The Burden of Knowledge

Alessandro van den Berg
Jan 2 · 12 min read

One of the main epistemological questions that various thinkers have tried to answer is ‘what does it mean to know?’. The German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher is one of those (relatively recent) thinkers who criticized the long-established answer to that question in his 2003 book Epistemology: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Here, Rescher suggests that we first have to get rid of the notion that it’s sufficient to call something knowledge if it rests on the traditional tripartite analyses which contain three requirements for it to be categorized as knowledge — more widely known as true justified belief — because it is seen as “an oversimplification to say the knowledge involves belief.”

Rescher explains that idea by stating that knowledge should not be confirmed because it happens to be true. Rather, knowledge should be justified in a proper and appropriate way. For instance, let’s say you were locked up inside a closet during the whole month of December, and someone requested that you to state the weather forecast. You have a justified true belief for it to be raining in December, so that’s the answer that you are willing to give. When it happens to be actually raining we can’t classify your answer as knowledge. A hunch won’t do it in this case. Having a commitment towards the truth of a particular fact or answer does not equal you knowing it to be true because it was luck that caused you to be right. This idea has previously been introduced by the American philosopher Edmund Gettier in his 1963 essay “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”. Gettier lays out cases whereby he concludes that mere true beliefs that are justified do not amount to knowledge itself, but can simply be a victim of luck. These and cases alike are now eminently known as Gettier Cases.

When we finally get to our compiled knowledge — whether you agree with Rescher and Gettier — it doesn’t get any less difficult. Maybe, we can agree that a great deal of our ‘preferred’ knowledge is related to our interests. To continue our epistemological journey, I would add a follow-up question: what does it mean to hold an abundance of knowledge, regarding a specific subject? This still may include Jack’s of all traits and polymaths, as long as the knowledge they have is substantively large regarding specific subjects.

When engaging in a high degree with a certain subject, activity, or in some cases, an object, it is often described as a ‘hobby’. We adhere to our value hierarchies when we perceive a certain value to be more worthy than others. That’s why we devote time to this value. Determining where these values/interests are manifested — whether it is out of our genes or the influence of the environment — is not easy. Some scientists believe there to be a so-called ‘Hobby-Gene’, while others dismiss the idea that we inherit our interests.

Meanwhile, other scientists, like the assistant professor of psychology Paul O’Keefe at Yale-NUS College, address the issue with believing the origin of interest to be innate. O’Keefe suggests in a 2018 study what the effect could be if we determine whether our interests are innate/fixed or should be developed. Here, O’Keefe makes the distinction between the fixed theory of interest and the growth theory of interest. The former referring to our belief that the interest that we hold are innate, while the latter indicates that our interests have to be cultivated. Together with his colleagues, O’Keefe raises the general problem with regard to the fixed theory of interest: “Whether assessed or experimentally induced, a fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests.”That is, we close ourselves off from other fields of interest when we stick to our belief that interests are not to be cultivated but are already settled.

Another cause might be the genotype-environment correlation theory in personality psychology, for instance, which suggests that a passive correlation would mean that parents indirectly cause a relation with the genotype of their kids and the environment. This signifies that the parents will arrange an environment soothable to their genotype, without taking into account their kids genotype. For example, parents that like reading a lot of books will, because of this interest, create an environment that complements this interest. Their kids’ genotype does not play any factor in the arrangement of their environment, but because of the exposure with that environment, the kids will come into contact with their parents’ interest and possibly develop a similar one as a consequence of the interaction with the environment and their genotype. These various theories may suggest where our interests come from and how the knowledge that’s associated with our interests is gathered.

In what follows, I would like to make the case that the utilization of (absolute) knowledge should not be repeatedly seen as a powerplay. Furthermore, I chose to make a distinction between a few types of knowledge that are related to our interests and the interests of neurodivergents (meta-interest).

Scientia Potentia est

We’ve all heard the idiom ‘Knowledge is Power’. It (presumably) originates from Sir Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, and ‘founding father of empiricism’. The aphorism suggests that those individuals that possess certain knowledge have an advantage over those who lack it. What the actual advantage is, is mostly unsettled. If we go by the postmodern principle that (absolute) knowledge is a product of certain political or historical inequalities and hierarchies, we can eventually determine that everyone who claims to ‘own’ knowledge has tyrannical intent behind using it. If we use the postmodern argument, it’s only fair to bring the Fresh philosopher Michel Foucault into it as well. In his book, Truth and Power, for example, Foucault states his belief regarding (objective) truth and how he saw it projected on modern society:

In societies like ours, the ‘political economy’ of truth is characterized by five important traits. ‘Truth’ is centered on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic production as for political power); it is the object, under diverse forms, of immense diffusion and consumption (circulating through apparatuses of education and information whose extent is relatively broad in the social body, notwithstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media); lastly, it is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation (‘ideological’ struggles).

Foucault was (like the postmodernists) no fan of objective truths. He perceived them to be a feature of the tyrannical hierarchies within society. By removing (objective) truth from society, we equally can come to the conclusion that we can get rid of knowledge. The argumentation that underlies this decision is based on Rescher’s Veracity Principle. This principle states that for knowledge to be knowledge, it has to be accepted as true. Truth is, in this case, a precondition for knowledge to be accepted as ‘the real deal’. Conclusion, to accept it, it implies someone has to “espouse and endorse it, to give it credence, to view it as an established fact, to take it to be able to serve as a (true) premiss in one’s thinking and as a suitable basis for one’s actions.”

Call me naive, but what if power refers to academic power; suggesting that the more knowledge you acquire — and are able to acquire — the more academic success you’ll achieve, the more sophisticated your argumentation will be, the better of a teacher you’ll become, etc. A kind of power that is largely inwardly expressed and satisfied. By this I mean, your advantage that we discussed at the beginning, rather than it being expressed in a dominating way, we experience satisfaction from gathering a big set of knowledge. In contrast to the postmodern rejection of knowledge, the argument for academic power would entail an overall desire for knowledge. This argument refers to Plato’s desire for knowledge/learning which I will lay out in a moment when we discuss the concept of the Meta-interest.

The Meta-Interest

In book VII of Plato’s The Republic the ignorance towards knowledge gets pointed out in The Allegory of the Cave. The story goes that there are cavemen shackled since birth with their necks and legs inside a subterranean cavern, unable to move. Behind them burns a fire, which they can’t see, that projects shadows of different people, animals, and objects on the wall they can see. The prisoners believe these projections to be portraying reality: “Then in every such way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.”

Suddenly, one of the men is freed and is able to walk out of the cave towards the sunlight. Because of this new experience, the caveman’s eyes hurt from the sunlight and he is tempted to go back inside where he saw objects more clearly as shadows. Despite it, he figures eventually that these people, animals, and objects outside the cave are the source of the projections they saw inside. When he goes back inside to convince the other prisoners of what he had experienced, his eyes are not accustomed to the intense darkness. This results in his previously fellow prisoners to laugh at him and mock the idea of leaving the cavern because seemingly it only results in bad eyesight.

For when you are comfortable in your own ignorance, it gives you a reason for labeling the individual dangerous when he/she brings (valuable) information. This is where the burden of knowledge lies. The prisoner that gets out of the cave and eventually comes back to ‘educate’ the remaining prisoners can be seen as the teacher/the one who holds the knowledge for eventual distribution. For Plato, the primary function of education is not the distribution of truths and knowledge, but even more importantly, to “dispose us towards the truth.”

This all together — the lack of T.O.M. and the defense mechanism — results in an individual that keeps dispensing information regarding his field of interest, without taking into consideration the needs and interests of others.

Recently (late November) I published an article on MerionWest, where I argued about the effect of rules surrounding political correct speech on a person with a form of autism. Further, I briefly introduced the concept of a meta-interest. For the sake of argument, I will repeat this introduction and eventually build on this concept. Often, people with a form of autism have an obsession with a certain subject of interest. It has been proven that the intensity by which they exercise their interest is many times greater than with someone without autism. The meta-interest also has a fundamental function: a defense mechanism against anxiety-provoking situations. Many who hold such a special interest confirm the soothable result of engaging with their interests.

As I’ve stated in my essay, the regulation of the distribution of knowledge is rather difficult for the ‘owner’ of a meta-interest — someone with a form of autism. The reason for this lies in the inadequacy of an underlying mechanism — the Theory of Mind — that makes it difficult for someone with autism to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This all together — the lack of T.O.M. and the defense mechanism — results in an individual that keeps dispensing information regarding his field of interest, without taking into consideration the needs and interests of others.

Disregarding the importance of the shared information, the owner of a meta-interest becomes the cavemen that continuously wants to educate his fellow cavemen. Not only the ignorance of the uneducated cavemen but also the way the information is projected on them gives them the justification to characterize the “Enlightened individual” as unfavorable. Plato still believed that the ignorance of the cavemen did not suggest their incapability of learning, but rather an absence of desire to learn. When this ignorance is overcome, Rescher points out that the beneficial side of knowledge sees the light of day:

For sure, knowledge brings great benefits. The relief of ignorance is foremost among them. We have evolved within nature into the ecological niche of an intelligent being. In consequence, the need for understanding, for “knowing one’s way about,” is one of the most fundamental demands of the human condition.

A problem arises when we discuss the extent to which the distributed knowledge is significant to others. It’s self-evident that the significance of knowledge is often subjective. For example, if an individual knows a great deal about dolphins (e.g. it’s diet, different species, their physical and mental abilities), he/she will probably have a harder time finding a (continuous) audience and usage for their information in a room full accountants than in the nearest SeaWorld. The practicality of your known facts is not only dependent on the environment where you distribute them but likewise, should we look at the distinction between the types of knowledge.

Types of Knowledge

Discussing all the possible forms of knowledge in existence would frankly be inefficient, unnecessary, and presumably dull. The types of knowledge that are of importance regarding the previous argument — the meta-interest — are declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge. These types are often associated with the concept of metacognitionto plan, strategize and reflect on your cognitive performance and processes. By using our earlier example of the ‘dolphin obsession’, we may illustrate the different types of knowledge.

We’ve already stated that for knowledge to be significant, it partially rests on the concept of subjectivity. Furthermore, for it to be practical, we rely on the environment (SeaWorld) and the choice of knowledge. Declarative knowledge, for example, would suggest the individual telling us that dolphins are intensely social mammals — factual information. Research shows that the interests of people with autism are increasingly more fixated on facts instead of subjective experiences.

When we proceed with procedural knowledge, we see that the individual will, for example, hold a mental instruction about how to correctly nourish an Araguaian river dolphin. This tells us that procedural knowledge revers to instructions about a certain task. The same study that showed how the interests of people with autism are more factually oriented, states that the interest of people without autism are often more sports-oriented. Another study suggests that the experience of those who exercise a certain sport has a positive correlation with the amount of procedural knowledge. We may presume that the meta-interest more often than not, will run on declarative knowledge, rather than procedural knowledge.

Lastly, we turn to conditional knowledge. Conditional knowledge gives an indication of when to (or when not to) use a particular type of knowledge — declarative or procedural. This type of knowledge plays somewhat in the hands of the so-called ‘Curse of Knowledge’ — or at least a variation of it. Let’s first lay out the definition of this cognitive bias before we present its alteration. The Curse of Knowledge refers to the phenomena that the knowledge that we gathered becomes obvious: you forget the time you weren’t yet aware of that particular knowledge, so you rest on the assumption that others presumably know it as well. The Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has propagated this bias as one of the primary causes of bad writing.

With this in mind, I would like to introduce the Curse of Interest. As previously stated, those who hold a meta-interest often have a hard time regulating to who they dispense their knowledge. They regularly assume that everyone finds it equally interesting as they do. Comparable to these cognitive biases is another psychological theory by the name of The False-Consensus effect. This theory suggests that we overestimate the number of people that share our own believes and opinions. All these biases have (at least) one effect in common: the belief that others share a part with us.

Conclusion

Of course, we should be careful about dismissing the entire idea of arrogance — or possibly the act of gaining an advantage over another — that may result from acquiring an abundance of knowledge. But this is often not the case with people on the spectrum. Rather the contrary. They generally miss out on a lot of general knowledge, because of their fixation on a specific subject: “If someone mastered one subject” writes Friedrich Nietzsche in Human, All too Human, “it usually has made him a complete amateur in most other subjects. “This may be a reason for others to take advantage of people with autism.

That’s not to say that only people who fall within the autism spectrum are struggling with the distribution of their knowledge. But the atypical connection that people with autism have with their interest makes it essential for the interactions that they experience. Even if we could teach people with autism certain aspects of conditional knowledge, — when to utilize your declarative knowledge — it’s still the case that their meta-interest holds a crucial defense mechanism.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t imply that we should radically change the way we accept someone’s meta-interest. This implies that those that utter their knowledge which is related to their meta-interest, shouldn’t — and can’t — rely on others to be continually listening when they are not interested. Contrarily, unintentionally playing on someone’s ignorance on a continual base by sending unrequested information about a specific subject is the primary result of the Curse of Interest

The question must be whether we should consider (objective) knowledge/truths an invariable product of the dominating structures in society, like the postmodernists would suggest. The gratification that we gain from knowledge in general, must be rooted in different places. That is, domination over others can be one of those incentives to pursue the accumulation of knowledge in a certain area, but not the sole one. If we do settle on the postmodernist’ conclusion by acknowledging that knowledge holds a malevolent element, — eventually being axiomatic — those who lack these intentions will come to see knowledge itself as a burden.

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