Monday, November 07, 2011

Finding our way in the field of knowledge

Lucca, Italy: 2000 years old Roman theatre, now in use as an apartment building

Once I discussed here Popper’s rejection of what he called the “commonsense theory of knowledge” or “bucket theory of mind” (see my blog dated April 5, 2010). According this theory, so Popper, there is a fixed quantity of knowledge that we can gather in some way. However, the theory is false for several reasons; in short one can say because knowledge is perspectival. Basically, knowledge is a special way of interpreting the world around us. Of course, it is changing through the ages and we get also new knowledge. But this changing and renewing of knowledge must be compared with the restoration and reconstruction of an old building, not with constructing new buildings instead. The building gets a new painting every odd years; stone walls are restored and get new bricks; wooden beams are maybe replaced by iron beams; new extensions are added and old parts are pulled down; also the interior may change a lot through the years; and after 500 years we have a completely different building with original and modern parts and another appearance; not three or four new buildings. Moreover, the building looks different, depending on whether we are in front of it or look at the rear side and on whether the sun is shining, or whether it is dark. So it is with knowledge, too.
Therefore I was a bit surprised to read in a lecture by Prof. Robert Dijkgraaf, president of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences – summarized in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant of the 29th ult. – an estimate of how much knowledge presently exists, namely one zeta byte, or 1021 bytes (I pass over here that in the lecture no difference was made between knowledge, information and data). It gives the suggestion that the existing knowledge is something fixed, albeit continuously growing. It is as if one could say: if we would distribute all knowledge there is among all the people in the world, each person would receive about bytes of knowledge. The problem would be then how to coordinate them.
Actually, the lecture was not about how much knowledge there is but about how to find one’s way through it, which is a problem, indeed, whether one sees knowledge as perspectival or as quantitatively measurable. But I guess that just this distinction makes a big difference in the solution of the way finding problem. From  the point of view of the bucket theory, ideally one would try to learn as much knowledge as there is, but alas, this is impossible, so Dijkgraaf proposes a strategic approach: learn those pieces of knowledge (at school, at the university) that have a strategic position in the sense that they are central by having relevant connections with those parts of knowledge that we do not learn and that are also important to know for some reason. The learned pieces of knowledge must give as best an entrance to the not learned pieces as possible. I think it is a conservative approach. It takes the old idea of pumping knowledge into one’s head as a starting point for science and maybe also for being intellectual. On the background (not so much in Dijkgraaf’s lecture but generally in such approaches) often the fear is present that people will lose the old values of learning and in the end certain valued capacities of the brain: the capacities to store facts. The latter is not impossible, for learning values simply do change and brains adapt themselves genetically to new circumstances.
Now, I do not want to deny that knowing facts can be useful and can also be an enrichment of one’s life. But is learning strategic facts really the solution to the problem how to find one’s way in the field of knowledge? I think that from the perspectival view of knowledge a methodological approach is more obvious: learning methods how to find knowledge rather than learning strategic points from where to start. If knowledge is perspectival, and when the perspectives are continuously changing in addition, I think that it is more important to know the right questions to ask in order to find your way than knowing the right places to start. For the appearances of these places are continuously changing. In other words: learn how to find your way, not from where to find your way.
The strategic facts approach and the methodological approach do not completely exclude each other, of course. For one thing, the methodological approach is not possible without a basic knowledge of facts. For another, once one knows the strategic facts, one must know how to find one’s way to the not learned facts. However, the differences between both approaches are fundamental: they are based on a different view what knowledge is.
The methodological approach asks for another mental attitude and in view of what is known about the development of the brain, it is not unlikely that it will lead to a genetic change of the brain, if it will become the leading approach to the world of knowledge. But should that be regretted? I don’t think so. Genetic changes of the brain are normal. They have taken place as long as man exists and they have led to a better adaption to the world around us. This does not imply that this will also be the case in future, no more than that it implies that our present genetic constitution is the best one for a changing world. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but we simply cannot deny what happens to be.

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