Thoughts on “Knowing” and “Knowledge”

What is knowledge?

Opaque answer: Knowledge is the sum of neural activity occurring after one has learned.

Clearer answer: One can only gain knowledge by building it. One can only build knowledge through experience. Experience is the constant stream of information from our senses modulated by our inner state (emotions, hunger, thirst, health). Inner state corresponds to our inner senses. Emotion can be reduced to a sense organ that monitors the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Hunger, thirst and satiation are functions of specialized sense organs in the digestive tract. Our inner sense of health is indeed collected by many nerves throughout our body (deep innervation of organs). One can then generalize the totality of experience is indeed the stream of all information from all of our sense organs.

If emotion is a sensory organ, then it is feasible to say that we build sensory organs for thoughts and ideas in our brains. If a sensory perception is a pattern of electrochemical stimuli, and likewise an emotion, then thoughts themselves can be perceived in the brain just as real objects are perceived by our senses. Knowing in the abstract then becomes the process of sensing thoughts in the inner world of the brain.

One can only come to know something through contact with the senses. For example, imagine a toddler playing with a ripe, yellow banana. Fist, he sees it and then grabs it. Hears it as he smacks something with it, tasting his fingers after he feels and sees mushed innards come out of the it. Then he gnaws on it, smelling it while noticing how his deep inner senses feel after he’s consumed part of the mush he inadvertently made. Smiling, like he’s found treasure, he squeals with joy at the knowledge he just built about that fruit. Full knowledge comes from full sensory experience.

To come into contact with something else is to form a relationship with it. Knowledge can only be built out of relationships. Information only means something in context. It only is meaningful if it is taken in relation to something else – something known. A pattern is only distinguishable because of the relation of each element to the next element of the pattern. Something else is only distinguishable as something else in relation to self or self in relation to it (think about how much more you could learn about a fish by imagining to be one!).

If information is given with no relation to other information, it needs to be taken in relation to knowledge. If there is little knowledge, like our toddler in the above paragraph, his brain seeks out all the information it can get to tease the relationships out of the patterns so that knowledge can be built.

Relationships and Knowledge

Innately, we have a deep connection with other people. I have a hunch that it stems from our motor cortex, and the so-called mirror neurons. These neurons correlate perceptions with inner states. They let us try to imagine what is going on in other people’s heads based on what they’ve done. At the most basic, when someone else is eating, our motor neurons fire in preparation for doing the same. Out of this basic mechanism, we build shared knowledge.

People in many cultures have traditions and other ritualistic behaviors. These are mechanisms for creating closeness and a sense of unity. They create similar thoughts and feelings, a resonance, within the people involved. Though the thoughts may be similar, each person comes with their own knowledge which shapes their thinking and creation of knowledge within the experience.

Divorce this behavior from ritual or traditions and substitute shared process, and one sees beginnings of a powerful mechanism for creating collective knowledge around shared experience. At this point, lines delineating boundaries between minds start to blur. The collective becomes just that, a collective. The process creates coherence and focus, and the collective becomes a coherent cluster of photons on the same wavelength, traveling in the same direction – a laser beam.

People work most effectively when arranged into this type of super-organism. The connections between people help optimize the flow of information, and the relationships between people come to embody knowledge as large inter-personal synapses. The more connections amongst the team members, the more intelligent the becomes. The flow of information through the team makes embedded knowledge spark. The people with pertinent knowledge can then start to share information and create experiences where knowledge is created in the other team members – thus knowledge is transferred.

Often times it works like a holographic memory, where the whole can be retrieved in great fidelity from small fragments. Each person can remember parts that help other people recollect more fuzzy memories. Then the process of corroboration works its fuzzy magic and knowledge increases in the group.