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At the End of Knowing

We know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know.  That is something we know rather surely.  But what about the ratio of what we know to what we don’t know.

If we think about everything that humanity as a whole currently knows – e.g. the information that fills the great libraries – the portion of the whole that your average individual knows is quite small.  And even if we are among the most knowledgeable of people, the ratio is still likely not large.

What about the ratio of everything currently know by humans to everything that could possibly be known?  There are cosmological theories that posit countless other universes.  If these theories are true (whether they are being another thing we don’t know), then this ratio is not only very small, but possibly infinitely small.

But to narrow things, what if we just consider the visible portion of this universe?  Our knowledge must carry some weight compared to the whole of possible knowledge!  Well, within this region there might be numerous planets with intelligent beings, some possibly considerably more intelligent than us.  Currently we know nothing of their worlds; currently we don’t know if such worlds exist.  So even here the ratio is surely small.

Well let’s get even narrower and consider just this earth; we would seem to know quite a bit about that, don’t we?  Perhaps!  For example, we have probably cataloged most of the earth’s currently living species.  Yet it has been suggested that for every living species a thousand others existed that are now extinct.  If this number is anywhere near correct, than the species we know about would seem to be a small portion of the total.  Even what we know about the full history of the human species is likely a small portion of what there is to know.  And of course, just how life happened to arise on this planet still looms beyond the horizon of our knowing.

“Well, so what!” a person might say, “I know what I need to know!”  It might seem like a person knows if they do or don’t know what they need to know.  But how would a person know this since we don’t know what we don’t know?  It appears to me that most people I know are missing at least a few important bits of knowledge about quite basic things, and they seem blithely unaware of it.  I suspect my friends know the same about me.  Do we in fact know what we need to know?

Socrates, who was considered by many a very wise and knowledgeable person, famously stated that “I know that I don’t know.”  To know that you don’t know seems a rather negative conclusion; some people might think we should focus more on the positive.  Maybe, but anyone who spends time reading comments on the Internet might wish that more people understood the limits of their knowledge (why are there so many people who passionately believe in the most un-belief-worthy notions?).   Is it not the case that having at least some sense of the limits of one’s knowing is actually a quite positive kind of knowledge?

You need to know a great deal, I would suggest, to truly know that you don’t know.  You need to spend a lifetime trying to know if you are going to have any creditability in saying “I know that I don’t know.”  So if the person who says “I know that I don’t know” actually knows a lot relative to most other people, is this person just feigning modesty or perhaps simply lying?

Or perhaps we have learned what Socrates claimed not to know?  After all there is a great deal that we know today that Socrates did not know.  Socrates was unaware of virtually the whole of modern scientific knowledge.  Perhaps if Socrates had known this, he would have been able to say “I know that I know.”  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  What Socrates claimed ignorance of was not a set of facts or any form of practical or empirical knowledge.  Socrates was interested in the big questions, and I think it is mainly in regard to these big questions that Socrates is admitting his ignorance.

Socrates spent his life contemplating such questions as: What is being and from whence did it arise? What is knowledge and goodness and beauty? What is the best way for a person to live his or her life?  Socrates had contemplated these questions and knew the questions well, but also recognizes that a full accounting of these questions is beyond him, it is a mystery.

A person who is genuinely curious about the world cannot help but run up against this mystery.  Can a person interested in cosmology really be satisfied with the declaration that everything started with the Big Bang, without wondering “why a Big Bang?”  Can a person really be satisfied learning the so-called laws of physics without wondering why Nature has just the right kinds of law to produce physicists?  Can a person be satisfied with learning about biology without wandering how life has this inward dimension of experience and knowing? Can a person study humanity without wandering if there is some further purpose to our being here, or wondering which among the various possibilities of human life are the wisest to pursue?

Contemplatives may find questions such as these to be wonderful subjects of contemplation, but those dedicated to action generally have a low regard for them.  As Socrates discovered, these questions all end up in the dooryard of mystery, and mystery is a most unpractical, most unproductive thing.  Scientists are not awarded research grants to contemplate mystery but to answer questions and solve problems.  Priest do not gain congregations by saying “it is all a mystery,” but by declaring knowledge of God’s will and intentions.  There is no power in mystery; no saleable product or service; no gateway to higher status.

If you wish for power — political power, financial power, intellectual power, religious power – ignore mystery.  Convince yourself and you can easily convince others that you know what needs to be known.  This will help you succeed in whichever of the world’s markets you choose to vend yourself.

Mystery humbles.  It can bring you to your knees.  From the perspective of power, that is a bad thing. For those who seek an alternative to power and its consequences, however, being brought to your knees may be a good thing.  It’s a good starting point for a spiritual quest, for instance, and not such an unlikely place to find one’s self at its end.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Great topic. For myself, it was important to learn this for emotional and spiritual growth. It actually feels good to know that I just don’t know!

  2. How wonderful and insightful – thank you Thomas! 🙂

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