Knowledge is one of, if not, the most essential pieces to humanity. Without knowledge and our ability to learn, adapt, grow and in general evolve; we would not have succeeded as a species. While knowledge is an inherent trait that we all must build our lives with and upon, there are countless theories and ideas about where knowledge comes from and how we utilize it. There are a number of ways in which knowledge is thought to come to be, biological, chemical or bestowed upon us by some higher beings. Another idea, which connects several of the aforementioned beliefs, is that we each of alone are born with the inherent ability to learn and we must find stimuli that trigger and support the process of learning. This is an extremely complex debate with an endless number of view points and opinions which I find interesting as it is so significant to us and the human race. The origins of knowledge are interesting but what is more interesting is our individual confidence of our knowledge. As a species, we are extremely confident in our knowledge of whatever topic it may be even though we are often incorrect and will continue to often be incorrect for as long as our species survives. While our knowledge is not perfect, it is adaptive. Our ability to not only evolve as a species but to do so along with our complex characteristics and abilities such as our ability to learn, is the key to our success and existence. It is extremely intriguing that something we all share universally, divides us with such power. I believe that the power of our brain may never be fully understood because if you really think about it, why is it called a brain anyway? And why do so many of us agree with so much of what we are told when most of it has little to no proof? These are questions that have always intrigued me and I presume they intrigue many other humans as well.
What is epistemology?
Epistemology is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity” (Merriam-Webster). The term epistemology did not become popular until after James Frederick Ferrier gave the study its name in roughly 1854. While the study of knowledge may not have had a scientific name until then, knowledge had been studied thoroughly starting with the ancient Greeks. Yet, this definition is not entirely helpful if we do not note and compare the differences between commonly interchanged words.
What is knowledge?
Knowledge, belief, truth and justification are similar and are often used in place of one another or with one another. Do we really know and understand the differences between these words?
- Knowledge – “information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education”
- Belief – “a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true”
- Truth – “the real facts about something; things that are true; the quality or state of being true; a statement or idea that is true or accepted as true”
- Justification – “an acceptable reason for doing something; something that justifies an action” (Merriam-Webster)
While these definitions, given by Merriam-Webster, help clarify the explicit meanings of these words, they do not solidify knowledge and its meaning. To make this clearer, think of knowledge as water. Water can be in various states; both pure and impure (with endless impurities). Regardless of its state or purity, it flows. It has substance and it can always be changed, naturally or unnaturally. Overtime, knowledge has changed and continues to change. Like water, knowledge is vital. Knowledge has been vital since the first homo-sapiens roamed this planet. The ability to think creatively not only about our environment but about ourselves and our own actions is what set our minds apart from other intelligent animals and species.
Biochemical aspects of Knowledge
While the biochemical approach and its various theories relating to knowledge are their own vast topics, it is beneficial for them to be briefly explained. Transduction is the process that occurs when one type of stimulus is converted into another stimulus. This process takes place in various ways throughout our minds as we take in information from stimuli. As stimuli are processed by our mind’s, long-term potentiation (LTP) occurs. Long-term potentiation “is the strengthening of a synaptic connection, resulting in postsynaptic neurons that are more easily activated” (Psychological Science, pg. 261). A simpler explanation is that with long-term potentiation, the more a neuron is fired, the more it is strengthened. The more a neuron is strengthened, the easier it is for a neuron to fire again. Thus, theoretically, in the terms of memory and knowledge, the more we expose ourselves to information, the more our minds’ recognize it and this makes recalling the information more efficient. Long-term potentiation is a theory, but that holds true for many other explanations of knowledge as they have not been proven. Long-term potentiation’s theory has a strong basis as it logical that this process would allow information to flow from sensory memory to short-term memory to long-term memory and be organized in its respective cortex, lobe or brain region depending on the topic of the information. Other theories involving the hippocampus’ role in learning and memory as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine and its biological reward system are also strongly supported. I think the best way to approach these theories, is with an open mind. Biochemical proof for any of these or any other theories regarding the basis of knowledge and memory may never be discovered. As technology has increased we have been able to see more and more of how our minds works in extreme detail. Through MRIs, fMRIs, CT Scans, PETs, EEGs and various other tests, our brains are being analyzed on astonishing levels yet the code of knowledge may not be cracked because while we all share the ability to learn, we are all very, very different.
Psychological aspects of knowledge and beyond…
Due to the infinite amount of differences that separates us, our knowledge is different. Yes, many ideas, beliefs of thoughts may overlap and appear the same but they are not. While 1+1 may very well equal 2, there are some people who will disagree. We all have our own outlooks on the world and the lives that we live. We are not limited or bound to a limit of knowledge. There is no proof that our knowledge has certain threshold that cannot be surpassed. This is because our knowledge is up to us. While knowledge inherently makes us human, we have made and do make knowledge a human trait. At the end of the day, we know what we know because we choose to dedicate our time to what we our passionate about, what drives us. Those who are religious may believe that their knowledge is inspired by their God or religious figure. Others may believe that an unknown higher being or advanced species of extraterrestrials was and is at the center of their knowledge capabilities. While others may believe deeply in fate or destiny and the idea that everything happens for a reason that is a part of a larger plan unknown to humans.
Regardless of your beliefs or opinions on the origins of your own knowledge or knowledge in general, you are not wrong. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to knowledge. This is ironic as society often guides us to believe that there is always a right answer to a problem or situation. My question and challenge to these ideas is: who and/or what are the deciding factors when it comes to knowledge? More specifically, what makes something wrong and what makes something right? Is it laws or morals? Both of these can be challenged by the same question. If you think about this for a while, you will most likely feel confused and lost in your thoughts. Now, I’m not promoting lawlessness or anarchy, nevertheless I am attempting to help provide a deep and reflective insight into the basis of human knowledge. That being said, I would like to present one final question. How do we know what we know? Before answering, remember that knowledge is ever-changing, ever-flowing like water in a river, and the river flows differently through every pair of eyes and every mind.
Ferro, S. (2013, September 12). Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About How You Learn Is a Lie. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-08/ everything-youve-ever-been-told-about-how-brain-learns-lie
Gazzaniga, M., Heatherton, T., & Halpern, D. (2013). Psychological Science (Fourth ed.). Canada. W.W. Norton & Company.
How Do We Learn? Retrieved from http://general-psychology.weebly.com/how-do-we-learn.html
Lowery, L. The Biological Basis of Thinking and Learning. Retrieved from http://lhsfoss.org/newsletters/archive/pdfs/FOSS_BBTL.pdf Mahajan, D. (Ed.). (2008, July 13). James Frederick Ferrier. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica database. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/