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What Is Knowledge?

August 3, 2012

I’ve spent all day today reading David Deutsche’s book The Beginning of Infinity.  He began speaking about the nature of knowledge, and I want to share a short passage from his book.  He brings up a fascinating idea about what actually happens when we colonize a new location, using a lunar space colony as an example.  What happens when our knowledge and thought processes are infused into “new soil”?

… consider the enormous difference between how an environment will behave spontaneously (that is to say, in the absence of knowledge) and how it behaves once a tiny sliver of knowledge, of just the right kind, has reached it. We would normally regard a lunar colony, even after it has become self-sufficient, as having originated on Earth. But what, exactly, will have originated on Earth? In the long run, all its atoms have originated on the moon (or the asteroids). All the energy that it uses has originated in the sun. Only some proportion of its knowledge came from Earth, and, in the hypothetical case of a perfectly isolated colony, that would be a rapidly dwindling proportion. What has happened, physically, is that the moon has been changed – initially only minimally – by matter that came from the Earth. And what made the difference was not the matter, but the knowledge that it encoded. In response to that knowledge, the substance of the moon reorganized itself in a new, increasingly extensive and complex way, and started to create an indefinitely long stream of ever-improving explanations. A beginning of infinity.

– David Deutsche, from The Beginning of Infinity

Our first space probes are like seeds, which examine the land and report back to us the situation there.  Next we use our knowledge to come up with a game plan, and we send the first people and robots there to build a colony.  Similar to how a flower seed takes the dirt around it and transforms it into something entirely different, we have the potential to travel throughout the cosmos and transform entire planets into something new.  The lifeless rocks and dust start to reorganize under the direction of our knowledge, and the atoms of the moon’s rocks and dirt become people and bustling cities.

Have you ever sat and pondered the potential that exists within the matter around you?  I oftentimes go walking down the creek and admire the rocks and the flowing water.  Right now those rocks are lifeless and rather boring, but what if you crushed them up and transformed them into computers?  If you then programmed them correctly with the right code, those same rocks would work tirelessly, night and day, sequencing genetic codes, curing diseases, solving complex engineering problems, and could even entertain us with video games or stream movies to us.  Those rocks could drive cars, construct appliances, fly airplanes, operate trains, run your business, print out books, or even simulate the universe, and that’s assuming we’re only using today’s technology.  What are computers capable of?  What about when they’re exponentially faster and more powerful?

It’s interesting to think about the process by which we human beings infuse our knowledge into the world around us.  It’s even more interesting to draw out the implications and think about what that ‘knowledge’ actually is.

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