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Interpreting Popper’s Three Worlds Ontology for Knowledge Management: Part One

July 28th, 2008 · 1 Comment


Popper’s Three Worlds Ontology

In his Objective Knowledge (1972), Karl Popper introduced the idea of three ontological worlds or domains. The first world is the world of material objects, events, and processes, including the domain of biology. The second world is the world of mental events, processes, and predispositions– the world of beliefs and other psychological phenomena. The third world is the world of the products of the human mind. In later work, Popper took his friend John Eccles’ suggestion and referred to the first world as world 1 (W1), the second world as world 2 (W2), and the third world as world 3 (W3).

Why three worlds rather than one? First, because Popper was seeking a formulation that would help him solve the body-mind problem, and he didn’t think that either materialist monism, or any variation of classical Cartesian dualism worked. Against monism, he reasoned that it had no way of accounting for either the emergence and facts of mind and consciousness, or the emergence of culture. And against dualism, he reasoned that it had no way of accounting for its claim that mind is some special non-material substance, and also, therefore no way of accounting for its emergence in terms of natural selection, since non-material substances, as opposed to abstract objects like logical and artistic content, cannot emerge out of material objects and processes through natural selection.

Second, Popper also wanted to be able to analyze the interaction among the material world (W1), mental processes (W2), and the cultural objects produced by human minds (W3). He believed the effects of autonomous linguistic, artistic, dramatic, and musical content, various aspects of W3, on W1, working through W2 were very real and very transformative. But, one can’t analyze such interactions without recognizing these categories in the first place.

Third, Popper was also very concerned about the subjectivity of belief knowledge and the rise of relativism in the 20th century. The failure of foundationalist Kantianism and logical positivism, coupled with the successes of both American Pragmatism and his own Critical Rationalism, had discredited the Platonic idea of knowledge as Justified True Belief (JTB). Popper’s distinction between W2 and W3 allowed him to reconstruct the notion of objective knowledge, not as JTB, but as fallible and sharable assertions in W3, that are defeasible by criticisms and empirical tests, but that have survived such criticisms and tests at the time we are considering them. In turn, our beliefs, even the ones we are psychologically certain about, in his hands, become subjective knowledge in the precise sense that they are unsharable and uncriticizable.

And that brings us to knowledge, more generally, Popper, again explicitly distinguished between subjective and objective knowledge using the three worlds ontology, and in many publications he also states or clearly implies the idea that knowledge is made by living things that do not have mind and consciousness, and that therefore do not make either W2 beliefs or W3 products. Such knowledge includes genetic content, but also learned predispositions of organisms, lacking minds, all in W1.

The Unified Theory of Knowledge

In my work in Knowledge Management, I’ve relied heavily on Popper’s three worlds ontology and also on his ideas about knowledge. The “unified theory of knowledge” developed by Mark McElroy and I, and named by Art Murray, closely follows Popper’s work, but makes explicit that:

Knowledge is a tested, evaluated and surviving structure of information (e.g., DNA instructions, synaptic structures, beliefs, or claims) that is developed by a living system to help itself solve problems and which may help it to adapt.


One can distinguish W1, W2, and W3 types of knowledge that fit this definition:

— tested, evaluated, and surviving structures of information in physical systems that may allow them to adapt to their environment (e.g., genetic and synapticknowledge composed of biological structures used in developmental and learning processes);

— tested, evaluated, and surviving beliefs and belief predispositions (in minds) about the world (subjective, or non-sharable, mental knowledge composed of mental structures used in learning, thinking, and acting); and

— tested, evaluated, and surviving, sharable (objective), linguistic formulations about the world (i.e., claims and meta-claims that are speech- or artifact-based or cultural knowledge used in learning, thinking, and acting).

I’ve used these ideas in my work for a number of years and and have suggested in many publications that this view of knowledge is a very good one for Knowledge Managers to adopt, because it recognizes three types of knowledge and therefore also transcends conflicts among those who think that knowledge is exclusively biological very few), or exclusively psychological (many), or exclusively cultural (also many). In other words, this view is highly synthetic and provides a very broad perspective on knowledge. It also is consistent with evolutionary theory and the emergence of knowledge (though thid part of the story is beyond the scope of this blog), first in the biological world, and later in the form of co-evolving knowledge in the mental and cultural worlds. Others in KM have also begun to look into Popper’s work and, specifically into the three worlds ontology. This has begun to give rise to alternative interpretations of the three worlds notion. The first of these alternatives is from William P. (Bill) Hall, a friend who I’ve corresponded extensively with for some years now, and whose views on many things I have broad appreciation for and agreement with.

Bill Hall’s Reformulation of the Three Worlds Ontology

In a recent, soon to be published, and, I think, very ambitious and important, paper co-authored with Richard Vines and Susu Nousala, and in various e-mails posted to the autopoiesis-dialognet yahoo group, Bill follows Maturana and Varela (as do I) in thinking that life is characterized by autopoiesis and cognition, and that these are two sides of the same coin. They write, further, however, and here I think they part company with myself and Karl Popper, that one ought to consider W2 as beginning where cognition begins, with life. Bill and his collaborators also state that W3 includes objective knowledge held in the logical content of the genetic code. And in other communications, Bill has indicated that he thinks Popper asserted this, but that, in any case, he thinks that W3 includes such knowledge.

I think these ideas about where W2 begins, and about what is included in W3, amount to a new construction of the three worlds ontology that departs considerably both from Popper’s views and from my use of them in the unified theory. That doesn’t make these claims wrong. But it does make them different, and I want to make those differences quite clear before I evaluate them. First, to begin W2 at life, rather than at mind, removes both cognition and knowledge from W1, and places it in W2. Does it remove all knowledge from W1 and place it in W2? Not necessarily, because genetic knowledge, represented by the structure of the genetic code, is not produced through cognition, but through natural selection.

Second, shifting the boundary of World 1 relative to Popper’s view, also removes his focus on the body-mind problem. With the shift in boundary, the interaction of W2 and W1 is no longer about the impact of the conscious mind on the material world, but about the impact of cognition of all kinds on the material world and vice versa. This is an interesting question, but it is very different from the one Popper was asking. Further, the interaction of W2 and W3 is no longer about the impact of the conscious mind and our beliefs on W3, nor is it about whether the conscious mind grasps and understands W3 content; but is now about the impact of cognition, more generally on W3, and about whether cognition, conscious or not, “grasps” W3. Still further, we are no longer asking about the impact of W3 on the conscious mind or the self, but rather we are asking about the impact of W3 content on cognitive processing. Again a very different, though also a very interesting, question.

Moving to the construal of W3 as including the logical content of the genetic code, rather than just the logical content of out theories about the genetic code, this revision of the three worlds ontology has the effect of removing the remainder of W1 knowledge out of W1 and into W3, leaving W1 empty of knowledge, and also including in W3, knowledge that is not: a) produced by the human mind (since genetic knowledge is produced by physical natural selection), b) mediated by W2, either in Popper’s or Bill’s sense of this term, and c) objective in the sense that it is sharable and criticizable by others.

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

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 BillHall // Aug 1, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    The definition of knowledge developed by Joe and Mark McElroy as a “unified theory of knowledge” is good for practical use in many contexts from organizations to biology in general:

    “Knowledge is a tested, evaluated and surviving structure of information (e.g., DNA instructions, synaptic structures, beliefs, or claims) that is developed by a living system to help itself solve problems and which may help it to adapt. ”

    However, claims to know (or tentative theories) can be made or presented to the world that have not been tested at all (and what is a test anyway – when the entity making the claim is already experienced in the world), through a continuum to be so thoroughly tested that the claims are accepted as laws of nature.

    Thus, I would leave “tested” out of the basic definition, and argue that all uses of the definition in practical circumstances include an auxiliary clause describing on what basis the claim is considered to reflect the world.


    With regard to the “soon to be published” work by myself, Vines and Nousala, I should note that the draft has been submitted, but not yet accepted. Because we are trying to develop an integrated view from a number of usually disconnected disciplines, it is a long work, and may well be considered to be too long for the publisher of our first choice.


    Joe’s comments that I have changed the relationships between W1 and W2, and to some degree those between W2 and W3 are correct (I won’t saddle my co-authors with the responsibility for this). The reasons for doing so will be discussed in a blog on this site still to be drafted.