All knowledge and belief, whether true or false, can be regarded as information. Treating it in this way removes any preconceived ideas or value judgements and enables us to consider it more objectively. Any place where information is held, for example in the mind of an individual or in a book, can be regarded as a medium of information. Again, this removes any preconceptions or value judgements.
Knowledge can be held by an individual in a schema (pl. schemata), by a group in a paradigm, or by a society in a memeplex. These three theories are discussed below.
Knowledge of the individual – Schemata
According to the British psychologist, F. C. Bartlett (1886 – 1969) the knowledge of an individual is held in schemata. These are mental structures each of which organises items of information about some aspect of the world and the relationships between them.
Knowledge, including ideas, beliefs, and values, must be remembered but Bartlett showed that the way in which we do so is affected by information that we already hold. So that new information is more consistent with our existing schemata we may omit anything thought to be irrelevant, alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations. Bartlett referred to this process as “effort after meaning”. Consistency of the information in our schemata is important to us. If we are unable to reconcile two contradictory items then we experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological stress. When this occurs, we do all that we can to resolve the contradiction and reduce our discomfort. For example, we may simply forget information which contradicts that already in our schemata.
The reason we modify information in this way is thought to be the mental effort involved in revising our schemata. According to the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, memory is a biological process involving growth or metabolic change in our neurons which, of course, requires both time and energy. Schemata are therefore resistant to change.
The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, (1915 – 2016), postulated that individuals hold information in three ways: enactively, as a recollection of muscle actions; iconically, in the form of visual, aural, tactile, taste or olfactory images; or symbolically, using symbols such as words to represent physical entities and the relationships between them. Information stored enactively can be communicated to others through training, imagery and spoken or written instruction, but this is a lengthly process. Information stored iconically can be communicated by the production of images, sounds, scents, etc., for example by painting, but this too is a lengthly process. Only information stored symbolically can be communicated relatively quickly and accurately. Hence our dependence on natural languages and formal languages, such as mathematics, for communication.
Knowledge of a Society – Memes
In common parlance, the word “meme” describes a visual image circulating on the internet. However, the term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, to describe a cultural idea, belief or symbol that can be transmitted from one individual to another through language, gesture, ritual, imitation, etc. Memes have a similar role to genes in biological evolution and are thought to be the basis of cultural evolution. They can mutate and their propagation is dependent on whether they improve the likelihood of a culture’s survival and reproduction.
Memes form clusters known as memeplexes which are the basis of a culture, political ideology, or religious dogma. Because of this, individual memes can “hitch a ride” on a broader and more successful memeplex. For example, homophobia might form part of a more generally acceptable system of religious beliefs and practices.
Memes are resistant to change in the same way as schemata. For the individuals that hold them, not only are biological changes in the brain required but negotiation and conflict with others may also be involved.
Knowledge of a Group – Paradigms
An example of a memeplex is a scientific paradigm. This is a generally accepted set of scientific beliefs and practices which prevail at a particular time. Major changes to a paradigm are known as a paradigm shift. In his book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, describes a paradigm shift as following four stages:
- Normal Science. A dominant paradigm exists and is universally accepted. However, as time progresses, scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by it.
- Extraordinary research. When sufficient anomalies emerge and cast doubt on the veracity of the paradigm a state of crisis results. Research of an exploratory nature is then carried out and new theories and experiments are produced to explain the anomalies.
- Adoption of a new paradigm. Competing new paradigms form and gain followers. However, they also gain detractors who are committed to the original. Eventually, a single new paradigm may gain acceptance if it predicts phenomena more successfully than the original.
- Aftermath of the scientific revolution. The new paradigm becomes institutionalised and dominant but the revolutionary process, which is not usually recorded, becomes forgotten.
In my next post, I will describe how we acquire new knowledge before later discussing the features that schemata, memes and paradigms have in common.