God, Ghost, and Lover

Home Up God/Ghost/Lover Chart God/Ghost/Lover Notes

The God, the Ghost, and the Lover –
Knowledge: Idea, Truth, or Bond

Article to go with video formerly at www.SpokenMinds.net
of July 2007 called "Knowledge as Bond"
See also companion Comparison Chart.

Knowledge – we want it, but what is it? Where is it? The answer given here is that knowledge is a relationship between an organism and features of its environment. It is an adaptation, a familiarity, a partnership, a pattern of mutuality, a bond, a relatedness that endures.

To know is to get to know, to form a bond. To know how to ride a bicycle is to have a relationship, a bond with a bicycle. The bond of this person and the bicycle did not exist before. In the future this person responds differently to bicycles and to situations that might involve moving manually but faster than walking. And in the future metal objects looking like wheels that are in the vicinity will have different likelihoods of being toyed with if not ridden. A person has formed a bond consisting of knowing how to ride a bicycle. A wheeled object has become part of a bond that will maintain it in riding order or maybe damage it abruptly.

Similarly with other knowings – knowing that the earth revolves around the sun, knowing a past relationship to my grandfather – bonds exist that intrude into the probabilities, the associations, the neural circuitry, the actions of our lives.

This conception of knowledge stresses that it is something, that it has roots in our biology, and that like all things biological it has aspects that are functional to the organism.

It is also odd to even bring up the question of what is knowledge. It’s ubiquitous; we take it for granted. If anything, knowledge belongs to that mysterious aspect called mind about which it is only known that it is not physical matter. We have become content to live with a ghost all around us. Our interest has focused on its validity, on its truth as if refers to the material, rather than on it itself. This amounts to having chosen to argue about which ghosts are good while being able to move our focus away from the fact that we are living with them.

Truth has promised a purity that dissolves the knower’s involvement with the known. Real world knowledge, the facts of knowing or being known, and all the corruptions of these actual activities by actual people emotionally and self-interestedly invested in the world can be ignored in the adoration of Truth. Truth is a wonderful ideal. Its pursuit need not deny the fact that people, and institutions, are busily, haphazardly building knowledge relationships, often way less than ideal, that have subtle and far reaching effects in the world quite apart from any ideal truth or even from any validity.

There is another formulation of what knowledge is that is a holdover from an earlier era. We speak of “ideas.” What the hell are these? The concept of “ideas” is really a holdover, a relic of ancient, theological times. Knowledge as “ideas” is a surrogate concept for gods, for the purity of divine intercessions. “Ideas” were divine flashes when the truth-seeking philosopher or priest could hope to participate in the mind of God. “Ideas” were pure forms. To know then was for humans to have imperfect grasps of perfect ideas in God’s mind. The scientific age brought ideas down to earthly things as truths, and we are left with the term and the concept “idea” as an everyday phantom that is nothing in itself except a blank check for purity.

To say that knowledge is a bond is to broach the notion that knowledge is somehow physical. It is. Knowledge is physical in the sense that knowing changes the probabilities of action of both the knower and the known. Knowing that there are fresh vegetables in the refrigerator means that my course of action leading up to dinner will be effected towards or against this salad option while the vegetables have a higher probability of being eaten the more people there are who know about them. Knowing that the Indies were to the east of Europe changed the courses of Iberian sailors and the development of the African and Indian Ocean coasts. Where there is knowledge, there are changed probabilities of interaction. Africa and the Iberian sailors became different in being known and knowing. One could say that the knowledge bond is an interaction probability bond.

This is-ness of knowledge in the sense of being somehow physical works well with what the cognitive scientists are discovering. Rather than finding full blown “ideas” in our heads – whatever this would mean – and rather than finding the corresponding little watching mechanisms to view such supposed ideas as some sort of little movies to be viewed by the little person in the head, what are revealed are very slight modifications of neuronal circuits. Slight chemical changes and slight neuronal circuit weighting changes amount to a physical correlate of changed relationships. Similar changes also show up outside the brain in muscle changes and sensory circuit changes as part of changed relationships to external aspects of the world. All these changes – changed internal circuit weightings and changed external interactive probabilities– are consistent with changed relationships rather than with the old notion of “ideas,” of fantasmal pictures being stuffed in the brain.

A sense of the knowledge relationships as seen by cognitive scientists is reflected in the following quote where the substantive reference is “cycles”:

“Both culturally and individually we construct perception-action cycles that involve attuning ourselves to the world, and the world to ourselves. Many such cycles are constituted primarily by conscious experiences and acts, and their temporal extension, over minutes or hours, goes hand-in-hand with their spatial extension beyond the brain of individual cognizers.”1

“Cycles” that are “attuning” with the world and that have temporal and spatial “extension” amount to relationships or bonds. It is this frame of reference that calls on us to change our picture of knowledge from the ghosts of ideas and truths to a conception that accepts responsibility for our knowing’s enveloping patterns.

To look at what knowledge is is a very different question than the question of what is true which for centuries largely finessed the question of what knowledge is. The trouble is that in finessing the question of the nature of knowledge we have given ourselves a cultural blind spot to the effects of knowledge. It has allowed us to deflect questions of power, of self-interest, of emotional investment, of culture, or of institutional frameworks. And with only a conception of knowledge as nothing in itself but its own validity as “truth,” our researches into the questions of power and so forth have only led to alleged postmodern-type challenges to truth – a no-win, circular game of refutations where the details and the specifics madden rather than offer interest and creativity. The ghost is always right as truest and yet always more as the details of its genesis.

To focus on knowledge rather than truth is to focus on actual relationships and interdependencies of knowers and knowns that truth would finesse in its infatuation with eternity and absoluteness beyond individuals. A knowledge bond has two ends of its relationship – the generating motivations of the knower as investment of her attention and the enveloping attentions and creative changes brought to the object known. Both of these ends of the knowledge relationship have been the subject of critiques for most of the last 100 years which have languished as just that, critiques, that cannot fit into the paradigm of the truth ideal. After a hundred years of psychology’s insights on our emotional and perceptual investments and after a century and a half of sociology’s realization that our needs and social stations determine our thought patterns, and after approximately 40 years of cognitive science’s showing how thinking happens as an extension of our body’s organs, it should be clear that the outgoing aspect of the knowledge bond is deeply tied into the full range of our being. Knowledge is not hardly independent of the knower; it is saturated by the knower. And this is what we realize when we ask questions such as “Why did you mention it?” And it is what people go to therapy for – to find out what objective truth has dehydrated out of their own emotional involvements.

Similarly, on the other end of the knowledge relationship there is a staggering degree of non-independence in the world from our knowing. In knowing things, places, people, and creatures, we transform them, popularize their usage, exploit them, get creative with them, buy and sell them, collect them, protect them, kill them, or breed them. Independence of the knowns?! Ask the native peoples around the world. Think of the defensive and protective remark “What are you looking at?” Many people who are less invested in the refinements of Western epistemology know instinctively that they are not “just being looked at.” The anthropologists have been our era’s missionaries, bringing not beliefs about a god from elsewhere but receiving new beliefs to take back home as the knowledge commerce was expanded in two directions. But this power over knowns changes not just people but also: tourist destinations (think of the cycles from just-discovered to tourist meccas), organisms (compare wheat to his wild predecessors), inventions (think of the history of the telephone), properties of the atom (think of the many inventions from atomic energy to lasers), and so on.

At the same time the knowledge bond changes knowers too. We are changed in knowing. Humans are different since knowing about wheat agriculture, since figuring out telephones, and since industries have grown up to use economic and military developments of atomic theory. Our lives change as we continue to learn and thereby relate to the world differently. I am changed in writing and in straightening out my relationships to an object of study. Beyond the adaptive adjustment of knowing, sometimes the object known manipulates the knower. It is easy to see how costumes and architecture can be used to get perceivers to react by design. More clear, however, is the evolutionary history of fruits and animals where fruits have evolved so that the fruit eaters who know what fruit is are inadvertent spreaders of fruit seeds.

If one takes these three aspects of knowledge – the “cycles” of attunement mentioned by the cognitive scientist, the invested needs of the knower as uncovered by the studies in psychology and sociology, and the enveloping change effects on the knowns described above, then the concept of a knowledge bond looks like a relationship with two ends and a middle. It is useful to think of this biological relationship as analogous to the tendril of a plant that reaches out to wrap around a foreign object for the plant’s own needs such as support or the reception of nutrients. The difference is that animals like ourselves can make and drop such tendril-like relationships very quickly. Sometimes a knowledge bond is very powerful and even all consuming such as with an obsession. Sometimes a knowledge tendril is a mere touch of a thought that flicks in and looks for support within or without before letting go and leaving only a tiny trace. But at any size and duration knowledge is a bond that seeks to make ties between needs and previous bonds on the home side and the possibilities of alliances from features and others on the outside.

One way to make knowledge “tendrils” understandable as describing more than a metaphor is to frame them as adaptations. Thus an academic can say:

“The second track of the argument is the one that many find strange and difficult, and one which has already been partially given in the Preface. It is that adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of ‘incorporation’ of the world into the structure and organization of living things. Because this seems to misappropriate a word, ‘knowledge’, with a widely accepted meaning - knowledge usually just being something that only humans have somewhere in their heads - it makes the argument easier if the statement reads ‘adaptations are biological knowledge, and knowledge as we commonly understand the word is a special case of biological knowledge’.”2

Whatever metaphor one uses – tendril, adaptation, or bond – the important aspect that is worth emphasizing is that knowledge has substance and connectivity and not just validity. It has substance in that it changes reactivities on both ends of this relationship, and it has substance in that the number of people who know or the degree of passion in knowing by anyone makes a difference in the strength of the relationship. It has connectivity in that we live bound, or adapted, to those we know or else sworn enemies so that in both cases changes in one result in changes to the other. And it has substance in that biology is on the way to explicating knowledge and mind as a property of biological systems coping with changing environments. Creatures behave to maintain relationships with features of the environment, and nervous systems evolved to be more responsive to these changing and often contradictory relationships.

The big payoff for turning to knowledge as substantive as a bond is that we can have our cake and eat it too as far as the truth dispute is concerned. Under the sway of the ghost-chasing question of “Is it true?” the growth in understanding of compromised knowers and constructivity vis a vis objects has been a game of subtraction or zero-sum game where more understanding of knowing itself has implied the assumption of less truth and objectivity. But, if we acknowledge that a knowing relationship is always present even before the possibility of accuracy, then we can have both: a relationship for each actual knower to a known as well as “truth” or most accurate social understanding of a known. In this vision of knowledge, truth as used by epistemologists of the objective is really a relationship consistency of high degree around an event. It is facilitated by the opposite of obsession in a knowledge relationship as noted above where the knowing relationship is relatively neutral while still being self-interested and self-motivated. Knowledge as bond offers both the individual, actual aspects of real knowers and the possibility for great unity and consistency of those relationships. The old quest for truth has offered an either-or choice between perfect accuracy and actual knowing relationships. Real people need not be involved. Truth has allegedly been here before us and without us. Sure. Chasing the ghost of truth has turned us into ghosts who are supposed to be part of the God’s-eye-view or the universal subject or the I’m-not-really-here ideal observer or the subject who is supposed to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

The payoffs for turning to knowledge as a substantive bond rather than a god or a ghost continue. A new world of social honesty is opened. It has erroneously been assumed in traditional corridors that opening up social discourse to the personal particularities, investments, perceptions, and so forth would lead to a fractured public discourse. On the contrary the last century has shown the catastrophic masquerade of public dialogue that came about when actors were allowed to ignore their own involvement in “facts.” Politicians, dictators, mass media, even respectable institutions, and the rest of us have been free, even encouraged, to work with “truths” and “facts” that have been shams of self-interest and manipulation.

“And those who want to maintain some version of realism against the various rhetorics of science can nonetheless entertain the claim that the rhetoric-versus-reality trope nourishes despotic discourses. Surely Mr. Goebbels has proved that rhetoric is as real as anything else. Despotism and fanaticism always come wrapped as Truth, and they are most insidious when they ignore, conceal, or deny their own rhetorical character."3

The alternative, that is a win-win, is to nourish the roots of the knowledge relationships, to acknowledge and accept the roots of our own involvement in our knowing while working pragmatically on best practices types of social knowledge. This is already happening. Forced by cultural encounters, therapeutic needs, spiritual awareness practices, practical communication techniques, and business team-building seminars, many people are learning to acknowledge needs, requests, signs of emotional investment from past sources, and other aspects of their selves. In this way subjective investment facts are coming into play alongside objective facts so that both ends of our knowledge relationships can be used to get clarity. On this side of knowledge relationships, on the personal side is located the part of the world with heart, with caring, with needs, and with not only opportunities for clarity in a truth-obsessed culture that would deny them but also with the opportunity for emotional health and vitality of a world ready to tackle the staggering load of human alienation. This is the vista of opportunity for recognizing knowledge as something more than its own success. This new vista of knowledge as our relationships doesn’t force us to see our limitations to a purity chasing “truth”; it lets us use our relational idiosyncracies to see and feel how we are part of the organizing and creative power of lives reaching out in relationships.

Even in the early part of the twentieth century the poet Rilke could see the relationships and effects implied in the creative act of knowing:

"Space reaches from us and construes the world:
to know a tree, in its true element,
throw inner space around it, from that pure
abundance in you. Surround it with restraint.
It has no limits. Not till it is held
in your renouncing is it truly there."4

And this is where a turn to knowledge as relationships rooted in our biological roots opens up a very different view of hope. Instead of error-prone thinkers stumbling towards a pristine, heaven-on-earth perfect Truth, the very possibility of highly consistent relational patterns like facts and truths depends on the growth and integration of these living knowledge relationships. Achievements of great refinement called “truths” are just that – astounding growths of consistency among organisms and their environment. The power of life is the miracle. Life has created our knowing each other. It is the astoundingly rapid spread of adaptations of organisms to features of their environment that led to humans capable of speeding up adaptive relationships which has yielded our present world with astounding relational complexity. Which is more the miracle – the existence of the pyramids and of the Airbus jumbo jet or the millions of knowledge bonds across the globe following and holding these objects into patterns of concern? As objects they are piles of rock or metal waiting for the weather to erode them; as nodes of knowledge relationships they are rock and metal tossed in a symphony of relationships through stories, movies, dreams, repairs, plans, uses, and so on. Truth doesn’t give life; life gives truths.

There is a name given to this aspect of the biosphere – the collective realm of knowledge as an extension of life’s biological activities – the noosphere. It is yet to be articulated. Knowledge relationships with perception-action circuits creating changed probabilities on both ends do this. They also reveal its density as a web of uncountable relationships spread in a blanket across the planet and among us whether in rivalries, exploitations, love, partnerships, designs, memories, schemes, and imaginations. Each of us contributes a sea of these relationships to the noosphere blanket enveloping ourselves.

Knowledge relationships also give visibility to the previously mysterious “mind” as a field of predispositions, inclinations, wants, memories, and all the subtleties of Rilke’s above-mentioned “renouncing.” What we have thought of as mental pollution in the everyday habits of thought are the stuff of mind, the very precondition for mind – the dependencies, the subtleties, the creativities that we notice in our emotional lives of aha’s, of disappointments, and of suspicions. These ubiquitous knowledge relationships are right in front of us and, in concert with thousands of others, can fully explain all the allegedly paranormal psychic phenomena without recourse to elusive spiritual or quantum field hypotheses. The relational field that binds among others is alive with pushes, pulls, and rapid rearrangements.

The several centuries old fascination with truth that relegated knowledge to the sidelines as corrupter in effect made a devilish bargain. The bargain gave an era of humanism the hope of attaining perfect, heavenly quality truths in return for renouncing our corruptible, knowing selves. It was hubris paid for by acknowledging the sinfulness of our knowing. This assessment of the wager of our ancestors points the way forward. In an age now where the enormous power and subtlety of brains and organisms continues to astound into undreamed-of biological beauty, the source of faith can be placed where it should be – with actual knowledge as a product of life. Knowledge shows our learning gains not as conquests against nature in the face of corrupting mental sinfulness but as another miracle of life’s far-reaching power and splendor. To examine what knowledge is in itself and in its biological origins turns trust from overcoming our natures into appreciating our natures.

Life, all around us and as us, is itself still the mystery. Fitting uneasily atop a physics more comfortable with the material, we are well into a new biological age of biotech, ecological realities, and unprecedented discoveries. To find knowledge in biology is a step of realization, a step of faith, and a step of promise. The realization is the understanding of the facets of knowledge discovered so far that lead to the conclusion of relationships of probabilistic reactivities. The faith is in life itself as the foundation of knowledge. And the promise is in a future where knowledge relationships can be understood in all their network properties as life is coming to be understood – hierarchies, network motifs, loops, weak links, multi-causal linkages, emergent phenomena, and so on. But to this question of why does knowledge work anyway, the answer from the life side is not much different than the Pragmatists proposed 100 years ago – when knowing works, it is right. Thus life has always experimented and evolved. To us in the field of life are the extra motivations to reach out in knowing relationships – in delight, in creativity, in play, and in love.

See also companion Comparison Chart among ideas, truth, and bonds.

For references and chart backup see Notes page.

Home Up God/Ghost/Lover Chart God/Ghost/Lover Notes

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