Wednesday, 2 December 2009

On Knowing

When we refer to knowing something, we usually mean know-how and know-what. These are knowledge that get things done. Let's taking cooking curry as an example. The know-how is the recipe, the method of preparation, the know-what is the knowledge of the right combination of different types of spices to make the dish.

However, there are some useful know-x too. If I know someone who can make a good curry, I can ask. That is a know-who. If I know somewhere I can find good curry, I can go there and get what I want. That's know-where. Both of these (know-who and know-where) is a step "further" from the actual knowledge of making the curry. But it achieves the same objective - a good curry meal.

Talking about one-step from achieving my objective, there is a know-how2. If I know how to find the recipe, I can still get the recipe and make my curry. Here I am calling know-how2. There is an equivalent know-what2. Instead of combining the spices myself, I can get a curry powder - someone with the first know-what has used that knowledge to make the curry powder so that I don't need that original knowledge to achieve the aim. So if I know a good brand of curry powder (that's know-what2), I can also achieve my objective.

Let me elaborate a bit to drive home one message I would like to make in this post.

To cook the curry meal, I will need a pot, a stove, the actual ingredients themselves. There are specific knowledge embedded in the making of the pot, the stove, growing the spices and so on. In the example above, they were assumed and were not the focus of the path to make a curry meal.

In other words, we are now living in a highly entangled web of knowledge, many of these are assumed. If we go back to the "basic", we need to go back to the age when fire was first discovered, or even earlier. The environment we are living today has all the accumulated knowledge ever discovered by human.

As an individual, a pre-school child walking into a kindergarten already knows quite a bit of things. The only really "blank slate" is very likely the moment when the sperm enters the egg. From that fertilisation moment onwards, the baby is developed under the influence of the social environment we are born, initially via the food the mother is eating (which is obviously socially bound) to later the first sound a baby hear (still in mother's belly!) ...

In the brief discussion above, I have left out know-why. The development of theory, scientific theory is what I have in mind now, enables us to "explain" thing and hence to predict thing. When we ask the question why apples fall down, we answer with the theory of gravity. However, the theory of gravity itself is a generalisation of many carefully done observations of things falling towards the earth. The fact that this particular apple falls is (1) an evidence supporting the theory of gravity and (2) can be "explained" by the theory.

Another way of putting this. "Why x?" is equivalent to "do you know a generalisation (theory) of which x is an evidence".

Hence, for learning, if the focus was to solve a problem directly, one needs to know-why to find a theory and hence apply, or have know-how and/or know-what. If that's knowledge is not readily available, the next step would be to draw on know-who, know-where, know-how2 and/or know-what2. That said, a lot of the knowledge is in the community (all human experience combined).

We are in an exciting time. We are beginning to see knowledge moving from human into machine. But that's for another post.

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