What is the relationship between data, information and knowledge? And what part do these play in the expansion of consciousness and the development of wisdom? In his 1950 groundbreaking book, The Human Use Of Human Beings, mathematician Norbert Weiner defined “message” as “A sequence of events in time which…strives to hold back nature’s tendency toward disorder by adjusting its parts to various purposive ends.” Simply put, information, exchanged as messages between human beings and between machines retards entropy by adjusting their (and its) parts to accomplish purposeful objectives. His book was one of the first to study “message transmission among people and machines.” And it initiated the science of Cybernetics, a term that isn’t used much today. “Information Theory” is the current iteration of the idea that there’s more to information than it appears. And information isn’t just a luxury attained by the privileged, it’s a necessary component of life. Had it not been for the sharing of information between the Apollo 13 astronauts and ground control operations in Houston—aptly portrayed in the Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks—the crew would surely have died.
Information derives in part from “data,” which consists of numbers, characters, charts or verbal expressions. Data is concrete and inert, whereas information is more abstract and active. Data exists on a page or screen or is talked about—until someone considers it, at which point it generates information, which is in the mind. I’ve collected many definitions of “information,” but the one I like best was articulated by anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. He said, “Information is a difference that makes a difference.” Said another way, information is often data that means something to someone. For instance, the distance between Mercury and Venus when they align with the Earth and sun is data to me. To a student of planetary motion however, it’s information. What may be a curiosity to many—if they regard the data at all—may be one small step toward the realization of an astronomer’s purpose. This may seem obvious, but the insight that it raises is significant—the value of any bit of information is the extent to which it contributes to someone’s knowledge. And can be used. Further, just as data contributes to information, it in turn contributes to knowledge and understanding—consciousness directed toward “various purposive ends.”
According to the dictionary, “knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something…It can refer to a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” Again, the value of knowledge is relative to the knower. And no two persons are alike in terms of knowledge, even when attempts such as IQ are made to measure intelligence. In complex societies, particularly in the area of business where people are partly, sometimes largely, evaluated based upon the extent of their knowledge, institutions of mass education put learners through years of data gathering, information processing and testing in order to achieve certain milestones—and credentials—designed to assess and validate a person’s intelligence and ability. However, tests of intelligence have been shown to be narrow, and educational systems have widely varying success. This is understandable considering individual uniqueness. One “size” of education will never fit all people. That’s why the responsibility for education lies primarily with the individual, her family and local support systems. And, some people place a higher value than others on gaining knowledge, particularly in the context of formal—and higher—education. On one occasion Linda’s dad drove her through the Bowery in Chicago. He pointed to people drunk in doorways and told her that many of those people were very intelligent, had high IQ’s and academic degrees but had not done anything positive with the gifts they had. It’s not what you know,” he said, “it’s what you do with what you know that makes a difference.” That’s wisdom.
I recently heard about someone not wanting to adopt a suggestion given by a knowledgeable, experienced and highly ethical expert—because he didn’t have a doctoral degree. Having spent over twenty-five years teaching in higher education, I have known students whose college education meant almost nothing to them. Some were attending college merely to satisfy their parents. They partied and expended minimal effort in order to graduate. One student in his fourth year as an undergraduate confided in me that he purposefully flunked my course because he was having so much fun. He didn’t want to graduate and his parents were footing the bill. At the other end of the spectrum I had students who went well beyond the course requirements in order to feed their passion. As for myself, if I can gain some knowledge, develop an insight or adopt a suggestion that would feed my passion or improve my life, I don’t care if the information came from a dog! Literally. We can learn a lot from animals. Real ignorance in my view, is rejecting information that’s freely given and intended to be helpful simply because the source doesn’t have credentials. Reject the information if it doesn’t work. But at least entertain the possibility that it might be useful. As sources of information, this applies to books and media consumption as well. One thing that infuriates every teacher is the student who criticizes a book they haven’t read or an idea they haven’t discussed.
Now to the second question: What part do information and knowledge play relative to the expansion of consciousness and the development of wisdom? Over the archway of the administration building at the University of Cincinnati, carved in stone, is a quote from the King James Bible. It reads, “Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom.” That’s quite something considering that the function of a university is to impart knowledge and encourage learning. Not wisdom. My personal view is that wisdom can neither be taught nor acquired through directed effort. It is accessed. Knowledge has practical value in the world of getting things done and realizing our potentials, but its source is the intellect, the brain-mind system, which is temporal and can easily deceive. Knowledge, even when it comes to scientific facts and theories, is always tentative. Stephen Hawking’s shifting views on the nature of black holes is a good example. When we die, I believe the knowledge we accumulated in life is gone. But, for those who like me, believe in an afterlife, the wisdom gained of experience is retained. I think of the question that’s sometimes asked: “What do you know for sure?” Indeed, the only thing I can say for sure is that I exist. Everything that I think I know could be wrong. And certainly, given time, it will change.
For me, the source of wisdom is the animating spirit within, the soul, which I believe is eternal, all knowing and fully one with the universe—individuated on Earth for the purpose of coming to realize and experience that Oneness, the true reality. Full awareness. I further believe that explanations relating to this subject, as knowledge or belief, are not only tentative and partial, they’re also largely inaccurate. We can’t know what’s truly operating at that level. Nonetheless, because human beings are innately curious about this Great Mystery, we—I in this instance—draw upon the knowledge and wisdom of others to construct a meditative hypothesis that’s at least somewhat satisfying for the moment—.
Through the digestion of books and research studies, conversations with fellow travelers and my own intuition—colored of course by family, social and religious “filters”—my working point of view at the moment is that consciousness and love are integrated subtle energy “fields” intrinsic to the universe. And that “cosmic consciousness,” being everywhere and eternally present as pure potential, is among other things a repository of information and information potential that can be accessed. In two places, the New Testament (Matthew 10:30 and Luke 12:7) authors say that “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Sanskrit and Indian cultures refer to “Akasha” as an all-encompassing medium that underlies all things and becomes all things. The ancient Rishis claimed to contact this subtle energy field through a disciplined way of life and yoga. In India, Yogi Swami Vivekananda said, “Everything that has form, everything that is the result of combination, is evolved out of this Akasha.” More recently, Ervin Laszlo, writing in Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything, put forward a science-based scheme that draws on physics, systems theory and quantum phenomena to describe “The presence of in-formation throughout the cosmos, carried and conveyed by the universal in-formation field we have named the Akashic field.”
One reason why I can appreciate the existence of a universal field of consciousness from which knowledge and wisdom can be drawn, has to do with my own encounters with wisdom. Whether it comes from myself or someone else, it feels like a withdrawal from a library—or perhaps a wisdom bank. It’s the experience of “downloading” an insight that feels true and we didn’t know we had. And I’ve observed that wisdom doesn’t seem to show up until it’s called for, largely through questioning. That’s what I mean when I say it’s accessed. My friend Marty and I, on our many walks, often astonished each other by asking questions that called for and brought forth wisdom rather than knowledge. It happens when we go deep in discussions of meaning and essence. Also when we go deeply into a subject. In writing my novels and this blog, I am often surprised by what comes through. It doesn’t seem to come from me, but it certainly triggers information that’s somewhere in my brain/mind system.
Currently, there’s a lot going on in the field of consciousness research. Investigators want to know what consciousness is and how a material brain can propagate thoughts. Here too, I reference an analogy put forward by Ervin Laszlo. He says the brain functions similarly to a radio tuner. It transmits and displays consciousness, which is a property of the cosmos. The question then becomes: What am I tuning into? What are the channels of thought that I most frequently visit? Am I just subjecting myself to data? Or am I attuning myself to useful and meaningful information that can make a difference in my life? As noted, the value of information and wisdom is wholly dependent upon the individual—and what we do with it.
At the roots of reality there is not just matter and energy, but also a more subtle but equally fundamental factor, one that we can describe as active and effective information: ‘in-formation.’ (It) links all things in the universe, atoms as well as galaxies, organisms the same as minds.
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
I sometimes photograph on college campuses. A new classroom had been built at Xavier University, where I taught for twenty-six years. I went exploring with my camera and came upon this computer classroom. I chose this image for the posting this week, in part because the blue of the monitors compliments the blue of the masthead photo. Also, I found an analogy in the image of waves expanding from a point in the pond and information expanding consciousness from a center of purpose.