Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Simple Definition of Knowledge?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 07, 2007

Responding to George Siemens's A Simple Definition of Knowledge. It is currently pending approval over there.

Um... no.

I don't want to be antagonistic, but this account is not satisfactory.

> information is a node which can be connected

So what, then, a neuron is information? No, that makes no sense - because then we would have the same information, unchanged, day in and day out, in our brains.

At the very least - information has to refer to a neural *state*. A nodal *state*. At its simplest, a neuron can be 'off' or 'on' (actual neurons have more complex states, of course). A given neural state might be a bit of information - a sequence of neural states or a collection of neural states 'information'.

Even then, we may want to rstrict our attention to certain states, and not all states. Taking an information-theoretic approach, for example (cf Dretske) we might want to limit our attention to neural states that are reflective of (caused by, representative of) states of affairs in the world. This is the distinction between 'signal' and 'noise'.

There's a lot more to be said here. because now we night want to say that the information isn't the actual state, but rather, it is the (description of, proposition describing, etc) state of affairs represented by the neural state. Because the actual neuron doesn't matter, does it? If we switched the current neuron out for a different one, it would still be the same infomration, wouldn't it?

> When connected, it becomes knowledge (i.e. it possesses some type of context and is situated in relation to other elements).

The traditional definition of knowledge is 'justified true belief'. There are many problems with that definition, but it does point to the fact that we think of 'knowledge' as being something broadly mental and propositional. Knowledge, in other words, is a macro phenomenon, like an entire set of connections, and not a micro phenomenon, like a single connection.

But there's also more at work here. Is knowledge the actual physical se of connections? Is it the pattern represented by the connections, that could be instantiated physically by any number of systems? Is it tantemount to the state of affairs that caused the set of connections to exist? Is the connective state representational? Referential?

Simply saying 'knowledge is a connection' answers none of these. It offers no account of the relation between the brain and the world, if any. It doesn't account for the relation between, say, 'knowledge' and 'belief'. I am sympathetic to the non-representational picture of knowledge suggested by the definition - but if knowledge is non-representational, then what is it? Saying that it's some physical thing, like a connection, is about as useful as saying that it is a brick.

> understanding is an emergent property of the network

Which means... what?

To put this bluntly: is understanding an epistemological state - that is, it it some kind of super-knowledge, perhaps context-aware knowledge? Kind of like wisdom?

Or is it a perceptual state? Is 'understanding' what it *feels* like to know?

Is *any* emergent property of a network an 'understanding'? We could imagine a digital video camera that records the 'face on Mars'. So we have some emergent property of the networks of sensors. Is this emergent property 'understanding'?

One would assume that there would be, at a minimum, some requirement of recognition. That is, it doesn't get to be 'understanding' unless it is 'recognized' as being the face of Jesus on Mars. But this means it's not just the emergent property - it's a relation between some emergent property and some perceptual system.

Additionally - there is not really a face of Jesus on Mars. It's just an illusion. Does it count as 'understanding' if it's an illusion, a mirage, or some other misperception? If not, what process distinguishes some recognitions of emergent properties from others?

I don't mean to be antagonistic here. I am sympathetic with the intent of this post. But it is so far from being an adequate account of these terms it was almost a duty, a responsibility, that I post this correction.

I understand that I owe an alternative account of these phenomena. I have attempted a beginning of such an account in my Connective Knowledge paper. But it si clear to me that I need to offer something that is both significantly clearer and significantly more detailed.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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