Monday, February 25, 2008

A More Precise Language for the Characterization of Knowledge

Knowledge is a function of the brain. We know the brain is an evolved organ, and we know that the brain is fallible: even a healthy brain forgets; we misperceive things which we observe personally; we know examples of optical illusion; we misremember things we once knew.

Knowing is intimately related to our ways of remembering. We have skills which we have learned, but can not describe in words, yet we remember how to do things. We say "I will know it when I see it", meaning that the knowledge of the appearance of something is somehow in our brains, but not in a way that allows us to recreate the image. Those with dementia remember things from the distant past but not from the recent past. And of course, we have explicit memories which allow us to articulate that which we recall.

We know that different human brains function differently. Unless you learn a language early in life, your brain may well lose the ability to perceive sounds in that language that differ from those in your native language. Some people have perfect pitch. Mozart could reportedly hear a piece of music once and play it back perfectly from memory, introducing variations to show how it could be done differently. Most people can not produce an acceptable portrait of someone they know well, while there are artists who can do so easily from memory. There are sculptors who reportedly can see a sculpture complete within the block of raw material, and simply have to carve away the excess material that hides it from others. There are people with eidetic memories. Chess masters and experts in other games can remember the details of past play with a clarity and accuracy that is beyond the ability of the amateur.

We know that some of the things we believe to be true are not true. Indeed, we can assign confidence to our knowledge. We say "I know it as well as I know my own name." We say "I think" or "I believe". Gamblers regularly decide as to whether their confidence in their estimates of the odds in a betting situation justify a bet.

We use fiction to develop emotional knowledge, to empathize with the protagonists of the fictional piece, or to learn how someone might feel under given circumstances. We draw upon the visual arts and music to develop other kinds of understanding, other ways for which our brains can react to the world.

Spanish has two words, two concepts (conocer, saber) both of which translate into English "to know". Thus Spaniard speakers distinguish two ways "knowing". It would seem that English should have at least as many words for knowledge as Eskimos have for snow. that for a concept so important to the knowledge society, we should have the precision and flexibility in our language that the Eskimos have developed to talk about snow.

The brain is a very complex organ, and as we learn more about it we will learn more about the ways it stores information. This should provide us with help in improving the language, as we develop different terms for the different forms of storage.

How do we come to "know" something? There is knowledge gained independently, through direct observation or through an individual's independent reasoning. But we are social animals, and much of what we know we learn from others.

As this blog has pointed out, our culture had developed institutions with their own knowledge processes. Legal institutions produce verdicts which help us to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. The institutions of our intelligence services produce findings as to which postulates about foreign government actions are credible or not credible. Scientific institutions produce results which indicate which hypotheses are tenable or discredited. Religious institutions produce consensus among the faithful as to which beliefs are dogma and which are heresy.

Perhaps we need to use a language which distinguishes among the different sources of information from which we gain knowledge in order to allow us to discuss our knowledge in a more precise way. Perhaps too, we need a language which captures more fully the confidence we have in specific items of knowledge.

Increasingly, as a culture, we have the ability to store and retrieve information from our surround. We can do this in books and images, in videos and recordings, and in computer memories. We can embed knowledge in institutional structures and processes, and indeed in physical objects. Robots embody the information needed to carry out manipulations that men would once have learned to preform. pharmaceuticals can embody the knowledge gained through medical science to effect a cure of a disease.

Famously, President Bush described himself as "the decider". Equally famously, he has often decided that the scientists were wrong with respect to their statements about environmental threats, and has had to reverse those decisions in some cases. He decided that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that there were linkages between Al Qaeda and Sadaam. Still controversially, he decided that that a "war on terrorism" was required following 9/11 rather than using another metaphor for the required international action to reduce the threat from terrorist activity. Using the word "know" to describe what Bush chooses to believe, independent of the bases of those beliefs seems inaccurate. So too, Scott Adams' characters in the cartoon strip Dilbert exemplify lots of different ways that people in organizations come to hold beliefs which they characterize as "knowledge", but which are radically different one from another. A language that differentiated these states of mind, one from another, might help avoid some of the dysfunctional behavior that Bush and Dilbert's characters display.

The knowledge economy, which is coming, will have the majority -- perhaps the large majority -- of the workforce as knowledge workers. With an ever increasing power over the environment, an ever increasing ability to modify and even destroy that environment, it seems prudent to have an ever more accurate means of describing the knowledge on which we base action. The knowledge society may also allow unprecedented freedom of the mind to explore and learn, a freedom that is valued to the members of our species. Not only are we likely to spend more time thinking about other than satisfying our basic human needs, we are being provided with an increasingly powerful array of technologies for obtaining and processing information in the process. All of these factors militate for a more precise and accurate language to deal with what we now lump under terms such as "knowledge," "understanding," "belief," and "skill."

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