Clarifying Karl Popper’s epistemology

“Karl Popper’s theory prevails because it solves problems other theories of the growth of knowledge fail to solve, it is a better explanation than its rivals, and it unifies ideas previously thought to be unconnected.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 20th May 1996

[Note: Anything I say that is true in this post is due to David Deutsch (and Karl Popper). All errors are mine.]

A poster wrote:

“Okay, Sarah, I am going to try to figure what you are saying. 

Why is [Karl Popper’s epistemology] convincing?”

What Popper has done is to give a devastating critique of various false ideas about knowledge. The prevailing ideas about parenting and education are full of these mistakes, and as David Deutsch first saw, Popper’s criticisms apply just as much in educational theory (about which Popper says little) as they apply to the growth of knowledge in science (which he has written books on).

The structure of Popper’s theory of the growth of knowledge is, as David Deutsch says, inherently universal. That is to say, Popper’s theory of the way knowledge grows—through openness and criticism, for instance—means that it can’t be true of only some types of knowledge growth but not others, or of one area of knowledge but not others, because if it were true of only a part but not the rest, then the openness would not work, even within that area.

Suppose it were true only of science, but were not true of politics. Then when a political consideration came into conflict with some scientific value, the political values might be telling you not to apply the scientific values, for example.

To give another example, take the political values of openness. People in the past thought it self-evident that these values only apply to white people, but the logic of politics make this untenable; it is not that this is a universal theory of politics and therefore we are not allowed to apply this only to white people, it is that applying this only to white people doesn’t make sense in the values’ own terms.

If epistemology says that the source of a theory does not matter, then that means that the source does not matter no matter who it is. It is inconsistent to say that the source doesn’t matter unless it is such-and-such in which case it does matter.

Suppose Popper’s theory were true of new knowledge but not of ‘old’ knowledge: how would the knowledge know that it is new? New knowledge is only new purported knowledge. Old knowledge is only old purported knowledge.

Popper’s theory implies that the logic of the growth of knowledge is the same for children first learning language as it is for scientists creating a new scientific theory. If a Popperian wants to argue that Popper’s epistemological arguments do apply to scientists but do not apply to children, then, to be philosophically coherent, he must make a substantive argument to that effect.

This is not to say that non-coercive educational theory has been derived from Popper; it is just that all the arguments have appeared before in the philosophy of science; and the prevailing theory of education assumes the truth of ideas which, particularly because of Popper’s critique, have been thrown out as false in the field of science. So educationalists should note that their theory (which is actually not so much an explicit rival theory to what we are proposing, as an ancient tradition dressed up as an explicit theory) has been powerfully criticised in the philosophy of science and that in that context almost no one believes it.

The reason Popper’s theory prevails is that it solves problems other theories of the growth of knowledge fail to solve, it is a better explanation than its rivals, and it unifies ideas previously thought to be unconnected. However, the parts of Popperian epistemology that one needs in the field of educational theory are in fact independently justifiable.

Quoting 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 which 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 commented:

“I understand the disinterested part, but I’m not sure about the ‘theory impregnated.’”

Consider Popper’s example:

“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

To the extent that there is observation, it is theory-laden, as this example shows. Perhaps you are thinking of “theory” as meaning “explicit, formal, scientific theory”? It is much wider than that. To say that observation is theory-laden (or theory-impregnated) is to emphasise that, for instance, unless one has a theory on some level of whatever one’s eyes are focused on, one won’t see it at all. Vision embodies theories, embodies conjectures and refutations. The reason this seems counter-intuitive is that most of the conjectures and refutations about what one is observing go on unconsciously or inexplicitly and quickly become unproblematic (i.e., the conjectures and refutations terminate when the theory of what is being observed is no longer prima facie inconsistent with other knowledge). But surely everyone has had the disconcerting experience of having been absolutely sure in their own mind that they had seen an X, and then later discovered that the X was not an X but a Y?

The words “knowledge”, “theory”, and “problem” have to be interpreted very widely. Theories do not have to be conscious, or explicit, or human. They can be in the realm of morality, or aesthetics, etc., etc., not just science. Popper does not talk much about inexplicit human theories containing knowledge but he does talk about genes containing knowledge, which is perhaps even more counter-intuitive. At any rate, unconscious human knowledge is much more similar to conscious human knowledge than the knowledge embodied in genes is similar to either of those. 

“I’m also wondering if this [learning through conjectures and refutations] occurs in all people or only in people actively interested in learning? It seems like this observation could not be true for all people. . .”

To the extent that individuals are learning, it is by conjectures and refutations. But whether they are learning or not, there is no such thing as theory-free perception or thinking of any kind. Perhaps you are thinking of the growth of knowledge as finding new scientific theories that make a significant contribution to human knowledge generally? But finding a repairman to mend the dishwasher is also problem-solving. Deciding which television programme to watch is problem-solving (“Hmmm, I think I’ll watch Star Trek: TNG now… Oh, no, I’ve seen that one; I think I’ll watch the film I taped last night… Aaah, where is Dazed and Confused? I must have set the video recorder to the wrong channel. Oh I know—I’ll watch Beavis and Butthead instead.”)

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster asked:

“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?”

Making knowledge is indeed an active, creative process. The educationalists’ idea of ‘knowledge’ impressing itself upon passive minds is one of the mistakes Popper is criticising. We create knowledge, we solve problems. If this idea seems counter-intuitive, you might be confusing receiving information with learning. Knowledge is information that solves a problem. Or perhaps you have in mind a view of knowledge as certain truth? Popper showed that objective knowledge is attainable but certainty is not. Knowledge is always conjectural, always remains open to criticism should one day it appear problematic. 

“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 . . .”

Are you referring to information they ‘learn by heart’ from a text book? It is possible to put information in one’s mind by rote memorisation, but that is not knowledge and can’t be acted upon. In order to act upon information, the information has to address the person’s problem situation and solve a problem. (So to the extent that the information doesthat, it is knowledge, and that has been learnt through conjectures and refutations, of course.)

To illustrate this point further, since I’m told it is not obvious: suppose I memorise a piece of text—an article about the benefits of eating seaweed, say—but the text is in a language with which I am completely unfamiliar. The information is in my mind. But it is not knowledge and can’t be acted upon. That is to say, since I have no idea what that information in my mind means, I cannot act upon it. The content of the text does not fit into any context of my ideas, it is just a lump of information whose content is unrelated to anything else in my mind. It does not solve any problem in my mind. It is completely useless to me. It is information but not knowledge. Knowledge is in a meaningful context and solves problems.

Now of course the reason I spend time memorising this foreign text is connected with my problem situation, but that can’t have anything to do with the content of the text if I have no idea what the text is about, can it? And there will be conjectures and refutations about how to get the information into my mind. But these are not related in any way to the content—or need not be—as I have tried to show with this example.

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster asked:

“But does it proceed for everyone this way?”

To the extent that knowledge grows, it grows this way. As David Deutsch says, the underlying logic of this process applies to all types of knowledge, whether new to the individual only (as the English language is new to a baby who is learning it) or new to the human race as a whole (for example, a new idea in science). Even mundane things such as discovering (through trial and error involving no conscious thought) the best way to get the washing-up done, are problem-solving, so yes, it does proceed this way for everyone except those whose minds are completely disabled. That is not to say that everyone is an Einstein, obviously. 

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster commented:

“I can’t believe that ‘the process of learning is always fundamentally the same.’”

Perhaps you are thinking of ‘imitation’, ‘learning by having it explained’, ‘learning by doing’, and ‘absorbing ideas from television’? Or ‘visual learners’, ‘auditory learners’, and suchlike? All these embody conjectures and refutations. They are ways of describing behaviour connected with learning—the overt content of the process. That should not be confused with the process itself of learning itself. One reason some people think that there are different types of learning is that they have not appreciated the uniqueness of each individual. They have not realised the implications of knowledge through conjectures and refutations for the growth of individual knowledge. There are conjectures and refutations about how to solve problems too—meta theories, as it were—and if you put all this together, it is easier to see that conjectures and refutations could underlie the overt behaviour associated with learning, and it is easier to see that one person might like ‘learning through having it explained’ whilst someone else might shrink from that, and prefer reading, and that that is about the differences in the individuals’ personalities, personalities having been formed through conjectures and refutations. 

“I’m not sure how that could be proven. Does he explain how he knows that to be true?”

It sounds as though you are viewing this as a sort of deductive system in which we start with ‘self-evident Popperian truths’ then derive educational theory, but that is false. We are not deriving anything from anything, and we are not proving anything. But when one criticises a view of knowledge—for instance, the idea that knowledge is a fluid that can be poured from one person into another—and that criticism does refute it, then other things being equal, it will refute it the next time one uses it as well, and it’ll refute it in other contexts too. So if you think that in some kinds of people, knowledge is a fluid, then you must make an argument that that is so, because prima facie, the Popperian critique does address those cases. It is as though you are thinking of it all as a science, and asking how we know that the principles of this ‘well established science’ apply to this other area where we can’t test it. That is a mistake. You might find it helpful to begin thinking of Popperian theory as primarily a critique of false ideas. Indeed the positive ideas of Popper are not needed that much: it is the Popperian critique of false epistemologies that is doing most of the work.

What Popper largely does is to show how the rival views don’t make sense. The commonsense theory of how we learn new knowledge is something like induction (i.e., that we learn by generating theories directly from experience or generalising ‘input’ from outside), and that doesn’t make sense. That raises a problem: if the commonsense theory of how we learn does not make sense but we do gain knowledge, how can we possibly gain it? That is the problem of induction, which Popper solved. (If you are interested in the details, we can go into them, but for the purpose of answering your general question about why I find Popper convincing, I hope this is sufficient.)

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster commented:

“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, basically it is that our theories can die in our place. That is to say, evolution embodies conjectures and refutations, so to the extent that an animal evolves, there are conjectures and refutations. But we can think critically, discuss ideas, publish books, and make conjectures and refute them in our minds; so instead of dying as a result of a mistaken theory (for example, an animal might die without reproducing, as a result of a genetic mutation, a genetic mutation being a new conjecture) we can evolve in terms of knowledge without waiting a generation to test a conjecture. Thus we may get knowledge which is objective in the sense that it is true of something which is really there. 

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster commented:

“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.”

You may be thinking of knowledge and thinking too narrowly, as I said. This process is not just on the conscious, explicit level. Improving one’s relationships is problem-solving. Becoming happier is problem-solving. Improving one’s understanding of the world is problem-solving. Secondly, insofar as people are not like this, they are not problem-solving, and they are not succeeding in becoming happier, improving their relationships, understanding the world, or whatever it is they are trying to do. But anyway the point is not particularly that all people do this (although in fact everyone whose mind is not completely disabled does to some extent) but that to the extent that knowledge grows, it alwaysgrows through this process

The poster wrote:

“Some people think they have the truth, so they certainly aren’t trying to get closer to it.”

Everyone (currently) has areas of irrationality in their thinking—entrenched ideas—and it is true that in those areas, an individual is not learning. But rationality and creativity are subject-dependent, and there will be other areas of the person’s mind that are not disabled in this way. In those areas, there may be conjectures and refutations and the person may thus learn. 

The poster asked:

“(Can you tell me how this relates to coercion?)”

Coercion can only ever come about as a result of a difference of opinion, and where there is coercion, it must be that that difference of opinion has not been resolved rationally. When people are sure that they are right and the other person wrong, they often feel justified in coercing the other person. Any practice whatsoever that does not satisfy the criteria for being a truth-generating practice will fail to approach the truth, or impair other truth-finding processes that may be occurring, and thus exacerbate problems, etc. In addition, the coercion will impair creativity, which as I have said is the driving force behind the future solution of problems. Coercion interferes with this rational creative truth-seeking process, for a start, by violating the criteria for rationality—it is neither truth-seeking nor open to criticism. So there is some irrationality there. The key to this irrationality, and to removing it, is whether or not children are made to do things against their will.

[Note added 2021: My reply to this next question—and many similar statements I made at the time—led to horrendous misunderstandings such as the idea that you (whether child, parent, random stranger on the internet) must listen to my criticism and adopt it fully or you are not open to criticism, irrational, and downright wicked. What that is in effect saying is that I am right and I know best what should be in your mind, and you need to receive what I am pouring in to your mind—as if that were possible. As Karl Popper so brilliantly argued, the mind is not passively receiving knowledge as if it were like a bucket into which was being poured a fluid, and knowledge is not like a fluid you can pour into a mind. And when you insist on trying to pour knowledge into someone else’s mind whether they are interested in hearing what you have to say or not, what you are doing is likely to be interfering with whatever thinking and learning is happening in that person’s mind—they have to break off their own productive creative rational problem-solving thinking to attend to the criticism you are trying to foist on them. This actually precisely interferes with the person’s own critical thinking—the criticism that is actually relevant to that person—so it is actually not taking the importance of criticism seriously. This misunderstanding leads to feeling entitled to coercively impose on children and others what Popper called “unwanted answers to unasked questions”—coercive education—you will listen to me and adopt the knowledge I am pouring in to you, whether you like it or not—and to self-coercion too. Coercively overriding your ideas in the name of ‘being open to criticism’ is a mistake for the same reason coercively imposing your will on anyone else is a mistake: you are literally acting against your own will—fighting yourself. See also Criticism scheduling and privacy, In praise of ignorance, Surely criticism is always good?, If criticism is valuable why not be more critical?, Why no ‘common preferences’?.]

The poster asked:

“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?”

Rational knowledge-building processes take the following form:

Problem → conjectured solutions → criticism → error elimination → new problem situation.

The criticism is absolutely essential to the growth of knowledge. It is through criticism that refutations occur and allow bad theories to be dropped. Refusing to listen to children’s theories by virtue of their “youth and inexperience” amounts to excluding their conjectured theories from the process, and thus one still has an active conflict at the end of the decision-making interaction. Rationality requires resolving all prima facie conflicts. 

The poster asked:

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

No. You seem to be trying to map bringing up children onto scientific practice, and it isn’t anything like that. You seem to be trying to apply Popper’s precepts for scientists to yourself as a parent. It sounds as though you are saying to yourself “In what sense do I for instance have expectations and then perform experiments to try to test them?” This is applying Popperian epistemology to the wrong thing. The thing you should first think of applying it to—the analogue of the scientist—is the child. Now of course parents are also scientists and problem-solving, but it is not helpful to think in terms of parents experimenting on children. It would be more helpful to think in terms of parent and child as two scientists working together.

Thinking in terms of performing experiments on children to determine the best way to raise them is wrongheaded. What is the purpose of such experiments if not merely to justify coercion? It would be like having an argument, then breaking off the argument and instead of proceeding rationally, performing an experiment on the other party and purporting to derive the conclusion of the argument from the result of that experiment, and then expecting to be able to enforce that solution on the other party. If you think of only the parents as the scientists then you will get the wrong answer.

Think of the child as the scientist and think of the conditions under which the growth of knowledge can occur. The child’s freedom is analogous to academic freedom or freedom of speech in general. Or think of the family as a whole as a scientist if you like, who has got rival theories in his mind (e.g., parent’s theory and child’s rival theory), and is criticising them (e.g., parent and child are arguing). Experimental testing is not the only form of criticism. Argument is another.

When reading Popper’s analysis of the discussion of the growth of knowledge, try interpreting it as applying to children and you will find much wisdom in it. 

Quoting Popper:

“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.

The poster asked:

“Does this mean then that non coercive parenting may not be a good solution to the problem it addresses?”

It may not be, in that a better solution may be invented one day, but that would be discovered through argument, not experiment, because educational theory is not amenable to empirical testing. It does sound as though you are looking for a test of non-coercion. BTW, what Popper means is that we are going from problems to preferable problems, not that we are always stuck in the mire of problems. 

The poster wrote:

“(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.”

That is taking it to be a scientific theory. It isn’t. It is not the observations alone that could ever refute the theory, as I said. They would only be relevant indirectly in the way that observations are relevant to philosophy, but not in the way that they are relevant to science. That is to say, they might be used to illustrate an argument, but they could not refute (or of course corroborate!) this theory because it is not empirically testable. To be empirically testable, a theory has to forbid something. What sort of observation would refute the idea that coercion impairs creativity? How does one measure creativity? How does one measure ‘problem-solving ability’? How, currently, does one measure even the information in a person’s mind? 

“It seems difficult however to subject all of our ideas to continual criticism. People seem more inclined to adopt two or three very cemented ideas that they never challenge and then challenge the other less cemented ideas. Are humans capable of continual self-criticism of even their most believed ideas?”

Well the point is, when ideas are in conflict, you have to address them or you will fall into error. Where they are not in conflict, it is best to leave them alone. Perhaps you are thinking of criticism of all theories rather than just the problematic ones? It is not a question of subjecting all our ideas to continual criticism—we don’t have to keep questioning the idea that, loosely-speaking, the Earth is round rather than flat (The Flat Earth Society notwithstanding), nor do we have to keep questioning the idea that human beings evolved rather than being created by a supernatural being in 4004BC (Creationists notwithstanding). For most people, these ideas are part of the uncontroversial background knowledge. It is only where there is a genuine conflict that an idea should be criticised. The problem with cemented ideas is that they are held in the face of genuine conflict: the person does not address the conflict but irrationally shuts down all thought in that area of his mind. That leads to error, as I said. It is no effort to subject oneself to self-criticism if one is not irrational, because the alternative is to hold theories in an entrenched way, which is much more work, and people only do that when they have been deprived of the ability to drop them. It is a huge amount of work to maintain a theory entrenched when it is part of an active problem. 

The poster asked:

“Or do humans require more certainty? Does Popper say?”

Yes he does and no they don’t. The quest for certainty is a psychological disorder. We may all be suffering from it to some degree, but it is not necessary, and the extent to which we suffer from it can be reduced to zero. BTW, psychological disorders are about irrationality and false theories, not usually brain abnormalities or diseases.

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster asked:

“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.”

Yes I have read The Continuum Concept, albeit nearly a decade ago, but Popper’s assertion is nothing whatever to do with Jean Leidloff’s theory, as I’ll explain.

There are many misconceptions here. First, you seem to think that we are saying that one is only happy when one’s expectations are fulfilled. This is a misunderstanding of the definition of coercion. Unfulfilled expectations can be coercion or they can be problems. Those two things are quite different. One reason you may have misunderstood this is that Jean Leidloff does in fact think that there is a certain set of behaviours which are natural and inborn, and that badness consists in violating them. Jean Leidloff’s argument for allowing children to play with sharp objects, and parents sleeping in the same bed as their children, and so on, is that this is natural, and her ‘evidence’ that this is natural is that if she looks at people who are supposedly closer to nature than we are, namely these Indian people, that is how it is in their society. This is all mistaken.

Happiness does not consist in having one’s expectations fulfilled; it consists in being in the process of solving one’s problems. For that to obtain at all, one must have problems, and therefore, it is undesirable that all one’s expectations should be fulfilled. This view of human nature as acting out of inborn needs and so on, completely omits creativity or even thought in the sense that we understand it.

I think Jean Leidloff first had the theory, and then ‘found evidence for’ her theory. Now of course, as Popper has shown, the theory always comes first anyway, but the point is, this ‘evidence’ is Leidloff’s theory-laden interpretation of events, not evidence in the sense that it could scientifically refute any rival theory. 

The poster asked:

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

It is not a question of whether they are in fact fulfilled—because once they are fulfilled they are no longer part of any kind of thought process. We want to have problems, and we want to grow and be enriched by being in the process of solving them. It is not the actual solution which gives us happiness, but the process of solving it. So, for any particular problem, we do want it solved, but we do not want to be in the state of not having problems, because that is a state of not thinking. But normally that is not the thing to be avoided. The thing to be avoided is where one is frustrated or baulked in the solution of a problem by some entrenchment or other.

Popper in that passage and Jean Leidloff have in common that they point to inborn expectations and to problems arising when these inborn expectations are not met. But whereas Popper means by a problem, something to think about and solve, Jean Leidloff thinks that any such violation of expectations is by definition harmful. To her, that is what harmful is. So on the one hand, Jean Leidloff says that this frustration of inborn expectations is a bad thing; whilst on the other, Popper says that it is a good thing. And then there is the issue of coercion, which is also some kind of frustration of expectations. It is not surprising that this might all be rather confusing!

The poster wrote:

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

Yes, but only if it seems to violate an expectation that we already had. 

Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster wrote:

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

The thing is, we encounter problems like the washing machine breaking down, and getting the repair man in to fix it. The moment the problem is solved, it is no longer a problem. So those sort of problems do not require much thought. But the way we solve those easy problems is exactly the same way we solve problems that take many lifetimes to solve—through creative conjectures and refutations.

The poster asked:

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


Quoting Popper:

“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

The poster wrote:

“But that would include many “solutions” which haven’t been tested but aren’t necessarily true simply because they are still around. And people aren’t this rational, so knowledge often remains even after we have critiqued it and showed its flaws.”

Of course, it may be known to be flawed but still used because it is the best available. But if it has been shown to be inferior to a different idea, and it is still around, then it is true that this is irrational, and indeed we are not that rational, as you say, and to the extent that we aren’t rational about this, we fail to solve problems.

[For a deeper understanding of this understanding of Karl Popper’s epistemology, read David Deutsch’s life-altering books, The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity.]

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Clarifying Karl Popper’s epistemology’,

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