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The Essenceof Knowledge

Quite simply, knowledge is symbols. The physical symbol system hypothesis states that an intelligent agent need only be a system to manipulate and construe physical symbols. This hypothesis is strong and it underlies why certain machines as well as animals, such as human beings, exhibit learning behavior.

What StudentsNeed to Know

As a student of life long learning, my primary objective is to master the operations and procedures to manipulate and construe symbols. Because, these symbols represent knowledge.

Learning is a gardening of knowledge. It requires the manipulation of physical symbols that represent knowledge. I can learn by thinking with my mind, but I can also think with my hands. I can write to explore what to say, I diagram and design to think about the nature of problems, destroying my first drafts and trying again as this process uncovers the missing parts of my initial thinking. Thinking with my hands, using tools, rearranging objects, using pen and paper, rearranging words or formulae… these are physical symbols. Thinking with my mind involves symbolic references in my mind, visual, auditory, tactile or even ephemeral imaginings. Yet as these information are encoded in my neural networks these too must be physical symbols. Crafting and construing physical symbols bring the phenomena they represent to my attention, which makes those phenomena available to my perception indirectly yet intuitively. It closes the feedback loop and yields control.

Physical symbols compose into models. Models are tools to help me think. They can be quantitative to help me to either predict the future with some probability of being correct, or they can be qualitative to help me to simply discuss a problem space. Models do not represent actual reality, they are simply tools that capture some limited essence of it. If I were to model knowledge qualitatively I could then discuss knowledge.

Assume that there are three broad groups in which I can categorize symbols of knowledge. The first being conceptual knowledge of how to represent physical symbols, such as words, numerals, graphical representations such as charts which present factual knowledge or descriptive knowledge and the interrelatedness of basic concepts. This also includes strategic knowledge to tell me when certain operations, concepts and facts are applicable to a problem; including metacognitive knowledge which is the knowledge of knowledge, an awareness of underlying assumptions commonly referred to as either first principles, postulates, axioms or ab initio.

Operational knowledge is used to derive explicit knowledge, new facts from known facts, through the use of algorithms to mechanically manipulate symbols to produce new symbols. Examples of elementary algorithms are the way I do addition of numbers requiring me to carry place value, or the technique used to do long division. They could even be a recipe to make something to eat, or the process I use to write an article. This also includes a procedural knowledge of which algorithms are suited to which problems and the order in which they should be applied.

There is also domain knowledge of the problem itself; the overall subject matter and aspects or features of the problem that hint at ways to solve it. Including self knowledge of my own limitations and my own biases; in other words, to know what I know, to know what I don’t know, and the procedural knowledge to come to know what I don’t know as being unknown.

These three groups of knowledge appear to be the most valued kinds of knowledge in my education. The amount of knowledge in each of these areas of a particular discipline, the tidiness of its organization and the strength of its interrelatedness with other disciplines categorizes myself as either a rote novice or a creative expert. However, given this model of knowledge and a little bit of introspection I notice that the basis of this education leaves out a fourth and immensely important kind of knowledge: Tacit knowledge. The kind of knowledge that cannot be conveyed through explicit knowledge codified in language or otherwise demonstrated. For example, the ability to play an instrument, use tools that require special skills, or the practice with the previous kinds of knowledge to gain the abilities of a creative problem solver. Tacit knowledge is the most valuable knowledge and can only be earned through training. Expert knowledge is not what I truly need. Rather, it is the tools and recipes that put imperfect knowledge into practice with feedback and control. To train. With that I am ready to convey the purpose of this chapter, and the purpose of The One Life Catalog.

Design is like evolution. Design is a human strategy for creation that has emerged out of evolution. I’ve been taught that whatever evolution comes up with is accidental. I’m ok with that. I’ve gained the tacit knowledge that design is by accident as well. Sure, there are goal states that I, acting as a designer, steer toward. There is some amorphous idea that informs the design criteria; that places constraints upon the possibilities of construction. However, it is important to realize that the idea is the result of some cognitive design work first.

As this initial cognitive design progresses, the amorphous quality of the idea resolves into concrete requirements for design. Identifying something that needs to be designed is often just a smashing together or blending of stuff I’ve seen before. Creating a design that actualizes a requirement is more often than not beginning with what I know works. If I don’t know what works yet, I look it up from other ideas. If there are no other ideas, I just have to try things until results vector toward actualizing the requirements.

Of course, I don’t just try out completely random things. That wouldn’t be designing. When designing, I don’t do anything so completely random that it isn’t within my realm of experience. I don’t do anything that doesn’t have some basis in my working memory anymore than evolution could take a route so completely random that it began without existing genetic material. Just as the phenotype is often conflated with the genome; a designed artifact is often conflated with the design itself. The design is the cognitive model, the physical symbols under manipulation as expressed by neurons in the brain. The artifact is a model of the design, the rendering of it with substances. Design is like evolution, only faster. I suspect that anyone who disagrees is either not following the chain of causality far enough or they have simply never designed anything.

To identify something I should design I must first think “outside the box”, but not too far. I need to do this to create new knowledge for myself. I need that new knowledge to be relatable to existing knowledge so I can obtain it and so that others can be led to the same understanding. For this particular design, I began by suddenly realizing: I need a regenerative living system. This declaration consists of three apparently loaded terms that nevertheless hold profound meaning for me. To share that meaning I must lead others through the same experiences that lead to this epiphany.

The One Life Catalog is organized in nine chapters, each of which contain nine articles. The articles within a chapter appear in a particular order corresponding to the order of the chapters. This is how every chapter relates to every other chapter, in this way a whole system is represented where everything discussed influences and is influenced by everything else. An article in The One Life Catalog is like a seed, that with time and care will grow through the addition of content as well as the contemplation of readers; branching out and intermingling with other articles in a tangle of recipes, resources, and rituals. These common themes amplify as I progress through later chapters.

The purpose of this compartmentalization is to organize knowledge. Knowledge to be applied to the design and construction of a regenerative living system. This is at times a messy and organic process. It is a design process.

To design a regenerative living system, I begin by declaring what the regenerative living system does. It provides the basic needs of human survival: food, shelter, water, energy, along with the tools and knowledge to build things — in abundance.

There are many profound questions that must be discussed in the open with other members of my society. For instance, left to my own devices, can I be allowed to provide for my own basic needs in abundance? As this relates to Head Space, there is a stereotype that average people lack the intelligence. For instance it is a mathematical certainty that at least half of the people have a below average IQ.

A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.

— Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon

I remember though, the danger of stereotypes like any model is not that they are inaccurate, it is that they are incomplete. If people were provided the explicit knowledge in this area, the tools and techniques — the resources and recipes, they could practice providing their basic needs in abundance.

While the need to gain expert knowledge on our own is healthy and encouraged, where our expertise is lacking we need the tools and recipes that have been developed for us by other experts. So in education, a focus on the conceptual makes sense, but in practice we need an open source repository of the operational and procedural and the training to contribute to and make use of it.