How do we know what we know?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 24 Comments

I was very interested in the discussion that occurred around my post about belief and fact and I agree with Chuck that it is our interpretation of our experience that must be questioned. I have a friend named Jeff Eisen who wrote a book called “Oneness Perceived” that I learned a great deal from. In that book Eisen makes the simple and clear distinction between a sensation and a perception. A sensation is the direct experience of some sensory stimulation. A perception is a sensation plus some degree of interpretation of that sensation. Using this language we can restate what Chuck said as, it doesn’t make sense to question our sensations, but it does make sense to question our perceptions.

The perception I most want to question now is the perception of knowing. How do we know what we know? Or more specifically “What is it that we think is happening when we know something?” When we ask this question what we want to understand is how it is that we are interpreting the experience of knowing. And that is an interpretation that I think worthy of questioning.

Most of us have learned to think of knowing in terms of a model generally referred to as a representational model of knowing. In other words we imagine that information in the form of sensations is entering into our body through our five senses and also in the form of thoughts and feelings that arise in consciousness. These sensations are then sent to the brain/mind for processing and are turned into “knowing.” A typical image that may have been taught to us as a child is that of a movie screen in our head. On the screen all of the sensual information is projected and so we create a picture in our head of what exists outside of us. Think of cartoons that we often saw as children where there was a flower outside and someone is depicted as thinking about the flower by showing them with a thought balloon pointing toward their head and in the thought balloon is a replica of the flower on the ground. The brain/mind creates a representation of reality that we can look at in our head. Typically that is how most of us commonly relate to knowing.

Using this model of the brain as an information processing machine decades were spent in AI labs trying to download separate bits of information into computers to see if you could cram enough information in them so that they could act intelligently. If you are limiting the experiment to something like playing a game of electronic chess you get good results, but it seems hopeless that this method will ever result in anything like the intelligence of a human brain.

Professor Hubert Dreyfus at the University of Berkeley California, formally at MIT is an expert on the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Maurice MerleauPonty and is a strong opponent of the representational model of knowing. He wrote a book called “What Computers Can’t Know” predicting that the efforts of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence labs could not work. Decades later he re-titled the third edition of the book, “What Computers Still Can’t Know.” (I highly recommend any of Dreyfus’ courses from itunes.) These phenomenological thinkers don’t see the mind and the body as separate from the world around out. They see an engaged system in which the world acts directly on the mind and body perhaps metaphorically like the wind acts on dry leaves causing them to lift off the ground and spin and twirl in delightful ways. There is no need to imagine that concepts are being used to navigate the world in this model, the world is simply acting on the mind and body. (This I imagine is a view that Carl – our resident Behaviorism expert – would be in agreement with.)

I am now also reading Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom” in which he deals directly with ideas of knowing in relation to perception. I am not into the book enough to say anything even approximating worth while, but this is a topic I intend to continue with even as I also continue to share gems from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Carl
10 years ago

I would put it in a slightly different way, but similarly, I suppose. I think that “knowing” is doing, and as Wittgenstein pointed out, that “meaning is use.” This becomes obvious if, like me, you are involved with helping people to design teaching/instruction. Learning objectives like, “the student will UNDERSTAND xxxxx” don’t work. We have to include some kind of active verb, such as “will talk about” or “will use X to do Y” etc. In other words, when we KNOW something it means that we act in relation to some complex set of conditions. A concept can be described… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Carl

I am weakening – the process of convertion is slow but steady. :)

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Is there anything more we can know except empirically, which includes what we come to accept as credible through second hand sources? Knowing of course depends on our accurate understanding of information. It’s not only what we believe we believe but what is affirmed by feedback from collective wisdom. It’s a matter of truth being established by collective consensus and then by new maybe radical info that becomes accepted by those in the position to make that call.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Adding to the above:

As Plato put forth, all learning is only remembering what we already know. Good teachers enable us to remember and then there are those fortuitous spontaneous and important insights that come, from where–thin air? Most important discoveries are the result 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, so it’s said.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I was just reading in Emerson’s life in Science, a culture of truth and when I replace the word ‘science’ with ‘knowing’ two things definitely add to this discussion. – The capacity to make generalities (laws) – Knowing would result in trusting the right people/situations. – Emerson: the first effect of science is to establish the mind, to disclose beneficent arrangements, to remove groundless errors. Emerson believed that science was not static but dynamic and progressive. Science does not consist in a knowledge of facts but of laws. It essentially relates to change. Science turned the isolated self towards both… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

There is a connection between what Carl is saying and what I am reading in my book, which is quoting Bacon and later Emerson: Bacon’s truth is entirely pragmatic, truth works. ‘Truth is not a noun but a verb, an action, a performance. Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Bacon noted that knowledge is powerful because it operates not on the will but on the ‘understanding’ that commands the will – that is, it is effective as knowledge exactly to the degree that it gets into the mind, generating action. For not until knowledge is acted upon is… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Jeff, your hand-wringing about what you can know has me concerned. Its clear you know that horses and clouds are real but unicorns and ghosts are not. But somehwere between those extremes are you struggling to draw the line? If so, where does the trouble start, specifically? Maybe we can help.

Carl
10 years ago

Adi Da used to say that we don’t know what anything IS. I would add to that, following my earlier comment and Liesbeth’s nice expansion on the idea, that we can only know what a thing DOES (or what things DO). That is, the laws of nature (empirical generalizations) that we discover and refine over time are about how the world works, not what it is. As fine-grained as our investigation into sub-atomic particles might be, for example, it still just reveals what HAPPENS, not what IS in any fundamental sense. I think that’s pretty interesting.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hello Liesbeth, Re: “not until knowledge is acted upon is it completed”

Adding to the thought: there’s knowlege (the reception of info) and then (wisdom), assimilating, interiorizing and then acting upon the info.

It’s also true of sprituality–mere knowing and then taking action, putting spirituality and knowing to work.

Get your spirituality to work!

Stuart
Stuart
10 years ago

Revelatory Knowledge – acquired in meditation and contemplation by letting everything be as it is. Thought and feeling recede until the “what is” reveals itself. Inter-subjective Knowledge – acquired through discussion by committing with others to analyze statements about a common interest from different perspectives and different levels of understanding. The whole becomes greater than the parts and the “what is” reveals itself more clearly than any individual’s understanding. Faith-based Knowledge – acquired by taking the revelatory knowledge of another about “what is” on faith, analyzing statements about it, and comparing it to one’s lived experience. Tacit Knowledge – acquired… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Carl, re: “That is, the laws of nature (empirical generalizations) that we discover and refine over time are about how the world works, not what it is.” Just to quibble with (how the world works) as differentiated from (what is): I wonder if the statement speaks about the Western tendency to be pragmatic as opposed to a more contemplative perspective of existence? Wouldn’t you agree that we admire the kind of concentrated observance of something that poets and scientists must make to enable them to make accurate assesment of the realness of an entity? I may be taking your… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

The question you brought up in your post was: how it is that we are interpreting the experience of knowing’ itself, which is, as you say, what Steiner is talking about in ´philosophy of freedom´ A connection between Steiner and Emerson is precisely to be found in this area. Steiner read Emerson. Emerson was most influenced by Coleridge. Coleridge’s connected the creative mind of God with the creative mind of men. ‘Nature’ is talked about as the art of God, ‘so the cause of nature had to be a self-subsisting idea in the mind of God, an antecedent method, or… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

To add to the above: through Emerson’s lecture of ‘water’, much of the above becomes clear. I just remembered that the first philosopher ever, Thales (600 BC), said that the world started from water, he saw water as Primary matter, ‘all is water’. Emerson does the same, he shows the all importance of water in nature, with so many functions and then he shows how people use their brains to use water in much more ways. The idea of ‘intelligence’ that is the same in nature as in us. It is the intelligence in nature itself that produced us as… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Frank, I just don’t think we CAN know what anything is. It’s not a choice. “Isness” is something we can experience by just letting everything be as it is, but we still don’t know WHAT it is. We can experience the feeling of Being. We can see/feel directly that there is only one thing and that we are It as Consciousness. We can be blown to smithereens in that direct experience. But even then, I don’t think we can know WHAT IT IS. And when we get up from our cushion to act in the world I think all we… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

In the search for it, we humans demand reaching for answers that will nail Truth and compulsively continue that quest endlessly. Two things come to my mind:

1) Most of us are content to accept the standard truths, they’re true enough for most.

2) There are those with that burning curiousity to question established truths when their investigations and proclivities present them with anomilies that then may enable them to come up with new truths to challenge established knowledge. This may bring about new truths which will ride for a while till other discoverers present new info.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Lisbeth: “Steiner: knowing is the synthesis of perception and understanding. Observation and feeling is personal; but thinking is universal. ” I agree , I would just rephrase it, in order to make the link with A Cohen’s teachings : “thinking is an ABSOLUTE, not just “universal’. For Steiner the action of thinking is an absolute, it is not from this world. Thoughts, emotions and mental images are the relative product of “thinking” in this world, like the track of the deer in the woods. They are not the deer itself, but just the track of it. Thoughts are the imprints… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Catherine, TY for your comments and sharing. Though you disclaim perspiration as much of a factor in your work, you must acknowledge there’s been a lot of homework and mulling before that aha! event happened. I commend that you are able to have those eureka aha events, they must be wondrously gratifying, like little blessings granted to those who work and wait.

Would you care to speak about any personal work aha! moments?

Best regards, namaste, aloha,

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Beautiful Catherine, thank you very much. I am at the point of going away for a while, but look forward diving in again.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Yes I am thinking of answering to Frank since for the first time in my life it seems that my collaborators and I are on the brink of a very big result. Might tell you what we found, but probably equally interesting is “how” all this happened. I am still baffled by the “how”. I will try to summarize in a few lines what and how. What we did is to solve a 60 years old problem called the Fermion Minus Sign Problem. To understand, one must go back to the foundations of quantum mechanics. There are two types of… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Sorry for the typos in all my blogs. I have an explication is that I got very sick with rheumatism for 10 years and my typing has become erratic; I am not sure it counts as an excuse…

Stuart
Stuart
10 years ago

Catherine,
Thank you for this amazing story. I for one would be very interested in your “miraculous week.” Care to you say more?

Frank LUke
Frank LUke
10 years ago

Hey Catherine, TY for responding and with such exciting news! Best of luck, hope we’ll be hearing about your success and Nobel award too! Keep us posted, OK? Aloha!

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