Knowledge — how we know what we know

Evolution of knowledge and evolution of our concept of knowledge are two different things

Aneela Shahzad January 14, 2022
The writer is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at and tweets @AneelaShahzad

Evolution of knowledge and evolution of our concept of knowledge are two different things. Knowledge has evolved in the span of human civilisation like a sapling that has, going through numerous falls and springs, become woodier in decades and centuries. Ideas are generated, modified and lost, to make space for new ideas, but old ideas never really die, they just add into the deeper layers of experience upon which a firmer framework of surer knowledge is raised, and upon which more intricate ideas can be woven. Complex ideas cannot be generated from a single human mind unless there is a descending history of simpler ideas to build upon; and in an overview, it seems like knowledge has evolved in time.

But it’s not that knowledge is some kind of an organism that evolves in complexity with time, rather it is a faculty of the human mind; the mind familiarises itself with a set of information and in time that information becomes a background-layer and the mind is ready for more, novel and more complex ideas to be explored. So, as the bulk of accumulated knowledge increases, it does not exhaust the minds of the newcomers, rather their minds learn to make those bulks easy by generalising, categorising, simplifying, familiarising, etc. In this way one can understand the accumulation of knowledge as a social phenomenon.

Indeed, the evolution of knowledge is a social phenomenon in this way; people share their ideas with others. Hypothetically this sharing is done via cultural units called ‘meme’ that carry ideas from mind to mind. Any idea that has not become a meme will die down with the potential sharer, or will reemerge in another thinker’s mind in time. With billions of potential thinkers, bulk of ideas may be generating all the time and many of them being shared. Thus, the web of accumulated knowledge is becoming thicker and deeper.

But how ideas are generated in the thought-system is an unresolved mystery. The study of the History of Science has revealed that ‘when the time is ripe’ the same idea may ‘sprout’ independently in several minds at almost the same time, like Oxygen was discovered by Carl Scheele, Priestley, Lavoisier and others independently at the same time. This means that growth of knowledge not only has a social element but also a temporal one. As if, when the time has come, the leaves of a new idea will be generated upon the tree of knowledge, not just on one thinking mind but on several, so that the propagation of that idea is ensured in that time or era. This again takes us to the idea as if knowledge is an evolving organism of its own kind — one that is unfolding upon the human mind in a set pattern in time.

Along with this, there are also the ideas of ‘spontaneity’, when completely out of the box ideas emerge in the minds of zeitgeist or geniuses; and of ‘serendipity’, when suddenly a seeker wakes up at a solution that had not been in the focus at all. Add to this Wigner’s idea of ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ of different mathematical concepts in being the exact tools required to measure and explain natural phenomena of interest in that era. And we ask ourselves again: is nature playing a hide and seek game with us, and is the source and control of knowledge somewhere apart from our minds?

All this leads us to find the epistemological grounds of: what knowledge really is? What do we know? What is truth and justified belief? How do we know that we know? Historically, knowledge has always had a religious factor, there is some knowledge that we can attain with sensual data but there is much more that we know and can know that is inspired in us by the Divine. More scientifically, the ‘mind’ has an a priori framework of identities, a space-time orientation, formulative and language tools, a psychology, feelings, right and wrong instincts, etc which are there regardless of our scientific observations or not. Other bodily systems inside us also indicate intricate mechanism much prior to our understanding of it. It turns out that ‘what we know’ is a tiny proportion of ‘what is to be known’ about us and the universe, yet our empirical observations are again a tiny proportion of ‘what we know’.

Our endowment of an a priori instinct of right and wrong guides us in our quest for truth and justified belief. We know that ‘one plus one equal two’ is an empirical, justified belief, but in this belief the instinct of ‘adding’ and the imagination of a ‘collection’ are a priori, while the experimental observation of putting one apple in a box followed by another and finding two in the box gives an a posteriori confirmation of what we had already assumed to be true. In fact, all mathematical forms and formulation are created within our faculty of thought and expressed and piled up in our faculty of language — they are our mental constructs of what we believe the truth of our reality must be. Within this imaginative space of perception, reason, memory and testimony, only the knowledge of matter is empirical while the knowledge of good and bad, of purpose and connection, of space and time and transcendence are non-empirical, and they may prove to be more essential and powerful than all empirical data. Even so, it is a circular process whether justified belief on empirical knowledge comes from confirmative experimentalism or in finding empirical proofs that conform with the ideas generated in the thought.

So, what about ‘how do we know that we know’? Is it justified and true to consider ‘knowledge’ as a mere residual product of a blind and random biological evolution and later of the reactions between the chemical compounds inside the brain when ‘knowledge’ has been found embedded in every layer of the depths of time and space, when we encounter multitudes of phenomena around us that all work upon unique knowledge-systems? Yet is all this architecture without blueprint, all construction without formula or all formula without formulation?

Being a newcomer in a causal universe, endowed with a priori faculties without which there would neither be survival nor progress, it seems an act of arrogance and irresponsibility on the part of us humans to attribute all pattern and engineering we find in the universe, for grantedly, to sheer randomness, when truly scientifically we can achieve ‘nothing’ without patterns, designs, engineering and assemblage.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2022.

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