Meaning, Method and Limits of Knowledge

Since the Psychology of Needs aims to provide knowledge about human nature, I think it is necessary to say something about the meaning of the term knowledge, how knowledge can be acquired, and the limits of knowledge itself, i.e. what (and how much) we can and cannot know.

To define and explain the meaning of knowledge, I think there is no better way than to use the metaphor of the map and territory. A map expresses a certain knowledge of its territory, however “the map is not the territory” (a phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski and often quoted by Gregory Bateson and other authors).

We must never forget that knowledge, or a “map”, of a reality concerns only some of its aspects, which have a particular interest for those who use it (for example a geological map is different from a political one). Moreover, knowledge, like a map, can be more or less detailed and complex. However, the reality is infinitely more complex than any map or description that represents it.

Knowledge can be acquired through direct experience of a “territory” (this is the case when drawing a map from scratch), or copying a pre-existing map drawn by others.

In a map, there are drawings and words. Drawings are images that reproduce, in a more or less faithful and more or less detailed way, real forms, while words have meanings defined in some vocabularies. Utilizing words we associate proper names and common names with particular points of the map, names with particular meanings, which are abstractions of real objects and characteristics. 

When we look at a map or remember it, we “imagine” the territory it represents. However, a drawing is not the thing drawn and a word is not the thing evoked. Consequently, what we know is not the thing we think we know, but a reduction and a transformation of it, starting from direct perception, or a “narration” provided by someone else. Therefore, each map is subjective in that it offers a partial and arbitrary representation of reality and provides information that is not absolute but related to certain purposes.

Knowledge of reality is therefore always subjective, as it depends on the personal choice of the objects to be represented in the “map” and their purposes, i.e. the use for which it is intended.

If we do not want to continue to unconsciously and uncritically use “maps” of reality drawn subjectively by other people (who we often do not even know), we should start asking ourselves some questions about the maps themselves, and possibly consciously draw new maps that better respond to purposes and criteria defined by ourselves.

The fundamental question concerns which objects the map should represent, and at what level of detail, since a map cannot represent everything.

Once we have chosen the types of objects to represent and their level of detail, we need to decide how to qualify the different objects, i.e. which names (proper or common) to associate to each of them, to express their identity and their “properties” (i.e. qualities, characteristics, functions, etc.), starting from a vocabulary that includes all the possible properties that an object can have.

After having represented certain objects (constituting a certain reality) and having associated to each object certain “properties”, it is important to indicate in the map the “relations” between the objects themselves, i.e. which object is connected with which other and how they interact, i.e. what they exchange in terms of information, energies and/or substances.

This phase of “knowledge” is very important because, as Gregory Bateson taught us, we cannot know things in themselves, but only the relationships between them. In fact, the “properties” of an object are nothing more than a description of its capabilities and modes of interaction with other objects.

A certain map of a certain reality constitutes a context in which certain events take place. These can be objects of knowledge in that they are causes of changes in the context itself.

While the metaphor of the map and the territory corresponds to the knowledge of static realities, to give an account of the knowledge of “dynamic” realities a different metaphor is needed. To this end, I believe that there is no better metaphor than that of a computer (i.e. a cybernetic system) that behaves according to a set of “logics” also called software, programs, or algorithms.

A cybernetic system is characterized by an external interface through which incoming (input) and outgoing (output) information is exchanged. The logic of the system defines how the system itself must react to certain inputs, i.e. which outputs it must generate against certain inputs. In this sense, we can consider inputs as “causes” and outputs as “effects”.

We can now talk about two kinds of knowledge:

  • an “associative” knowledge, which aims at creating a map of reality, constituted by spatial and/or temporal associations (or juxtapositions) between phenomena;
  • a “causal” knowledge, which aims to establish “logical” cause-effect relations between events generated by the objects present in the associative map of reference.

Just as a “map” represents only a minimal part of an associative reality, a logic (or “reasoning”) represents only a minimal part of causal reality, i.e. one of the infinite logics that determine the behavior of the objects in play.

To this, we must add the fact that every entity (i.e. a physical or logical object) is part of an entity of a higher level and is constituted by entities of a lower level. Thereby knowing an entity (at a certain level) requires the knowledge of the entity (or entities) of which it is part, and of the entities that compose it. In this sense, the knowledge of an entity requires its “division” into lower level entities. The Latin etymology of the term “reason” (in the sense of rationality) is in fact equivalent to “division”. One could, therefore say that to understand anything, it is first necessary to divide it into parts which are to be subsequently recomposed while observing the relations between them.

The knowledge provided in the next chapters consists of maps and logics that represent the objects contained in the mind and the relationships between these objects and external ones.

Such knowledge elements do not claim to be complete or objective. They are the result of my choice of what is most important to consider for this book. However, I am aware that I can only represent a small part of the complex reality of nature in general and of human nature in particular.

Next chapter: Life, Information, Cybernetics..