I have spent a long time asking myself why some knowledge might be better than others. Whenever I read philosophy, I wonder if this is truly better than watching TV or reading news about celebrities, or just spending time on social media.

For a long time, I was unable to find a concrete answer, which made it hard to stay motivated. But recently I heard David Deutsch’s definition for knowledge:

Knowledge is information, which has a causal effect.

This made me think that there might actually be different kinds of knowledge, but in other, more subtle ways than I initially thought. It is not about what you learn, but how you use what you have learned. By applying something, you have a causal effect on your environment. Someone who reads philosophy all day, but fails to apply anything that he learns and who leads a miserable life might not be better off than someone who uses his passion for butterflies to become an expert on this topic and advances the scientific progression in this very specific area.

So here is my take on the different levels of knowledge.

This is heavily influenced by a great article by Nat Eliason: Level 3 Thinking: A Unified Theory of Self-Improvement

Level 1 Knowledge

Level 1 is the simplest form of knowledge. Random facts or pure factual knowledge without any use fall into this category.

The quality or complexity of the information makes no difference. So knowing how  blockchain works or what special relativity theory is or understanding number theory is not inherently better than knowledge about the Kardashians. While knowing about the theory of relativity feels superior, it still falls into the same category as any fact about a celebrity.

Level 1 knowledge is learned for the sake of learning, which is not inherently bad, but it just serves no purpose.

Take this “fun” fact as an example:

“In 2019, Google announced that it achieved quantum supremacy with its 54-qubit Sycamore processor that was able to perform a calculation in 200 seconds. That task would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years”.

I always wondered why it is better to know this, instead of how rich Kylie Jenner is.

So for a long time, I believed that there must be some difference and just learned what was interesting for me and hoped that this might be more desirable. But it is not. This was hard for me to accept, but I just cannot find a reason why it is better to know about quantum computing instead of what DiCaprio is doing in his free time.

My favorite example for Level 1 knowledge is nutrition. Many people know what healthy food should look like. Most know that it is better to avoid sugar, processed foods, and bad fats. Instead, eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole foods. But just knowing this is not enough. Knowing what to do and then not acting accordingly is even worse. This is pure Level 1 knowledge, since it is completely wasted.

Hence, there is a restriction to level 1 knowledge, which is, that this information is not used by you at all. And this leads us to the next level.

Level 2 Knowledge

Level 2 Knowledge is applied knowledge. By applying Level 1 knowledge to the real world, it has a causal effect. You change something with the information. This makes it better than Level 1.

Let’s stick to the nutrition example. You spend a lot of time learning about what food contains which nutrients, which nutrients your body needs to function optimally, and at what time to eat to maximize the positive effects. Just knowing all of this is good-for-nothing, if you do not apply it to your actions. By applying it, the knowledge has a causal effect and so it is better than Level 1 knowledge.

Level 2 knowledge has direct effects on your actions and your environment, and you use this kind of knowledge to change something in the world.

One might use classical mechanics to build better products. For example, a car that is faster, safer, and more efficient by applying aerodynamic devices to a race car to reduce air resistance.

This type of knowledge can also be used to explain happenings in everyday life. Understanding how energy is transferred between objects and that this energy cannot get lost will explain many situations. Like a billiard game, where you apply energy to one ball, which then transfers this energy onto the next one once it hits, and by transferring the energy the first ball stops.

Level 2 knowledge is especially useful in a business, career, or science setting. I am currently learning about Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains because I might want to start a Startup based on this technology. Since I can use this knowledge to have a direct impact on real life, I should prefer learning about blockchains instead of physics right now. While Physics might currently be more interesting for me, I cannot apply it as well as knowledge about blockchains, and therefore I should prefer it over physics (for now).

Level 3 knowledge

Level 3 knowledge is conceptual knowledge. It is more of an idea than a pure fact. A mental model, which guides your actions and thinking in many situations. It can change your perspective on the world and on everything that you learn from this point onward.

Level 3 knowledge has a causal effect on your actions and your thoughts, and you use this kind of knowledge to interact differently with the world.

Mental models are especially helpful in situations with difficult decisions. Let’s look back at the nutrition example. Someone with Level 2 knowledge about nutrition will avoid bad foods and stick to the good stuff. But this person might still enjoy eating something sweet and will have to use a lot of willpower to restrain herself from binging on the next package of cookies. Someone with Level 3 knowledge about nutrition will have a completely different view on nutrition and will see all the downsides and health risks of these cookies, which will make it far easier to resist this temptation.

As you might notice, these are just broad categories, and the same knowledge can fluidly move between levels. Knowledge about nutrition can easily fall into all three categories.

Learning classical mechanics for fun might be level 1 in the beginning, but after using it to predict the curve of a ball thrown to maximize my throwing range, it upgrades to level 2. After having a deep enough understanding of the fundamental physic laws and using them to explain everyday situations and thereby changing my perspective on the world, the same knowledge upgrades again into level 3.

A lot of level 1 knowledge can turn into level 3 by having a deep and profound understanding of the topic. Even some facts about the fame of the Kardashians can be extrapolated into knowledge about human psychology, and why many people are attracted to money and status.

What does this mean for me?

Level 3 knowledge is not automatically the best. Just learning for fun and not applying what you learn can also have great benefits. Whenever I play chess, I do not have a causal effect on the world, but I still enjoy learning and playing chess. But I will still try to focus on and maximize Level 2 and 3 and only supplement this with level 1 knowledge.

I will try to read more “Level 3 Books”. Those are books without a specific topic. They might cover many subjects in a philosophical way and completely change how your mind works. I have not read them yet, but these are the books I have in mind:

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach

  • Antifragile

  • The Beginning of Infinity (+The fabric of reality)

  • Most philosophy books

Lastly, my main takeaway is that many people have high-quality Level 1 knowledge but fail to apply it and live according to it, which means that this is wasted potential. So even if it is difficult, and I often fail at this, I will try to apply more of everything that I learn to live according to my principles and transform as much level 1 knowledge into levels 2 and 3.

If you enjoyed this article, or have any kind of feedback, I would be glad to hear from you.

I know that these 3 categories cannot fully explain everything, so if you have anything to add or improve upon, just let me know.