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.

Creativity, Innovation, and Syntax

Humans and chimps both have tools and both can learn languages. Even birds can learn language, but all animals besides humans seem to be incapable of learning to master a language’s syntax. It seems even the ability to use tools and manipulate the environment seems to depend on the ability to use syntax.

If one looks at the word, syntax, one sees it derives from Greek for together(σύν) and an ordering/structuring(τάξις). It an ordering together of parts. In linguistics, it is simply how words are put together to form a sentence. One can be more abstract and just analyze formal grammars, too. These have a set of symbols (the vocabulary), and a set of rules for combining each combination of symbols. Mathematicians and physicists have recently tapped into the resource of formal grammars (more specifically generative grammars, but that’s another blog entry) to describe physical processes and system behavior.

It would make sense that a brain capable of developing the ability to understand and generate the patterns of syntax would be required to develop complicated tools. Both constructions require the ability to see the consequences of ordering or structuring things one way over another. In sentences, it dictates the nuance and directivity of meaning. In machines, it dictates the precise path of motion and allowable configurations of a specific machine.

It seems that every creative designer would use a process akin to constructing sentences, but based instead upon the specific grammar and syntax of the design paradigm they work within. Programmers embody this, since each language they learn has a specific grammar and syntax comprising a formal grammar.  Musicians too have their unique domain specific language whose syntax limits what material they are able to express in musical notation. These limitations are always being extended by additions to the language. Mathematicians have proven that proven that a formal language cannot express or prove everything, only an infinitely extensible one (Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). I’m sure this is why language has been constantly fluid and evolving, escaping any canonicalization.

Language itself is inflexible, but the mind is infinitely more nimble and able to extend and comprehend things that are beyond it. Yet it is this capability that allows us to construct our limited language, modest machines, and determinate designs. Each revision gains more refinement and more nuance as we explore what is possible and what delineates the boundaries of reality. With each revision our mind becomes more nuanced and precise. With each revision our reality grows like a fractal and the possibilities for expression and creativity become infinite and nearly continuous, but harder to differentiate for those less experienced. The space of possible combinations and juxtapositions grows as large as the unknown universe.

Innovation and creativity prosper, all because of the brain’s capability for nuanced syntax.