Knowledge as a Practice
The Merit of Letters

Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing

Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing or An Enquiry into Knowledge as a Practice was a short three-part serial that ran on Only a Game in February 2015. The three (unnumbered) parts were as follows:

  1. The Wikipedia Knows Nothing
  2. Factual Knowledge
  3. Knowledge as a Practice

Each piece ends with a link to the next, so you can read the complete serial just by reading the first part. The purpose of the serial was to explore the idea that facts are not a very convincing form of knowledge, and that understanding knowledge as a practice is a stronger form of epistemology.

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Dear Chris,

It has taken me some time to write this response to you about facts and knowledge. It is an involved topic that has had me rewrite this letter multiple (40 and counting) times since to write something about knowing means you need to have a conviction you know something! Let me start off with a relatively famous and grammatically twisted quote about what it is to know:

"… because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know." – Donald Rumsfeld

This quote captured my imagination. It identifies three different kinds of knowing from known knowns to unknown unknowns. Taking those three, I added a fourth to extrapolate a scale that combines the two redundant values:

1) Known Knowns – these are “facts” that we believe to be true.
2) Known Unknowns – these are concepts that we believe to exist, but do not know if they are true.
3) Unknown Knowns – this is my creation not referred to in the quote; these are concepts that were once understood but have been forgotten or discarded. It is a volitional practice where we ignore past “facts” that no longer serve us.
4) Unknown Unknowns – these are concepts that we don’t even believe to exist. This is true and profound ignorance.

Gravity is a known known. Physicists use gravity to sling satellites around our local solar system. The gravitational pull of a Black Hole is a Known Unknown as we are aware of Black Holes but cannot perform tests with them because of their vast distances from us. Unknown Knowns would be discarded concepts of the universe as found in Hindu Cosmology, while Unknown Unknowns would be our ignorance of other galaxies before the arrival of telescopes. The wonder of it all is that we can still function quite effectively despite not knowing.

While your blog serial spoke of knowledge’s cogitating and practical aspects, I think that this demonstrates a lack of acknowledgement of knowledge’s emotional aspect. In my sense of things, emotions are the Unknown Knowns that we are aware of but we tend to give little if any validity to.

(While this blog-letter will share little of the tone of your serial, I feel compelled to reply because your posts inspire me to think and contemplate. Please do not feel a need to reply if my response is too lateral or tangential for you, as my talk of emotions may not factor much in your realm of philosophical practice.)

Knowledge leads to Validation

In your conclusion, to possess knowledge is to possess a practice, which is substantially different than finding facts found on Wikipedia. The term ‘practice’ was initially curious to me, but as I thought about it, it made lots of sense. Your point is that knowledge and the act of knowing is very much a living thing that we carry around inside of ourselves.

This knowledge is always with us, its practice guides us in the things we do. It is like an internal compass, telling us where we are headed. This compass’s instant accessibility, just like the Wikipedia, becomes a part of our practice, something we refer to frequently. Such convenience naturally leads to an emotional attachment to it. This coupled with the centering quality of knowledge’s compass, leads me to conclude that knowledge is inherently validating to us on an emotional level.

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” ― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

I refer to Haidt’s proposition that the emotional knowing of intuition comes before strategic reasoning. We believe first through our emotional intuitive brain, and then rationalize it with our strategic brain. In my estimation, intuition and validation are closely related, they are two sides of the same emotional coin. Intuition means ‘immediate understanding’, while validation means ‘immediate recognition'; both being forms of knowing. So while we can agree that knowledge is a practice, I think that its attractiveness is due to its emotional immediacy.

Conviction from Emotional Immediacy

The emotional immediacy of knowledge tends to lead to the precarious stage of Conviction, which is the most powerful emotion of knowing. It is so powerful that it causes humans to act in political, religious, and social arenas with behaviors that can stun a rational or cautious person.

Most of us may have convictions. They can range from the mundane, to the altruistic, to the heinous. Hitler had conviction, as did Gandhi. If knowledge is like a compass, Conviction is like the engine that drives the “human vehicle” forward. When combined with a knowledge-compass of politics or religion, the power of Conviction can be a source of inspiration or destruction.

Hitler witnessed and interpreted events in his youth as being the workings of a vast Jewish conspiracy. Gandhi witnessed and interpreted events in his youth as the workings of British Imperialism. Both had remarkable impacts on the world. But our treatment of them is radically diverse, with almost universal condemnation of Hitler contrasting with the world wise praise given to Gandhi. Both acted according to their Convictions, so how can it be we know they or ourselves are doing the right thing?

By That Which We (In)Validate

Conviction is like possessing a magical power. We become so sure of what we know that we begin practicing the power of invalidating those things that we refuse to accept. We magically annihilate another opinion by believing it is fundamentally invalid. After all, why bother caring about another person’s opinion, feelings, lifestyle, or culture, if their position is not even valid.

This is the committing of the highest insult and offense possible, having recently witnessed this kind of behavior in the “Gamer Gate” brouhaha. The magical thinking of Conviction granted both sides the “justified true belief” to carry out their actions, leaving a devastated social landscape that has yet to recover.

Yet, I believe that that acceptance and validation of others (and ourselves) is the path to greater happiness. This is why Gandhi was right and Hitler was wrong. Gandhi never denied the validity of the British people, while Hitler did deny the validity of the Jews, Homosexuals, and others. It then becomes obvious why Gandhi is still widely regarded as a saint while Hitler is demonized.

The cautionary message here is: We must be careful about the things we choose to ‘know’! Carefulness asks us to practice a sensible doubt.

The Value of Doubt

To doubt is like applying a braking mechanism to slow down Conviction’s velocity. Balance is the key here, as I am not talking about self-doubt that leads to low self-esteem, but a noble doubt where one emotionally accepts that its okay to not know. We know that the unknowns exist, and accept that through patience and humility what we need to know will be revealed.

The patience found in Doubt invites us to see new facts and options, and provides the space to accept the validity of another position. The paradox of Doubt is that it invites us into a new layer of knowing because it is an emotional signal that tells us to slow down and take in new information.

(As an aside, the presence of doubt proves to me the existence of free will which could be the subject of another blog letter. The existence of doubt is generally avoided because it is uncomfortable. Doubt goes against our animal, Skinnarian desire for comfort and solidity. Being doubtful about what to do next actually invites possibility and choice).

So knowing the time to practice Conviction, and the time to practice Doubt, returns us back to your original point that knowledge is a practice.

Indeed it is. But a much more nuanced practice than we typically recognize.

Many thanks for your post and warm regards,

Chris

Note: the original of the blog-letter in the comment above appears here: https://docsurge.com/blog/2015/validation-conviction-and-doubt/

Dear Chris,
Many thanks for your blog-letter! I may respond in full, depending on my workload for July (which is not looking hopeful!) but two quick remarks straight away.

"I think that this demonstrates a lack of acknowledgement of knowledge’s emotional aspect."

This interests me, and doesn't undercut the concept of 'knowledge as a practice', it only enriches it by showing that there is an emotional content to all practices. I shall mull this, as I think I have much to say on this front!

"...noble doubt..."

Any Buddhist - and we both qualify! - recognises the nobility of doubt. I'd like to say that doubt, in itself, is a knowledge-practice - and a very difficult one to master!

Would like to reply in more depth, if my time allows.

With love and respect,

Chris.

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