Monday, February 8, 2010

K is for Knowledge

(This post is long. I freely admit it. However, I have a theory about knowledge, and I would like to share it with you. It took me more words to compile my thoughts than I would have liked, but please bear with me.)

As the dictionary claims, knowledge is the “acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation.” But think about it. You learn a “fact” taught to you by an instructor or parent, and then store this in your mind as knowledge. But this fact isn’t necessarily knowledge of truth; it is merely a perceived knowledge of truth.

A child can know that storks deliver babies to the doorstep of moms and dads everywhere, but would you call that child knowledgeable? And so it is with all of us. Throughout our lives, we gain a database of knowledge (one that, in many cases, could be full of nonsense for all we know). And this database slowly formulates our perception of reality and the world around us. For better or worse.

Occasionally, we come across something that we know is true, not just in our mind, but in our soul (the discussion of how your “soul” knows something is true will be left for another day). For the sake of this post, we’ll call it certain knowledge. A mother’s love is a good example of this. You can know without doubt (mind and soul) that your mother loves you. You’re simply certain of it. And this certainty compels distinct behavior.

Now contrast this certain knowledge with my knowledge of the solar system. I’m pretty sure Earth is the third planet from the sun. There’s very good evidence in support of this fact; there are pictures and scientific data, etc. But I can’t say that I have ever cared enough about the numerical order of the planets to obtain certain knowledge on the subject. If a war broke out over the numerical order of the planets, I wouldn’t be compelled to join the fight (this is a stupid example—I know—but just go with it). However, if a war broke out that put my mother at risk, I would fight without giving it a second thought. I would even give my life to fight for the cause. Why? Because I have certain knowledge of my mother’s love, and that has truly changed my behavior. Certain knowledge is different from regular knowledge. It is what compels somebody to belong to a specific religion, for example.

I have a theory about the accumulation of certain knowledge we attain in our lives. As I explained in the last paragraph, and as I’m sure you’ve seen before, people will do anything because of certain knowledge they have. But what if their certain knowledge leads them to do things that are obviously in conflict with reality or truth? Take radical Islamist terrorists circa 2001. How did they become so convinced that God wanted them to kill innocent civilians that they learned how to fly a plane, and then hijacked a plane and flew it into an enormous building? I mean, I don’t want to offend any terrorists reading this blog, but they were wrong. I’m certain of it. (Uh oh, here’s where knowledge get’s confusing; two people knowing two things that completely contradict each other.)

Well, here’s my theory. I think because those terrorists clustered certain knowledge they acquired legitimately with other less-worthy bits of knowledge, their overall understanding was diverted to a reality that is far from correct. This clustering effect, I believe, can explain a lot of people’s beliefs and also their perception of what they know. In the case of the terrorists, I believe that they were taught actual truths, but at the same time they were taught those truths—and acquired certain knowledge of those truths—they were also taught erroneous facts (things like, “Christians are heathens worthy of extermination”). And both the actual truth and the fabricated truth came together into a type of knowledge stew.

For example, let’s say someone was taught as a kid that you should be kind to others. This is an absolute truth: You should be kind to others. Let’s also say that same person gained certain knowledge that this is true. Okay, now let’s say that when that person was taught the principle of kindness, they were also taught that the color pink is evil. (Again, this is a stupid example, but I feel I have to use stupid examples since every real example will likely be disagreed upon; and since nobody questions the virtue of the color pink, here we are). I believe that this person would then cluster these too things together, the virtue of kindness and the vice of pink.

Can you see the danger here? Their knowledge is now off-base, and yet they are likely certain that it is not. They could, of course, through study and experience, learn that there is nothing wrong with the color pink. But since they have false certainty of its evil, it will be difficult for them to come to this realization. And once your knowledge becomes off track, it is very easy for it to dissent farther and farther into nonsensical oblivion (ie. Islamic terrorists). Can you imagine what would happen if this person went to a fundraiser supporting the fight against breast cancer? (“Look at all these evil pink ribbons! I’m in hell!”) Before long, they would think breast cancer was evil (and in turn anyone who has breast cancer). It is then possible that when they finally realized the color pink is harmless, and that those who have breast cancer are innocent, they would assume that kindness really isn’t that important at all. Because one part of the knowledge stew turned out to be foul, the whole was assumed foul. Seeing the danger yet? The clustering effect can both prop up false knowledge and take down actual knowledge. While it is frankly silly in the case of the pink hater, it is utterly destructive in the case of the terrorist.

I really hope this makes sense. I believe this clustering effect takes place all the time. It happens in churches, homes, and schools every day. It penetrates every society, in every country, on every third planet. It is, in my opinion, a major reason why we as a human race never agree upon what is correct knowledge. It is imperative that we always be careful when we gain knowledge, to compartmentalize what we learn and not assume everything we hear is true.

What is my point? Well, for one, I have been formulating this theory for a few years now, but have never written about it. For another thing, I want to prepare you for my next entry. Because my next entry is going to question something you have always known to be true; something that I believe was wrongfully clustered into your database of certain knowledge. Consider yourself warned. For now, thank you for reading my words. I hope you have gained knowledge today, and that the knowledge you have gained has more weight to it than the idea that pink is an evil color (although, for all I know it could be evil).


Today’s Recommendation: Check out the band Fleet Foxes. Their music is like medieval indie folk, whatever that means. I especially enjoy their song “Mykonos.”


  1. I like your clustering idea. I'd never thought of learning/knowledge in those terms.

    But what should I do if I do indeed question the virtue of the color pink?

  2. I love the way you think and write. Thanks for dedicating so much time to sharing your ideas with others. I adore you.

  3. Finally a minute to comment- I enjoyed Fleet Foxes