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Some thought to the real meaning of knowledge

  1. Jun 18, 2005 #1
    I've been giving some thought to the real meaning of knowledge.

    Do things that I know in the back of my mind count as knowledge?

    If I forget something but somehow my mind is triggered and I remember it five years from now, I obviously know the information, but I didn't at the time.

    So how do we define "knowing" something?

    Let me give an example:

    Say that in fifth grade, a child thoroughly memorizes the capitals of all of the European countries, amongst others. She can state all that you could ask for. When the child is 20 years old, the knowledge of capitals fades away while she learns some advanced mathematics. Now, if I asked her the capital of Iran, she finds that she can't recall what it is, so I tell her the answer. Instantly, her memory comes back and she remembers the capital of Iran.

    Before I told her, she didn't "know" the capital of Iran. But afterwards, she did. So does she really know the capitals at age 20 even though she can only recall them when she hears what they are to jog her memory?

    I am trying to word my question so that everyone can understand it, but if it's not clear I will try to elaborate.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2005 #2


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    Well, you can define knowledge however you want to. :smile: You might want to consider whether belief is required for knowledge. Does someone need to believe X in order to know X? You can also ask whether X needs to be true and whether a person needs to have some justification for believing X. For example, can I know that the capital of Iran is Albany? If I guess that the capital of Iran is Tehran, does that count as knowledge?
  4. Jun 18, 2005 #3
    You raise a good point, knowledge can be totally subjective. I understand that belief has to do with it, but putting that aside for a minute. Let me reform my question: Does knowledge capture what we know even if we can't remember it at that instant, or just capture what we know at that instant?
  5. Jun 18, 2005 #4
    Well, some interest in "knowledge" do we have?
    Everyone means whatever they mean when they use the word "knowledge". The idea, "the real meaning of knowledge" implies that such a thing exists. That is to say that, if you happened to stumble upon it, there would be a meaning for the word "knowledge" with which everyone would agree. I am of the opinion that such an idea is delusional. All we can really do is sort of establish some vague ground rules as to when and where you can use the word without getting a fight on your hands. I can only talk about my idea of the word (which I personally think makes it a valuable token for an important idea).
    If it influences your behavior in any way, I would certainly call it knowledge and by using the term "in the back of my mind", you imply it's there somewhere ready to influence you. There is a very important division in the thought processes we use which I believe is seriously underestimated. That would be the difference between logical deduction and intuitive conclusions. Logical deductions require we be aware of our thoughts but intuitive conclusions arise through mechanisms we are not consciously aware of.
    It appears to me that you want to talk about the "knowledge" you are consciously aware of. I would ask, do you know how to digest the food you eat? Certainly, unless your formal education far exceeds the norm, you aren't consciously aware of how to do it, but you still do on a daily basis.
    Now here, I would suspect you are oversimplifying the problem very much. Let me suggest another possibility for you to think about. Suppose I have an idiot savant who has memorized the capitals of all the countries in the world: you name the country and he names the capital. However, he has no conscious awareness of the fact that he does this, it is no more than his particular reaction to a stimulus. Would you say that he "knows" the capitals.

    What I am getting at is the fact that you are talking about two different processes here. Is the girl problem that she doesn't know the capitals or that she doesn't know how to recall them: i.e., the stimulus – reaction process has been lost, not the underlying information.

    Then, to comment on honestrosewater's response:
    Essentially you are bringing up the issue of erroneous knowledge. Again, as I said earlier, "all we can really do is sort of establish some vague ground rules as to when and where you can use the word without getting a fight on your hands". You have just stepped into a area where it is easy to get a fight on your hands.

    I myself, would include "erroneous knowledge" as a valid and important category; certainly, if you read a little history, you will discover that a lot of important historical events were promulgated in the name of "facts" which would hardly be thought of as facts today. I would say that, if you believe something to be true, it is a fact in the universe you live in and can be seen as knowledge upon which your actions are based. The main reason I choose that interpretation is because the converse, that it can only be classified as knowledge if it is correct, is an empty and useless definition (though canute would certainly disagree with me). As I said, this is a point where you can get a fight on your hands. :biggrin:

    Have fun -- Dick
  6. Jun 18, 2005 #5


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    I brought up truth, justification, and belief because I have seen other people who have thought about knowledge define knowledge as true justified belief. And they have reasons for that definition. So I just offered it as something to consider.
    In the case of not remembering the capital of Iran, what do you know? You may believe that you once knew the capital of Iran but can't remember it now, you may have justification for believing this, and it may also be true. But do you know the capital of Iran? Do you know that capital of Iran in the same way you know you once knew but can't recall the capital? If you can't even give any answer, how can you say you know the answer? You don't mean knowledge to be just any thought or idea, do you?
  7. Jun 18, 2005 #6
    I am trying to understand the working definition of knowledge because it seems to me that one's "knowledge" will be different at different times due to the stimuli Doctordick has mentioned that brings back prior information. Thanks for your reponses!
  8. Jun 18, 2005 #7
    Well as drdick looked at it its something to think about. Allow me different point of view.

    MEMORY is the key to knowledge. As you mentioned the problem is that the retrieval process is broken not that "information" is non existent in our brain. We kinda "index" in our brain what we know which helps us to make cognitive and rational thinking through which we develop our belief systems.

    Our conciousness is dependent upon memory. Through our sensors we receive inputs which are stored in our memory(temporary) and processed by the brain. The effectivity and/or capacity of our conciousness (working memory) determindes level of awarness. Without this memory and brain proccessing these bits of consiousness (current state of our environment around us coupled with long term memory / beliefs) is only possible because of memory. WIthout memory we could not be conscious creatures.

    Therefore in the limits of less then footnote i say that knowledge is dependent upon memory. The issue remain if we one day are able to scan the brain better than brain itself and find any stored "knowledge" we wish to recall does it mean we dont have that knowledge till than or is that just temporary retrieval failure rather than absense of that information.

    i guess its little confused but i hope we get the point

  9. Jun 18, 2005 #8
    Yes that helps, thank you sneez. That's information I was looking for.
  10. Jun 19, 2005 #9
    Let's not be too hasty here. I think Z-component raised an important question, and while I agree with everything posted so far in response, I don't think we have a satisfactory answer.

    It is clear that the word 'knowledge' is used ambiguously. Following the paradigm of mathematics, it would seem to be useful if we would agree on a specific, unambiguous, definition of any word we use in a discussion. That way we might avoid the "fights" that otherwise seem inevitable.

    If we are to carefully define terms, then we have the dilemma of whether to use familiar words such as 'knowledge', 'belief', 'justification', 'memory', 'truth', etc. or to coin new terms such as 'T1', 'T2', etc. in order to avoid preconceived notions associated with the symbols. Both of these approaches have problems.

    Regardless of which symbols, or terms, we wish to use, I think it is important to differentiate among the various concepts we want to talk about, and then assign terms to them before we go too much further.

    I think it was Moving-finger in a related thread who got me to see that there are two different kinds of "knowing" in the present moment. One is "knowing-how" and the other is "knowing-that". For example, I know how green looks to me and I also know that green is the color of grass. The first example is an immediate, in-the-present, state of conscious awareness. The second is less immediate. It involves the assignment or identification of the concept of greenness, which involves many recollections of that immediate experience of the awareness of greenness, with the concept of grass, which involves many recollections of experiences with grass.

    In a similar way, we can differentiate among the many notions suggested by the list of words, 'knowledge', 'belief', 'justification', 'memory', 'truth', etc.

    At a minimum, as a starting point, I think we should agree on a specific term for each of the following notions (I'll assign my preferred term to each simply to make my list readable. There is no implied truth or magic in my choices. The important idea here is the list of concepts. I will have no problem accepting another set of words for them as long as we all agree on them.):

    1. Consciousness - Taken as a primitive notion without definition.

    2. Experience - Taken as a primitive notion without definition.

    3. Qualia - Anything experienced by consciousness.

    4. Mind - Anything capable of conscious experience.

    5. Knowledge - The conscious experience of a specific single moment.

    6. Recollection - Knowledge of past knowledge. (The conscious experience of having had specific conscious experiences at some earlier moments.)

    7. Feeling - The knowledge of some abstraction of (or from) recollections.

    8. Hunch - The feeling that some specific experience may happen in the future.

    9. Expectation - A conscious feeling about the likelihood, expressed in a number ranging from 0 to 1, that the experience imagined in a hunch will actually happen.

    10. Belief - A hunch with an expectation greater than 0.5.

    11. Assertion - A statement (set of symbols of some sort) which is believed will induce, in the mind of a reader, a specific feeling or set of feelings.

    12. Information - Symbolically encoded assertions.

    13. Confidence - A belief with an expectation of, say, greater than 0.99.

    14. Justification - An assertion made with confidence.

    . . . .

    I'll stop here before it gets too silly. But I hope you get the idea. I think that if we try to tease out the essential notions involved in this question, we might have some useful concepts which we can use to make some guesses about how things work.

    It is my guess, that the ability to know is the fundamental and essential characteristic of consciousness. I have a hunch that memory and the ability to recall memories is somehow derivative on the fundamental ability to know. And, further, I have a hunch that the ability to know is ontologically fundamental, with everything else, including all of the physical universe, having been causally produced from it.

    Whether we all take this view or not, I think it is useful to consider these separate concepts without letting preconceived hidden assumptions about them influence our considerations. For example, I think it is a mistake to jump too early to the conclusion that consciousness is seated in the brain.

  11. Jun 19, 2005 #10
    Thats very interesting post, i wanna know what others think.

    Let me simplify it even further from my point of view.

    Knowledge are data entered through our input systems (senses) and processed by brain into information. Through sorting,integration,evaluation, etc brain stores (validated information) (entered data) in memory is what we call knowledge. This process of sorting,etc is known as learning. Furthermore, retained knowledge is formed into beliefs, therefore belief is dependent upon learning (thats nothing new though).

    maybe its too simplified but i think is workable.

  12. Jun 19, 2005 #11
    Thank you, Sneez. I would also like to know what others think.

    I don't think your point of view is more simplified but it is different from what I suggested. Your use of the word 'knowledge' is much more general. You would have the information entering our senses classified as knowledge (data entered through our input systems (senses)). You would also classify beliefs and memories (retained knowledge) as knowledge. I think you would also consider the awareness of an experience of the moment to be knowledge. In my view, this last is the only thing I would consider to be knowledge. I'm not sure which view is more workable, but I suspect that the more specific the definition, the less ambiguity will result.

    I'm eager to hear what others think about this.

  13. Jun 20, 2005 #12
    Paul, you and I have been talking (off and on) for a long time now. Somehow I have never been able to reach you on the definition of the problem you want to solve. My position is very simple; you are trying very hard to establish a reasonable basis for examination of reality (what is true and what is false). The mistake you are making is that you are assuming your mental image of reality is correct. Essentially you are starting with questions which should be far down the line. Don't feel bad, as you are certainly not alone in your approach; it is fundamentally the standard approach and has been for thousands of years. The problem is that there are much more serious questions which must be answered first.
    A very valid idea except for one fact. You are working with the assumption that the words you are using to define "knowledge" are unambiguously defined.
    The real problem is that you have not really even approached the problem of settling the issue of those "preconceived notions". That is to say, the "preconceived notions" are not the real problem, the real problem is the vagueness of the language itself. What you need to do is follow the paradigm of mathematics exactly: i.e., define your terms with the same precision and agreement required in mathematics.
    If you want to get serious about this approach, you have to accommodate all possible misunderstandings so that you can correct these misunderstandings with mathematical precision. The first step is to realize that the actual label is immaterial; instead of assigning labels such as 'knowledge', 'belief', 'justification', 'memory', 'truth', 'T1', 'T2', start with pure numerical labels and look at the problems inherent in uncovering the intended meaning.
    The method you choose to use to express this problem makes an assumption that a whole slue of labels are already well understood. If you were to express this idea with numerical labels, the extent of the problem becomes much more evident. Suppose we use The=256, second=9976, is=1234, less=334672 ... . When we do that and examine the problem confronting you expressed only in those numerical labels, the true extent of the problem you are trying to solve tends to become more evident.
    By the manner in which you make your presentation, you appear to be setting forth fourteen ideas, but that is simply not the case. You are in fact setting forth seventy-five different variables with only fourteen internal relationships (actually, the number is well in excess of seventy-five as there are a lot of other assumptions in the representation). This is not even close to being a defining set. In other words, you have already violated the standards you put forth (mathematical precision). You should be able to see that fact if you were to use numerical labels instead of depending on the assumption that you and your reader understand those seventy five concepts in exactly the same way.

    Replace these symbols (0, 0.5, 0.99, 1, a, about, abstraction, actually, an, anything, as, assertion, assertions, belief, believed, capable, confidence, consciousness, definition, earlier, encoded, expectation, experience, experienced, expressed, feeling, from, future, greater, had, happen, having, hunch, imagined, in, induce, information, is, justification, knowledge, likelihood, made, may, mind, moment, moments, notion, number, of, or, past, primitive, qualia, ranging, reader, recollection, recollections, say, set, single, some, sort, specific, statement, symbolically, symbols, than, that, taken, the, to, which, will, with, and without) with numerical labels and you might begin to understand the extent of the assumptions you are making in your attack.

    As far as I am concerned, you are working in the total absence of a foundation of any kind. You are simply assuming that the apparent meanings you have subconsciously assigned to these words amount to universal agreement. If you understood my work, you would comprehend just how far from reality that assumption really is.

    I am only trying to present an objective method of establishing a foundation from which further concepts can be established.

    Have fun -- Dick
  14. Jun 20, 2005 #13
    Yes, I have enjoyed it and I still do. I'm glad I got to know you in person, otherwise I'm afraid I would have the same problem accepting your language that many other readers here do.
    That is because you have never listened carefully to me when I tried to tell you what problem I wanted to solve.
    Your position is simple but your assumption is wrong. First of all, I'm not trying very hard. There are at least a half dozen priorities in my life (as you well know) that take precedence over the fun I have participating in forums like this. Secondly, I am not trying "to establish a reasonable basis for examination of reality (what is true and what is false)". What I am trying to establish is a guess as to what might be going on in reality that makes sense to me. From time to time I also try to articulate my current guess in language simply so I can record it and offer other people the opportunity to consider my guess if they are so inclined.
    I agree that it would be a mistake if I were trying to solve your problem, but I am not. In my approach to coming up with a sensible guess, I start with an assumption about reality, (I suppose you could say that I assume it is true -- a technique I learned in mathematics) and then I consider the consequences of that assumption to see whether or not they make sense.
    I agree that if I were working on your problem, what you say would be true. But I'm not, as I have repeatedly told you.
    I don't feel bad about it at all. I only feel bad that I haven't been able to get you to understand that you and I are interested in different problems. Not that I am not interested in your problem. I am very interested in it -- enough to devote quite a bit of energy trying to understand it. And, as you also know, I reached my level of incompetence at the end of Chapter 1 and I realize it would be fruitless to go beyond that. On the other hand, I have sort of gone beyond through a different route. I am currently reading Penrose's latest book, "The Road to Reality" and I am captivated by it. I am about half-way through at this point and many lights have come on inside my dim skull as a result. Just this morning I was reading about the basic difference between the Lagrangian approach and the Hamiltonian approach in the attempt to find a theory to reconcile QM and GR. Or even just to express QM or GR for that matter. I have no competence to solve the problems or work with the equations at that level, -- I only have a vague notion of what a tensor is -- but I feel that Penrose wrote the book for me because he describes what is going on at a level I can understand and from that I can see the beauty and grandeur of not only the mathematics, but of reality itself.

    In spite of your comment, I do feel that I am nearly alone in my approach. I think that my approach is slightly more rigorous than "the standard approach that has been used for thousands of years". That standard approach is what you have called squinking and what is used by the vast majority of people in their daily lives to figure out how reality works. At the other extreme are the competent theoretical physicists and cosmologists. And what they do is based on rigorous mathematics. That is the approach you have taken and it is the approach described by Penrose.

    I feel that I am neither fish nor fowl. Unlike the vast majority of people, I can glimpse the grandeur and power of the mathematical constructions built to be isomorphic with real observations. And, unlike you and others who actually are competent to work with those constructions, I cannot. Nonetheless, I am awestruck and appreciative of the glimpses I do get.
    I agree completely, but I will leave those questions to people like you who can solve them.
    You are correct. I am not trying to be mathematically rigorous, but instead to carry on a reasonable conversation in the vernacular but making at least some attempt at defining terms, being consistent, and being watchful for hidden assumptions. I think reasonable people can do that.
    I agree that is the real problem. But, as you and I have agreed before, inadequate as language is, it can still be useful for determining the answers to such questions as, "Do you want fries with that?"
    Absolutely -- if I were to begin working on the problem you and Penrose are talking about.
    You may not be able to see me -- way back in the back row -- but I have been in the choir you are preaching to for quite a long while. I agree with everything you say here and I am impressed with what you have been able to derive from this basis.
    Well, I wouldn't say "total absence". I think there is a foundation of a certain amount of squirrel logic, which as you have pointed out, has solved a lot of fairly complex problems over the eons.
    I tried my best to understand it. But I think I do understand it well enough to appreciate that my assumptions are very far from reality. I think of them simply as metaphors or analogies because I am sure that reality is probably profoundly different from anything I can imagine.
    I think I understand that.

    Good talking to you, Dick,

    Last edited: Jun 20, 2005
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