How to vs What Is

Some recent author I have read notes two kinds of intellectual asset. He uses the descriptive phrases “How-to” and “What-is”. The street map says what streets there are and how they connect. It is what-is stuff. Traveling instructions say how to get somewhere. They are how-to knowledge.

See the fascinating essay “A.I. VERSUS M.D.” by Siddhartha Mukherjee where he says:

I stick to ‘How-to’ vs. ‘What-is’ in place of ‘knowing how’ vs. ‘knowing that’ here — same difference.

Reflexes are a primitive sort of how-to. Riding a bicycle is pure reflex that we cannot impart to another thru speech. The image we retain in our head after the lights in a room are turned off, is primitive what-is knowledge. We can impart that with speech to a degree, but only with complex mental transformations.

Julian Jaynes proposes that a late evolutionary development in man is the ability to remember long sequences of words so as to recall how-to information as imparted by another. Hearing voices is a malfunction of this mechanism, or conceivably an atrophied but once adaptive faculty from a time when we could not understand the reasons for certain directions. This makes sense in a hierarchical society.

It seems that what-is is a more general tool as anyone will attest who has has missed a turn in how-to travel directions. Instructions for installing software are firmly in the how-to category. If a turn is missed the user must return to the beginning or construct his own mental form of what-is knowledge.

Shortly after we evolved the capacity for what-is knowledge, we came to what-will-be, what-could-be, what would-be or what-should-be. I think that what-will-be came first as the savanna tourist became aware of sights or sounds that in the past preceded danger. A bit of induction led to a tentative what-will-be that in turn led to extra adrenaline. That with some elementary simulation might then lead to a less scary what-would-be that was contingent on possible actions by the knower. Selection would would favor such actions.

The above little scenario is certainly not the first time that an animal took evasive action in the face of a real threat. The difference is the presence of what-is and what-might-be models.

What is program logic?