Wikipedia defines knowledge as "familiarity with someone or something" and Plato defined knowledge as "justified true belief". Belief and familiarity is something that only a sentient being can have, or at least an agent with some level of intelligence. This implies, that knowledge can't exist in outside of the consciousness.

However there are terms like "knowledge management" and "knowledge representation", which deal with structured and meaningful information, that is stored outside of human consciousness. In other words, a text file with RDF triples exists independently of whether are some persons familiar with its content or not. Does it make a file with RDF data a piece of knowledge?

Is that a question of how we define words? If so, then what is the difference between data and knowledge?

Related question:

  • Why can only a sentient being have believe? If some (non-sentient, as far as we know) automatic control system uses sensor input, a programmed model and/or heuristics to estimate a not directly available quantity and acts according to the estimated value, couldn't you also say that the system believes that the quantity has that value? Indeed, it would even be justified believe.
    – celtschk
    Oct 21, 2012 at 13:27
  • This is a common argument. Searle ("Minds, Brains and Science", 1984) clearly opposes the notion of systems or devices 'having' mental phenomena. "Belief" is linked to "Intentionality" (defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.") It is, for Searle, clear, that your "system" can't do that.
    – iphigenie
    Oct 21, 2012 at 14:35
  • 2
    @iphigenie - I agree with your characterization, but I'd also point out that with a sufficiently powerful computer, programmed appropriately, it could reason about, represent, or stand for things, properties, and states of affairs. So Searle's argument is a good one for why a-device-in-1984-cannot-believe. It's much less good of an argument for why Google's self-driving car cannot believe that there is a pedestrian in the road (in some important sense of "believe").
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 21, 2012 at 17:33
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    @RexKerr In the same text Searle firmly disagrees with what you just said. Quote: "The nature of the refutation has nothing whatever to do with any particular stage of computer technology. It is important to emphasise this point because the temptation is always to think that the solution to our problems must wait on some as yet uncreated technological wonder. But in fact, the nature of the refutation is completely independent of any state of technology. It has to do with the very definition of a digital computer, with what a computer is. As I understood, this is because a computer operates
    – iphigenie
    Oct 21, 2012 at 17:42
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    @iphigenie - Well, that makes Searle not a physicalist, but it doesn't help his argument any. That Searle cannot imagine a computer with intentionality or a keen computational grasp of semantics is a statement of Searle's limitations, not those of computers; if he defines it so that it must apply only to people, that says more about Searle's biases than an objective view of the relationship between knowledge, computation, and representation of state. Regardless of his claims to the contrary, Searle's argument feels dated.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 21, 2012 at 17:59

5 Answers 5


You seem to've answered your own question, rhetorically speaking.

Is that a question of how we define words? If so, then what is the difference between data and knowledge?

The simple answer to the former is "yes". To the latter... you've already fitted them to the same definition by the way you framed your question.

You began by proposing two definitions of knowledge which are generally intertwined with belief in the semantic, intentional sense. "Familiarity" presupposes a host of emotional responses in sentient creatures, unless you want to define it in some other way from common use. Plato's "Justified True Belief" is the same, and you even say so.

But then you try to draw a contrast with terms like "knowledge management" and "knowledge representation", which is pointless. The fact that a term exists doesn't imply that it has a meaning. By using it here, you seem to be trying to propose that people use the terms in a way to refer to knowledge that objectively exists with no subjective stance - or, if I'm being charitable, at least that it exists if there's merely the possibility that a subjective stance could be held.

However, if you simply define "knowledge" to not include intentional beliefs, such as in regards to "knowledge representation", or if you define it in such a way that you've included data sets like RDF files, JPEGs, etc., then all you've done is use the word "knowledge" in the wrong way. You characterize knowledge as data sets, so obviously no one can draw a difference between them that's meaningful without providing a different meaning for knowledge - specifically, a definition which includes beliefs, which you've already excluded by drawing this contrast.

So is it a question of how we define words? Obviously. What's then then difference between knowledge and data? None, by that definition.

On the other hand, if you want to define knowledge a little more traditionally, then we can show that if you define data as any fixed string of bits, then data sets are obviously not considered knowledge. A person can take any random string of digits and then claim it's meaningful, given a particular context or encoding. This string still couldn't be considered "knowledge" until it maps to reality in some valid respect, but it would still be "data".

But - that very context or encoding that has to be added in order to provide meaning to the data, is exactly what defines our difference. Data by itself is opaque; it's just gibberish until someone supplies it with semantics. Knowledge must be transparent; if it doesn't map to the way the world is in some respect, it's not knowledge.


More to bump the interesting question, than as an answer it, my answer is that knowledge requires belief, and the possibility or false belief, which can mislead the internal life of what has that belief, but need not do so.

i.e. a qualitative (I think literally invisible) state with both internal and external regulation. Whether or not the former, sentience, can exist without the latter, which I think could be glossed as reflection or meta-congition.


There are different types of knowledge, including knowledge how to do something like walk or run or add 2 + 2, knowledge of information like phone numbers, or what something is called, or recognition of people and things, and knowledge of what something is "like" to experience. I believe many other animals have knowledge in many of those respects perhaps in different ways, so no, I do not believe it is limited to -humans-. There may be all sorts of other types of intelligent life forms in the universe on other planets or other universes or higher levels of consciousness where things are known as well that we aren't aware of in our "normal" state of consciousness. We can also know things consciously and unconsciously.

As I understand the current level of technology, I would not say that a machine has knowledge. Machines can be programmed to respond in intelligent ways, but as I understand it, it is not "aware" as we are with an internal experience. Books contain ink blots that we interpret as symbols of things people have written to transfer ideas from one person to another, but the book does not have any awareness of the knowledge. It is paper and ink. Same goes for computers. They are little gadgets with tiny parts in various states. I have not seen anything yet that would convince me that they are sentient beings. Hopefully, they do not succeed in creating sentient beings. It might be a nightmare to be caught in a life like that as a slave unable to kill yourself or get out of it for a long time. Who knows what it would be like to be in such a thing if it were possible. It might be terrible.


i wouldn't equate "data" with "knowledge".

there seems to be some non-animal life with something like knowledge. umbrella thorn acacia trees in Africa and interact with other acacia trees when they get nibbled on by giraffes. this interaction is transfer of information that at least one in their number is being eaten.


"Knowledge representation" and "Knowledge management" refers to how to make human knowledge accessible to machines. So it's not necessarily "machine knowledge" meant here, it's still the human knowledge, made readable and processable (to an extent) for the machine. Or even just preserving it for the sake of other people, in a useful, searchable state.

Knowledge management (KM) is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization. - Wikipedia

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