Sunday, February 03, 2008

Knowledge and Experience

I’ve argued in an earlier post that knowledge is information that has a use-value. The importance of truth to knowledge is whether that knowledge is reasonably reliable – in which case it can be described as true.

What is the source of knowledge?

Traditionally, there are several sources:

• Authority
• Revelation
• Intuition
• Personal experience
• Inductive reasoning
• Deductive reasoning
• Instinct
• Science

Knowledge by Authority

Authority is knowledge passed down from an individual or institution. This sort of knowledge is best used as a sort of rule of thumb for decision-making in areas in which the decision-maker has no direct experience or other heuristics to draw upon.

The problem with authority as a source of knowledge is that it may be unreliable. Authorities have their own agendas to promote, and may not always have based their own authority upon solid ground.

The most reliable authorities have based their knowledge on their own experience or the experience of the institutions they represent. There is nothing wrong with respecting authority if that authority is deserved, especially if that authority has provided valuable and reliable knowledge in the past.

We could not possibly be expected to know the law, medicine, physics, plumbing, or any other area of expertise without extensive training and personal experience. Therefore it is reasonable to respect an opinion in these areas from an accredited practitioner as a guide to correct action.

It goes without saying, however, that some forms of authority cloak vested interests, and may therefore be valid only insofar as they support those interests. Religious authority, corporate authority, or political authority are especially suspect, since they may offer only partial truths while ignoring most of what might undermine their agenda.

My point here is only that knowledge by authority is based on experience – not personal experience, but the experience of the authority themselves.

Knowledge by Revelation

One common meaning of revelation is truth “revealed” by the divine. Typically this truth is revealed to an individual.

There is no doubt that an individual can achieve a truth through a sudden epiphany or blinding insight. Whether this insight is valid remains to be proven in practice, and whether or not it is of divine origin may never be provable.

Revelation is an intensely subjective experience and almost by definition is neither repeatable nor verifiable. This makes it a rather unreliable guide to action and a weak base of knowledge.

Knowledge by Intuition

Intuition is often regarded as “gut sense”, an insight gained on a non-intellectual level for which there appears to be no rational justification. But as Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink made clear, intuition is in fact a very rapid calculation made on an unconscious level, but based on genuine observation and often very sound mental and emotional reasoning.

One may feel as if one knows something by intuition alone, based on nothing more than a vague “feeling”, but dig a little deeper and intuition proves itself to be a device for rapid pattern recognition at a pace faster than can the mind can follow.

All pattern recognition is based on past experience of that pattern. If we take Jeff Hawkins’ work On Intelligence, all intelligence is not more than the ability to predict based on pattern recognition. In other words, all intelligence is based on experience.

Knowledge by Personal Experience

Knowledge by personal experience is obviously valid if it works for you. But it goes without saying that just because something works for you doesn’t mean it will work for others, and just because it works for you doesn’t mean that it is the best way to do things. Knowledge by personal experience is most valuable if confirmed by the experience of others.

Knowledge by Inductive or Deductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is the process of generalizing based on specifics. For example, every duck I have ever seen can swim; I can therefore induce that all ducks can swim. Deductive reasoning moves from the general to the specific. For example, I know that all beetles are insects and therefore by definition they have six legs. Therefore I can assume that all beetles in Uruguay have six legs, even though I have never been to Uruguay.

Both types of knowledge are obviously based on experience.

Knowledge by Instinct

Instinct is not typically seen as a form of knowledge, but as I have argued in an earlier post, what we call instinct is the summary of the experience of the previous generations of our species, as recorded in our genetic materials.

Knowledge by Science

Science is knowledge obtained through the scientific method. The scientific method is nothing more than the systematic and thorough testing of a hypothesis through experience.

The word “experiment” shares the same root as the word “experience” – the Latin “ex”, meaning “out of”, and “peritus”, meaning “testing”. Experience is knowledge gained through repeated trial.

An experiment is an attempt to create or recreate a certain type of experience through systematic observation and analysis. The purpose of the scientific method is to discover or confirm a repeatable and verifiable outcome of a set of identifiable conditions.

The scientific method, therefore can be regarded as nothing more than the systematic confirmation of experience.