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  The Acquisition of Knowledge  

Since this is your (or at least my) main business, I think it's worth while trying to think a little about the general idea of the acquisition of knowledge - a subject that has itself been the subject of educational, philosophical and scientific speculation for many years.

Here are a few interpretations of the acquisition of knowledge:

David Deutsch 1997 Chapter 1

Richard Dawkins

'Our brains have been built by natural selection to assess probability and risk, just as our eyes have been built to assess electromagnetic wavelength. We are equipped to make mental calculations of risk and odds, within the range of improbabilities that would be useful in human life. This means risks of the order of say, being gored by a buffalo if we shoot an arrow at it, being struck by lightening if we shelter under a lone tree in a thunderstorm, or drowning if we try to swim across a river. These acceptable risks are commensurate with our lifetimes of a few decades. If we were biologically capable of living for a million years, and wanted to do so, we should assess risks quite differently. We should make a habit of not crossing roads, for instance, for if you crossed a road every day for half a million years you would undoubtedly be run over.'

Dawkins, the Blind Watchmaker, p162

Dawkins makes this point with regard to assessing probabilities and in frustration at our general inability to see phenomena such as 'coincidence' in perspective, but his point is more general too, and concerns our imaginations and therefore how we understand and perceive knowledge. It suggests that our difficulties with certain concepts, scales of measurement and ideas - in other words, with the way in which our imaginations deal with 'unnatural' phenomenon - such as much of twentieth century science - is itself controlled by our origins. It is a strain for us - even impossible - to properly understand inter-stellar distances, the relationship between the probable, the possible and the unimaginable, the workings of our own brains, even some human products - because our minds are not designed to be like that - or rather, because in terms of natural selection, it has not been in our interests to be able to think like that. Of course, it works the other way, too - if our minds were designed to be more like that, we would see things very differently. In the example above, if we lived for a half a million years apiece, then presumably our modes of transport would be very different.

The impressive thing about this to me is the way in which such apparently unrelated ideas - here longevity and modes of transport, can be so seemlessly linked. Why should there not be other, equally unlikely, possibly startling, and hopefully more profound links to be made?


Pierre Duhem

Scientific progress has often been compared to a mounting tide; applied to the evolution of physical theories, this comparison seems to us very appropriate, and it may be pursued in further detail.
Whoever casts a brief glance at the waves striking a beach does not see the tide mount; he sees a wave rise, run, uncurl itself, and cover a narrow strip of sand, then withdraw by leaving dry the terrain which it had seemed to conquer, a new wave follows, sometimes going a little farther than the preceding one, but also sometimes not even reaching the sea shell made wet by the former wave. But under this superficial to-and-fro motion, another movement is produced, deeper, slower, imperceptible to the casual observer; it is a progressive movement continuing steadily in the same direction and by virtue of it the sea constantly rises. The going and coming of the waves is the faithful image of those attempts at explanation which arise only to be crumbled, which advance only to retreat; underneath there continues the slow and constant progress whose flow steadily conquers new lands, and guarantees to physical doctrines the continuity of a tradition.

P Duhem The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Princeton University Press, 1954


Vannevar Bush

The process by which the boundaries of knowledge are advanced, and the structure of organised science is built, is a complex process indeed. It corresponds fairly well with the exploitation of a difficult quarry for its building materials and the fitting of these into an edifice; but there are very significant differences. First, the material itself is exceedingly varied, hidden and overlaid with relatively worthless rubble...Second, the whole effort is highly unorganised. There are no direct orders from architect or quarrymaster. Individuals and small bands proceed about their business unimpeded and uncontrolled, digging where they will, working over their material and tucking it into place in the edifice.
Finally, the edifice itself has a remarkable property, for its form is predestined by the laws of logic and the nature of human reasoning. It is almost as though it had once existed, and its building blocks had then been scattered, hidden and buried, each with its unique form retained so that it would fit only in its own particular position, and with the concomitant limitation that the blocks cannot be found or recognised until the building of the structure has progressed to the point where their position and form reveal themselves to the discerning eye of the talented worker in the quarry. Parts of the edifice are being used while the construction proceeds, by reason of the applications of science, but other parts are merely admired for their beauty and symmetry, and their possible utility is not in question.
In these circumstances it is not at all strange that the workers proceed in erratic ways. There are those who are quite content, given a few tools, to dig away unearthing odd blocks, piling them up in the view of fellow workers, and apparently not caring whether they fit anywhere or not. Unfortunately there are also those who watch carefully until some industrious group digs out a particular ornamental block; whereupon they fit it in place with much gusto, and bow to the crowd. Some groups do not dig at all, but spend all their time arguing as to the exact arrangement of a cornice or an abutment. Some spend all their days trying to pull down a block or two that a rival has put in place. Some indeed, neither dig nor argue, but go along with the crowd, scratch here and there, and enjoy the scenery. Some sit by and give advice and some just sit.
On the other hand there are those men of rare vision who can grasp well in advance just the block that is needed for rapid advance on a section of the edifice to be possible, who can tell by some subtle sense where it will be found, and who have an uncanny skill in cleaning away dross and bringing it into the light. These are the master workmen. For each of them there can be many of lesser stature who chip and delve, industriously, but with little grasp of what it is all about, and who nevertheless make the great steps possible.
There are those who can give the structure meaning, who can trace its evolution from early times, and describe the glories that are to be, in ways that inspire those who work and those who enjoy. They bring the inspiration that not all is mere building of monotonous walls, and that there is architecture even though the architect is not seen to guide and order...
There are also the old men, whose days of vigorous building are done, whose eyes are too dim to see the details of the arch or the needed form of its keystone, but who have built a wall here and there, and lived long in the edifice; who have learned to love it and who have even grasped a suggestion of its ultimate meaning; and who sit in the shade and encourage the young men.

V Bush, Endless Horizons, Public Affairs Paper, Washington, 1990

NB The above extracts are themselves quoted in John D Barrow, Impossibility, the Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, OUP, 1998


The peculiar thing here is that although these quotations are referring specifically to scientific knowledge, the metaphors quite clearly relate to other forms of knowledge as well - or at least knowledge that refers to a broad range of activities. I think that the important thing to recognise is that using this rather optimistic view (and there are plenty of more pessimistic ones), even though we may not see the overall structure of our contribution, we can see the structure of past contributions, (and as our knowledge of our evolution and history increases, so can we see the structure of the contributions of all living things). This view also leaves a clear place for intuition - although it does not guarantee that that which has been achieved through intuition will be in any way worthwhile in the long run. However, it does admit that knowledge discovered through what appears to be intuition has, in the past, made a considerable and probably essential contribution to our understanding of the world. Of course, it does not even attempt to comprehend what intuition is.