Answering questions about Karl Popper’s epistemology

“Part and parcel of these Popper’s notions is that everything we say or think is conjectural. Anything could be wrong.”
– Steven K. Graham


From the archives: The original post was posted on 15 May 1996

Note: Comments below are my interpretation of Popper’s ideas, rather than Sarah’s or Popper’s.

Questions about Popper…

A poster quoted Karl Popper:

“In fact, I contend that there is no such thing as instruction from without the structure, or the passive reception of a flow of information that impresses itself on our sense organs. All observations are theory-impregnated. There is no pure, disinterested, theory-free observation.”
– Karl R. Popper, 1994, The Myth of the Framework, Chapter 1: The Rationality Of Scientific Revolutions, p. 8

The poster wrote:

“I understand the disinterested part, but I’m not sure about the ‘theory impregnated.’ I’m also wondering if this occurs in all people or only in people actively interested in learning? It seems like this observation could not be true for all people. . .”

It is. I prefer the occasions when Popper referred to this as “theory laden”—one cannot simply “observe”. Popper has a nice illustration of this, where he suggests to his audience “Observe.” After a few uncomfortable moments, someone invariably asks “Observe what?” What one observes is tied to what one is able to observe, and what one thinks might be interesting to observe, and what one is trying to observe, and so on.

“Theory” is an extremely general term as Popper uses it—in many contexts, “idea” or “conjecture” might easily be substituted. Given this broad sense of “theory”—try to imagine any observation that wasn’t thoroughly intertwined with your other ideas.

“We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment. We use, rather, the method of trial and the elimination of error. As Ernst Gombrich says, ‘making comes before matching’: the active production of a new trial structure comes before its exposure to eliminating tests.”
– Karl R. Popper, 1994, The Myth of the Framework, Chapter 1: The Rationality Of Scientific Revolutions, p. 9

“Doesn’t this assume an active participation in the making of knowledge? We might discover something through trial and error but is it always necessarily knowledge? When I teach college students, it seems like much of their ‘knowledge’ has come through absolutely no discovery of their own and they aren’t interested in making any discoveries. Is this possible or am I missing the boat here . . .”

I think so. Popper’s ideas apply to all knowledge, from elaborate, deep theories, to the “fact” that the phone is ringing in the next room. (I conjecture that the phone is ringing, at least that’s an explanation for the sound that I hear. I test my conjecture by going to answer the phone. It turns out that the television had a ringing phone on it ….)

It seems clear to me that this is the way virtually all our knowledge is acquired. It is less clear that the information someone acquires by half-sleeping through a lecture fits the same pattern—but, still, I think it does. The student half-sleeping through the lecture has various problems he is trying to address—such as passing the course—and such a student is forming conjectures (and testing them) continuously—perhaps the conjectures are more of the sort: this looks like something that will be on the test; this next bit is too complicated and time consuming to ask a test question about; I think a ham sandwich will do nicely for lunch; ….

Whatever conjectures one makes, they are tested against one’s existing theories (and if there are discrepancies the conjecture or the theories much give way).

The fact that learning occurs this way is most clear when one considers the students who clearly are learning about the topic. They are pursuing something other than a grade and tend to read outside materials, to bring questions to class, one can often see that they are actively testing what one tells them against their existing theories, struggling to make the ideas fit together, abandoning and adapting notions as necessary.

But, to see that all learning takes this form, one has to consider what the problem situation being addressed is. With students attempting to pass a class, the relevant tests of their theories include such questions as “Will this be on the test?”

One can provide information and problems until one is blue in the face, but unless the other person wants the information—unless (for whatever reason) they have made the problem their own—then it will be unclear what learning is taking place.

“Thus life proceeds, like scientific discovery, from old problems to the discovery of new and undreamt-of problems.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 146

“But does it proceed for everyone this way?”

Yes. As with theories, consider “problems” in the broadest possible sense. Example problems: I am hungry; I need to make a phone call; I want to find something interesting to watch on television; I need to solve this calculus problem for my homework (or for that design problem at work—note—the “problem” is ostensibly the same, but in fact, quite different, as the homework version of the problem can be solved by having the dog eat one’s paper, while the work problem still remains); and even such problems as understanding how people learn and what is the best way to interact with them?

“The process of learning, of the growth of subjective knowledge, is always fundamentally the same. It is imaginative criticism.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 148

“I can’t believe that ‘the process of learning is always fundamentally the same.’ I’m not sure how that could be proven. Does he explain how he knows that to be true?”

It cannot be proven. Much of Popper’s work constitutes an argument that knowledge grows in a particular way (via conjectures and refutations).

Two things have markedly influenced me to accept this notion. First, we all have fundamentally the same hardware—brains full of neurons. Regardless of what the process of learning is, it seems that it should be fundamentally the same. Second, once one begins to see how extremely general this notion of conjecture and refutation is, then it begins to seem much more likely that learning always follows that pattern.

Now, this doesn’t exclude more abstract views of the learning process. It doesn’t prevent one from believing that some individuals are visual or auditory learners. It doesn’t prevent one from believing that a an adequate diet improves a child’s ability to learn (in the context of problems—if a child is actively concerned with the problem of being hungry, they seem much less likely to be concerned with problems related to schoolwork.) But the process of conjectures and refutations underlies (or should) other views of learning.

“What makes our efforts differ from those of an animal or of an 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 to discard some of our competing theories. So if we are lucky, we may succeed in surviving some of our mistaken theories (and most of them are mistaken), while the amoeba will perish with its theory, its belief, and its habits.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 148

“I’m lost here. What does he mean that we may survive mistaken theories (that we won’t die?). And what does he mean by ‘objective knowledge.’ Does he believe that it exists and that humans are capable of discovering it through ‘throwing their rope?’”

Yes. We can change our theories. Many creatures have their theories built-in. If the theories are wrong, or changing environments make them wrong, the creatures will die. Many of our theories are accessible. We can reflect on them, change them, criticize them, and so forth. And as a result, we may be able to solve problems which could otherwise result in our deaths.

Popper speaks of three worlds: the physical world, the subjective world, and the world of objective knowledge. Once any sort of theory is embodied in a form outside our minds—in text, or on a computer, or a recording, or simply by being shared with a friend—that theory enters the realm of objective knowledge. It can be treated as an object. It can be criticized, communicated, rejected, improved, used, and so on. Objective knowledge (these reified theories) need not be some sort of logical theory—a concert score is an example, as is a painting. And objective knowledge need not be true—false theories can be objective. Because of language and symbol usage, humans can create objective knowledge. And once the knowledge is objective it can be used, tested, and improved.

The simplest example is that you might develop a theory (“That new Italian place would be good to eat at”) and, if you communicate that to someone else they may refute it (“The service was bad, the place was filthy, and the food was terrible…but we didn’t have to wait for a table.” <grin>)

“Seen in this light, life is problem-solving and discovery—the discovery of new facts, of new possibilities, by way of trying out possibilities conceived in our imagination. On the human level, this trying out is done almost entirely in the third world, by attempts to represent, in theories of this third world, our first world, and perhaps our second world, more and more successfully; by trying to get nearer to the truth—to a fuller, a more complete, a more interesting, logically stronger and more relevant truth—to truth relevant to our problems.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 3: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, p. 148

“This seems to make sense, but again I can’t buy that all people are proceeding through this process or that they would want to. For some of us life is problem solving, but for others it is something else. Some people think they have the truth, so they certainly aren’t trying to get closer to it. (Can you tell me how this relates to coercion?)”

Again, take a very broad view of problems and problem solving. People often would not describe what they do as problem solving, but I think it is an entirely appropriate way to view life. But everyone has different problems they are interested in solving. (And, the problems (and theories) aren’t necessarily conscious.)

Some people do think they have the truth, at least about some things. And in those areas, they close themselves off from further problem solving. When confronted by something that might be a problem, they deny it, avoid it, or deflect it. This notion, that one has found the truth, leads to (or is an) entrenched theories. The difficulty is that this prevents further learning (in that area).

Part and parcel of these Popper’s notions is that everything we say or think is conjectural. Anything could be wrong. And if arguments or tests call something into question, then we must be prepared to question it.

“I believe that theory—at least some rudimentary theory or expectation—always comes first; that it always precedes observation; and that the fundamental role of observations and experimental tests is to show that some of our theories are false, and so to stimulate us to produce better ones.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 258

“Back to my question about coercion—are you trying to show why we should accept criticism, because it is a way of ‘getting closer to the truth’ according to Popper’s philosophy?”

Yes. We can never know that we have arrived at the truth, but that is always our destination.

“So we have an expectation and then we observe to see if that expectation is true?”

Yes. Because an observation can never confirm anything. But, if we decide to accept the observation, it can refute theories.

“Are our observations accurate or are we simply hoping that they will stand up to additional observations and if they don’t we will discard them.”

We simply hope they will stand up to additional observations/tests/ arguments and so forth. We can question any of our theories, and observations are just one more theory. At various points, we decide to accept some theory, but that doesn’t mean that it is true—only that, given the problems we are trying to solve, such a choice seems effective. We focus on other problems. If we need to, we can come back to our observations and criticize them further.

Generally, we think that our observations are accurate, and accept them without a great deal of fuss. If there is some reason for (a problem that leads us to) questioning our observations, then we do so. Back to the case of the phone ringing in the other room. I begin by accepting my theory (that the phone is ringing), but discover that it is not… perhaps someone is playing with sound effects on a keyboard. My theories about what I am hearing will be modified by this new theory that any sound the keyboard makes may be coming from it rather than from an actual phone, dog, doorbell, and so on.

“But as a rule, we soon find that our conjectures can be refuted, or that they do not solve our problem, or that they solve it only in part; and we find that even the best solutions—those able to resist the most severe criticism of the most brilliant and ingenious minds—soon give rise to new difficulties, to new problems. Thus we may say that the growth of knowledge proceeds from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and refutations.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 258

“Does this mean then that non coercive parenting may not be a good solution to the problem it addresses (I assume that those seeking non-coercive parenting do so because of a problem they have discovered and non-coercive parenting is a potential solution) but given additional observations could be proven wrong.”

Yes. That’s the value of criticism, to help us get rid of incorrect theories so that we can replace them with better theories.

“It seems difficult however to subject all of our ideas to continual criticism.”

Yes. This would be impossible. So, we decide to accept a lot of theories. But we remember that they are conjectures and not truths, so that if subsequent interactions call them into question, we do question them.

“People seem more inclined to adopt two or three very cemented ideas that they never challenge and then challenge the other less cemented ideas.”

This is often the case. There are two reasons for this appearance. First, people do accept ideas and generally treat them as though they were true—this is really a question of efficiency. (I like the analogy of “compiled” theories.)

Second, people do adopt cemented ideas (often referred to here as “entrenched” theories). Why do they do this? Well, efficiency may play a part again—if they aren’t questioning theories in various areas they can devote their efforts elsewhere. Society is clearly partly to blame—as it encourages an outrageous dependence on authority. Arguments from authority (“Experts say …”) are diametrically opposed to Popper’s approach. But our society tends to bombard us with this notion. The doctor, the scientist, the bible, the psychological study … whatever—are all presented as though they have privileged access to the truth. But they don’t. Neither do our senses. We may accept what our senses tell us or what a doctor tells us, but we should always retain it as a conjecture. Finally, these entrenched theories are often the result of coercion damage. Coercion happens inside someone’s mind—when they are forced to pursue some other theory and to abandon a conflicting theory that they would prefer to pursue. One way of adapting to this force is to cement or entrench the theories one is forced to adopt, since it seems hopeless to pursue the theories one has been forced to abandon.

“Are humans capable of continual self-criticism of even their most believed ideas? Or do humans require more certainty? Does Popper say?”

Yes, people can question their most believed ideas. If by “continual” you mean constantly questioning everything they perceive (do I really see a computer monitor? am I really typing?) then, no, I don’t think it is continuous. But whenever the problem situations one wants to solve call for it, absolutely, one can question anything.

Do humans require more certainty? Humans often like certainty, but I think that is because most skeptical philosophies degenerate into a morass where there is no knowledge whatsoever. This is where Popper’s philosophy has a great appeal for me. For though we can never know anything for certain, we can and do help create objective knowledge. And while we never know which bits of that objective knowledge are true, by always working to improve our theories, we can do so.

“But it is just this venerable idea which I am combating. I assert that every animal is born with expectations or anticipations, which could be framed as hypotheses; a kind of hypothetical knowledge. And I assert that we have, in this sense, some degree of inborn knowledge from which we may begin, even though it may be quite unreliable. This inborn knowledge, these inborn expectations, will, if disappointed, create our first problems; and the ensuing growth of our knowledge may therefore be described as consisting throughout of corrections and modifications of previous knowledge.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, pp. 258-259

“From what do you assert this? Have you read The Continuum Concept? The author seems to be arguing the same position you are taking. her evidence is that ‘primitive’ tribes in other lands are ‘happy’ because they are fufilling their expectations, and ‘civilized’ peoples are unhappy because we are not. But, this doesn’t seem to prove her conclusion.”

I haven’t read it. According to your description, I don’t think it is same position. I think the word “disappointed” in the passage above may be a poor choice. I would assert, that we are problem-solving entities, and that we are happy when we are actively engaged in solving problems!

Regarding your initial question “From what do you assert this?”—this is (or may be) asking from what authority, in which case, the answer is that it is irrelevant. The idea stands or falls on its own merits and not based on its source. If you are asking why, then perhaps it is again a case of a very broad view—these expectations or anticipations are again “theories” perhaps of the order “I am hungry, I should be fed” or “I am uncomfortable, I should be made comfortable”.

“Does non-coercive parenting, then, lead to fulfilling expectations or do we not want to have our expectations filled because then we wouldn’t have any problems to solve?”

Remember that problem solving leads to new problems. There is not a finite supply, but instead by solving some we create others. I wouldn’t describe non-coercive parenting as “fulfilling expectations” but instead as freeing a child (and supporting them) to engage their own problem solving abilities. So that they can solve their problems and create new problems for themselves. (And this doesn’t preclude that one way they might solve some problems is simply to ask us.)

“Thus I am turning the tables on those who think that observation must precede expectations and problems; and I even assert that for logical reasons, observation cannot be prior to all problems, although obviously it will often be prior to some problems—for example to those problems which arise from an observation that disappoints some expectation or refutes some theory. The fact that observation cannot precede all problems may be illustrated by a simple experiment which I wish to carry out, by your leave, with yourselves as experimental subjects. My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all co-operating, and observing! However, I fear that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: ‘WHAT do you want me to observe?’
           If this is your response, then my experiment was successful. For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question which we might be able to decide by observation. Darwin knew this when he wrote: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view . . .’”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 259

“I like this example! It made what you said very clear (although I still would be interested in hearing responses to my earlier questions).”

This is the one I mentioned earlier.

“I’m not sure that I believe the cause-effect relationship however.”

I’m not sure what you mean by this? What cause-effect relationship?

“Observation might perk our desire to seek a question we would have never thought of on our own.”

Yes. Observation might perk our desire (i.e., help create a new problem) and that problem might be one we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, but clearly, we did think of it—it wasn’t in the observation, but in our analysis/testing/internal-arguments about the observation as we try to reconcile the observation with our existing theories. It arose from our theories and our problem-solving process.

“My answer is simple: by producing an inadequate solution, and by criticising it. Only in this way can we come to understand the problem. For to understand a problem means to understand its difficulties; and to understand its difficulties means to understand why it is not easily soluble—why the more obvious solutions do not work. We must therefore produce these more obvious solutions; and we must criticise them, in order to find out why they do not work. In this way, we become acquainted with the problem, and may proceed from bad solutions to better ones—provided always that we have the creative ability to produce new guesses, and more new guesses.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 260

“But some problems are easily solvable. Are we only talking about certain kinds of problems?”

Yes—the one’s that aren’t easily solvable. The ones that are easily solvable, we solve and go on to new problems.

“And is it possible to simply know that solutions won’t work without trying them out?”

As long as we remember that our “knowledge” that the solution won’t work is conjectural—we could be wrong. (Problem: I am hungry. Solution: get something from the vending machine. Oops, won’t work, I have no money… <well, maybe someone inserted some money and forgot to make a selection, maybe the vending machine is broken, …>)

“It seems that knowing more about a problem takes more than simply producing inadequate solutions. Can we research the problem? Ask others how they solved the problem?”

The goal isn’t to produce inadequate solutions, but to produce genuine solutions. We just must be prepared to believe that our attempted solutions aren’t (yet) adequate. It is when we believe them adequate when they are not that we have more serious problems.

Of course, we can research the problem and ask others. These can be viewed as conjectures of how to solve the problem (meta-conjectures) or as new problems created in the course of solving the original problem.

“All this may be expressed by saying that the growth of our knowledge is the result of a process closely resembling what Darwin called ‘natural selection’; that is, the natural selection of hypotheses: our knowledge consists, at every moment, of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by surviving so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit.”
– Karl Popper, 1972, 1979, Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach, Revised edition, Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge, p. 261

“But that would include many ‘solutions’ which haven’t been tested but aren’t necessarily true simply because they are still around.”

Yes. But if these theories are viable—that is, they have survived such tests and arguments they have been put to, then they may well be true, and we ought not reject them. But this is not the usual case. Rather than too many theories, we usually have too few.

“And people aren’t this rational, so knowledge often remains even after we have critiqued it and showed its flaws.”

Children are quite rational. Adults are often irrational, with their entrenched theories and their penchant for authority. But, to the extent that people are not willing to test and reject theories, their knowledge does not grow in those areas. But it still does in others … (I’m going to the airport. I have a theory that turning right at this intersection will get me there … whoops, better revise that theory! <grin>)

“I have to go get my two year old. . . :-)”

Great questions! I hope my answers have helped a little.

See also:

Steven K. Graham, 1996, ‘Answering questions about Karl Popper’s epistemology’,

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