Thesis – "Holy Wars" Highlight Fundamental Changes in the Creation and Use of Knowledge

Karl Popper's Epistemology and Thomas Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions

In writing up my PhD research on chromosome evolution and speciation in lizards, I found that reviewers and peers had difficulties following my arguments, to the extent that after reading one draft of the thesis, my adviser commented, “I don’t like it – do it over”. I eventually earned the degree (Hall 1973) – but none of my reviewers were ever able to articulate in a way I could understand why they had so much difficulty with my efforts to explain the work.

The nature and scope of my writing problem only began to become clear when one of my ex-research assistants (then working on his doctorate), who helped me with the research for more than a year in the field and lab, accused me of being “unscientific”. When he undertook to rewrite my draft of a major paper, it was clear the issue between us was not a poor command of English or inadequate research, but something fundamental about how I presented my whole research program and how he interpreted the presentation. My last major research project as an academic was to try to understand the communication problem. To do this I studied the epistemological differences and communication difficulties between users of the “comparative” research methodology9, as I had applied it10, and the more commonly understood hypothetico–deductive methodology11 many biologists had tacitly adopted from the physical sciences. My methodology was in fact rational and appropriate for the kind of research I had done (Hall 1983)12 (as eventually accepted by my peers – e.g., Sites et. al, 1992).  However, in completing the 1983 study, I learned a lot about what knowledge is, and how it is acquired, organized and communicated.

Books by two seminal thinkers helped me understand the specific difficulties I had encountered, and are the source of many of the ideas presented here. Karl Popper’s works13 on the theory of knowledge (epistemology)14 provided rational criteria for evaluating the scientific basis of my methodology. Thomas Kuhn’s (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written from a much more historical point of view, helped me achieve a useful understanding of the problems I had communicating my research findings to my peers. Although I did not gain these insights soon enough to salvage my career in evolutionary biology, they have greatly informed my later professional work as a technical writer and in introducing revolutionary information management technologies into inherently conservative industries (Hall, 1998). Popper's and Kuhn's works are also essential to the fugal themes I am developing here.

Theory of Knowledge

Karl Popper stated that truth exists in nature and that we may in fact know this truth, but argues that no finite number of facts or observations can ever absolutely prove that what one claims to “know” actually is the truth. It makes no difference whether these facts are collected before or after the statement of knowledge. Arguing from metaphysical assumptions, Popper goes even further to assert that repeated substantiations or confirmations do not even show a theory to be "probably" true. This is the "problem of induction"15.

Popper’s (1959) repudiation of inductive methods in science raised the core issue of how to differentiate between good science and pseudo science, non–science and just plain fantasy: i.e., how to determine rationally which of several competing claims to know something are more likely to be true or resemble the truth. In other words, just because I can point to many instances of what I am trying to show, this doesn't prove it true for all cases. Popper called this the "problem of demarcation", and first tried to resolve it by taking the other end of the stick (Popper 1959).

If we:

1.     claim to have true knowledge (i.e., stated as a hypothesis),

2.     logically deduce certain consequences which must follow from that hypothesis, and

3.     then test for the existence of these deduced consequences in nature – and these do not occur;

we can at least potentially prove the claimed knowledge to be false.16

Popper then argued that one can claim knowledge to be “scientific” only if it is constructed in such a way that one can logically deduce circumstances from that knowledge that are at least potentially falsifiable through testing against the real world. Better (scientific) knowledge is that which is so constructed, and which has survived a variety of robust attempts to falsify it through testing. If a claim to knowledge is formulated in such a way that there is no possible test which might be able to falsify it (i.e., angels exist but they are impossible to see) or otherwise connect it to reality, then such claims are metaphysical and have no more scientific value than myth or fantasy. Many scientists (especially those in the physical sciences) assume these usually unstated criteria as the basis for what they would call a "good" scientific hypothesis.

Popper’s logic of falsification can be applied with some justification in sciences dealing with phenomena assumed to be deterministic and universal. However, as Popper (1972) recognized in his Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach17, the absolutist model of falsification is inappropriate for evolutionary and historical processes – or indeed, for most human affairs. Here, the claimed knowledge does not apply universally and at best only makes probabilistic (rather than certain) predictions about consequences. In the non-deterministic world of "fuzzy" science and human affairs, Popper argued that one could not even prove something was true (or false) to some given statistical degree of confidence. However, Popper took a similarly critical approach to that used in the deterministic case. He argued that claims to knowledge that are multiply connected to reality through at least potentially falsifiable predictions, even if only statistically – and that have survived robust attempts to falsify these predictions – are qualitatively better than claims to knowledge that haven’t been so tested. In other words, claims to knowledge that make many testable predictions that have survived robust attempts to falsify them are qualitatively better than claims which can't be tested or which are supported only by searching for confirmatory evidence. He also argued that attempts to logically connect many "unexpected" aspects of reality were more valuable than those that made few claims or only claimed what was already "known". The best theories are those that claim a lot and whose logical claims had been robustly criticized (both in terms of formal logic and in terms of their logical connection to observable reality) without substantial failures.

Popper's bottom line is that objectively useful knowledge – as opposed to uncritically accepted fantasy and myth, is logically connected to reality and experience by multiple links that have survived rational attempts to test and falsify them. Popper argued that knowledge evolves and grows by proposing increasingly bold hypotheses that survive vigorous testing against reality. Hypotheses that fail testing are eventually discarded as demonstrably providing little predictive value (i.e., the principle of natural selection applies to the evolution of human knowledge as well as a species' genes). An amalgam of Popper's Objective Knowledge with a more thorough understanding of evolutionary adaptation has led to the development of what is now called "evolutionary epistemology" (Heylighen 1995; Calvin 1996; Plotkin 1994; Bradie and Harms 2001; Vehkaraa 1998). This is elaborated below.

Knowledge Revolutions

Popper was the quintessential philosopher. Having earned his doctorate in philosophy (Thornton 2000; Watkins (1997), he developed his ideas about the nature and growth of knowledge from first principles, and apparently had comparatively little contact with the actual practice of science. Thomas Kuhn (see Pajares 1998), my other guide to what represents "good science", took a comparative and historical approach in his attempts to elucidate processes in the growth of "scientific" knowledge, without worrying much about what knowledge was18. Kuhn’s (1962) major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, provided deep insights into sources of communication problems that can turn a Popperian evolutionary growth of knowledge into a scientific revolution.

I tried to understood and apply Kuhn’s ideas to my own problem in scientific communication. They seemed to fit my experiences. Scientists are naturally grouped into content related disciplines or “invisible colleges” that are not consciously apparent to their respective members. Each college tacitly shares (a) a theory laden vocabulary (based on implicit connotations as well as explicit definitions), (b) an unspoken set of examples of what the discipline believes to represent “good science”, and (c) a lot of other uncritically held assumptions about their discipline inherited from their education as scientists. Kuhn called this tacit disciplinary framework a “paradigm”19.

As long as the growth of factual knowledge in a discipline conforms to the subliminally received paradigm, it proceeds “normally” – in an incremental or evolutionary fashion. However, when continued tests against reality do not fit the explicit theory and cannot be answered by extensions to the theory within the limits of the implicit paradigm held by the discipline, the situation becomes more complex and potentially chaotic. A new underlying paradigmatic structure may fit the anomalies within a new theoretical structure. The new paradigmatic structure often involves inventing new vocabulary (or by redefining existing words), accepting new examples of what constitutes good science, or even finding new ways to think about the discipline. Thus the different paradigms are often incommensurable. Because the conceptual components forming paradigms are not discussed and debated in the same way "facts" and observations are, communication problems almost inevitably arise between disciplines built on the different paradigms. Kuhn suggested that two disciplines dealing with similar subject matters might often use the same words in their discussions. However, because the words have come to have different meanings or shades of meaning in the respective paradigms, attempts between members of the different schools to rationally discuss their competing theories often degenerate to emotional arguments and ad hominem attacks — or "flames" in internet parlance.

Paradigms and Incommensurability

In Kuhn's most generic usage, "A paradigm is what the members of a 'scientific community' [discipline], and they alone, share. Conversely it is their possession of a common paradigm that constitutes a scientific community [i.e., discipline] of a group of otherwise disparate men" (1977 pp. 460). Kuhn further notes that the discipline will "to a remarkable extent... have absorbed the same literature and drawn similar lessons from it. Because the attention of different [disciplines] is focused on different matters, professional communication across [discipline] lines is likely to be arduous, often gives rise to misunderstanding, and may, if pursued, isolate significant disagreement. (pp. 460-461)"

In responding to Mastermann's (1970 - see note 19) and other criticisms of his loose usage, Kuhn stated he was most concerned to use "paradigm" in the meaning of a "disciplinary matrix" of shared exemplars of what the discipline considered to be "good science". His paradigm concept in the sense of a disciplinary matrix includes four major components (Kuhn 1977; Forster 1998):

Kuhn (1970:185), included a fourth component:

In the sense I used the term both in Hall (1983) and in the present paper, I follow Kuhn's preferred definition, and emphasize that the Kuhnian paradigm includes the tacitly accepted a priori beliefs and theory-laden vocabulary and jargon that members of the discipline accept more-or-less uncritically along with their exemplars. Symbolic generalizations, models and exemplars are all expressed in vocabulary that is often based on unstated assumptions. Like most vocabularies, theory-laden vocabulary is mostly learned tacitly "by example" as part of the conceptual "world view" or "gestalt" within which the discipline works.

Kuhn's concept of incommensurability derives from the mathematical concept of incommensurability (Kuhn 1983), and arises in science from the tacit [in the standard English sense of the term] nature of a paradigm. Kuhn (1962) developed the concept primarily in the framework of studying scientific "revolutions", where there was a historical progression from an earlier paradigm (disciplinary matrix) to a newer one. According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions may occur when new observations can no longer be adequately explained within an existing paradigm (the observations are anomalous). In some cases the anomalies can only be accommodated in theory based on new exemplars, models and/or symbolic generalizations. These changes often require new vocabulary and often alter the meaning and connotations of existing vocabulary. Even where the same words are used within each of the paradigms, there is often no longer a direct logical correspondence in their meanings. In other words, the world view (created by symbolic generalisations, models, exemplars and their associated theory-laden vocabulary) held by practitioners of one paradigm is logically incommensurable with that held by the alternative paradigm. Even though practitioners of both paradigms are looking at the same data, they see different worlds.

Because paradigmatic changes to vocabularies, models and exemplars are rarely discussed explicitly, and because few members of a discipline are even aware of the concept of a paradigm, Kuhn argues that the adoption of a new paradigm by an individual is a "conversion experience" (1970:151) more than it is a reasoned, logical process. Because practitioners working within the respective tacit paradigms don't know how to deal logically with their different views of the same external phenomena, discussions often become heatedly emotional, and consequently the process individuals undergo to accept a new paradigm may be more akin to religious conversion or cognitive revolution than it is to "normal" science.

Although Kuhn explored the ideas of paradigms and incommensurability primarily in the temporal process of change from one paradigm to another, two paradigms can (and often do) exist side-by-side at the same time, with the same consequences for communication between holders of the different paradigms.

To rationally compare two paradigms one needs the ability to step outside the disciplinary framework and become a "translator" to explicitly explore their merits in a "meta-language" not fundamentally grounded in either paradigm (Kuhn 1970:202-204).

Popper's Three Worlds

One of Karl Poppers' major contributions to the theory of knowledge is his discussion of various "worlds" of knowledge as collected in his book, Objective Knowledge (Popper 1972). There are basically two sorts, "subjective" knowledge possessed by a "knowing" person or "organismic" knowledge held by some living being; and "objective" knowledge that "consists of the logical content of our theories, conjectures, guesses (and, if we like, ofthe logical content of our genetic code)" (Popper 1972:73). To clarify this, Popper posits three "worlds" relating to cognitive activities:

Popper assumes that the logical content of this World 3 may connect to World 1 by truthfully representing World 1 as it exists. He posits some important theses about this World 3:

  1. We can discover new problems in world 3 which were there before they were discovered and before they ever became conscious; that is, before anything corresponding to them appeared in world 2.
  2. Thus there is a sense in which world 3 is autonomous: in this world we can make theoretical discoveries in a similar way to that in which we can make geographical discoveries in world 1.
  3. Main thesis: almost all our subjective knowledge (world 2 knowledge) depends upon world 3, that is to say on (at least virtually) linguistically formulated theories. Example: our 'immediate self-consciousness', or our 'knowledge of self', which is very important, depends very largely upon world 3 theories; on our theories about our body and its continued existence when we fall asleep or become unconscious; on our theories of time (its linearity); on our theor that we can pick up our memory of past experiences in various degrees of clarity; and so on. With these theories are connected our expectations of waking up after falling asleep. I propose the thesis that full consciousness of self depends upon all these (world 3) theories, and that animals, although capable of feelings, sensations, memory, and thus of consciousness, do not possess the full consciousness of self which is one of the results of human language and the development of the specifically human world 3.

... The commonsense theory of knowledge [i.e., the subjective knowledge of the knowing subject, which Popper 1972 has discussed at some length] is unaware of world 3, and it thus ignores the existence of knowledge in the objective sense. (Popper 1972: 74 - his emphasis]

As defined by Popper, this third world is a unique kind of domain:

... I suggest that it is possible to accept the reality or (as it may be called) the autonomy of the third world, and at the same time to admit that the third world originates as a product of human activity. One can even admit that the third world is man-made, and, in a very clear sense superhuman. It transcends its makers. [my emphasis] 

[from the footnote] Although man-made, the third world (as I understand this term) is super-human in that its contents are virtual rather than actual objects of thought, and in the sense that only a finite number of the infinity of virtual objects can ever become actual objects of thought... 

That the third world is not a fiction but exists in 'reality' will become clear when we consider its tremendous effect on the first world, mediated through the second world. One need only think of the impact of electrical power transmission or atomic theory on our inorganic and organic environment...[Popper 1972 p:159]

As Popper (1972) argues, much of conventional epistemology has completely ignored or at least underestimated the value of the objective artifacts of knowledge in word 3. The present hypertext is primarily about the origins and evolution of World 3 - to say nothing of the fact that it demonstrates how World 3 works; and how changing technologies can help us build, evaluate and use World 3 knowledge based on our experiences in World 1.

By contrast, Kuhn's paradigms exist almost entirely in World 2, and his concept of incommensurable differences between the (subjective) world views of those holding different paradigms suggest that every individual has his/her own private World 2, with communication about sensible things dependent on the exchange of World 3 objects. The utility of such communications to each individual depends; first on how well the World 3 artifact represents World 1, and second on how well the individual is able to connect its personal World 2 with the World 3 artifact.

For those wishing to delve deeper into into the Web on the frontier between Popperian and Kuhnian approaches to evaluating "fuzzy" theories in science, Forster (2000; 2000a) offers interesting reading.

As will be discussed in Episode 4 of this hypertext, Popper (1972) offers many other deep and even prescient insights into the evolution of organismic and organizational cognition under the headings of "Epistemology without a knowing subject" and "Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge". More than 25 years after first encountering Popper's thinking I think I am only know beginning to understand its full depth.

The next section looks at the impact of other kinds of revolutions20 on the nature of humanity, where the invention and adoption of new physical and conceptual tools have actually changed the nature of Homo sapiens as a biological species.

Technological and Conceptual Revolutions in Human Affairs