Some time ago I met a girl on the Internet who wanted to learn 60 languages. I told her that I wondered whether that is possible, for there are only a few geniuses in this world who are talented enough to learn 20 languages and who do not need much time to keep them up without much practice. Not to speak of learning even 60 languages. She wasn’t convinced.
Then she asked me for advice how “to gather as much knowledge of the world as possible”. Again, I was perplexed by her naivety. It looked as if she thought that there is a fixed quantity of knowledge and that the main barrier to know all there is are the limitations of our brain. It made me think of what Karl R. Popper calls in his Objective Knowledge the “commonsense theory of knowledge” or with a beautiful expression “the bucket theory of mind”. It is true, Popper’s theory is about how to get new knowledge of the world, things that we do not know yet, while the girl thought of things already known, but here the difference is not important.
The bucket theory of mind, as naively believed by many people, supposes, according to Popper, that “our mind is a bucket which is originally empty, or more or less so, and into this bucket material enters through our senses … and accumulates and becomes digested” (p. 61). And a few lines later Popper continues: “The important thesis of the bucket theory is that we learn most, if not all, of what we do learn through the entry of experience into our sense openings; so that all knowledge consists of information received through our senses; that is, by experience (ibid.; italics Popper).
There are many reasons why this theory is not correct, but what is important here is that it supposes that “knowledge is conceived as consisting of things, or thing-like entities in our bucket” (p. 62), and in the case of the girl in the buckets of other people. Knowledge is something that there is in this view. If we want to know, we simply have to collect what there is. However, using the photographic analogy again, light that passes the lens of a camera and touches the film or sensor, does not simply makes an image of the world as it is. How the picture looks like depends on the type of lens, the quality of the lens, the type of film or sensor, whether there is a filter on the lens, how the film is processed or how the settings of our photo program are, and so on. So it is also with our senses and brain. What we see does not only depend on the information that reaches our senses but also on what we want to see, hear or feel and on our selection mechanisms. We often do not hear background noise, for instance, or, when we are concentrating on a point in our field of vision, we do not see a lot of other things there. Moreover, we often interpret what we think to see in the wrong way, we ignore things because they are not relevant for us, we fit new knowledge in what we already know, and when it does not fit, we often change the new knowledge or the old one. In short, knowledge is not something that exists as such but something that is made with the help of the information that reaches our senses and brain. We can even guide this process by asking questions and by systematically looking for answers in the world around us. That’s what a researcher does, for instance. Knowledge is not something that simply fills the bucket of our mind. It is quite the reverse: knowledge does not exist as such, once discovered, but it is constructed and continuously adapted and reconstructed by the processes in our senses and brains.