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What should knowledge be like?

The way we handle knowledge is historical and accidental

Perhaps no rational person would argue that knowledge should not be useful; or that information should not provide us the big picture and general, direction-setting insights, but only details.

There is, however, a reason why we don't have a culture of big-picture knowledge – and the reason is historical.

In spite of all the fruitfulness on particulars, dogmatic rigidity prevailed on the matter of principles: In the beginning (if there was such a thing), God created Newton's laws of motion together with the necessary masses and forces. This is all; everything beyond this follows from the development of appropriate mathematical methods by means of deduction.

This excerpt from Einstein's Autobiographical Notes, where he describes physics at the point when he entered it as a graduate student, around the turn of last century, will provide us a snapshot of that history at the point where modern physics stepped in.

Einstein continues by explaining this state of affairs, the belief that Newton's or scientific concepts corresponded with reality in an objective sense, as a consequence of the omnipresent successes of science, in both explaining the natural phenomena and in changing the human condition. A complete model of the clockwork of nature appeared to be within reach, or even as having been reached already. It seemed plausible that this would not only enable us to understand the observable phenomena, but even to control them, to subdue them to our human purposes and desires. Science organized itself as a collection of disciplines, whose goal was divide and conquer the mechanics of nature. The scientific "reality picture" replaced the old Biblical one in education, and in the modern mind.

And then it all exploded – with the bomb that fell on Hiroshima! The mass, and the matter itself, turned out to be convertible into energy. Even the passage of time – once the very epitome of objectivity – turned out to be relative.

The future of knowledge is now in our hands

Necessarily, the giants of modern science saw that what they were discovering was not only physics, or neurology – but that the bare foundations of how we think and create knowledge were emerging from the ground. Having thus lost its secure bearings in "objective reality", science acquired a whole new capability – to self-reflect. And through self-reflection to understand its own limitations, and the limitations of our knowledge and our knowing.

We are about to see that when we combine their insights, when we "stand on their shoulders" – then a whole new foundation for the creation of truth and meaning can be perceived as a natural next step in this process. A foundation that is both academically rigorous and that empowers us to create the kind of knowledge we need.

These images are ideograms

Pictures that are worth one thousand words

Not all pictures are worth one thousand words; but these ideograms are!

By using the ideograms we shall at the same time demonstrate big-picture science and its power. Recall that the philosophical systems of Hegel and Husserl took thousands of pages! Here only a handful of ideograms will suffice to summarize the philosophical findings of giants, and combine them into a paradigm. Our core purpose being to ignite a conversation, this very concise presentation will serve us best.

Also for brevity's sake, we shall allow Einstein to represent all other giants. In Federation through Stories we will give a voice to others. But here only Einstein will appear, in his usual role of the iconic "modern scientist". So as we quote Einstein, you may interpret his words as "modern science" lifting us up on her shoulders, and helping us see further.

Repurposing knowledge

Seeing ourselves in the mirror

Magical Mirror.jpg
Mirror ideogram

On every university campus there is a mirror – which, being so busy with article deadlines and courses, we tend to overlook.

When we look at this mirror, we see the same world that we see around us. But we also see ourselves in the world!

We in this way realize that we are not those disembodied spirits hovering over the world and looking at it objectively we believed we were. We are people living in the world and creating the world – and responsible for it.

We cannot really know reality

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.
This often quoted excerpt from Einstein and Infeld's Evolution of Physics will serve us as a snapshot of that very moment when modern science saw itself in the metaphorical mirror. We are not discovering reality by looking through the objective prism of scientific concepts and methods. The scientific theories – and the very methods by which they are created, and the concepts in terms of which they are expressed – are really our own that is human creations.

All we can do is make models. And our reason is amiss when it even tries to imagine a procedure by which we could confirm that our models correspond to the real thing.

During philosophy’s childhood it was rather generally believed that it is possible to find everything which can be known by means of mere reflection. (...) Someone, indeed, might even raise the question whether, without something of this illusion, anything really great can be achieved in the realm of philosophical thought – but we do not wish to ask this question. This more aristocratic illusion concerning the unlimited penetrative power of thought has as its counterpart the more plebeian illusion of naïve realism, according to which things “are” as they are perceived by us through our senses. This illusion dominates the daily life of men and animals; it is also the point of departure in all the sciences, especially of the natural sciences.

This second excerpt, from Einstein's comments on Bertrand Russell's theory of knowledge, will suggest that the common supposition that our conceptions of the world correspond to reality has been a result of illusions.

But if the goal of our pursuit of knowledge is to distinguish real truth from illusion – how can we rely on a criterion (correspondence with reality) that is impossible to verify? And which is itself a product of illusion?

Academic reality on the other side of the mirror

As the case is in Louis Carroll's familiar story, from which the mirror metaphor has been borrowed, this academic mirror too can be walked right through! And when we do that, we find ourselves in an entirely different academic reality – where familiar things are turned upside down; and where we recognize, to our surprise, that they are far more stable, and serve us a lot better in that way.

You may now understand Knowledge federation as a model or prototype of the academic reality on the other side of the mirror.

What makes this apparent magic academically possible is what Villard Van Orman Quine called truth by convention. In "Truth by Convention", Quine posited that

The less a science has advanced, the more its terminology tends to rest on an uncritical assumption of mutual understanding. With increase of rigor this basis is replaced piecemeal by the introduction of definitions. The interrelationships recruited for these definitions gain the status of analytic principles; what was once regarded as a theory about the world becomes reconstrued as a convention of language. Thus it is that some flow from the theoretical to the conventional is an adjunct of progress in the logical foundations of any science.

So if that is how the sciences progress – why not allow knowledge work at large to progress in the same way?

Truth by convention is the kind of truth that is common in mathematics: "Let x be... Then..." It is meaningless to ask whether x "really is" as stated.

What makes 'the magic' possible, of 'walking through the mirror', is that the truth on the other side is (by convention) the truth by convention. We call this basic convention the methodology.

Truth becomes rigorous

It stands to reason that our foundations for creating truth and meaning should themselves be unshakable.

The foundations we've just sketched are made solid in three ways independently:

  • They are a convention – and what's asserted in this way is true by definition, irrespective of what happens "in reality"
  • This convention express the state-of-the-art epistemological knowledge, and the insights of giants
  • The convention – the methodology – is conceived as a prototype; it has provisions for updating itself, when relevant new insights are reached

Knowledge becomes useful

Consider now the task of adapting knowledge and knowledge work to some timely purpose, such as 'showing the way'. If we should say that knowledge "really does" have that purpose, we'd surely run into a controversy. Someone would object that this is not really the case, and rightly so!

Everything changes when we allow ourselves to create conventions, and to create a specific methodology in that way, and a multiplicity of methodologies! We can now assign a purpose to knowledge, simply by making a convention!

In this way, we have at once liberated knowledge from its age-old subservience to "reality" (and therewith also with the age-old traditional procedures and methods which, we tend to assume, secure that knowledge will correspond with reality) – and by the same sleight of hand assigned it another purpose, the purpose of orienting us in the complex reality.

By combining truth by convention with the creation of a methodology, knowledge work becomes securely established on the academic terrain that Herbert Simon called "the sciences of the artificial". The sciences of the artificial, according to Simon, do not study what objectively exists in the natural world – but man-made things, with the goal of adapting them to the purposes they serve in the human world.

Liberating knowledge and knowledge work

Creating the way we look at the world

Polyscopy ideogram

Our theme – or better said our "reversal" here is (of) the meaning, creation and usage of concepts, methods, and information itself. As the above ideogram may suggest, the approach proposed here allows us to perceive such basic nuts and bolts of our work with knowledge differently, realize that we can turn them around – and be able to see a lot more than what the conventional disciplinary science, or our traditional ways of handling information more generally, would allow us to.

Our prototype methodology – by which this reversal is made concrete, or even possible – is called Polyscopic Modeling. What we call polyscopy is the praxis it fosters. Usually, however, we simply refer to both as polyscopy.

The central notion in polyscopy is the scope – which is by definition whatever determines how we look at the world and what we see. This then includes first of all our concepts and methods.

The Polyscopy ideogram stands for the fact that at the point where we've come to see our scopes as our own creation and not our discovery, then it becomes natural to adapt them to the purpose of seeing what above all needs to be seen.

From the pen of our giant

Science is the attempt to make the chaotic diversity of our sense-experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought.

This, and the next quotation of our chosen giant, will give us a clue how exactly we may use this approach to liberate our view of the world from disciplinary and terminological constraints.

I shall not hesitate to state here in a few sentences my epistemological credo. I see on the one side the totality of sense experiences and, on the other, the totality of the concepts and propositions that are laid down in books. (…) The system of concepts is a creation of man, together with the rules of syntax, which constitute the structure of the conceptual system. (…) All concepts, even those closest to experience, are from the point of view of logic freely chosen posits, just as is the concept of causality, which was the point of departure for this inquiry in the first place.

This is how Einstein stated his "epistemological credo" on the introductory pages of his Autobiographical Notes. Already the fact that a scientist should begin his personal account of the development of modern physics by stating an "epistemological credo" is significant – Isn't that exactly what we are doing here, on this page?

You'll notice that there is no mention of "reality" in the above excerpts; only "the sense-experience" on the one side, and "the system of concepts" and "syntax" or method on the other. This latter part, posits Einstein, is "freely chosen", and even "the concept of causality" is freely chosen – which was the point of departure of traditional science (which has been conceived as an attempt to explain how the observed phenomena follow as a consequence of the inner workings of nature).

Simplicity and clarity are in the eyes of the beholder

As might be expected, polyscopy turns Einstein's "epistemological credo" into a convention.

Combined with the epistemology sketched above, this translates into an approach to knowledge where we design concepts and methods – by adapting them to the purpose, what needs to be seen.

And where the conventional scientific approach to establishing and justifying facts is liberated from disciplinary constraints and made completely general.

By convention, experience (or "reality") is not assumed to have any a priori structure. Rather, what is "out there" is considered as something like the inkblot in the Rorschach test – namely as something to which we assign meaning; and to which a multiplicity of meanings can be assigned (notably by creating suitable ways of looking or scopes).

The "aha experience" – that the provided scope fits or interprets or explains experience – is then also considered as just another kind of experience, which can be communicated from the author to the reader.

The "aha experiences" are especially valuable when they are shared – when they can orient our collective action. But they can also be dangerous, because we can keep us in one way of looking at things, and ignoring all others – at the expense of further creative exploration, and communication. Polyscopy emphasizes that there are multiple ways of looking and multiple ways of making sense, and that an inner and a social dialog – fine balance between grasping an offered interpretation and remaining open to other interpretations – is maintained.

Since scopes are human-made by convention, they can be as precise and rigorous as we desire – on any level of generality.

Simplicity and clarity, by convention, are "in the eyes of the beholder" – (a consequence of our scope). Hence we can freely and legitimately create them – even in a complex world!

Models are scopes

An interesting "philosophical" question is – What do we really mean when we make a statement, that something is so-and-so, if we are not claiming that this is how the reality "really is"?

The answer provided by polyscopy is that our statements, and models, are (by convention) just scopes, just our own created ways of looking at experience and of organizing experience. They are a way of saying "See if you can see things (also) in this way, and if this way of looking may reveal to you something that you may otherwise have overlooked."

As Piaget wrote, "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself"

Multiple scopes are needed

Think about inspecting a cup you are holding in your hand, to see if it's whole or cracked. You must look at it from all sides, before you can give a conclusive answer. And if any of those points of view reveals a crack – then the cup is cracked!

In polyscopy's technical language we say that to acquire a correct gestalt, all relevant aspects need to be considered.

No experiences are automatically excluded

Another consequence of this approach to knowledge is that no experience is excluded because it fails to fit into our "reality picture".

On the contrary – since the substance of information, and of knowledge, is ultimately human experience, then all forms of experience are considered to be potentially valuable. The method sketched here allows for combining a variety of heterogeneous insights and forms of experience to create a high-level view. Examples of this are shared below.

General-purpose science

The overall result is a general-purpose method which – like a portable flashlight – can be pointed at any phenomenon or issue.

The objective of studies needs to be to direct the mind so that it brings solid and true judgments about everything that presents itself to it.

René Descartes is often "credited" as the philosophical father of the limiting (reductionistic) aspects of science. This Rule 1 from his manuscript "Rules for the Direction of the Mind" (unfinished during his lifetime and published posthumously) shows that also Descartes might have preferred to be remembered as a supporter of polyscopy.

Growing knowledge upward

Science on a crossroads

Science on a Crossroads ideogram

The Science on a Crossroads ideogram points to the possibility to reverse the narrow and technical focus in the sciences – and create general insights and principles about any theme that matters. In the explanation of this ideogram we outline a method by which this can be achieved.

The Science on a Crossroads ideogram depicts the point in the evolution of science when it was understood that the Newton's concepts and "laws" were not parts of the nature's inner machinery, which Newton discovered – but his own creation, and an approximation. Two directions of growth opened up to science – downward, and upward. The sequence of scientists "converging to zero" in the ideogram suggests that only the "downward" option was followed.

The moment when this happened

It has turned out that the very moment when science reached those crossroads has been recorded!

In his "Autobiographical Notes", after describing how the successes of science that resulted from Newton's classical results led to a wide-spread belief that there wasn't really much more than that, as we saw above, Einstein discusses on a couple of pages the anomalies, results of experiments and observed phenomena that were not amenable to such explanation. He then concludes:

Enough of this. Newton, forgive me; you found just about the only way possible in your age for a man of highest reasoning and creative power. The concepts that you created are even today still guiding our thinking in physics, although we now know that they will have to be replaced by others further removed from the sphere of immediate experience, if we aim at a profounder understanding of relationships.

Why the direction "up" was ignored

The direction "up" is a natural direction for the growth of anything – and of knowledge in particular. Hans't the insight, the wisdom, the general principle, always been the very hallmark of knowledge? So why did science continue its growth only downward – toward more technical, more precise – and more obscure results?

The reason is obvious, and it is also suggested by Einstein: It had to be done, "if we aim at a profounder understanding of relationships" – that is, of natural phenomena. They turned out to be far more complex than it was originally believed.

The bottom-level reality picture turned out to be retreating ever deeper – as the scientists aimed "at a profounder understanding of relationships".

So why not do as Newton did in all walks of life i.e. wherever solid knowledge is needed – create approximate models that serve us well enough? <p>The answer is obvious. The disciplinary organization of knowledge had already taken shape. Einstein being "a physicist", his job was to study the physical phenomena, in terms of the masses and velocities and mathematical formulas.

The job of updating the whole production of knowledge – and the job of creating high-level insights – happened to be in nobody's job description. And hence they remained undone.

By giving those two lines of work a name, knowledge federation, we undertake to call them into existence.

Guided evolution of knowledge

The evolution of knowledge is further directed by defining the criteria, what knowledge needs to be like. The polyscopy definition includes four criteria, which are substituted for "the correspondence with reality".

By convention, having a correct gestalt is what "being informed" is all about. You may know the exact temperature i every room, and even the CO2 percentages in the air. But it is only when you know that your house is on fire that you know that you need to evacuate the house and call the fire brigade.

Knowledge federation in two pictures


Information ideogram

The Information ideogram points to the structure of the information that knowledge federation aims to produce. Or metaphorically, our theme here is the construction of a suitable 'light bulb', and the nature its 'light'. In the explanation of this ideogram it is shown how the methodological ideas just described support this construction. Or more to the point, and metaphorically – this ideogram shows how to create information that is structured (or 'three-dimensional'), not 'flat'.

The “i” in this image (which stands for "information") is composed of a circle on top of a square. The square stands for the technical and detailed low-level information. The square also stands for examining a theme or an issue from all sides. The circle stands for the general and immediately accessible high-level information. This ideogram posits that information must have both. And in particular that without the former, without the 'dot on the i', the information is incomplete and ultimately pointless.

This ideogram also suggests how to create high-level views based on low-level ones. And to justify high-level claims based on low-level ones – by 'rounding off' or 'cutting corners'.


Knowledge ideogram

The Knowledge ideogram depicts knowledge federation as a process – and also the kind of knowledge that this process aims to produce.

It follows from the fundamentals we've just outlined that (when our goal is to inform the people) knowledge federation will do its best to federate knowledge according to relevance – and adapt its choice of scope to that task. The rationale is that "the best available" knowledge will generally be better than no knowledge at all. Knowledge, and information, are envisioned to exist as a holarchy – where the low-level "pieces of information" or holons serve as side views for creating high-level insights. Multiple and even contradictory views on any theme are allowed to co-exist. A core function of federation as a process is to continuously negotiate and re-evaluate the relevance and the credibility of those views.

Two examples

Power structure

Power Structure.jpg
Power Structure ideogram

As a way of looking at the world or scope, the power structure empowers us to conceive of the traditional notions of "power holder" and "political enemy" in an entirely new way – and to reorient our ethical sensibilities and our political action accordingly.

The Power Structure ideogram depicts the power structure as a structure, where seemingly distinct and independent entities such as monetary or power interests, the ideas we have about the world, and our own condition or health are tied together with subtle links, so that they evolve and function in co-dependence and synchrony.

Modernity did not make people more cruel; it only invented a way in which cruel things could be done by non-cruel people. Under the sign of modernity, evil does not need any more evil people. Rational people, men and women well riveted into the impersonal, adiaphorized network of modern organization, will do perfectly.

In "A Century of Camps", from which we've quoted the above paragraph, Zygmunt Bauman explained how even massive and unthinkable cruelty (of which the Holocaust is an example) can happen as a result of no more than (what we are calling) the structure of the system – and people just "doing their jobs".

The power structure model explains in what way exactly malignant societal structures can evolve by the conventional "survival of the fittest".

To legitimize the view in which a complex structure (and not a person or group endowed with intelligence and identifiable interests) is considered "the enemy", insights from a range of technical fields including combinatorial optimization, artificial intelligence and artificial life are combined with insights from the humanities – including Bauman's just quoted one.

An effect of this model (central to the paradigm strategy we are presenting as our larger motivating vision) is that it entirely changes the nature of the political game, from "us against them" to "all of us against the power structure".

By revealing the subtle links between our ideas about the world and power interests, the power structure helps us understand further why a new phase of evolution of democracy, marked by liberation and conscious creation of the ways in which we look at the world, is a necessary part of our liberation from renegade and misdirected power.

Convenience paradox

Convenience Paradox.jpg
Convenience Paradox ideogram

Redirecting our "pursuit of happiness" is of course a natural way to give a new direction to our 'bus'. Informing our "pursuit of happiness" is also a natural application where the ideas presented above can be put to test.

The Convenience Paradox ideogram depicts a situation where the pursuit of a more convenient direction (down) leads to an increasingly less convenient condition. The human figure in the ideogram is deciding which way to go. He wants his way (of life) to be more easy and pleasant, or more convenient. If he follows the direction that seems more convenient, he will end up in a less convenient condition – and vice versa.

By representing the way to happiness as yin (which stands for dark, or obscure) in the traditional yin-yang ideogram, it is suggested that the way to convenience or happiness must be illuminated by suitable information.

This ideogram is of course only the high-level part, the circle or the 'dot on the i'. Its low-level part or justification consists of a variety of insights emanating from a broad variety of giants and traditions. The rationale is to select the ones that resulted from the experience of working with large numbers of people – and which have something important to tell us about our civilized condition; and about ways in which this condition could be radically improved.

The process of civilization, according to Alexander, has contaminated man’s biological and sensory equipment, with a resultant crippling in the responses of the whole organism. Tension and convlict are more and more substituted for coordination.

An example is the above core insight of F. M. Alexander, the founder of a therapy school called "Alexander Technique", which is now being taught worldwide.

A more spectacular examples are from various Oriental traditions who pointed to the nature of "the way" (to happiness or fulfillment, represented by the dark Yin part of the ideogram), while calling it different names such as "Tao" or "Do" or "Yoga" or "Dharma" or "Tariqat". Taken together, they enable us to model the most interesting range of possibilities we are calling "happiness between one and plus infinity" – which is a direction in which our civilization's "progress" may most naturally continue.

We'll say more about both of these themes, and how they are related, in Federation through Conversations – where we'll also initiate a conversation to collectively refine them and develop them further.