Paul Klee

Friday, October 16, 2009

What is Knowledge?

Like many fundamental questions, 'what is knowledge' is surprisingly difficult to answer in a satisfactory way. This is because it is an important philosophical question that forms the basis of the division of philosophy called epistemology. A dictionary definition yields the following:

Knowledge (n)
1 information and skills acquired through experience or education - the sum of what is known. Philosophy true, justified belief, as opposed to opinion.
2 awareness or familiarity gained by experience.
- PHRASES come to one's knowledge become known to one. to (the best of) my knowledge 1 so far as I know. 2 as I know for certain.
- ORIGIN ME (orig. as v. in the sense 'acknowledge, recognize')

The most basic meaning is of being aware that some thing or situation resembles another one that has been previously experienced and exists as a memory. For example, recognizing a face is a skill that does not require conscious, volitional learning but happens automatically: hence familiarity gained by experience, which is not peculiar to humans but is present in all animals who modify their behaviour in response to pain or pleasure. The usual example given is the pain a child feels before learning to avoid contact with fire. This becomes encoded in language as the proposition, "fire burns" or the more general form, "fire is hot", signifying that fire belongs to a more general category of phenomena which can be harmful or useful to mankind. This introduces the fundamental role of knowledge as not only helpful to the conduct of life but essential for survival. In this sense, both humans and animals are knowing beings.

The first meaning distinguishes between information and skills. The latter may be motor skills, like sawing a piece of wood or playing the violin which involve a different process of repetitive practice from learning, say the multiplication tables, the latter requiring some minimum understanding of numbers and their properties. When Bertrand Russell was a young child he was reduced to tears by his inability to learn the multiplication tables and he records, in his autobiography, that what delighted him most was learning that blue mixed with yellow produced green. Here is what he had to say about learning some basic algebra.

The beginnings of Algebra I found far more difficult, perhaps
as a result of bad teaching. I was made to learn by heart:
"The square of the sum of two numbers is equal to the sum of
their squares increased by twice their product." I had not the
vaguest idea what this meant, and when I could not remember
the words, my tutor threw the book at my head, which did not
stimulate my intellect in any way.

This example of the failure of rote learning by a child of exceptional intelligence shows that the acquisition knowledge is affected by the form in which it is presented to the student. The translation of the symbolic form of the mathematical expression into words, instead of explaining the relationship between the parts of the algebraic expression (a + b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2ab, was the cause of the problem, since Russell had no problem learning his Euclid. For Russell, the linguistic proposition was not knowledge because it was meaningless relative to his understanding. It follows that, for the student, knowledge must be understood and meaningful in relation to existing knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, exists in clusters, not in isolation.

It is clear from the rest of the definition that, for the philosopher, empirical knowledge is always provisional and subject to revision. This has become a basic principal of science but is often ignored in daily life where certainty about common knowledge is usually assumed. Even apriori knowledge may prove inadequate, as non-Euclidean geometry shows. The lesson here is that absolutely true knowledge is always subject to prior assumptions as expressed by the term ceteris paribus. The experimental scientist must restrict his variables by excluding possible but highly improbable factors from the variables. The discoveries of empirically established 'facts' become knowledge, but always subject to the conditions of the theory and experiments within which they are constructed.

Outside the laboratory and the University a great deal of information is taken on trust as factual. The inadequacy of human records and memory becomes clear when they are disputed in the adversarial system of the courts, where arriving at the truth is a tedious process of forensic examination. Such analysis is usually impractical in business or government, where highly educated individuals are trusted to use their skills and experience in making informed judgments about what are true facts and what are doubtful propositions. The idea of facts being beyond reasonable doubt or of high probability has become an essential tool of administrators as well as scientists. The necessity for scepticism about unusual proposals is well understood and undermines the simplistic assumptions that we always deal with true facts rather than those that common sense and experience suggest are probably true. For practical purpose, therefore, one is always dealing with facts that may turn out to be false, albeit with a small probability.

The corollary of all this is that the bulk of what the non-specialist knows is a mish-mash of well established common knowledge, which is probably true, and a great deal of assumptions deduced from this knowledge which might be flawed due to inadequate reasoning. While most intelligent people reason correctly about everyday affairs, when faced with complex circumstances involving a huge number of facts and assumptions, this reasoning proves inadequate, and intuitive judgments are applied instead. While humans are capable of reasoning, it would be wrong to assume that they are predominantly reasonable in their judgments as opposed to intuitive, reactive and emotive.

The distinction between knowledge and assumptions is latent in human affairs, and the incorporation of statements in printed or electronic media raises the status of such information from provisional to established facts.
Editorial or peer review, or the category opinion rather than fact, goes a long way towards ensuring the quality of recorded knowledge, but the vast quantity of such widely available information reduces the overall quality of such knowledge.
Disputes about whether a certain body of knowledge is true are commonplace. Prior to the 18th Century is was unthinkable or at least unwise to challenge religious orthodoxy, whose vast repositories of doctrine went largely unchallenged, except within the upper reaches of the various churches. Theological debate, like today's science, was the preserve of specialists. In our world, specialists abound and represent a process of creating bodies of knowledge that can be widely applied. Fields of doubtful knowledge abound, including psychoanalysis, literary theory, new age regurgitations of Eastern philosophy and many more fields where pseudo-knowledge stakes its claims. This only matters when they affect important government or business decisions, or individual welfare. Familiar examples are the definitions of human personality that underlie the vexed debate over contraception and abortion. This is a case of a conflict between new knowledge or understanding versus old knowledge based on redundant religious beliefs. A more important example is the more complex question of global warming, which turns upon a vast number of facts and theories developed by many different scientific specialists relevant to understanding climate change.

Big questions like 'has peak oil been reached' or 'will average temperatures rise by more than 3% in the next 20 years' do not admit of definite answers, only informed opinion arrived at by scientific or technical experts. The problem of deliberately distorted information about these important questions is evident in the biased reports and lobbying that is currently taking place. It is clear that politics, at all levels, has an impact on what can be accepted as true, just as religion is often the enemy of truth in both past and present. Indoctrination by the mass media on these and many other sensitive issues shows that many facts commonly held to be true are artefacts of propaganda. In other words, orthodox knowledge is manufactured by ruling elites to serve their interests. An examination of what constitutes knowledge must take account of this fact of life.

The import of this is that finding reliable sources of information depends not only on doing enough research but making judgments about these sources based on ones own flawed judgment. When faced with hundreds of thousands of seemingly intelligent people who question, say, Darwin's theory of evolution, it becomes evident that untutored opinions are the norm rather than the exception. Like the esoteric theological doctrines of the past, advanced knowledge of, say, biotechnology lies beyond the competence of the average person. Furthermore, advanced specialist in one discipline lack competence in most others fields of advanced knowledge.

What is knowledge and what is contestable theory is an ongoing problem when viewing human knowledge as a whole, no more so than in the field of economics, where the ever increasing complexity of society casts doubt on theories widely adopted by governments. Knowledge in the social sciences is generally agreed to be less reliable than in the physical sciences, where controlled experiments are possible. Unfortunately, it is in the human sciences that solutions to social problems exist and the need for reliable knowledge can be critical to control by both government and management. The very idea of such controls calls up the philosophy of ethics, which is yet another field of knowledge which can only be established by making arbitrary assumptions or appealing to 'facts' derived from social sciences such as psychology and anthropology.

In today's complex societies, stability increasingly depends on narrow specialist, but also on generalists, usually managers or administrators, who specialise in generality, or comprehending and judging the work of specialists and coordinating it towards the achievement of certain goals. Such generalists have always existed as eminence grises in the corridors of power. The training of administrators in Britain and France, as well as other nations has long been focused on the task of making future mandarins. What kind of special knowledge should they be taught to equip them to deal with the great generalisations appropriate to the government of millions? Beginning with the works of Plato and Aristotle seem somehow inadequate but choosing alternatives is a difficult educational decision in itself. Who will train the Guardians and then protect us from them is an insoluble problem.

From a philosophical point of view, knowledge is the totality of true propositions. Unfortunately this set is potentially infinite and its contents mostly irrelevant to the imperatives of individual or collective purposes. From this point of view, it is the engine of human purposes, rational or not, that create the demand for existing knowledge or for the creation of new knowledge. Knowledge, then, is a mental artefact, discovered or created for human use. The body of pertinent knowledge is what is actually in current use or is being created by science or other disciplines. As pointed out above, a great proportion of this knowledge will be doubtful or false, if only because humans have a preference for the useful or interesting rather than the true.

Understanding what qualifies as knowledge is an example of what Wittgenstein called a language game, where meanings are not separated by sharp boundaries. A final, complete and perfect definition of knowledge for all purpose, therefore, is not to be expected. Far more useful is to address the prior question, why do I want to know what knowledge means and what use will such a definition be to my present purposes. This question is relative to the individual and would produce a commensurately different set of propositions about what knowledge means to them.

Tony Thomas
October 2009

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