Discussion 4: The currency of the Mind

It always comes down to the money…

In the Introduction to this dialog, the discussion touched on that Great Fact of Life, that nothing in life comes free. When it comes to the human mind, the assimilation of every unit of knowledge comes at a cost, which in an indirect way, can be said to place a value on all assimilated knowledge.

To pursue this analogy of the valuation that evolution has placed on knowledge assimilation, we must delve into the very nature of knowledge itself.

In the real world, there is no physical force that correlates Time and Space, it is only the abstract fancy of man that deems to establish that correspondence, the act of which becomes the fundamental first step from which all other intellectual activity follows.

Surely, even the meager intellectual proficiency of Early Man could make the mental leap of connecting the setting of the Sun with the cooling of the evening air, and thus bridging two separate perceptions in time into one spatial concept, however primitive that concept might have been.

This abstract correspondence of Space and Time lies at the root of all that we retrospectively call “knowledge”, and the trunk and branches and leaves that have blossomed from this generic tap root is both complex and singular.

It seems obvious that we must obtain knowledge before we can use it. And certainly, knowledge is more of a process than an object to be possessed, like an art painting or a stamp in a collection. Yet how does the human organism obtain knowledge?

In his book, Changing Order, the British sociologist Harry Collins likens knowledge to the amusing metaphor of “ships in a bottle”, emphasizing the cultural participation in the collectivization of knowledge. But new knowledge is the product of individual experience. Once conceived, it can be shaped and fashioned collectively, but this cultural contribution is after the fact.

Intuitively, we feel that obtaining knowledge is a constructive process, where knowledge is built up in successive steps. This generalization hints that the process of obtaining knowledge depends on the knowledge obtained prior to it.

Unfortunately, this assertion seductively leads the discussion into an endless regression. If the process of obtaining knowledge of Z requires the previous knowledge of Y, then the process of obtaining knowledge of Y must require the prior knowledge of X, and so on. So where does this continuous recursion end? At some point there must be found the seed of the knowledge process, the root of the recursion loop.

Although there is considerable controversy among philosophers concerning various forms of knowledge, it can be said that there are two forms of fundamental knowledge, which are generally termed as knowledge by acquaintance, or knowledge of things, and knowledge by mediation, or knowledge about things.

The historic controversy surrounding the philosophy of these two concepts is varied, with some academics even discounting the philosophical significance of one or the other.

In 1890, the influential American philosopher William James, agreeing that there were two fundamental kinds of knowledge, wrote:

“I am acquainted with many people and things, which I know very little about, except their presence in the places where I have met them. I know the color blue when I see it, and the flavor of a pear when I taste it; I know an inch when I move my fingers through it, a second of time when I feel it pass, an effort of attention when I make it, a difference between two things when I notice it, but about the inner nature of these facts or what makes them what they are, I can say nothing at all. I cannot impart acquaintance with them to anyone who has not already made it himself. I cannot describe them, make a blind man guess what blue is like, or tell a philosopher in just what respect distance is just what it is, and differs from other forms of relation. At most, I can say to my friends, ‘Go to certain places and act in certain ways, and these objects will probably come’”.

On the contrary, when one is not directly and immediately acquainted with a fact, such as a weather report in a distant city, we speak of knowledge by mediation. In arguing against a consideration of knowledge by acquaintance, the American philosopher Roderick Chisholm examines whether or not we can actually be aware of the contents or our experiences. Another American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, asserts that acquaintance theory has not been sufficiently evaluated, and that in order for the theory to be validated, the range of sense impressions that imparts “knowledge” must be fully accounted for by an “exhaustive list”, and each type of impression must be meticulously scrutinized as a prospect.

There are innumerable other philosophical deliberations over the essence of knowledge, and where those philosophical controversies unavoidably devolve into an endless circle of self-referencing words, the Organon Sutra looks to where Nature and evolution have already found solutions.

In the design of the Organon Sutra, this is more than a philosophical debate, because there is compelling evidence that Nature has not only mediated the very issue of the fundamental essence of knowledge, but she has proffered her own conclusion.

If we examine the paths that the mammalian senses follow from their particular transduction apparatus (eyes convert light waves, the inner ear transduces sound waves, the touch sense transmits nano-capacitance effects, etc,) to their particular processing area in the central nervous system, it is striking that smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus in the limbic area of the brain. All of our other senses (sight, touch, hearing) have direct connections to the thalamus (also located in the limbic area of the brain), before proceeding on to each sense processing modality.

And it has been demonstrated that the hippocampus in humans plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, which is the very definition of knowledge assimilation we are discussing.

Now certainly, there is considerable speculation on the specific neurophysiological role that these smell and taste sense afferents to the hippocampus have with respect to the overall functioning of the CNS, but it is striking that evolution would single out just those two, almost carnal and visceral senses of smell and taste for direct input to the hippocampus, and indicative that Nature has already discriminated between the knowledge of “things that it experiences” and the knowledge of things that are constructed from alternate modalities.

There are a multitude of implications that can be made from this observation, many of which will be pursued in this dialog, so while the philosophers are debating the epistemology and ontological implications of the concept of knowledge, we will move on with our concrete definition of knowledge, the definition which first distinguishes between the knowledge of things, and the knowledge about things.

And more importantly, we will move on possessing a hint at the two processes that lie at the very heart of any approach in artificial intelligence. The first is of course the process of knowledge assimilation. The second is the process of knowledge acquisition itself. For as we shall see, the assimilation of knowledge will depend to a large extent on the modality in which that knowledge is acquired. And as the dialog has asserted, all knowledge assimilation has a cost, so we would expect Nature to show us how she minimizes this cost, in the way that intelligent organisms acquires knowledge.

And therein we find the next step in the journey.



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