Regaining Balance: Rethinking knowledge making

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If our knowledge is increasing every day (as measured by the number of research publications), why is it that we see such high levels of social and environmental injustice around the world?

A one-line answer to this question: It is the kind of knowledge one creates that matters, not how much knowledge one makes.

Or, as I will demonstrate in this essay, our current ways of understanding knowledge and knowledge making need to be reformed.

To get us going, let’s do a little activity (you can do it in real, or you can imagine it: the choice is yours to make):

Take a bucket and put about 100 random objects in it. It doesn’t matter what the objects are as long as they are all different. Now, spread them out on the floor and sort them. It doesn’t matter how you sort them, just do it.

Good

Now, jumble everything up and then sort the stuff again.

Now, jumble up everything once more and ask someone else (who has not seen you do this) to sort the stuff out. Tell them what I told you: they can do it any way they like, there is no right or wrong way.

The chances are:

  1. Each time you sorted the items, you did it differently; and,
  2. The other person sorted the things differently from you

Congratulations! You have just become knowledge makers.

What you just did is to categorise things. Making categories and classifying things is doing fundamental science, stripped of all its fancy methodologies and applications.

Or, in other words, sorting is the first step of knowledge making.

Notice now that every time we sort a bucket of finite stuff, we do it differently. When different people do it, they do it differently. We sort based on our own choices, interests, experiences, thoughts, knowledge, abilities, beliefs, moods…

Now, imagine, an infinite number of things. Would there not be an infinite number of ways that we can sort them? These will be based on what we want to do with the sorting, where, when, how, and with whom we are sorting. Changing any of these (or other) variables can change our sorting. And, changing the way we sort can change the outcomes and applications of what we do with the sorting.

This is one reason why people have different languages in different parts of the world: people develop language to help them name and sort out stuff which enables them to engage with each other and the world. Through this sorting, they create knowledge that connect them to the physical world. Thus, in its core, language and science are the same things.

If we remove a person who speaks X language and place them, say, 5000 km away from where their language evolved, they may not be able to use their language to understand many/most things that they see around them: language, and the science that it carries, is geographically bound. This explains why English and other languages used across large geographical regions appear to be more evolved in their ability to describe and theorise: they are based on a wider range of experiences and information. At the same time, damaging or replacing Indigenous languages/sciences with English or another non-Indigenous language/science can lead to environmental catastrophe: the locals lose their socio-semiotic inheritance, i.e., the science and language that their ancestors developed over millennia, and are no longer aware of how their ancestors saw or engaged with their surroundings.

Damaging eco-linguistic environments bring the same types of destruction to humans as destroying eco-biological environments brings to other creatures: oppression and a loss of connection with habitat.

Since each language sorts the world in a slightly different ways, colonial languages and colonial established forms of knowledge and knowledge building represent only a fraction of ways in which knowledge can be built. Mostly, this knowledge structure denigrates Indigenous sciences. And, as I will demonstrate in this essay, colonial-established form of knowledge building is not necessarily a good way of doing knowledge building.

Why?

Because colonial-era disciplines (all of them) build categories in only two primary ways:

  1. through structural/functional analysis (grammatical patterns and structures, mammals and amphibians, etc); and
  2. through genealogy (genus, species, family, etc.).

Colonial sciences use structural/functional analysis to make arguments for the genealogical relationships presented. This is why species can get reclassified based on DNA evidence; or, a language can be put into another family based on new structural analyses.

While using structures/functions are one way of sorting, there can be other ways of classifying things too. For example, one can sort based on inter-relationships, inter-dependencies, or co-existence – approaches espoused by many Indigenous communities world-wide. In creating such knowledge, structural/functional differences would not always be relevant or important. And, thus, both the knowledge we create and the benefits we get from them will be different.

Using structures/functions to support arguments of genealogy, on the other hand, contribute to creating a classification system that divides entities based on a few human-identified features; ignoring their co-existence and their inter-relationships. A structural/functional classificatory system, by its very nature, is divisive.

When considered in relation to different sciences, a genealogical and structural/functional approach produces studies that divide things up, e.g. in biology and linguistics, people look at genealogical relationships between species or languages. And, because division is an infinite act (one can keep on dividing and dividing), colonial sciences keep getting more and more delicate in their study; or, in other words, they split hairs. This is one reason why western academia often recategorizes things and/or creates new categories. As their perspectives on things shift, based on a number of reasons (including socio-political ones), so do their categories and classifications.

Now, consider another way of sorting out the world: categorise things as ‘infinite’ and ‘finite’. Infinite things are things that have no bounds: e.g., knowledge, money, power, influence, faith, belief…; and, finite things are things that are limited: e.g. trees, water, species, matter, life…

Once we do this, we can begin to realise that if we set anything in the ‘infinite’ category as our goal, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Why?

Because something that is infinite can never be achieved: it is endless.

By splitting hair, colonial sciences and education have set their goal to be the ‘infinite’. And, by doing so, they have set an unachievable goal. A goal that is, by definition, meant to fail.

Colonial sciences use finite resources to try to conquer the infinite: e.g., scientists burn incredibly large amounts of matter, which is not replaceable, in order to reach out into the infinite space.

One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist (pun intended) to realise that one will run out of finite resources but never achieve the infinite.

Would it not make sense to use the infinite as a resource in order to learn about and contribute to the finite? That is, do something which is theoretically possible.

Using ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ is also just another way of carving up the world. There are many other ways of categorising the world around us. Some are good for one purpose, others are good for a different purpose; some categories explain only a few things, others can explain many more things; and, some ways of creating categories can harmonise the world, and others can disharmonise it.

The use of items in the infinite category, such as seeking knowledge, as our goals can lead to disharmonisaton because we are setting unachievable goals. In addition, the principles of sorting on which colonial knowledge making are based are inherently divisive and destructive – and not designed for human or environmental welfare (they are designed to benefit a few select). This is one reason why we keep producing knowledge, but the world keeps getting observably worse.

To reverse the mess that colonial sciences and education have created, we need to reset our goals to ‘finite’ things and use the ‘infinite’ as resources. Once we do this, we will start to see a reharmonization of the finite; and, luckily, we will have the infinite to help us out with what we need.

To end this essay, I will leave you with this poem.

The night the forest woke up

Once humans set the infinite as their goal,

Things finite turn into a resource:

To be carved up and sold

In the name of endless growth.

Once other beings, other lives

Became less, the world alters:

If they are of no use to us,

Why does their existence matter?

The night the forest woke up

Was like any other night:

Busy streets, honking vehicles,

Smoke laden air, rivers of human waste

Then the forest woke up, and

Vines and shrubs and trunks

Crept across the land

Searching for humans as they spread

Remembering the nightmares

Where they saw their own cut,

They showed no mercy –

No, not even to the old, weak, or young

And when the morning sun rose

Sounds of birds filled the forests:

Gone was the virus that had stolen

The lands that were always theirs

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