The Basics Series: 4. Knowledge

As you have been reading through the articles of this series, you have been acquiring knowledge about some of the more basic truths of the nature of our existence. Well, kind of. I say that because as you read these articles you may be learning something new, or reading something you have read or heard about before, but are you retaining it? Is retention of information a part of knowledge? We’ve already covered the concepts of “knowing” or “knowing about” but what is knowledge itself? If any of us were to sit down and think on this idea, we might come to a point of being challenged to really put our finger on it. The subject of knowledge and what it is comprised of is often taken for granted, or just simply not ever considered. So, let us take a look at the good ol’ dictionary again to give us a starting point in our pursuit of gaining knowledge about…well, knowledge:

  1. The fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association; acquaintance with or understanding of a science, art, or technique.
  2. The fact or condition of being aware of something. The range of one’s information or understanding.
  3. The circumstance or condition of apprehending truth or fact through reasoning.
  4. The fact or condition of having information or being learned.
  5. The sum of what is known; the body of truth, information, and principles acquired by humankind.

That helps…to some degree. As always, it is important to relate the term to the context of what is being discussed. We are looking for what is accepted about knowledge at a properly basic level. That is to say, what are the “first principles” about knowledge that are accepted as being true without further justification. When I say that, I mean that to attempt to justify it is simply to talk about the idea itself in greater detail. We can’t really provide reasoning for “why” we believe it to be that way, it just simply is. We call it what it is…well, because that is what it is! I can explain the features and characteristics of it as the ‘explanation of it’, but that’s really about it. So, let us go through that process with knowledge.

Knowledge is itself the body of information that is stored in our memory as gained through experience and reasoning about some subject (or more). Many of the definitions provided leave out the understanding of knowledge being what is present in our mind and that we can recall from memory to put it to use in some way. It is information in that when our bodies’ senses are stimulated, that data is sent to our brain where our mind is able to organize the data into information which our spirit can then utilize for various purposes. It is important to note the significance of retention to knowledge as well. We can refer to “knowledge” like an object, where someone tells us about some interesting subject and we might respond, “Thanks for giving me that knowledge” (usually used sarcastically). Whether the knowledge is stored in our memory for the long term, or for the short, it is when it is retained as information in our memory that it becomes knowledge. If it is not retained, we can call it information, and some might still call it knowledge. At least, in how we are talking about the idea here, knowledge is what is retained. What is also unique, is that there are different types of knowledge. Let us review these.

  1. Head Knowledge (knowledge gained through study and teaching that is stored in memory about some subject, “I know basic mathematics”).
  2. Practical Knowledge (knowledge gained through some physical activity connected to the information, like a skill or talent, “I know how to use math.” The knowledge of the skill itself stored in memory).
  3. Experiential Knowledge (knowledge gained through the experience of some event or repetition of some reality, “I know that I got that math problem wrong”, it is the experience of getting it wrong that is stored in memory).

Now, before we go into our discussion regarding these three different types of knowledge, please be sure to remember the previous articles in this series. There is much contained in the articles on Reality, Worlds, and Humanity that are important to consider when reading through all of this. As mentioned previously, all properly basic or first principles mutually support each other. As they come together, there is a logical coherence between them that allow them to form a framework within which all of our understanding can come to existence. Without that coherence and correspondence to reality, then our ability to understand what anything means would fall apart.

This is why the subject of knowledge is so important as our ability to grasp and understand things comes from the knowledge we have gained, whether about true things or false things. The knowledge we have of this framework (often utilized subconsciously or without us even knowing we are using it) is what we draw from to make our daily life decisions, it affects how we view the world, and it affects most significantly how we interact with others and our environment. So be sure to give those a once over and gain some clarity on those subjects before carrying forward from here.

Head Knowledge

When talking about head knowledge we mean the raw information itself that exists only in the mind. There are various theories and new discoveries that have been made regarding how information is stored in our brain, and of course, many differing views about what this means about our humanity. Head knowledge is not what makes up our humanity (or any of the other ‘forms’ or ‘types’ of knowledge). Our Spirit, in combination with our mind and our body, is what together comprises the totality of our humanity. Head knowledge is added to this totality of our existence as something we carry with us and utilize in our daily life. An analogy would be something like a tool in our tool box (the mind, to borrow from my time in the Marine Corps). The Head knowledge we acquire as we go through life becomes like the collection of tools in our tool box, each having its unique uses. We make use of it and then stow it away when we are done with it. Like with our tools in the tool box, if we don’t use it enough, or pay attention to where we put it, it becomes lost. However, unlike tools, we can more easily gain back lost Head knowledge after its been lost.

Head knowledge is identified as separate from the other types (or forms) of knowledge in that it remains in the mind. We use it in our mind to address different things we experience in life. I used the example of mathematics due to this point. Head knowledge is not about using mathematics, instead, it is the raw information about mathematics that we learn about in the classroom (consider the subject of “knowing about” in the article on Worlds). As the teacher speaks to us about addition and subtraction, we store this knowledge away in our mind (usually for the sake of knowing we’ll be taking a test on it!). However, we have not yet practiced doing the addition and subtraction. Theories are also a type of head knowledge. While they do not necessarily have a tangible application (yet, in some cases), we retain the information in our mind in hopes of discovering a way to apply it and validate it. The bulk of the knowledge any person has is head knowledge. We make use of it when we need to understand what we are doing before we do it. We use it to communicate to others (language itself being a type of head knowledge). Rules are also a type of head knowledge. We know what we are to do and what we are not to do. But knowing the rules is one thing, it’s a whole other thing to abide by them.

Practical Knowledge

Practical Knowledge is the type of knowledge that pertains directly to some physical action that we must train ourselves to do. While we have the head knowledge stowed away regarding what mathematics is, we then gain the practical knowledge of how to use that head knowledge. You could call this the ‘street smarts’ as opposed to the ‘book smarts’ (head knowledge). It is mostly comprised of the actual physical activity of applying head knowledge in our daily lives. Continuing our math example, the practical knowledge would be in actually practicing addition or subtraction in a homework assignment. To make the distinction clear, it is not the knowledge of how to do it as much as it is the actual writing it out and doing the work. The physical action (or mental action, as this example requires) is itself a separate knowledge that gets stored in the memory as a form of knowledge. This is where the sports analogy comes in a bit more handy than the mathematics approach.

As a young baseball player, I had to first learn what the rules of the game were. I had to understand how the game was played, why certain things are done as they are, what the point of swinging the bat is. All of this is Head knowledge. Then I had to go out on the field and actually start practicing the physical conduct of the game. My coach would tell me how to swing the bat, then I had to practice putting those words into action. What is being stored in my brain is the way I swing the bat. It takes a great deal of practice (repetition) before the proper way of swinging the bat is ‘mastered.’ This took many years to get down, and since I was not very good at it, I ended up stopping after a while (lifting weights and running became my thing). It was the actual action and skill that I was developing that was being stored as Practical knowledge. While I had to bring out the mental, Head knowledge tools from my tool box to figure out what to do, I had to grab my Practical tools from the tool box to do the physical actions.

Experiential Knowledge

Experiential knowledge is quite similar to practical knowledge. One has to actually experience the act of swinging a bat to be able to understand how to do it. However, there is a difference here in how I am using the term ‘experiential’ in identifying this type of knowledge. This type of knowledge pertains to the event, the experience itself, not so much what is stored in the ‘how to’ of the experience. We all have both fond memories and embarrassing memories from our childhood. These memories are of events that occurred and that we experience. What we remember is the whole event itself. It is not so much something we gained by means of a new skill our father teaches us, but the experience of learning that new skill from our father. It’s not so much the act of getting our first kiss, but the way we felt and the whole connection with the one whom we kissed. It’s the experience that we retain as a form of knowledge (think about the section on “knowing” in the Worlds article). We are able to store the whole event in our mind, not just raw information, or a practical skill (though these may also be gained out of the experience). It includes the emotions we felt, the smells in the air, the sounds we heard. All of these things come together to form an image in our mind of the event that we can recall.

Experiential knowledge can be used much in the same way that our head and practical knowledge can be used. Using that tool box analogy again, the experiential knowledge tool can be pulled out for a practical use in our daily life. I’m sure we have all had the experience of getting burned by the stove top when we were kids. We remember the experience and it comes to mind every time we are cooking in the kitchen, and aids in remembering to avoid those hot stove tops. The reason why this knowledge is so unique from the other forms is its comprehensive storage of not only what happened, but also what was happening to us in the process. It’s one thing to have the head knowledge about playing baseball, and it’s another thing to have the skills to play it, it is a whole different thing to experience the fun and thrill of playing the whole game with your friends for the little league championship. This is where experience plays such a unique roll in matters relating to “knowing” something as opposed to “knowing about” something.

Some Unique Points to Address

Knowledge is itself an immaterial thing. It is communicable and it exists squarely in our minds. It is information, organized data, that our spirits are able to make use of as needed. While knowledge exists as an immaterial thing, it is present in our minds. There is a physical component to how it is retained and our ability to retain knowledge can be affected by physical things. However, it is important to point out that knowledge itself is not life. Life has the ability to store information by some means, but that is not necessarily the only thing that makes it life. Like a computer. It can store knowledge (information), but it does not have the ability to use it in the same manner that life does. A computer remains an inanimate (non-life or non-living) thing. However, being biological creatures, the nature of our existence goes beyond just a bunch of electrical signals shot out by the mixing of common chemicals. That difference is our spirit. Our spirit is what uses knowledge to communicate, to interact with the world, and to make the body do what it wants. However, it is possible for the body to take over, and for the raw mechanics to dilute the spirit, and to abandon its knowledge.

Instincts can be considered a type of knowledge. However, there is a unique distinction between instincts and knowledge as it is being discussed here. Instincts are very mechanical in nature. To a degree, even our instincts can utilize our head, practical, and experiential knowledge. Our bodies, and the bodies of other creatures, are unique as life in that the very mechanics of our biological make up cause us to act or behave in certain ways. We can either control those instincts, and train our body to trigger certain practical knowledge in response to certain stimulus, or we can leave it to its own whims. My experience in the infantry taught me a great deal about this truth. Instincts are not immaterial in their nature, though it can be debated whether they are or not. I do not include instincts as a type of knowledge due to their mechanical nature. Much of the involuntary functions of our body are controlled by what we could call instincts. These are not trained into us, and are not something we necessarily learn. Instead, they are more or less “built in” to our system (so to speak). Knowledge, as it is basically understood, is something that is learned, gained, or acquired. Instincts however, are built in to the very nature of our physical existence. Our awareness of their existence and our understanding of their function is a type of Head knowledge. What is interesting about us humans is that once we understand that our instincts are separate from our knowledge, we are able to attach our practical knowledge base to our instincts to train our bodies to react in particular ways in response to certain stimulus. We can even get certain types of animals to do it as well!

Conclusion

For the Biblical Judeo-Christian Worldview, there is no conflict with this properly basic understanding of the nature of knowledge. Knowledge is itself a tool that we utilize to go through this life. Our spirit exists separate from our knowledge and uses it as necessary. The Bible makes a great deal about knowledge and the importance of acquiring it. Once you have the head, the practical, and the experiential knowledge of some subject, you have gained wisdom about it. But wisdom itself is its own unique feature. It goes beyond just the simple nature of knowledge and pertains to the experiencing of life. As Christians, we embrace the pursuit of knowledge and are commanded to seek the truth in our life. We acknowledge God as the source of all knowledge, being the creator of all things. We accept that we can acquire it, and have no qualms with realizing that knowledge does not comprise the totality of our human existence. We also affirm that knowledge affects how we look at life, and we are comfortable with the fact that we can not know all things. Only God is capable of knowing all things by His very nature as God.

However, not every worldview out there views knowledge at a properly basic level. Many opposing worldviews add to the properly basic or first principles of knowledge. There are many worldviews that hold that our very existence is built into our knowledge. These worldviews may or may not recognize the spiritual, but if they do, then the spiritual is considered to be our knowledge (that is, no separation between the two). The more we learn and experience, the more our spirit grows. Our total body of knowledge is considered to be synonymous with our spirit. Some worldviews hold knowledge as the ultimate. Knowledge is what makes us who we are, and our knowledge is what forms our identity alone. I know therefore I am, you could say. Then there are others that would suggest that our existence is knowledge, but that knowledge is nothing but a mechanical product of our chemical makeup. The totality of our existence is in our DNA and that DNA is what makes up our thoughts and forms our knowledge. We “dance to the music” of our DNA they have the tendency to say. It becomes clear just how starkly different a world such worldviews dwell in when compared to the Christian world (not that that makes them any less valuable as human beings, please do not take that as being condescending).

As Christians, we must understand that those whom we speak about the gospel to may hold to these differing worldviews. We must be able to understand our own view on knowledge. There are many who would argue that we are stupid or ignorant people because of how they view knowledge. The better understanding we have of our affirmation regarding the properly basic nature of our understanding of knowledge, the better we can show such people just how much we love and appreciate the importance of knowledge. It will allow us to show that knowledge is not all there is. It is useful to ask someone who is an ardent skeptic what they believe about knowledge. They would argue it isn’t truly possible to know anything! Though they don’t all think that way, of course. Bringing together the article on “knowing” and “knowing about” in combination with this article can aid in addressing their attitude on this subject. I pray that this article is something you can add to your head knowledge ‘tool box,’ and that you will be able to use it as you seek to bless others through your practice of spreading God’s grace to humanity.