All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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All Life Is Problem Solving: Learning and Knowledge Making in an Evolutionary and Critical Perspective

April 15th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Adam's Peak

I’ve named this blog after a statement from a lecture of Karl Popper’s, delivered in 1991 near the end of his long life. “All Life is Problem Solving” also became the title of a book of his essays published posthumously in 1999 by Routledge. I love the phrase because it sums up his wonderful work in epistemology, ontology, philosophy of science, and political theory performed over a period of nearly 70 years — his general theory about how new knowledge is made, or, if you like, how learning occurs.

The Theory of Knowledge Making

Knowledge is made, he thought, through a simple three-step process found in evolution, in individual psychodynamics, and in social interaction. That process is:

  • the problem
  • the attempted solutions
  • the elimination.

Living things have expectations. Problems have their origin in events that run counter to those expectations. The response of life, however primitive, to a failure of expectation is to search for another way around. Living things engage in search behavior and testing to “replace the wrong expectation with a new one.” We “make” solutions whose successful application would create new expectations. And we “match” those solutions against aspects of our subjective reality, that, in turn, if we are to be successful in action, must have some correspondence with actual reality.

We see this three-step pattern in Darwinian evolution, where a failure of expectation caused by environmental change creates problems of survival for species which are solved through genetic recombination and mutation (attempted solutions) producing individuals that are better adapted to the changed environment than individuals of the old species were. The old species, along with most mutations and recombinations are eliminated by the environment. They are errors. The species that survive embody genetic knowledge — encoded information with adaptive value relative to the changed environment.

We see the three-step pattern again in the area of learning resulting in cognitive knowledge. Changes in the environment of living creatures result in failed expectations (problems). Search behavior leads to the discovery of new solutions, which if they match the changed environment are then encoded into the memories of living creatures. In humans this pattern is seen in the development of changes in synaptic structures and changes in beliefs as we discover new solutions, test them, and then encode the successful ones in our brains, and, we think, in our minds, as well. So, for living individuals, the three step pattern, the learning process, produces biological, and in some species, mental knowledge (beliefs).

Humans are unique, or at least, close to unique, on earth in enjoying evolution’s gift of language. Through language we can and do create sharable encodings that help both ourselves and our societies and cultures to adapt. The process of creating such sharable, adaptive encodings, or cultural knowledge again fits the three- step pattern. We recognize problems, we formulate tentative solutions (but now with the aid of language we can formulate and consider many and much more complex solutions than can animals who are not able to “objectify” their thinking), and we attempt to eliminate errors in those solutions so we can arrive at the solution that is the strongest in the sense that it has best survived our tests, i.e. our matching of it against those aspects of reality we think are important for its evaluation. Of course, our attempts at error elimination are also much stronger because of the gift of language. We can take the stories we tell about tentative solutions, write down those “stories”, or knowledge claims, or “theories”, or “models” and do a much better job of comparing them and evaluating them because language is the handmaiden of our comparison.

The Unified Theory of Knowledge

The solutions that survive error elimination constitute, once again, our cultural knowledge. As Popper pointed out this knowledge is objective because (a) it is sharable among those who have language, and (b) once made by us, it is autonomous, in that its continued existence can effect our future mental states, and through them our behavior. In contrast, mental knowledge is subjective because we cannot directly share it. However, this in no way dminishes its importance, since it is our mental knowledge which we use in order to behave, make decisions, and act, and since we create our cultural knowledge through action, it is also true that we use our subjective knowledge to create objective knowledge. So mental knowledge, while subjective, and also influenced by cultural knowledge, is also partly autonomous and responsible for the occurrence of cultural knowledge.

By now it should be plain that Popper used his three-step learning process (see Figure 1) to explain how three different kinds of knowledge are made: adaptive encodings in the material world (e.g. genetic encodings and synaptic patterns), adaptive encodings in the mind (attitudes, values, beliefs, etc), and adaptive encodings in cultural products (stories, arguments, theories, models, knowledge claims, propositions, etc.). Though Popper never used this term, this is a unified theory of knowledge (thanks are due to Art Murray of Tel-Art Technologies for the name), because each type of knowledge identifies encodings that are adaptive for the systems that use them relative to their environments. At the same time, the unified theory of knowledge acknowledges that “knowledge” is diverse in chraracter, and suggests that the ambiguities and variations we experience in using this term are due to this diversity.


A picture named Poppersthree-stepmodel.JPG

Figure 1 — Popper’s Theory of Knowledge Making

Evolutionary Epistemology and Complexity Theory

Popper’s Theory of learning and problem solving along with his associated unified theory of knowledge emerge from an evolutionary persective. In his later years, he was associated with a movement called evolutionary epistemology; and it is important to recognize the connection between Popper’s epistemological work and modern Darwinian Theory. Popper’s perspective is also close to complexity thinking. He believed strongly, as I do, in the emergence of complex systems from simpler ones as a fact of life in the universe. And he believed, as I do, in the importance of downward causation as a factor in the emergence and maintenance of complex systems. Interesting work is being done today in the area of merging evolutionary epistemology and the sort of complexity theory that we find in the work of Maturana and Varela and Fritjof Capra. That work (see especially Mark Bickhard’s papers) will reinforce Popper’s view that “all life is problem solving”.

The Critical Perspective and Fallibilism

The last of the three steps in making knowledge is error elimination or “matching”. This step is the gateway to knowledge. But it is, as Popper pointed out, fundamentally negative in character. It is about eliminating mistakes and not about supporting any of one’s tentative solutions. In animals lacking consciousness, mistakes are eliminated, when the animal receives negative reinforcement from the environment for selecting the wrong solution. That is, the animal in question can only learn by experiencing the negative consequences of its mistaken expectation and ensuing decision. Often the wrong choice means that the animal making the choice is eliminated along with its mistake. Animals with consciousness and especially sharing language have a great advantage over other animals. We can eliminate errors and learn by testing our solutions through the surrogate processes of criticism, controlled testing, and comparative analysis, before we take a decision. We, unlike other animals, can manage our knowledge making so that “our worst ideas die in our stead”, and our best ones inform our decisions and actions. But to do so, we must use our gift of language and be diligent in criticism, testing, and evaluation of our tentative solutions.
So, in problem solving and in life, the critical perspective is the key. It is responsible for the elimination of errors, the growth of knowledge, and for adaptation in individuals and society. But why is this so, why has nature and biology relied on error elimination to get us closer to the truth rather than a process of justification or proof of our ideas? The answer is that all of our knowledge, including our biological, mental, and cultural expectations, is uncertain, and no amount of positive support can prove’ beyond doubt, that any proposition or idea is surely correct, or that any piece of genetic encoding, will allow us to adapt to changes in environmental conditions that are yet to occur. This idea, called fallibilism, also espoused by the founder of Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, before Popper, is skepticism, but it is not relativism. It doesn’t deny that we can find the truth, or that we ought to seek it, but only that we can never know with certainty that we have found it. Xenophanes expressed fallibilism in a wonderful way that Popper liked to quote:

The Gods did not reveal, from the beginning,

All things to us; but in the course of time,

Through seeking, men find that which is the better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,

Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,

Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.

And even if by chance he were to utter

The final truth, he would himself not know it;

For all is but a woven web of guesses.

The connection between fallibilism and error elimination is this. Since justification and certain proof is not attainable, the obligation to find a method that will produce certainty does not exist, and the obligation to pursue certainty ourselves without such a method is also gone. What remains is the problem of selecting among our tentative solutions, “our guesses” according to a method that is open to us. This method is error elimination through criticism of competing ideas and beliefs in light of various critical perspectives (fallible ideas themselves) we develop and use.

This whole perspective may be summarized by the concluding line of a brand new article by Deborah Blackman, James Connelly, and Steven Henderson called “Does Double Loop Learning Create Reliable Knowledge?” The Learning Organization, 11 (2004), 11-27. The line, which may take off from Xenophanes, by way of Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, is:

” . . . what a wonderful web we weave, when first we practice to critically believe.”

This Blog and Me

In future installments of “All Life Is Problem Solving” I will use the perspective you’ve just read to treat a variety of subjects. Many of them will be in the fields of Knowledge Management and Organization Theory, where I do much of my work using an approach developed by myself and my friend and close collaborator Mark McElroy called the “The New Knowledge Management” and a normative model called The Open Enterprise. Sometimes though, I will write about Politics and Open Societies, and Physics, and Philosophy, and, as is appropriate for a blog, anything that comes into my head. Whatever I write about is likely to reflect the perspective of “All Life is Problem Solving” and that’s why I’ve given that name to my blog.

If you’d like to learn more about me, what I do, Knowledge Management in general, my collaborator, and our organizations, Executive Information Systems, Inc., KMCI), and (Macroinnovation Associates), please visit our web sites. There you’ll find lots of information about us, and lots of free papers and presentations about Knowledge Management, Enterprise Information and Knowledge Portals, and Data Warehousing. You’ll also find information about our books, both printed and electronic.

Tags: Complexity · Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · Knowledge Making

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 johntee // Sep 13, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Here’s something similar to this from the “Black Swan”

    “…this ability to project effectively frees us from immediate, first-order natural selection-as opposed to more primitive organisms that were vulnerable to death and only grew by the improvement in the gene pool through the selection of the best. In a way, projecting allows us to cheat evolution: it now takes place in our head, as a series of projections and counterfactual scenarios…other animals live on the very short leash of immediate dependance on their environment”

  • 2 Joe // Sep 13, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Hi John, Thanks for the comment. Taleb cites Dennett at the beginning of the passage. But Taleb, I think, is a Popperian citing him favorably in The Black Swan in a number of places, and also the thought that our ideas can die in our stead originates with Popper.

    I have a number of posts in this blog about both Taleb and Soros. the Taleb posts can be found here:

    and the Soros posts here:

    Taleb doesn’t seem to recognize that the ability to project and to simulate is also related to Soros’s thinking on reflexivity since the dangers of reflexivity are greatest when we act without full consciousness of reflexivity.