Monday, April 19, 2010

What We All Know

With every passing second, people around the globe--like an army of mindless brooms directed by an invisible 21st Century Sorcerer's Apprentice--are using the new tools of technology to add, bit-by-byte, billions and billions of buckets of information to the ever-growing pile of human knowledge.

How big can the pile get? Is there a limit to this knowledge, or is it infinite?

Before we jump to the obvious conclusion--that no matter how large, the number is still finite--I think it's worth thinking about our old friend Zeno and the space-time paradox that we live as 'everyday reality.'

In other words, is it enough to know that information must be finite to conclude that knowledge has a limit as well?

This may seem like a question of semantics, but it's more than a neat juxtaposition of terms. Though they overlap to the point where they seem congruent to the casual eye, information and knowledge are not necessarily the same thing, and the difference is not trivial.

Making the distinction is important, I think, because while the gathering of information has expanded at at exponential pace throughout human history, the synthetic process of creating human knowledge--which is also expanding with mind-bending rapidity--is not accelerating at anywhere near the same rate.

Large though it may be, the amount of information is necessarily finite. The expansion of human knowledge, on the other hand, like Zeno's arrow, will never find a boundary.

Consider for a moment only a very narrow set of knowledge. What do we all know? We define knowledge so broadly that sometimes we give it a credibility that is at the very least unnecessary and at worst, most likely disproportionate to it's intrinsic importance.

So, while it's a given that something needs be "known" by only one person in history to be considered knowledge, it should also stand to reason that consequentially, most knowledge is thus simultaneously local. Most knowledge is consistently lost to all but a handful of humans over time and through space.

But what of things that are known universally, by all humans, in all places and at all times?

First of all, are there such things? Are there certain things that "we all know"? Indeed, are there even certain things that we all learn?

Well, we all know--even infants--that we must eat to live. We are born hungry, and every day, every human, no matter how well fed--experiences hunger and thirst. We all know--even infants and the insane--that to fall from a great height is to risk death, or that to touch fire is to risk getting burned.

The list may be a long one, but there are indeed things that "we all know".

There are nuances, of course--like the fact that we all know that being hungry is not the same as starving to death, or that falling into hay--even from a large distance--is consequentially different than falling a short distance onto rock. Oh, and we all "know" from experience--not necessarily from being told--that the heat from a stove is not so obviously dangerous as fire itself.

These are minor and relatively inconsequential distinctions however. These are imaginary artifices, divisions that we make between the basic bits of information and the basic webs of knowledge that those bits form inside our brains.

And, are those distinctions really important? Are webs of knowledge, like the bits of information that form them, finite or infinite? If we were to make a list, say, of "the things everybody knows" would the list ever even have a final item?

I "know" that the mathematicians have an answer for this question. I am not inclined to agree with them, if only because I also "know" that--despite our calculations--the arrow never really reaches the target. It just looks that way.

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