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You touch a hot stove. The nerves in your fingers send frantic messages screaming up your nervous system, travelling first through your arm then up through your neck. Your brain registers and processes the signal, then sends a reflex hurtling back to the rest of the body. Muscles in your arm contract and release, yanking your hand out of danger. Total time elapsed: a fraction of a second.
Communication is the essence of knowledge. We as humans communicate in many different ways, from text and speech to more basic systems such as body language. The initial communication, the first, most vital step in the hierarchy of information transfer, is none of these. Before text, speech, or body language is the human brain’s communication with the environment surrounding it. The stove is hot, the counter is smooth, the knife is sharp; all of these properties are recorded by our sensory organs. Our eyes, ears, nose, hands, and mouth all pick up information that is transmitted to the brain for processing. This is the initial communication, better described as the first and most basic transmission of information for all humans. Without this, it is impossible for humans to posses sensory information.
Note the careful use of vocabulary in the previous paragraph. There is a very important distinction between information and knowledge, and it would be folly to use the two interchangeably. To better explain what knowledge is (or at least my interpretation of it), I have prepared a logical argument that I will be going over piece by piece.
if information is a collection of facts provided or learned about something or someone;
and communication is the imparting or exchanging of information;
and an entity is a thing with distinct and independent existence;
and a conscious being is an entity that maintains self-awareness, responds to stimuli, and acquires information;
then knowledge is the communication of information where at least one of the communicating entities is a conscious being.
This argument is a list of definitions, starting by defining important terms and ending with a declaration of the essence of knowledge. To enable understanding, I’ve broken the argument down into bite-sized pieces for each individual statement.
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Definition #1: Information
information is a collection of facts provided or learned about something or someone;
The different uses of the word information cause issues when attempting to define it. An article by Luciano Floridi quotes philosopher Claude Shannon that “the word ‘information’ has been given different meanings by various writers in the general field of information theory.” Essentially, the word can be used to represent multiple distinct philosophical objects. For clarity and simplification, I have whittled down the definition of information to a manageable size.
Information is, quite simply, facts. A piece of information is a property or attribute of the object which it references. For example, sharp is a property of a knife whereas dull is a property of a spoon. Information exists independently of language. To return to logic, although the statement (words) may be different the proposition (essence) remains the same. I would extend this to argue that information can also exist without the need for consciousness. To put it simply, if a tree fell in the forest it would make a sound regardless of whether anybody was around to hear it. This may clash with the unprovability of anything outside our own minds, but that’s a different argument in itself.
Definition #2: Communication
communication is the imparting or exchanging of information;
Drawing upon our definition of information, defining communication brings us closer to our final definition of knowledge itself. Communication is the transmission of facts, except that the original information is copied instead of moved. For example, if I read from a textbook that the sky is blue, the textbook still has that information after I read it.
To further break down the definition of communication, it is necessary to regard the two verbs used in the above definition. The exchange of information is a two way path; I tell you something, you tell me something. A basic example of this would be a conversation. On the other hand, the imparting of information is a one-way transfer. An example of this would be reading a book, where you receive information but send none back.
Another important method of imparting information is somewhat less obvious. Unlike a book, the environment around us does not always have facts displayed in written format. Despite this, humans still manage to acquire information from the natural world. How this happens can be thought of in two different ways: either humans take information from concrete objects, or concrete objects give information to humans. Whichever one is true is irrelevant for this definition, because either way it is a one way transfer of information from the environment to humans.
Definition #3: Entity
an entity is a thing with distinct and independent existence;
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An entity, quite simply is something that exists. Whether physical, mental, concrete, or abstract, an entity is something. Almost synonymous to “thing”, the word entity is simply used to describe the independence of some type of object. This term was mostly included in the argument to provide clarity for the definition of a conscious being.
Definition #4: Conscious Being
a conscious being is an entity that maintains self-awareness, responds to stimuli, and acquires information;
Defining consciousness remains an enormous issues for philosophers, scientists, and psychologists alike. Simply put, no-one can agree what is is. Nonetheless, for brevity’s sake I have created a simplified definition of a conscious being that is satisfactory for the scope of my argument.
The first quality of a conscious being is that it maintains self-awareness. In other words, it knows that is exists and is distinctly separate from other entities. Human are organisms that exhibit this quality, though primates and other animals may also posses complete of incomplete versions of self-awareness. The importance of this quality is that it separates humans from computers and other entities that may have the other two required properties.
The second quality of a conscious being is that it responds to stimuli. Philosopher Rubert Van Gulick restates this as “[a creature] capable of sensing and responding to its world”. This means that a conscious being changes, and perhaps adapts to differing environments and situations. Many non-conscious beings also exhibit this trait, but it is still an important attribute for a conscious being to have.
The third quality of a conscious being is that it acquires information. This quality is almost included in the previous property, but is still an important distinction for a conscious being. Something that is conscious must be able to use some form of sensory system to acquire and possess knowledge, whether from their physical environment or from elsewhere.
knowledge is the communication of information where at least one of the communicating entities is a conscious being.
The key of this statement is that one of the communicating entities must be a conscious being. This is what separates information from knowledge. If two computers are exchanging data, they are transferring information. It can be though of like this:
information is the basic facts, whereas;
knowledge is information filtered through consciousness
Because of this, knowledge cannot exist independently of a conscious being. Just like how information depends on concrete objects, knowledge depends on consciousness. Information is always true or false, right or wrong, but because of its dependency on consciousness knowledge is slightly more nuanced. Issues such as belief and justified belief come into effect, demonstrating how knowledge is influenced by the mind that contains it.
What this tells us about knowledge is that it is the humanization of information. Information is objective, but knowledge is the opposite. Just like humans, information is more complex than simply being true or false. Knowledge’s subjectivity could be considered the root of all human conflict. For if there was no knowledge, just unbiased information, wouldn’t that make everything so much simpler?
Floridi, Luciano, “Semantic Conceptions of Information”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/information-semantic/>.
Van Gulick, Robert, “Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/consciousness/>.