Spurred by Sabrina's comment on my first post, and some of the things I have been writing about on Gary's blog "Minds and Brains", I wanted to talk a little bit about the Myth of Knowledge. This is an intense vestige of dualism, and of enlightenment philosophy. The modern notion of Knowledge is a brilliant 18th and 19th century idea, which is just plain wrong. I'm a big fan of anachronistic ideas like this - the great chain of being, intelligence, etc. - but they are hypotheses that are false, and they are now interfering with our building a more coherent psychology.
The Myth of Knowledge
Once upon a time it was believed that one of the most basic psychological kinds was 'knowledge', i.e., a person 'knowing' something. Well, not a person, but a mind. The body sits there, but the mind/soul/spirit knows things. Several hundred years of philosophy (from at least Descartes on) started with epistemology, i.e., started with a knower and with things known. But what is it to know something?
I'm not sure how to explain the traditional understanding of knowledge except by example. So, for an easy one, let's take driving a car. What do we mean when we say that someone 'knows how to drive a car'? We mean a) that the person can, in fact, drive a car, b) that the person could describe to us how to drive a car, c) that the person could teach someone how to drive a car, d) that the person could tell us what they are doing while they drive a car, e) that the person can mental represent the driving process while not driving, e) that the person has an accurate conceptual schema of driving. Probably I could list a few other things, but that's enough for now. The 'myth' of knowledge is that those different abilities are necessarily combined together. It is an insidious myth.
What's Wrong With This?
Just to point out a few problems with this myth: Does a person with no legs, who successfully coaches football punters 'know' how to kick a football? Does a person who is a successful therapist, but cannot accurately explain what about his sessions helps patients 'know' how to do therapy? Does a person who expertly drives a car, but cannot explain the optical invariants that they use to brake properly 'know' how to drive? Does a person who wins fencing championships 'know' how to fence, even if they cannot teach others? Does a successful couples therapist who never manages to keep a healthy relationship 'know' how to have a good relationship? Does a person who successfully imagines punching through a board, but never manages to actually do so 'know' how to punch through a board? Does a car mechanic in a coma 'know' how to fix cars? Does an Alzheimer's patient who often forgets his children's still 'know' who they are during the bad spells?
The problems are so deep that they cannot be solved by mumbling about 'implicit' and 'explicit' probes knowledge, 'implicit' and 'explicit' types of knowledge, or even 'implicit' and 'explicit' knowledge systems in the brain. The notion of 'knowledge' that reached its peak 200 years ago is simply wrong, it was a perfectly good hypothesis, but it is wrong. There is now plenty of evidence that the ability to do something, the ability to talk about doing something, and the ability to think about doing something, have no need to be intertwined.
Because I am a behaviorist-leaning kind of guy, I would additionally point out that when behavior, talking, and thinking come into conflict, behavior wins. In my article trying to connect ecological and social psychology, I used an example out of Aikido, the martial art that prefers not to hurt people unnecessarily. Indulging in horrible generalizations: In the Western cultures - steeped in dualism and the myth of knowledge - we thinking that 'knowing' is about 'thinking', but in Eastern cultures this is not so. In Aikido, one of your goals is to blend with your opponent's movements so you inflict minimal harm. Your goal is not to think about blending, not be able to explain how to blend, nor to be able to accurately imagine blending, rather your goal is to actually blend when the time comes. A person 'knows' how to blend when they do it without thinking, and regardless of whether they can teach how to blend or explain what they did after the fact. (By the way, that article is part of a 7 article discussion, including my latest addition now available online.)
In parting, one of the reasons this was on my mind is because the issue of 'discrimination' was brought up on one of the other blogs. My dissertation was on infant object-permanence abilities from an ecological perspective. Unintentionally, I stumbled into the mess that is the infant-looking-time literature. One of my conclusions while trying to make sense of my data is that we get into trouble when we say that an animal 'discriminates', but we do not say the behavior with which they discriminate. We often don't feel the need to say the behavior because we have bought the Myth of Knowledge, we believe that 'discriminating' is a mental activity that can be connected with any behavior... but it is not. Discriminating is a bodily act, and even if it never manifests in what we would call 'overt' behavior, all discrimination comes in the form of a particular discriminating response on the part of the body. When we fail to specify the behavior, we have had an incomplete thought. Much confusion in psychology would be avoided if instead of saying that 'a rat' discriminated between two tones, we said that the rat's 'bar pressing' discriminated between two tones. Similarly, we should not say that 'an infant' failed to discriminate two ways in which objects went out of sight, but that their 'reaching behavior' failed to discriminate ways of going out of sight.
The question of whether an infant 'knows' an object is still present after it has gone out of sight will continue to produce no end of the worst kinds of arm-chair philosophizing, and is impossible to investigate. Determining the conditions under which infants 'behaviorally discriminate situations in which an out of sight object is present from situations in which an out of sight object is absent' presents challenges, but is entirely tractable.
To go back to the beginning, we would do well to avoid using the word 'knowledge' or to use it sparingly and carefully. Instead, we should talk about the observable abilities that make us think someone 'knows' something. The legless coach can explain how to kick a football. The successful therapist can help other people build stronger relationships. The expert driver can drive a car. The fencing champion can outmatch a wide variety of opponents. Same observable happenings described, but with none of the nasty problems created by the implication of 'knowledge.'