What Is Knowledge?


What is knowledge?

We all possess some of it. We can grow it. We can use it. We can share it. We can store it. We can even retrieve it, although our abilities to do so may diminish over time.

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As I was on my morning walk that serves to sustain both my physical and my mental fitness, that simple question entered my mind – without even the slightest invitation or intention on my part. My having acquaintance with the concept, gained through prior experiences and associations, is knowledge defined, so why the question? But what is it really?

We live in a physical universe governed by laws of science and nature. Employing our gifts of intellect and curiosity, we continually seek greater understanding of everything within our sphere of existence and their governance. Having recently completed voluntary participation in a study evaluating mental and brain stimulation for older adults at the UF Center for Cognitive Aging & Memory, I came to know individuals in the medical science community working diligently to peel off new levels of understanding regarding aspects of the human body that come into play.

Understandings of how information is processed, stored, and activated within our brains are increasing, as are the roles of our senses in feeding information into those systems. But as new levels of comprehension arise, our curious wonderment about new, deeper levels of discovery only increases. While teams of scientists are mapping the circuitry of our brains and modeling its applications, others have moved on, seeking to validate and explain such phenomena as brain waves and telepathy.

Although we acknowledge that knowledge exists and that we have some comprehension of what it is, we are still a long way from knowing how inputs from our senses (including emotions) are shaped and stored in our brains as information and how that data becomes knowledge. We also have indications of inputs beyond our senses, possibly rationalizing religious beliefs regarding spiritual links to a god. There are still so many unanswered questions.

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From this first seemingly simple question, my mind set out to wander down a trio of avenues of contemplation. One involved the breadth and depth of God’s creation mysteries and the possibility of them being infinite. That led to a second path and a search for the residence of our values and beliefs and their relationships with knowledge. My third avenue of thought sought to explore additional lanes for communication, possibly even involving a holy spirit.

In Jewish tradition, creation appears both bounded and part of a never-ending plan. In Ben Sira’s book of wisdom (Ecclesiasticus), we read:

“Listen to me, my child, and acquire knowledge, and pay close attention to my words. I will impart discipline precisely and declare knowledge accurately. When the Lord created his works from the beginning and, in making them, determined their boundaries, he arranged his works in an eternal order, and their dominion for all generations.” (Sirach 16:24-27)
When we move into the Christian era, we know the sphere of existential knowledge about creation had expanded, and we see even greater expressions of life eternal. We also see an aspect of boundlessness applied to God’s love, as recounted in Romans 8:31:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Just as our minds are prone to entertain unsolicited thoughts, so are they prone to chase rabbits down their holes, as mine did with the striking contradiction between God’s love being infinite and the possibility of hell as a final resting place. Although some individuals may experience episodes of “hell on earth,” my acceptance of the boundless nature of God’s love makes it impossible for me to conceive a God of mine drawing a definitive line in the continuum of human behaviors to separate heaven-bound souls from those relegated to an eternity of damnation. It may be easy to sort those nearer the behavioral extremes, but what loving God could possibly cast such a decisive line of demarcation through the multitudes with such divergent consequences?

If God’s love knows no limits, then the prospect of an afterlife of damnation must be an intentional lie, not unlike the Santa Claus myth, fabricated with intent to encourage our better behavior. Further, I wonder whether any behaviors will be altered by my suggestion that hell is a grand fabrication. Fortunately, my daughter continued to help us propagate the myth of Santa Claus even after she knew the truth – but with the addition of carrots for his reindeer.

Enough of this meandering into beliefs about love and judgment! Let us direct the focus of our minds back to the search for more insights into the breadth of God’s creation mysteries.
As suggested by John Wesley, our scriptures and traditions need to be bolstered by our experiences and reason if we are to reach belief-affirming conclusions regarding the vastness of God’s creation mysteries. As our knowledge has grown, so has the depth of our comprehension such that we can, without betrayal of our core beliefs, accept some Biblical teachings as allegory based on the writers’ levels of knowledge at the time.

During just my lifetime there have been phenomenal advances in our understanding of the intricacies of our existence, and still there are no indications that we are approaching completeness. Regarding our bodies, we have gone from understanding the makeup of cells to the complete mapping of DNA and the honing of techniques for its manipulation. When we thought that protons and neutrons were the smallest building blocks of matter, physicists presented evidence of even smaller units they call quarks. Regarding the expansive bounds of space unveiled, the James Webb Space Telescope recently provided stunning new images of two distant galaxies as they existed more than 13.4 billion years ago.

Through eons of searching to complete our understanding of God’s creation, we have yet to come to finality regarding even a single aspect. I envision God delighting in each new level of understanding that our gifts lead us to – so long as what we do with that knowledge is good. Our experiences clearly suggest that discoveries which further enhance our knowledge and our understanding of God’s creation will continue with no end in sight.

This conclusion is reinforced by consideration of what might happen if humankind did reach complete understanding of creation. That would make us gods, and the ramifications of that, absent perfected values to go along with complete knowledge, would be catastrophic.
Human attainment of new levels of knowledge that enable tinkering with human reproduction and altering the codes of unborn beings vividly illustrates the vital necessity for widely embraced guardian values that guide and constrain societies’ applications of knowledge gained. But what are values and where do they reside?

In many ways, values appear very similar to knowledge. Values can be taught, learned, and shared. They can be further molded over time through study, experiences, and reflection. Just like knowledge, values are processed repeatedly and validated in our minds as part of the storage and retrieval processes. When the time comes to grasp the true measure of one’s values, actions are the revealer. While it seems that normal actions are governed by the merged interests of knowledge and values, there arise special circumstances when values supersede knowledge and heroes are born.

We might consider beliefs to be knowledge with less empirical backing that help shape our values because they help us address such probing questions as, why? It seems that the realm of beliefs is everything beyond our comprehension and/or our ability to satisfactorily explain, and that convictions are our actions as guided by the merger of our values and beliefs.

Our culture has devised a characterization of how values and beliefs come to influence our behavior. The good angel on one shoulder is a steadfast champion of our values and all that is good. The bad angel on the other shoulder advocates for bad behaviors and the satisfaction of our most vile impulses. Although this clever image helps us visualize the workings of value-driven influences, it does not provide insight into the actual mechanisms at work.

Several years ago, neuroscientists at MIT shared evidence of low-frequency brain waves, known as beta rhythms, that help govern when information is moved to working memory where it can influence behavior. Subsequent studies are seeking to better explain internal mechanisms of both our conscious and unconscious minds. Still to be answered is the question of whether there can also be external non-sensory sources of direct input to our minds and our thinking.

What is the scientific explanation for the sensed phenomena we have characterized as a good angel sitting on our shoulder, and is its origin internal, external or both? Might there be actual scientific validation for seances? Are premonitions unconscious advance analyses of possibilities or are they alerts from remote guardian angels? These are remaining wonders to be explored.

Knowing the advancements of our knowledge such that we now comprehend an atmosphere around us flowing with radio signals and Bluetooth messages and microwaves and photons and …, it is not much of a stretch to accept the probability of other yet-to-be-explained mechanisms of communication. Couple that with personal experiences where insights and guidance have come to us with seemingly no ties to stored information in our brains, we must conclude that we have at our avail communication links to a spirit realm. Rather than fret about our lack of justification regarding spiritual communication, the best thing we can do is seek and secure our link to the source of all knowledge so that we are advantaged by guidance on what is true for the betterment of our lives.


About the Author

Edwin (Ed) Darling is a retired engineer living in Ocala, FL. He is married and has an adult daughter. A regular church goer, he sings in the choir and holds a leadership position in his church. Throughout his career in technical management, he worked to refine his creative skills and enjoys bringing new creations to life – whether entire processing facilities, shop projects, musical compositions, or writings.


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