From a Philosophical Point of View

DALL·E 2023-10-16 13.08.12 - cubist style depiction of knowledge as connections that recognize objects

I was asked today whether I ever considered approaching the topic of online learning from a philosophical perspective. After all, I am by both education and inclination first and foremost a philosopher, so it would make sense that I would be inclined to do this. My first thought, though, was that it's not really possible to separate the philosophy from the writings on education and technology. The philosophy is everywhere. 

I replied that I tried to do it once with one of Dianne Conrad's class sessions. The experience was rather a failure. The students were not willing to start with my philosophical position. Many of them clung to a non-materialist theory of consciousness (some insisted there must be a place for a spirit or soul). Most felt there must be something to 'mind' over and above the description of human cognition.

But maybe there are some comments I can make, so here goes.

Everything I know comes from experience. What I mean by that is that everything I know has a basis in something I at some time perceived or sensed. In philosophy, we call that 'empiricism' and that would make me an 'empiricist'. 

But what, even, do I mean when I say I 'know' something? The classical philosophical position is that knowledge is 'justified true belief'. A 'belief', on this story, is a 'propositional attitude', that is, a stance we take with respect to some sentence or assertion (and specifically, the stance we take here is that the proposition is 'true'). 

I don't accept this characterization. The reason for this is that I don't believe that our knowledge consists of a set of propositions (that we, for good reason, believe are true, and which are in fact true). The failures of this account are well known, and most especially, we come back to the question of how experience can 'justify' such a belief. 

But even more to the point, it seems to me that a lot of our knowledge is non-propositional. It can't be expressed in words, sentences or concepts. It is ineffable, or as Michael Polanyi would say, tacit. Moreover, things that cannot speak a language can nonetheless know things. Babies can know things. Animals can know things. A theory that presupposes some higher order knowledge, such as language and cognition, in order to know at all, seems wrong.

What is knowledge, then? My first formulation (stolen from a similar phrase by L.M. Orchard) is that "to know something is to not be able to not know it". I know that this sounds pretty circular, so I've always used some examples to explain what I mean:

  • You are looking for Waldo in a Where's Waldo picture (or in Europe, Where's Wally). Waldo is hidden in the picture somewhere, recognizable his characteristic glasses, hat, and striped shirt. The thing is, once you find him in the picture, you can't unfind him. You "can't not know" where he is. 
  • You are meeting your mother at the train station. Through the crowd, you catch a glimpse that you immediately know is your mother. You can't not know that this person is your mother. Even when someone else is virtually identical, you know which one is your mother.

We might ask, what does it mean to say we can't not know something, beyond the obvious implications of the examples? What is, if you will, the process by which we come to know something? I mean, we could just leave knowledge as irreducible, and adopt something like J.J. Gibson's theory of direct perception. I'm sympathetic with this view. It seems to me that when I see an apple, I see it directly as an apple. I don't make some sort of inference. The same with my mother. I don't apply some set of rules or calculus to infer from (say) sense data to the fact that she is my mother.

But I'm also not a fan of mysterious and unexplained processes. I don't like not knowing why I know someone is my mother without knowing who the person next to her is. I can say I have had experiences of my mother, but not of the other person, and that's why I know which one is my mother. And this explanation, while perfectly accurate, doesn't really help me understand why experience matters so much. Why can't I know my mother is my mother directly by intuition, instead of experience? 

My second formulation of "what is knowledge" addresses this question: knowledge is recognition.

I'll offer a more technical picture of what I think recognition amounts to below. But I think most of us have a sense of what we mean by 'recognition'. I recognize Waldo. I recognize my mother. I recognize an apple. David Hume would say something like 'the impression immediately brings forth to mind the idea', or some such thing. Or we might say something like "to see something is to immediate see it as something". 

But we need to be careful here. The tendency is to create two things out of the one experience: the actual experience, and the thing that it is recognized as. It's the old distinction between an 'idea' and an 'impression'. Hume would say they are identical, but one is more 'forceful and vivid' than the other. Others might suggest that the idea is somehow deduced (through magic?) from the impression. The logical positivists argued that we use abstract and otherwise empty principles to infer from sense data to meaning. But I don't think we have two separate things here; what we see, and what we see it as, are one and the same thing. We couldn't have one without the other. Our perception of the thing is the same as our thought of the thing. 

This is where we encounter my account of consciousness (expressed at length elsewhere). To put this into a nutshell: consciousness is experience. What do I mean by this? Something like this: what we call 'consciousness' is nothing more than our having of experiences. Again, we need to be careful here. Someone (like Thomas Nagel) would say that there's something that it is like to have conscious experiences (cf. "What is it like to be a bat?"), but this suggests that there is something that is having experiences, separate from the experience. But there isn't any such thing.

Again, I have examples:

  • First, there's Gilbert Ryle's criticism of the conception of mind though the concept of 'category errors'. For example, one stands in the middle of a university campus, and points to this building and that building, this student and that student, this professor and that professor, and then asks, "but where is the university", as though it were some 'thing' in the same category as all the other 'things'.
  • Similarly (to borrow from something I think Neil Degrasse-Tyson once said) when we ask, "what is a fire". The answer, of course, is that it is the oxidized carbon produced in an oxidization reaction. But someone may say, I know there is oxidized carbon, but what is the fire? But there is no such thing as 'fire' over and above the physical components of a fire.

So, we same the same thing of consciousness. Consciousness is the 'fire' of having an experience, is is the 'university' of a collection of buildings and people, it is nothing over and above what we have described. (But it feels special, doesn't it? Well, no - it is nothing more than everything we have ever felt.)

The next question is, why are some things conscious and other things not conscious?  This is in a sense similar to the question, why do some things know and other things not know? We still need to be able to answer this question.

The obvious answer is 'similarity', and that's the answer I came up with at first. I spent a long time in my graduate years crafting a 'logic of modification' that would describe similarity (never published but still in my notes, and now moot). All the rules, formalisms, concepts, ideas, etc., were perceptions of similarity. Similarity, in turn, could be described in temrs of the elements of perceptual experience - not 'sense data', as the positivists suggested, not some sort of phenomenalism, but actual neural input, not described using or analogous with words, but sub-symbolic, like our actual experiences. Then I saw a presentation by Francisco Varela at the University of Alberta Hospital and realized I had been working toward a theory of networks and connectionism.

And this leads to my third formulation of "what is knowledge": knowledge is constituted of the sets of connections between entities, such that a change in one entity may result in a change in the other entity, and that learning is the growth, development, modification or strengthening of those connections. (Compare with this account that says "knowledge is distributed across a network of connections", which is careless (I blame myself) because it suggests that knowledge is something distinct that is distributed over these connections, but more accurately, we should say, knowledge is nothing but these connections".)

So now I had a complete picture. We humans think, know, believe ,perceive, speak and act using (mostly) a neural network, which is essentially a set of connections. When we have an experience, some of those neurons are activated, and as a consequence, others are activated, until a resulting 'pattern of connectivist' can be discerned; the activation of this pattern is 'recognition', and at the same time, 'consciousness'. To 'know' is to recognize in this way, and as I noted at the start of this article, it's quite involuntary. We can't not know. We can't not recognize. We can somehow make the pattern of connectivity be different from what it was, given the initial activation and set of connections between neurons.

The rest of my work is essentially a working out of the implications of this. To 'learn', obviously, is to create the network of connections. How does this happen? Connectivism - and contemporary artificial intelligence - is dedicated to this question. I sought to outline the conditions for this in 2005. 

My account of 'truth' in such a system was discussed in my paper 'An Introduction to Connective Knowledge', and ultimately boils down to what I have called 'The Semantic Condition'. It basically described "four essential principles for the creation of meaning, truth and value in networks, specifically, autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity." And these are connected to back to how we learn as learning networks in my discussion of critical literacies

So, that's basically how my views on learning and development emerge from my work in philosophy.


  1. After a first read, I realize I need to activate multiple neurons to reach the knowledge I require to say 'now I understand'. With this said... I gladly start on my way to understanding. It reminds me of some work I did together with other young people who had some challenges. Among other things, we needed to build a staircase in the woods to allow more villagers to go to another area in town. It was one step at the time (recycling wood and stone) and keep going at it. I can still build that type of steps, they are not necessary beautiful, but they are sturdy. And I am glad that I cannot unknow this, for it gives me a sense of accomplishment (from time to time). So up and away, following links, reading up on multiple new facts and hoping it will connect enough pathways to build new knowledge. Thank you for sharing your ideas, as always it is both a challenge and a pleasure.


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