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This is a follow-up to Is knowledge non-physical?.

Can knowledge exist outside of minds?

Can something devoid of consciousness truly possess knowledge? Consider objects like books, inscribed rocks, solid-state drives, GPUs, or even the brain of a deceased individual. Can we accurately attribute knowledge to these entities?

If knowledge is intrinsically tied to minds (consciousness), in whose mind(s) does the entirety of mathematical knowledge, including yet-to-be-discovered theorems, or the knowledge of the laws of physics, including those yet uncovered, reside?

In the mind of God?


NOTE. There are multiple proposed solutions to the mind-body problem, including different versions of dualism (interactionism, psycho-physical parallelism, occasionalism, epiphenomenalism, property dualism) as well as different versions of physicalism (behaviorism, identity theory, functionalism, nonreductive physicalism, eliminative materialism). Keep this in mind (no pun intended) when talking about the nature of mind and the nature of knowledge.

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    Too much "fundamental" and "truly", there is none of that in what one prefers to call "knowledge". And once that is defined the answer becomes straightforward, see Does knowledge require consciousness? and Do machine learning algorithms have knowledge (if not justified true beliefs)? Traditional definitions include belief, and hence mind of some sort (consciousness is not really needed), but they simply aim to formalize colloquial and scientific uses of the word, not anything fundamental.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 7 at 13:18
  • @Conifold If some form of mathematical realism is true, would you say that a mind is required to "know" all these facts of mathematics? What are your thoughts on views such as Scholastic realism?
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 7 at 13:51
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    What does "knowledge" mean outside of the context of a conscious being? Hell, what does it mean even inside that context?
    – TKoL
    Commented Mar 7 at 15:17
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    Realism does not require all truths to be known, or even knowable, see Fitch’s Paradox, that distinguishes it from anti-realism. Truthmakers that make propositions true are not themselves propositions. It is not clear that even Plato's forms require a mental container, although nous was added by neo-Platonists. And more recent proponents of abstract objects, like Frege, do not suggest that they exist in a "mind".
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 7 at 18:56

3 Answers 3

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Coherent thoughts are thoughts that build on and support one another.

Coherency allows us to assemble knowledge from piece of information. We see an apple, we hold the apple in our hand assessing density and firmness. We take a bite assessing moistness, crispness, sweetness...

... is it ripe, or non-ripe... we now have enough data to assemble that conclusion.

Coherency is what allows information to persist whether there are any beings around to be aware of it.

We can peer at the planet Jupiter in various wavelengths and we can see it has more detail to its patterns of atmospheric phenomena.

Jupiter in varying wavelengths

Information can become knowledge when a being becomes aware of it.

Information is fundamental. Knowledge is a natural, emergent, hosted phenomenon. A "mind" and its attached body are born into existence... they have some information built in genetically. And they have a "mind" in their brain. It has senses. The sense collect data/information.

Knowledge gets synthesized from within the incoming data/information. Putting information together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Why did that ability evolve? Because the flower that bends to the sun got more light, the hand that picks the better apple obtains more nutrition and lives longer than the body attached to the hand that doesn't know a rotten apple when it sees and holds one.

Judiciousness, critical assembly of data into knowledge... directly impacts our ability to fulfill our absolutely not-ignorable physiological needs. Without food you die. The ability to "know" what food is, makes the difference between being possible to stay alive, and not.

Information is fundamental.

Thinking, thought, knowledge, speculation, these are naturally emergent. Attached to the need to eat, drink, keep one's body secure and safe.

The Earth was always a sphere. Even when common "knowledge" mistakenly thought it was a flat saucer, centuries ago.

The information existed before anyone came to know it.

Take the Earth's climate cells, the Hadley, Ferrel and Polar cells. They are patterns of persistent flows of air and pressure and temperature within Earth's atmosphere.

The patterns in the atmosphere are information/data... properties and characteristics that have existed for millions and millions of years.

Then along came Hadley, and noticed one of the "bands". That is why we call them the Hadley Cells. One North, one South. He saw data, and synthesized it. Noticed patterns. Double-checked and confirmed and triple-checked.

Knowledge emerged into existence. We know this happened. We know the "Who", the "Where" the "When" and the "What data drove his recognition of the knowledge to be derived".

Climate Cells of Earth

Then... With that recognition made, and more data available, enter Ferrel. Ferrel sees... A second pair of bands, similar to the Hadley cells, but further North and further South.

And we know that took place, because we named the cells after their "recognizer". The first human to put a whole bunch of 2+2's together, till he saw a swirling band of pressure and flow-balanced updrafts and downdrafts and jetstreams.

Key aspects of coherent thought include:

Logical Consistency: Coherent thought involves organizing ideas or propositions in a manner that is logically consistent. This means that each idea or proposition aligns with other ideas in a way that does not lead to contradictions or logical errors.

Clarity of Expression: Coherent thought entails expressing ideas clearly and concisely, using language that is precise and understandable to others. This involves avoiding ambiguity, vagueness, or confusion in communication.

Logical Connections: Coherent thought involves establishing logical connections between ideas, concepts, or propositions. This includes identifying relationships such as cause and effect, similarity and difference, and logical inference.

Contextual Relevance: Coherent thought considers the context in which ideas are presented, taking into account relevant background information, assumptions, and implications. This helps ensure that ideas are meaningful and applicable within their given context.

Purposeful Organization: Coherent thought involves organizing ideas or propositions in a purposeful and systematic manner. This may involve structuring information chronologically, categorically, or thematically to enhance understanding and facilitate communication.

Overall, coherent thought reflects a cognitive process in which ideas are logically connected, expressed clearly, and organized purposefully to facilitate understanding and communication. It is a fundamental aspect of human cognition and plays a crucial role in various intellectual endeavors, including reasoning, problem-solving, and creative expression.

An evolved skill, like running and jumping and picking apples from trees.

Emergent and existent in multiple species of life. (the ones with brains)... other creatures who don't think can still have reaction systems that aid in their survival.

Physiological necessity. A creature that needs to eat, but has no ability to calculate where and how to get food, better either live in an apple, or have them fall from the sky nearby where they might get run into by chance, often enough.

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Can knowledge exist outside of minds?

It really depends on how you define knowledge. My preference is to define it as understanding -- and, as such, it is personal and cannot exists outside of the person's mind. This is the short answer.

For the longer answer, let's discuss understanding. We understand things by visualizing interactive three-dimensional1 models of those things in our imagination.2 We understand our world by piecing together a comprehensive simulation of the world. We become conscious when we start modeling ourselves as part of that larger simulation.

This simulation is knowledge (episteme) and because it exists in the mind of the individual (and only as much of it as it was completed by the individual), this knowledge is also individual. When someone else (e.g. a teacher) shares new information (e.g. Newton's law of gravity), it is always shared as the other person's opinion (doxa). In order for it to become the individual's knowledge, the individual has to understand it -- they have to find a way to fit that new puzzle piece into their existing simulation of the world.3 This process of evaluating new information against the person's existing knowledge is also known as critical thinking.

Effectively, the above means that knowledge/episteme has to be gradually discovered by every individual for themselves -- discovered by piecing it together, as a puzzle, into the individual's simulation of the reality.

This done, the individual can use language (including math) to describe their knowledge to others -- either verbally, or by writing it down. Still, whatever is written is not the knowledge itself, but only its imprecise description. This description, however, can become knowledge of others when (and if) they understand it -- when they, again, a) reconstruct and visualize, in their minds, the model from its description, and b) find a way to fit that new model into their existing simulation.

If knowledge is intrinsically tied to minds (consciousness), in whose mind(s) does the entirety of mathematical knowledge, including yet-to-be-discovered theorems, or the knowledge of the laws of physics, including those yet uncovered, reside?

The partial copies of this knowledge exists in the minds of those who understand it -- and only the parts that they understand personally. Note that we all belong to the same objective reality. Therefore, our individual understandings of it, if adequate, should also be the same. Math also reflects the reality -- e.g. 1 + 1 = 2 reflects the fact that if you have an apple, and I give you another one, you will end up with two apples. This is not limited to trivial examples either -- imaginary numbers, for example, are also used in real-life applications.

And, of course, many people wrote down the descriptions of their knowledge, so our individual copies can be potentially reconstructed from those descriptions. This is still possible even if none of us possess an actual copy anymore.

1 Three-dimensional because we use our visual cortex hardware as a GPU to run this simulation of the reality. Blind people tend to be even better at this because their focus is always on what they they "see" in their minds.

2 "The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination." -- Rabindranath Tagore
In this quote, "knowledge" refers to memorization, something we often use as a substitute to actual understanding.

3 Assuming they have one sufficiently completed -- otherwise they won't be able to understand it. This concept is known in psychology as Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.

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  1. First, there were always one or more individuals whose mind generated for the first time a certain knowledge. E.g., it was Newton whose mind formulates the law of gravity for the first time.

    For the next step there are several posibilities how knowledge culturally spreads from one mind to other minds: Teaching, writing and reading books, Q&A at StackExchange etc.

  2. Up to now, creating and spreading knowledge presupposes minds of humans, and similarly for other animals.

    Apparently, individuals in a state of unconsciousness do not take part at this knowledge spreading.

  3. Mathematical theorems, which where not discovered at a given point of time, do not belong to the knowledge at this time.

    Principle: What not has been discovered, cannot be knowledge.

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