Wednesday, 26 October 2011

On Knowledge

I know that today is a Wednesday

This is the first of two (or perhaps three) blog entries about the subject of knowledge, the way I deal with it, and some of my thoughts on it, such as one silly way that I see some other people dealing with it, knowledge of what to expect, common knowledge that is false, "levels" of knowledge, and so forth.

I know a lot of stuff. Not much about sports, and more about biology (and medieval history) than about other subjects, but it's fair to describe me as a guy who knows a lot of stuff. I'm that kind of person.

Why is that? There are three reasons that I am aware of.

One is that I have a weak form of eidetic memory. It's not infallible, and it doesn't catch everything; it seems mostly to be about words heard and read, and its main effect tends to be to let me reach far back in time and dig out potentially useful items of information. From where I'm sitting, it seems as if for other people, the past must be covered in dense and barely-penetrable mists, whereas for me events from years ago, even sometimes decades ago, are fairly clear and examinable.

I don't control what I remember. I've never tried to practice any kind of mnemonic technique, and the very idea strikes me as alien and bothersome. I don't need that, it's not for me. I can deliberately fix very small items in my memory by looking at them for a couple of seconds, like a page number in a novel I'm reading (such a page number will then last for a couple of days), but I have never tried, and don't want to try, to memorize anything larger than that. Most of what gets stored gets stored without any deliberate choice, and certainly there is never any effort involved. Sometimes I waste an hour psychoanalyzing myself, trying to figure out why some completely random and seemingly unimportant memory from over a decade ago suddenly popped up in my mind. Was there some traumatic experience that I had at around that time, which I've completely suppressed, that caused the event to become fixed in my mind? I almost never manage to find an explanation. Probably because there isn't one. Because it's just random stuff that pops up like that.

The second reason is that I use my intelligence to make sense out of information, and fit it into a larger pattern, a map, an understanding of the world I live in. Rather than remember random factoids and words and sentences, like an autistic savant would, I process the information and use it as raw materials to build understanding. That explains a lot of what I know, but of course not everything. Back in 1997, while on a school trip to Spain Catalonia, two classmates asked me what the name of the capital of a South America country was. Almost certainly it was Argentina they asked about. They were confident that I knew, and I did.

But why did I know? There was certainly no understanding behind my knowledge that the answer was Buenos Aires. I knew it was Spanish or Portugese (but not which one of the two), and I knew that it means something like "good air" (basic etymology), but one of two likely explanations is that the name simply got stuck in my eidetic memory, as important names tend to do1, and with Argentina being a sufficiently important country, overall, for there to have existed a mental connection for me at that time (I'm slightly "stronger" in Latin American capital cities now. Slightly) between nation and capital.

The third reason is that I'm a roleplayer and an author of fiction. This means that my habitual attitude towards knowledge is - and always has been (or since I was about 8 or 9 years old anyway) - that I can't know what might be useful, so therefore everything is potentially useful. I never really can reject an item of factual knowledge as being clearly useless. That's the other likely explanation for why I knew; a couple of years earlier, I had been working on a future history with its main focus a bit more than a century ahead of my time, and with some of the events taking place in Argentina. More generally, though, as a GM, as a player in a roleplaying gaming campaign, or as an author, one can rarely know in advance what items of knowledge will come in handy, so it's best to be prepared and to be a bit of a generalist.

Tainted by Knowledge
Just so this post won't be all about me, I'd like to call attention to a profoundly diseased but depressingly common notion, which is that there are some facts that it is morally wrong to know. The notion that it is right and proper to downgrade one's evaluation of another person's morals upon finding out that said person knows a certain fact.

It's extremely alien to me, to think like that, yet a lot of people do so. Although, of course, one can pointedly inquire about the validity of the use of the term "think" in such situations.

But, simply, the idea is that "because you know this item of real world fact, you are a morally worse person than you would otherwise have been".

Purity in ignorance? Why are people like that allowed to vote?

But you can just look it up!
Why should someone carry even a small amount of factual information in his skull, when vast knowledge ressources such as Encyclopedia Britannica and English Wikipedia (and increasingly - slowly increasingly - non-English Wikipedias) and Google are no further away than the nearest smartphone?

One answer is of course that for most people it requires actual effort to amass even a small amount of information. This means there's a legitimate cost-benefit analysis that one can perform. Is it worth it?

Regardless of whether one has the genetic fortune to be slightly eidetic or not, though, there's the serious problem of not knowing what it is that one does not know. I'm sure we've all heard about the ultra-hard science fiction writer Hal Clement who, in spite of being famous for always getting the physics exactly right, once got it very, very wrong. He assumed something that wasn't correct.

I don't do very hard science fiction, but I do feel some amount of anxiety when it comes to iron age and medieval history, details of daily life, and especially how people back then thought. I know a fair amount about those subjects, but might there be something that'd be really really useful for me to know which I don't know? How to find out? The question of what is it that I don't know? is one that I spend a considerable amount of time on, when I do various forms of research.

So rather than accept the notion that one can just look up knowledge on an as-needed basis, my take on this issue is that one ought to immerse oneself in the subject matter of relevance, e.g. so as to avoid blunders such as horses that can carry riders for an entire day, upon having spent a couple of hours eating low-calorie foods such as grass. Because one often does not know what it is one needs to know.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

1. But sometimes, they become unstuck. Rarely, but it bothers me when it happens. Once I forgot the name of Jodie Foster. I didn't forget her. I knew exactly who and what she was, and I knew of the films that I know she has appeared in (although there are almost certainly a great many films of hers that I do not know about), such as Little Man Tate, and the movie version of Silence of the Lambs, and Taxi Driver (not recommended) and I think there was a movie where she got raped or something which I haven't watched, and Contact which I haven't seen either (the novel wasn't good). Only her name was gone.

That lasted for a few days or a few weeks. Then it came back to me. Her name was Jodie Foster. I also got a hunch, back then, that my memory failure had been because her name wasn't a real name. "Foster" means fetus in Danish, and some part of my subsconscious mind had had an issue with that (someone can't be named Jodie Fetus!!), for some strange reason, even though I knew perfectly well that Foster is a common USAn last name.

And no, I didn't need the name for anything specific. I didn't need it at all. My mental wanderings just came across Jodie Foster for some reason, most likely either contemplating some aspect of the Silence of the Lambs movie (or the character of Clarice Starling), or Foster's connections to Mensa (there's supposed to be a Mensa membership key ring shown at one point in the movie Contact, and of course there's the general subject matter of Little Man Tate). So I remembered everything else, during that train of thought, but not her name.

And, by the way, I must hasten to admit that only some names tend to get stuck in my memory. Names of important people usually do. Names of people I meet, when I meet several new people in one day, tend to not stick. That bothers me, because I worry that people might assume I'm even more arrogant and self-centered than I actually am. If I meet and talk with five people, in one day, I'm likely to remember everything about them except their names. Their special interests, the subjects of our conversations and so forth, but usually not their names. I think part of that reason, maybe most of it, is that names are completely arbitrary. They have no significance, carry no information. They are as if they were assigned by random dice rolls. So, however odd the subconscious workings of my memory are, it does tend to have its priorities straight.

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