Sunday, February 7, 2010

I Piss Them Ologies

Google has a program they hoped would compete with wikipedia. They named it Knol, which they say is a unit of knowledge. Is knowledge something composed of units, like bricks, to put together and make a wall? Students of Jan Cox will recall him saying, and elucidating, that "everything is connected." But this essay is concerned with how to convey this to people unfamiliar with basic epistemological concerns.  I am beginning to think the important questions are epistemological, rather than say, ontological, but----that is not the focus now.  How we know, what we know, that is epistemology.  The idea of knowledge composed of units has a certain obviousness.  We're young, we gather bits, like alphabet blocks, and when we get bigger we have a bunch of bits, and can converse and know stuff.
But---can we discover anything, can we add to the sum of Humanity's knowledge, can we ask basic questions, can we, in effect, know in the sense of originality, of real change, while playing with these bits, these units, that others have defined?
There are advantages to knowledge as composed of bits.  It avoids the skepticism that comes from recognizing, glimpsing that one thing affects another, because then you have to say, is this another unit of knowledge, this connection? And don't you get, this way, such a huge pile of bits that they are uncountable, and unmanageable, daunting regardless of the realms of mathematics marshalled to ride herd on these bits.  Or could a glimpse of this chaos be, at a new level.
One advantage of knowledge as units, is this picture also fits our experience, we open a book, and find out that scientists used to rob graveyards to get bodies to study anatomy.  They, another nit, (is that short for unit, no, it's a typo, and I am not going to continue calling units, nits) called this practise, of getting corpse, 'burking." Another unit to stack on top of the first.
But--is this--- knowledge? I never stole a corpse, a whole planet of detail is hidden in these words, and obscured by putting a period at the end of the sentence, and the persuasiveness of everybody else agreeing this is a fact.
Would real knowledge involve questioning all assumptions, and resolutely trying to follow what you see; would knowledge involve an element necessarily of character, in bravely facing consequences?
Would knowledge involve internal change?
I merely raise these questions now. 
Let us close with an example. A king rules over several countries.  He says, Abalonia is my country. If there are at that moment, insurgents in neighboring Clambakia, planning an invasion to assist their brothers in musselhood, to what extent is that king ignorant? Did he ever know anything? If he keeps or loses that country after some external actions, how does that future outcome, affect what he knows, now. It is just a question.

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