The Twin Webs of Knowledge

by Kaj_Sotala 3 min read28th Aug 200972 comments


Related to and partially inspired by: Joy in the Merely Real; Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies.

Where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite. -- Ghost in the Shell

There are those among us who resist the steady march of science, who feel that the reductionist creed takes away the beauty of things, who would rather enjoy sacred mysteries instead of naturalistic explanations. I suspect not many of them are reading this site. But even among aspiring rationalists, there are probably many who still feel some sympathy to that line of thought, who cannot but feel a twinge of pain where something mysterious ends up explained.

To them I reply thusly:

Picture in your mind a vast, glowing network of things, at the center of which are you. I visualize it akin to a great, vast city at night, a city that never sleeps. For some reason, all the lights in the buildings are out, so all the light comes from the myriad cars, trains and buses bustling in the night. Greg Egan's phrase, "making the pulses race along the tracks like a quadrillion cars shuttling between the trillion junctions of a ten-thousand-tiered monorail" comes to mind. Though it is not the tracks or roads themselves that we are the most interested in, but the hubs where they meet and from which they emerge.

The hubs in the network are many in kind: some are other people, some are books and items in which information is stored, some are past events and experiments once conducted. The brightest hubs are the ones closest to you, from which information is flowing to you directly: they are your glowing constellation of stars. Beyond them, the hubs glow less and less bright as they get more distant: finally they are but dim, barely visible dots in a sea of blackness, spread out like the rocks at the bottom of the seafloor. Further still, even those dots vanish, but you know it doesn't mean there aren't any: it simply means that you don't know what and where they are.

Now overlay this network of lights on a landscape. Not just the physical landscape of the Earth and the universe, though the net covers that as well. To see things in full, you must also overlay the network on the maps showing the sum of all human knowledge: that which is known in maths, physics, biology, literature, and all the sciences and arts besides. By themselves, all these landscapes are dark and impenetrable: with the great web of knowledge overlaid, the hubs illuminate their surroundings, revealing the landscape's contents. You could say that the people and events illuminate the landscapes around them, but you could likewise also say that they are drawing their light from the landscapes, for every pulse of information that moves across the lines in the network has its origins in one of the landscapes.

As you move and seek out new people, you forge new links and make previously dim hubs glow more brightly; where you lose contact with people and lose interest in things, connections fade away and hubs disappear back into the darkness. You yourself are glowing as well: as an infant, your glow was dim and weak, your parents and elder siblings the main things you were directly connected with. As you sucked in and absorbed their knowledge, your light grew brighter. Now, as you absorb more and more, you become better capable of understanding all you see: you learn to find understanding by simply looking at things, seeing in them much that you were previously blind to. Thus the radius of light surrounding you grows ever wider, in all the dimensions and fields you choose to pursue.

For this network of things is mirrored by another network in your mind: the network of things you have learnt. As the other, this network is constantly changing, new nodes and connections appearing as you learn new things, vanishing as you forget them. When someone or something in the other web illuminates its surroundings, you can take what you see around him and store it in your mind, link it with the other previous things you already know. For as long as you do not forget this new thing, you will retain a connection to the source you learned it from. Thus the places you once saw will remain illuminated for as long as you remember, though as time passes you only retain the memory of what those places were once like, not necessarily the way they are now: and you may need to revisit them to find out that they have changed.

As you come to know more and more related things, those things are bound tightly together in your mind's web. The places the knowledge was drawn from will likewise stay brightly and evenly lit, pushing back the darkness. As you expand your mental web of things more and more, entirely new fields of understanding will open themselves to you. Below the abstract fields of sciences and arts are the fields you mastered back as a child, the fields that your webs were once limited to and have now branched out from. Are you not for some reason mute, you will have learned the art of producing speech: are you not disabled, you will have learned to walk. But even if those fields wouldn't be known to you, the fact that you understand what I am writing means that you have learnt the basic fields of human understanding. In some way, you have learned to communicate, and you have learned to reason and to think. From this foundation, vast depths of knowledge have become open to you.

Fear not that new understanding would render things cold and boring. If you avoid new understanding, you are limiting the reach of what you can learn. If you embrace and actively seek out new understanding, you will spread out across the entire universe.