. A plant seed has to solve many problems to survive but it is not conscious of any of them.

3.  Problem  solving  always proceeds by the method of trial  and error.

4.  Error elimination may proceed by the complete elimination  of unsuccessful  forms  or  by the tentative evolution  of  controls which  modify  or  suppress  unsuccessful  organs  or  forms   of behaviour or hypotheses.

7.  Using 'P' for problem,  'TS' for tentative solution, 'EE' for error  elimination,  we can describe the fundamental evolutionary sequence as follows:

P(1)  --->   TS  --->    EE  --->    P(2, 3, 4 etc)

Confronted  with  a  problem,   the  organism   offers  tentative solutions;  these are subjected to a process of error elimination (natural  selection,  critical  discussion etc) and new  problems emerge in the process.

10.  Not  all  problems  in this  system  are  survival  problems although  the  earliest  problems may have  been  sheer  survival problems.

12.  This scheme allows for the development of  error-eliminating controls  (warning  organs like the eye;  feed-back  mechanisms); that is,  controls which can eliminate errors without killing the organism;   and  it  makes  it  possible,   ultimately,  for  our hypotheses to die in our stead.

So  much  for  the outline of the  revised  evolutionary  theory. Popper  suggested that plastic control over human  activities  is maintained with the assistance of language which has emerged,  as has consciousness, somewhere along the evolutionary pathway.

Popper's  theory  of  language.

Popper  distinguished four levels of language.  Starting from the lowest these are :-

I.  The  symptomatic  or  expressive function,  which  can  exist without even a second party.

II.  The  releasing or signalling  function,  when  communication occurs from a sender to a receiver.

III. The  descriptive function which involves naming things.

IV.  The  critical  or argumentative function which occurs  in  a well-disciplined discussion.

The  two lower forms occur in animals (and in machines) and  they can  occur  without the higher functions being present.  The  two higher forms appear to be restricted to humans;  but they do  not occur  in  all  human  use  of  language  (which  can  be  merely symptomatic  or  signalling),  and they cannot occur without  the lower functions being present.  Thus one may attempt to  'reduce' all  use  of  language to the lower functions  because  they  are always present while the higher functions may be missing.

Popper  suggests that human consciousness,  the consciousness  of self,  is a result of language. In addition,  the descriptive use of  language  gives  us access to ideas  and  abstractions  which introduce  a  degree  of control into our behaviour  beyond  that exerted by instincts and reflexes.

The evolution of ideas and the three worlds

In 1966 Popper delivered a paper at Denver titled "A Realist View of  Logic,  Physics  and History".  He enlarged some  points  made briefly  in "Of Clouds and Clocks";  the evolution of plants  and animals proceeds for the most part by the modification of  organs or  behaviour,  while in contrast human evolution proceeds mainly by  the  development of organs  outside  our  bodies.  These  new external organs may be tools, weapons, machines or ideas.

'Man,  some  modern philosophers tell us,  is alienated from  his world:  he  is  a stranger and afraid in a world he  never  made. Maybe  he is:  yet so are animals and even plants.  They too were born,  long ago,  into a physico-chemical world they never  made.  But  although they did not make their world,  these living things changed it beyond all recognition,  and, indeed, remade the small corner of the universe into which they were born...Last came man, who  for  a  long  time did not change  his  environment  in  any remarkable  way...Yet  we have created a new kind of  product  or artefact which promises in time to work changes in our corner  of the  world  as  great as those worked by  our  predecessors,  the oxygen-producing plants, or the island building corals. These new products,  which are decidedly of our own making,  are our myths, our ideas, and especially our scientific theories'.

This prepared the way for the next paper "Epistemology Without  a Knowing  Subject",  delivered  in 1967;  here he  considered  the status of ideas and their implications for us.   He rehearsed the "three worlds" theory to argue that human language,  so far as it contains  information,  belongs to  a "third world" of  objective contents of thought.

'For a humanist our approach may be important because it suggests a  new  way of looking at the relations between  ourselves  - the subjects  - and  the objects of our  endeavours.  The  incredible thing  about  life,  evolution  and mental growth  is  just  this method of give and take, this interaction between our actions and their  results  by which we constantly transform  ourselves,  our talents,  our  gifts...This  is how we lift ourselves up  by  our bootstraps  out of the morass of our ignorance;  how we  throw  a rope into the air and then swarm up it - if it gets any purchase, however  precarious...What makes our efforts differ from those of the amoeba is only that our rope may get a hold in a third  world of  critical  discussion:  a  world  of  language,  of  objective knowledge.  This makes it possible for us to  discard some of our competing  theories.  So  if  we  are lucky,  we  may  succeed  in surviving  some  of our mistaken theories while the  amoeba  will perish'.

Everything  depends  on our willingness to  enter  into  critical discussion  of our theories.  And as Spaceship Earth hurtles into the  latter part of the twentieth century is is possible that  we will not get into the twentyfirst unless we jettison a good  many of our current theories and ideologies.

The  final  paper was delivered at the  fourteenth  International Philosophical Congress at Vienna in 1968. Gunter Zehm reported on this congress in Encounter (Feb. 1969).

'Sir Karl Popper rode his hobby-horse  and described the mode  of "understanding" historical processes as the logical analysis of a historical problem:  i.e.  as a process having nothing to do with the  capacity for empathy.  He did this in the course of a  paper "On the Theory of the Objective Mind" which can be  appropriately described  as the real (and only) sensation of the  congress...In contrast  to  all  the  Utopians and Ideologists  at  the  Vienna Congress,  he  said  nothing for which he could  not  immediately produce  demonstrable proofs.  Nevertheless there was more  human hope  in  his  paper than in all the  sunny  propaganda  speeches combined'.

In this paper he suggested that psychology will some time have to be  revolutionised by looking at the human mind as an  organ  for interacting with the objects of the third world.  It is important to  note  that  this  "third world" theory  does  not  carry  any theistic consequences.

A unifying theme

The  theory  of  problem-solving by trial and  error  provides  a unifying  theme  that  runs  through the  activities  of  plants, animals,  artists and scientists.  This common perspective may be useful as we move into the 'ecological age' and as a byproduct it breaks  the artificial barriers erected between the sciences  and the humanities.

This  perspective also shows the way towards a general theory  of human motivation which avoids the reduction of human behaviour on the one hand to purely psychological or biological drives and  on the other hand to purely environmental or social factors. What is required  instead  is  a situational analysis  which  takes  into account,  first,  the objective problem situation, so far as this  can be reconstructed;  second, the way the situation is perceived by  the participants;  and third,  the choices and decisions that they make. The analysis must include the ideas, aims and purposes of  the  actors  because these determine which  features  of  the situation  are  seen as posing the  most  pressing  problem.  For instance  the Good Samaritan and the people who passed by on  the other  side  of the road confronted the same situation  but  they selected different problems from it. And when we come to consider aims,  purposes  and traditions we face the problems that  Popper set out to solve in the Arthur Holly Compton Memorial Lecture and his subsequent papers.

Back to Rathouse Home/Index   Back to Writings on Popper