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.