Knowledge and Information

The desire to share KNOWLEDGE and information is clearly innate. The production and dissemination of new forms of knowledge is highly useful for society and individuals in problem solving, and its various forms are widespread across different cultures.

Humans share a strong desire to understand the unknown. The search for understanding is a uniquely human characteristic that provides a profound survival advantage. The more we intuit and understand the world around us, the better we are able to adapt to our surroundings.

The quest for knowledge and understanding may have begun as a response to the biological imperative of the absence of a shared purpose. Each of us must discover his or her own purpose in life. And to do that, we must be able to gather enough knowledge and information that will lead us to ourselves, and help to explain the world around us.

Yet, often, societal pressures, personal bias, outright deception, and an unwillingness or inability to share information for one reason or another, prevent us from discovering and maintaining a sense of truth and reality in our lives. One way of coping with this problem is to pretend that there is no absolute truth, that truth and reality are unique human perceptions; that the truth is different for everyone. When what we really know is that ‘you can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own rules’. Most of us suspect deep down that there are some truths, and that we can know them.

So where do we discover reality, if there is such a thing? What are the rules that define truth?

Edgar Allen Poe said, ‘Truth is a pattern of consistency.’ Fundamental laws and principles define truth.

The Universe contains all forms of energy and matter, including human perceptions.

Reality is a word that is synonymous with universe. It means the same as truth; you may think of truth and reality as one and the same, independent of human perceptions.

It must be what English author David Mitchell meant when he wrote that ‘There is only one truth. All other truths are half-truths.’

Truth is unchangeable, while the understanding of truth changes with person, time, and circumstance.

Often the search for truth falls short. Sometimes it succeeds. Knowing the difference between half-truths and reality depends on our accumulated knowledge of the way things work. But for now, most of us must rely on our relative judgments and information gathering abilities in search of knowledge and truth.

The world is flat. The world is round. The former was thought to be true for centuries. The latter is known to be true today.

We are often told that there are no answers in life, only good or better questions. Yet we know there are simple, fundamental truths that exist, as well as insightful answers to a variety of thorny questions.

It has been a popular idea among philosophers for over a century that our brains do not have the capacity for ‘objectively’ representing the world. It has also been fashionable to suggest that ‘reality’ does not exist outside of individual perception; that, in practice, each of our brains ‘creates’ its own reality.

Of course, there is no way to prove or disprove this argument. It is true that we are prisoners of our own thoughts and feelings, and that we can’t be sure what someone else is experiencing. It is also true that each of us develops a unique ‘psychology’ based on our experiences beginning with childhood and continuing throughout our lifetime. My pain or joy may not feel exactly the same as yours.

Not surprisingly, experiments show that individuals may experience reality in different ways. What I see as the color ‘red’ may be different from what you see as ‘red’. That’s why personal experience, known as empirical knowledge, is not always an accurate or reliable judge of reality or truth.

Yet there are many inferences that can be made about the way a human brain represents the world. Consider eyes for example. Our eyes have evolved to capture light in the visible spectrum and channel it to our brains for processing. This allows us to ‘see’ objects and events in our field of vision. The same is true for other senses, such as ears, nose, and skin. Even without strict evidence, we can be reasonably certain that light, sound waves, pheromones, and other sensory stimulants are fundamental characteristics of a universal reality that is independent of our perceptions. We have acquired this explanatory knowledge because of our ability to observe, analyze, and explain phenomena such as light, sound, and molecular motions of the air.

In addition, we are able to observe that when someone dies, when a person’s brain no longer functions, the world continues on its course. It is more than reasonable to predict, then, that when plants and animals die, when we die, or if life on Earth would cease to exist altogether, that matter and energy, and the forces that influence them, will continue to proliferate throughout the universe.

Many animals, including humans, engage in elaborate forms of deception, self-deception, mimicry, and camouflage, within the social context of various partnerships and allegiances. Though useful weapons in the battle for survival, these strategies create what social biologist Robert Trivers calls a ‘bias of information flow,’ and complicate the search for truth.

Historically, iron rule, public consensus, organized religion, and courts of law have been arbiters of truth within society. Today, truth is verified through consensus, by internal feedback mechanisms, evidence checking, persistent information gathering, and analysis.

The scientific method, first employed by Galileo in the 16th century, functions as the primary verifier of truth in today’s developed world. The process of generating scientific evidence and theory, which persists in all branches of science, is accountable through peer review and repeatable experiment. The rest of us must use careful explanations (when we can find them), our wits, common sense, intuition, and information gathering skills in our search for answers to meaningful questions.

Knowledge is knowing, the known. Like love and pain, knowledge accumulates and is processed in the nerve centers of our brains.

Knowledge is not information or data; it is not found in books or on the Internet. Knowledge is the product of converting information into meaning. This requires a long-term commitment to a certain degree of intellectual rigor along with trusting our basic instincts, which turns out to be something of a tricky charge in our fast-paced and get-what-you-can-now society.

Our basic instincts include Common Sense, which is a form of empirical knowledge. It is simple logic. If you don’t want to get wet, stay out of the rain. Logical. Yet too often common sense can be overwhelmed by emotions, ideology, or over-intellectualizing. It can easily slip away from us when we most need it.

Intuition is an internal sensation, another instinct. It is incomplete knowledge, partial knowledge of something or someone. We may sense that something is important or awry, and not be able to explain or understand it exactly. Or we simply may not have enough information to convert it to use. Or we may act upon our intuition and find that we are exactly right in our assessment, or discover that it leads to a creative solution of a problem. Creative minds often use intuition to trigger a different way of looking at something, or to jump-start a new pathway toward discovery.

Common sense and intuition are useful in the everyday, but are often short-lived and have limited reach. Reliable explanations – explanatory knowledge – have widespread implications and are key to solving long-range goals and eliminating unnecessary pain throughout the world.

For most of us, it is often easier to act, or to feel strongly about something, than to think. Yet thinking is arguably the most important thing we do. Thinking widens our options.

It is thinking that produces knowledge. Thinking requires a certain amount of solitude. Finding time alone each day to consider things, or to solve a problem, is a big challenge in our current environment of busy life-jobs combined with the distractions of widespread media and entertainment. Constant distraction reduces our thoughtfulness and curbs our attentiveness.

Thinking critically is the foundation on which knowledge is built. Thinking deeply is a key to understanding the world. It not only can provide a big picture, but it forces attention to details. And it can change your mind.

The daily habit of thinking prevents others from telling us how and what to do, or doing the thinking for us. (see Pier Forni’s book The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in an Age of Distraction)

INFORMATION is data. Data can be simple patterns of information, or they can be facts, depending in what form they exist and how they are used. Data are organized in many different ways, ranging from programmed systems that run your smart phone or computer to the inner workings of a human brain. The short history of computers is a tale of learning and developing the most optimal ways to program machines for human use. Similarly, brains have evolved to process sensory information and to make sense of it. Brain information is organized in many different ways, resulting in outcomes ranging from dedicated reflex actions to great works of literature, art, and music.

The reason that the world of Artificial Intelligence (machine intelligence) has been slow to realize its long-term goals of making machines that think, ‘feel’, and act like humans is that the difficulty in teaching a machine to convert information to knowledge has been hugely underestimated. Brains have had millions of years to evolve its complex functions. Computers are not even 100 years old. Still, due to persistence and combined human knowledge, we are closer than ever to achieving a true machine intelligence.

Working at Bell Labs in the 1940’s, Claude Shannon discovered that any quantifiable information (letters, numbers, sounds, image pixels, etc.) could be represented by a series of digits. It was called Information Theory and created the foundation for the digital revolution. Shannon’s theory, among other things, showed that digital information could be made nearly error free by a process of simple error correction. This formula was used to create high-resolution Audio CD’s and DVD’s. Along with many others, especially Alan Turing, Shannon’s theories were responsible for the early development of the digital computer.

Today, collecting, storing, and processing massive amounts of information is known as Big Data. Large companies, organizations and institutions utilize giant data bases collected from satellites, smart phones, the Internet, banks, etc. comprising hundreds or thousands of interactive computers that are used to keep track of, analyze, and manage complex problems in experimental science, computer science,  government, finance, and business.

Crowdsourcing is a form of Big Data where thousands or millions of independent Internet users around the world are dedicated to a single task, such as using a downloadable screensaver to Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in space, or helping individuals or small groups to fund a creative idea or project (Kickstarter).

How we classify, manipulate, store, retrieve, and disseminate information in today’s world is a subject of interest and concern for almost every discipline, business, nation, and individual. The Internet, Schools, Media, Private Industry, and Government all share public information. All of these cultural institutions have their special biases that make it difficult to sort out truths from half-truths, reality from deception. Also, sharing information publicly while at the same time preserving individual privacy is a difficult balancing act. Possessing useful information and knowledge is possessing power. Knowledge is power, and it is as powerful as anything we know. It is also power without authority or restriction, and therefore can easily be used for devious or destructive purposes. With scientific knowledge growing exponentially, with the widespread use of the Internet, and with an increased personal interest in understanding the world around us and how it works, it will become necessary to pay close attention to who controls the information, who is selling it, who is buying it, who is hoarding it, who has it, and who doesn’t.

Here is a short dramatic sketch that may help to clarify the human dilemma concerning truth and reality:

(A small room with a window overlooking the ocean; Z. and A. sit across the table from one another; a vase containing flowers rests on the table.)

Z.

‘Reality, and the experience of reality, are separate phenomena. Reality exists outside the boundaries of perception.’

A.

‘I agree. (pointing to the vase of flowers)  The flowers in the vase, the vase on the table, the table, the window, the ocean, will live out their lives separately from our perceptions of them.’

Z.

‘Yet, we only know what our perceptions tell us.’

A.

‘So then, what can we really know about the nature of a thing, such as the flowers on the table?’

Z.

‘We cannot know for certain that the flowers are in the vase, on the table. Only statements about things are true, or false. And just how true or false a statement is depends on the precision of the words as they relate to the thing in question.

We can make statements about the flowers in the vase, on the table, etc. And we, or others, can attempt to determine the merit or truthfulness of the statements through available means of verification, such as consensus, critical analysis, evidence checking, or peer review. But we cannot simply assume that the flowers are in the vase, on the table. We cannot verify that things are true, outside of the context of language.

It is language itself that provides us with means to consider whether something is true or false. There is a significant difference in stating that something is true or false, with its implication of flexibility, and maintaining that it is true or false from an inherently determined position.’

A.

‘Naturally, this is an intriguing idea, and one with philosophical precedent. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the precision of language.’

‘For myself, I consider anything that is real to be true. The many and varied activities taking place around and within us define reality, independent of human perception, and are therefore true.

All things, events in the universe are both real and true. The act of deception, for example, in an ironic twist, is part of human nature, part of reality, and therefore true.

Discovering truth is another matter. All known creatures are limited in their understanding. Humans, who speak and think, must rely on representational systems of verbal and written language, mathematics, and visual symbols to explore and define reality. We use these symbols to great advantage for the purpose of communication. At the same time, symbolic language presents formidable challenges in the pursuit of truth.

In the end, we must rely on our perceptions. And our perceptions are not always a reliable gauge of reality. However, when I look at the vase of flowers on the table in front of me, the window, the ocean, I enjoy a more or less true account of those things, depending on how closely my symbolic brain represents the patterns of energy and matter that define them.

A statement about an event may be true or false, but the event itself is consistent with nature, real, true.’

Z.

‘So, do you think this puzzle on the nature of truth and reality is one in which we may ever agree?’

Click below to view a detailed essay on knowledge and anti-intellectualism in American Culture:

You’re Too Smart for Your Own Good

1 Comments ↓

One Comment on “Knowledge and Information”

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