The Cycle of Acquiring Knowledge
By Warisul Imam (writing) & Khadija Amira Al-Maani (art)
Our ability to acquire, utilize, and disperse knowledge sets us apart from the rest of the creation. Limited solely to our physical abilities, we’re no match to the majority of the living world. Granted our superior intellect, however, we’ve become the dominant species on the planet. Our reaches are so wide and our technologies so capable that we’ve even transformed certain ecosystems altogether.
Superior intellect gives us dominance over the rest of the species dwelling on our planet. But what gives one member of the dominant species dominance over another? Knowledge.
Knowledge and intellect aren’t the same. Simply put, intellect is the ability to objectively reason and understand abstract matters.1 And knowledge is the awareness or familiarity regarding a particular subject, gained through experience and practice.2 The human society is ruled by a handful of powerful individuals. But as Ghazalli remarks, the possessors of knowledge get to rule the powerful.3 They are the ones capable of ushering drastic paradigm shifts to the world. After all, knowledge is power.
Focusing on the theological aspects, one believer is set apart from another by a huge magnitude only on the basis of knowledge – knowledge of Islam in particular. Not to mention the fact that the acquisition of it is compulsory on every Muslima. Knowledge is the fruit of belief.4 However, true knowledge is not easily achievable. Painstaking amounts of effort must be put in to acquire it. And once it is acquired, making actions based upon it becomes the next responsibility.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been studying Islamic theology, classical physics, mathematics, and software development in conjunction. I’ve noticed a pattern as I acquired efficiency in all four of these fields. A common set of events that unfold in the context of a new study every time I transitioned from being a ‘beginner’ to being ‘comfortable’ – a cycle.
It starts with curiosity. It’s the driver that motivates you to learn something that you find interesting. It primes the locations of the brain involved with long term memory as you try to pick up a new skill, try to learn a new set of information.5 It increases memory activity and thus enhances the learning process.a Which essentially means that you remember something better if you’re curious about it.
Next is the stage I call Surface Exposure. This is the point where you start getting your feet wet with the basic material of whatever it is that you’re learning. Things start seeming more interesting and you get almost instant rewards when you’re all of a sudden able to do a number of things that you had no idea you could. At this point, the pace of learning is usually comparatively faster; one, because of your intense and growing curiosity, and two, because the basics of almost any field are easy to pick up for most people. This is where you start transitioning into the next stage, which can be a little dangerous for some – let me explain why.
The fast pace of your learning can give you a feeling of overconfidence; the topics you’re learning seem easy as cake, and you begin to think that you’re going to become a master in it in no time. As I remarked earlier, the things that you are learning are indeed easy because they’re the basics, the foundational concepts, the individual components – not the entire framework.b But you don’t know that yet because you’ve got no idea about what’s waiting for you up ahead. But because the material you’ve been exposed to so far has only been easy your mind starts expecting the same in case of whatever’s to come; meaning your brain makes you think that the new materials you’ll be learning gradually are only going to increase in terms of magnitude and not in terms of difficulty. I give you the Foresight Bias.
That doesn’t sound dangerous, does it? The dangerous part of it isn’t the disappointment of finding out that things are a lot harder than you initially thought. It’s when you start thinking you’ve learnt a huge chunk of information and start acting like a know-it-all. This is the Illusion of Competence – not knowing what you don’t know. Although it might be dangerous to many, even some of the greatest minds underwent this stage at some point in their lives.d It often occurs in conjunction with the foresight bias and the two terms are often used interchangeably at times. It leads to the inability to adjust one’s self-assessment based on received feedback.6 The illusion of competence only causes real damage if you stop learning because you think you’ve learnt enough and/or if you embark on a huge project only on the basis of some false knowledge which, unfortunately, you think is completely accurate and consistent. That’s when it starts turning into ignorance and can lead you to make a HUGE fool out of yourself. But if you carry on learning, however, you’ll realize the illusion at some point as you dive deeper and that’s when the next stage begins.
As you keep learning, you start building up some solid conception of a bigger-picture and you realize how little you’ve progressed and how much more lies ahead of you to learn. You also get an idea of the rate at which the difficulty of the material increases as you progress.c In other words, you humble yourself – this has been the Humbling.
Finally, the last stage, and the stage that persists throughout your entire life, is the Familiarization. The time taken to transition to this stage can differ based on the discipline you’re in, the amount of practice you go through and so on. This is the point where you acquire the ability to learn independently. You have a very good idea about what in-depth topic you want to learn, how to approach learning that particular material, where to look for the relevant learning resources, and you can also act as a mentor for someone who’s a beginner in the same field. You no longer have to fear forgetting some material you’d learned in your particular subject, because even if you do forget, you know exactly where to look, and with only a single glance you know exactly what to do to solve the particular problem at hand. This is where the cycle resets and starts from square-one – whether it be on a more advanced topic in the same field or in an entirely different field.
Level of Knowledge is not really something that can be pinpointed in a concrete way. The goal is not to acquire as much information as you possibly can, but to acquire a wider context. It’s sad to see how some people argue solely for the purpose of winning an argument and carelessly blurt out ‘facts’ about which they’ve got no idea whatsoever. This can often lead to huge and sometimes fatal misunderstandings, spreading of misinformation, and other intellectual damages that might take centuries to fix.
Going over the learning cycle in a number of different fields brings with it a realization of how deep and insightful things can be. This leads to the development of a different kind of mindset, a healthier one. A mindset that acknowledges what is in its domain of understanding and what isn’t. One that is aware of that which it can informatively opine about and that which it cannot. It teaches when it’s a safe bet to trust a piece of information first and verify it later, and when to be skeptical of a piece of information and trust it only after verification – based on its source, integrity, and several other factors. A mindset that enjoys a wider context of understanding and is less prone to fall victim to pseudo-information. It transforms you into a better person in general and gives rise to the potential for you to contribute to one or multiple facets of human knowledge and to push its boundaries further to a greater degree.
1, 2. Paraphrased from Merriam Webster.
3, 4. Imam Al-Ghazzali, Ihya Ulum-ud-Deen Volume I: The Book of Worship, Chapter 1: The Acquisition of Knowledge.
5, 7. Wade, S., & Kidd, C. (2019). The role of prior knowledge and curiosity in learning. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-019-01598-6
6 KateFehlhaber. (2017, February 6). The Consequences of Illusory Superiority – Knowing Neurons. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://knowingneurons.com/2017/02/06/illusory-superiority
a) Albeit, the cognitive mechanisms underlying curiosity and learning are distinct.7
b) Giving an analogy in terms of mathematics, the individual concepts of say, radian units, right triangles, the pythagorean theorem, the harmonic functions, and so on, are the components, while trigonometry would be the framework in this case.
c) I couldn’t think of a better analogy, so here’s another mathematical one – it’s almost like the basic ex exponential curve. Looks flat at the beginning, but explodes really fast once you move to the right for a while.
d) Verge Science. “… didn’t know what he didn’t know.” – The quest for Nikola Tesla’s wireless power technology (5:33 – 5:35). https://youtu.be/z97iOZQd-B4?t=332
Writing Copyright © 2021 Warisul Imam
Art Copyright © 2021 Khadija Amira Al-Maani
About the Author
Waris is a highschool senior, bookworm and writer. His interests include Islamic theology, particle physics, cosmology, maths, and computer science. His writings have been published on blogs like The Ascent, The Nonconformist and Deen Over Dunya. Currently, he’s working on a number of writing projects on a variety of topics ranging from the seerah to physics. Most notably though, he’s known for his peculiar habit of scribbling down equations and solving them whenever he finds himself unoccupied.
Khadija is an eighteen-year-old Omani artist. Due to her curious nature and creative instincts, she loves to explore everything and anything. Having grown up in a beautiful Islamic environment and household, she learned from an early age to contemplate life, find beauty in everything, be grateful and always find ways to give back to the world. She is currently pursuing a degree in psychology but continues to keep arts as an important part and passion in her life.