The Difference Between Knowledge and Knowing
In the Google-era, we may have knowledge but we very rarely know. Here's how to tell the difference.
Thank God for Google, right?
The world’s information quite literally is at our fingertips. I can tell you who Alabama’s 15th sheriff was. I can tell you how quantum mechanics works in a combustion engine. I can tell you who won the Russian 2nd division volleyball league in 1986.
We have more knowledge than ever before.
Given the proliferation of text-based information available to us today with the internet and our smartphones, we are probably reading more now, as a world population than we’ve ever done before in history.
More students are achieving first class honours degrees than ever before (2019/20 was the highest on record, with almost a third).
Has this made us more knowledgeable? Perhaps.
But has it made us people who know? Hell, no!
Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad.
There’s a significant difference between having knowledge about something, and actually knowing something that we sometimes take for granted, in the Google-era.
We study and go to university and come out with degrees. For most, they have some knowledge about what they studied. But do they really ‘know’ their subject? Very rarely. A survey was done, testing first class honours students one year after graduation. Only 6% passed.
Similarly, most of us have grown up in a digital world where our online research skills have taught us how to get to the answers we seek, as opposed to being taught how to know something. Without a clear sense of how to know something we have confused knowledge (having information) with knowing (understanding something).
All that happens is that we learn to pass standardised tests. This is the sad byproduct of our culture of ‘learn to earn’, without knowledge actually transforming you. Instead, we’re in the age of knowledge being a commodity.
Malcolm X, talks in his autobiography about learning to read for the first time where he copied out the dictionary:
“I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words — immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.
I was so fascinated that I went on — I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet — and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.”
He went through a painstaking process but it is what made him formidable. He didn’t just know ‘of’ the words, he knew the words and therefore became a master who could use them at will to run rings around his opponents.
Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Richard Feynman famously said:
“You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
His story of learning was similar:
“We had the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy my father used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, or tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, ‘This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across,’ you see, and so he’d stop and say, ‘let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.’ Everything we’d read would be translated as best as we could into some reality and so I learned to do that — everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying by translating.”
Some experts claim the internet and instant access to information is actually neurally changing us and the way we think. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist and author says: “We are not only what we read. We are HOW we read.” She says that today we only skim-read, a style that puts efficiency and immediacy above all else, which weakens our capacity for depth. This is shaping our entire thought process. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
It’s actually quite dangerous, long term. Instead of us being deep-sea scuba divers, able to stay underwater for a long period of time and contemplate everything around us, all we’re able to do is skim across the surface in a jet ski — keen to get to the other side as quick as possible.
The Holy Qu’ran says:
“Say: Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (39:9)
Even the Qu’ran differentiates between these two states.
Knowledge is an intellectual process — but knowing is a spiritual and emotional process. Knowledge comes from acquiring information, but knowing comes from ownership and internalisation of that information. We believe we need to move from knowledge to knowing — from education to ownership and building spirit in our understanding.
When it comes to learning, there are two states recognised in Islam — ilm (knowledge) and irfan — which is the superior degree of ‘knowing’ — and higher than the concept of knowledge itself. Our world is very similar — we are surrounded by information and knowledge, but very few of us actually are in a state of ‘knowing’. When you ‘know’ — you gain the knowledge of things as they really are, not how they appear to be. You gain the benefit of wisdom and insight, not just knowledge.
Hence we need to learn HOW to learn and think in this way. We need to rebuild our knowledge with what it actually needs, not with vanity certificates that gives us the false sense of security that we’re smart. It’s interesting that in the hadith about the end times, there are a few that talk about the increase of ignorance despite there being an increase in literature.
At KNOW, we differentiate ourselves by really focusing on this key distinction in the Qur’an.
Our definition of a ‘Knower’ — i.e. someone who knows is someone who is able to understand the world, in harmony with their soul, is active not passive, loves learning and growing, knows HOW to learn properly, champions truth, speaks for justice, acts with wisdom and is able to express themselves, whilst living their purpose.
The greats of the past were Knowers.
We want to create a modern day movement filled with knowers.
Check out our Second Golden Age campaign on YouTube for more on this subject.
Serial Entrepreneur. Founder at KNOW and Co-Founder of Muslim CEO. I write about education, entrepreneurship and everything in-between. I write at https://faisal-amjad.medium.com/