What is knowledge? By Eduardo Angulo

This post is also available in: Spanish, Catalan

Firstly, knowing is not imagining. Knowing is catching reality, it’s learning reality. Even though, and this happens often, that which we imagine ends up being an essential part of reality. But let’s leave that aside, it’s a whole different story. The only reality we know is the one that reaches our brain. In order to achieve that, between reality, external or internal, and the brain there must be translators of that reality to the language of our nervous system, the language in which neurons communicate with each other, the only language our brain can understand. These translators are our sensory cells and the receptors which they have, in general, in their cellular membrane. Thus, the photoreceptors translate light to the language of our nervous system, using receptors which respond to certain wavelengths; the chemical receptors, in the gustative and olfacory epithelium, react to the presence of certain molecules; the mechanical receptors respond to the movements which deform cells and our thermal receptors translate temperature changes for our nervous system.

However, our sensory cells are not able to convert every single stimulus into the nervous system’s language. For instance, our photoreceptors are only meant to detect wavelengths between certain values, outside of which we are unable to perceive incoming photons. Thus, we cannot detect light in infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths, which are located below and above the wavelengths we can perceive. However, we can circumvent this difficulty with imagination: someone imagined how it would feel to see these wavelengths and made a machine which translated that light to the one our photoreceptors detect. In this way we have made the invisible visible, that which we couldn’t know into something we can recognize.

Therefore, we know what our senses allow us to know. But it’s not that simple: our sense translate, but it is our brain who knows and, also, who filters what we are going to know. Often, we only get to know what we recognize, that is, what we already knew or something similar to it. On the contrary, even though our senses may be translating it, our brain can discard what it doesn’t know (or recognize).  We only find what we look for. I believe only geniuses, and the rest of humanity in some genius-like instant in their life, are able to know the unexpected.

Maybe the best way to illustrate this last point is with a story, one of these tales scientists like so much. The late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist and writer, said that one of his life dreams would have been to visit the Olduvai gorge, in Kenya, where the Leakey spent decades finding hominid fossiles, essential to understand the evolutionary history of our species. When he finally traveled to Olduvai, he met the famous Hominid Gang, a group of extraordinarily prepared scientists and natives who were able to recognize in the field the tiny fragments of fossiles from our remote ancestors. Until Gould’s arrival, this group of experts had not found mollusc shells. But Gould was an expert malacologist who had written is thesis about the populations of small snails in the Caribbean islands. When he visited the famous gorge, Gould couldn’t stop finding mollusc fossiles, while he was unable to recognize hominid fossiles. Summarizing, to each one his own or, as I said before, only geniuses can change their glasses and keep walking without stumbling. The rest of us have to rely on our senses, to the extent we can, and know with our brains, ti the extent it lets us.

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