How social movements can know things that individuals do not

I recently wrote about how groups of people can collectively behave like an evil genius mastermind, even if every individual in the group is doing nothing more than following stupid reflexes and instincts. I used the term “hive mind” to refer to this greater collective consciousness that has an effective behavior that exhibits knowledge and ingenuity beyond that of any of the individuals that make it up.

Using language that way, however, opens up a kind if Pandora’s box of questions about the nature of knowledge. What does it mean to know something, and does it make sense to say that a knower knows something without knowing that it knows something? Is it possible for there to be knowledge without there being a knower at all?

Colloquially, we sometimes use the term “knowledge” this way, but intuitively many feel it’s not quite a genuine use of the word. We can say that your heart knows how to pump blood, for example, and everyone will understand what you mean  when you say it. But on some level, most people just don’t feel that this kind of “knowledge” is quite the same thing as “the child knows how to do arithmetic” or “I know how to change a flat tire.”

But why not?

In the classical branch of philosophy that studies these things, “knowledge” is often defined as justified true belief.  In other words, the statement “John knows X” is a true statement when three conditions are satisfied:

  • John believes that X is true.
  • X is actually true.
  • John has a good reason for believing that X is true.

Without going through all of the detailed arguments, a couple of examples should help illustrate why these three conditions are considered the traditional “common sense” criteria for knowledge.

A) Knowledge begins with a thought: for John to “know” that bananas are edible, the very first criterion that needs to be satisfied is that John has to hold in his mind the thought (or belief) “bananas are edible”.

B) If John believes something that is false, we don’t call that knowledge. If John thinks the sky is red, we don’t say “John knows the sky is red”; rather, we say “John thinks the sky is red, but he is wrong.”

C) If John is just guessing and happens to be lucky, we don’t give him credit for knowing. If there is a basket of oranges, and John guesses “I think there are 99 oranges in there!” and he just by random chance is correct, people generally would not give him credit by saying “John knew there were 99 oranges in there!”  Instead, people would say “John guessed there were 99 oranges in there!” and then perhaps would invite him to come along on their next trip to Las Vegas.

So that is the classical notion of what “knowledge” is: justified true beliefs.

But there is an alternative view of what “knowledge” means, and that is: effective action.

This more inclusive notion of knowledge is a natural definition for what psychologists call procedural knowledge: knowing how rather than knowing what.

He knows how to survive in the forest.

He knows how to dribble a basketball.

He knows how to charm his way into any boy or girl’s pants.

These types of knowledge are difficult to fit into a definition based on “justified true belief”, but are easily described in terms of effective action.

And there are some people who claim that even declarative knowledge (knowing “what”) should be defined in terms of effective action as well!

After all, how can you tell if someone knows “2+2 = 4”?  Usually, the only way you know is by the answers they give to questions when asked.

How can you tell if someone knows that the sky is blue?  By them saying sentences, answering questions, and generally behaving in a manner consistent with what you’d expect from someone who holds that belief.

In other words: effective action.

When I was in sixth grade, my dad told me a science joke that was also meant as a life lesson. (Yes, he was that kind of dad.) The joke is a well-known story called The Barometer Story, and it goes like this:

Some time ago, I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. It seemed that he was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would do so if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

The Barometer Problem

I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question, which was, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student’s answer was, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

Now, this is a very interesting answer, but should the student get credit for it? I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, but the answer to the question did not confirm this. With this in mind, I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed to this, but I was surprised that the student did.

Acting in terms of the agreement, I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, since I had another class to take care of, but he said no, he was not giving up. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which was:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S= 1/2 at^2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

“Oh, yes,” said the student. “There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I said. “And the others?”

“Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.

“Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of ‘g’, the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated.”

Finally, he concluded, “If you don’t limit me to physics solutions to this problem, there are many other answers, such as taking the barometer to the basement and knocking on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Superintendent, here I have a very fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'”

At this point, I asked the student if he really didn’t know the answer to the problem. He admitted that he did, but that he was so fed up with college instructors trying to teach him how to think and to use critical thinking, instead of showing him the structure of the subject matter, that he decided to take off on what he regarded mostly as a sham.

Some people interpret this story as a statement about the absurdity of academia and the ivory tower, which is fine (I suppose); but to me this story really gets to the question of the nature of knowledge itself.

Did the student know how to accomplish the goal? He described almost a dozen different actions that would be effective in answering the question asked. When knowledge is judged as effective action, he was clearly demonstrating his knowledge.

Regrettably, someone who was a little more sociologically savvy would realize that in the context of an academic classroom, there are norms an expectations around what constitutes an “effective answer” … and his behavior did not demonstrate at all that he had knowledge of this. As a result, my dad (who was a college professor) said that the correct behavior of the teacher would be to fail the student.

Regardless of where you come down on the very controversial question of The Barometer Story, the question of how we define knowledge is an intriguing one.

If knowledge is “effective action”, doesn’t that mean that your heart literally knows how to pump blood? (And is there any logical reason we should be against using the word “knowledge” in this way?)

And if knowledge is “effective action”, does that mean that a social movement that succeeds in accomplishing some of its goals through indirect and emergent effects can be described as knowing how to implement its plans… even if none of the individual actors in that movement have any clue what they are doing?

Can a social movement know something that its individual members do not… as long as the eventual behavior of the group ends up being effective?

Let me know what you think.



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  1. B.C. Clickard says:

    Hi Greg!

    Hope all is well in Texas. Great article here… and it has provoked some interesting thoughts.

    Firstly, I agree that, under the definition of effective knowledge, individuals and/or groups can exercise a sort of heuristic chain of actions that achieve a goal, granting the possession of knowledge. Indeed, every human being is born knowing how to live. Individuals are consciously unaware of social learning theory, for example, and can learn where to find food and water by this method.

    To move toward the story of the barometer exam question, education in relation to knowledge could be defined as a set of learning experiences that transfer knowledge not of how to live but of how to live life better or more effectively (and yes we could get into the question of qualifiers regarding what is a better, more effective, or more well-lived life — but that’s a question for the formation of curricula and I think may be left aside for the moment). Based on this understanding, it occurs to me that the question of possessing the knowledge of how to measure the building with a barometer, as it was phrased, could have been met with an answer demonstrating any variety of types of knowledge arising from various fields of study, including the school of hard knocks. Therefore, the resolution of the physics exam question lies in the semantics of the question, rather than the formulation of the desired answer by the student.

    If we agree to the effective definition of knowledge, the sophistication of language provides us with an extensive set of tools with which to pose questions that not only test knowledge but also differentiate between types of knowledge. As a result, an exam question that poses the same problem of the barometer and building height could linguistically encode a qualification that specifies a method that affects the range of appropriate answers. We know in academics that the correct results come from posing the correct questions. By posing the correct questions, knowledge of new and better methods to achieve effective ends is discovered. Those individuals who complete higher education go on to live better lives, on average, than those who do not. Yet all individuals in both cohorts live. Via social learning theory, an individual can learn where to find food and live. With nutritional education, an individual can choose better food and live more fully.

    Returning to the premise of social movements and collective consciousness, movements are often the result of individuals coming together to achieve some goal that they believe they have effective knowledge of achieving, whether they can articulate the method or not. Herein lies the root of populism — the recognition of a goal and some crude collective belief that the knowledge of how to achieve it is possessed. The difficulty of populism is not the goal but the choice (conscious or unconscious) of method. I have yet to see any significant movement based on rallying premises that are inherently wrong, although the goals are often poorly articulated and manifested in sometimes offensive ways. Rather, the courses of action collectively identified in these cases are often poorly crafted, ineffective, and can harm both in-group, as well as out-group, members. Taken together, these issues highlight the problems with direct democratic initiatives and where I echo Tocqueville, and others before me, in the call for qualified democratic government. More to the point, appointed bodies of experts are necessary to prevent populist ‘knowledge’ from damaging civilisation. Twice in the last year, the House of Lords has struck down legislation that would have harmed the underrepresented, once on the part of the poorest Britons and another time on the part of EU nationals living in the UK. Legislative bodies in the US would do well to adopt this model and not outsource the task entirely to the judicial branch, where individual judge opinion can inject much volatility into outcomes.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Hi Brent! It’s great to hear from you!

      Regarding the importance of wording choice when framing questions — While in the abstract I agree that there is equal burden on the questioner to frame the correct question as there is on the answerer to provide the appropriate answer, in the case of the specific teacher-student interaction in question…. I’m still biased toward thinking that the expected “scope” of types of answers that would be expected would be considered “implied” in this case. Maybe it’s my bias since I used to teach. LOL. Now, is this a completely rational argument based on the accuracy of the answer vis a vis the nature of the question? No, obviously not. It’s more like “dress nicely and wear a tie to the job interview.” One shouldn’t have to say it every time: it’s an implied element of how corporate interview culture operates. I’d argue the same goes for academic “testing” culture.

      Regarding populism and democracy: Yes! Well, I’ve written about the limitations and issues of “pure democracy” before, and the importance of balancing popular opinion with both expertise, on the one hand, and a notion of basic guiding ethical principles, on the other. As the saying goes (and I can’t take credit for this, I heard it from John Fugelsang): “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner.”

      So I agree with you completely on that point. In our American system, I think we really were born out of the Enlighenment-era idealism that one of the roles of the politician should be to try to educate the public so that they WILL vote with a certain level of expertise (or at least have honest and informed access to expert opinions)… but since human beings are flawed and education is imperfect, obviously we need guardrails even on a system that presumes that kind of idealism.

      • B.C. Clickard says:

        Big thumbs up on that. I’m entirely in accordance with your perspective on the philosophical foundations of the government.

        Also, we are agreed on your practical point regarding exam questions. However, since grading has progressed to a bit of an armchair courtroom, I would argue that making the case as bulletproof as possible is always helpful, if not entirely necessary (especially since everyone should indeed be approaching a classroom or lecture hall with an understanding of the correct expectations — but then there go Enlightenment ideals again).

  2. Stephen Self says:

    The “proof is in the pudding” theory of knowledge, sort of. Interesting. It seems to open up a can of worms when you consider organisms and objects that act according to programming, human engineered or biological. In the case of the latter, there can be awareness and action as a result without knowledge: that is, without mind. Philosopher Allan Hazlett has written two interesting papers about how natural language uses of factive and semi-factive verbs like know and realize quite often don’t meet the criterion of justified true belief, but something weaker which he calls epistemic warrant. This notion is akin to linguist Robert Stalnaker’s notion of acceptance, only stronger. We grant epistemic warrant for a host of reasons, all of which cluster around the idea that a proposition seems most likely true and the individual or individuals to whom we ultimately credit it seem trustworthy or at least have given no reason for thinking they are not. In the theory of communication known as Relevance Theory, this idea is referred to as epistemic vigilance: knowledge as conscious attendance to the reliability of competing epistemic perspectives and balancing the need for such attendance against both assumptions about the communicative situation (e.g. is it cooperative? adversarial? is the interlocutor trustworthy? etc.) and the general need for economy of processing effort. What’s really interesting is that when you look at the spectrum of verbs governing sense perception that provides the information bases for belief and knowledge formation, verbs governing the mental processes of weighing that sensory information and forming beliefs and knowledge, and then verbs governing emotional reactions to the knowledge formed on the basis of sensory information, you notice some interesting behavior when it comes to “knowers” that do not entail mind. For instance, you might say “The electronic door sensor doesn’t see you standing there” and “The electronic door sensor doesn’t think/know you’re there,” but it sounds distinctly odd to say “The electronic door sensor doesn’t believe you’re there” and completely preposterous to say “The electronic door sensor doesn’t regret/rue/resent that you’re there.” Philosopher Thomas Nadelhoffer has written that non-factive uses of verbs like know and realize result from protagonist projection: we put ourselves in the shoes of the potential “knower” and consider the situation from that person’s (or object’s) perspective. So we can say things like “Jim just knew Susan was lying, even though it later turned out she was telling the truth” or “When I felt my left arm go numb and my chest begin to ache, I realized I was going to die, but then you saved me.” In this sense, attribution of “knowledge” whether on the basis of correct action or otherwise, to objects and entities devoid of mind might just be our tendency to empathize run amok: projection of our mind into the world around us, considering the perspectives of other beings. Doors, single-cell organisms, and organs don’t “know” anything, but I project my mind onto them when considering their “perspective” and say that they do.

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