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Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach


While rejecting the possibility of attaining certainty, Popper argued forcefully for achieving objective knowledge. Such an attainment is possible as a result of the rigorous work of formulating best-case bold conjectures and subjecting them to severe tests. This refining process of critical inquiry is stimulated by the infinite gap between any current attainment of knowledge and what might be achieved as a result of new insight and information gained in the struggle to work out problems that challenge humans to push beyond the boundaries of given understandings, even while necessarily building on what has been previously learned. Popper noted that any new knowledge gained remains a conjecture, and therefore open to ongoing analysis even as falsification closes certain doors, at least until further notice, so that the theories that remain are viable candidates as truth propositions even though the veracity of such a claim cannot be positively ascertained.


Motivating Popper was the desire to press against the specter of relativism that knowledge gained can only be categorized as a perception in which, in principle, any interpretation is as valid as another in terms of its truth content. In this respect he argued that human knowledge grows through the process of trial and error in the pursuit of probing questions and problems that stimulate the imagination even as such knowledge gained remains invariably fallibilistic. Consequently, Popper acknowledged the gap between the finitude of human cognition and truth as a regulative ideal defined as correspondence with the facts. In stressing the possibility of getting closer to the ideal, he maintained that any notion of “closer” is a metaphor that stands for our best striving, which nonetheless cannot close the perpetual disparity between the reality and the ideal in any absolute sense given the unending human capacity to transcend any current understanding. Thus, Popper pointed to a realistic metaphysics undergirding his epistemology that he could not prove, yet one essential on his reading to situate a view of scientific knowledge, which if either indeterminism or the possibility of science as a disciplined body of logical analysis were closed, the enterprise of human growth would be curtailed.


Strictly speaking, the ideal is based on the possibility of attaining approximation toward the truth in an exacting as possible probing of significant issues related to some objective reality. Thus, the scientist makes plausible conjectures as an exploratory foray into the problem, the logic of which is closely compared and contrasted with a previous explanation in order to assess the extent to which it potentially resolves problems not adequately addressed in the earlier explanation. The richer the content, the closer it is as a regulative ideal toward a better understanding of the problem at hand. Balanced reading theory is one such candidate. That points to its content. It is from this baseline that severe testing comes into play in adding important knowledge about a topic, which, if rigorously attended to “may actually suggest how to construct a better theory” (p. 144), say of learning to read, even if the theory is ultimately proven false.


It is this to this richer concept of verisimilitude to which Popper (1979) referred rather than to truth in any precisely defined exacting sense (or “probability of calculus”) related to a question or perplexity that stimulates a search and requires an answer, which is proximately achieved in the better tested theory. As Popper puts it: “All acquired knowledge, all learning, consists of the modification (possibly the rejection) of some form of knowledge, or disposition, which was there previously; and in the last analysis, of inborn dispositions.” More to the point, “All growth of knowledge consists in the improvement of existing knowledge which is changed in the hope of approaching nearer to the truth (italics in original) (p. 71). Along with Dewey, Popper maintained that it is from our basic dispositions from which the beginning of knowledge typically springs. These starting points require the refining process of publicly based critical inquiry in which claims made are evaluated on the extent to which they achieve “nearness” to the truth, clearly a metaphor, but also a regulative ideal that situates human knowledge in a source beyond perception, however much it evolves from it.


Thus, Popper made a sharp distinction between subjective knowledge based on dispositions, from which springs the search for the resolution of problems and perplexities and “knowledge in the objective sense, which consists of the logical content of our theories, conjectures, guesses” (p. 73). Those conjectures that survive the refiner’s test of falsification are particularly durable as proximate objects of truth which have proven their mettle in settings beyond the realm of purely subjective perception in the “exosomatic” environment of the “real world,” what Popper refers to as World 3 knowledge.


Popper acknowledged that his three worlds of knowledge are a typology, although a highly useful one in the making of subtle distinctions on the ways in which knowledge is constructed by and through human knowers. Briefly, World 1 refers to the physical world, World 2 to our conscious experiences, our perceptions, and World 3 to “the world of logical contents” (p. 74), that of exosomatic reality. Popper admitted that World 3 knowledge emerges from perceptions and dispositions, and that central to his typology is the transactional relationship among the three types of knowledge. His basic point remained, however, that the objective reality of World 3 knowledge is largely autonomous in that what is created by human beings takes on a life of its own in the shape of durable products that cannot be reduced or explained by the perceptual confines of the subjective process of human knowledge making.


Popper noted the difficulty of grounding a philosophy of scientific realism premised on best-case fallibilism rather than at least the allure of the positivism of induction in which “sure,” but false knowledge is guaranteed by the alleged cleanness of a value-free observation. That is, he was aware of the intrinsic difficulties of his thesis, in which, in the final analysis, he depicted science as a form of literature, the logic of which is ultimately grounded in the persuasiveness of its narrative argumentation in which counter-narratives are always plausible. As he wrote, “we can never rationally justify a theory—that is, a claim to know the truth—but we can, if we are lucky, rationally justify a preference for one theory out of a set of competing theories, for the time being; that is, with respect to the present state of the discussion” (p. 82) of any particular matter at hand. Such theory construction, Popper argued, is only possible in the publicly contestable and conjectural arena of World 3 knowledge in which knowledge claims can be falsified, or accepted as a plausible approximation to the truth, provisionally verified for the time being, serving as a baseline for further investigation.


Contrasting World 2 and World 3 is the difference between “knowledge or thought in the subjective sense, consisting of a state of mind or consciousness, and knowledge and thought in an objective sense.” The latter consists “of problems, theories, and arguments as such” (pp. 108-109), those that are scientifically accountable through the public means of critical conjecture and scientific refutation. In this sense, knowledge “is knowledge without a knower: it is knowledge without a knowing subject” (italics in original). (p. 109). It is knowledge embedded in the objective reality created, the human artifact, whether a theory, a set of propositions, or publicly articulated arguments that have been marshaled about a topic (such as learning to read) that gain legitimacy based on the rigor of argumentation and evidence provided in making a particular case that can stand the test of time. This is the challenge, for example that advocates of balanced reading theory have only begun to thoroughly confront, notwithstanding important preliminary research stemming from the stimulating concept of balance as “the radical middle,” and its inherent plausibility among a broad stream of literacy practitioners.


Einstein’s theory of relativity is an example of World 3 knowledge as determined by the coherence of its theoretical logic, the ways in which it provides a more satisfactory explanation of certain aspects of physics than Newton’s theories, and in its capacity to withstand severe tests of falsification even though ultimately it is likely to be proven false. What Popper argued is that human knowledge advances much more extensively by focusing on the objective phenomenon of achieved scientific theory than by studying the process by which the scientist came to the conclusion. He noted that the latter may have some relevance in providing part of the explanation that may be needed to obtain a fuller sense of the context of the set of problems resolved by the theory, and Popper was interested in how perception and formulated outcome interface.


Even still, his larger concern was the apprehension of subverting the objectivity of the achieved theory for pursuit of a perpetual process of knowledge construction in its various unfolding in the mind and the emotions of the producer of the outcome. He did postulate that an analysis of World 3 knowledge can provide valid World 2 knowledge in accurately articulating the process whereby the producer drew the logical conclusions that led to the desired outcome. However, the reverse is not the case in that the process in itself reveals nothing other than the subjective meanderings of one searching for resolution of particular “problem situation[s]” (italics in original) (p. 165) without the accompanying achievement of the actual attainment in “exosomatic” knowledge.


To push Popper’s realistic epistemology, new theories and new knowledge emerge in the critical dialectic between conjecture and refutation so that truth proximately unfolds in the very process of its vigorous pursuit. Thus, while focusing on the products of objective reality as the crowning achievement of human growth, what remained of even more fundamental value to Popper was the “give-and-take…interaction between our actions and their results by which we constantly transcend ourselves, our talents, our gifts” (p. 147).


Process remained, for Popper, a delicate subtext of his epistemology given the self-acknowledged fictive nature of science itself. In any absolute sense, Popper did not transcend the relativism of World 2 knowledge and this is an observation of no minor importance. Nonetheless, as creative myth he provided a fictive pathway via World 3 objectivity, toward truth as a regulative ideal with real world consequences in products achieved as well as growth in knowledge that might not have become available without its vigorous pursuit. For Popper, science remained “a branch of literature” (p. 185), an artifice, but no mere fiction, if one considers that term in its pejorative sense. Rather, it was a highly appealing fiction in pointing to the ideals of truth, objective reality, and to the expansive growth of human potential in an indeterminate social and natural universe in which what is available at most is an element of “plastic control,” which can be only modulated by various degrees of analysis, feedback, and testing.


This tensive indeterminate space in a growing, yet potentially knowable world, Popper argued, is the grounding point for the flourishing of human creativity, particularly, but not exclusively in the realm of science. Closer approximation toward the truth, not its attainment, was at the center of Popper’s epistemology, the driving force of his unending quest. In Bernstein’s (1983) pursuit of the subtle space “between objectivism and relativism,” in his quest also for a valid postpositivist social science based on truth as a regulative ideal, Popper’s critical rationalism, which Bernstein did not examine, holds a significant place.

Date: 2014-12-21; view: 1584

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