Popperian epistemology

I have several times been advised to consider Popperian epistemology when discussing autonomous education. This happened again a couple of days ago when somebody commented here;

' I would suggest that it might help if you understood the basics before attempting a critique; in which regard, I would highly recommend a little reading on the subject of Popperian epistemology as it makes huge sense and is where much of the thinking springs from.'

Perhaps then it is time to look at Karl Popper and his philosophy and see what it can tell us about knowledge, with particular reference to home educators. Before I go any further I should make it clear that I am not proposing a refutation or even a critique of Sir Karl Popper's work. Even my hubris has some limits!

One of the first things one notices when home educators are talking about Popper is that they do not very often quote things like;

'Vs(a)=CTv(a)-CTf(a), where Vs(a) is the verisimilitude of a, CTv(a) is a measure of the content of truth of a, and CTf(a) is a measure of the content of the falsity of a.'

They far prefer snappy sound-bites from his autobiography, things like;

'“...we were wasting our time shockingly, even though our teachers were well-educated and tried hard to make the schools the best in the world.'

At most, they will waffle on a bit about the idea of intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivation in learning. Now almost forty years ago I actually ploughed my way through Conjectures and Refutations; a book which makes Kant's Critique of Pure Reason seems as light and frothy as an airport novel. Any home educating parent able to struggle through this while looking after and educating small children has my wholehearted admiration! I think though that Popper's popularity with autonomous educators is less because they have all read works such as Die Zukunft ist offen and agree ardently with the theses expressed in them and more because Popper has been touted by Jan Fortune-Wood, who coined the very expression 'autonomous education', as being the boy to listen to as far as education goes.

Jan Fortune-Wood is of course a priest and one can quite see why a Cartesian dualist like Popper would appeal to her. He did after all believe in an incorporeal and immaterial mind or soul. The only problem is that you would be hard pressed to find any scientist these days who believes that the mind is an entirely separate entity from the brain. Come to that, not all that many theologians believe it either. My daughter and I went to a lecture at St. Paul's Cathedral last year and when Sir John Polkinghorne and Keith Ward were asked about the existence of immaterial souls, they both smiled indulgently! This means that those who follow Popper's ideas about learning have to adhere to a belief which hardly any educated person holds today. It's all a bit embarrassing.

Popper's Three Worlds notion is what we need to understand if we want to know how he thought that humans intereact with and acquire knowledge. Anybody wanting to know more about this should try reading the book he wrote with Sir John Eccles - The Self and its Brain. The book that Eccles wrote without Popper's assistance, The Wonder of Being Human, also explains Popper's ideas about this very lucidly. Anybody familiar with Plato's metaphor of the prisoners in the cave should be able to get it at once; the idea of knowledge and ideas having a separate existence in a realm of their own with which we can interact only via the immaterial mind. The problems with this idea have been obvious for many centuries; namely how an immaterial entity can possibly affect the material world. Since the brain is itself made of matter, then the mind must be linked to it in some very strange and unknown way. I do not say that no neurologist or brain expert in the world subscribes to this theory, but I would be interested if any readers can name me one since Eccles died. Most people today think that 'mind' is simply an aspect of 'brain' and not a thing in itself.

This then is why I have not before examined Karl Popper's ideas as they relate to education and the acquisition of knowledge. Like all stupendously intelligent men and women, Popper thought and wrote about a huge range of subjects. Many of his ideas are still held in just as high a regard as they were fifty years ago. His ideas though about the interactions between brain and mind have mostly been dropped. For autonomous educators to cling on to them is absolutely fine, it's nothing to do with me, but they do need to ask themselves if they are really claiming that Cartesian dualism is true and that the interactions of the World 1 brain with the World 3 realm of ideas via World 2 can be the basis for a modern educational theory. Learning after all has a good deal to do with remembering things. Most scientists today, probably all scientists except one or two mavericks, believe that memories are stored in the brain as physical traces. Eccles and Popper thought that at least some memories are stored in World 2, the mysterious zone which the mind or soul inhabits. Straight away, we can see that if we are following the educational theories of a man who thought that memories are not all to be found in the brain but also floating round in some kind of limbo where souls are also to be found, then this puts us in opposition with practically everything known about the brain.

Why do autonomous educators like to talk about 'Popperian epistemology'? Partly I suppose because it sounds so grand. The English are always impressed by some foreign-born boffin and it tends to baffle one's debating opponents to throw in names like Karl Popper. I do this myself of course by scattering references to Wittgenstein and Nietzsche in my writing. The only difference is that I do it tongue in cheek. I have a horrible suspicion that those claiming to be disciples of Popper, on the other hand, are deadly serious.

One curious circumstance is that Carlotta from the Dare to Know blog, she who urged me to consider Popperian epistemology in the comment quoted at the beginning of this article, lists atheism, humanism and rationalism as among her interests on her profile. I would have thought her the last person to believe in ghostly and immaterial spirits or the existence of souls! It just goes to show that you should never put people in neat pigeon-holes.