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

July 29th, 2008 · 1 Comment


Comparative Evaluation of the Two Theories

Let’s compare the two theories of the three worlds, world-by-world, as it were. First, Popper’s W1 has the disadvantage that it blurs the distinction between the living and the non-living, since both are included in W1. This also has the effect of including knowledge in W1 without specifying a category distinction between those parts of the material world where knowledge occurs and those parts where it does not. I think it is useful to have a “world” category which distinguishes the absence of life and the absence of knowledge from other categories in which both are present. And Bill’s theory of the three worlds does have that advantage over Popper’s

Second, on the other hand, Bill’s view of W2 is too broad in that it either inadvertently includes both “mental” cognition, and what we might call lower-level biological cognition in the same “world” category, or alternatively, is meant to deny the existence of the mental by denying the validity of the body-mind distinction. If the first is the case, then this argues for another category corresponding to Popper’s W2 in which mental phenomena are isolated, since mental phenomena are at another and higher level of emergence, than lower-level biological cognition, and we will still need to investigate the relationships between this level and Popper and Bill’s W3. Put another way, with the movement of the boundary of W2 to life, the critical question of very emergence of mind, consciousness, and self, and the ability to address it as a consequence of the continuing interaction of body/brain and culture is gone, and with it the ability to address some very promising theories about how mind, consciousness, and self emerge.

On the other hand, if the second is the case, and the intent is to assert by ontological assumption that mental phenomena don’t form a significant ontological category, then I think this formulation is mistaken. Now, admittedly, the body-mind distinction is a very vexed and still vexing philosophical problem. The development of neural science is associated with a point of view that there is no such distinction, and cognitive science reflects the view that “the mind is as the mind does,” a vague but not unreasonable view. Yet, the findings of neural science have not yet come close to dissolving “the hard problem of consciousness.” What’s needed to reduce the mind to non-conscious brain processes is a showing that human qualia and subjective mental experiences can be mathematically reduced to such processes. If that can’t be done, and as yet we’re not even close to being there, there is no reduction, and the belief that “mind” is reducible is just an ontological assumption. But what reason do we have to believe in it, if we cannot actually carry out a reduction? How does it help us to believe in it? I think the answer is that it doesn’t, but instead hurts us by removing the possibility of investigating the relationships between a hypothetical level of emergent mental processes and W3.

Moving to W3, Bill’s notion of it has the disadvantage, that it includes material knowledge, the “logic” of the genetic code in W3, and also assumes the existence of such “logic.” Bill has claimed, though I don’t know if he still holds this view that Popper, too, thought that the logic of the genetic code was in W3. In support of this interpretation he pointed to:

“. . . knowledge in the objective sense, which consists of the logical content of our theories, conjectures, guesses (and, if we like, the logical content of our genetic code)” (p. 73 of Objective Knowledge),

But this is ambiguous because a) Popper might have meant the logical content of our theories about the genetic code, and b) this is the only evidence in all of Popper’s books and papers after 1972 that may be taken as supporting the idea that either objective knowledge or the logical content of our genetic codes, as opposed to the logical content of our theories about our genetic code, is in World 3. The interpretation of Popper’s statement as referring to our theories about the genetic code, rather than the logic of the code itself, is supported by his views on logic. He did not consider logic to be physical, or organic, or psychological in nature. That is, for Popper, there is no logic in the physical world or in the mental world, Rather, for him, logic, and also objective knowledge, for that matter, is a linguistic creation of the human mind and logical content is something we find in linguistic expressions and not in the physical or mental domains.

There is no place in his writing where Popper takes any other position about the nature of logic, or about objective knowledge, and since in every other place in which he discusses W3, he also refers to it as the domain of the products of the human mind, I think the only way to interpret that quote from p. 73 is that it does refer to something linguistic and not to the structure of the genetic code itself.

Of course, regardless of which interpretation of Popper’s meaning is correct, there still may be good reasons for Bill’s including the logic of the physical genetic code in W3. However, if this is done, then we will have W3 objects that are created by human minds, or alternatively cognitive processes, and W3 objects produced by natural selection in evolutionary processes. In addition, we will have objects in W3 that cannot be directly grasped by human minds, or alternatively by cognitive processes, which violates another central rationale of Popper’s idea of W3. In short, it is hard to see what is gained by saying that the logic of the genetic code is in W3, rather than saying that the structure of the genetic code is in W1, except removing any residual knowledge left in W1 after one changes the boundaries of W2, so that it begins with life, rather than with mind.

In short, I think that Bill’s reformulation of Popper’s ontology is helpful in highlighting the lack of distinction between the non-living physical world and the living biological world, but that in other areas, it introduces confusion and conceptual problems, where, previously, there was clarity.

A New Reformulation

There is an easy way to resolve the conflict between Bill’s formulation and Popper’s, while serving an interest in emphasizing the boundary between the living and non-living. That is , we can distinguish four “worlds.” W0 would be the domain of the nonliving; W1 the domain of the living, cognitive, and autopoietic; W2 the domain of mental processes, events, and predispositions; and W3, the cultural world of the products of the human mind. Worlds 1, 2, and 3 are domains in which knowledge is produced. W1 is the world of biological knowledge; W2 is the world of mental processes and mental knowledge in predispositions, beliefs, and expectations; and W3 is the world of cultural knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

To effect this change all we have to do is to epistemically cut Popper’s W1, into W0 and W1. We then highlight the interactions of the living and non living, of biological cognitions and mind, and of mind and culture. There is no knowledge in W0. Genetic codes and synaptic structures are in W1. Tacit, implicit, and explicit beliefs, along with mental processes, value, attitudinal, belief predispositions and subjective knowledge, are in W2, and abstract knowledge objects such as problems, theories, arguments, and systems of logic, aesthetics, and value theory (but not concepts) are in W3.

Significance for Knowledge Management

Many in KM prefer not to spend too much time talking about how to characterize knowledge. They believe that we can improve the quality of knowledge without talking much about what it is we’re improving just by showing that KM activity has a positive impact on collaboration or community or perhaps certain bottom line factors. I think people who hold this view don’t understand what it will take to show that KM has a positive impact on such factors. There is an underlying theory or set of assumptions that underlies KM. It is a simple theory and can be stated as:

— higher quality KM activity leads to higher quality knowledge making and/or higher quality knowledge sharing;

— higher quality knowledge making and knowledge sharing results in higher quality knowledge available to support individual decisions, and, of course,

— higher quality individual decisions lead to higher quality outcomes.

Now, if KM is going to be successful, we need to show that the general outlines of this theory are correct, and I think that, in order to do that, we need to measure the various links in this chain including the knowledge link. In order to measure the knowledge link in turn, we need to have a theory about the nature of knowledge. If we think that knowledge means only biological cognition and W3 abstract objects, then this will result in our including only measures of the changes of state in those things. If we, also, think that knowledge includes mental beliefs and predispositions, however, then we will also try to measure the change in quality of that mental knowledge with all the difficulty that entails.

Having said the above, I have to say that I often have the feeling that many in KM think that to get people to accept this theory, they don’t have to measure the intermediate links, but can just look at the KM input and the bottom line result of any intervention, and claim success or run for the hills depending on what that bottom line result is. However, I think that such a view is naive in the extreme. In case of a good bottom line result, opponents of KM will attribute that result to everything under the sun execpt KM, and for the friends of KM every bad result will be rationalized by pointing to various factors that have undermined the impact of KM. To undercut such self-serving reactions, on both sides, we need to measure the links in that chain. To the extent that we do we can make KM accountable. To the extent that we don’t, we will just continue to wave our hands in favor of the conclusions about impact that we favor.

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

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 BillHall // Aug 1, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    There are some good ideas here! Especially that of putting the physical world in a W0. I’ll consider this in a subsequent contribution to the blog.

    However, one of my reasons for extending Popper’s core ideas the way I have is that when combined with autopoiesis and the theory of hierarchically complex systems the resulting epistemology goes well beyond a strictly human-centric view of knowledge. It is this extended epistemology that provides the basis for (1) arguing that many economic organizations are third order autopoietic entities (living cells represent the first order, and humans and other organisms represent the second) in their own right my understanding of the relationships and (2) explaining the differences and interactions between human knowledge and organizational knowledge that I think will help us improve our management of knowledge in organizations.

    I’ll try to explain this approach in an accompanying blog.