We tend to use a lot of terms about knowledge interchangeably – information, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, etc. This may lead to some confusion, but more importantly, it leads to a lack of coherent structure about what exactly is going on: what kind of potential is available at which stage of our intellectual development, what kinds of benefits can we expect from particular actions, what kind of actionable path is available from our efforts, etc. While there are a number of schemas for organizing such ideas, the following one is my own design, and is my favorite kind of quick-and-dirty model, with clear distinctions by its pyramid structure.
At the bottom, we have Information. Information is nothing more than the sum of all available factoids – atomic facts – unrelated to anything. There are essentially infinite factoids: this is a cup, the cup is green, the cup has a rubber grip, the cup has a plastic top… etc. The key thing to note about information is that it is generally decontextualized, and each factoid is either true or false. Each factoid, on its own, has no function, no potential, no actionable nature. It simply is or is not.
For example, you could make a near-infinite list of factoids just about your immediate surroundings. This pixel is black, this pixel is blue, this is the screen edge, the screen edge is black, the screen is facing 7 degrees west of north… etc. The sheer quantity of information available makes it non-actionable.
Next, there is Understanding. Understanding is comprised of relations between various factoids, in some set manner; relation of factoids 1 and 2, 3 and 4, etc. these relations are not a product of factoids themselves, but of separate system structures. Each of these relations give us a way of integrating different information into larger wholes. The schemes themselves tell us what kind of information belongs to what kind of relation, and allow us to parse through essentially unlimited raw data to extract only the elements useful to the kinds of relations we are interested in.
For example, if I ask you to find something glowing blue (most common led color on computers), you can access the infinite sea of raw data regarding your immediate surroundings, and isolate that one particular datum – and that’s using a query of only two conjoined variables – glowing and blue.
The understanding level can also be understood as creating functions, by relating information in schematized, and sometimes layered ways. In mathematics, for example, each basic function is a series of relations. So, addition is a relation, subtraction is a relation, the order of operations is a relation, etc. So, in addition to parsing through the raw data, understanding also allows us to make some use of that data, by relating different bits of information together in particular ways. This process can also layer the relations, so that we have relations of relations of data, and so on.
For example, Relation A is stone-to-water relation, (stone sinks in water). Relation B is pool noodle-to-water relation (pool noodle floats in water). Relation C is comparative-density-to flotation relation (objects sink or float in a medium as a function of their density relative to the medium). Putting the three relations together, we get something like a basic syllogism, that gives us: stone is denser than pool noodle.
The next level is Knowledge. Knowledge represents the sum of all relevant relations in some particular field. It is what we would call expertise. The difference between understanding and knowledge is that understanding is achieved as soon as we have one relation in place, but knowledge requires all the relations to be present. Following on the math example, when a child has grasped addition, we can say that they understand some part of mathematics. We would not say that they know math. One can know basic math operations, or can know algebra, or calculus, etc. You’ll notice that each of these areas of knowledge includes the preceding ones – so that knowing calculus requires knowledge of basic math and algebra and trig, etc. This allows us to speak of knowing a thing, without accidentally including the sum total of all knowledge, by limiting the sphere of relations we are including.
You may have noticed that knowing is not very different than layered understanding. In fact, knowledge is here defined as the pinnacle of layered understanding of some group of relations – like algebra. What knowledge adds to our pyramid is the idea of maximized potential for the particular sphere of interest. It tells us when we have exhausted the known relations of a subject. Knowledge, as the sum of relevant relations, gives us the ability to act in a highly functional way, by ensuring that we’re not missing possibly crucial relations. While action is available the level of understanding, the possible lack of important relations can lead to bad decisions.
Finally, we have the stage of Wisdom. Wisdom is an attribute we all aspire to. What is interesting, is that while knowledge can be passive (we can know what to do, but fail to do it, and still have knowledge), wisdom is inherently active, and failure to act defines us as unwise. The level of Wisdom is composed of two attributes joined together: Knowledge and Ethics. Knowledge is simply the knowledge from the preceding level. Ethics is a bit more complicated.
What is meant here by ethics is not a theory of morality as espoused by some particular system – religious or secular. Instead, ethics represents the person’s idea of how the world should be. That idea then provides a motivation to make the world fit that image. The motivation serves to provide some kind of a goal, for which the action will be a means of attaining that goal. The content of the person’s ethics is irrelevant here; it only matters that there is an ethic that provides motivation.
With a goal in mind, we use our knowledge to figure out the best way to act to get us to the goal. Whether an action is wise or not, depends on whether our actions actually take us in the direction of our goal or not, and whether the chosen action is the best way of getting there. Wise actions are those that do both.
You’ll notice that, although the system here uses ethics, it is actually free of morality. Thus, two people with the same knowledge can use it for radically different actions – because their goals – that is their ethics – are entirely different. A chemical engineer can go into the pharmaceutical field to develop cures for degenerative neuron diseases – like Parkinson’s. However, they could just as easily go into military R&D to develop nerve gasses that will create degenerative neuron illness. The skillset is identical, but the application differs only on the basis of ethics. Similarly, penetration testing and hacking are the exact same skills, with one designed to prevent hacking and the other to encourage it. Again, the only difference is in the ethics – which provides the motivation for how to use the knowledge one has.
This approach can be understood through a travel analogy:
Ethics is the destination we are attempting to reach from our current position. For the sake of the analogy, let’s make it a far-off destination – like going from Tampa to Seattle. The “how the world should be” is with us in Seattle. Now, going back to the bottom, information is a map (let’s make it a paper map, to make things a bit easier). The map has all sorts of roads, highways, signs, etc. all over it. Just having a map does not tell us our destination, nor does the vast majority of the information on that map matter to us. With our goal in mind, we move into understanding, and start selecting the relevant information off the map, and grouping it into sets that define different stages of our trip. For example: how to get from my house to the highway, which way to head on the highway, which major highway splits I have to account for with turns, etc. Once we have all the relevant information, we know how to travel from Tampa to Seattle – not by just one line, but by numerous routes. The final part – wisdom – then also adds things like preferences. Perhaps we want to take the scenic route, or the fastest one, or maybe we want to avoid highways altogether, because we’re riding a unicycle. Whatever the specifics, the destination, provided by ethics, is also supplemented by additional preferences, all of which add up to our motivation. All these motivations then use the knowledge of getting to Seattle, to select the option that best suits the motivation, and get us on the road. The same method would apply whether we wanted to fly, walk, take a train, or sail to Seattle. All such details are a matter of preference, which is part of the ethics.
The key point is that this process does not work unidirectionally. That is, one does not simply start at the bottom and grind their way to the top. Instead, it is a bidirectional process, which is mutually supportive (also known as a reciprocal process). To use the travel analogy, destination without directions is useless – we would have no way of getting to where we want to be. Directions, without a destination, are equally useless – directions to New York don’t mean anything if we haven’t decided where to go, and so we can’t really act on the knowledge. Thus, the goal of the destination provides us with a rough schema for understanding, and tells us what to look for. In this process, we end up finding elements of relations that inform our ethics, and may alter them (you can’t walk across an ocean, so walking to Australia is not a functional goal). This, in turn amends the kinds of relations we’re using, and so on, until the destination and directions (goals and means, or ethics and knowledge) come together to provide an actionable path.