Sharing human knowledge

Luke Turner
2018-12-07
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Knowledge can be hard to deal with. A piece of knowing doesn’t exist in isolation, it depends on the mental models in the knower’s mind. Without appropriate mental models, a so-called “fact” is useless.

Therefore, you cannot share complete knowledge with words1, any more than you can share the meaning of the color “red” with a blind man. This isn’t a philosophical statement, it’s just a practical problem derived from how much context is needed for true semantic understanding of even the tiniest idea.

But hope is not lost. True knowledge can’t be shared directly, but it can be dissected and examined and interpreted, and thereby a tiny facet of it can be projected into words.

If you’re shown a tiny piece of dissected flesh, could you guess the species it came from? Perhaps – if you are already familiar with the species in question. Ideas are the same. You can recognize a new piece of an idea only if the larger idea2 is already familiar to you.

Therefore, one of the best ways of gaining knowledge is to relate new ideas to ideas you already know, and when sharing knowledge you should try to relate your idea to something the reader already understands, and also relate your ideas to each other, on the premise that once the reader understands one, it’ll help them understand the rest.

What does this mean for me as a writer?

  • Comprehensive treatments of ideas are impossible, don’t even try. Instead of making your posts complete, make them digestible.
  • When introducing a radically new idea with few points for comparison, alternate between reiterating the core idea, and exploring the network of ideas related to it.
  • Write posts that stand alone, but “resonate” with each other. Reading Post A should improve my understanding of Post B, and vice-versa.
  • Provide readers the ability to explore the conceptual relations between your posts. (Usually, via categories, tags, and cross-links.)

Here’s an example. Suppose Kim reads this post and gets to the point where it says you should relate your idea to something the reader already understands. Now, Kim’s no expert, but he knows a thing or two about writing. Probably more than this Luke guy whose blog he’s reading. So he gets to this part and says to himself:

“Relate things to ideas your readers already understand? That’s obvious!”

Kim thinks so because he’s been exposed to the idea before. Many times, in different contexts, and from different angles. It intuitively makes sense to him. The other choices are obviously inferior. He knows it’s true.

Let’s say it never occurred to Kim that we should relate our ideas to each other, by the same principle. When he reads that line, a lightbulb goes off. He says,

“That also seems obvious, but I don’t think I’ve seen it written exactly like that before.”

Kim’s feeling at that moment – the distinct sense of “That’s obvious” – is the feeling of two things you already know being combined to form a new idea. The feeling can be so strong that sometimes people wonder if they read it before (as Kim did), or even subconsciously assume they knew it already!


Some interesting asides:

  • This tactic is widely (ab)used. Rephrased, the point is that humans basically use a heuristic where if an idea is related to multiple other ideas they already believe, the new idea is weighted as “more likely to be true/remembered/known.” This heuristic can be leaned on to “exploit” people into believing things by association.

  • Perhaps this explains why experience is such a valuable teacher. The input from our senses provides way higher bandwidth (than words) for sharing context and information. Which is why you can’t become an expert cook from reading cookbooks, and you can never write a perfectly replicable recipe.


  1. At least, not with a reasonable quantity of them. With enough words – and a fast enough writer and reader – “true knowledge” transfer could be possible. This is how computers share data, in a romantic sense. If you can directly “read data” from people’s minds without their having to write it as words, the shape of this limitation changes dramatically. To put it in other terms, ↩︎

  2. It’s not uncommon to use different words for ideas of varying complexity or type. For example, a broad idea might be called “model”, “intuition”, or “experience”. A smaller idea might be called a “detail”, “fact”, or “insight”. I deliberately avoid using such words in this document – there is only “knowledge” and “idea”, and they refer to the same thing, which technically speaking could be called a mental model of arbitrary complexity. ↩︎