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Is Action Possible Without Knowledge?

Is action possible without knowledge? Can one really posit that idea as a serious option? If one takes the term action to mean goal-directed human activity, the answer must be no. Action implies goals, and in order to realize goals a person needs appropriate means. The means-end connection is knowledge—to know that one can use bamboo sticks to fetch a banana lying just beyond arm’s reach outside the bars of a cage was an important insight to Sultan, the most intelligent chimpanzee analyzed by Kohler (1925).

But what is the relation between goals and knowledge? Are goals part of what people call knowledge or are they a separate entity only derivative of knowledge? In my understanding, knowledge is a piece of subjectively acquired information about the world. In German one would say that knowledge about the world is angeeignet (appropriated, assimilated, internalized). In a certain sense it could be construed as embodied information.

But how is embodied information linked to goals? Goals are representations of future states and derive their power from the possibility of finding a way from the given present state to an envisioned future state. When talking about goals, people always talk about degrees of distance between the given and the goal state. Because the path from the given state to the goal state is sometimes not easy to discover, problem-solving comes into play. Indeed, the epistemologist Karl Popper (1999) argued that “all life is problem solving.”

To answer the question of whether action is possible without knowledge, I must thus conclude that the use of the word action logically implies the connection to some background representation, which is normally called knowledge.

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