Theories of Knowledge

What is knowledge? How can an idea in a mind/brain represent something outside that mind/brain? How do images on a retina create the idea of a tree? When I see a tree, how do I recognize it as a “tree”? What is the abstract concept “tree”? How does this abstract concept relate to actual trees, and to my ideas of specific trees?

Those are all questions that a theory of knowledge should answer. In this essay, I will consider various theories of knowledge, and whether they can answer those questions.

In ordinary life, people take knowledge for granted. When they see a tree, they do not ponder how they know that the tree exists, or what the concept “tree” is. They just walk around the tree, or duck under its branches, and carry on with their lives. They leave those questions “to the philosophers” (and to the psychologists).

But if we want to understand ourselves, then we cannot take those questions for granted.

What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is stored information that can be used to solve problems.

I define three types of knowledge:

  • Procedural knowledge
  • Conceptual knowledge
  • Representational knowledge

Procedural knowledge consists of innate mental processes, such as emotion, attention, induction, perception and cognition. These processes “know” how to carry out mental operations. Procedural knowledge could be generalized to include all biological forms. We could say that a kidney “knows” how to filter the blood. But in this context, mental processes are the most relevant type of procedural knowledge.

Conceptual knowledge consists of concepts, such as “tree”. This includes the information necessary to recognize instances of the concept. It also includes information about relations between concepts, such as that trees have branches and wood comes from trees. Conceptual knowledge is subconscious. It depends on procedural knowledge for its acquisition and application.

Representational knowledge consists of ideas that are accessible to consciousness. In most cases, representational knowledge can be expressed in speech. Representational knowledge depends on conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge. Representations (ideas/models) are constructed out of concepts by mental processes.

The philosophy of knowledge has tended to focus on representational knowledge. In some cases, it has not posited other types of knowledge, or it has conflated different types of knowledge. Most of the problems with philosophical theories of knowledge arise from such misconceptions.

It is natural that philosophy and psychology would focus on representational knowledge, because we are directly aware of ideas. We are not directly aware of concepts and mental processes. But to understand ideas, we must understand concepts and mental processes.

In this essay, I will use two main examples of knowledge. One is the idea of the tree outside my window. The other is my knowledge of the English language. The first is representational. The second is conceptual.

If I look out my window, I see a tree. The mental process of perception automatically generates the idea of a tree in my mind. This idea is linked to my senses, but it is not purely sensory. My brain constructs it from the information of my senses, and from my background knowledge about the world. Mental processes recognize this tree (from sensory information) as an instance of the general concept “tree”.

This application of a concept has many implications. For example, I know that the tree outside my window has wood beneath the bark and roots below the ground, although I have no direct sensory information about those things. That knowledge comes from the concept “tree”.

I learned the English language from the data of speech, and I use it to interpret and generate speech. My knowledge of language is conceptual. It consists of many concepts, including words and rules of grammar. Speech consists of ideas (words, sentences) that are generated by applying those abstract concepts to specific situations, just as my idea of the tree is generated by applying the concept “tree” to specific sensory data.

Language is a good example to illustrate the layers of knowledge. You have the innate ability to learn a language (procedural knowledge). You can know a language, such as English (conceptual knowledge). You can know a line from Hamlet, such as “To be, or not to be?” (representational knowledge).

The procedural knowledge of how to learn a language is innate and subconscious. The conceptual knowledge of a language is acquired and subconscious. The representational knowledge of a line from Hamlet is acquired and accessible to consciousness.

Language is also an example of cultural knowledge. Trees exist outside human brains, and do not depend on human brains for their existence. By contrast, language exists in human brains and has no independent existence. Language is part of culture. It exists as a concordance between different brains. My knowledge of English is a reflection of the same knowledge in other brains. Language is circular in that way.

Now, I will define a fourth type of knowledge:

  • Meta-knowledge

Meta-knowledge is representational knowledge about procedural or conceptual knowledge. For example, formal logic represents something about how our brains work. An explicit grammar of English represents part of the conceptual knowledge that is stored in the brains of English speakers.

We should not confuse meta-knowledge with what it represents. Formal logic is not the mental process of deduction. An explicit grammar of a language is not the conceptual knowledge that we use to interpret and generate speech. An English speaker might not know any rules of English grammar explicitly, although he uses their implicit counterparts all the time.

Again, it is important to make the distinction between different types of knowledge, and understand how they are related.

This has been a brief sketch of my theory of knowledge, with a few things left out. At the end of this essay, I will fill in the missing details. This sketch was necessary to understand the topic, and to understand my criticisms of other theories.

Now, let’s consider some other philosophical theories of knowledge. I will group them into broad categories, and I will define them in my own terms.


As I define it, objectivism is the belief that ideas can correspond to objective reality, and that a belief is true if this correspondence exists.

In academic philosophy, objectivism is called “realism”, “naive realism” or “epistemological realism”. However, “realism” has a more general meaning, and there is nothing realistic about objectivism. “Objectivism” also refers to a philosophical system created by Ayn Rand, but that usage is narrow and uncommon.

How does an idea in the mind/brain represent something else? A theory of knowledge should answer that question, but objectivism ignores or dismisses it. It just assumes that ideas in the mind somehow correspond to facts in objective reality.

Objectivism is the ordinary person’s implicit theory of knowledge. People talk about “the facts” and what is “objectively true”, without thinking about the meanings of those terms. They presuppose that ideas can correspond to reality — somehow — and that we can establish truth or falsity by comparing a belief to “the facts”.

But what are facts? In what sense do they exist? How can we compare ideas in our brains to objective facts?

The objectivist has no answers to those questions, because he hasn’t thought about the nature of knowledge or the relation between ideas and reality.

Objectivism isn’t a theory of knowledge. It’s just a collection of hidden assumptions that have never been questioned. It is just taking knowledge for granted.

Some philosophers have attempted to make objectivism more explicit and less naive, but they have failed. Such attempts just beg the question explicitly rather than implicitly.

For example, Bertrand Russell defined truth as follows:

A belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.

Source: Bertrand Russell – On Truth and Falsehood

But what is a fact? It is just a true belief. Nothing is gained by this silly definition. It is circular. It ignores the question of how an idea in the mind relates to reality.

Objectivism ignores the difference in kind between ideas in the mind/brain and what they represent. Objective facts would (presumably) have the same form as ideas, and so they could be compared to them. But why would there exist something outside a brain that has the same form as an idea? And even if such facts existed, how would ideas in the mind correspond to them? What is the mechanism of correspondence?

Objectivism does not answer those questions.


Subjectivism rejects the notion of objective reality. It claims that we should not posit objective reality, since we have no access to it. Whereas objectivism denies or ignores the difference in kind between ideas and reality, subjectivism rejects reality altogether.

In academic philosophy, subjectivism is called “idealism”. However, that term has another meaning, and I want to emphasize the subject | object distinction, so I will use the term “subjectivism”. It could also be called “solipsism”.

Subjectivism does not answer the question of how ideas relate to reality. Instead, it rejects a presupposition of the question: the notion of objective reality.

Subjectivism is untenable, because (a) we naturally presuppose objective reality, and (b) we experience phenomena that are best explained by positing objective reality.

Positing objective reality helps to explain the following:

  • The vividness of perception, and the difference between perception and memory/imagination. The vividness of perception is explained by the novel information of sensory data, coming from external reality.
  • Surprise and confusion. If there is no external source of information, how could I be surprised or confused?
  • Learning from experience, such as learning a language. If there is no objective reality, where does the information come from?
  • Errors of judgment, which are corrected by more information or thought. If there is no objective reality, how can an idea be wrong?
  • The difference between walking into a strange room and walking into a familiar room. If there is no external reality, where does the new information come from?

These phenomena are best explained by positing an objective reality that is distinct from our ideas of it. We have limited and imperfect knowledge that is acquired by mental processes. New information flows into the mind/brain from the external world.

The concept of knowledge presupposes the subject | object distinction. Thus, no theory of knowledge can reject that distinction.

Subjectivism is not a theory of knowledge. It does not explain how ideas in the mind/brain relate to reality.


In academic philosophy, there is a distinction between epistemological idealism (which I am calling “subjectivism”) and metaphysical/ontological idealism. The latter type of idealism posits an external reality, but claims that it consists (partially or wholly) of ideas. It does not reject the subject | object distinction, but it rejects the distinction in kind between ideas and objects. It claims that there are objective ideas to which subjective ideas can correspond.

This is an attempt to rescue the correspondence theory of truth: that a true belief corresponds to an objective fact. It is hard to understand how the idea of a tree, consisting of some mental state in a brain, could correspond to an actual tree. But if the tree is also an idea, then perhaps the two could correspond.

Such a theory can go further, and posit that objective reality is a mind, in some sense. Perhaps it is God’s mind.

But this does nothing to solve the philosophical problems of knowledge. It just shuffles them around. It replaces the question “How do ideas in the mind relate to objective reality?” with “How do ideas in the mind relate to objective ideas?”. Nothing is explained by positing that objective reality is a mind, or consists of mind-stuff.

If objective ideas existed, they would be different from subjective ideas. Otherwise, we couldn’t explain the imperfect and limited nature of subjective knowledge.

For example, my idea of the tree outside my window does not include the knowledge of how many branches it has, or how deep its roots go, or its mass to the nearest milligram. Presumably, the objective idea would contain all of that information and much more. So, the two ideas would not correspond in the sense of being identical. At most, one would be a very rough and distorted approximation of the other.

In physics, we might represent a planet as a point mass, or the motions of 1024 molecules as a temperature. We can use a street map to represent a city. We do not believe that these models correspond to what they represent, in the sense of being identical to them. We believe that the model is much simpler than the reality that it represents.

Even if objective ideas existed, our subjective ideas would not correspond to them. Nothing is explained by positing objective ideas, and the correspondence theory is not rescued.

Panpsychists often claim that their theory explains human consciousness. But this is false. Even if we accepted their belief in cosmic consciousness, it would not explain anything about human consciousness. We would still have to explain how human consciousness arises in a brain and depends on the brain — why a rock is different from a brain. We would still have to explain how ideas in the human mind relate to objective reality (ideas in the cosmic mind). We would still have to explain all the phenomena that subjectivism cannot explain, such as learning, surprise, the vividness of perception, etc.

Calling objective reality “a mind” explains nothing. It is just a confusing metaphor and an inverse homunculus fallacy. (See The Homunculus Fallacy and its Inverse.)

Also, the claim “all is mind” is vacuous. If everything is mind, then “mind” is meaningless. On the other hand, if there is a distinction in kind between the human mind and reality, then why analogize reality to the human mind? Why not just call it “objective reality”, instead of “the cosmic mind”?

Nothing is explained by positing objective ideas or a cosmic mind.


I will use the term “transcendentalism” for theories of knowledge that posit another realm that transcends both objectivity and subjectivity. This realm contains ideas, concepts or metaphysical presuppositions. Somehow, it links subject and object.

Plato had an early version of transcendentalism. Plato noticed that a statement such as “There are three horses in that field” invokes the abstraction “horse”, which is actualized by three objects. Plato believed that the abstract form of a horse was non-physical (metaphysical?) and that it transcended space and time. He believed that this abstract form was somehow related to the objects that actualize it. He also believed that our knowledge of reality involves the recognition of these abstract forms.

Our word “idea” comes from the Greek “εἶδος”, which means “form”. Apparently, both “view” and “idea” derive from the Indo-European root “weid”. See Online Etymology Dictionary: idea.

However, Platonic forms correspond to concepts, not ideas (as I use the terms). When you see a horse, your brain uses the abstract concept of a horse to generate the idea of a specific horse.

Plato never explained how the transcendental forms relate to objectivity or subjectivity. So, his theory has no explanatory power. Positing another realm doesn’t explain anything. We should give Plato credit for making the distinction between abstract forms and specific instances of those forms, but he didn’t explain how they are related, nor what the abstract forms are.

Plato’s theory seems very silly today, in light of modern science. We know how the recurring pattern “horse” emerged in the world (by evolution), and that it isn’t eternal or unchanging. Some forms, such as the laws of physics, might transcend space and time. We could say that they exist “on a higher plane” or in a “different realm of existence”, metaphorically. But most of our concepts reflect order that is emergent and transient, not ultimate and eternal.

Plato’s theory led to a long debate over whether “universals” (forms/concepts) are just names (nominalism) or are objects in some other realm (Platonism). Apparently, the participants in this debate never considered other possibilities.

These days, Platonism is mostly confined to the philosophy of mathematics. Some believe that mathematical theorems exist in another realm (the realm of mathematics), and that we have mental access to this realm, somehow. When we discover a mathematical theorem, we are discovering something that exists in this other realm.

This has no explanatory power. It also ignores that we create somewhat arbitrary things, such as language, that don’t exist as physical objects, but consist of information. The works of Plato, including his theory of forms, belong to that category. Mathematics is less arbitrary than the English language and more general than Plato’s philosophy, but that doesn’t mean it is independent of us.

This brings us back to the different types of knowledge: procedural, conceptual, representational and meta. We construct ideas. We induce concepts. We are born with innate mental faculties. Our mental faculties have presuppositions built into them. We can develop explicit theories of those presuppositions, and that is meta-knowledge.

Our mental processes presuppose space, time, causality, identity, logic, number and the subject | object distinction. Space is automatically involved in perception, thought and action. You can develop the concept of space secondarily, but that is not the same as the innate presuppositions about space that are built into your brain. Those presuppositions are implicit in the structure of your brain, and are manifest in perception, thought and action.

We could say that the presuppositions of subjectivity “transcend” subjectivity, because they are its necessary antecedents. We can’t think without them. However, it does not follow that they exist in a different realm, nor that they exist independently of us.

We model objective reality within the framework defined by those presuppositions. It doesn’t follow that they constitute a deeper layer of objective reality, or exist in a transcendental realm. There is no way for us to know what objective reality ultimately consists of. All we can do is model it in the framework provided by our brains.

There are different types of transcendentalism, which place different types of knowledge into the transcendental realm. This often involves a confusion between different types of knowledge, such as confusing meta-knowledge with procedural knowledge (e.g. confusing formal logic with innate logic).

Some Christians believe that God’s mind is a transcendental realm that links subject and object. In this theory, mental presuppositions are derived (somehow) from God’s mind. We have to learn about reality from experience, but we have access to logic, mathematics and other procedural/presuppositional knowledge via our connection to God. Typically, they think of this transcendental knowledge as having a propositional form, like meta-knowledge, rather than being structurally implicit, as procedural knowledge is.

Such theories have no explanatory power. They just posit another realm, but do not explain how this other realm relates to either objectivity or subjectivity.


I will use the term “consequentialism” for theories that define truth and knowledge as “whatever works”. Essentially, a consequentialist theory is based on the “appeal to consequences” fallacy.

In academic philosophy, such theories are labeled “pragmatism”. However, there is nothing pragmatic about them, and the term “consequentialism” is more descriptively accurate.

In consequentialism, knowledge is not viewed as a correspondence to reality, but as a means to effective action. Truth (the correctness or goodness of knowledge) is defined in terms of utility. If an idea is useful, then it is “true” for practical purposes.

Consequentialism is not a theory of knowledge. It does not explain how ideas in the mind relate to objective reality. It also begs the question of knowledge.

Suppose that a brain makes judgments of truth using the criterion of consequentialism. It selects ideas that would have beneficial effects if believed. How could it do that? How could the brain know whether an idea would have beneficial effects? The utility of an idea depends on how it interacts causally with both the brain and objective reality. To judge the utility of an idea, the brain would have to make truth judgments about its effects. “Belief X has utility if believed” is itself a belief.

Let T(X) denote the proposition that belief X has utility to the believer, and thus is considered “true” by the consequentialist criterion. Suppose that I am a consequentialist, trying to make a truth judgment about a proposition P. To decide whether P is true, I must decide whether T(P) is true. To do that, I must decide whether T(T(P)) is true. To do that, I must decide whether T(T(T(P))) is true. And so on.

Consequentialism is an infinite regress. Truth judgments would depend on truth judgments to infinity. Somewhat ironically, this “pragmatic” method of making truth judgments is utterly useless.

Truth judgments cannot be based on value judgments, because value judgments depend on truth judgments. We need a method of making truth judgments before we can make value judgments.

Knowledge is pragmatic in the sense that it has a biological function. Our brains evolved to use knowledge to generate adaptive behavior. Induction evolved to generate useful knowledge. However, induction cannot select knowledge based on its utility.

From an external perspective, we can judge a person’s beliefs by consequentialist criteria. For example, I could look at an Amish farmer and say:

Well, his religion is absurd and false, but it is part of a functional worldview. He is reproducing. If his beliefs have reproductive utility to him, then they are correct in a sense.

However, I can make that judgment only because I am capable of making truth judgments by another method. To make that judgment about his religious beliefs, I need to predict their effect on his reproduction. That prediction is not based on consequentialist criteria. Note that I can judge his beliefs to be false while affirming their utility to him.

Our brains have criteria built into them, by which they induce conceptual knowledge and generate ideas. Those criteria work, and they are normative in a sense. But they are not value judgments, and we do not derive truth judgments from value judgments.

Appeal to consequences is a fallacy, not a source of knowledge.

Consequentialism does not describe the relation between ideas in the mind and reality, nor how ideas are selected by the brain. Its definition of truth is circular.


I will use the term “intersubjectivism” for theories that view knowledge and truth as intersubjective. In those theories, truth is a correspondence between ideas in different minds, rather than a correspondence between ideas and objective reality. This implies that truth is socially relative and socially constructed.

Intersubjectivism is not a theory of knowledge, because it does not explain how ideas in the mind relate to objective reality. If knowledge is just a relation between minds, then knowledge is vacuous. What is the point of minds having ideas, if those ideas have nothing to do with reality? Intersubjectivism would render ideas meaningless.

Some things are socially constructed. Rights and obligations are social constructs. There are also social constructs that define rights and obligations, such as property, money, laws, citizenship, borders, marriage, promises, etc. We construct all of those things by performing certain conventional behaviors. For example, you can construct a promise by saying “I promise to do X”. The statement creates a promise, which implies a right and an obligation.

Together, social constructs constitute social reality. Rights and obligations are real, but not objective. They are intersubjective. Social reality is socially constructed.

Social construction is an important source of certain ideas. However, it is not the source of all ideas. And social constructs derive their meaning from their relations to other ideas, and ultimately from their relations to objective reality.

For example, money is a social construct, but you can use it to buy a hamburger. The idea of buying a hamburger involves the social construct of money, but it also involves ideas about objective reality, such as the idea of a hamburger. If your friend promises to help you move to a new apartment, the promise is intersubjective, but the physical event of moving is not. We can’t make hamburgers or move boxes just by having shared ideas. Social reality “cashes out” in objective reality.

There is also social knowledge, which we should distinguish from social reality. Like individuals, societies need to acquire knowledge and make truth judgments. We have social methods of knowledge acquisition and truth judgment, such as science. Those methods combine the knowledge and judgment of many individuals. Social knowledge and social truth are social, but not entirely social. They depend on individual mental processes, and they depend on objective reality.

A scientific theory and a tax code are both socially created, but not in the same way. The scientific theory is socially learned. The tax code is socially constructed.

The scientific theory depends on objective reality, via observation, experimentation and application. It is a way to explain and predict certain aspects of objective reality. It reflects regularities of nature. We could use it to design technology, make individual choices, or select social policies. But the theory itself is descriptive, not normative.

The tax code emerges out of the interplay of individual desires. It does not represent anything in objective reality. It is merely an agreement between minds, which reflects a balance of power. The tax code is a way to organize human behavior. It is socially normative.

We have social processes for creating scientific theories and tax codes, and they have different criteria. A scientific theory is created by the scientific method. A tax code is created by a political process. Those processes are both social, but not in the same way.

Social knowledge can be influenced by social pressures, but it is not entirely detached from objective reality, in most cases. If it were, it would not be socially functional.

Intersubjectivism does not normally stand alone as a theory of knowledge, but it plays a role in certain discourses, especially left-wing political discourse.

For example, leftists will claim that race and sex are social constructs. It is not entirely clear what they mean by this. Do they mean that the concepts of race and sex are socially influenced, and thus suspect? Or do they mean that race and sex are purely social categories, with no relation to objective reality? If these concepts have no relation to objective reality, how do we recognize instances of them?

A charitable interpretation is that there is a biological basis for the categories, but their discrete nature is imposed on a more complex reality. However, leftists say things like “trans-women are real women” and “gender-affirming healthcare”, which presuppose that sex is entirely social, and that individuals have the social right to construct their own “gender”.

Current gender ideology presupposes both that gender is biological and that it is an arbitrary social construct. See The Trans Paradox.

We don’t exist as isolated individuals. We are connected to other minds through communication and social interaction. We acquire knowledge from culture. Knowledge and truth claims have social functions, and can be influenced by social pressures. Society creates the potential for delusion, deception and fiction.

Society and culture exist, and are important in human affairs. It does not follow that we can discard the concepts of objective reality and the individual. Society is composed of individuals. Social knowledge and social reality depend on individual brains. Social knowledge depends on objective reality. Social knowledge and social reality both “cash out” in objective reality.


Now, I will flesh out my theory of knowledge, under the label “representationalism”. Apparently, this label is used for theories like mine, but I will only present my own theory. I might not agree with other theories that have the same label.

The relation between ideas and reality is representation, not correspondence. An idea in the mind can represent an object in reality, such as the coffee cup on my desk. Ideas represent objective reality in a subject-dependent way: in terms of how the object relates to the subject.

The brain induces concepts, such as “coffee cup”, from embodied experience — what I call “semex”. Semex consists of sensory, emotional and motor data. Concepts are abstractions from semex, and they reflect regularities in semex. Induction is based on the criterion of information compression, which is implicit in mental processes.

Once concepts have been induced from experience, they can be applied to experience. The process of perception uses the concept “coffee cup” to model my current situation. My idea of the coffee cup on my desk is an application of the abstract concept of a coffee cup. That abstract concept contains information about how I can interact with coffee cups: how they affect my senses and emotions, and how I can affect them.

The idea of the cup fits the data of my current semex. It explains part of my visual experience. It implies the potential action of drinking coffee from the cup. It predicts the sensory and emotional consequences of that action.

The idea represents the coffee cup to me. It links subject and object, and it depends on both.

In this theory, there is order to reality, and there is order to my brain. The brain has the procedural knowledge of how to induce concepts from experience. Those concepts depend on the order of objective reality, because semex depends on objective reality. But those concepts are not the order of objective reality itself (the form-in-itself?). A concept is a regularity of human interaction with the world.

The presuppositions of my mental processes are implicit in the form of my brain, and that form evolved by natural selection. I have innate procedural knowledge, but my conceptual and representational knowledge depends on experience.

In this theory, truth is not a correspondence between an idea and reality. It is a judgment made by a brain. If a model is selected to represent reality by my brain, then that model is true to me. To call a claim “false” means that it does not agree with my truth judgment. Truth is a subjective judgment.

Information compression is the underlying norm of truth. It is implicit in my mental processes. The brain selects concepts that compress the data of past experience. It applies those concepts to semex based on how well they fit the data of semex. Fit to data is defined as the degree to which a model reduces the information of the data.

Knowledge is pragmatic in the sense that it is biologically functional. But this norm does not reduce truth to value. Information compression is defined relative to the data of semex. Our brains do not induce knowledge or make truth judgments based on predicting their consequences. That would be an infinite regress. Information compression is not an infinite regress.

The subjectivity of truth doesn’t make it random or whimsical. Truth judgments depend on brains, and brains are ordered mechanisms. The form of the brain was selected by evolution to generate adaptive behavior, and every component of that form has a function relative to the function of the whole.

We can develop a theory of those forms and functions, and that theory is meta-knowledge. Based on that theory, we expect truth to be roughly convergent for different people, and we can define norms (such as principles of rationality) and common error patterns (fallacies) that apply to human beings generally, because they reflect the functions and malfunctions of mental processes.

Ultimately, we are linked to the external world and other people through order. The brain is ordered, and the world is ordered.

What is order? The compressibility of information. Regularity. The similarity of one thing to another. The similarity of one moment of experience to another.

The form of a horse does not exist in some external realm. However, it does exist as a recurring pattern in nature, due to evolution. Evolution is a deeper regularity, and it arises from even deeper regularities. Just as we have no direct access to the thing-in-itself, we have no direct access to the order of objective reality. But we can represent it with abstractions, such as the concept “horse” or the theory of evolution.

Concepts in one brain are often influenced by concepts in other brains. Some conceptual knowledge is purely cultural. Language is a good example. The English language isn’t knowledge of something else. It is a culturally emergent system of concepts that we use to communicate ideas.

Some ideas are socially constructed. The construction of social reality is consequentialist. People try to construct social reality according to their desires. But that is a special case, and social reality depends on knowledge of objective reality.

Because we live in the same world and have similar brains, we develop (roughly) the same concepts from experience. This allows us to mentally construct similar ideas. Language (based on shared procedural and conceptual knowledge) allows us to communicate ideas, and it causes our conceptual knowledge to be even more convergent. We relate to each other through shared ideas.

Consider buying a cup of coffee, for example. When I walk into a coffee shop, the barista and I have a shared model of the situation. I don’t need to tell her that I want to buy something, or explain what “buying” is, or figure out an acceptable medium of exchange. That background knowledge is present in the shared model. I just tell her what items I want, and provide payment. Together, we socially construct the purchase of a cup of coffee, and I get my coffee.

There is no need to posit a magical realm, or God’s mind, to mediate between individuals or between the individual and reality. We are connected to reality through our senses and muscles. We are connected to each other through culture, biology and the world we live in.

Representationalism is based on important distinctions:

  • Procedural, conceptual, representational and meta knowledge.
  • Processes, concepts and ideas.
  • Subject, object and idea.
  • Truth, value and action.
  • The individual and society.
  • Objectivity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

Representationalism explains:

  • How the brain acquires knowledge of reality from the data of embodied experience.
  • How a concept, such as “coffee cup” or “tree”, relates to objective reality.
  • How an idea in the mind, such as “the tree outside my window”, relates to an object in reality.
  • How the brain uses knowledge to make decisions, both consciously and subconsciously.
  • How we use language to communicate.
  • How we use social constructs to organize social interaction.
  • How we generate social knowledge and truth judgments.


  1. What do you think about the block theory of time?

    1. I've never heard of it before. I don't pay much attention to these metaphysical theories, because they have no empirical content.

  2. Great article, as always

  3. I became interested in your content for the theoretical biology, but very much enjoy your theory of knowledge content. I'm aware that you have a background in computer science and am curious to what degree your knowledge theory was influenced or developed through your work in machine learning. An article or video exclusively about your computer science background would be much appreciated!

    1. Thanks, glad you find it interesting. I started thinking about the nature of knowledge when I was a teenager, or maybe even earlier. I had developed a basic theory of knowledge before I went to university. I studied cognitive science as an undergraduate. I continued to think about it, and my studies intersected that topic. Later, I did an MS in computing science, focusing on probabilistic inference and machine learning. During that time, I studied probability and information theory quite deeply, and incorporated that into my theory. Later, I spent more time thinking about it. So, it was a long process.


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