Monday, April 05, 2010

The bucket of our mind

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.

4 comments:

argumentics said...

I think Popper's theory of knowledge is much more than the idea that "something objectively gathers". Not only that Popper's objectivity does not exclude the observer's subjectivity, but it is probably the only one which genuinely encompasses such mistrust - the type of "lens may be broken" mistrust. Because, besides objectivity (in the Fregean sense as "objective content of thoughts"), Popper avers fallibility, which is the utmost statement of subjectivist view upon how science advances.

You say: "We can even guide this process by asking questions and by systematically looking for answers in the world around us", but, in some sense, this is purely Popperian. The question, the problem it tries to resolve, the system it tries to produce, all these must have some objective existence, since we (actually they, scientists) have in possesion a metalanguage. The idea of a metalanguage, in which we can say <"Birds fly" is true> cannot be held without some degree of objectivity. The possibility of a "correspondence to facts" theory of truth is impossible without some degree of objectivity.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: well, here's another interest we have in common. :)

Best,

HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction. Actually I do not understand what you mean with that Popper's theory of knowledge is much more than the idea that “something objectively gathers”, because I did not say so in my blog. I think that there is a misunderstanding here. Of course, Popper’s theory is much more but I hadn’t the intention to attack or defend Popper’s theory here. I simply found Popper’s idea of a bucket theory a good way of describing the na├»ve commonsense idea of what knowledge is and how we get it. That’s theonly reason why I referred to Popper.
Popper’s idea that our way of experiencing the world is subjective is the foundation of his critical rationalism, I think, and of his attack on positivism. Just for this reason we need permanent critique, for we never know whether our interpretations are right.
The idea of asking questions as the essence of the method of science is not an invention of Popper, as far as I know. Anyway, you find it in many books on methodology. In fact, I got it from Gadamer in the sense that he made the importance of it clear to me.
I do not agree with the correspondence theory of truth. It took me years in order to understand what was meant with saying “The statement ‘snow is white” is true if snow is white”. And when I understood it at last, I was the more convinced that it is not a good theory of truth. For how do we know that snow is really white without interpreting that snow is white? For, as I have also tried to show in my blogs, we have no direct image of reality, but only constructions and interpretations. Therefore it is impossible to confront the statement ‘snow is white” directly with a reality in which snow is white. Therefore, I prefer Habermas’s discursive theory of truth or a truth theory of that kind. Anyway, thanks again for your reaction. HbdW

Ragu Ram said...

" For how do we know that snow is really white without interpreting that snow is white? For, as I have also tried to show in my blogs, we have no direct image of reality, but only constructions and interpretations. Therefore it is impossible to confront the statement ‘snow is white” directly with a reality in which snow is white."

The correspondence theory of truth is a common sense theory of truth and virtually accepted and practiced by most people.It is in this sense that a judge reasonably expects a witness to speak the truth in court.Not,the witness interpretation of events it-but the events as would be characterized by common(objective) standards.

1. All knowledge can be represented by statements.

2.This knowledge is fallible.Nevertheless,it is knowledge in that it has been "tested" against reality.

3.Though,we can't compare the statement "snow is white" against reality "fully",we are confident that it is white because we haven't seen it red.Should we see red snow-that is an example of how,even if indirectly-we do are able to explore reality,despite our inability to be certain about our knowledge.They are inherently fallible,for the very process of discovery involves the correction and updating of the background knowledge from which we unconsciously awakened to the problem we are investigating.

3. There is no logical contradiction in the correspondence theory.you have raised an experiential difficulty in it-how do we designate true statements when our sense can't validate external reality?

3.1. In fact,it doesn't.When we assert a statement,we take it to be true-though it can be false.I may be wrong that it rained yesterday.but even if I merely play along in saying that it rained yesterday-the statement itself is true or false,independent of my view of it.

Thus there is no need to do away with the commonsense theory of truth and it clears the way for us to investigate other matters with less obfuscation.

HbdW said...

Comment on Ragu Ram:
Thank you for your reaction. I want to give a short reaction on your valuable blog post.
First, your opinion that the correspondence theory of truth is useful because it is common sense. Actually the example that snow is white because it is white is not a good one in this case, but it isn’t mine but it comes from Tarski (and Popper). I think that common sense is not a good basis for formulating a scientific theory of truth. Take this. For ages it has been common sense that the sun revolves around the earth. And isn’t it so that you get this impression, when you see a sunrise or a sunset? However, the facts are different, but people have even been sentence to death for saying so. Nowadays it is common sense (at least many people think so) that the earth revolves around the sun. Common sense cannot be a foundation of the truth but must be the result of truth. As such common sense is no stable factor as my example illustrates. There are no objective facts, but facts require interpretation (for instance with the help of a theory), and that’s what I wanted to say.

Every psychologist can tell you that witnesses are basically unreliable, and why this is so. A judge needs to know that.

Then your point 1. Against it, for instance this: I know what pain is, but I doubt whether it can be represented by statements.
As for 2., there is a discussion whether the knowledge that I have pain is fallible. I think that it isn’t (see Wittgenstein, Shoemaker and others).
Your first point 3. It’s okay, but it actually says that truth is founded on interpretation and in this sense is subjective (and that’s just my point).
Then your second 3. Take this syllogism:
All philosophers are women.
Aristotle is a philosopher.
So Aristotle is a woman.
As you can see, there is no logical contradiction in this syllogism. However, our experience says that it isn’t true. That a theory is free of contradiction doesn’t automatically make it valuable.

If the world is as we see it (i.e. think to see it), we wouldn’t need to do research and we didn’t need to have theories. Just see and that would be enough. But, alas, it isn’t simple as that. We can see only the world by interpreting it, and just there the problems start. That’s what I wanted to say.

Thanks again for your reaction,
Henk