Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juni 2001  

Information and Knowledge

Peter Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)


Immanuel Kant, confronted with the vast canon of "knowledge" in the "science" of "spirits", "ghosts" and other immaterial entities, wrote with some understandable exasperation:

Most of the time the methodical chatter in the universities is merely the consent to evade a question, which is difficult to solve, by means of variable meanings of words, simply because the comfortable and mostly sensible: 'I do not know', is not often heard in the academy.(1)

Not that there was no "information" on "ghosts", there was rather too much of it, and all of it extremely unreliable: If one were to take all that which school children and philosophers knew about ghosts, he said, then the science of spiritism and spiritology would seem to be a very large part of our store of knowledge: nevertheless a careful consideration of this imagined "knowledge" would turn up little if anything which would stand up to impartial scrutiny. Kant knew that he did not have to offer any new "information" on "ghosts". He was satisfied to eradicate the delusion of a futile "knowledge" which "puffs out the mind"(2) and takes up room in the narrow confines of our memory which could be used for a better purpose.

South Africa is one of the countries which have been hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic. where some 4.7 million people - one in nine of the population - were HIV-positive at the end of 2000, according to government figures.

President Thabo Mbeki, while speaking in parliament in October 2000 on the HIV/Aids debate, stated that "a virus cannot cause a syndrome, which is a collection of diseases". This claim has also frequently been made by the so-called Aids dissidents and implies that since a virus cannot cause a syndrome such as Aids, there is little need to prevent the spread of this virus. That is a dangerous position to hold in the face of the worst pandemic ever to hit Africa. It is known that President Thabo Mbeki picked up his "information" from the internet,(3) where AIDS dissidents like David Rasnik maintain that

the contagious, HIV hypothesis of AIDS is the biggest scientific, medical blunder of the 20th Century: "The evidence is overwhelming that AIDS is not contagious, sexually transmitted, or caused by HIV. I have come to realize that embarrassment is the main obstacle to exposing this simple fact.

He blames medical doctors,

who know or suspect the truth are embarrassed or afraid to admit that the HIV tests are absurd and should be outlawed, and that the anti-HIV drugs are injuring and killing people. We are taught to fear antibodies, and to believe that antibodies to HIV are a harbinger of disease and death ten years in the future. When you protest this absurdity and point out to health care workers that antibodies are the very essence of antiviral immunity your objections are met with either contempt or embarrassed silence.(4)

In their report to the President the dissidents advised that government should consider treatments of ginseng, Chinese cucumber and garlic to boost the immune system. They said it should also encourage detoxification through such interventions as massage therapy, music therapy, yoga, spiritual care and light therapy. One of the dissidents, American David Rasnick, declared that: "Aids would disappear instantaneously if all HIV testing were outlawed." (5) Helen Epstein, writing on AIDS in South Africa in the New York Review of Books in July last year, referred to the dissidents as "a murky group of California scientists and activists" and, "Mbeki is the only head of state known to have taken the views of the AIDS dissidents seriously, and many doctors and AIDS activists in South Africa and in the West have begun to wonder whether the President and his health minister have taken leave of their senses."(6)

A common reaction in South Africa is: "Actually there is no AIDS here as far as I know. Until I see someone who is suffering from AIDS, then I might believe there is a disease like that," said a bar tender, who works in a hotel in Lesotho, known for its teeming prostitutes. They say they have never seen anyone or heard of anyone who is either infected or has died of AIDS. And a street vendor, Joseph Lebesa vowed that no matter what "lies" medical practitioners preached to him about AIDS, he would not change his sexual behaviour. According to Joseph, Basotho men had the duty to prove their manhood by having many lovers. "AIDS is just a joke. I cannot afford to have just one woman, when there are so many of them. Anyway, it is unheard of in Lesotho to have just one woman - we have to have variety - a person cannot eat meat or cabbage everyday - this is the same with women".(7)

Misinformation is not always as harmful as this or as the pages of the Neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust and advocate race hatred. But, in the name of science, knowledge and information, they often serve the purpose of fanatical flatearthers and fundamentalists, like the "creationists" who maintain that their "geology" proves that the Biblical story about the creation of the earth is literally true. In doing so they often use language which to anyone not in the know sounds extremely "scientific". Mr. Froede, for example, does an excellent job of reviewing "uniformitarian" ideas about the formation of Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the Stone Mountain Granite, and then he talks about the Alleghanian Orogeny being caused by "The Flood". Within "Earth's foundation rocks - the granites" Robert Gentry finds "the Fingerprints of Creation", namely

beautiful microspheres of coloration produced by the radioactive decay of primordial polonium, which is known to have only a fleeting existence. A simple analogy shows, on one hand, how these polonium microspheres - or halos - contradict the evolutionary belief that granites formed as hot magma slowly cooled over millions of years. On the other hand, it demonstrates how these halos provide unambiguous evidence of an almost instantaneous creation of granites. [...] The occurrence of these polonium halos, then, distinctly implies that our earth was formed in a very short time, in complete harmony with the biblical record of creation.(8)

The Disinformation Stuporhighway is the home of the Granitizers, the Hydric Earth, the Expanding Geospheres, and suchlike. All this "knowledge" is merely wind which fills the brain sphere of pedants, an immense heap of words which really signify nothing but confusion.(9)

That somebody talks about things about which he knows little or nothing, is common, since we are all limited in our knowledge and understanding. That one has subjective opinions about things, is not the problem. But that somebody talks about things about which he knows nothing, as if he knew, that is, as Plato has pointed out already, "detestable".(10) To have an opinion is to think something to be true, although the reasons for this opinion are subjectively and objectively insufficient. If I am subjectively convinced about the truth of a proposition, but cannot produce enough objective reasons for it, then I can say that I believe the truth of this proposition. Knowledge, however, demands both sufficient subjective and objective reasons for believing that a statement is true. I can be convinced about something for myself, without being able to offer an objective certainty for everybody. But I should not confuse the one with the other. (11)

As Democrit of Abdera said: we should do a lot of thinking instead of heaping up information.(12) Herakleitos insisted: polymathia noun ou didaskei, "knowing lots of things does not give us knowledge". (13) Knowledge is always the result of thinking which precedes it. Without thinking, the stream of images which enter our perception produces merely opinions in each percipient. We do not acquire knowledge merely with our senses, although all knowledge enters us via the senses as "information", because sense perception only grasps the individual, but knowledge is based on generalisation. (14) Each new medium of information produces the illusion that the medium will do the trick, but as Schopenhauer warned true knowledge does not come from reading, unless reading induces us to think.(15) An individual piece of information cannot be "known" as such, it must be subsumed under some form of generalisation to be accessible to our understanding. Simple perceptions and isolated pieces of information are the material for our knowledge, but they are not yet knowledge.(16) Knowledge, as the product of our thinking, is the transformation of individual and incoherent pieces of information into a structure within which this information makes sense. The true nature of things is not identical with the appearance of things, as they present themselves to us in isolated pieces of information. Knowledge therefore is the abstract consciousness of that which we have understood, once we have have fixated it in concepts, in a linguistic structure.(17) That a person can be proud of his knowledge, without even knowing what knowledge is, was something which Montaigne criticised as selfdeception.(18)

Even where our information and our concepts are "correct", we do not "know", unless we are able to give good reasons for their "correctness". A "correct" piece of "information" is something in between insight and ignorance.(19) Scientific knowledge begins with a "knowing", which allows us to understand the reasons for its truth, it is a knowledge of an object through its causes or its descent by means of a correct deduction in our thinking process.(20)

Thus, as in the case of the above amateur geologist, one can grasp a detail with great clarity, but be unable to evaluate its significance within the structure of knowledge called "geology" or "physics". By being apparently "scientific" one can, however, create the impression that one "knows" something which the professional geologists deny merely to annoy the true believers in the correctness of the bible. Or one can use the undoubtedly correct fact that AIDS is currently overwhelmingly an illness of impoverished Third World countries, and that the immediate cause of death is usually something like tuberculosis, again an illness which is practically extinct in rich Western countries, to suggest to the unwary, that AIDS is not caused by a virus and by sexual behaviour, but by "poverty".

If we agree with something, because we trust the knowledge of another and not our own, then this is mere belief.(21) The difference between belief and knowledge has been described by Hobbes thus: knowledge tests the sentence and accepts it only slowly, as it were chewing it through and through, belief swallows the sentence whole and completely.(22) As Socrates has pointed out, both the person who knows in the true sense of the word and the believer are equally convinced of the truth of their statements. Great skills in rhetoric can easily present a mere opinion as "knowledge", induce a "belief" - a fact which is well known to all members of the advertising and the legal profession.

In modern information theory, "information" is merely the "unexpected", that is, in the stream of perceptions which reaches us, that which we did not already "know". That is why it is possible to compress messages, by leaving out everything which is already known, redundant, and expected by the recipient anyway. The fact that something is an "information" says nothing about its "value", whether it is true or not. If you know that the moon is made up of rocks, then the sentence that the moon is made up of Emmentaler cheese is an "information". Equally the opinion that AIDS is not transmitted sexually and caused by a virus is an "information". Whether it is true or not is an entirely different question.

The decisive step in the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th century was therefore not the new "information" which was accumulated, important as that was, no doubt, but the fact that so much old "information" was thrown out as unreliable or plain wrong. There is an ignorance, which is not simply a non-knowledge, but a mis-knowledge, an error produced by faulty observation, an erroneous theory and/or shoddy thinking.(23) Thus Kant saw as one of the functions of philosophy the duty to "eradicate the delusion and the futile knowledge which puffs out the mind and takes up room in its narrow confines where the teachings of wisdom and useful instruction"(24) could be stored. The restructuring of the knowledge data base was only possible because of the strict distinction between mere opinion on the one hand and scientific fact with sufficient evidence and reason to support it on the other hand. Chemistry, for example, could only flourish, once the concept of the phlogiston was shown to be wrong and thrown out. Chemists in the eighteenth century did not know "too little" but "too much". Only after this mistaken insight was eliminated, suddenly the basic structures of chemistry, of "oxides", "acids", and "salts" became simple and clear.

All this still leaves us with two problems: on the one hand, scientists, being mere human beings, often put forward theories they hold on some evidence, hypotheses, without enough evidence, and mere opinion as scientific facts. They also have a tendency to deny that there is an area where we do not know anything at all, and where it is quite proper to engage in what Hegel called speculative thinking, as long as we remain fully conscious that we are not dealing in scientifically proven facts but speculation. Without speculation, without often wild hypotheses, science would never advance. Without the oddest and most unexpected coincidences, chances and accidents we would not have penicillin or the knowledge of carbon ring chemistry.

The other problem is the problem of freedom of thought. Fichte, after being suspected of atheism and suspended as professor of philosophy, has described this conundrum as follows:

I am allowed to spread the truth, but not error. The question is, what is truth to you, who say this, and what do you call error? Obviously not the same as that which we think it is, otherwise you would understand that your restriction revokes the permission, that you take with your left, what you have given us with your right. That it is simply not possible to teach the truth, if it is not permitted to spread errors.(25)

Where we believe, convictions appear to ourselves to be knowledge, and we demand, quite rightly, the freedom to think our own truth. Let me assume that the flatearthers truly believe that Aids is caused by poverty and that God has created the earth 4000 B.C., i.e. that this belief is not a mere opinion but a conviction. And let me also assume, that they are in error. Nevertheless I could not even prove, nor could they, that they believe this error to be the truth according to their best knowledge and in good conscience. Nor could I prove the opposite. As nobody can ascertain the inner state of another person, a promise to speak the truth is something which cannot be proven or disproven. (26)

Given the fact, that science, which usurps the right to knowledge is in fact human and therefore prone to error, the right to hold erroneous opinions under the name of convictions, cannot be abrogated. When Alfred Wegener propounded the theory that continents were moving over the surface of the earth, all serious geologists condemned this as utter rubbish and nonsense. If he had not been allowed to propagate his "opinion", science may never have come round to the knowledge we hold today to be true.

We cannot, in all our desire to ascertain the truth, the true facts, the true theory, escape the situation that no single book, holy as it may be, is any longer able to take the place of all other books, that one truth is to be found to replace all other truths. We cannot escape the confusion where speech adopts a form, which will be shelved in endless murmuring instead of being the authoritative voice which knows the truth.(27) We are confronted, as Jorge Louis Borges has pointed out, in our post-Enlightenment existence, with a monotonous line of language left to its own devices. The internet in the Age of Information, as well as any other library and depository of knowledge, is the Library of Babel - and he who wants to know, needs knowledge to find the information which is useful.

© Peter Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


(1) Immanuel Kant: Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik, Werke in zwölf Bänden. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Weischedel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977. Bd. 2, S. 925.

(2) Kant: Träume eines Geistersehers, Bd. 2, S. 983.

(3) All the president's scientists: Diary of a round-earther. Mail and Guardian, Johannesburg, 8 September 2000. []; A website, called Aidsmyth: promises: "Alternative Aids Information. An independent web resource, free from the influence of pharmaceutical corporate or medical vested interests." See also: Aidsmyth on Thabo Mbeki: Last Access to these and all other web resources 2001-06-13.

(4) David Rasnik, The AIDS Blunder, Mail and Guardian, Johannesburg, January 24, 2001 [].

(5) Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 7 April 2001 [].

(6) Charlene Smith, Dissing the dissidents, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), January 25, 2001 [] "After I referred to President Thabo Mbeki as "chief undertaker Mbeki" in a Washington Post article in June of last year, not only did the president begin sharpening his pencils, but hate mail from AIDS dissidents burned down my email line. [...] Professor Thomas Coa-tes, director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California, who told delegates at the World AIDS conference that Mbeki's stance was "genocidal", received so many threatening phone calls at his San Francisco home that he had to change his number."

(7) Faith Zaba, In Lesotho, AIDS Sounds Like Myth

(8) [Robert Gentry], POLONIUM HALOS. Unrefuted Evidence For Earth's Instant Creation! [].

(9) La Mettrie: Der Mensch eine Maschine. Übersetzt, erläutert und mit einer Einleitung versehen von Adolf Ritter. Berlin: Erich Koschny, 1875, S. 38.

(10) Platon: Der Staat, Sämtliche Werke. Berlin: Lambert Schneider, [1940]. Bd. 2, S. 240.

(11) Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Werke in zwölf Bänden. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Weischedel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977, Bd. 4, S. 689.

(12) Demokrit aus Abdera: Fragmente, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Griechisch und Deutsch von Hermann Diels. Vierte Auflage, 1. und 2. Band, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1922, Bd. 2, S. 76.

(13) Heraklit aus Ephesus: Fragmente, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Griechisch und Deutsch von Hermann Diels. Vierte Auflage, 1. und 2. Band, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1922, Bd. 1, S. 86 "Vielwisserei lehrt nicht Verstand haben."

(14) Aristoteles: Organon, Zweite Analytiken oder: Lehre vom Erkennen. Übersetzt und erläutert von J. H. von Kirch-mann, Leipzig: Felix Meiner, o. J. (Philosophische Bibliothek, Bd. 10), S. 59.

(15) Schopenhauer: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Arthur Schopenhauer. Zürcher Ausgabe. Werke in zehn Bän-den. Der Text folgt der historisch-kritischen Ausgabe von Arthur Hübscher. Die editorischen Materialien besorgte Angelika Hübscher. Redaktion von Claudia Schölders, Fritz Senn und Gerd Haffmanns, Zürich: Diogenes, 1977, Bd. 3, S. 96.

(16) John Locke: Versuch über den menschlichen Verstand. In vier Büchern. Übersetzt und erläutert von J. H. von Kirchmann, Berlin: L. Heimann, 1872 (Philosophische Bibliothek, Bd. 51). Bd. 1, S. 131.

(17) Schopenhauer: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Bd. 1, S. 87.

(18) Michel de Montaigne: Schutzschrift für Raimond von Sebonde, Essais [Versuche] nebst des Verfassers Leben nach der Ausgabe von Pierre Coste ins Deutsche übersetzt von Johann Daniel Tietz. Band 1-3, Zürich: Diogenes, 1992. Bd. 2, S. 26.

(19) Platon: Das Gastmahl, Sämtliche Werke. Berlin: Lambert Schneider, [1940]. Bd. 1, S. 698)].

(20) Thomas Hobbes: Grundzüge der Philosophie, Zweiter und dritter Teil: Lehre vom Menschen und Bürger. Deutsch herausgegeben von Max Frischeisen-Köhler, Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1918 (Philosophische Bibliothek, Bd. 158) , S. 21.

(21) Hobbes: Grundzüge der Philosophie, S. 324.

(22) Hobbes: Grundzüge der Philosophie, S. 324.

(23) Aristoteles: Organon, S. 31.

(24) Kant: Träume eines Geistersehers, Bd. 2, S. 983.

(25) Fichte: Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit, Johann Gottlieb Fichtes sämmtliche Werke. Herausgegeben von I. H. Fichte, Band 1-8, Berlin: Veit & Comp., 1845/1846, Bd. 6, S. 17-18.

(26) Fichte: Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit, S. 18.

(27) Basem L. Ra'ad, Primal Scenes of Globalization: Legacies of Canaan and Etruria. PMLA 116.1: 103. Cf. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell UP 1977: 51, 67, 60.

For quotation purposes:
Peter Horn: Information and Knowledge . In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001. WWW:


TRANS     Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin     last change: 20.06.2001