“To know that we know what we know,
and to know that we do not know what we do not know,
that is true knowledge.”
– Nicolaus Copernicus
In a world where access to knowledge is infinite, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we are more knowledgeable than we actually are. However, true knowledge consists of both what we know and what we do not know. Yet, it’s not always easy to draw a line in the sand between the two.
Knowledge is everywhere and we can easily drown in a sea of information if we are not careful. Just Google anything and your results will give you a never-ending list aimed towards the keywords you used, whether they are reliable or not. The internet has come to be the modern gatekeeper to what we know collectively as a species. I feel comfortable generalizing this since most books, journals, textbooks, etc. now appear in electronic form. We store facts and opinions, truth and lies, knowledge and wisdom – all at the convenience of our fingertips. The obstacle we face is sifting through the infinite amount of information available to us and identifying what is true.
Therefore, the problem isn’t necessarily in obtaining information, but rather in the interpretation of knowledge. We must find ways to interpret what we know and begin to ask whether what we know is actually what is true. One of my favorite physics professors always emphasized that the key to solving a difficult problem is by asking the right questions. We often see some of the greatest discoveries or breakthroughs starting with a few basic questions.
The right questions often begin by challenging a basic truth or set of rules that govern the world or even a society. History shows us that the common reaction to these questions is to disregard or even attack what they can uncover. We respond as if knowledge is some static concept that never needs questioning once acquired. It’s a reasonable reaction to struggle when someone challenges what we know, especially when regarding our belief systems or values. However, it’s in the struggle that we find the opportunity to dig deep into the ideas that define us.
As we are willing to welcome the struggle, we can embrace the reality that we still have so many unopened doors in our collective knowledge. Time moves on, things change, and new facets of the world are discovered; all impacting every aspect of what we think we know. Unfortunately, there is not some master key that opens all the doors to knowledge. Each door has its own special key that requires due diligence and the right mind to craft it.
This is often why the knowledge of a subject is obtained through the contribution of many different people. Each field, whether it’s science, philosophy, or religion, has its own heavy hitters. My field of study has been physics and astronomy so I can’t help but think of some of the major players, including Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Schrodinger. Each one of these people made enormous contributions that impact each of our lives, whether we realize it or not. From the insight to ask a good question to the geniusness to solve a complex problem, each of these discoveries affected the next and continue to influence the discoveries of today and tomorrow.
So it seems that knowledge is an evolving collection of what we know. However, knowing is not enough. Knowledge needs to be expressed or it will die as a thought. We have all heard the question, “If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer is yes, but it’s our knowledge of sound and causality that tells us this. Without knowledge and experience, we could not answer this question with certainty.
So, at what point can a thought become knowledge? It’s actually a long process and we as a civilization have created fairly well defined standards and procedures to denote what we know and don’t know. In science, we do this through publishings and peer-reviews, along with duplicating results, etc. We also see this in politics as the phrase “fact-checking” became a popular phrase in recent years. These are just two examples that demonstrate that knowledge is by no means restricted to the individual, but rather it is obtained when freely questioned within a group.
This absolutely does not answer the question of what knowledge is, but it’s a start. The meaning of knowledge cannot be constructed in a single blog post, nor should it. This is a question of the ages and I believe we have only grazed the surface.
This post is the first of a series on knowledge, aimed at developing a better understanding of what knowledge truly is. More importantly, we will wrestle with what to do with knowledge once we obtain it.
To do this, we will use Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to unpack the idea of knowledge and use of knowledge. My goal for us is to question and contemplate together, while trying to gain a better understanding of the concept of knowledge in the framework of our modern world and the Bible.