Hi, and welcome back to De-Me-Stified.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” ~ Socrates
“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know” ~ Mark Twain
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better” ~ Maya Angelou
It’s a few short hours to the end of 2019; that we all know. We also know our respective names and, maybe, the colour of our eyes. But what else do we really know about the universe and everything that binds us to it?
Maybe you’ve stumbled on some incredible insights recently and can’t wait to make my head spin. I’d love to hear all about it, really. But first, allow me to rephrase the question: how can you be sure of what you know?
Sometime ago, I was happily blaring a song I’d just learnt from my French teacher. Only problem was she must have fabricated the lyrics – because they were all wrong or meaningless (to those who really knew French). Of course, I was certain anyone offering a correction was wrong. My teacher was right – and everyone else could go juggle rocks.
I probably would have been just as fanatical about it had the lesson come from a movie star or religious leader. But the irony was more acute simply because if anyone should know, it would be a teacher. So, I bet on the chance that my teacher could never be wrong. That was me as a kid. And, in many ways, that’s you and me today.
Conventional wisdom is one of knowledge as absolute and self-existent. So, we say “knowledge is power”. But even this axiom – if true – offers great insights into the actual nature of knowledge.
First of all, power could never be absolute. Democratic power is contingent upon constitutional supremacy. Institutional power is subject to membership of said institution (your Vice-Chancellor, for example, is just another customer at the filling station, or IP address to the internet service provider). Military power is contingent upon clearly defined rules of engagement (no wonder world powers struggle in guerrilla warfare); and your engine’s enormous power is subject to fuel supply.
In much the same way, knowledge itself could never stand alone; it is always contingent on something else (previous knowledge, most often). This is pretty clear to anyone who’s done a literature review. You introduce yourself to the race (likely in chapter one), take the baton from someone else (through a literature review) – and subsequently pass it on in the conclusion or recommendations. Sound familiar?
In a most basic instance, a student’s firm knowledge is rooted in the seeming omniscience of their teacher. Turns out the teacher’s knowledge is also based on another source that’s based on another source; a chain that could potentially run forever (you’ll understand this if you’ve ever filled in for another teacher or had to teach based on borrowed notes). Imagine the consequences of an error in one of those preceding sources. Do you recall how many planets you were taught existed? How many do we have today? How many do you think there would be tomorrow?
Do you remember the early insights about eggs – how one-a-day would kill you? Didn’t take long to hear that one-a-day might actually be great for the health. Then, it became “one-a-day – so long as you eat the right parts”.
What’s taught to us is constantly changing – just like ourselves as a species. How then can one possibly know what to hold on to – and what to merely acknowledge?
Unless in trademark cases where freedoms have been compromised, judges typically don’t come by verdicts lightly. So, considering all presented evidence, and / or the opinion of a qualified jury, they decide whether the law finds you innocent or guilty. But, does this verdict change what you know about your guilt or otherwise?
Subtle implication is that knowledge is not entirely what we can prove. Sometimes, we know the substance but choke on the proof. That’s why many students loathe exams.
Knowledge is also not all about conviction. You might have heard of the man who planned to rob an office in broad daylight. It was all going well – until he unplugged the TV. That’s when he realised he was not quite as invisible as the spiritualist had promised.
Is it then in the emotions we feel? You meet someone, feel the world for them and just know that they’re ‘the one’. Well, until they sort of stop being. You probably have more ready examples that I can conjure.
How about subscription? Everyone says and believes it; so it must be! But, isn’t that how gossips spread? Why do you think elections hardly produce messiahs?
Is it by the validation of time? If so, what are the statutes of limitation? In case you haven’t noticed, time can quite easily contradict itself. What counted for ages as royal privilege is now pure incest. If you’re still in doubt as to the ‘inconsistencies’ of time, just take a quick look at fashion trends. “Time will tell”. Well, it may also tell a not-so-little white lie!
Now, let’s take this up another notch: In a world where knowledge from ‘tangible’ sources can prove so fickle, what can we possibly make of premonitions? What on earth are they really? How have they come about? Are they products of random chance or fluky outcomes of some twisted feed-forward loop? Was ‘Octopus Paul’ just a marketing gimmick? Or can it all be down to some convoluted interplay of emotions?
If you got a random but clear sense of what was to come, would you find the strength to take the leap? Or would you be more interested in unravelling the source of such ‘knowing’? For example, they say the aged know when their time has come. Could it all be paranoia (after all, when you’re seventy, you can’t realistically expect to go another seventy)? Just how much faith is one allowed to put in a hunch (before it borders on clinical insanity)?
We’ve seen just how fickle formal knowledge (for all its acclaim) can be. Little wonder ‘expert predictions’ are wrong all the time. So, should ‘arbitrary knowledge’ fare any worse simply because we do not know how it’s come about?
You probably have one of those folks who have a sense for ‘change’ (codeword for any significant happening – good or bad). They’d call you up randomly just to check on you before major life events unfold. Sometimes, you don’t even know anything is around the corner – but they seem to. How come? And, is it even real knowledge? How do such folks even know which of those feelings to take seriously and which to ignore? Beats me completely.
Still, I have to admit to doing stupid stuff all the time – often based on no more than a hunch. In fact, I best myself every year without even trying. Sometimes, it turns out right. Some other times, I’m left holding a lit dynamite longer than I’d have wanted. Why did I think it would end well? I don’t know.
There’s a lot about the universe I don’t know. I also don’t know if premonition counts as knowledge. I don’t even know what knowledge really is. And, maybe, that’s perfectly human. Maybe it’s fine (if not critical and laudable) to question the source of one’s beliefs. Only problem is that we’re afraid to be wrong. We mistake being sure for being right – and being right for being alive.
We forget that everyone is wrong (from time to time), and everyone fails (more often that social media lets on). I’m learning comfort in having more questions than answers; acknowledging and embracing uncertainty, and choosing to proceed – not oblivious – but in spite of it.
Have an amazing 2020.