How do we know what we know?

I was very interested in the discussion that occurred around my post about belief and fact and I agree with Chuck that it is our interpretation of our experience that must be questioned. I have a friend named Jeff Eisen who wrote a book called “Oneness Perceived” that I learned a great deal from. In that book Eisen makes the simple and clear distinction between a sensation and a perception. A sensation is the direct experience of some sensory stimulation. A perception is a sensation plus some degree of interpretation of that sensation. Using this language we can restate what Chuck said as, it doesn’t make sense to question our sensations, but it does make sense to question our perceptions.

The perception I most want to question now is the perception of knowing. How do we know what we know? Or more specifically “What is it that we think is happening when we know something?” When we ask this question what we want to understand is how it is that we are interpreting the experience of knowing. And that is an interpretation that I think worthy of questioning.

Most of us have learned to think of knowing in terms of a model generally referred to as a representational model of knowing. In other words we imagine that information in the form of sensations is entering into our body through our five senses and also in the form of thoughts and feelings that arise in consciousness. These sensations are then sent to the brain/mind for processing and are turned into “knowing.” A typical image that may have been taught to us as a child is that of a movie screen in our head. On the screen all of the sensual information is projected and so we create a picture in our head of what exists outside of us. Think of cartoons that we often saw as children where there was a flower outside and someone is depicted as thinking about the flower by showing them with a thought balloon pointing toward their head and in the thought balloon is a replica of the flower on the ground. The brain/mind creates a representation of reality that we can look at in our head. Typically that is how most of us commonly relate to knowing.

Using this model of the brain as an information processing machine decades were spent in AI labs trying to download separate bits of information into computers to see if you could cram enough information in them so that they could act intelligently. If you are limiting the experiment to something like playing a game of electronic chess you get good results, but it seems hopeless that this method will ever result in anything like the intelligence of a human brain.

Professor Hubert Dreyfus at the University of Berkeley California, formally at MIT is an expert on the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Maurice MerleauPonty and is a strong opponent of the representational model of knowing. He wrote a book called “What Computers Can’t Know” predicting that the efforts of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence labs could not work. Decades later he re-titled the third edition of the book, “What Computers Still Can’t Know.” (I highly recommend any of Dreyfus’ courses from itunes.) These phenomenological thinkers don’t see the mind and the body as separate from the world around out. They see an engaged system in which the world acts directly on the mind and body perhaps metaphorically like the wind acts on dry leaves causing them to lift off the ground and spin and twirl in delightful ways. There is no need to imagine that concepts are being used to navigate the world in this model, the world is simply acting on the mind and body. (This I imagine is a view that Carl – our resident Behaviorism expert – would be in agreement with.)

I am now also reading Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom” in which he deals directly with ideas of knowing in relation to perception. I am not into the book enough to say anything even approximating worth while, but this is a topic I intend to continue with even as I also continue to share gems from Ralph Waldo Emerson.