Monday, July 13, 2015

Why it is good to make a bad plan.


I finished my last blog saying that with his definition of “person” Locke gave a lead of departure for future discussions on the concept. We call such a lead also a “handle”. Famous critics of Locke were Joseph Butler (1736) and Thomas Reid (1785), but the discussion still goes on today. It shows how important a good handle is for starting a discussion and making progress, for what should we talk about if we have nothing to talk about? We should first have to invent a theme and next we should have to give it contents, too. For instance, we can decide to talk about “man” as the ancient Greek philosophers did. But then? We have only something to discuss if we fill in the idea of man, so if we define it. That’s what Plato did when he described man as a featherless biped. Now Diogenes of Sinope had a handle to criticize Plato’s definition, which he did by bringing Plato a plucked chicken: Plato’s “man”. As a result Plato changed his definition to “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails”. And so the discussion on man begun.
Although this is a funny anecdote, it shows in a nutshell what science is: making theories, testing theories in an experimental way, improving theories. Although many people think that science starts with the second, so with experimental research or at least with observing, this is not true. The idea is the first of these three steps in science, for without ideas there is nothing to start with and there is nothing to investigate. People who think that they just look and then start to develop ideas conceive themselves. Their ideas are simply implicit and not explicitly worded.
In a scheme it goes this way:
P1 > T1 > E > T2 > P2
P(1) is a question or theme we want to discuss, or something like that, also called the problem. For example: “What is man?”. Then we form an idea how things might be arranged, a kind of theory, like “Man is a featherless biped” (T1). Is it true? We can try to find it out by discussing about it and doing tests and experiments (E). If we are successful, we can formulate a better theory (T2). But often we are not fully satisfied with our solution or improved theory. Then we get new questions, new themes to talk about, etc. (P2). And so our knowledge evolves.
A scheme for the evolution of knowledge has also been developed by Karl R. Popper:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
Again, P1 is the problem we start with. TT means “tentative theory”, so the way we guess that the things we are interested in might be arranged. EE refers to the tests and investigations of our tentative ideas. Actually Popper calls this phase “error elimination”. When we have finished the EE phase, however, we are never completely contented with our result, so we get a new problem situation, which Popper calls P2.
Is Poppers scheme for the evolution of knowledge right? In a certain sense it is, if we suppose that my T2 is the conclusion of Poppers EE and that it is included in it: From a philosophical or scientific point of view a solution of a problem is never completely satisfactory, for we can always ask new questions. Therefore no solution is free of problems. Nevertheless I think that it is better to formulate T2 explicitly like in my scheme, for in practice it is often so that we stop once we have formulated T2, even in case we are not completely satisfied. There is nothing against doing so, for how should it be different in many cases? In practice we need to act! We cannot continuously go on evaluating, discussing, thinking about the best solution, as if we live in an ivory tower. We simply have to do something.
This makes me think of something I learned already as a child. I liked playing chess and in order to improve my level I studied chess books. Then I learned from the great chess player and chess theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch that a bad plan is better than no plan. I never forgot it and I still apply it. For if we have no plan, we don’t know where to start and we keep erring, but also a bad plan gives us a point of departure. Even if our first steps lead to nothing, we have a frame for evaluating our mistakes and improving our design. How this works tells us a scheme for the evolution of knowledge, like mine or like Popper’s.

Source: Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; p. 164.
op website 13 juli 2015

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