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Knowledge question on Quora

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Knowledge: How do you perceive knowledge, is it an object that need to be preserved or process that need to be managed?

I perceive that the word ‘knowledge’ has several connotations. To know something can be contingent upon a memory of an experience of having learned something. This kind of knowledge can be forgotten. If you can’t recall someone’s name, it could be said that you ‘don’t know it (anymore)’. What does it mean to have an experience of learning something though? What separates knowledge from the wash of meaningless bits of thought and imagination that circulates through the mind?

It might be tempting to say that knowledge comes from outside the mind, so that learning is the process of capturing and internalizing sensory experience, however we can learn things internally as well. We can make sense of something in our mind and learn through contemplation and analysis, reasoning, insight, intuition, etc.

Whether it ultimately is more internal or external makes no difference so long as what is learned is deemed to be significant enough to retain in some fashion. How it is retained is a more interesting problem, since once the moment of learning is done and past, how do we know that we know before we even try to remember knowing it?

Computationalism would model this capability as a process of literally and continuously searching a database like a search engine does. There is truth to that model, but it only addresses the semiotic form (syntax) of the search and not the experiential content (semantics, pragmatics). In a computer, the capacity to experience and interpret the content is provided by the user, so it is enough for the search engine to imitate semantic association by pulling an arithmetic analysis of previous searches. The brain undoubtedly does this too, strengthening neurological connections along high traffic paths and allowing low traffic paths to be pruned, however the mind is not limited to its past. The mind can figure out new paths and make new associations on its own which actually drive neurological change.

I consider all subjective experiences to be reducible to sensorimotive phenomena. Thoughts, feelings, ideas, perceptions, facts, fiction, knowledge, all are concrete sensorimotive percepts (as opposed to abstract ‘data’, ‘information’, or ‘emergent properties, which are like conceptual wireframe models of the actual phenomenon which is organic and non-conceptual). This means that our experiences are causally efficacious. They influence us and they influence our entire biography without needing to be tied back to neurology. A life story has it’s own rhythm, momentum, and direction independent of biological process, so that knowledge is not always discrete bundled of sense ‘datum’, but rather an entangled path of paths through which the psyche navigates. It is an implicit part of the flow of experience, one which may or may not be communicated or even made explicit to the self. We don’t always consciously know that we know, but we can often examine and remember the source of our knowledge. Knowledge, like understanding, is an experience through which we make sense of other experiences. We need not remember the event which initiated this learning (but we quite often do, and that helps cement the learning in our recollection of it), but it leaves a lasting mark on how we learn and understand in the future.

The question of whether knowledge needs to be preserved or managed is an interesting one, as it speaks to cybernetic intelligence. In an individual, knowledge doesn’t not need to be preserved or managed, as it is implicit in one’s understanding and can be reconstituted (neurology willing) on demand. Knowledge works differently in civilization, where only a small fraction of the total individual knowledge represented in libraries and databases can be said to flow implicitly through the culture in general. There is knowledge there for citizens, but it is mainly in the form of customs and roles which impart knowledge related to survival within the society itself. Generally living in a culture does not automatically teach someone ideas outside of the culture (or if it does, it is heavily filtered and assimilated through the local culture).

We know from the Middle Ages that large bodies of knowledge can ‘disappear’ for centuries. Unlike a typical human mind, data stored in books and scrolls does not curate or translate itself. This is because the books themselves are not knowledge, only recipes for knowledge to those who can understand them. These, and all storage devices for text (digital or analog) are literally objects, requiring both objects that can be preserved physically and processes to facilitate their availability that can be managed.

Whether or not preservation and management of public knowledge systems is a need is up to the culture that is doing the managing. It’s an investment of resources like any other aspect of civilization so that what gets preserved or neglected for the public is a political issue. The current trend is highly polarized, with the agenda for privatization and security squaring off with previously established values of free and open availability of information. The great thing about knowledge though, is that like in the epochs following the Middle Ages in Europe, progress can make up for lost time, and there is always hope of Renaissance and Enlightenment eventually

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