A Summary of some Recent Work by Karl Popper
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.