|on popper's false gedankenexperiment
||[Jan. 4th, 2006|11:46 pm]
If anything, we might even assert that certain 'ideas', those which constitute our knowledge, are more fundamental than the more complex material means of production, as may be seen from the following consideration. Imagine that our economic system, including all machinery and all social organization, was destroyed one day, but that technical and scientific knowledge was preserved. In such a case it might not take very long before it was reconstructed (on a smaller scale, and after many had starved). But imagine all knowledge of these matters to disappear, while the material things were preserved. This would be tantamount to what would happen if a savage tribe occupied a highly industrialized but deserted country. It would soon lead to the complete disappearance of all the material relics of civilization.
--Karl Popper, "Open Society and its Enemies", ch. 15
I contend that Popper's rhetorical arument here is false, for the following reasons.
1. All knowledge is destroyed and recreated each generation. There is a distinct difference between education and a priori discovery, granted, but much of how we learn is not through rote memorization nor through preservation of knowledge but through demonstration by experiment. I would argue that if knowledge were preserved but not the material trappings of society, there would be some instances where what people know now would induce them to do differently with the world than had been done, more efficiently, more envirnmentally conscious, whatever. There would also be the question of *how* knowledge is preserved. For instance, while most of us have televisions etc, and might even have a television user's manual, such a thing does not provide any documentation of how to make a television nor how to construct the infrastructure of modern media conglomerates. Many of today's companies have been engineered and have moving parts which were constructed by a previous generation, and we simply propagate an existing infrastructure without knowing how one could organically reconstruct, e.g. a Wal-mart, or a Coke, or an IBM, from scratch. For instance, gold bullion was once the basis of currency, but has been superceded by fiat money. Would we go about re-mining all the gold, now that we trust fiat money and credit? Were all the gold to disapper back to wherever it was at the dawn of history, would we remember where to dig?
2. One response would be the "problem of the VCR clock"- it was a common saying ten or fifteen years ago that if you wanted to program a VCR clock, you ask your kids, because without reading the manual they can learn it intuitively. Why can a child learn what an adult does not know? It may be a false example, but the intent is to show that the adult believes they cannot learn the thing which is obvious to the child because they are overburdened by experience: they feel the knowledge is irrelevant because it has not been shown to be necessary in their experience. What we know is a subset of what is knowable (history), but what has been construced is the accumulated acts of all prior events. Popper's argument is against historicism, which states that to understand what is existent today you must undestand the historical, deterministic origin of what has been. However, most knowledge accumulated by people is from contextual experience, and becomes irrelevant and obsolete over time. How to bridle a horse, for instance, or tame a dog. Were nature to revert to square one (and, arguably, it would be hard to determine what square one would have been without some historicism) we would still largely have forgotten how to get square one wolves back to yesterday's hunting dogs to today's bichon frises. Where does humanity end, and nature begin? Stripped of all our "stuff", who among us could survive except for a few outlier personalities, who would bring their peculiarities to the fore and likely not bother to reconstruct such frivolities as the leap second. Knowledge survives not just because it is known, but because people are motivated against baser instincts to feed the pencil-necks to the wolves, in order to keep the "stuff" running.
3. There is no reducible truth. Axiomitization is, in the end, best used as a heuristic (a simplification which may be untrue but is predictive) rather than as a Platonic Form. I think this is the best formulation of what Popper is getting at without having read Husserl and Levinas. Popper falls on his own sword when he elevates knowledge as that which preserves society, because he is arguing Marx follows from Hegel and Plato, and then uses what is at its root a Platonic ideal to explain why these are a fallacy.
I am suspecting that while logical positivism and the analytic school may be dominant in modern times (having all but quashed the romanticism of Marx/Hegel/Plato), phenomenology might be the compelling third way (although it is relatively unknown/unpopular) from which can be derived an evolved response to overthrow the confusion and paradox laden world. Conclusion: next step is to put aside Popper and move backward to Edmund Husserl via Popper's route: through Aurel Kolnai. Then: to Emmanuel Levinas, and then to Alphonso Lingis (Maybe Lingis first: there's a lot of sparkly, shiny stuff to behold.) I've (somewhat) read, and ultimately become frustrated with and have abandoned, Hannah Arendt, which is another possible branch of the same tree. Recommendations? Thomas Aquinas?
Answer to Mr. Popper: Which situation can preserve humanity?
Preserving all knowledge, but losing all machinery and social organization.
Preserving all material things, but losing all knowledge.
It's a chicken-or-the-egg question.
Humanity is never conserved, but always in flux.
Humanity is generally preserved, but not through material things nor through knowledge.
all comments screened: please discuss or debate, but let me know if you don't want your comment unscreened. Not everyone might want to "get into it" but I would value what people can say.