Beyond the Information Age discusses a new way of thinking about computers, knowledge and understanding. See the editorial for more information....

Difference between Knowledge and Understanding

Understanding is your next step to learning about life. Understanding is very different from knowledge, even though it is actually made from knowledge. Understanding is a process that takes time and requires energy. It is this physics of energy requirement that distinguishes it from knowledge and data. For understanding to happen some active understanding engine is required to process the data and understand the knowledge. This understanding engine can be part of a DNA based life-form like a brain or it could be a computer's central processor. To understand life it is critical to understand the technical difference between knowledge and understanding.

Understanding is much like what computers do so we can use computer analogy to understand it. Knowledge is like the words stored in a database or the text written by a word-processor. Understanding is like the database program or the word processor program that processes the words. Understandings are like a computer's application programs and consist almost entirely of procedural knowledge. These programs or understandings are executed on a central processing unit or in the case of a human, in our brain. In either case energy is required to do the understanding. No energy, no understanding, you can't understand when you are asleep or dead.

At its lowest level, understanding is simply data conversion from one type of raw data into another. Our eyes understand types SE, ES, and TS data and convert that data into type EE, and TE data that travels as electricity down the optic nerve to the brain. This conversion requires energy and with the eyes some of the energy comes from the light energy itself much like a solar cell converts energy from the sun into electricity. The molecular shapes of the rod and cone cells in the retina of our eyes perform this data conversion under direction of DNA programmed procedural knowledge. Whether this conversion requires additional energy from cellular glucose conversion, above and beyond the energy from the light itself, remains to be seen.

The way our eyes understand data is by the physical structure and layout of the rod and cone cells in the retina of the eyeball. The fact that there are millions of these cells spread out over the space of the retina make it possible for them to detect type SE data. Each cell of the retina is a separate understanding engine that understands the position and intensity or color of the photons of light hitting that part of the retina. The procedural knowledge that makes the understanding possible is manifest in the physical structure of the cells of the retina. Each photon of light energy follows a particular step by step procedure in its conversion to electrons that travel down the optic nerve as type EE electrical data. It's an amazing process all controlled by procedural knowledge stored in our DNA sequences.

Looking again at an understandings need for energy you see a living brain burning glucose for energy in order to understand data or knowledge. With a computer you see it using electrical energy to run its central processor. In both cases there would be no understanding without energy.

Now compare this with the nature of information stored in a book, it requires no energy and can last virtually forever. Books and computer disks store knowledge in the form of information without the need for the power of energy. This is the same for the brain; knowledge is stored in our memory cells in a way that doesn't require energy to maintain the memory. If this were not the case, then when as we went to school and learned more knowledge we would need to eat more energy food just to maintain that new knowledge. It may take food to do the learning but it takes no extra energy just to remember what you learned. Understanding requires energy, knowledge does not.

Let's backup for a minute and look at this difference between knowledge and understanding more carefully. Using a computer analogy, you know that both programs and data can be stored on a computer's disk. Data on the disk is just a bunch of oddly arranged atoms representing ones and zeros. When the computer is powered up the programs on the disk are executed by the processor and the information on the disk is understood. If we look at just what is on the disk, nothing changed between power off and power on, but to the computer user a lot has changed. The screen lights up at power on and things start to happen. There is a big difference between a computer program simply residing on a disk and one that is actually running and using energy. This difference between a program that is not running, and simply resides on disk and one that is running is very important. The program on disk is just knowledge the running program is understanding knowledge. This analogy applies to living creatures too.

In living creatures programs are called understandings. They are called 'an understanding' when they are not running, and 'understanding' when they are running. You can have 'an understanding' of golf even in your sleep, but unless you are actually golfing you are not using that understanding. There is a subtle difference in language here between being able to understand (not running) and actually understanding. You may be able to understand another language but unless you are actually hearing or reading that language you are not in the process of using that understanding. When an understanding is not being used it is just idle knowledge residing in your memory and not using any energy.

Last Update: 2006-Dec-23