Thoughts on Popper's Theory of All Life as Problem Solving

Published Mon, Jun 29 2009 6:05 PM | laminustacitus

When I first heard of Karl Popper's book All Life as Problem Solving, I though that he would show how all the experiences humanity faces during life can be boiled down to instances of problem solving, but as I have become more intimate with his thought (though, I have yet to read the above book), I have actually discovered that Popper boils down all biological life, and the evolution of it down to problem solving. While I have yet to decide whether this is a completely correct view, the lessons learned from coming in contact with it are very much worthwhile.

Popper in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach introduces a theory by which man is always testing conjectural knowledge upon which he understands the world through the problems he faces in his experiences. This process can be represented through the following schema, which in Popper's words is: “...a general schema of problem-solving by the method of imaginative conjectures and criticism (italics his )”1:


In the above, P1 is the problem with which we start, and, trying to solve it, we proceed to TT, a tentative hypothesis, the first conjectural solution to the problem, and hence tentative interpretation. The next stage, EE, error elimination, consists in the “severe critical examination” of the conjectural solution , and our tentative interpretation consisting not only in a critical utilization of documentary evidence, but also critical discussion, and, if there are competing theories, comparison to competing interpretations. P2 will be the problem situation as it emerges from our first attempt to solve it, and this will then lead to further attempts to comprehend the problem further. A truly satisfactory understanding of a problem will be able to illuminate details of it that had not been noticed prior, or the fact that it explains many sub-problems that were not seen to begin with.

Not only does Popper relate this framework to the manner by which man tackles intellectual problems like physics, but he also employs it with respect to biological evolution. Even insentient organisms face problems, such as the problem of reproduction, and those problems are solved by the organisms through a process of tentative interpretations that are subjected to error elimination via extinction that results in a set of organisms most adapted towards the surrounding environment. It is necessary to remember that all problems that will face an organism need not be survival problems, and that new when a new problem situation emerges the organism may very well had changed its ecological niche during the process of solving the prior problem. In addition, the organism solves its problems by adapting to its environment via growing new organs, and somatic modifications, and that when an organism fails to solve its problem, it dies off. Overall, Popper describes all of evolution as problem solving in that organisms through the process of evolution attempt to somatically solve problems they are faced with.

The process of evolution via mutations is then conquered, so says Popper, by man's ability to think rationally about the world in terms of conjectural hypotheses, and the fact that when tentative solutions fail it is not man that dies with it, but the idea. Man, is faced with problems, many of which are ecological, just like the lower animals, but, unlike the animals, man does not grow new organs, and modify those he already has to persevere, rather he creates ideas, and grows exosomatic tools. Problem solving is also not, as many like to see it, a phenomenon we are not always completely conscious of for it is only in hindsight that we are able to truly able to speak of the problem2. The vast improvement that man's problem solving has over a lower organism's is that man has separated the adequacy of his tentative conjectures with that of his survival When a hypothesis fails, man need not die, instead he can let his ideas die in his stead; thus the problem solving process of evolution of lower organisms is still effecting man, but he has created a solution to the problem of survival that enables him to outlive his conjectures.

While Popper's theory seems to be very much correct in describing the realm of a posteriori knowledge, when it comes to the realm of the a priori, though, the entire theory is inadequate for it suggests that there is a never-ending process of problem solving, P1PN, and that human knowledge can never be truly valid as the a priori category. Popper himself rejects the idea that there is an a priori category of knowledge that can elucidate anything other than tautologies, in his framework there are then two types of knowledge: there are empirical statements about the world that are always hypothetical and accordingly never apodictically true, and there are analytic propositions that are tautological, hence true by definition3. Ergo, it would follow that the existence of any non-hypothetical branch of knowledge would break-down Popper's theory of problem solving; however, I will advocate that it does not necessarily break-down, I will admit that I am not even sure of the validity of my claim as of now. Even in the a priori branch of knowledge, we have problems that must be solved, the part of Popper's theory that seems to not apply is the conjectural portions that imply human knowledge can never be non-hypothetical:


However, even in the realm of the a priori there can be logical faults that are not at first realized, and that must be hunted down in order to create a truly valid claim. It is the process of hunting down these logical flaws, and the logically flawed theory that can respectfully be called error elimination, and the tentative hypothesis. However, in the a priori interpretation, though, the first problem does not lead to an innumerable amount of further problems as man's comprehension of the problem is fine tuned, rather the process will end once all logical errors are eliminated. While Popper's theory does not take into consideration a priori knowledge due to his rejection of non-tautological a priori judgments, it can be reinterpreted in view of the elimination of logical fallacies from an a priori judgment in order to accommodate them.

In the end, Popper gives a theory of how not only all human life, but all biological life can be explain by the process of problem-solving by means of conjectures, and severe appraisal of their adequacy. For lower organisms, this entails solving the problem through growing, or adapting somatic organs, yet for man this means the creation of exosomatic theories, and tools. While the very lives of the former are tied to their conjectures, the latter can abandon obsolete theories, and tools without sacrificing his life. Even though this theory does not admit the validity of a priori judgments in its original understanding, or if it even does not allow a priori judgments whatsoever, it remains a very much interesting gem of though that can give some light on the question of: “Is evolution still in effect for mankind?”



1Popper, Karl R., Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). pg. 164.

2As a testament to this, Popper elucidates: “For example, Kepler's conscious problem was to discover the harmony of the world order; but we may say that the problem he solved was the mathematical description of motion in a set of two-body planetary systems. Similarly, Schrödinger was mistaken about the problem he had solved by finding the (time independent) Schrödinger equation: he thought his waves were charge-density waves , of a changing continuous field of electric charge. Later Max Born gave a statistical interpretation of the Schrödinger wave amplitude; an interpretation which shocked Schrödinger and which he disliked as long as he lived. He had solved a problem- but it was not the one he had thought he solved . This we know now, by hindsight.” (Popper 1979, pg. 246)

3A very simple critique of this division of human knowledge is this: if Popper's division is true, then what kind of a statement is the statement that knowledge is either tautological, or hypothetical? For a more in depth critique of Popper watch Hoppe's lecture “Praxeology The Austrian Method” here.


# Solreyus said on July 8, 2009 4:55 PM:

After reading this blog post on Karl Poppers work, I was particularly interested in the way in which