Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Karl Popper's Three Worlds and "The Market"


Talking about "the market" in a more generalized way – that is, one which includes all of the living world and nonconsensual interactions that occur between humans and between species – requires increased semantic clarity. In order to achieve this increased clarity Karl Popper's three worlds can be used as a model. After introducing a terminology that parallels that of Popper its potential utility is discussed.

Three Worlds, Three Markets

English: Karl Popper in 1990.
English: Karl Popper in 1990. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In discussing "the market" it is difficult to transmit a number of different meanings that depend on the context, e.g., one that is consensual vs. nonconsensual or one that is human versus one that is inter-species. These different meanings are reminiscent of Popper's three worlds, and his concepts are used to introduce a parallel analog relating to markets.

Firstly, there is the market that is composed of the physical world. As Popper says, in describing world 1:
There is, first, the world that consists of physical bodies: of stones and of stars; of plants and of animals; but also of radiation, and of other forms of physical energy. I will call this physical world ‘world 1’. (1978, 143)
This market consists of all of the interactions, physical and/or chemical, that occur in the physical world. These interactions, as far as we know, are not guided by conjectural knowledge. This physical market is called "market 1".

Market 1 can be subdivided into the living and non-living, as Popper suggests:
If we so wish, we can subdivide the physical world 1 into the world of non-living physical objects and into the world of living things, of biological objects; though the distinction is not sharp. (1978, 143)
Secondly, there is the market of conjectural knowledge. This description might be thought to augment Popper's world 2, which he described as follows:
There is, secondly, the mental or psychological world, the world of our feelings of pain and of pleasure, of our thoughts, of our decisions, of our perceptions and our observations; in other words, the world of mental or psychological states or processes, or of subjective experiences. I will call it ‘world 2’. (1978, 143)
Popper's view is expanded to include the conjectural knowledge encoded in DNA or any similar, yet-to-be-discovered encoding system. This market is called "market 2".

Again, market 2 can be subdivided following Popper's prescription:
World 2 could be subdivided in various ways. We can distinguish, if we wish, fully conscious experiences from dreams, or from subconscious experiences. Or we can distinguish human consciousness from animal consciousness. (1978, 143)
Thirdly, there is the market of expressed knowledge. This market consists of the actions taken based on the conjectural knowledge of market 2. Popper describes world 3 as follows:
By world 3 I mean the world of the products of the human mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures. But also aeroplanes and airports and other feats of engineering. (1978, 144)
In striking contrast to his descriptions of worlds 1 and 2, Popper includes only "the products of the human mind" (emphasis added). Omitting the non-human expressed knowledge of plants and animals, including everything from the behavior of the E. coli bacterium (Cziko, 1995, 120) to the engineering feats of the Great Sequoias and honey bees, clearly damages the consistency of the discussion if nothing else. As Popper might agree, these expressions of world 2 cannot be criticized without becoming objects in world 3, where criticism is based on evolutionary fit. Notably, this form of criticism also affects world 2 as Popper framed it, culling those living systems whose conjectural knowledge is not up to the task.

With the addition of these non-human components this market is called "market 3". Clearly, the human component of market 3 is where business plans are exposed to the criticisms of consumers, with the result that the objects that appear in market 1 will be created and the conjectural knowledge of market 2 will be modified.

Popper suggests some subdivisions to world 3:

It would be easy to distinguish a number of different worlds within what I call world 3. We could distinguish the world of science from the world of fiction; and the world of music and the world of art from the world of engineering. (1978, 144)
Market 3 contains some additional markets – the markets of successful and unsuccessful expressed knowledge, and the markets of voluntarily and involuntarily expressed knowledge. These distinctions are blurred and the two sets definitely overlap.


Where does the forgoing discussion get us? Most importantly, it enables us to talk about society in a non-religious way that unifies it with the rest of the living world. With it we become aware of a wider range of questions that are rarely even asked. Why is killing animals or plants acceptable while killing humans is not? Why is the killing of some humans supported or even demanded? Why is the enslaving of animals widely practiced while enslaving humans is considered barbarous? Would a super-human species treat us more like we treat animals or more like we treat each other?

Without an ability to explore these questions in a value-free manner we cannot identify man's position in the universe and investigate what environment is most conducive to his flourishing. Hopefully, we will also be able to discern the difference between conjectural knowledge that is universally applicable and that which is dependent on time and place.


Cziko, G. (1995). Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Popper, K. R. (1978), "Three Worlds", In The Tanner Lecture on Human Values (Delivered at The University of Michigan on April 7, 1978). (pp. 143-167). Retrieved November 26, 2013 from http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/popper80.pdf.
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