I haven't studied Philosophy and I get this is a fundamental question one cannot answer in one line.

But I want to phrase it in this particular way: even in a finite possibilities-predetermined (few) known rules world like chess, "knowledge" is hard. Up to now, chess is not a solved game, and as everyone who's played it knows, its vastity allows for an enormous difference in terms of variety in its knowledge.

Given the world is absurdly "bigger" (a countless number of variables, logic rules, incognita, physical rules, etc.) than a chess game, and put in this perspective, how is some form of knowledge even possible in principle? Basically, any non-strictly scientific conclusion one reaches should be of tremendous and unachievable difficulty.

How is kowledge possible?

  • Knowledge isn't hard, only perfect knowledge is. And one does not need to "solve" chess to know how the figures move or even how to play standard openings and endgames. Or to know some geometry, arithmetic, what to buy in a store and who won elections, small k knowledge. As for perfect knowledge, only God has it and we get by without it well enough.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 1:27
  • Heck of a pep-talk! Cheers,
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 4:16
  • 1
    I don't quite understand. You say that everyone who plays chess knows that it's a difficult game. Isn't that knowledge? And a competent mathematician can calculate the number of possible game variations. This is not knowledge? And any trained chess player can tell you all the possible next moves for any board configuration. Is that not knowledge?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 13:02
  • Knowledge comes directly from experience. You have to experience something to gain knowledge. Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 16:03
  • @roddik- Knowledge is only possible if the sensible world is intelligible and the human mind functions as agent-in-knowing.
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


In the chess context it is instructive to read about the computational methods, especially weighted tree searches, and evolutionary algorithms. Convolutional neural networks are a powerful tool which seem to mimic methods found in brains. They have a kind of hierarchic structure, say used in vision a layer might be scanning for lines, then pass up abstracted line info to the next layer, which is working out edges, passes that up to next layer, which infers 3D form - optical illusions help us see these processes in action often by interfering with specific steps in this kind of chain.

Knowledge is about abstraction, conceptualising. It is the construction of a shorthand, which picks out what is important from noise, and helps in constructing context-specific salience landscapes that highlight what is useful.

The emergence of sponteneous order and self-organisation is a feature of complex systems, which minds have evolved to take advantage of through abstraction, to make understanding the world tractable.

  • Yes, this is what I mostly believe. Like, you don't have to know EVERYTHING, as you would in a chess game (a slightly different pawn position can scramble the game completely). In the same way one does not have to know the chemicals of one's brain to make predictions on his decisions, etc.
    – rod
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 9:29
  • Then again, the comparison seems incredible to me.
    – rod
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 9:30
  • @roddik: which comparison, playing chess with knowledge/knowing?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 0:03
  • 1
    Well, in principle it's not. But as psychology teaches, we are all moved by the same instincts and pulsions. ANd in any case, we can postulate that those are present in everyone/most of us, and see if this explains other people's behaviour. Thanks for the links, I'll try to understand something. (Those are not easy things to read for me).
    – rod
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 14:36
  • 1
    @roddik: "as psychology teaches, we are all moved by the same instincts and pulsions" Is that true..? Instincts evolve. This guy Christakis uses the term 'social suite', like we have a toolbox, an interface, for navigating social situations youtu.be/VkUFthM6n5o When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, they say. But the hammer doesn't make you less autonomous. Lot of cognitive bias sure. But I'd say reason +drawing on & integrating our whole life experience, we can get to think new thought, go beyond the past, & seek to maximise our, unpredictability
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 19, 2020 at 1:29

This seems a reasonable and convincing argument.

However, saying that knowledge is hard in the case of chess seems not quite the situation. It don't believe that any one human being could imagine all possible games. We might want to argue that this is at least possible in principle in the precise sense that we know all the rules of the game. But this is certainly not true in practice. The human brain is not fast enough and big enough for any human to go through all possible games.

Assuming that the laws of nature, analogous here to the rules of chess, are in finite number, maybe it is possible in principle to compute any state of the universe at t + 1 knowing the state of the universe at t. But we don't know the state of the universe at any one time, and so we don't know it at t, and so we cannot infer it at t. So, the limited number of rules doesn't help. The crucial factor here is the size of the universe, and the size of the human brain.

The reasoning above may sound convincing, but it is flawed. Suppose there has been a time t = 0, and suppose that the state of the universe at t = 0 could be expressed as a small set of data, as seems indeed the implication of the theory of the Big Bang. Then, in principle at least, we could know the small set of data describing the universe at t = 0, and then use the equally small set of the laws of nature to predict the state of the universe at any one time after t = 0, in principle.

However, the fact is, we weren't there, and nobody was, presumably, and for good reasons. If the state of the universe at t = 0 was simple, then no human being, and indeed no being with the intelligence of even a snail or a nit, could have been there at t = 0. If a human being had been there at t = 0, then the state of the universe at that point could not possibly be described by a "small set of data". The presence of a human observer at t = 0 would contradict our necessary assumption that the universe was simple at t = 0.

Thus, knowledge is not possible simply because the human brain cannot even know itself, for all sorts of reasons but also because no physically real cognitive system could even in principle represent itself.

This, of course, is no problem since we absolutely don't need that our brain should be able to represent itself completely, nor any other brain for that matter, and not even any substantial part of the universe. What we need is that our brain should help us survive in our environment, and this is obviously the case. Knowledge of the world is a red herring. All we need are beliefs that are reliable enough for us to survive, nothing else.

Unperfect knowledge is not knowledge. Either we possess knowledge or we don't. If we don't, we may instead have beliefs, in which case we need to know our beliefs, and we do or else they wouldn't be beliefs. All we need is that our beliefs about the world be good enough for us to survive. Seems to work so far.

  • You omit the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 13:04
  • @HotLicks Because it is irrelevant. If you think it is not, maybe you could write an answer. Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 17:24
  • I wrote an answer and put it in a box with a cat.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 7, 2020 at 22:26
  • And you know all this how? Or is your statement also to be taken as just a belief good enough to survive? Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 23:00
  • @YvenJohannesLeist Did I say I knew? I thought it was clear enough. "Seems to work so far". Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 10:21

What makes knowledge possible, is in your prefrontal cortex :)

That's a short answer, anyway. After that, however -- and for reasons too sad to mention -- things quickly become complicated... OK, I'll mention them anyway. See, while everyone has the "hardware", few people use it at all, and almost no one use it in the way it was intended for. 'Cause no one explains us how... not anymore.

That why no modern language has a word for that thing (and for a few other things) but we know the words from some ancient languages, like Greek "lógos", or "miltha" in Aramaic, or in Sanskrit it's "ātman". Latin was too modern, so "lógos" they ended up translating it simply as "the Word", ha-ha... What it really means is your conscious, rational Self, or simply human Soul -- but also the God's soul, the divine spirit.

It makes it possible for us to understand the objective reality that we share. How? -- well, it is, actually, in opening of John's Gospel:

Through [the Lógos] all things were made; without it nothing was made that has been made.

And that's what knowledge is, the Truth about how things really are, but also why they ended up this way, and how they could have been otherwise -- limiting what's possible. So we know our options and can make a conscious choice, a.k.a. the free will.

  • This might be lack of philosophical knowledge talking, but you seem to have justified the possibility of knowledge with the existence of "logos". Not so helpful in my opinion...
    – rod
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 9:27
  • @roddik -- may I ask, then, how would you define knowledge? Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 14:12
  • That's extremely tricky. I would say that you can measure knowledge with the ability to foresee, predict the future. That is the only objective way that I find.
    – rod
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 10:41
  • In the case of chess, the time being the moves played, good predictions are equivalent to winning the games (or drawing, in case the opponent is an equally good predictor).
    – rod
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 10:44
  • I think I know what you talking about, but I would rather call it experience to denote the neural net approach to the problem, and only use "knowledge" in the context of the rational mind. My answer was about the latter, while your comments point straight to the former... and the two are nothing alike -- in fact, they are often directly at odds with each other Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 1:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .