In Search of Knowledge

Rediscovering the World of Ideas in the Age of Information

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

It can be easy to feel lost in the Age of Information, as the floodgates of data continue to pour forth an abundance of information to digest. The first article in this series, “The Edges of Understanding”, focused on helping us wrap our minds around this abundance of information by defining the information world, the sum of all externalized information accessible to our species, as a subset of the sensible world in which we exist. Just as the sensible world is an imperfect version of the intelligible world, given the limitations of our senses, so too is the information world an imperfect version of the sensible world, given the limitations of our technology. (Dobzynski)

But the information world is also an imperfect version of the sensible world because it contains false information about the sensible world, either maliciously (untruths), unintentionally (omissions), aesthetically (art, fiction), or simply older theories and ideas which no longer reflect our sensible world. What we want, both for our daily lives and for the advancement of our species, is to sift through all this information to find accurate knowledge about the sensible world and reliable speculation about the intelligible world. This subset of the information world, along with reason and experience, are crucial tools to make important decisions. In this second article, we will head out in search of this knowledge, and we will do so by going all the way back to the dawn of western philosophy.

The Dawn of Knowledge (The World of Ideas)
Before Kant developed his theory of transcendental idealism, there was a much different view of knowledge which emerged out of Ancient Greece. Plato, in The Republic, proposed a concept called the World of Ideas, separate from the physical world we live within. The World of Ideas contains all the ideal versions of the things which we experience imperfectly in the physical world, including our knowledge about the sensible world. For example, the World of Ideas contains an ideal form for a table, whereas the physical world contains all the imperfect versions of that table created by men, imperfect in design or with imperfect materials or with other faults. We cannot sense this World of Ideas, but we can use our reason to grasp these concepts and apply them in the physical world. (Plato, 251–255)

We can represent this idea as two separate circles, one which represents the World of Ideas with all the perfect forms and one which represents the physical world with all the imperfect versions. Each arrow represents an imperfect version of the perfect form within the physical world, either created by a person or generated by the universe itself. Object-oriented programmers refer to this process as instantiation — when an object template or class is used to create an object for use by a program, the major difference being that man and the universe create imperfect forms, whereas computer programs create perfect replicas of those templates each time.

Figure 1 — The World of Ideas

Plato’s World of Ideas obviously has a lot of problems as a theory from our modern standpoint, but it made a lot of sense for the philosophically minded in Plato’s time, who were discovering for themselves scientific and mathematical concepts that seemed built into the very fabric of the universe. The World of Ideas works best with these scientific and mathematical concepts, especially when we think about numbers, shapes, and universal forces like gravity. Philosophers saw themselves as discovering these concepts, and since they couldn’t point to their origin anywhere in the physical world, naturally assumed they must be outside the physical world, within the metaphysical realm. Plato’s World of Ideas as a cosmological theory, one that explains how our universe works, falls apart for many reasons. But the idea that knowledge was metaphysical, something we acquired by reason and observation, persisted. Aristotle, a contemporary critic of Platonic Forms, nevertheless saw knowledge in this same way, as expressed in Nicomachean Ethics:

“Now what knowledge is, if we are to speak exactly and not follow mere similarities, is plain from what follows. We all suppose that what we know is not capable of being otherwise; of things capable of being otherwise we do not know, when they have passed outside our observation, whether they exist or not. Therefore the object of knowledge is of necessity. Therefore it is eternal; for things that are of necessity in the unqualified sense are all eternal; and things that are eternal are ungenerated and imperishable.” (Aristotle, 1799)

For Aristotle, and Plato, knowledge is something eternal, ungenerated, and imperishable. For Plato, it is contained within the World of Ideas, a perfect knowledge along with every other perfect form. For Aristotle, while rejecting the World of Ideas cosmologically, nevertheless sees knowledge as metaphysical, coming at this conception from a different, more logical direction. He goes on further to suggest that wisdom is comprehending this knowledge. (Aristotle, 1801) For anything that wasn’t eternal, ungenerated, and imperishable, one could only have an understanding concerning “things which may become subjects of questioning and deliberation”. (Aristotle, 1805)

Two important inferences can be drawn from this conception of knowledge. First, that because knowledge is metaphysical, specifically eternal, ungenerated, and imperishable, that we can take comfort in knowledge, once established. The sun will rise and fall. Two plus two equals four. Each bit of established knowledge is another building block to be used to understand the physical world as it is. Second, that when it comes to knowledge, the ideal is the perfect and the perfect is the ideal, and because of this idea, we tend to judge our imperfect experience against what’s been established as perfect, eternal knowledge.

It should be noted that this comfort taken in knowledge and our willingness to judge our experience against our knowledge will take place whether that knowledge is actually true or not. When we think of knowledge in this metaphysical sense, both the religious zealot, who claims eternal knowledge from God, and the philosophical zealot, who claims eternal knowledge from reason, exhibit this same comfort in their knowledge and their willingness to question their experience in favor of what they take comfort in knowing. We see this same relationship to knowledge in many people today, whether religious individuals holding to literal interpretations of scripture, or philosophical and new age zealots claiming to have knowledge from beyond, or from the shallower scientistic-minded individuals who treat modern scientific consensus as eternal rather than our current best understanding.

Making Knowledge Real (Transcendental Idealism)
Kant upends this idea of knowledge with his theory of transcendental idealism, which also divides the universe into two different worlds. The first is the intelligible world, which contains the universe-in-itself, as it actually exists. The second is the sensible world, which is our limited perception of that universe. (Kant, 119) As in the last article, we can think of this difference as a knowledge gap, represented by two concentric circles, the larger representing the intelligible world, the smaller one representing the sensible world. A more extensive discussion of this framework can be found in the previous article, but a key point is that we can have no knowledge of the intelligible world, since it is outside of our sensory experience. (Kant, 126) In this way, Kant splits Aristotle’s definition of knowledge into two parts: knowledge of the physical, sensible world and speculation about the metaphysical, intelligible world. Kant also implies that our knowledge and speculation do not exist in the metaphysical, intelligible world, but rather exist somewhere within the physical, sensible world.

Figure 2 — Transcendental Idealism

Kant’s theory changes the very nature of knowledge. Rather than being metaphysical, something existing outside of our experience which we divine only with the ability of reason, knowledge becomes a very real part of the sensible world. Further, because our knowledge of the sensible world and our speculation about the intelligible world is built in part off our imperfect and limited sensible experience, our knowledge about the sensible world and our speculation about the intelligible world is neither eternal nor unchangeable. We cannot take the same comfort in our knowledge and speculation as with our previous metaphysical relationship to knowledge. Therefore, all knowledge and speculation become the subjects of questioning and deliberation, which means by Aristotle’s definition, all knowledge and speculation have become fused into a single definition of understanding. Therefore, wisdom must be a comprehension of this understanding.

Finally, this idea of understanding changes our notion of the ideal. Within Kant’s framework, the ideal is not the perfect, but the accurate, which is to say, what accurately reflects the sensible world, not some abstract notion of the perfect which was defined by a person. As discussed in the previous article, the ideal understanding cannot be the perfect, because the perfection of understanding is impossible for physical and logical reasons. (Dobzynski) The accuracy of understanding, however, is possible by verifying our knowledge about the sensible world against the sensible world itself and by verifying our speculation about the intelligible world against other plausible speculation about the intelligible world. Within this conception of knowledge, we judge our understanding against our experience, and when our understanding no longer matches up with our experience, we are open to changing our understanding to fit our experience.

It is worth noting that there will be times when our understanding should change based upon our experience, and times when our experience should change because of our knowledge. However, this flexibility is only available if we accept Kant’s notion of knowledge and understanding, which admits changing when our sensible experience or our plausible speculation demands. Eternal knowledge is incapable of being changed, and therefore experience must always yield to that knowledge. But only knowledge with plasticity, as in Kant’s definition, allows us to achieve this flexibility, if we also have plasticity in our experience as well.

Rediscovering the World of Ideas (Information World)
Kant changes our understanding of knowledge by making it real, drawing down the metaphysical World of Ideas into a part of our sensible world. But to say that this World of Ideas is out there, swirling around somewhere in the sensible world, doesn’t do us much good for our practical lives or for our species. What we want to do is find this World of Ideas, or at least its qualified Kantian equivalent, made up of reliable knowledge about the sensible world and plausible speculation about the intelligible world, which together we can call scientific understanding. For the first time in human history, we have the possibility of making that World of Ideas real, and in fact, have already taken the first steps in that direction.

Figure 3 — Information World

While the Age of Information makes the idea of the information world very tangible, this epistemological framework existed prior to the Internet, prior even to the written word. Prior to the written word, we still externalized our information to be captured by other humans, as part of their understanding, using verbal and non-verbal communications and gestures. Richard Dawkins labeled this transmission of information in The Selfish Gene as a meme, which is where our contemporary use of the term in social media originates, and where our larger science of memetics also originates, which studies how we transmit information as a species. Our non-verbal and verbal communication would eventually evolve into our first languages and our first oral traditions. Our information world may have been confined to the stories we could share with one another, until the written word and technological advances made other forms of externalization possible, but it most definitely existed within our sensible world.

Therefore, if we’re in search of a scientific understanding, for the World of Ideas lost within the sensible world, then we need look no further than the information world. However, the information world contains much more than just scientific understanding. Swirling about in the information world, along with this World of Ideas, are also false or outdated ideas, information, and data which do not accurately reflect the sensible world. Falsity happens in any number of ways, sometimes unintentionally, through user error or omission, sometimes intentionally through malicious intent, sometimes aesthetically in the form of fiction and entertainment. More importantly, sometimes those ideas, data, and information simply relate to the previously held theories within scientific understanding which have since yielded to better, more accurate theories.

Since false information exists within the information world, we should employ plausibility tests on each piece of information and on each idea contained within the information world whenever necessary. For knowledge about the sensible world, we should cross-check the information against actual experience or against knowledge we trust to be accurate about the sensible world. For speculation about the intelligible world, we should cross-check the information against the sensible world and against other speculation about the intelligible world which has passed similar plausibility tests.

On the individual level, this is something we do naturally to judge what’s real and what’s false. On the social level, this is something we do with ideas through questioning and deliberation as part of the scientific process, specifically finding what is considered scientific consensus. We often characterize this process as one of mutual contest, where ideas compete to determine which one is best, but this is an oversimplification of the consensus-building process, of which conflict is sometimes a part. Sometimes our scientific understanding includes theories which contradict one another, because while not perfect, they still accurately reflect the sensible world in their own way. In fact, it could be argued that our scientific understanding rests not on the ideas themselves, but on the consensus extended to whatever group of ideas and concepts compose our best scientific understanding. Our knowledge about the sensible world and our speculation about the intelligible world can both expand and shrink through this process, based on whatever seems most accurate.

These plausibility tests, when applied to our knowledge of the sensible world and our speculation about the intelligible world, serve two functions. First and foremost, they provide the closest thing we can get to truth, which is indispensable in leading our lives, giving us a bridge between our sensible experience and our knowledge/speculation about that experience. We may not be able to place the same kind of comfort in our scientific understanding, but we can take as much comfort as it has to offer given our imperfect experience. But there’s a neat second function that manifests. By applying these plausibility tests, we can identify a subset of the information world which contains all the best knowledge of the sensible world and the best speculation of the intelligible world we consider to be accurate and plausible, which we can call scientific understanding, or the lost World of Ideas, represented by a fourth concentric circle, this one within the information world.

Figure 4 — Rediscovering the World of Ideas

What could this World of Ideas look like? A practical, yet imperfect framework for a World of Ideas on the Internet already exists in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a dynamic set of accepted information about our sensible world, each topic sourced and referenced to other knowledge or speculation available within the information world, both on Wikipedia itself and on other respected sites, or in existing primary and secondary sources, or through verbal recordings of oral communication. The great drawback of Wikipedia, of course, and as lampooned by many, is that anyone can edit the pages, even those without appropriate expertise, education, or experience relating to a particular topic. An ideal form of this World of Ideas would use the wiki format which grants access to experts regarding specific topics, even those with a wide range of conflicting theories, to work towards achieving consensus on plausible ideas and theories, changing as needed based on new information and ideas, while still being open to challenge by anyone when their sensible experience, or perhaps their own insight, may suggest otherwise. This process currently happens in an overly complicated, forever tenuous, Kafkaesque fashion across multiple academic institutions, political organizations, and individuals throughout the scientific and academic communities, but a more formalized approach to finding a clear, organized scientific understanding, even one that is necessarily incomplete or imperfect, would be invaluable for our species as a whole and for our everyday lives. Wikipedia, in a sense, is an imperfect reflection of that World of Ideas in the same way that the information world is an imperfect reflection of the sensible world.

Conclusion
The Age of Information has brought massive change to our society with the advent of the Internet, bringing with it a physical manifestation of the information world, or the sum of all externalized information available to our species. However, this information world doesn’t just contain truthful, useful, practical information, but also other kinds of information, which may or may not accurately reflect our experience and our universe. What we want isn’t just information, but knowledge, so that we can make better decisions as individuals and as a species. Plato and Aristotle believed this knowledge to be metaphysical, something eternal, unchangeable, and imperishable. Once we knew something, we could rely on the knowledge and adjust our experience accordingly. But with Kant’s theory of transcendental idealism, we realize that knowledge is neither eternal nor unchangeable, but rather has plasticity, can and must change based upon our imperfect sensible experience. Knowledge (and speculation) now must be judged against our experience and against the rest of our understanding, which we have externalized into the information world in various ways. With the Age of Information, we have the opportunity with a Wikipedia-like format to make the World of Ideas, our scientific understanding of the world, very real and accessible, which brings with it the promise of better lives and a better future.

Works Cited
Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Edited by Johnathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, 1995.

Dobzynski, Joseph. The Edges of Understanding. Medium.com, 2022. https://medium.com/original-philosophy/the-edges-of-understanding-53622265987f

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton, Harper & Row, 1964.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin Books, 1987.

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Joseph Dobzynski, Jr.

Joseph Dobzynski, Jr.

Amateur writer, reader, critic, and philosopher. Follow for fiction, satire, analysis, books, and philosophy with a leftist bent.